Tradition with a capital T and Values with practical value

Mary Magdala Community

Tradition with a capital T and Values with practical value (c)

by Rev. Jim Ryan,

On the way to making his main point in today’s Gospel passage, Jesus speaks of the traditions that the Jews followed in the performance of rituals that were associated with a belief in correctness and purity in applying Faith. These traditions may not be our traditions today but traditions with a small “t” continue so often to be the glue that bonds us, the sharing of experiences that we simply will never forget, the eating of same foods with each cook’s special twist that make it the best, to name only a few of our favorite traditions.

Small “t” traditions recall for us feelings around times and places, feelings and memories about long departed family and loved ones. When I first arrived in eastern Kentucky – a place on earth where traditions are in the thread and cloth of everything (well, still in the late 1970s at least). I noticed the pavilions with benches and tables in the cemeteries that dotted many hillsides. It made sense that they would be used for individual funerals and burials, so many of them being on family homesteads. What changed my entire view of the meaning of these cemeteries was my first experience of Memorial Day in the mountains. At the time some folks still referred to the holiday as Decoration Day, since the holiday pre-dated in the South the later post-civil war Memorial Day. On Decoration Day (now the national holiday of Memorial Day) those pavilions became transformed from funeral to picnic pavilions. Families came early and stayed all day. It was the day to clean the cemeteries, wipe off headstones, spruce up the landscaping. And it was the day to decorate the graves of family members, and I mean really decorate. Flowers, as many as there would be, were not sufficient. Phones (of the imitation variety) would be placed on the grave because Jesus, you know, is calling each one home. Pictures of new babies, new spouses, even recently deceased other relatives all added to the decoration. The day was spent with the children playing, the old and older folks telling stories – palpably bringing the dead back to life. After all, where else would one want to be on that day than in such a lively and remembering space?

This was a day to have “dinner on the ground” meaning in the burial grounds with all the living and the dead. The small “t” traditions do have a way of closing circles, crossing “t”s and dotting “i”s, of assuring us of who we are. As it turns out this tradition is still celebrated in the southern highlands. In 2010 the University of North Carolina Press published a book that detailed the tradition still occurring in 2004-5.

What, though, of Tradition with a capital “T”? The realization of this Tradition would be the quest for meaning, the force that moves one’s convictions, the pull that compels us into the future. This Tradition is, surprisingly enough, about the future not the past. It is the freeing motion that says our heritage and our current life are in dialogue with one another.

This is the Tradition that requires the interplay of the movement of various traditions (and even long-standing capital “T” Tradition) with the movement of the interpreter. The dance of this interplay results in confident steps into the future leaving behind the formerly assured steps. Living Tradition – what goes into a person, as Jesus says – is more a dance than lockstep.

Tradition is a living thing, just as Jesus is the always incarnating Word. We take in the Word of God and struggle with it, chew on it and digest it. In order for the Word of God to be ever new we must also see Tradition as a living reality – also to be struggled over, chewed on and digested.

One reason for the struggle is the variety and plurality in which traditions live. In order for Tradition to live and to thrive an openness to change is required. A Tradition, for example, that can accept the paradox (when things are both/and) of seemingly opposed positions co-existing – now that’s alive. A Tradition that exists as a result of dualism (when things are either/or) fast becomes dead. This is the Tradition that claims to be the whole truth. It is a dead thing that suffers the result of always stating, “You’re either with me or against me.” Tradition that balances “both/and” naturally values inclusion.

We see an example of Tradition that claims the whole truth in the legal theory held by some very outspoken members of the current US Supreme Court. They hold to the theory called “initial intent.” In short, they hold that 21st century laws can only be judged on their constitutionality on the basis of the initial intent of the original founders of our Republic. As if, John Marshall (first Chief Justice of the the Supreme Court) could foresee the meaning of intellectual property beyond basic book publishing; or that 18th century intent could fathom cloning; or believing that 18th century standards for human and civil rights could in any way provide the only full and correct perspectives and interpretations.

I assume that we can see that the same holds in the pursuit of the meaning and application of Tradition among people of faith. The question may be asked, “How is it that those who formalize the institutional arrangements and the application of liturgical correctness and of doctrinal clarity are any more the best interpreters of Jesus’ Word than we who, as we believe, have received the same Holy Spirit as they did?”

Tradition is, as I said above, a matter of receiving the Word, chewing on it, digesting it and living it out. So, what is this Tradition that matters? For us interpreters and dancers it is Eucharist in Community. Community celebrating Eucharist is what matters. The promise of Jesus (and here is his major point of today’s Gospel passage) is that what is given to a person to be chewed upon and digested is the source of faith and action. Our hearing the Word – chewing on it, digesting it – puts us in a dancing mood!

We who must interpret Tradition with a capital “T” see that Eucharist happens within the community of believers. No position, no office, no institutional sanction or approval makes Eucharist happen. When Jesus says, “Take this … eat it,” and “Do this in memory of me,” he speaks to the community. We are the receivers of the gift that make it happen.

In this way, Tradition genuinely and directly compels us to act. It is well known that our values, stemming from such Tradition, become real when we put them into practice. We act upon our values.

For example, what comes out of persons and communities who celebrate Eucharist is the commitment to do the following, just as today’s second reading from James commends to us:

Feed the hungry.

Give drink to the thirsty.

Clothe the naked.

Shelter the homeless.

Visit the sick and the imprisoned.

Ransom the captive.

Give alms to the poor.

Bury the dead.

These “Corporal Works of Mercy” are traditional values that make real this Living Tradition.


Today’s readings: Deuteronomy 4:1-2,6-8; James 1:17-18,21-22,27;

Mark 7:1-8,14-15,21-23



Convey to us, Holy One – Creator, Word, Spirit –

a sense of wholeness, holiness, conviction.

Deepen in us what we have already received:

faith, hope, love.

Inspire in us a response:

happiness, gratitude, mercy.

Challenge us to act:

compassionately, peaceably, mutually.

Be a gift to us, again, in this time and place:

overflowing, without measure, above and beyond.

Form us into the likeness of Jesus

in whose Name we pray.   Amen.


Please share your responses, thoughts, criticisms, and yes, disagreements.

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