I long for a church that recognizes the value of ancient traditions. I’ve long been saddened by the iconophobia in many evangelical circles, discomfort with symbolism, suspicion toward any type of mysticism, and the ignoring of rich faith traditions from Advent to Passover.
So quoth I a few weeks ago in this post, which I recommend reading if you haven’t yet. (The post has also been republished at emergingchurch.info.) This was point number seven of nine, and I am continuing to elaborate on them one by one and one after another after another and another as I continue to reflect upon their meaning.
I believe that the evangelical church has lost much in the abandonment of the traditional church calendar. This includes such seasons as Lent and Advent in which the heart is prepared for the approaching celebration. To ignore this preparatory practice is to let the celebration creep up on you, explode around you, and pass away without lasting effect. The season leading up to the celebration in each of these cases prepares the heart to meet with Jesus and receive from him. It prepares the heart to be changed.
The Old Testament instituted a number of feasts and celebrations… the Feast of Tabernacles, Passover, Pentecost, and others. In large part these have been lost to a church which doesn’t consider its Jewish roots a matter of celebration. The evangelical church today has rejected the calendar of traditional church events, retaining nothing but Christmas, Easter, the Communion Table, and to a lesser degree, Palm Sunday. The problem is that many of these events and traditions exist for a purpose, for the edification of the community… and whether we fully understand it or not, the discontinuance of these celebrations is a detriment to the community. The pot-luck (or in some circles, “pot-blessing”) supper simply doesn’t quite cut it as a replacement, no matter how good the food is.
In my senior year at college, I fell in love with the Gospel of John. I took a class on the Fourth Gospel, and fell in love with it as the mystical Gospel, the symbolic Gospel. And I noticed something… my favorite commentators on John were Catholic. I thought about this at the time, and realized over the next several years of studying the Gospel that the primary issues had to do with symbols and sacrament. I saw the things in the Gospel which the Catholic commentators saw, which the evangelical commentators glossed over or dismissed. Symbols, sacrament, and mystery… these things became lovely to me, and the churches I’ve been involved in throughout my Christian life have all been uneasy with such things.
Mystery can be uncomfortable to evangelicals who want to have an answer for every question… I remember learning the “answer” to every apologetic question, but it always seemed to miss the point of the questionner. I would rather be at peace with mystery, asking God to teach an explanation to my heart over time. In the book of Daniel, God is called “The Revealer of Mysteries,” a title that describes his character, like the many others he has in Scripture. Proverbs 25:2 says that it’s a kingly glory to search out a matter concealed… and it’s the glory of God to conceal it. But to start with, I think that before God reveals deep mysteries to us, we must first be content for a mystery to remain just that a mystery. Mysteries are not about conquest, they’re about the depth of delight in searching them out.
Some corners of the evangelical church did away with ornate buildings, somewhat taking pride in the fact that they had simplified and weren’t wasting money on ornate carvings and stained glass. Well, I’ve been spending more time in an ornate building with real woodwork and stained glass lately… and you know something? Walking into that building lifts my soul in a way that the old gymnasium and bingo-chairs just never seemed to do.
The church I’m longing for embraces mystery, and is comfortable with feasts and traditions without being bound to them. Symbols and icons, even incense and candles can have a place in the practices of the church I’m longing for. And if there’s ever a time when the opportunity exists, I think I’ll recommend against boarding up the stained-glass windows. I want to mine tradition for gold and search mysteries for gemstones. (See, I’m speaking symbolically…)