This time of year the smell of evergreen often fills homes and church sanctuaries. ‘Tis the season after all, and the sights and sounds leading up to the Christmas celebration are simply incomplete without the smell of evergreens.
Most congregations have time honored traditions that have been observed for longer than anyone can remember. Most were begun by the saints that have gone before us, while the origin of others seems unknown. In either case, such traditions are formed in order that glory be given to God through our faithful actions in worship.
Alas, as time goes by, often is the case that traditions become a means unto themselves. Sweet refrains are replaced by emphatic comments such as; “We can’t change that, it is how we have always done it!” While I am sure such traditions are time honored and beautifully done, the truth remains, the way we do things now, the way we have done them for years, is not actually the way we have ALWAYS done it.
As generations pass, traditions pass as well. New people enter the community, either by way of another church, or by initiation into the church (baptism, conversion, etc.). It is important to note that, when new persons are welcomed into our midst, the “way we do things” should reflect the personality and diversity of the worshipping community. Therefore, traditions do sometimes outlive their usefulness and there is need for change.
Recognizing such change within our worshipping community, and listening to the comments and ideas of both newer folks and long time members, we made such a change this year. Gone is the annual service in which the church is decorated on the first Sunday of December. It has been replaced (for this year at least) by a more deliberate “season of preparation.” Where once we sang hymns of Christmas for an entire month, we now sing hymns of Advent. Lessons and Carols have been replaced with prophetic words from Isaiah, Malachi, and the voice of John crying out in the wilderness.
As with any change there is a bit of anxiety; perhaps even a little angst. Some, several, perhaps many miss the annual service. They enjoyed the festive atmosphere. Yet I wonder, has anyone noticed that we are decorating the church in exactly the same sequence? Has anyone noticed that families still take turns lighting the Advent wreath? And what about the greens; have they noticed the elements of the old service have been preserved as the wreaths, garland, bows and poinsettias make their way into our worship space? I hope so. As much as we need to change and reflect our present community, we also must honor and remember our past.
Through change, have we begun a new tradition? Perhaps, but probably not. I don’t know if we need to be worried about that. What I am certain of, is that through our worship and praise, God is glorified. Through the witness of the prophets, we hear the message of Christ coming to us. And through our collective voices, the gospel of Jesus Christ is proclaimed to a world in need of a savior, and the promise of God’s saving grace through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus becomes a reality for all people. For this is the unchanging tradition of the church in all times and places.