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Orthodox Tradition, Yesterday and Today

[Again, Summer 2004]

The very title of this talk—the term “Orthodox Tradition”—is one that would confirm the worst fears of my Protestant friends. I have spent a lot of time in Protestant circles, and one thing they’re touchiest about is what they call “dead tradition.” They will quote the line from St. Paul, “See that no one makes a prey of you by philosophy and empty deceit, according to the tradition of men.” (Col 2:8).

From that perspective, most of what we do looks like “empty tradition.” The Divine Liturgy we had this morning would be horrifying to them. All that pomp and circumstance, and surely it’s meaningless, right? We’re just going through the motions, hoping to buy God’s favor by repeating the correct formulas.

Our friends would also presume that this kind of worship has nothing to do with the early church. Before I became Orthodox, I imagined that the first century Christians sat around on the floor, probably in blue jeans, playing guitar and talking about how Jesus had touched their hearts that week.

It was a shock to me to learn that from the very first, Christians had striven to make worship as beautiful as they could. It begins in the book of Exodus, when the wandering Hebrew people, nomads and refugees, sacrifice all they have to create a tent of meeting worthy of the God of Glory. It continues through the building of altars and temples, through the offering of costly sacrifices, throughout Old and New Testaments. I believe there is not an incident of formal worship in the Bible that does not include incense.

But how would you know that our worship this morning represents that of the early church, if someone didn’t tell you? The bible doesn’t record things that happened after the bible was written.

This is why we benefit from Tradition. Though some may reflexively think of “dead tradition”, there is such a thing as Living tradition—tradition that supports and fosters life.

It’s helpful to imagine by analogy how people handle family Christmas traditions. Imagine that you marry into a big family. As the first December rolls around your spouse says, “I have to warn you, my family has a lot of Christmas traditions.”

And they do. As you go through the round of events in those few days, it’s one thing after another. There’s a tradition that when everyone is going to church on Christmas eve they all have to wear grandma’s handmade scarves. There’s a tradition about opening one, and only one present after you come home, before you go to bed. There’s a tradition about the eggnog recipe for Christmas morning, which as far as you can tell goes back to the 19th century. There’s a tradition that the oldest child always lights the dinner table candles, and that the youngest child blows them out. There’s even a tradition that Uncle Steve will make the same dumb joke over the turkey that he’s made for the last 17 years.

What do all these traditions have in common? They give joy and life. They bind together the family and revitalize it. They are living traditions.

Likewise with the Church. The Holy Spirit is the source of all life, and the traditions he has given the church are for our life and joy as well: they renew us and fill us with his presence, and unite us with each other.

But as we think about it further, we realize that some traditions are more important than others. This is what some people refer to as “big T” and “little t” traditions. To come back to that family, if Uncle Steve stopped making that joke, maybe nobody would really mind. It’s not a tradition like the eggnog recipe. After Uncle Steve dies, they won’t appoint someone else to make the joke.

But when the turkey is served, people might say, “Remember Uncle Steve and his dumb joke?” and that would lead to a few minutes of talking about Uncle Steve, and that would become another kind of tradition. Some traditions are like that—small-t traditions—and they can come and go, change shape or even fade away.

In Orthodoxy we are blessed to bring together customs from many different families, different nationalities. Our church, Holy Cross, is under the Antiochian jurisdiction, but we have only a few Arabic families. Among historically Orthodox nationalities we include people whose heritage is Russian, Greek, Ukrainian, Serbian, Romanian, Armenian, and Coptic. When we ask “What does your family do at Christmas,” or at Pascha, we learn about traditions from many different lands. In addition, our congregation includes people who have come to Orthodoxy from other backgrounds: Scots, Italian, Jamaican, Hispanic, and Jewish. Our newsletter editor was Lutheran, our evangelism chairman was Assemblies of God, our choir director was Quaker, and our head chanter was an Anglican nun. We all contribute something to the collection of community-building traditions.

But how do you know the difference between the big and the little t? When I first was chrismated I was mighty confused about this. Fasting, for example. We were chrismated in Feb 1993, and only a few weeks later Lent hit us between the eyes. I couldn’t figure out how strictly we were supposed to apply the guidelines in the Triodion, because when we visited other churches or talked to Orthodox elsewhere, it seemed they all had different practices. Some were scrupulous about reading the list of ingredients on a label, and rejecting bread if it included whey. Others said “If you can’t see it, it isn’t there.” Still others said, if you just don’t eat meat on Fridays in Lent that’s enough.

Since fasting was so hard to do, I wanted solid guidelines, because leaving it up to me and what I happened to feel inspired to do at any given meal was *not* going to be a good policy.

This is the kind of thing you only learn by being in a living community and having others, older in the faith, to guide you. In fact, my husband tells me, that for Orthodox fasting guidelines are actually part of the *rubrics*, the *liturgical* practice of an individual parish, rather than a facet of church law. This gives it a whole different feeling.

A couple of years ago I visited the beautiful Roman Catholic church in Charleston, South Carolina, where I grew up. Pinned to the bulletin board was a notice about fasting in Lent. It said that Catholics between certain ages (12 to 60, I think) were "bound to the obligation" of fasting. It specified that this meant eating only one meal in the day, or if necessary you could have two other small meals, which together should not equal the amount of one meal. Fasting days were specified as Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Another paragraph said that the same age bracket was "bound to the obligation" of abstinence. This meant that they were not to eat meat on Fridays in Lent. A closing paragraph in smaller print noted that these rules should be amended in matters of health and that "common sense should prevail."

Now, that is far less of a burden than our own Lenten fasting practice, but somehow it felt *more* burdensome. I thought about how it would be if you moved into a subdivision, and the first day you were handed a notice saying that you were obligated to pick up the litter in the common area once every other month. How different it would feel if a neighbor said, “We all try to go out on Saturday morning and pick up the little; we hope you’ll join us.”

In the Roman Catholic Church the guidelines are promulgated as part of Canon Law, and it is consistently phrased as an “obligation.” But for us fasting is a matter of what a parish actually does—as in a liturgy the rubrics read “here we do this,” likewise when we fast “we do this” as a community. As a result, there can be variation from place to place in “tradition” says.

A famous saying derives from this parish-by-parish variance. When St. Monica, the mother of St Augustine, was a member of the 5th century church in Milan, their custom was to fast on Saturdays in order to prepare for Sunday Eucharist. But when she visited Rome she was surprised to see that the Christians there did not observe a Saturday fast. Returning home, she asked her bishop, St. Ambrose, what she should do. He told her: “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.”

However, not *all* traditions are that flexible. When I was newly chrismated, and had through trial and error finally been convinced that the precepts of Lenten fasting varied from place to place, and should be in any case tuned to the individual, I presumed the same was true of fasting before the Sunday morning Eucharist. If it’s totally up to me whether I eat meat in Lent or not, then it must be up to me whether I have a cup of tea on Sunday morning before receiving communion. I learned that this is not so!

Part of coming into a family and learning the traditions is learning the *weight* of different traditions. All this is information you only learn by living it, year after year, inside a family, in a community where the faith is alive.

Here’s a funny example of the kind of thing you can only learn inside the family. Last summer there was a lot of news coverage of the Episcopal Church’s General Convention, as they debated whether to consecrate a gay man as bishop of New Hampshire. Every time cameras showed the convention worship space we could see two icons, of Christ and the Theotokos. The thing is, they were on the wrong sides. To me it was always a little startling, like seeing someone set the table with the fork on the wrong side of the plate. It wasn’t meant to be disrespectful, of course—they just didn’t know. The surprise to me was how much *I* have internalized the tradition now, so that it seemed startling to me.

And someone learning it for the first time might then be surprised to note that, in icons of the Theotokos, sometimes she holds the Child Christ in her left arm, sometimes in the right. So—that doesn’t matter, but the other does? Apparently so. You only learn by exposure, by living in the family.

Here’s another example. Recently my husband and I visited the Cathedral of St John the Divine in Manhattan. Soon after you come in the church you see two icons, Christ and the Theotokos—on the correct sides, now—but placed up very high. I thought, “What a shame. I wish I could venerate them, but they’re too high. I guess the Cathedral decided that they could not take the risk of someone damaging them, so they placed them up out of reach.”

On second thought I realized that, no, it probably never occurred to Cathedral staff that people might want to kiss the icons. The whole idea of kissing “religious paintings” is very strange to Americans. The Cathedral had simply acquired these two beautiful icons, and put them on display like other examples of religious art, and their being placed so high was probably just to make them more visible. Again, I’ve been living in the tradition long enough now, that I reflexively saw it a different way.

We can see from these two examples, both having to do with a small subset of tradition having to do with icon placement, that doing it in an unfamiliar way is surely not blasphemous, but a matter of knowing only part of the family tradition. But what separates an innocent variation like this, from serious heresy, or sundering of one of the Big T traditions?

Now we have to get into a bit of complicated territory, as we think about how traditions of all sizes are formed. Take, for example, the doctrine of the Trinity. You already know that this doctrine is not fully explained in the scriptures, and that the first two ecumenical councils worked it out with laborious prayer and precision in the fourth century.

Our Roman Catholic friends will say, exactly: that’s called development of doctrine. Another development was the rise of the Pope as head over all Christians everywhere. Further along, the See of Rome could approve the addition of the “filioque” to the Nicene Creed. The Holy Spirit, they would say, is always explaining more to us than we realized before. And we Orthodox would counter that the “filioque” is not a development; it’s a change. It alters the roles of the members of the Trinity. Roman Catholics will agree that, yes, even that kind of “development” is permitted if the Pope endorses it, thanks to the development of doctrine about the Pope’s authority.

A few years ago it seemed the Pope would approve a new doctrine about the Theotokos, namely, that all “graces” that are sent to us from God come through Mary first. (It’s hard for Orthodox to even imagine such a concrete idea of grace, as if it were contained in documents crossing her desk that she has to rubberstamp). New traditions, large T and small, can always be added, they would say, as God through the Pope explains new things to us.

Yet other denominations will say that, because the Holy Spirit is ever unfolding new understandings, that *all* traditions are small-t traditions. If there was a time when openly gay men were not consecrated as bishop, it was because Christians at the time were too fearful and narrow-minded to accept the truth. Now that we know what the Holy Spirit wants, and we can embrace a new thing. When people in that denomination present scripture and tradition to oppose these changes they find that their historic and theological reasons are ignored as irrelevant. There are no large T Traditions, and arguing from past practice constitutes resisting the Holy Spirit. People who try to make such arguments are told that they are motivated by emotional immaturity and fear.

So we Orthodox are faced with having to defend why we approve some developments—such as the doctrine of the Trinity—and not others, like ordination of practicing gays, or the filioque. The answer is that we are family. The Holy Spirit fills and directs our family. Those things he has revealed, and which we have come to recognize in consensus, we can be sure is the truth, because Jesus said the Holy Spirit would guide us into all truth.

Later ideas that arise, that contradict earlier consensus, are automatically disproved. What has arisen from consensus in the living heart of the family will continue as long as the family is animated by the same Spirit. The same Spirit will keep reviving the same truths, because Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever. If a branch of the family reverses the former agreement and heads in the opposite direction, it has decided to depart and to form a different family.

But wouldn’t it be safest to just use the bible, and not add any tradition at all? Well, as you know, that’s impossible. Everyone who reads the bible interprets the bible. The question is, whose interpretation will you accept as definitive. The logical answer is: the community that lived closest in time to the writing of the Scriptures. Today’s Paris newspaper can be better interpreted by a citizen of Paris today, than by an Eskimo 1500 years in the future.

The other week I was talking with a woman who books speakers at a prominent Protestant retreat center. She kept talking about this Ladies’ Lunch, and that Women’s Weekend, and I broke in to say that she needn’t think of me as restricted to women’s groups; most of the time when I speak it is to a mixed group of men and women. It’s one of my pet peeves that so many gifted women restrict themselves to “women’s ministries,” and that when I speak at a major conference, I’m one of the few female presenters there. I want to encourage women to get out of their safety zone and into the larger world.

Well, the woman on the phone told me, “We don’t do that.” At their retreat center, women are not allowed to address groups that include men. Women can only speak to women. Rarely, a couple may give an address together, but the woman can only speak when her husband is present.

I felt like saying, “Didn’t you ever hear of St Nina of Georgia?”

Now, if all you have is the Bible, you can read St Paul saying, “Women should keep silence in the churches, they are not allowed to speak” and have no alternative but to take it literally. In a way, I have to admire them for sticking to their guns in the face of overwhelming contrary cultural pressure. They can read the flat words on the page, and those words don’t seem to allow any wiggle room. They are consistent at least in sticking by their principles no matter how strange it makes them seem to the world.

Though I usually want to ask them, “So, if you believe in strict enforcement of these rules about women, where’s your head covering?”

But again—what a tragedy to not have St. Nina. How blessed we are to have a *living* tradition, that sets scripture in a context of real people and real lives, so we can see how this book should be handled.

Let me stay with St. Nina for a moment, to give an example of how tradition can live. A few years ago, when we first organized our parish Sisterhood, my husband asked us to come up with a patron. Members of the group submitted several names, and we gathered on a Saturday morning to pray about which one to choose.

As we sat around the table, Roxann, the church secretary, read the names on the list. When she got to St Nina, several people said, “Who’s she?” Roxann asked who had put her name on the list, and no one there had done so. Nobody knew who St. Nina was. Then Roxann remembered that there was a biography of her in a recent issue of “The Handmaiden,” and got a copy and began to read it aloud.

I was sitting next to Roxann, and on the other side of me was Ina, the Sisterhood president. Soon after Roxann began reading, I noticed that Ina’s breathing had changed. I glanced over at her and her eyes were closed, and there were tears streaming down her face. Her chin was lifted and she looked like she was focused intensely on something; she looked noble, I thought. Anyway, Roxann kept reading until she got to the end of the story. We all looked at Ina, and she seemed to “wake up.” Ina asked, “What was that? What happened?”
Of course, that’s what we wanted to ask her. She explained that she hadn’t heard a word of the story. From the moment Roxann began reading, she was overwhelmed with the presence of something holy. She couldn’t hear because her ears were filled with the sound of a mighty rushing wind.

Then I remembered something. I had seen a copy of the next day’s church bulletin earlier, and there was an icon of a female saint on the cover. I showed the bulletin to the group: it was an icon of St. Nina. It was her feast day. Later we were to learn that the date our antimins was signed was also the feast of St. Nina.

We all looked at each other and someone asked, “Should we vote now on which saint to take as our patron?” My husband said, “I don’t think you need to choose your patron. St. Nina has chosen you.”

Does it surprise you that St Nina is still alive today? But you will be alive, too, thousands of years from now. The life that fills her fills you. This is what living tradition means: it is the life of the saints, of the Church, a life that includes us today, and which we will be part of eternally. When our bodies lie in the grave, we will be partners with all who continue to pray in this place and every place, alive with them.

That’s what it means to be part of this family. For we now belong to the author of life, who has trampled down death by death, and will fill us with his spirit. We will never cease being part of this family, not in this world or in the next.

We will always have our family traditions, large and small, that we celebrate around the table, around the Christmas dinner table, around the Pascha banquet table, around the altar table of our Lord. It is a very great adventure that you have been called to. And so, my brothers and sisters, live lives worthy of your calling. Don’t squander a moment of it, but offer it all to the Lord as an oblation of holiness, until purified day by day, we arrive at the fullness of his Glory.

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