“But we’ve always done it this way!”
Do those words make you smile, or cringe? A lot depends upon how you view tradition and memory. (I’ve written in a previous column about “The Power of Memory in the Spiritual Life.”) Tradition may be seen as a putting-into-practice what memory requires of us. Some may view such an act of tradition as a burden. Author Jiddu Krishnamurti warned that, “Tradition becomes our security, and when the mind is secure it is in decay.” But such a view can lend itself to a rootless relativism that corrodes community and erases civilization.
In contrast, composer Gustav Mahler noted, “Tradition is not the worship of ashes but the preservation of fire.” That view of tradition, animated by the desire to hand on the holy fire that memory holds dear, is what is needed as we move from the last week of Advent toward the Solemnity of Christmas.
I think of these things as I am visiting with my family during the holidays. For my very young nieces, they understand that the celebration of Christmas happens more than once, that the celebration arrives predictably and that it is important. As a family, and as Catholics, their parents and I want to teach them both the how and the why of the importance of Christmas. We want to establish in their memory habits of mind, heart and practice that will lead to joy, gratitude and fidelity. In other words, we want to establish in their young souls the patterns of life-giving sacred traditions.
The Catholic tradition of recalling with gratitude and joy the birth of our Savior is interwoven within our family with our own particular customs. Each year we carefully take out of storage the glass Christmas tree ornaments my parents bought when they were first married more than 60 years ago. I am both delighted and saddened as we unpack them — delighted to see their enduring brightness, and saddened to see that their brittleness means that there are fewer surviving ornaments each year. I wonder then about how the faith will be handed on in the future, long after all those glass ornaments are broken, and I myself am just a faded memory even within my own family. Worthy traditions deserve a persevering love, and there can be no greater gift than handing on the faith from one generation to the next. Such an act of tradition, such a gift of handing on holy fire, deserves our best efforts, including carefully planning to ensure the tradition is well passed on and well received.
So yes, I will sit down with my little nieces and talk to them about the ornaments and decorations that are older than I am. I will tell them about the grandmother they never met who made the most amazing cheesecake on Christmas Eve. Above all, I will tell them about Mary and Joseph and Baby Jesus, and shepherds and angels and a star. Please, God, long after I am gone, I want my nieces to be able to tell someone in their care about how each year at this time their uncle told them more and more about how divine love came to us as a child, lived with us as a man, died for us as a savior, and returns in triumph for us as a victorious king. If they do that, that will be proof that they received tradition-as-fire and not tradition-as-ashes.
If we are manic about list-minute shopping, struggle with crowds and calendars, fuss over food and drink, run ourselves ragged in order to “celebrate” a holiday whose meaning we cannot name, find or love — if this is our tradition, then we do our children more harm than good. Worse than that, of course, is that the truly good news of Jesus of Nazareth, Son of God and Son of Mary will not be planted in their hearts. There will be no divine love in our hearts to shine upon their own young hearts. There will be no noble tradition for them to cherish and to look forward to handing on when their time comes. We will have given them less than ashes when their hearts were made for a holy fire. What a terrible poverty that would be!
Thanks be to God we have the season of Advent as a time to stir up memories and hearts and hands and voices, so that we can give to the next generation the gift of rejoicing over that most amazing grace, the Nativity of the Savior. The time remaining between now and the Christmas Season is brief and precious. Let’s seek in prayer the faith, hope and love needed to plant in a young heart the seed of a tradition worthy of the Christ of Christmas.
When I write next, I will reflect on the power of Christmas reaching beyond Christmas Day. Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.
Father Robert McTeigue, SJ, is a member of the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus. A professor of philosophy and theology, he has long experience in spiritual direction, retreat ministry and religious formation. He teaches philosophy at Ave Maria University in Ave Maria, FL, and is known for his classes in both rhetoric and medical ethics.