The Value of Tradition

Much of today’s Christian worship is based on traditions that have developed over the centuries.  The authors of Pagan Christianity? have documented the pagan origins of many of those traditions, and then conclude that Christians really need to go all the way back to the example of the first century church in order to worship “correctly”.  I’m not so sure about that.

Regardless of the origins of our Christian traditions, I believe that most of them have an underlying value that is still meaningful today.  My attention was drawn to this topic last Sunday, when I had opportunity to watch the televised Palm Sunday service at Saints Simon and Jude Cathedral in Phoenix, Arizona.  The service was a high Mass (more formal than the normal weekly Mass), and was led by Bishop Olmsted of the Phoenix Diocese.  The Mass included corporate prayer, the reading of scripture, singing, communion, and an excellent homily (sermon) on the last words that Jesus spoke from the cross.

There were also numerous activities that would seem odd, maybe even distracting, to a worshipper who is unfamiliar with the Catholic Mass.   The Mass has changed some in recent years, but still follows the same basic forms and traditions of Christian worship that go back to the middle ages.  Some of those practices are intended to demonstrate reverance for Christ and the Bible and for Holy Communion.  Others are included because they are remembrances of Christ and his sacrifice.  We need to remember that for many centuries the typical worshipper was uneducated and illiterate.  The liturgy that was repeated every Sunday was a form of instruction in the basics of the Christian faith.  It can still be a good reminder for us today.

As with any traditions that are practiced repeatedly, worship traditions can become so familiar and automatic that they lose their spiritual value in our lives.  Then we may be tempted to abandon them as worthless.  We may even go so far as to declare them “pagan” and offensive.  But if we really pay attention, and think “why am I doing this?” at each point in the church service, we may find a new appreciation for some Christian traditions that have been meaningful and instructive for many generations of believers.

For those of you who don’t normally attend a church with a formal liturgical worship tradition, I recommend that you visit one soon.  I think it will enrich your appreciation of the “church of our fathers”.

One comment on “The Value of Tradition

  1. Joey says:

    As you know, I grew up in a Southern Baptist church; and our pastor was, as I recall, borderline anti-Catholic. If it looked Catholic, smelled Catholic, tasted Catholic, or sounded Catholic, our pastor wanted nothing to do with it. Unsurprisingly then, I grew up with a misunderstanding about anything “liturgical”. Also, being in a solidly Southern Baptist state, I didn’t know many Catholics or Episcopalians or anyone who went to a church like that.

    My exposure to a larger world than Woodlawn Baptist Church has helped me to see that the worship practices of the Roman Catholics, the Anglicans, and other sects that Evangelicals might label “liturgical” are not all bad; and what Southern Baptist do is not all good when it comes to worship. In fact, for a season of time in New Orleans, I was not leading music in a church and attended an Episcopalian church service of worship every week; and I was blessed beyond words by the liturgy. It was so rich in the Word and in symbolism, and I developed a great respect for what I witnessed and experienced.

    As for that word “liturgy”, the truth of the matter is that every congregation has a liturgy. Karen and I were in Mississippi for Christmas in 2011, and we went to Woodlawn on Christmas morning. Guess what: Woodlawn Baptist Church has a liturgy–probably much to the church members’ surprise! It’s a liturgy I know by heart and that has not changed since I was a child:

    Call to Worship
    Fellowship Time
    Offertory Prayer
    Special Music
    Invitation Hymn
    Parting Song

    C. S. Lewis wrote about the liturgy in a way that expresses far better than I could a way to think about liturgy:

    “Every service is a structure of acts and words through which we receive a sacrament, or repent, or supplicate, or adore. And it enables us to do these things best…when, through familiarity, we don’t have to think about it. As long as you notice, and have to count, the steps, you are not yet dancing but only learning to dance. A good shoe is a shoe you don’t notice. Good reading becomes possible when you need not consciously think about eyes, or light, or print, or spelling. The perfect church service would be one we were almost unaware of; our attention would have been on God.” (from Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer)

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