We are living in a pagan time in a pagan nation. I admit, there never has been a truly "Christian nation", since nations cannot possess personal faith, but there have been times when this nation or that nation has been dominated by a "Christian" consciousness of sorts. Even at such times, the world is at work trying to undermine and dilute (if not destroy) the Christian faith and eliminate any witness to Christ and the Gospel. Christians have relied upon customs and traditions throughout history to teach and witness to the faith.
Now, in one sense of the word, "tradition" can mean "doctrine" or "teachings". The word "tradition" comes from a Latin word meaning "to hand down". Naturally, doctrines serve to teach. The sense of the word I hope to employ here is not formal "doctrine", but of those customs and practices which support the Christian faith and confession in the world. Because we live in a pagan world - renewed and re-invigorated in its paganism, and in a pagan nation today - one which has actively rejected Christian values and influence - we need the Christian traditions and customs of the past today more than ever. They often carry our witness forward without the immediate need for us to speak aloud to a reluctant and resistant audience.
Some Christians object to "Christian Traditions", pointing to the words of Jesus in Matthew 15, where he quoted Isaiah, "'BUT IN VAIN DO THEY WORSHIP ME, TEACHING AS DOCTRINES THE PRECEPTS OF MEN.'" The sorts of traditions I have in mind in this article are things that are not taught in Scripture, but developed within the church as an aid to confessing what we believe.
For example, the burial of the body. The Church insisted, a century or two ago, that a Christian was to be buried. There was to be no cremation. It had long been a custom of society to bury the body, so the practice of church was not unusual. Burial was adopted by the church as part of a confession of the hope of the resurrection of the body, particularly against those who stated that they were cremating their bodies to prevent God from having anything to raise from the dead. Christians were required to bury the body if they were to be buried from the church as a confession that the body would rise on the last day.
Today there are no groups formally declaring that they cremate specifically to prevent God from being able to resurrect the body (that I know of). On the other hand, our modern society tends, more often, not to believe in the existence of any God. There is no expectation of a resurrection, generally, because the modern view of science persuades them that the revivification of the dead flesh is not a real possibility. There is no "next world" expectation for a growing number of people. It is the cold reality of non-existence following the death of the body that informs the expectation of the modern, secular man in the West. In such a culture, the burial of the body can become a meaningful confession once again.
In the last couple of decades, cremation has become much more common among Christians. Some Christians are more comfortable with cremation today than in the past because they understand that God cannot be stopped by burning the body. In addition, advocates of cremation argue that most of those who have been buried throughout history have completely decomposed and returned to the dust. When God raises them, He has no need to possess the actual body, intact, to accomplish the resurrection. Besides, cremation is less expensive, generally. Scripture does not address the issue directly, and there is apparently no sin involved in cremation, so the question remains open.
It has also become more common for people to express their discomfort with death by forming a dislike of the idea that people will stand around and look at their dead bodies, after they have passed on. They don't want to be seen dead. Some even express dislike for the idea that people will comment on "how natural they look", when, in fact, they say, they will look dead.
The tradition of burial can once again form a significant part of the confession of the Christian. Cremation provides no confession of God or of a hope of resurrection. The customs that have arisen around cremation, such as dispersing the ashes at favorite places of our loved ones, now passed on, not only do not confess a hope of the resurrection, but often suggest a hope for what follow this life that is in direct contradiction to the hope of the Christian faith. Burial of the body, carefully prepared can serve both the confession of the hope of the resurrection, and serve to comfort those who mourn. And while some people find the thought of people staring at their bodies after they are gone disquieting, I can attest to the comfort that seeing the body, dressed and adorned for public viewing, can have. One's final memories might be brighter in the light of the work of a skilled mortician, and even the closure found in seeing the body of the departed actually in the box can be invaluable.
The custom of burying the body, in the Christian church, brings the opportunity for a confession that there is a God and that we fully anticipate the resurrection of the body on the day of Christ's return. When the Christian funeral clearly expresses the hope of the resurrection, the expectation of Christ's return to judge and to bring His faithful home to eternal life in glory with Him is also held before those who attend the funeral. God's existence is re-affirmed, as is the forgiveness of sins, and the value of such forgiveness, is proclaimed. Even the worth of the body, created by God, is asserted. The gnostic (read pagan) dualism of body/spirit is denied by the burial of the Christian, and the positive value of the physical world is set forth. Christ died also to redeem and save the world, not just the spirits. Such confessions are sorely needed once again in our modern world.
Other 'traditions' that strengthen our confession in this pagan age would include Regular Sunday Worship. The irregularity of worship attendance might be attributed to the easy mobility of our society and the plethora of activities and choices in our world. But absences from the fellowship of the saints and from the Word and Sacrament also reflect something about the sincerity of our faith, about our commitment, and about the worth of our faith and of our God in our own eyes. Somehow the world has convinced a great many who call themselves Christians that God is not all that important, and worship is an optional activity, best used when there is nothing else interesting to do. While many who miss worship for other activities on a somewhat regular basis would probably energetically assert that they have no such thought, the world around us cannot see that. All our pagan society can see is the witness of their lives that seems to suggest that either what God has to offer is not all that important, or that we Christians don't take our religion all that seriously. Before anything else on a Sunday, the day the Church has set aside for worship, we must put our Lord first. Does the Bible say we have to be in church every Sunday to be saved? No. But it does tell us not to neglect the gathering together of ourselves (church), as is the habit of some.
The holding of the funeral in the church is another custom that seems to be slipping away. We don't have a church building, so that option is closed for our little congregation, but it is surprising how few are buried from the church, or by a pastor. Some of that is due to the number who no longer go to church or have a pastor, but in some churches with buildings of their own, the custom of the church funeral has fallen almost completely away. What an opportunity is lost! The funeral in the church proclaims the significance of God in the life of the deceased, and often in the lives of the loved ones. Besides that, the opportunity to proclaim the Gospel to people in a setting where it will make the most sense, and often have the greatest appeal to the unbeliever, should not be ignored. Where is the power of sin more clearly demonstrated than in the casket? When is the news of the hope of the resurrection more welcome than as we prepare to bury the lifeless body of someone close to us?
Another tradition which is fading away is a clear denominational identification and a fierce denominational loyalty. In days gone by, people stood with their church and confessed what they believed. While it is true that many denominations have abandoned their confessions for something generic and often sub-Christian, and deserve no particular loyalty, not all have. Besides, a true Christian is charged with standing with the truth and should not be found among those that have abandoned a clear confession of Christ. When you find where the truth is clearly proclaimed, it is essential that the child of God take his or her stand there, and draw attention to the fact that here the Word of God is clearly and faithfully proclaimed.
Wars have been fought over the truth of the Gospel. In the recent decades, we have often heard people disparaging the divisions in the visible church. Those complaints ignore the fact that historically the divisions within the church confessed that there was something important going on. Partisans were contending for the truth! It does not matter in this regard that some were in error. Where truth is under dispute that should be expected. After all, if two people disagree about what is true, there are only three possible outcomes, one person is right or the other is standing on the truth, or they are both wrong. It cannot be that both are right.
But as they contended for the truth, at least they were saying that God and His truth was worth standing up for. The modern hostility between denominations often found its origin in events like the Thirty-years War. Families were divided and often destroyed by those who refused to allow them to stand and confess Christ. Death and torture have a way of etching divisions into the human psyche, and while the fact of division may be regrettable, it is not necessarily insignificant or disposable, and the cause of those divisions - standing on what one confesses about God - is noble and worth the effort. I respect a committed Baptist or Catholic far more for their stalwart confession of what they believe to be true than a lukewarm yet friendly ecumenical soul of any stripe. Those committed to their doctrines may be wrong, but they hold God and His truth to be worth the fight, and me and those around them to be worth fighting for.
Another tradition that seems to be fading away, particularly among modern Lutherans, is the practice of private confession and absolution. The practice is older than Lutheranism - quite a bit older - and it is addressed in our Confessions. It is a comfort for the sinner who is seriously troubled by his or her sins, and the practice tells the world around us that there is something to this forgiveness stuff. Our retaining the tradition of Confession and the Holy Absolution reasserts the significance and power of sin and demonstrates the importance and value of forgiveness. That is a message our pagan society needs to see and hear.
There are a number of customs and traditions that could be discussed here, but space is running low. I would remind everyone who reads this of the importance of daily devotions, and where there are children, the Family Altar. We need to be in the Word daily. We need to remind our flesh each day about our Lord and place Him before our eyes each day. Children need to see their parents placing God before their eyes at the beginning of each day, and pausing to thank Him for the blessing of the day each evening. If they do not learn to trust in the Lord and to treasure Him at home, where shall they learn it? Train up a child in the way he should go, Even when he is old he will not depart from it.
Now note, none of the traditions and practices here are commanded in Scripture with a "Do this or you cannot go to heaven" sort of command. They can be ignored for a time and one might still believe. But keeping them, and acting on them, holds forth elements of our faith for the world to see. They serve to keep us alert and aware and deliberate in our faith too. They confess in an unmistakable way to a pagan people in a pagan culture. They offer up reasons for questions which open the door to explicit confession, and they present "teachable moments" for the untrained believer and the curious unbeliever alike. They potentially provide a context to follow the admonition of Peter, in 1 Peter 3:15, "but sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence."
Yours in the Lord,
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