Saturday, September 14, 2013

Tradition must not become an empty shell

Most days driving home, or to the Cathedral, after work I listen to a local radio program on a Christian station in which two Evangelical pastors discuss the Bible book-by-book. A few weeks ago, as they were making their way through 1 Corinthians, they began to discuss the role of tradition in the life of the Christian Church. The more temperate and learned of the two exhibited what I think was a very balanced and even good grasp of tradition. He began by frankly admitting that tradition is inevitable and even valuable in the life of churches, even in their fairly large non-denominational denomination in which most view anything called "tradition" with great suspicion, or even contempt.

What prompted the discussion on tradition was the second verse of the chapter the two hosts were discussing: the eleventh chapter of 1 Corinthians, in which the apostle wrote- "I praise you because you remember me in everything and hold fast to the traditions, just as I handed them on to you." The trouble with any specific tradition, the pastor noted, is that it becomes perfunctory, performative, and, frankly, empty when it loses its connection with the reason it was deemed valuable enough to hand on in the first place; it becomes an end instead of a means.

Keep in mind that "tradition" comes from the Latin word tradere, which is a verb meaning the act of handing on. It also has a noun form- traditio- which is the content of what is handed on. The Greek word Paul used, paradosis, which, at root, means surrender, giving up, or giving over, can also be used to refer both to the act of handing on, the "giving over," and, logically, also to what is given over.

As Catholics we have many, many traditions and customs. As my example I will use a little custom- making the Sign of the Cross on our foreheads, over our lips, and hearts after the deacon, or, in his absence, the priest, prior to reading the Gospel passage for that day, says, "A reading from the holy Gospel according to [insert canonical Gospel here]." A non-Catholic, or someone in the process of becoming Catholic, will often ask, "What are you doing?," followed by, "Why do you do that?" Of course, this custom is nowhere called for in the rubrics and is not, at least to my knowledge, a universal practice. It is widespread, it seems, throughout the United States. I wonder how many people know, or say, any prayer connected with that gesture, such as, "May the word of the Lord be written in mind, be on my lips, and in my heart." I also wonder how many people realize that the reason for doing this, apart from asking the Lord to open us up to receive his word, is to remind ourselves to listen to what we are about to hear.

I won't presume to provide a guess, but I have no hesitation about giving an anecdotal answer based on my experience working with those who are in the period of inquiry as their first step towards becoming Catholic. Typically, when they ask Catholics these things, the person they ask simply does not know, they just do it. How many of our traditions seem to outsiders to have become, or, in the lives of many of the faithful, have actually become, disconnected from the reason(s) we do them, or any reason whatsoever? Perhaps asked a bit more directly, how many people have ever had someone help them, even if only by way of explaining it, make the connection in the first place?

Of course, the "tradition" to which St. Paul was mainly referring in 1 Corinthians 11 was that of the Eucharist. So, to round this out, here's something I posted almost seven years ago: "Our concern is that He should remain present."

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