Friday, December 14, 2012

Tradition - A Personal Reflection

World's Religious Traditions
World's Religious Traditions (Photo credit: Micah68)

Webster's defines "tradition" as: 1. the handing down of statements, beliefs, legends, customs, information, etc., from generation to generation, esp. by word of mouth or by practice; 2. something that is handed down; 3. a long established or inherited way of thinking or acting; 4. a continuing pattern of cultural beliefs or practices; ...The definition goes on for several more explanations, but I think you get the idea.
Growing up, we had a few traditions. Some were so entrenched in our lives that we didn't realize they were traditions until we stopped practicing them. Things like, Wednesday was spaghetti night; Saturday, we had beans and franks; and on Sundays, we usually had a sit-down meal at around 2 o'clock. We called it dinner, which cracks my daughters up every time I ask, "So what's for dinner?" They call it supper.
Other traditions were explained in sincere, one-on-one talks, like when my Mom told me why we went to church on Sunday or why we didn't put the Baby Jesus in the crèche until Christmas morning.
As my children grew, I practiced some of these traditions without much thought; they were simply conditioned responses to the stimuli of a particular time of year. Perhaps it is getting older and having grandchildren that bring me to this place of reflection.

My parents had a tradition that each year, when decorating the tree, they always put up a red and gold-trimmed ribbon before anything else went on the tree. The ribbon was from the first Christmas after they were married. This little bedraggled ribbon was their only decoration that year. 

Upon further reflection, I realized that as the holy/holidays arrive, I planned to do what my parents and teachers taught to do without realizing it was a learned response. This has made me stop to look more closely at the reasons for each tradition, weeding out the ones that no longer serve a useful purpose or have lost their meaning and focusing in on the ones that are truly significant to my family and me. As Karen Armstrong writes in her book, A Case for God, “…if a ritual no longer evokes a profound conviction of life’s ultimate value, (we) simply abandon it.”
Therefore, with careful consideration, we put candles in our windows, not because folks seem to be returning to the days of lighting up their homes, but as a simple reminder that the Light still shines bright in a world of darkness. I love the symbolism of the candle and have used it often in my teaching and ministry. The simplicity of its message of Light and Illumination is powerful.
We will put up a tree. I didn't have a tree several Christmases ago, and I won't ever do that again. I found it to be very depressing. Our tree is artificial - our contribution to the environment on many levels: more living trees left to clean the air, less pollution from dead trees being burned or thrown into dumps. The tree is symbolic of Life and Hope. "Ever" green, it reminds us that Life goes on from season to season.
Along with decorating the tree, I will decorate the inside and outside of the house. Outside, there will be fresh greens, red berries hung with ribbons on the door and light posts. Inside, there will be vignettes of angels (I love my angels...they remind me that I am never alone.) and snow people, which reminds me to stay child-like...full of expectation, hope and wonder.

We will send greetings, but only to the friends and family, who we won't see over the next few months. However, if this isn’t done before the end of December, I am not going to stress out. Letters/cards will be sent within the first few weeks of the New Year. (Once I got wrapped around taking care of babies, working, etc. and didn't send them until April!)
Another tradition we have scaled down greatly is gift giving. Both Roger and I felt the need to go back to the times when gifts were small and meaning-filled, usually homemade, and always, personal. Again, as a way to help give to the world, many of our gifts are fair trade.
Finally, we have several crèches (manger scenes). After all, this is why I celebrate the holy days, for which I make no apologies. I find it sad that so many feel the need to apologize to the world for practicing what they believe in. My feeling is that no matter what your faith tradition, you should be able to celebrate and share it with others.


I follow the tradition begun when my girls were small. The Baby will be hidden until Christmas morning and, God willing that my mind doesn't go on vacation, I will find Him and place Him in the manger before we do anything else.
These will be the traditions that Roger and I follow. However, my daughters are now all of an age where they are developing their own traditions. I have watched with interest as they sort out the traditions they wish to keep. I try to remain neutral to their decisions. After all, it is their lives.


Last year, I was thrilled to hear one of my granddaughters recite the Chanukah prayer and light the Menorah that Roger made for my daughter and her family. They are a blended family, observing both Christian and Jewish traditions.

In closing, I pray that as we keep time-honored traditions or create new ones, on whatever spiritual path we follow during this season of Light and Love, that our lives and those close to us be enriched. May we be reminded of the many blessings we all have, the many sacrifices of those who came before us, and the many dreams for a world of Peace that we all hope for today and each day into the New Year.

By Linda M. Rhinehart Neas - Second Year Ordinand at TNS

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Sunday, December 2, 2012

The Word Made Flesh

The Many Faces of Christmas - Shaped Wooden Pu...
The Many Faces of Christmas - Shaped Wooden Puzzle from Sri Lanka (Photo credit: mharrsch)
 "The Word became flesh, and lived among us.” –John 1:14 

“Are magazines getting trashier and trashier, or am I just becoming a grumpy old fart?” I asked the cashier in a St. Paul, Minnesota convenience store, gesturing toward the racks of periodicals. 

“Well, sir,” she deadpanned, “both of those things could be true.” 

Those of us with Incarnational, or “God with skin on” religions–Christians, Vaishnavas, anyone who organizes life around the idea that God could appear in a form at once divine and human– shouldn’t, theoretically, be in the business of setting up false dichotomies. At the very least, we ought to be comfortable with paradox. We should be both/and people in and either/or world. 

Nevertheless, because the urge to parse distinctions–to say “this, but not that”–is as strong in us as in everyone else, we are sucked into the either-or-ness of it all. In so doing, we lose the subversive power of putting things together that the world wants to keep separate. 

Saints and sinners, for example -“Good people” expect other “good people” to give “bad people” a wide berth. 

“Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” the Pharisees and Torah scribes asked Jesus’ disciples.[i] Whom one sat down to eat with was very serious business in ancient Israel. 

Jesus answered: Healthy people don't need a doctor--sick people do. I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners.[ii] 

Nevertheless, I suspect Jesus knew there was no right answer with these people. 

John the Baptist came neither eating bread nor drinking wine, and you said, ‘He is possessed!’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look at him–a glutton and a drinker, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’[iii] 

So not only did Jesus hang out with undesirables, He also liked to eat and drink, apparently. Moreover, while this fact offended the scribes and Pharisees, it positively scandalized later generations of theologians. Origen (c. 185–254 CE) for instance–who in many ways is one of my heroes–only grudgingly admitted that Jesus ate and drank at all, while insisting that He did it in a way unique to Himself, in which the food “did not pass from His body.” 

The idea that the incarnate God didn’t poop brings us to another false dichotomy: the “spirit” vs. “the flesh.” 

The idea that the two are at war simply does not appear in the Hebrew Bible, and the few New Testament passages on which the idea is based are generally misunderstood. 

For instance, Paul’s famous instruction to the Roman church to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires” [iv] must be understood in the context of a movement that believed the end of the world was imminent. Paul therefore encouraged Christians to remain single and celibate, in the belief that there was no future in founding a family (or anything else.) 

It is with later theologians like Origen and Augustine, mostly North African and under the influence of Plato, who began the long process of driving a wedge between “the spirit” and “the flesh”–a process that continues to this day. 

Yoga begins and ends with an understanding of the body that is, to say the very least, at odds with the Christian understanding. Christians are not called to…see the human body as a means of connecting to and coming to know the divine [...] The physical is the spiritual in yoga, and the exercises and disciplines of yoga are meant to connect with the divine. 

Christianity certainly does distinguish between “spirit” and “flesh.” “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit,” [v] said Jesus, explaining why spiritual rebirth is not contingent on physical rebirth. 

Yoga makes this body/spirit distinction also; the purusha, or “in-dweller,” who looks out through our eyes and is identical with the Atman, is eternal, while the body is temporal¬. However, where I believe the Yogic tradition trumps the Christian tradition is in its recognition of the sacramentality of the body–the ability of the body to raise our God-consciousness. 

The supreme irony is that the whole of the Gospel faith is predicated on God becoming flesh. Jesus not only affirmed the holiness of the body, He seemed to revel in fleshly existence. “Eat for me and drink for me,” He told St. Teresa of Avila, because she could do things for Him in the body that He could no longer do for Himself. (The similarity here to the practice, recommended in the Bhagavad Gita, of “sacrificing sense objects in the fires of renunciation” [vi] is striking.) 

Jesus affirmed and cherished the flesh at every turn, feeding people, healing their physical illnesses, eating and drinking with them. He even restored human bodies to life after physical death had occurred, sealing His sovereignty over death by rising from the dead Himself. Whatever the meaning, interpretation or historicity of these events, they plainly emphasize the high value God places on our physical being. 

So is the baby in the manger “the high and lofty One who inhabits eternity,” or the rabbi who, at his first meeting with his disciples after His resurrection, made them breakfast? 

Does He “dwell in the high and holy place,” or “with the one who has a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble and to revive the heart of the contrite” [vii]? 

Is this Jewish avatara a physical being destined to death, or an immortal spirit Who is beyond the limitations of time, space and the body? 

Does the unseemly and all-too-human birth narrative of Jesus (whatever its historical truth) proclaim the humbling of God, or the divine reality of human life behind the maya of earthly existence? 

All of these questions, says the Christmas story, pose false dilemmas, and to each one the God-baby offers the same answer: Well, both of those things could be true. ________________________________________ 

[i] Mark 2:16 [ii] Mark 2:17 [iii] Luke 7:33-34 [iv] Romans 13:14 [v] John 3:6 [vi] Bhagavad Gita 4:26 [vii] See Isaiah 57:15 

By Scott Robinson, PhD., TSSF

Ordinand Scott is a second year student at The New Seminary.  Learn more about his music and ministry at:
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