Friday, March 21, 2008


Traditions color most of our lives. They make it easier to walk through all of the events of life without having to think through every major step. We find traditions in every culture. They are rituals of passage, initiations into manhood such as Bar mitzvahs among Jews, or into womanhood such as quinceaƱera celebrations among Hispanics. North Americans have variations on the theme and entire books and dissertations address rights of passage among the cultures of the world. Traditions regulate the rhythm of our lives and tell us what to do at weddings, birthdays, anniversaries, and funerals. They keep us from having to think through the details every time one comes around. Tradition simply tells us the right thing to do.

My wife teaches English and cultural acquisition to refugees who have come to the United States. These folks come from all over the world—Cuba, Somalia, Bosnia, North Korea, Burma, etc.—with vastly different backgrounds, religions, and traditions. Yesterday she tried to explain to them about our Easter tradition. Of course, she taught them the truth about the chief event of Christianity rather than the essential skills for winning an Easter egg hunt. She felt challenged by the task of telling people with limited English skills, zero understanding of United States culture, and virtually no exposure to Evangelical Christianity what the holiday is all about. How would you do it? And, how did all that Easter egg and chocolate bunny stuff get in there?

The Easter tradition around the world annually competes with Christmas to be the most syncretistic season in Christianity. The passion of Christ, including His death, burial, and resurrection, which took place during the Passover, is the central event in history. In the Great Exchange that Christ accomplished on the cross, He took the sin of His people and gave them His righteousness.

As Christianity began to spread around the world, it encountered religions of many kinds. These religions already had their own traditions and, as I said, traditions mark the rhythm and expectations of life; they govern how we move from stage to stage as we pass through its major events.
Catholic missionaries found it easier to spread Christianity via the method of accommodation. Rather than insisting upon complete replacement of the old religions and its traditions with pure Christianity, Catholicism the Catholic Church sought to find ways that Christianity and its traditions could accommodate what already existed. They encountered a spring festival to a pagan fertility goddess named Eastre. Pagans called upon this goddess and sought to appease her in a spring festival to plead for better crops, stronger animals, and healthier children. The natural and logical symbols of this fertility goddess were eggs and rabbits (what’s more fertile than a rabbit?). These symbols came into the church, blended together with the passion event, which was also in the spring, and have come down to the church today in the form of Easter egg hunts on Resurrection Day and chocolate Easter bunnies for our kids when they awake on Sunday morning.

In some of the most orthodox Evangelical churches and Christian institutions of Christendom, you can find annual Easter egg hunts and Easter bunnies in the decorations about this time of year. As bizarre as this seems to me, it is right outside the realm of reality for Christians around the world who do not share our traditions. In Latin America, they do not even have a word for Easter. The translation of their word for Easter Sunday is simply Passover or Resurrection Day. Tradition in Latin America is just as strong as it is in the United States. However, in the case of “Easter” it is very different between Evangelicals and Roman Catholics.

The Roman Catholics of Latin America have parades throughout the cities on this weekend. At this time of year, those who are penitent seek forgiveness and absolution for their sins. They do this by joining the parades that pass through the streets carrying a platform bearing the statue of the Virgin Mary. Other penitents carry crosses, help bear the platform with some image of a bleeding, dying, crucified, or already dead Christ, or wear the penitential pointed hat-head-covering dressed in purple robes. Every city and region in Latin America has its unique variation on the tradition, but since Latin America is 95% Roman Catholic, all of society stops for the annual event. In this season, the Roman Catholic Church calendar marks the ritual of seeking and getting forgiveness of the sins they celebrated in Carnival (Mardi Gras) and “repented of” during Lent.
Latin American Evangelicals have a different tradition for remembering and proclaiming Christ’s death until He comes. Evangelical churches in Ecuador invite guest preachers who exposit sermons on the Seven Words of Christ. The “Seven Words” tradition challenges the available preachers who must scoot from church to church to cover all the invitations since there are so few preachers around. It also must surely try the patience of the congregations since they listen to seven sermons on that Sunday!
  • The First Word – Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.

  • The Second Word – I assure you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.

  • The Third Word – Dear woman, here is your son.

  • The Fourth Word – My God, my God, why have You abandoned me?

  • The Fifth Word – I am thirsty.

  • The Sixth Word – It is finished.

  • The Seventh Word – Father, into Your hands I commend My spirit.
What a precious tradition! Even if it were simply one sermon (since most of our congregations would not put up with seven sermons), how precious it would be to come to the Lord’s house on His Resurrection Day at the Passover season and hear an expository proclamation of these words/truths/insights/lessons of our Lord from His redeeming cross.

Not all traditions are bad or ill advised, but perhaps we should question the traditions that our culture uses to guide us through life. Could we begin some new traditions in our families and churches that would be more honoring to the Lord? Of course, we can. However, it might surprise some among us to find that better traditions will come from brothers and sisters in other cultures of God’s world. The church in other countries just might have some correcting truths and traditions for the church in the United States, but we have to know these cultures to learn what they are. We should pull up a chair at the hermeneutical table for them to come and offer their insights.

“There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all."
(Eph 4:4-6 )

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