Nothing is more ridiculous than the traditions of the Church. If you’re surprised to read that from a Christian source, don’t be. We know best!
Churches have traditions because they like old things. Old things connect us to the past, where modern people find answers for the future. Traditions are also, to borrow a term from literary criticism, socially constructed. Yet we sometimes act as if they came down to us from a Platonic realm of Forms.
The King James Bible and Book of Common Prayer makes miserable offenders of us all. Linguists look down their noses at us for our vain superstition; we treat the King’s English as if it cast some spell (heathen magick, perhaps?) and transported us to another world. Even “Thou” was an informal pronoun, but we ignorant fanatics seem to think the word is not formal, but holy.
Of course, people swore as much in the 17th century as they do now, and with greater creativity; just ask Shakespeare. Even his bawdiest comedies are treated as high art. Audiences that regard themselves as sophisticated are awestruck when they should be all like, ROFL OMG LOL! 😉 All the world’s a stage, and men and women merely players. After all, linguists are all like, Truth may not be relative, but language is. Believe what you want, but can’t you do so for the right reasons?
Even the vestments of the clergy are just the residue of antiquity. A bishop’s crozier reminds us that he is, like Christ, a shepherd to his flock (that’s us). It was once an everyday walking-stick, and still actually serves that purpose in the Eastern Church. His miter, the hat with the points front and back, also originated in practical gear. The two points of the miter are now said to represent the Old and New Testaments of the Bible.
Some churches still have red doors. When asked, a dozen churchgoers can come up with a dozen reasons why. Usually, we begin with our conclusion and then make up an argument for it. Some say that red represents the blood of martyrs. Others say that it symbolizes sanctuary, as criminals sometimes fled to churches, where police couldn’t arrest them. Just like that scene in Cool Hand Luke. As far as I can tell, nobody knows for sure if the tradition actually has a commonly agreed-on origin.
Justifiably, some wonder why the faithful, being so easily led, should be trusted when they claim that a sky fairy compels mankind to worship him, and even pay for the nutty gadgets that keep the masses in awe!
But we are not superstitious. We are merely conscious that we will die one day. Everything we do in this life comes to nothing. As the Preacher said, “All is vanity and vexation of spirit.” Knowing that truth transcends bare fact; that life is short; and that we must disciple all nations, we decided that the things that point us to the truth must be of a uniform kind and have an agreed-upon meaning.
That said, there are in fact aspects of “doing church” for which the symbolism is in fact known to be almost inherent, rather than socially constructed. One is the alb, which is the white robe worn by ministers during the Lord’s Supper. It was worn by all early Christians, though later restricted to the ministers of Holy Communion, in obedience to Scripture (Isaiah 1:18).
Taken together, these things form a kind of language that we can all understand, and quickly teach to others. They are a ritual Esperanto. It may appear like theater sometimes, and the use and origin of props may be arbitrary; but our dramaturges know their stuff. Forgive us if we sometimes forget to separate accidents from substance.
Nothing can express the awe we should feel at Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross or His Presence in the Eucharist, but we had to try something. Best to pick one inadequate thing and stick with it. That way we can at least rehearse the ceremonies, and execute them as St. Paul saith, “decently and in order.”
Now it’s necessary to refer to another movie. John Ford’s 1952 classic The Quiet Man stars John Wayne as an Irish-born American who returns home and tries to fit in. While restoring his family cottage, he paints the door green as he imagines his ancestors did. One of his new (old) neighbors tells him, “Only an American would have thought of emerald green. Red is more durable.”