Tradition in Traditionless Culture

I grew up in a family that was, by all accounts of the term, gluttonous for traditions. By that I don’t mean that we were necessarily “traditional” but instead that we had a series of practices and events that as a family we would routinely partake in year in and year out. We would do specific things Thanksgiving morning, we would have the same foods at the meal that afternoon, we would go out and cut down a live tree on the Friday following the big feast, and so on. We would have things that began 2 weeks before Christmas, we would decorate the house a certain way, we would receive certain gifts and we would give certain gifts a certain way, we would eat specific things for breakfast and dinner on Christmas. On Easter we would have a jelly bean hunt throughout the entire house (not the most sanitary of affairs), we would have our Easter baskets hidden somewhere in our house, etc. My Childhood was saturated by tons of wonderful traditions.

2 years separated from my immediately family however, as I have begun my own family with my wife and now son, I realize how strange some of my families traditions have seemed to my wife, and visa-versa. Some may seem weird, some may seem inconsequential, others just pointless. Less than a few have escaped passed the reaches of my familial heritage and into our home. Although I had to mourn some of my traditions as a kid that did not transition into my adult life, it has caused me to realize that traditions are not just about activity, they are about identity. The traditions we keep, the ones that we truly value and rigorously practice are actually less about the action, and more about the meaning – they communicate something deep about the people who practice them.

As much as we all likely have traditions we had surrounding holidays with our family, culture today seems starkly absent of tradition and perhaps not ironically, it seems equally devoid of identity.  At least in my interaction with young people, it seems like a common plaguing question that resounds within individual lives yet pervades entire generations is: “Who am I.” Now I wouldn’t claim that this is not historically timeless question however I would argue that we are perhaps the most traditionless culture that has ever existed. And with traditionlessness comes a certain lack of understanding of what tradition is. Perception has often been that stripping the tradition of our parents or of our conservative school or of our organized religion, etc., was an act of actually establishing ones own individualistic identity. In actuality however, true longstanding traditions those that have existed for generations in those very same institutions do the inverse of stripping ones identity for the sake of monotony, they remind us of our identity.

We can change our identity on Facebook with a few quick snapshots and a catchy new name, we can change out identity at school with the purchase of a few new items of clothing, the joining of a new sport, or the piking up of a bottle of alcohol. We can change out identity in the workplace as we decide who we will befriend, if we will sacrifice our family for our work, etc. We live in a world of rapid identity consumption, satisfied only with the who we are until a better who comes along.

But is that a good thing? As marvelously easy as it has become to recreate oneself, instead of finding freedom I think ultimately all we find is confusion. There is a deeper identity that we all possess, it is one that cuts deeper than the title of a job, the ink of a needle, or the association with other people. In the search for our true identity we are encouraged to consume what might give us purpose only to ultimately be left unsatisfied and searching.

From the instance we encounter Jesus in the synoptic Gospels, we see that in his humanity he shares the human quest for identity. As questions swirl about who this man is, purportedly born of a miraculous birth about thirty years previous, Jesus enters into the pursuit of establishing ones own identity.  When we first encounter this man named Jesus we have heard only brief accounts of his life after his birth. We know by now that he is proclaimed to be God’s son, born of a virgin. We know that the political leaders of the day tried to eliminate him even before his birth. We know his parents are not from wealthy decent, and a handful of other facts that are compelling but only tell us more of the surrounding circumstances of his existence more than telling us his true identity. It would be as if I was telling my life story and I described my parents, the anticipation they had about their third child, the state of the nation in 1986, my home, my brothers and sisters names, and that’s about it. Although it provides some nice background, if any biography ended with only that info I doubt it would ever make it to publishing.

But the story of Jesus’ adult life begins with a cuirous start. The writers tell us that he “came to be baptized.” This is the first major action taken by Jesus that was of note to write down. Really? God himself baptized? We don’t hear of the line of work he went into, the school he chose to attend or the style of flip flops he chose to don. We have no idea if he got along with his parents or if he had any superpower like skills as a kid. I have a feeling he would have made show and tell fairly boring, as some poor kid brings in his favorite first century toy, here comes kid Jesus with a pool of water which he then steps out onto and walks on top of it.

I have long wondered why Jesus needed to be Baptized. I mean really, you are the Son of God, surely if anyone is exempt it would be you. I think the closest I have come to in answering that question is that it has nothing to do with the why but everything to do with the who. Jesus was proclaiming his identity in God, we read in scripture that the Father actually proclaimed, “This is my Son, in whom I am well pleased.” The Gospel writers wanted to tell us, hey “this is who Jesus is!” and it starts with his Baptism. Jesus didn’t need to be baptized so he could mark of a box on his spiritual checklist; he needed to be proclaimed as God’s Son. He wanted to leave no question that he wasn’t only some magician, or some really good person, or just some important leader or religious figure. He began the most radical movement in the history of the human race by proclaiming who he really is. He is no longer just the carpenter’s son from Nazareth, he is God’s Son who is going to radically change the world.

One of the few traditions today’s church has maintained is that of Baptism. All to often however the act of Baptism is miscommunicated. I remember my hesitancies before I was Baptized. I had become a Christian a long time before and felt it was fairly monotonous to awkwardly stand in a lake in front a group of people. Today we have separated the “becoming” from the “baptizing,” but in scripture when e read of Baptism it is only one action, “they confessed and were Baptized.” There was not a division between a person’s commitment to God and their decision to be baptized, deciding to devote ones life to God was simultaneously the commitment to be baptized; it was the enactment of that decision. Again I am convinced this is not to check a box off of our checklist but instead it is the new beginning for us all. As we proclaim that we want to follow Jesus with our life, we first follow him into the waters of baptism. And as we stand proclaiming the new life, no longer as the person we once were, God proclaims to us that we are his children in whom he is well pleased, not because of what we have done, but because of our new identity, because of who we are.

What a silly thing. In the 21st century, why would perfectly reasonable people take time out of their already busy schedule to stand in a lake surrounded by their peers? It is not because of what they are doing but it is because of who they have become. Real tradition reminds us of a deeper identity than can be put into a 140-character statement. Tradition is a physical active reminder of internal truth. That is why it is so powerful and meaningful, not because of what is done but what it says about the person doing it. The tradition of Baptism is to help us remember in a world of traditionlessness and rapid identity that as we proclaim our desire to see God, he looks down on us and proclaims his delight in us because of the who we have realized we always were and will always be in the eyes of our Father.


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