For a first comer in an Orthodox Church the thing that strikes the most is the richness of traditions that abound in the life of the faithful. It seems that we have a tradition for everything: the way we light the candles, the way we venerate the icons, the way we cross ourselves and so on. All conforms to some unwritten rules that are puzzling and difficult to follow for the casual observer.
Indeed the life of the Orthodox Church is very rich in traditions, some of them centuries old; together they contribute to the un-matching beauty of our faith. But Tradition is not just about form, it is also about purpose. Keeping the Tradition is to preserve the way of our Fathers, is to walk on the path of salvation that was opened in front of us by generations of saints and martyrs. Renouncing Tradition is renouncing the past with repercussions on our future.
The danger however is to keep the form and forget the purpose. Without understanding their theological meaning the traditions become nothing else but sterile repetitions of some dry outward forms, devoid of any function or finality. This is far from the spirit of the Orthodox Church. Our Church is not a collection of empty rituals but is the ship of salvation. Anything we do according the Tradition has a meaning with deep theological roots, and serves the purpose of taking us further ahead on our way to the celestial destination.
Of course not everything that comes from the past is of equal value; antiquity alone is not a proof of the truth. A distinction should be carefully made between the Holy Tradition, the very source of our Orthodox Faith, and the traditions or local customs. Both can be old and respectable but they are, or at least they should be, treated differently. Fr. Pavel Florovsky made this distinction clear:
The Holy Tradition is not merely the continuity of human memory through the permanence of rites and habits. Ultimately, Tradition is the continuity of divine assistance, the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit. The Church is not bound by the letter. She is constantly moved forth by the spirit.
The true tradition is not forced on us from outside, it is not something that we do mechanically like a magic ritual, but it should spring from within, from the true und complete understanding of the life in Christ. Only in this way the tradition comes to life becoming what Vladimir Lossky calls "the life of the Holy Spirit in the Church." In the light of the Holy Spirit the outward forms come to life and serve their salvific purpose.
It makes no sense for anyone to keep the letter of the law as an empty shell devoid of any significance; it is harsh and illogical. Without the inner meaning the tradition dries out and in times is either ignored or can take new forms, perverted forms that may grow contrary to the initial purpose.
Let's take Christmas as an example. For Christians Christmas season should be about Nativity, about the Incarnation of the Son of God in human form, the visible beginning of the salvation of mankind. In the Tradition of the Church the Great Feast of Nativity is preceded by a period of spiritual preparation through fasting and amplified prayer life gradually leading to the great joy announced by the star of Bethlehem. The prescribed lent is not just an antiquated custom but is part of our understanding of joy as Christian. We don't prepare like this only for Christmas, but for all the feasts, it is part of our overall great expectation of the second Coming of Christ.
Through fasting and prayer we prepare both physically and spiritually to fully partake in the communion of the saints, in the joyful dance of salvation. By giving up the weight of the material world, represented by the renunciation of food and pleasures of life, our souls are liberated to roam free and rejoice with the Lord. Regarded in this way fasting is not anymore about giving something up but about being able to receive beyond imagination. The Christians that continue to keep this tradition are doing it not because it is imposed to them but because the need for this period of preparation comes from within, from their burning desire to partake in the renewal of the whole world through the incarnation of the Logos.
A lack of understanding of this background, by the more and more secular society rejecting all its Christian roots, led to the development of the new "Christmas Spirit" that defines the new and secular X-mas. In this materialistic era moderation was transformed in opulence, spiritual preparation in a feast of the stomach, renunciation into greed and so on. The watchful expectation of Christmas has been altered and turned into an opulent food festival, which leaves no place for spiritual advancement.
Christ Himself is not expected anymore but a generic Santa that fulfills even the wildest dreams of a spoiled generation. And when the day of Nativity finally comes, there are churches that don't even have services, because nobody comes anymore to meet Christ, ironically everybody is either out to celebrate or to tired from it. So Christ comes in the world once again in a too distant manger, forgotten by most, awaited and surrounded by a shrinking flock of faithful sheep in search for salvation.
Obviously Christmas is just an example among many; we can also address Halloween and the modern rediscovery of its bloody pagan roots, the equally pagan Easter-bunny, Valentine's Day and the propaganda for overt sexuality and the list can go on and on. But the intent is not to start a crusade against the new secular tradition but to launch an appeal to spiritual discernment, to filter out from our lives what is perverted and preserve what is genuine.
Because we live in a world of mixed traditions and assorted backgrounds, we need to understand more our true Tradition as the genuine expression of the Holy Spirit in the Church. Living the Tradition is a dynamic event that is not casting us into the prison of some old ritualistic forms, but allows us to express our faith in ways that reveal ourselves as true followers of Christ.
The tradition is our faith lived, our faith transformed into reality, is the language in which we communicate our faith to the world. But this language is not just about form, is not about semantics: is about meaning. The Tradition should make sense to us, otherwise we will see no need for it. Tradition should spring out of our love for Christ, out of our free-will to follow in His footsteps.
We should therefore seek deeper into Tradition and reach beyond the surface in a quest to attain a new level of understanding, a new level of faith, a new level of life in Christ that will allow us to comprehend the holy origin of the Traditions of the past and make them part of our present in the hope of the future Life and Kingdom.
Fr. Vasile Tudora pastors St. John the Baptist Greek Orthodox Church in Euless, Texas.