On Seasonal Traditions, helpful and otherwise
Today I bought a Turkey and started listening to Christmas music. It's the sort of thing one does in the middle of December. For some reason or other this is probably the most traditional time of the year. What other season has its own special foods and songs, parties and concerts, fun and chores? At what other time of the year does nearly everyone decorate their house in a particular way? Christmas (at least in western culture) is a time of traditions.
Seasonal traditions at home are (or at least can be) fun. But what about seasonal traditions in church? Well, of course they can be fun too, but is that the point? Can we go beyond what's 'fun' in our December church traditions and think instead about what's appropriate and helpful?
The majority of the month of December is in fact not part of Christmas at all; rather up until the evening of Christmas Eve the traditional church calender is in the season of Advent. I think Advent is probably best known in British culture for chocolate. No, I not getting confused with Easter (which has even more chocolate); Advent is associated with chocolate because of those Advent calenders (the ones with the door to open each day and the chocolate behind each door!). Watching Songs of Praise recently you'd almost think Advent was just a few weeks to begin singing carols and practice for Christmas. But Advent is not Christmas (nor is it about chocolate).
Advent is that season in the church year when we focus on looking forward to Christ's coming. It's not simply about looking forward to Christmas, but looking forward to Christ's return. In that way Advent could in fact be a helpful tradition. In fact, the original point of the church calender was to ensure that the full range of Christ's saving work was taught every year. When thought of in that way some Advent tradition could be good; teaching about (and thinking about) Christ's return for an extended period each year could be very helpful.
Yet, more often that not it seems, the true point of Advent is lost. If it isn't assimilated into Christmas, it simply becomes that time of year with a few strange pre-Christmas traditions, like lighting candles on wreaths and singing O Come O Come Emmanuel. If that's what Advent becomes, then I don't really see the point. (Don't get me wrong, from a musical perspective O Come O Come Emmanuel is one of the greatest tunes in the history of the world, at least in my opinion). Perhaps it's just me, but I just don't get the point of lighting candles on Advent wreaths as part of Sunday worship. In fact, as it's not something we are taught to do in Scripture as part of the worship of God, I would argue (together with those who adhere to the Regulative Principle of Worship) that it's wrong to do so. The only argument I've heard advanced for this (relatively recent) tradition is an emotional one. Apparently it's 'nice' or makes people feel Christmassy.
Now, I realise that most Pentecostal churches (in Europe at least) wouldn't even consider lighting candles on an Advent wreath. But probably we'd also dismiss Advent altogether as a 'tradition'. My point simply is that there can be some helpful traditions. Spending four Sundays each year teaching about Christ's return could be such a helpful tradition. Sometimes we simply think so much about the 'nice' traditions that we don't pause to think about the helpful ones. Not all tradition is bad, some can even be helpful, but only when it stays in its place as a servant to the Word.