This last week, I celebrated Saint Nicholas day at the home of Eric and Jennifer. We go back almost twenty years and have shared in each other's faith journeys.
The gathering featured good cookies, plenty of candles, and a hearty dose of Christmas carol singing. Eric and Jennifer instituted the Saint Nicholas remembrance as a way of keeping old traditions and rituals intact. In my own childhood, we put up our Christmas stockings on December 5, and Saint Nick filled them during the wee hours of the following morning. My mom sought to keep that tradition alive.
The Bible says this:
Jacob left Beersheba and went toward Haran. And he came to a certain place and stayed there that night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place to sleep. And he dreamed, and behold, there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven. And behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it! And behold, the LORD stood above it and said, "I am the LORD, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac. The land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring. Your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south, and in you and your offspring shall all the families of the earth be blessed. Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land. For I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you." Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, "Surely the LORD is in this place, and I did not know it." And he was afraid and said, "How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven." So early in the morning Jacob took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. He called the name of that place Bethel, but the name of the city was Luz at the first. Then Jacob made a vow, saying, "If God will be with me and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father's house in peace, then the LORD shall be my God, and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God's house. And of all that you give me I will give a full tenth to you."
—Genesis 28:10-22 ESV
And [God] said, 'Lift up your eyes and see, all the goats that mate with the flock are striped, spotted, and mottled, for I have seen all that Laban is doing to you. I am the God of Bethel, where you anointed a pillar and made a vow to me. Now arise, go out from this land and return to the land of your kindred.'"
—Genesis 31:12-13 ESV
And later still…
Now Moses and the elders of Israel commanded the people, saying, "Keep the whole commandment that I command you today. And on the day you cross over the Jordan to the land that the LORD your God is giving you, you shall set up large stones and plaster them with plaster. And you shall write on them all the words of this law, when you cross over to enter the land that the LORD your God is giving you, a land flowing with milk and honey, as the LORD, the God of your fathers, has promised you. And when you have crossed over the Jordan, you shall set up these stones, concerning which I command you today, on Mount Ebal, and you shall plaster them with plaster.
—Deuteronomy 27:1-4 ESV
I don't understand Evangelicalism's obsession with wiping out the past. In many parts of the American Church today, a flagrant disregard for what and who has come before us dominates all expression toward God. It's as if today's Christians must live in a self-imposed vacuum. We are told by the more "learned" to build no Bethels. Soon, forgetfulness washes over us like a dulling fog.
Part of this unhealthy contempt for the past springs from mistaken notions about the New Testament Church. Some sectors of the American Church believe that all practices of the Old Testament ceased at the empty tomb. But that notion casts doubt on the immutability of God and the essence of how we experience Him.
Yes, the Holy Spirit now dwells inside us, but this does not do away with remembrances. God does not want us to forget what He has done. The healthy expression of Christianity in today's world should still erect remembrances, as Jacob did, when encountering the living God. When God set the rainbow in the sky, it formed a remembrance—not only to us but to God as well—of God's promises. I don't see that the indwelling of the Holy Spirit erased rainbows from the skies. Remembrances of the past matter.
The Saint Nicholas gathering is a remembrance, the kindling of a ritual designed to remember the generosity of a man who gave away his money so that three poor sisters would have dowries and not wind up in prostitution. Do you know the story? If not, then it only goes to show how poor we American Christians have become in our crazed effort to establish ourselves as the pinnacle of historical Christendom.
When I moved out of the Lutheran Church of my youth into full-fledged Evangelical "superiority," I looked down on rituals and observances as mere icing on an already tasty cake. Who needs an advent wreath at Christmastime? Why read the same Bible passages yearly on the Sundays leading up to Christmas? Why have rites of passage for our youth? Why do anything that smacks of ritual?
"Only take care, and keep your soul diligently, lest you forget the things that your eyes have seen, and lest they depart from your heart all the days of your life. Make them known to your children and your children's children– how on the day that you stood before the LORD your God at Horeb, the LORD said to me, 'Gather the people to me, that I may let them hear my words, so that they may learn to fear me all the days that they live on the earth, and that they may teach their children so.'
—Deuteronomy 4:9-10 ESV
One of the curious artifacts of the Saint Nicholas party concerned the children. They sang "Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer" with unusual gusto, but stumbled through the old carols of their parents' youth. Those kids only know an Evangelicalsim devoid of rituals, their lives lacking what I experienced as normative in my childhood. Children grow up without rituals that root them to all of Christendom before them. Today's Evangelical children float in a secularized sea, cast there by well-meaning Christian leaders who employ "regulations" that denounce rituals or scry pointless contemporary "alternatives" to tradition. Is it any wonder that our children reach age eighteen and have no roots to keep them from being torn away from the Faith? How easy is it to depart from God when the experience of God one's been fed has been solely intellectual, tradition relegated to weepy-eyed emotionalism by people who rarely weep!
And it's not only churches that adhere to modern worship music that suffer from this. Some that perpetuate the old carols unwittingly toss aside others rituals and remembrances. Catechism—gone. Studying the history of Christianity after the deaths of the apostles—gone. Gone too are the sights, sounds, and smells of traditional, historic Christianity: incense, candles, organ music, and stained glass.
Fluff? Hardly. All those things root us. They create Bethels that call to mind history and help us remember the eternal and perpetually valuable in our lives. They mark an experience of God that persists through generations. Unfortunately, Evangelicalism's righteous assault on all thing ritualistic has turned us into shallow people unfamiliar with the sacramental, yet we call this "progress" and "spiritual maturity."
What will our children call it?
We have every opportunity in the world to make our experiences of God like Jacob's. Each family can preserve its own traditions recalling what God has done and is still doing in the lives of His people. So can each church. I'm glad that Eric and Jennifer saw fit to call us all together every year on the Feast Day of Saint Nichololas in order to prepare our hearts for the coming King of Kings. I'm even more happy for our children. How much better that our preparation for Christmas begins by remembering someone whose heart lay with the poor and downtrodden, just as our Savior's was.
Let us never forget the Lord, even in the seemingly inconsequential. Because even the small things may have lasting effects.