December has arrived, and with it the full onslaught of Christmas preparations. Our house is decorated; now I’m turning my attention to the holiday baking, gift-buying, and end-of-the-year and holiday events. Here in Australia, I’m soberly grateful that we are moving into a “COVID-normal” summer. Still, things are not the same as previous years—and I know that is even more true for many others around the world. Longing and lament fill my news feeds as people react to the many cancellations and changes to the way they prepare and celebrate this year.
This strange holiday season is revealing the significance of our traditions. As creatures of body and soul, we do not give up our physical habits and postures easily. There’s a pull to dismiss these things as less spiritual, and to focus on the heart. It’s easy to pit the inward against the outward, and to say that as long as our spirits are ready, the bodily and physical part doesn’t matter too much. But this is a spirituality foreign to the Scriptures. We are body and soul together, and the incarnation and the resurrection together affirm the goodness and significance of our bodies to our faith. The habits and postures that we practice in our bodies either help or hinder our life in Christ. As much as we must pay attention to our hearts, cultivating spirits of peace, attentive longing, and eager waiting, we can’t simply give up embodied traditions and be unaffected.
Tradition tethers us. Whether it’s always buying a real Christmas tree, or using the same Advent calendar or devotional every year, or enjoying the same foods, traditions remind us where we have come from, and what people and cultures have shaped us, making us who we are. Traditions place us in a larger story, a more cohesive and comprehensive narrative than any single individual’s. Through the practice of traditions, we declare that even though we may be isolated from loved ones, we are not cut off from their love or influence.
As a cross-cultural worker, I’m filled with gratitude for the grounding that tradition brings. Beyond fading memories, I have the ability to keep ties with home through simple things: baking my grandmother’s nut roll. Decorating the Christmas tree. The smells and tastes, textures, sounds, and sights of traditions help us to reach back into the past to enliven and enrich the present, and to remind us that even if we are living in the farthest corners of the earth, we did not get here by ourselves or for ourselves.
Yet as a cross-cultural worker, traditions can be difficult to navigate. To uproot oneself from a particular culture with all of its related traditions is one of the many renunciations of cross-cultural life. Sometimes it’s because a tradition — like hanging homemade paper snowflakes in the front windows — simply doesn’t fit the climate that I’ve moved to. Sometimes it’s because the tradition would be misinterpreted or out of place in my host culture. Living faithfully in a foreign land requires both attentiveness to what traditions are fitting for the present, and a willingness to part with my traditions if necessary.
Parting with tradition is reverberating around the globe this year in the lives of more than cross-cultural workers. For some, the response might simply be a shrug—indifference, apathy towards what is lost. For others, the response might be a desperate death-grip—refusal to give up, insistence that things stay the same.
Frankly, giving up tradition can sometimes seem a little like death. When a tradition has lodged itself in your bones, so that your very self feels tied to it, letting go of a tradition can feel like letting go of part of yourself. And when those traditions tie us to the people we love, letting go of tradition can feel like letting go of them—one more loss among many.
I wonder if this is how the first Jewish Christians felt, as they heard Paul apply the Gospel to their lives. No more circumcision? No more dietary laws? How do you begin to identify yourself without the traditions you have always practiced? Paul writes to the Galatians, a church struggling between the traditions of the Judaizers and their new life in Christ, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (3:28). Paul declares that the Gospel ignores any social or cultural hierarchies, as all receive salvation in the same gracious way. In Christ, identities of Jew, Greek, or any other culture become secondary to one’s identity in Christ. This reality allows us to hold our traditions lightly, as we recognize that as much as we are shaped and nurtured by our traditions, our primary identity is in Christ.
Even so, the Gospel does not disregard or dismiss culture as insignificant: in the apostle John’s vision of the new heavens and the new earth, he sees “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” (Rev. 7:9). In God’s good providence, he has blessed us with the richness of diverse cultures and traditions. The cross-cultural life gives opportunities to be shaped and taught by other traditions, and to open our lives to new habits and postures that help us know and love the God whose Spirit graciously works even in the farthest corners of the earth.
This God is the one who binds up the brokenhearted, and promises comfort for those who mourn. Whether we experience loss or abundance of traditions as we prepare for and celebrate the holidays this year, we can depend on him to be Immanuel.
What traditions have shaped and nurtured you? What traditions have you had to hold lightly, or give up in cross-cultural life, or in this unusual year?