Day 21 – A Sensitive Cynic’s Christmas Survival Guide.
We humans seem to really get hooked on traditions, rituals and ceremonies.
We just can’t seem to get enough of it all.
I guess it’s about bringing some sort of meaning and structure to our lives. Repetition is comforting isn’t it? It connects our present with our past and with our future. It’s something dependable and safe. It’s an attempt to feed the soul… to satisfy our unquenchable hunger for meaning, purpose, connection, belonging, hope.
It’s a heavy anchor of certainty in a sea of change.
Sometimes, we don’t realise when what we are doing has lost its meaning. We carry on doing the same old thing time and again. We do it that way because that’s the way it’s always been done. The tradition becomes a solid rock in a constantly changing world. The tradition may have been created in the first place to be like a protective shell – protecting and preserving something precious, or something useful.
But now it’s like an empty shell. Whatever it was protecting inside has long since disappeared.
We often create our own family rituals and traditions at Christmas don’t we? The traditional dinner, the tree, the mulled wine and mince pies, the same old Christmas songs album, the same order of events to the day.
I once heard a story about how the instructions for cooking the Christmas turkey were handed down through the generations, from daughter to daughter. The main rule to be followed was :
“Always cut off the end of the bird”.
Every year, for 75 years, this rule had been obediently, unquestioningly followed. That is until one day, the youngest, newly instructed daughter got curious. She contacted her great-grandmother and asked her:
“Why do we have to cut the end off of the Christmas turkey great-grandmother?”
“Why, it’s quite simple my dear. We couldn’t fit it in our tiny oven in those days. You don’t need to do that now do you? Not with your nice big modern oven?”
All those years, and they’d been following instructions that were completely pointless, in the name of tradition. Until one person chose to say one very important word: “Why?”
My mother tells me that as a child, “why” was my favourite word, I suppose like many children. The incessant stream of “why’s” bombarded towards my poor mother was almost enough to shut her brain down entirely.
I’m 37 and I haven’t changed a bit. Well, except for the fact that I’m not usually asking my mother “why” but asking myself instead.
I question everything.
Why do we do that?
Is there a point to that?
How is that still relevant?
What are we doing that for?
It’s like I have a “bullshit detector” that sniffs out meaningless practices and outdated rules. I often end up smashing the useless empty shell of ritual that I’ve become trapped inside, and then look for a brand new one that suits better.
It’s not that I’m against rules and traditions, rituals, practices and ceremonies. I think they have their place. I’m all for structure and order and rhyme and reason.
But to have the rhyme without the reason? It’s just not logical, Captain.
Rules that are relevant and serve to benefit us? I’m a big fan of those. The ten commandments in the Bible are timeless rules which are still as relevant to my life today as they were thousands of years ago.
But rules for the sake of rules? Well, there goes my bullshit detector again. I’ve nothing against them, as long as they are a means to an end, rather than just the end…..it mustn’t spell the end of the story, the end of debate, the end of reason. Keep traditions, practices and rules where they belong, as the means, and not the meaning.
Now, if there was a trend-bucker, a tradition-breaker, a ritual buster, it was good old meek and mild Jesus. He warned the religious people of the day against getting stuck in the tradition rut, saying : “You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.”
Jesus challenged empty religious practices, he challenged rules for the sake of rules and he exposed those who loved tradition more than they loved God and people.
The religious people around Jesus constantly criticised him for it, to the point of plotting to kill him, such was their passion for rules and tradition.
Have a read of what he had to say about unquestioning adherence to rules and traditions:
Another time, on a Sabbath day as Jesus and his disciples were walking through the fields, the disciples were breaking off heads of wheat and eating the grain. Some of the Jewish religious leaders said to Jesus, “They shouldn’t be doing that! It’s against our laws to work by harvesting grain on the Sabbath.” But Jesus replied, “Didn’t you ever hear about the time King David and his companions were hungry, and he went into the house of God…..and they ate the special bread only priests were allowed to eat? That was against the law too. But the Sabbath was made to benefit man, and not man to benefit the Sabbath”.
Then as if to prove his point, he went and healed a man’s deformed hand right in front of them, on the Sabbath – the day of rest! How could he?!
One word of warning though, before you go and declare – “Scrap the Christmas dinner, the crackers and the presents – it’s all pointless!” We can be in danger of scrapping tradition for the sake of it too. Sometimes, in the name of “non-conformism” we can get so obsessed with not being tied to a ritual or routine that we go out of our way to smash it unnecessarily. “Not conforming” becomes the goal, rather than part of the process of asking “why?“.
Just remember that right at the very kernel of the shell is supposed to be love.
Does Aunty Joan always have to have Christmas dinner at 1pm and watch the Queen’s speech at 3, but Aunty Pat wants to eat at 12 and watch “It’s a Wonderful Life” instead, and everyone else just wants to eat at 2pm and then go down the pub? Well then, we have a problem. I don’t know the solution, but I do know that we have to lovingly consider preferences and the importance of rituals to others around us.
Sometimes, adhering to a tradition is simply this – it’s an act of love. It’s saying “this is important to you, and so it’s important to me”. But if preferences within the family conflict, it’s important to be lovingly open to compromise and communication. More about that in the next few days….
Thought for the day:
After Jesus’s death and resurrection, there were many practices that were no longer necessary. Many of the old rituals had been put in place there because of the huge rift between man and God. No-one but the High Priest could go into the “inner sanctuary” in the temple, the most Holy place, and be in the presence of God, because of that rather old fashioned word – “sin”. How could fallen, imperfect man approach a Holy God? There had to be all manner of animal sacrifices and rituals to observe before coming into this most Holy of places.
But when Jesus died on the cross, we are told that “At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.”
This was a new era.
Jesus had basically opened the way for man to connect openly with God. He’d volunteered himself to be the once-for-all-time sacrifice, on the cross, to deal with that rift between God and mankind.
This means that we have no need to go via a high priest to get to God. We have no need to observe rituals and practices which were only meant to be there before Jesus came and sorted it all out. He came so that we could have freedom and life, not be slaves to outdated rituals. Jesus is the new “High Priest” – the way through to the presence of God.
We can read in the bible that “we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need”
He said he was the “way to the Father”, the “truth” and the “life”. He said:
“I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out, and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”
Hmmm, you can understand why a few people might have got a little tetchy hearing him make such bold claims about himself. Many people still do. But ultimately, either we say he was right, or we say he was wrong…. there isn’t really an opportunity to sit on the fence on that one and just call him “good”.
My point is, that Jesus came and ushered in a whole new era. He wanted people to leave behind their old “slaves to the law” ways, and to embrace the freedom he offered.
He wasn’t saying “do what you like”, he was saying “get to the heart of why those rules are there. Think about it, and let love be your guide”. We are given the following rule of thumb as our yardstick:
The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,” and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.
Listen to what Jesus said about the futility of hanging onto useless rituals of the past:
“No-one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch will pull away from the garment, making the tear worse. Neither do people pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the skins will burst; the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved.”
I can’t help but feel that too many of us still hold onto things which belong in the past. All too often, the baby in the manger gets boxed in and swaddled too tightly to be able to be the wild, living, breathing force of change in our lives he was born to be.
Task for today:
At Christmas, I want, more than anything, to celebrate the freedom that the birth of Jesus brings to me. I want to do that by observing traditions that express that freedom, rather than ones which confine it.
Today, I’m going to ask myself two hard but much needed questions about the plans I have for celebrating Christmas:
“Where is the love?”