Wednesday, May 11, 2022

Who is dead and who lives?

It has become the rage to insist that tradition is dead and that to pay attention to tradition is to give to the dead veto power over the present -- which is alive.  The presumption is that religion which is hopelessly wedding to the past is equally dead and that religion which lives fully in the present moment is the only religion that is truly alive.  

Once I watched a series in which one of the characters struggled to feel alive.  He had rejected any past or any comfort from what was and tried to create anew the moments of terror and risk that would make him feel alive.  Several times during the series, the main character spent moments on a precipice -- literally -- waiting for a push to step off to his death.  But that is surely a euphemism for the state of affairs today.  Modernists insist upon living in the moment but they are ultimately dead.  Only those who live as present heirs of the legacy of their fathers are truly alive and know who they are and what they are here to do.

That is so true of the state affairs of the Church.  Modernists and imprisoned in the moment -- struggling to make that moment relevant and current.  And that is the curse.  The moment gives no comfort for it daily surrenders what was edgy and current to dunghill of the yesterday -- leaving the present without comfort, consolation, or courage.  It is like the thrill junkie constantly in search of something new, different, and better.  As soon as you find it, it is replaced by something newer and you have pinned yourself to what does not last.  How terrible this prison is!  The latest technology, contemporary praise song, sermon series, and gimmick makes what we have pale in comparison and so we are always striving but never reaching or grasping that which we seek.

On the other hand, the traditionalist knows exactly the what the present is and is not -- and what the past is and is not.  We are not inventors but guardians, not creators but preservers, not visionaries to what could be but heralds of what was and still is.  That is the tension in which we live.  The liturgy does not live because we reinvent it for the modern moment but because it preserves and conserves the living voice of Christ whose speaking and acting are tied eternally together.  The sacraments do not deliver to us what they sign because the sign is culturally relevant but because the Spirit is at work attaching the Word to the element so that our hearing becomes feeling in baptismal water and tasting in the Eucharist.

Think about the famous quotes:  “Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.”   (G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy)   “Tradition is not the worship of ashes, but the preservation of fire.” (Gustav Mahler)  “Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. And, I suppose I should add, it is traditionalism that gives tradition such a bad name.” (Jaroslav Pelikan, The Vindication of Tradition: The 1983 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities).  They beg us not to worship the past but to listen to it, not to a prison of what was but to the wisdom of those who went before, and not to a temple of what was but to the enduring character of what remains.

We live at a time in which yesterday is like the parlor of the old homes of the past -- it is a room shut off from the heartbeat of our present life and is opened up only to acknowledge death.  We live in an open concept life in which we live and work and play in the same place and at the same time.  Ours is a home without walls and therefore without an escape from the moment.  Churches have become the same kind of spaces -- where the horizontal dominates the vertical and community is its own end (even digital community or virtual koinonia which is no longer really distinguished from personal).   Churches echo this confusion.  Without sacred or secular it is only me that is left and what I feel or judge in the moment.  

I read some tweets from a rapper who happened to say that he and his family had communion at home with some whole wheat bread and apple juice.  He thought it was real.  Many chimed in to suggest that is was real -- as were their Doritos and Code Red sacraments or their Arbys and grape juice box communions.  Soon some raised some questions about it all -- the haters who cannot let go of the past!  What everyone seemed to miss is that reality by definition has a past and a future as well as a present.  Holy Communion does come out of thin air to inhabit the moment but preserves the past while presuming the future -- all in the wonder of a moment filled with God's ripeness and mercy.  We eat the Passover fulfilled but also taste the Marriage Feast of the Lamb without end -- either both are fully in this Sacrament or neither is.  So when we live in the moment, we commune with no one at all, least of all God, and what we receive is captive to what we feel or think or prefer or judge.  How full of ourselves we are!

If you have to choose, choose the past because it comes with the hidden gift of the future.  However, if you choose the present you will have a fading moment that has only glance in the mirror of me before it must be replaced to remain current.  I will not be dissuaded from my anchor in God's past for it is the power of my present and the beginning of my future.  That is His gift.  The past does not get to cast its chains upon the present but neither can the present dismiss the past.  Here, rooted in time our God comes to us but He comes to fulfill all of yesterday and to plant the seed of tomorrow.  It is about time we began remembering this.

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