Kissing Images, Grandpa’s Love, and Jokes On Me

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Years ago, while on a Mennonite forum discussion about the “holy kiss” ordinance, I had joked that the practice was impossible given that those mentioned to kiss in the Biblical proof-texts were already long dead.

Old Order Mennonites, along with some conservative holdouts, continue the practice of greeting each other with a kiss. They base this practice on some salutations of epistles where St Paul instructs the reader “greet one another with a holy kiss” (2 Corinthians 13:12) and even gives particular people to greet in this manner:

Greet Priscilla and Aquila, my co-workers in Christ Jesus. They risked their lives for me. Not only I but all the churches of the Gentiles are grateful to them. Greet also the church that meets at their house. Greet my dear friend Epenetus, who was the first convert to Christ in the province of Asia. Greet Mary, who worked very hard for you. Greet Andronicus and Junia, my fellow Jews who have been in prison with me. They are outstanding among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was. Greet Ampliatus, my dear friend in the Lord. Greet Urbanus, our co-worker in Christ, and my dear friend Stachys. Greet Apelles, whose fidelity to Christ has stood the test. Greet those who belong to the household of Aristobulus. Greet Herodion, my fellow Jew. Greet those in the household of Narcissus who are in the Lord. Greet Tryphena and Tryphosa, those women who work hard in the Lord. Greet my dear friend Persis, another woman who has worked very hard in the Lord. Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord, and his mother, who has been a mother to me, too. Greet Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermes, Patrobas, Hermas and the other brothers and sisters with them. Greet Philologus, Julia, Nereus and his sister, and Olympas and all the Lord’s people who are with them. Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the churches of Christ send greetings. (Romans 16:3‭-‬16 NIV)

I was being facetious in suggesting that it was impossible to carry out the instruction above. I was challenging the holy kiss hardliners to consider the context of the instruction and the intended audience. My own thoughts at the time being that this practice was more common to the culture then, that it had become archaic, and that a holy handshake would get the job done in our own time.

The concern of those questioning the need to carry out the salutation as instruction for all time was that men giving other men a big smooch would be misunderstood by those not familiar with the practice. So my joke that we can’t kiss dead people was to drive home that point, we can’t greet Mary Andronicus or Junia and the others listed in the letter as those to greet, so why should we take any of it as an instruction for us?

The Joke Was On Me

One of the strangest things for a person coming into the Orthodox Christian culture is the practice of kissing icons. For whatever reason, this practice of veneration is often misconstrued as worship and dismissed on those grounds. However, that is a silly notion, if it is idolatry to kiss an image then why is it not also idol worship to kiss your spouse?

Over the time I was still mulling over the Orthodox practice of kissing icons, my grandma passed away surrounded by family and my grandpa—her loyal companion and loving husband of sixty years.

My grandpa’s grieving was intense, as one would expect, and there is no person on this earth who could ever replace his beloved Mildred.

It was then that I found out about a curious little ritual he would perform each morning and evening. He would take the image of his late wife in his hands, kiss it seven times, and put it down again. Why? Well, in what other way do you suggest that he honor the woman who gave birth to his seven children, who faithfully cooked his meals up until dementia stole her ability to do that, and professed her deep love for him to the very end even as her mind slipped away?

Suddenly my flippancy about kissing dead people lost its humor.

My grandpa is not worshipping the image. He is not confusing the image with his reposed wife either. But he was showing his love for her in the most intimate way available to him. Kissing her image was symbolic of something for him, things he probably couldn’t even put into words to explain, and it would be silly to question the appropriateness of his action.

For me, this ritual of grandpa kissing grandma’s picture put the Orthodox practice of veneration of icons in a whole new light. My grandpa isn’t Orthodox, he is a Mennonite, and yet intuitively he arrived at the same place they do concerning the beloved who have departed this life for the next. Not only that, but he made it completely possible for us to carry out the salutation of St Paul’s letters and greet even those he listed with a holy kiss.

The Church Both Militant and Triumphant

As a Protestant-born, I was firmly stuck in the here and now, the church was those alive today and those who came before were basically irrelevant other than the writings they left behind. That is typical of our generation. I mean, we have smartphones and Instagram, what could previous generations have that is relevant to us today?

But the Orthodox perspective is different. They see a clear continuity from the early church to the present and they also see those who have gone on before us as participants in the worship service. They believe that the dead in Christ are still spiritually alive in him and they make up the “great cloud of witnesses” that we read in chapter 12 of the book of Hebrews.

The Orthodox see their corporate worship, which is centered on Communion, as the link between temporal and eternal, a place where heaven and earth come together, rather than merely a commemorative meeting of religious folks. In other words, as Jesus said, “where two or three gather in my name, I am there with them,” (Matthew 18:20 NIV) there is an emergent property of our coming together, that being the presence of Christ and the “cloud of witnesses” we read about in Scripture.

There is a beautiful description of the two parts of the church congregation. The Orthodox refer to those who have completed their race as being “the church triumphant” and use “church militant” in reference to those still in the fight. They acknowledge and greet both. When the Orthodox kiss an icon they are merely saying hello to the triumphant who join us in worship. It is a true act of faith. If we do not believe that those who have gone on before can join us in our worship, then why go to church at all?

When is the last time you’ve consulted the church fathers when trying to interpret a passage of Scripture?

It is a shame that I did not understand the significance and need for a church that extends beyond the current generation. This notion that we do not need the church triumphant, that their contribution has passed, makes us weak and vulnerable. We need to cultivate the connection between our current practice, the Scripture and other tradition we have received through the church, and those who have gone on before us. We may not see them with our physical eyes, but that does not mean that they are not present, relevant or worth our time.

The wonderful thing about icons is that they are visual reminders that we are not alone in our worship. Sure, like my grandma’s picture isn’t my grandma, the objects we kiss are not the actual person, but it does encourage mindfulness about the true meaning of being part of the body of Christ.

The Biblical Basis For Sacred Objects and Icons

As with many Christian practices, from Sunday school to Christmas celebration, even Dank Kingdom Christian Memes, there is nothing in the canon of Scripture that specifically instructs us to venerate icons with a kiss. That said, there is definitely a Biblical basis for images in areas used for worship and even Christian purpose for relics and other objects.

It seems, actually, that Orthodoxy encourages more Biblical literacy (through practice) than the alternative of Protestantism. In questioning various Orthodox practices I was always led directly back to Scripture. From incense being referenced in the context of prayer, to art and images being used in Israelite worship, there is plenty of support for the Orthodox understanding of Christian practice.

For example, the idea of relics, like the bones of various saints, having significance originates in Scripture:

Once while some Israelites were burying a man, suddenly they saw a band of raiders; so they threw the man’s body into Elisha’s tomb. When the body touched Elisha’s bones, the man came to life and stood up on his feet. (2 Kings 13:21 NIV)

Can you imagine that?

Merely touching the bones of a prophet could bring a dead man back to life!

But, lest a skeptic might say that was Old Testament, we also have this from the book of Acts:

God did extraordinary miracles through Paul, so that even handkerchiefs and aprons that had touched him were taken to the sick, and their illnesses were cured and the evil spirits left them. (Acts 19:11,12 NIV)

The Protestant aversion to the idea that objects have significance and can be sacred is not rooted in Scripture. The Bible shows very clearly that things in the physical world can be given supernatural powers, that touching bones could bring a person back to life or some cloth merely touched by an apostle could heal the sick and exorcise their demons. That is not idolatry, it is both Biblical and Christian.

Furthermore, this idea that every Christian practice must come directly from the Bible, a book canonized by the church via councils, is absurd. Those who trust the institution of the church to give them Scripture are trying to have it both ways when they undermine the authority of the church elsewhere, you can’t say that the Bible is completely reliable without also acknowledging the authority of the very institution that decided what books would be included in the Biblical canon.

The Arrogance of Assuming Your Own Normal Is Normal

What the objection to kissing icons really comes down to is arrogance and an assumption that what is normal for me is the ultimate standard of right or wrong practice in the Christian context. Those who dismiss or mock a practice simply because it is foreign to them show an amazing lack of self-awareness.

Maybe it isn’t normal anymore to greet each other with a kiss? Maybe the idea of objects having healing powers seems foreign, strange, ridiculous or inappropriate from your own perspective? But who are you and what makes your own opinion the center of the universe? All of Christianity, from baptism to concepts of eternity in paradise, can be dismissed on the basis of someone’s normal. Is it really that hard to accept a symbolic greeting of the reposed, those alive in Christ, for someone who believes that God himself became flesh in the person of Jesus?

Icons represent a physical connection to the spiritual realm, the Orthodox do not worship them anymore than those in the Bible healed by sacred objects committed a sin of idolatry, and it is as much an established tradition of Christians as the canon of Scriptural is. A church council decided what was normal for inclusion in the Bible and, likewise, a church council decided that the veneration of icons is appropriate and normal Christian behavior.

The church does not revolve around your own personal ideas, you as an individual are not an authority over the church, and if you dismiss what you do not understand simply because you do not understand it, then the joke is on you.

Deal with it!

Mennonite Ordinances and Anabaptist Disregard for Sacraments

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A good friend of mine, a Mennonite, was quite upset with a particular social media provocateur (who self-identifies as marginally Mennonite) and his attack on Holy Communion—which he described as being “basically symbolic cannibalism” and “a man-made ritual” that “can be left on the shelf with no deleterious consequences.”

Then he goes on to say:

“I urge all liberal-minded Mennonites to just stop eating Jesus’s flesh and drinking his blood. It holds no salvific power. There’s nothing magical or mystical about it. Nor does it earn brownie points with God. Further, it’s a major turn-off to people outside the church bubble (for those who care about how the church is perceived by outsiders).”

Most Mennonites, even the mainstream ‘liberal’ types, would reject this as profane and ignorant babble. It is an attack on the very foundation of Christian practice and makes me question if this individual is truly concerned with winning people “outside the church bubble” or the future of the church. His religious ideology, having myself sampled some of his writing, seems to be: Nothing is sacred.

What is interesting about this individual is their claim to be an Anabaptist radical. This claim might rankle conservative Mennonites (especially those who see themselves as the true owners of Anabaptist identity) and yet these words spoken against sacraments are truly quite consistent with the words of a feisty Dutch Anabaptist widow (recorded in Martyr’s Mirror) in response to a question about Holy Unction. This is what she said: “Oil is good for salad, or to oil your shoes with.”

I guess nobody told her “Christ” means anointed one?

Whatever the case, most modern Mennonites do not take such a cavalier attitude towards the sacred and are a bit more Orthodox than their radical roots. In fact, Mennonites more formally reintroduced sacraments (albeit in different description) by their acceptance of the “seven ordinances” listed by Daniel Kauffman 125 years ago: Baptism with water, Communion, Footwashing, Prayer Head-Veiling for the Women, greeting with the Holy Kiss, anointing with Oil for the Recovering of the Sick and Marriage.

Kauffman’s ordinances represent a reversal of the Anabaptist woman’s hubris. He obviously saw the use of oil beyond the application to shoes and salads. But, through his use of different language and by his additions and subtractions (Women’s Head-Veils, Holy Kiss, Footwashing gave in place of Chrismation, Confession, Ordination) from the original listing of seven sacraments, he still maintained a deliberate distance from the established tradition of the Church.

What are sacraments?

Sacraments, simply put, are the “sacred mysteries” of the church. It is also important to note that Orthodox Christians, while they do recognize the seven sacraments listed by Roman Catholic, do not believe the sacraments are limited to just the seven listed and see everything the church does as a sacramental, according to to the OCA website: “All of life becomes a sacrament in Christ who fills life itself with the Spirit of God.”

“Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them.” (John 6:56 NIV)

Of the sacraments, Communion (called the “Holy Eucharist” (the word ‘eucharist” means thanksgiving) is the “sacrament of sacraments” for Orthodox Christians and the center of Church life.

Holy Eucharist is simply taking Jesus at his word:

And [Jesus] took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you. (Luke 22:19-20 NIV)

Jesus clearly calls the bread his body and describes the cup as being the “new covenant” in his blood.

It is interesting that many Protestant fundamentalists—who pride themselves in being Biblical literalists, and modern self-identifying Anabaptists—who insist that they take Jesus at his word more than others do, come to passages like that above, then suddenly start to hem-and-haw and try to explain around what is plainly said.

Perhaps their discomfort is the same as is described in the following account:

Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”

“Sir,” they said, “always give us this bread.”

Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. But as I told you, you have seen me and still you do not believe. All those the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away. For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all those he has given me, but raise them up at the last day. For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.”

At this the Jews there began to grumble about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” They said, “Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I came down from heaven’?”

“Stop grumbling among yourselves,” Jesus answered. “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them, and I will raise them up at the last day. It is written in the Prophets: ‘They will all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard the Father and learned from him comes to me. No one has seen the Father except the one who is from God; only he has seen the Father. Very truly I tell you, the one who believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which anyone may eat and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.

Then the Jews began to argue sharply among themselves, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”

Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your ancestors ate manna and died, but whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.” He said this while teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum.

On hearing it, many of his disciples said, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?”

Aware that his disciples were grumbling about this, Jesus said to them, “Does this offend you? Then what if you see the Son of Man ascend to where he was before! The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you—they are full of the Spirit and life. Yet there are some of you who do not believe.” For Jesus had known from the beginning which of them did not believe and who would betray him. He went on to say, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled them.”

From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him. (John 6:32-66)

With this, Jesus went from being an interesting teacher to being some kind of mystical weirdo and possible lunatic. It is also little wonder that pagans brought accusations of child sacrifice and cannibalism against early Christians. (Sorry, Charlie, it takes no creativity whatsoever to agree with sacrilege that dates the 2nd century AD and it is not a big surprise if this “hard teaching” continues to turn people back from outside the Christian bubble.) Not everyone can believe this claim then nor do all believe now. But that is what Jesus said and is what the faithful have taught for two millennia. The bread and wine encapsulate the sacred mystery of human relationship with the life-giving Spirit and this practice of Holy Communion is a necessary part of the Church together being the incarnation of Christ.

Human knowledge and personal ideals cloud spiritual discernment.

The presumption of absolute knowledge, which is the cardinal sin of the rational spirit, is therefore prima facie equivalent to rejection of the hero—to rejection of Christ, of the Word of God, of the (divine) process that mediates between order and chaos. (“Maps of Meaning,” Jordan B. Peterson)

Unbelief takes many forms. Not everyone leaves the fold when faced with something that seems irrational to them. We know Judas remained on the margins despite his disillusionment with Jesus and his doubts eventually led to betrayal. We also know Peter’s faith seemed primarily a delusion about an earthly kingdom where he would be at the side of an important political leader and the unwillingness of Peter to accept the ultimate sacrifice (and of his personal ideals) led to denial and a sharp rebuke from Jesus:

From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life. Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!” Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns. (Matthew 16:21‭-‬23 NIV)

The suffering and death of Jesus was something Peter couldn’t reconcile with his own ideals. It was a horrible ending to his hopes that would need to be fiercely resisted. Peter treats Jesus like I would a friend who is depressed and needed a pep-talk. Unwittingly he used the same reasoning that had tempted Jesus in the wilderness. Jesus faced a hard choice, he needed to be courageous, focused on his mission, and face death head-on—but Peter was encouraging him to take the easy way out in the same way Satan did earlier.

Peter was guided by his personal ideals and Judas by his human rationality—both men failed to understand the divine mystery unfolding before them—both presumed incorrectly and neglected possibilities that went outside of their own established knowledge.

The whole Gospel narrative is centered on Jesus dying on the cross and conquering death. From a rational standpoint, why couldn’t God just have forgiven our sins and granted us eternal life without sending an icon of himself in the person of Jesus? Surely God can identify with his creation without having to go through a physical manifestation for himself, right?

Was it symbolic?

Was it necessary for our salvation?

Perhaps both and more.

But, whatever the case, we don’t know why there needed to be an “image of God” (Colossians 1:15) or why our salvation is tied to Jesus having the experience of a very literal physical death. All we know is that this going through the motions was important to Jesus and therefore we should not be surprised when our faith requires our participation in rituals that we do not understand. We go through the motions of Baptism and Communion, not because of anything we can prove through human logic and reasoning, but simply because we believe in Jesus and accept a reality bigger than ourselves.

Saying something is *only* symbolic undermines the reason for doing it. One way to rationalize around sacraments is to divide the sacred from the symbol. That is to say, some attack the idea of sacraments by declaring the ritual part of them to be “only symbolic” and deny any actual value in the going through the motions. If that were true, then we should take the advice of provocateur and cease all activities that might make outsiders feel uncomfortable. I mean, if a practice is only symbolic and our ultimate goal is to win converts, why not?

Everything in our life can be deconstructed or explained away as meaningless. Why go to work when everything we accomplish will eventually vanish into dust? Why stay faithful to marriage knowing that sooner or later the end will come and the commitment is forgotten? All of the joy and purpose a person finds in life, depending on perspective, can be reduced to electrochemical activity in the brain and lacking in any true substance beyond that. Reason and logic are useful in debates, but they do not provide an antidote for feelings about the futility of the human experience nor answer the question of why to live.

To say a sacrament is only a symbol is like saying a baby is only a colony of cells or math is just numbers and nothing more. Our lack of understanding the significance of something doesn’t make it any less necessary, valuable or sacred—it only makes us ignorant and unwilling to transcend our own knowledge. From a rational perspective, does being dunked or drizzled in water do anything besides make someone different degrees of wet? Why bother to Baptize, take Communion or do anything if it is only symbolic? If salvation is not at stake and if there is no spiritual healing or real benefit, why even bother to go through the motions?

In Scripture, healing is often tied to physical objects and absurd actions. It is one of those curious patterns throughout the books of the Bible. People are saved from ailments and forgiven by God through various rituals. Like that time when the Israelites were complaining about basically everything, then started to get bitten by venomous snakes, and begged for help:

The Lord said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived. (Numbers 21:8‭-‬9 NIV)

There is also the story of Namaan, in 2 Kings 5:1-19, who had leprosy and to be healed he was told to do something that makes no sense:

Elisha sent a messenger to say to him, “Go, wash yourself seven times in the Jordan, and your flesh will be restored and you will be cleansed.” But Naaman went away angry and said, “I thought that he would surely come out to me and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, wave his hand over the spot and cure me of my leprosy. Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Couldn’t I wash in them and be cleansed?” So he turned and went off in a rage. Naaman’s servants went to him and said, “My father, if the prophet had told you to do some great thing, would you not have done it? How much more, then, when he tells you, ‘Wash and be cleansed’!” So he went down and dipped himself in the Jordan seven times, as the man of God had told him, and his flesh was restored and became clean like that of a young boy. (2 Kings 5:10‭-‬14 NIV)

Both of those Old Testament cases required “skin in the game” and tied an individual’s healing or salvation to their performing a specific act. There is no rational explanation as to why someone would be healed of leprosy by dipping in a particular river nor why looking at a brass object would cure a person of anything and yet that is what we read.

So what about the New Testament?

This same pattern of healing through odd and seemingly unrelated acts continues. We read how Jesus mixed spit with dirt to heal someone’s blindness (John 9) and how a woman’s touching of his garment healed her:

Just then a woman who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years came up behind him and touched the edge of his cloak. She said to herself, “If I only touch his cloak, I will be healed.” Jesus turned and saw her. “Take heart, daughter,” he said, “your faith has healed you.” And the woman was healed at that moment. (Matthew 9:20‭-‬22 NIV)

Note: Jesus didn’t tell her she was silly for believing that touching his clothes would heal her or otherwise correct her action. No, she is commended for her faith and immediately healed. And, this pattern of healing through actions—through laying on of hands and involvement of objects—did not end with Jesus either. We read about it in the book of Acts as well:

God did extraordinary miracles through Paul, so that even handkerchiefs and aprons that had touched him were taken to the sick, and their illnesses were cured and the evil spirits left them. (Acts 19:11‭-‬12 NIV)

Perhaps we are more sophisticated than they were and thus can dispense with this kind of sacramentalism?

Truly, if there is no spiritual value to it, why should we even bother going through the motions of Baptism, Communion, etc?

We can try to turn church life into a totally rational experience and do away with all the mystical nonsense. We can re-label sacred mysteries—call them symbols, ordinances, ceremonies, signs or whatever. We can minimalize the sacraments and continue to water down their significance, condition ourselves in a way that will make the keeping of these practices optional, downplay partaking of the body and blood, do it only twice a year—eventually stop attending services altogether because it is irrational.

A church without sacraments is not a church.

The complaint of Protestants and Anabaptists was not completely invalid. Roman Catholicism had blurred the lines between sacrament and their own institutions and systems. Unfortunately, this led to an overreaction that did not always distinguish well between what was corrupted and the sacred mysteries themselves. The end result of this “reformation” has been disastrous disunity and disintegration of the church—which is not a sign of spiritual life.

One thing I’ve noticed as I’ve entered into Orthodoxy is the strong emphasis on church unity and incarnation. The emphasis is on the special spiritual connection between all Christians (past, present, and future) through partaking of the sacred mysteries together. It is, in fact, through sacraments that the church becomes necessary in the life of the individual. Baptism, Communion, Chrismation, Confession, Ordination, anointing with oil and Marriage are things we do together as a church and underscore the need for God, the things he has instituted and each other.

If the only point of sacraments were only to push against our own human rationality (which is often faulty and is always finite) and seek what is greater, then there is great value in them.

Sacraments bring us together, they give us a common identity and point us to truth beyond our own understanding. In the various examples of miraculous healing in Scripture there was often no logical connection between the action taken (or required) and the result. They didn’t know how it worked, they simply had faith, obeyed and were healed. Perhaps the only way to gain spiritual understanding is to let go, to stop depending on our own limited knowledge and start to depend on something that is greater?

Perhaps it is to counter the heresy of Gnosticism, both ancient and modern?

Whatever the case, to try to rationally explain a sacred mystery entirely misses the point. Furthermore, there is no need to separate or distinguish the healing God does in our lives from the sacraments themselves. We know that the thief on the cross was saved just for saying “remember me” and his faith in Jesus. But that doesn’t mean our own faith won’t require us to sell all we have like the rich young ruler or dip in a muddy river like Naaman. It doesn’t mean we can replace sacraments with our mere mental assent to a proposition and be healed or saved from our sins either.

The words of Jesus are useless to those who do not have faith and, likewise, sacraments are of no benefit to those who do not believe in them. The church should welcome all who wish to repent of their sins and participate in the sacred mysteries. But it does not seem at all reasonable or rational for the church to cater to those who do not hope to transcend themselves, their own experience and knowledge.

In the end, one can call sacraments by any other name and still have a church—but a church without sacraments is really only a social club and not a church.

Should the Church Have Rituals and Traditions?

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Of those traditions kept by my conservative Mennonite church, a foot-washing ritual was one of the more notable. It is a practice based on the example of Jesus who washed the feet of the disciples and then instructed them to follow his example:

When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.” (John 13:12-17, NIV)

So, twice a year with Communion, after a sermon about some aspect of the sacrifice Jesus made, after partaking of some bread and grape juice together and then another short reminder of why we were doing the stuff we did, the men would be dismissed to the basement (leaving the women the upstairs to do their symbolic washing) and on the way down we men would pair up with the guy beside us or another guy that we selected for whatever reason.

We would remove our shoes and socks, then proceed to one of the plastic basins arranged in front of folding chairs, then take turns solemnly splashing water on each other’s feet and dabbing them dry again with a towel provided. Once finished with this ritual procedure most would shake hands (those less inhibited would kiss) and engage in awkward small talk or make a comment about keeping their washing partner in prayer over the next few months.

In our time, this act of foot washing is little more than a symbolic act of service. But when Jesus washed the feet of his disciples it was something of practical value to those traveling the dusty roads in sandals and a task typically reserved for the servants. In that context, it was a very significant gesture and represented a whole new approach to leadership. In the Mennonite context, this practice is sometimes nothing more than a ritual and tradition.

Is reinvention of orthodoxy the answer to dead faith?

People often equate ritual and tradition in the church to dead faith. As a result, those disgruntled with dead faith swing in the direction of innovation and spontaneity hoping to find something authentic and real. Unfortunately, while the first generation of those who discard an established tradition often experience the excitement of something new, their children do not get a temporary emotional bump from the change. It should be no surprise when these children continue down the same path and throw out practices that their parents considered to be sacred and essential.

The idiom, “Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater,” (derived from a German proverb “das Kind mit dem Bade ausschütte”) is a warning against destroying something good in our zeal to be rid of what is bad. This saying was first recorded in 1512 and right before Martin Luther touched off a revolt against the established church. It is a phrase, frequently used by Luther himself, perhaps worried people would take what he started too far. It remains a very popular expression with Protestants (including Mennonites) who are trying desperately to retain their own children.

There is much in Scripture about the sins of fathers being transmitted to the next generation (Exodus 34:6-7, Leviticus 26:39, Deuteronomy 5:8-10) and seems to apply to our own circumstances today. Children, through genetics or behavioral patterning, often acquire the strengths of their parents. A parent’s good example can lead their children to good habits. And, in the same manner, children often also inherit the defects, blind-spots, and weaknesses of their parents as well. Children build both on the success and also on the sins and/or shortcomings of the prior generation.

So, it should not be a big surprise that the children of Protestants continue down a path of independence, reinterpretation of Scripture and departure from what was established. Protestantism, with the inordinate focus on one’s own interpretation of Scripture, has led to further division, ever-increasing individualism, and significant loss of Christian character. Many Protestants, following the example of their forefathers, assume that the path to spiritual life is found in throwing off of traditions and rituals—but I believe they are terribly mistaken.

Orthodox tradition and ritual is not at fault for abuses of the institutions of the church…

What is the basis for tradition and ritual in the church?

Many seem to forget that Jesus was a Jew and faithfully kept the Jewish religious tradition. Jesus did speak against those who “let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions” (Mark 7:8, NIV) or in other words those who prioritized religious rituals over love for others.

Yet Jesus did not dismiss ritual and tradition as completely unimportant either. Jesus and early Jewish converts to Christianity (while ranking the substance of faith higher than the religious symbolism) did not totally disregard the traditions that had been established.

To truly love Jesus means to follow his example and keep his commands. This, according to the words of Jesus, is requisite to the indwelling of the Holy Spirit:

If you love me, keep my commands. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever—the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you. Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love them and show myself to them. (John 14:15‭-‬21, NIV)

Many church rituals (like Baptism, Communion and foot washing) are directly from the Gospels and given as instruction to the disciples by Jesus. And, it is in the Gospels that we read that Jesus gave authority to his disciples. He told Peter and the disciples this:

And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. (Matthew 16:18‭-‬19, NIV)

The early church clearly had a hierarchy with real authority and one that built upon the foundation of Jesus Christ. It is the writings of these early church fathers that contain their witness to the life of Jesus and also provide their reader with further divinely-inspired instruction. This is what they said:

So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter. (2 Thessalonians 2:15, NIV)

Scripture didn’t just drop out of the sky written on golden tablets. No, rather it is a collection of inspired writings compiled and later canonized by the authority of a church council. That, the Bible, is the written tradition of the church (or “letter”) and is a source widely accepted as authoritative. However, in Protestant churches, because they reject any authority besides their own, the “spoken word” of church tradition has not been firmly held—it is neglected and forgotten.

The complete disregard for the oral tradition of the church is no different from cutting a chunk out of Scripture. Sure, as a person can refrain from applying the instruction Paul gives in regards to veiling (and not veiling) in 1 Corinthians 11 and still be Christian, these things aren’t necessary to be saved. However, this represents the deterioration of church tradition and a serious problem. At some point, we cannot claim to be following after the example of Jesus and continue to abandon the practices of the church he established.

There is a real loss when the established tradition is tossed in favor of a more ‘contemporary’ program. Moreover, those leaving their religious traditions often continue to benefit from the values it helped to instill in them. Sadly, the full cost is often only felt in subsequent generations who didn’t have the unappreciated benefits of the old tradition—the children raised without tradition have lost the helpful reminders given to their parents and also an important stabilizing tie to the historic church.

What makes tradition and ritual important?

The musical “Fiddler on the Roof” contains the following monologue:

“A fiddler on the roof. Sounds crazy, no? But in our little village of Anatevka, you might say every one of us is a fiddler on the roof, trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking his neck. It isn’t easy. You may ask, why do we stay up here if it’s so dangerous? We stay because Anatevka is our home. And how do we keep our balance? That, I can tell you in a word—tradition!
Because of our traditions, we’ve kept our balance for many, many years. Here in Anatevka we have traditions for everything—how to eat, how to sleep, how to wear clothes. For instance, we always keep our heads covered and always wear a little prayer shawl. This shows our constant devotion to God. You may ask, how did this tradition start? I’ll tell you—I don’t know! But it’s a tradition. Because of our traditions, everyone knows who he is and what God expects him to do.

Tevye’s character is a Jewish father standing at this intersection of religious tradition and compromise in the name of progress. He points to one of the reasons why traditions are formed and that is balance. Traditions and rituals are established to help provide stability and order to our lives.

Rituals also help reduce anxiety and increase confidence even for those who do not believe they are beneficial:

Recent research suggests that rituals may be more rational than they appear. Why? Because even simple rituals can be extremely effective. Rituals performed after experiencing losses – from loved ones to lotteries – do alleviate grief, and rituals performed before high-pressure tasks – like singing in public – do in fact reduce anxiety and increase people’s confidence. What’s more, rituals appear to benefit even people who claim not to believe that rituals work. While anthropologists have documented rituals across cultures, this earlier research has been primarily observational. Recently, a series of investigations by psychologists have revealed intriguing new results demonstrating that rituals can have a causal impact on people’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. (“Why Rituals Work,” Scientific American)

At practice and before games my high school football team went through the same “warm-up” routine. Some of the reason for this was to physically prepare us to prevent injury through stretching and get us warmed up. But the other part, perhaps even the larger and more significant part, is what this ritual did psychologically to calm our nerves and get us mentally prepared. This practice and pre-game ritual made us better individually and also helped our cohesiveness as a team.

Beyond that, it is what Jesus taught and showed by example. Jesus did not entirely do away with his Jewish rituals and traditions. In fact, he added to them, going as far as to give the disciples a template for a simple prayer (given in contrast to the arrogant public prayers of religious elites and “babbling like pagans”) and this “Lord’s prayer” is still practiced—even in Protestant churches. If one understands the value of Baptism and Communion then there should be no argument. Rituals are important to help to pattern, influence and shape our minds.

Traditions provide us with a structure that helps us to navigate our lives. When Paul urges believers to conduct their worship “in a fitting and orderly way” (1 Corinthians 14:40) it is not intended to stifle their freedom or individuality. It is rather to free them from chaos and confusion. We are creatures of habit, we do not do well in a constantly shifting environment, and therefore ritual is even more important in these tumultuous times.

As Tevye said, traditions are reminders of who we are and what God expects from us.

So what to do with dead orthodoxy?

It is fairly obvious that people can continue in religion long after they’ve become spiritually dead. Ritual and tradition, while a benefit to the faithful, cannot preserve faith. Christianity is not as simple as checking the right boxes. As Jesus told the perplexed Nicodemus “you must be born again” and about how the Spirit works like “wind” that “blows wherever pleases” (John 3:1-21) there is a profound mystery in this that goes beyond a religious program and all human rationality.

Protestants, of all people, should know this. Every generation there is a new method that comes along, another “remnant” group shilling their own version of the Gospel, the next author trying to pump the purpose back into Christianity or yet another list of fundamentals, ordinances or doctrines, and all these movements eventually seem to end up in the same place again. Often these re-inventors end up leaving their children even more ignorant of church history and with even less to grasp onto. Some might declare themselves to be the more pure, but they are also void of any tradition with staying power and the proof is in the legacy they leave.

Dead orthodoxy is a result of dead faith. And, in the same manner, that new window dressing won’t help to stabilize a wooden structure weakened by termites, reinventing traditions and rituals will never bring spiritual life back where the church has fallen off its foundation. The foundation of faith is Jesus, his faithful church is constructed upon that foundation—with the traditions it has passed on both in written and spoken form for our benefit—and there is no spiritual life gained in throwing this legacy out.

In fact, it is arrogant to think that we would be better to start from scratch and create our own new orthodoxy rather than draw from the experience and wisdom accumulated over many generations. It is basically to say that we today are better than all those faithful Christians of the past two millennia who kept these traditions and saw fit to pass them on to us.

  • Does the ritual of Baptism ever take away repentance?
  • Can our Communion practice come at the expense of our love for Christ’s body?
  • Should we stop celebrating Christmas and Easter because they aren’t found in the Bible and have been corrupted by American culture?
  • Our ridding ourselves of these established and orthodox Christian practices will not draw us any closer to God.

Yes, the foot-washing tradition practiced at my Mennonite church is worthless if the act does not truly represent our heart. The veiling is often associated with the failures of Mennonite men to lead in the example of Christ and thus the practice of the veil is often discarded by ex-Mennonite women. But both represent cases of throwing out the baby with the bathwater. It is not the ritual of foot washing or the imperfect application of 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 that is at fault. Tradition and ritual should never be blamed for our lack of those things that should come from the heart.

True, faith is not established upon religious rituals or traditions and they certainly can be corrupted. The apostle Paul had to sternly warn early Christians against the abuse of the Lord’s Supper and had to further define the practice in an effort to prevent them from abusing it. But what he didn’t do is throw his hands up and say: “Okay, no more Communion, let’s go back to the basics and just show our love for each other through charitable acts!” No, he urged them to rediscover, not reinvent, and that is what the faithful do.

The solution to dead orthodoxy is not reinvention. The solution to dead orthodoxy is to address the real problem and renew the heart of faith that makes the tradition meaningful and allows the ritual to come alive.

What tradition should we keep?

Every denomination has rituals and traditions. The format of a Mennonite service, for example, intended to be a bit less formal, can be very dry and predictable. The song leader leads some songs, men argue our pet issues in Sunday school class while women sit in stony silence in theirs, the deacon (after pleading for us to think about the meaning of the hymns we just sang) goes through the laundry list of activities and repeat prayer requests, after another song the preacher does his thing as some doze in the pews, and finally, the congregation is dismissed to talk about farming, hunting, sports or politics.

At some point, all-new “movements” end up creating a new ritual and tradition. John and Charles Wesley introduced a radical new “methodical” approach to study and life. This eventually became the “Methodist” denomination. Mennonites take their denominational name from Menno Simons, a Catholic priest that became caught up in the Anabaptist movement, and now are mostly an ethnic church known for a “peace witness” and shoo-fly pies.

Not all religious rituals and traditions are equal in history or value. Sunday school, revival meetings, VBS, “sweetheart banquets,” mother’s day celebrations, Bible schools, and church retreats are part of the Mennonite church calendar, but they are certainly not the equivalent of Ascension day, Lent season, Paschal feast or many of the other long-established orthodox practices that some have abandoned in the past few centuries. I would rather we started to look at what was established early and has worked for many generations than try to create a dumbed-down, less historically grounded version.

The tradition of many Protestant churches has become so watered down there is little left to reinvent besides the Bible. As a result, those seeking an emotional high through change are running out of options and when their current experience isn’t satisfying anymore, some decide to toss the Bible next. That is the progressive approach. That is the approach that confuses their own temporal feelings of pleasure with spiritual gain.

In conclusion…

Faith is not created by ritual and tradition nor can it be increased by discarding them. Spiritual life comes through obedience and is also a mysterious work of God. We aren’t saved through our religious devotion. A person can go through the motions of Baptism, Communion, foot washing or any other orthodox Christian practice without ever having a change of heart.

That said, the truly faithful do benefit from the reminders, the structure, and patterns for behavior that orthodox rituals and traditions provide. In my own experience, it has helped me to worship in a manner that has been established over many generations. To join together with that “cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1) and to worship as Christians did for thousands of years has been a tremendous experience that cannot be duplicated with a new light show and smoke machine.

A person who burns down their house because they don’t like some of the decorations on the walls might be momentarily free. But the enjoyment and empowerment of this newfound simplicity and freedom will soon be a desperate struggle to protect themselves from the elements. And the same goes for those who think they gain through taking an eraser to the rituals, traditions and established orthodoxy of the church. The benefits are fleeting and the cost of trying to restore what was lost is great.

Yes, some necessary structure can be built back in a generation or two after the full loss of the change is felt, but not without slavish effort to restore it and where is the freedom in that?

A life unfettered by any established ritual and historical tradition might seem ideal for the freedom and simplicity that it promises. However, not all is as advertised, the freedom is an illusion and the reality created is often quite complicated. Taking a wrecking ball to an established order often leads to only chaos and more confusion. Worse, it robs the next generation of their religious inheritance and leaves children worse off than their perpetually dissatisfied parents.

Our faith should be founded on Jesus, our religion grounded on the truth of his word, our life lived in obedience to the Spirit, and that means keeping the traditions passed down by his church. Spiritual life is restored through genuine repentance and not by abandoning ritual. Renewed faith comes with our humble obedience and not by reinventing traditions.

Jesus did not discard all rituals and tradition nor should we. There is a place for both in the church. It is a connection that we need now more than ever in the shifting sands of our time. Perhaps it is time for some reflection, rediscovery, and restoration?