A church was celebrating a candlelight Christmas Eve service with their new pastor. When it came time for candle lighting, and pastor couldn’t find his candle. Looked over the whole altar for it, moving everything on the altar searching. Couldn’t find it.
He finally took the Christ candle out of the stand and brought it in front of the altar for the acolytes to begin lighting congregation’s candles. It all went fine.
Afterward, one long-time member commented, “Great service, Pastor. I especially liked where you blessed the altar.”
To this day, and several pastors later, that congregation maintains the tradition of blessing of the altar on Christmas Eve.
We are people who have a lot of traditions. Family traditions, cultural traditions, community traditions, and church traditions. They are helpful because they can remind us of reasons to celebrate. They can bring us closer together. They can help us understand our identity. The best traditions are the ones that remind us together of something with deeper meaning.
But then sometimes traditions can become empty, we do them just because we always have, and we forget what the deeper meaning was. The tradition becomes the important thing instead of what the tradition was started for. One problem with traditions is that far too often they become empty rites that lost their meaning. This is usually what people mean when they say they are “spiritual, but not religious.” They are often referring to rituals and religious practices that have lost meaning for them.
Apparently this has been going on for a long time. Just look at today’s gospel text in Mark.
The Pharisees are upset because Jesus’ disciples aren’t following sacred traditions around eating. This is about much more than washing hands, it’s about the deeper meaning of the tradition of the elders. The Pharisees are concerned that traditions of the elders aren’t being upheld by Jesus’ disciples. These traditions, once put in place to remind a whole people that God is the source of all life, now the washing rituals have taken on a separate life of their own. Now they are merely being used as a statement of self-righteousness. Under the guise of honoring those who’ve gone before us, the traditions like washing of hands have been corrupted into something that has nothing to do with God’s purpose.
Some religious traditions point us to God while others no longer do. What makes it hard is that these are different for different people. For most Pharisees that deeper purpose had been lost.
We all have traditions that are deeply important to us. We all have religious practices that can point us to God. Our failure is insisting that the things that point some to God do so for everyone, and the things that are lifeless traditions to some are equally empty to everyone.
Just to be clear, Jesus has no problem with religious tradition. His problem is with what’s behind the reasons for keeping them. In observing traditions, are people closer to the reign of God? Do these religious practices point them toward a life of mercy, grace, love and compassion? If so, great! Keep it up! If not, why are you doing them? If observing them does nothing to point us to God’s forgiveness, grace, and love then don’t claim we are righteous for observing them.
Jesus is really clear that eating purified food with purified hands won’t make you righteous before God. The things that are outside of us can’t do that.
Which also means eating unpurified food with unwashed hands won’t defile you before God.
So obeying or disobeying rituals, following or ignoring traditions, being spiritual or religious will never affect your standing with God. But the deeper meanings might move you into God’s activity in the world or move you away. The deeper meanings are not what we do on the outside—the rituals, but what we do on the inside—what’s in our hearts. So Jesus is telling the crowds that we need to take care of our hearts—to focus on the things of God. If there are religious practices you help with that, wonderful! If not, they are useless.
How many of you remember putting on your “Sunday best”? Or remember when women were supposed to wear hats in church? How many neckties do you see on men this morning? The pastor wearing a white alb is a religious tradition. It’s now white, representing that the Word and the sacraments are covered with the grace of Christ. If a white alb takes you there, that’s awesome! But if it’s only meaningful because it seems more “churchy,” then we have to think about why we should do it?
I once told a faithful member of a previous church’s altar guild that she was folding the purificator incorrectly. How many of us even know what a purificator is, much less how to properly fold one? If folding it “the right way” helps me forgive one who’s hurt me, then fold away. If not, I really needed to think about why it mattered so much to me. The reasons were not great.
For Jesus, the Reign of God’s mercy and love are everything. The only thing. If any ritual or tradition points us toward love and grace, then it’s worth doing. If not, Jesus says we don’t have time to mess with it.
Think of a tradition, a religious rite, that bothers you when it’s not done, or when it’s done wrong, e.g., people not bowing their heads when they pray, or communion that’s done too fast, or the pastor not wearing the alb, or not doing all parts of the liturgy, or a purificator that’s folded wrong. Now think about why that bothers you. If you think Jesus would be bothered too, let’s figure out how we can talk about the deeper meaning of these practices. We need all the help we can get with moving together toward mercy and peace.
But if not, then it’s OK to rethink these practices. Doing or not doing them isn’t the most important thing. But participating with God in forgiving, loving, showing mercy, and making peace is everything.