A little over a decade ago, we started a new tradition at Oxford College called Candlelight Procession. We already had an opening ritual tradition called Convocation, an event drawing together our entire community to begin the new academic year. Convocation was formal and more academic, and we wanted to create something to complement it that was student facing and less formal. But also, still significant.
That was the genesis of the Candlelight Procession. We piggy backed off Convocation and held it immediately following. Like Convocation, it was built to be a ritual with a procession of sophomores and first year students, candles, some speaking parts, and an alumni pinning for the sophomores to signify their reception into the alumni community of Oxford and Emory. Eventually, the event moved to our oldest academic building at Emory, Phi Gamma, adding even more gravitas to the event. The sophomores now form a circle big enough to encircle the first years, and they clap and cheer as the new students fill in the circle. After more than a decade, this has become a tradition, but it has constantly evolved as we tried to make it better.
A tradition is the passing along of customs or beliefs from generation to generation. My line of work, ministry, knows about tradition. In Methodism we talk about four tenets or pillars that inform the way we do theology, ministry, and the Christian life. We use scripture as a primary means of navigating our decisions, but scripture is informed or illuminated by experience, reason, and tradition. We call this the Wesleyan Quadrilateral thanks to Methodist scholar, Albert Outler for naming it as such.
The tradition of the church, the customs or beliefs it has passed along from generation to generation are a shaping component of the culture and experience of our life together in the church. I suspect this is true for many faith bodies and not just Christians.
Tradition is not, of course, relegated to faith communities. We have traditions in many aspects of our life. From our sports teams to the annual Fourth of July parade, tradition is a vital part of the lifeblood of those places we name as our communities.
For instance, a variety of holidays are approaching over the next couple of months. The Jewish students I work with at Oxford are on the cusp of observing Rosh Hashanah, another new year in the life of the Jewish people and faith. This will be followed by Yom Kippur, Sukkot, and more. Some of us will dress up in costumes and celebrate Halloween by attending parties or going door-to-door looking for treats and not tricks. In November, many across the country will gather with family and/or friends to give thanks as they eat a variety of foods together around shared tables. Thanksgiving.
A few of my students were joking recently about how quickly their peers name something as a tradition. “If they do it more than once,” one of them said, “it becomes a tradition.” You may know that Oxford is a two-year campus, and with that kind of turnover, it can be difficult to form traditions.
There are other traditions that have been around a while and have too often gone unexamined. Sometimes traditions need to change. That may mean they need to be completely dissolved. More often, though, they need to evolve or morph into something that draws wider the circle as we realize the ways in which we may have missed the mark or gotten something wrong. Some obvious examples for me, especially as a Southerner, are the ways in which people like me, a white male, have treated my siblings who are not white. Perhaps there’s a name change that needs to happen or a monument to someone or a cause that needs to be taken down. Maybe a new monument or name is in order.
Regardless of how quickly something becomes a tradition or a change that needs to occur with our traditions, it is up to us to pay attention to what we do and how we do it. That’s as true of our faith communities as it is our families. The poet Mary Oliver once said, “Attention is the beginning of devotion.” Our attention to our traditions and whether or not they bring good or harm must be a priority for us and our communities. In the Christian tradition, I would argue, this is a part of our calling.
Perhaps a starting point for all of us then is to ask ourselves, “What traditions matter to me…and why do they matter?” After all, attention is the beginning of devotion.
The Rev. Dr. Lyn Pace is a United Methodist minister and college chaplain who lives in Oxford with his spouse and 9-year-old.