Thursday, April 5, 2007

Tradition: A Maundy Thursday Meditation

In Fiddler on the Roof, when Tevye was asked, 'why do you always wear a hat?' his answer was: "Tradition!" Like a Fiddler on the Roof their life as Jews was precarious and tradition helped to maintain their balance. If we were asked, 'why do you always meet on a certain Thursday night in the spring each year and engage in age-old rituals?' we too might say, "Tradition!"

We find a precedent for this in 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 where Paul begins his statement on the Lord's Supper with these words: "For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you..." The words "received" and "handed on" correspond to technical terms in Jewish rabbinical literature that indicate the receiving and passing on of tradition.

Its true that tradition is very important in our lives. We have all kinds of traditions -- in our nation, in our families, and certainly in our churches. One of the nice traditions that our daughter has is a family Christmas dinner with the same menu every year. I always look forward to the family sitting down together and enjoying delicious prime rib, twice-baked potatoes, and of course, the traditional chocolate Christmas log.

Sometimes, in the church, traditions become a problem. They can inhibit valuable change when people say, "we have never done it that way before." Or, traditions can become so encrusted with detail and additions, or so elaborate, that the essence of their meaning is covered up and lost.

But tradition can also play a positive and powerful role in our faith. Realizing this, Paul is saying in this text that we must not break the chain of historical tradition that links us to Jesus himself. The tradition of the Lord's Supper connects us with the original, precedent setting even that occurred at the Passover meal in Jerusalem on a Thursday night just before Jesus died.

Tradition actually does a lot for us. Besides connecting us with Jesus at the last supper it also helps to identify us. It was the hat that identified Tevye. For us it is the bread and the chalice. We are a people of the Table. Also, tradition encourages a sense of unity and solidarity with others who also are people of the Table -- with the Anglican kneeling at the altar, the Baptist in his plain and simple service -- the Maasai meeting under a thorn tree in Kenya, and all others who break the bread and drink the cup.

Following this tradition does a couple of more things for us. It is a wonderful teaching tool. As children, or new believers, or even seekers hear and see our traditional observance they hear and see the Gospel; they learn about Jesus and his gift of salvation. Also, if it doesn't become too elaborate, tradition is a model of efficiency. It helps us to summarize the most important and meaningful items of our faith in a precise way.

If we are to keep the tradition alive and powerful then we would do well to follow Paul's advice to Timothy. In 2 Timothy 1:5-6 he spoke of "the sincere faith within you, which first dwelt in your grandmother Lois and you mother Eunice ..." and had been handed on to Timothy. Then he adds in verse 14, "Guard through the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, the treasure which has been entrusted to you."

We are now the recipients of that treasure -- the faith so eloquently proclaimed in these symbols. We can guard it faithfully by keeping it alive in all of its meaning as we recall the words of Jesus in the last supper, when he took the bread and broke it, and said, "This is my body, given for you." And then the cup also, saying, "This is the new covenant in my blood, poured out for the forgiveness of sins." Let us now keep the tradition alive as we share in this communion.

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