This time of the year is possibly my favorite. Admittedly, I love this whole season, from Thanksgiving to the New Year and experience what some might term a childish excitement as the festivities begin to take place. So many of my fondest memories take place in the period of time between Thanksgiving and Christmas, and so many of my favorite family times have been interwoven with the traditions and customs that became part of the fabric of my family. Even though the world around us goes crazy with all the frivolous and self-centered consumerism that has become the unfortunate hallmark of the American Thanksgiving-to-Christmas season, there is so much to embrace and to firmly fix in our lives. We set aside a day to remember God’s goodness and thank Him for His blessings, and then we intentionally fix our eyes on the hope, love, joy, and peace that the Advent season remembers.
In a culture that increasingly tries to erase all evidence of the Christian faith from public expressions during these historically overtly Christian holidays, I think it is more important than ever that families rally themselves around traditions that draw their eyes Heavenward.
I think of the traditions my family had growing up…We had our big family Thanksgiving, usually shared with someone from our church, and in the next few days afterwards, we would usher in the Advent season by putting up our tree. Out would come all the old decorations, the lights, and the treasured Advent books we would read year after year as a family. I think of the Christmas programs at church, the traditional songs and hymns, the somber and joyful candlelight services we would attend at my grandparents church, The Little White Church in Hill City. I think of our Christmas morning Bible reading, reading through Luke’s account of the birth of Christ.
Unfortunately, America in general but even many branches of the Protestant church have either given up on Christian tradition altogether, or given up on fully appreciating and applying the traditions of the past. In the culture at large, I think it is pretty obvious why…The “old ways” have been systematically devalued and the church and expressions of faith have been essentially removed from the culture. For two religious holidays, what’s left for a culture that hates God? Nothing, really.
In the church, though, this forsaking of tradition is more complicated. It is sad to me that a lot of people find the Christmas season just another part of the year, the traditions are just kind of boring and old hat, and there’s sort of a collective eye-roll at the traditional Christmas hymns. One facet, I think, is a rather poorly-reasoned idea that too much tradition and it might become meaningless and rote.
What a loss of such a gift! How silly, to avoid a good thing because it might become less than what it should be. And can’t we having meaninglessness and roteness just as easily without our “traditional practices?” Maybe we should work on our heart attitudes instead.
Traditions of the faith join us with other Christians across the globe, through the centuries and millennia even, since we don’t just find our spiritual origin in the Christ of Christmas, but in God’s covenants with the Nation of Israel, thousands of years ago. I look at how God’s people committed His works to their memory for future generations, two big ways come to mind: Celebration and stones. Feasts and monuments.
When the Israelites were instructed on the keeping of the Passover Feast after God’s delivered them from Egypt, this was why:
And when your children say to you, ‘What do you mean by this service?’ you shall say, ‘It is the sacrifice of the Lord’s Passover, for he passed over the houses of the people of Israel in Egypt, when he struck the Egyptians but spared our houses.’” And the people bowed their heads and worshiped. (Exodus 12:26-27)
And when years later the Israelites were under the command of Joshua, God brought them over the River Jordan, rolling back the flood-swollen river waters so that the whole nation could cross in safety. Joshua, instructed by God, directed the Israelites to take twelve stones out of the riverbed of the Jordan as they crossed over and to construct a memorial, so future generations might not forget the Lord’s power and His goodness.
And those twelve stones, which they took out of the Jordan, Joshua set up at Gilgal. And he said to the people of Israel, “When your children ask their fathers in times to come, ‘What do these stones mean?’ then you shall let your children know, ‘Israel passed over this Jordan on dry ground.’ For the Lord your God dried up the waters of the Jordan for you until you passed over, as the Lord your God did to the Red Sea, which he dried up for us until we passed over, so that all the peoples of the earth may know that the hand of the Lord is mighty, that you may fear the Lord your God forever.” (Joshua 4:20-24)
Christmas and the Advent season should be a time of celebration for the Christian. A time when we can proclaim the joy we have in Christ to a world walking in darkness. And a half-hearted participation hardly communicates joy. So set up your family monuments to the goodness of God and celebrate with friends and family. Celebrate Advent. Find a live Nativity to attend. Cultivate traditions in your family. Set up your cherished Creche and ponder its significance. Sing the old songs and really taste the words. Don’t just “make memories” for the sake of the memories, but counteract the temptation to be passive at this time of year and make memories to the glory of God!
We need our celebrations and we need our stones. Celebrations to bring us into a heart-posture of thanks and praise to God, and stones to be a visual reminder of Who it is we celebrate.