It was a time when evil had found its way into positions of power and there was confusion, misunderstanding and all manner of speculation about the right way to think and live. The community was becoming more polarized by the day. And some argued vehemently that what was needed was to hold fast to tradition.
No I am not speaking of right now. In fact this was the context for the 2 letter to the community in Thessalonica.
By this time their Master teacher Jesus of Nazareth is long gone and most scholars believe that by this point the Apostle Paul was gone too. So this letter was likely crafted by one of Paul’s students. And not unlike other parts of the Christian scriptures, this writing is infused with puzzling perspectives and a theological view in which the Divine will at some point seek vengeance.
But I love that this weird letter was included and preserved in the biblical canon because it gives us a glimpse of the early church struggling with something important. They were beginning to wrestle with what it is that binds them together. Remember it’s not until 325 in Nicaea that a creed is crafted, which meant they were asking: what does it mean to be us? What does it mean to belong to this community? What must we have in common in thought and deed?
As Abraham Smith writes, this text presents this essential underlying question: “How can the assembly control what may be deemed errant thought or irresponsible behavior in a postapostolic period?”
In other words with the teachers gone, where should they turn for what to believe? For what to do? And who decides what is in and what is out? In a moment when Satan had found its way into positions of power and there was confusion, miscommunication and all manner of conjecture about the right way, what are they to think?
In Thessalonica, they were fighting and in fear, worrying and wrangling because some of them thought Jesus was going to come back soon, like any day, at any moment, to function as a judge. Scholars believe they could have been referencing the Book of Mark where we read that, “There will be suffering, such as has not been from the beginning of the creation that God created until now…Then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds.” Mark 13:19, 26
So in 2 Thessalonians, the writer seems desperate and emphatic that the faithful should not get drawn into bad theology, “we beg you brothers and sisters, not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by spirit or by word or by letter, to the effect that the day of the Lord is already here…so then brothers and sisters stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by our letter…”
As if to say, brothers and sisters, don’t believe everything you think you know. Don’t believe what you have heard. Instead remember what you were told. Stand firm. Hold fast to the traditions!
There’s a story told about an elderly lay brother at a Benedictine Monastery after the repeal of the law requiring that the daily office be recited in Latin. The brother did not know much Latin but he been chanting the Psalms in Latin since he was a novice. And now he was beginning to say them in English. As the community came to Psalm 137, it closes with the verse, “Beatus, qui tenebit et allidet parvulous tuos ad petram!” which translates “Happy shall be he who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!” When the man realized what he had been asking God to do all those years, he was horrified.
As theologian and historian Jaroslav Pelikan points out, a critical historical study of tradition “can often lead to rejection and it will undoubtedly continue to do so; for even if you can’t go home again…, a mature critical rediscovery of the past, will set you free from supposing that you do have to go home again.” 1
The root of the word tradition is, tradere "deliver, hand over" "surrender, a handing down, a giving up."
So even though tradition is often presented as the unchanging truth of the past, maybe holding fast to tradition isn’t resisting questions and change, maybe it is being willing to let old patterns and old ways of thinking die when it’s time.
Perhaps holding fast to our traditions is surrendering to the new breaking through, letting stories that suffocate die, letting rituals that don’t give life move on, letting belief systems that harm unravel, letting words that build worlds we don’t want remain unspoken and unsung. When all that doesn’t serve falls away, what remains is what matters, what gives life.
Tradere "deliver, hand over" "surrender, giving up."
I wonder if as people of faith holding fast to tradition is more about what we are called to hand down than what we are asked to hang onto?
You heard the wisdom from Jaroslav Pelikan who wrote, “Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.”
Much of Christian expression is not traditional, but traditionalist, repeating some of the very patterns and paradigms Jesus aimed to undo. Instead we are called to hold fast to tradition, which means we are called to cultivate a living faith right here and now, we are summoned to notice what nourishes human hearts in this time. This also means that what gave life to one generation, might be the compost for what will give life to the next. If we do not surrender and move over when the Universe beckons, we might find we are holding fast to something that is lifeless, leaving us little to hand off to the next generation.
Tradere "deliver, hand over" "surrender, giving up."
In "After Strange Gods" T.S. Eliot wrote, “Tradition is not solely, or even primarily, the maintenance of certain dogmatic beliefs; these beliefs have come to take their living form in the course of the formation of a tradition. What I mean by tradition involves all those habitual actions, habits and customs, from the most significant religious rite to our conventional way of greeting a stranger, which represent the blood kinship of 'the same people living in the same place'. ... We become conscious of these items, or conscious of their importance, usually only after they have begun to fall into desuetude, as we are aware of the leaves of a tree when the autumn wind begins to blow them off--when they have separately ceased to be vital. Energy may be wasted at that point in a frantic endeavor to collect the leaves as they fall and gum them onto the branches: but the sound tree will put forth new leaves, and the dry tree should be put to the axe.” 2
So in a time when evil has found its way into positions of power and there is confusion, misunderstanding and all manner of speculation about the right way to think and live, with our community becoming more polarized by the day and arguing vehemently that what is needed is to hold fast to tradition. Let us not forget what that really means. It isn’t simply repeating the patterns and paradigms of the past- rather that is more like wasting energy in a frantic endeavor to collect the leaves as they fall.
Beloved of God, I “beg you not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that were taught by us” and here is how: See what gives life here and now. Don’t worry about the fallen leaves, instead tend to the sound tree that emerges. Surrender to see the new that is always breaking through… Hold fast to tradition, but don’t hold on, instead let go! May it be so. Amen.
1 The Vindication of Tradition by Jaroslav Pelikan. Yale University Press, 1984. P. 23-24
2 An essay adapted from a speech given by Eliot at the University of Virginia in 1933. He discusses art, morality, and his contemporaries.