Let me repeat that statement one more time: tradition anchors us, but change is our birthright.
This sentence danced through my brain recently while I was doing my daily trudge on the elliptical trainer (you know, the 40 minute walk that goes no where fast?). It is the summary that occurs to me after a lengthy discussion I was having with a friend, in response to his exclamation following my excitement about a Lenten study group at my church at the Stations of the Cross: “I don’t know why Protestants are always trying to be so Catholic!” I know a lot of people raised as Catholic, but now practicing Protestant.
I know that I gave a perfectly cogent explanation from an historical and cultural perspective in response to his outburst; and I also know that my response did not satisfy him. My response was simple — more than half of our cultural history as Christians stems from the years in which, for all intents and purposes, the Catholic church was THE church universal; it was Christianity. Of course worship practices would survive, even in Protestantism. From his perspective, he had left behind the incense and the liturgy of his youth; he just didn’t understand Protestants, especially Baptists, who observe Lent and create prayer cards for the Stations of the Cross.
After all, aren’t we supposed to be different? Didn’t we throw all that stuff out with the Reformation?
Once again, I turn to my current studies of Paul’s epistles for an answer that, well, I wouldn’t have understood before. You see, I think that I too, believed that Christianity had destroyed all that had become before — that the message brought to us through the sacrifice of the Cross was like a thunderbolt, removing all that had come before. That was before I read Paul’s letters, and more importantly, the footnotes. Yes, the footnotes. Paul’s letters, and the Gospels themselves, are full of direct references to the traditions of Abraham and Moses, the works of the Prophets, the faith and tenants of the Jewish culture in which they themselves were written.
I know that this is not a new realization to many of you; it was new to me. Despite my years of careful study of the Hebrew Bible, the historical analysis and careful linkages to the archaeological and textual evidence — well, I had always kept the books of the New Testament separate from that. Those were the writings of my faith, not for intellectual analysis. I did not understand that just that kind of intellectual analysis would strengthen my faith.
In my mind, I keep returning to the moment when I stood on the steps of the Hagia Irene and stared at the place where men gathered to write the Nicene creed, and I get it…I understand why we as 21st century Protestants pick and choose among ancient rituals and practices, why we crave them even when we do not respect the institution from which they came, why we need to practice them, need to recite the words that have come before, to prayer the prayers that are centuries old.
Because tradition anchors us. And only when we are anchored safely in our faith, can we truly respond to the call of Holy Spirit, which moves through this world and through our lives with all the joy and spirit and chaos that we are willing and able to embrace.
Change is our birthright. The kind of change that comes from opening our ears and our eyes to the possibilities ahead.
And so, as we gather tomorrow all across the planet, some of us embracing ancient traditions, some of us struggling to make new ones, and we all together repeat a creed or prayer of our faith shared by the multitudes, remember that it is okay to stand on tradition — our need for tradition springs from our humanity, from our need to know that we are part of a grand parade of believers stretched outward from a single event so many years ago in a town called Jerusalem, on a hill called Golgatha. Stand on that hill, and feel all that supports you. And as we stand on that hill of tradition, open wide your arms and your hearts and your ears to hear the call of change.