TRADITIONS, SYMBOLS AND CUSTOMS

Of True Orthodox Catholic Christians

 

    

 

How can I tell you truth when some of you do not wish to hear truth because of the responsibility it would place upon you as regards your daily walk, talk, your very worship to God by action and words from the heart?  Oh, you don't know the content of your heart?  Who, dear one, has led you so far astray from the path that leads only to Holy righteousness which, in itself is a spiritual and material struggle out of pain of heart by which Jesus Christ suffered, died and arose again so that you may be saved?

 

I am a most unworthy repentant one in the vineyard, but yet I am constantly reminded, no matter what I am doing during the day, that I must keep my mind, my heart and actions centered on Jesus Christ.  I cannot look at someone who I know belongs to a heretical protestant, cultic group, without being brought to inner tears for I knew they have an invisible ring in their nose whereby the god they are worshiping is the great deceiver himself, Satan, Lucifer, the Evil One.  I shed inner tears for them in my prayers constantly only because I would wish for them to be converted to those spiritual and material truths that they have either been raised in or converted to because their faith is so weak and somewhat, if at all, lukewarm because they have allowed their material, earthy things get in the way. 

 

Now I must take you to task and remind you of certain things that you have rallied against in your delusional state of being a so-called "Good Christian" (and being a "Christian" means to be a follower of Jesus Christ, but alas poor fool that we are...) you have, like my unworthy self, erred in so very many things.  I take you to task because you have become a gossiper of old wives tales and told untruths.  Your actions have been more of the cultic protestant who lives by the old testament where an 'an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth' is become your normal way.  Since you are a collector of honey bees... let me tell you something more...

 

As a beekeeper trusts in his handling of those creatures of God's creation, that you won't get stung... think about what it means to be stung which is akin to being pricked in your heart when you know you have not lived according to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, for it is that which shall convict you as it also shall be the means by which I shall be convicted when I know that I must abide by the spiritual fruits that are within the Gospel, although so subtly, sometimes in parables, that we learn much so that we can do much to aide and help our brothers, even those whom we sometimes hold in disdain.  So learn the truth about the Signs, Symbols and customs that you so quickly and errantly put down in your rush to make others believe you are a so-called 'Good Christian'.

 

+Thaddeus the Unworthy Repentant One in the Vineyard

A fool for Christ, and Him crucified by our sins

 

THE Christian Truths were revealed by Almighty God Himself in various forms through various personalities, especially through Jesus Christ, His only-begotten Son, through His Person and Gospel. These truths were revealed to mankind both orally, Sacred Tradition, and in written form, Scripture, for man's illumination, spiritual welfare and salvation. Man is unable to com­prehend the already revealed truths without the assistance of the Grace of God. Yet, man tends to search himself and his environment to create, through his own curiosity and for his own satisfaction, human beliefs' that he correlates with the divine truths. This tend­ency causes misinterpretation and misuse of God's revealed truths. Thus man has created many customs and traditions which arc foreign to the truths of Sacred Tradition and Scripture.

 

The many customs and traditions of the people are not to be confused with Sacred Tradition of the Church. Sacred Tradition is the body of living truths taught by Christ and His Apostles, only partially recorded in the Books of the New Testament, but preserved by the early Church. Orally preserved truths, not recorded in the New Testament, were later recorded in the writings of the leathers of the Church as truths of importance and validity equal to those of Scripture, thus completing some obscure and vague parts of Scripture.

 

Sacred Tradition teaches the truths of salvation, while tradi­tions of custom, when correctly applied, assist the believer in ex­pressing externally his worship in a more vivid way. For instance, lighting candles, making the sign of the cross, kneeling and fasting are pious customs and traditions which help the believer to express his faith and reverent feelings. These traditions, applied for the sake of tradition, are not in themselves means of salvation. These many traditions, which in reality are customs and means, should be used only as external gestures and expressions to foster and stimulate the deep faith of the believer for his redemptive destiny. They should not be used as substitutes for God's revealed truths.

 

When misused, these customs and traditions defeat their pur­pose and wrongly become masters and main objects of observances and worship. Ignorance of the true faith causes these customs to become the main practice of faith and worship, and as such they mislead the believer. It is very important for Christians to be able to distinguish between the content of Sacred Tradition and the correct use of customary traditions. The latter should be used only as means and servants, outward expressions of sincere belief in Christ and His Gospel.

 

TRADITIONS AND CUSTOMS AS EXTERNAL SIGNS

Traditions and customs are external practices for spiritual exercise. They have a place in the teaching of the Church insofar as they contribute directly or symbolically to the main thoughts of faith and worship and to love of God and neighbor. These tra­ditions and customs of practical nature are many in number and are used as external gestures by the Orthodox believers. However, many times they are misunderstood and misused. It is necessary, then, that these traditions and customs be well known in their theo­retical and practical aspects. It is natural that such customs exist as an expression of a pious sentiment toward certain principles of life, especially toward the divine. Often it is difficult for some to express their faith, or worship or love toward God. For this reason the faithful one finds it necessary to use various signs such as candles, art, flowers, colors and many other objects in order to help in expressing reverence and devotion.

 

Every gesture and symbol, though, has a significance of his­torical or dogmatical nature. These gestures and symbols have derived from or are accompanied by special meaning related to God. They assist the believer in his various expressions of faith and piety. God is indescribable and incomprehensible to man's finite mind. Therefore, it is necessary for man to use symbols and gestures for his faith and worship of God. Without symbols and gestures as carriers of faith, reverence and piety are more difficult for the believer to approach God. It is true that faith is the power by which the believer comes into communion with God and the divine. How­ever, the knowledge and comprehension of God is impossible to be attained by natural human power.

 

For this reason, symbols, manners, customs, gestures and figurative traditions are used by the believers as carriers of pious feelings and devotion. These carriers, properly and reverently used, invoke divine Grace for helping the believer to express his deep faith in God. The symbols, gestures and traditions are many and various, but the objective is one and the same — faith in and reverence of God. These traditions, along with parables and allego­ries, embody the divine and human aspects of faith in God. Thus, traditions used in religion symbolize something higher, something which cannot be described directly. These symbols, however, are at times misused and abused. If the use of symbols confuses and contradicts, it is difficult for their divine meanings to be understood. The misuse and abuse of divine things in religious expression and gesture is sacrilegious.

 

SYMBOLS AND TRADITIONS AS MEANS

The use of symbols and traditions in various ways is necessary, for their very nature is to give expression to the meaning of the content of faith. However, their use of symbols and traditions is endangered by the threat of their perverted use as ends instead of means. This perversion is more dangerous in religious matters, where the "believer" goes astray with an illusion of his personal inclination and interpretation. This believer's personal initiative leads him to become captive to such a degree as to make it impos­sible for him to accept any correction. Unguided customs and tra­ditions on religious matters cause fanaticism and arrogance. At times this fanaticism leads to hypocrisy in that the symbols and traditions overshadow the proper faith in and worship of God.

 

It is imperative then that the Church discern the proper ex­pression of belief in God and the proper use of symbols and tra­ditions. These customs and traditions are necessary as external means of assisting the believer to properly express his faith in and worship of God. It is very difficult to bring together the many customs and traditions of the Orthodox and more difficult to enumer­ate their perversion and misuse. The faithful Christian should learn the content and function of traditions in order to use them properly as carriers of his faith and worship. The believer should refer to the teachings of the Church concerning the proper use of such tra­ditions in order to avoid their superstitious misuse. Symbols and traditions are educational and religious means for better understand­ing the Church; they contribute much to the piety of the believer; they encourage the believer to strengthen his faith and uplift his reverent feelings. However, it is noteworthy that many persons "zealous" in such traditions interpret them diversely, causing them to have merit in and of themselves and not means to accomplish the end result, which is the proper worship of God.

 

The Origins of Traditions and Symbols

MOST of the symbols and traditions held by the Orthodox Church originated in the early Church out of both necessity and the human tendency to invest them with religious mean­ings. In the course of time, these necessities became symbols for the developing Christian religion. However, it must be noted that these necessities which later developed into symbols disappeared in the course of time, leaving the symbols and traditions with strict­ly religious significance. Another factor in the development of the traditions was the tendency to create something new in the life of the Church, which many times resulted in the perversion of the genuine religious teaching of the symbols. Later, sorcery contributed to the perversion and misuse of some of these symbols.

 

The allegorical interpretation of traditions and symbols often is unrestrained in its perversion of their original content and mean­ing. This led to superstitions and taboos, which not only destroyed the genuine meaning, but substituted a foreign authority in the traditions. It is obvious that the less knowledge there is of the correct teachings of the Church, the more superstitions prevail. The less the believer is dedicated to the teaching and practice of the correct faith, the more he applies superstitions to the customs and traditions. Indifference and neutrality on the teachings of the Church also lead to superstitions and taboos. There can be no vacuum of religious feelings; it is either genuine practice or superstitious habits.

 

It is necessary to stress, however, that the main reason for the misuse and abuse of customs and traditions is ignorance of the correct teachings of the Church. This ignorance stems from lack of religious instruction. The failure to provide religious instruction has contributed greatly to ignorance and superstition. This lack of religious instruction permitted the development of misguided and perverted religious practices and worship, which have been per­petuated by succeeding generations, handed down from grandfather to father to son. The correction of these misuses is handicapped by the present indifference and negligence of the Church as a whole. The negligence of the Church as a whole in teaching the correct meaning and practice of these traditions leads to the defeat of its own mission.

 

It is evident that the uprooting of these superstitions and misinterpreted traditions must be accomplished by continuous and systematic religious instruction. Through a positive teaching of the correct interpretation of these customs and traditions, superstitions could be eliminated. The Church needs to use care in uprooting these misguided traditions, "Lest in gathering the weeds (superstitious traditions) you root up the wheat (beliefs) along with them. Let both grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I (Christ) will tell the reapers: gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into the barn", Matthew 13:29f. The following are a few of the customs and traditions which many times are misinterpreted and misused by the Orthodox.

 

THE USE OF CANDLES

The use of candles in the Church has its origin in the early Christian era. The tradition of lighting candles in the Church origi­nated when the first Christians, gathering in catacombs and other hidden areas, needed light and used torches. Later, when these torches were no longer needed, the early Christians substituted candles in remembrance of the torches and symbols of illumination. These early Christians used candles as reminders of what Christ said of Himself: "I am the Light of the world; he who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life", John 8:12. The early Christians used candles as symbols of illumination guiding them up the path to Christ. The early Christians made their candles out of bee hives, which symbolized purity, offering them to Christ with prayers to keep them pure in faith, worship and practice. The candle representing the light from Christ and the purity of the believers was used in various ways in the Church.

 

When entering the Church, believers light candles in front of an icon and make a reverence before it. Also, a candle on the Altar burns continuously. It symbolizes the Light of Christ that illuminates everyone, and lights the Tabernacle in which the Holy Gifts are kept the year around. Candles also are placed on the Altar during church services. Candles were placed in front of the icons of the Iconostasion and around the church to honor the saints. These candles on the Altar and in front of icons have, with exceptions, replaced the olive oil originally used. Candles were also used on chandeliers, especially in the middle of the nave, honoring the Almighty Christ, Jesus, and His Prophets and Evangelists.

 

The bishops use candles during services in groups of three and two; the three candles symbolize the three Persons of the Holy Trinity, and the two candles symbolize the two natures of Christ, the divine and human. In the sacraments of the church and other services candles are used to symbolize the Light of Christ and Its illumination of the people. Candlelight processions and services, especially the Resur­rection Service, are held to honor Christ. Today many of the candles have been replaced by electric lights because of fire regulations.

 

The symbolism of the candle, which developed from the neces­sities of the early Christians, has lost its original heritage today. The fact that candles today are not made from bee hives, but from paraffin or other such material, has changed the original significance of purity. The manufacturing of candles in various sizes to be sold at various prices is a complete perversion of the symbolic meaning of candles. This commercialization of candles exploits not only the use of candles in the church but also the reverent feelings of the "buyers". Instead of being a symbol of purity and light, the candle has become a sheer means of revenue. Exceptions to this practice are a few who retain the purity and tradition of candles by having one size without charge.

 

People are misled into believing that the largest and most expensive candle (10 inches to 6 feet) will answer their prayers. They make candles the means to accomplish their desires. This, of course, is erroneous, although their feelings are to be respected. The commercialization of candles in the church is reminiscent of Christ driving out the money-changers, when "Jesus entered the temple of God and drove out all who sold and bought in the temple", Matthew 21:12 (cf. Mk. 11:15; Jn. 2:14). It is imperative that the Church restore the original symbolism and practice of lighting candles; to offer a sign of adoration to Christ as the "Light of the world", for the illumination of the people, to honor the saints and for the purity of faith and worship in the hearts of believers.

 

MAKING THE SIGN OF THE CROSS

The symbol of the Cross as the highest representation of the Sacrifice of Christ began in the fourth century. At the beginning, the Cross was a dreadful instrument to punish criminals. Then, at the beginning of the fourth century, the Cross became prominent in the church and home. The Cross depicted the Sacrifice of Christ on the Cross, and as such became the most precious symbol in Christianity. The early Christians began to use the symbol of the Cross in their daily lives. The practice of making the sign of the Cross also is believed to have begun in the fourth century. The sign of the Cross was made on the forehead for every occasion of daily living — when rising, retiring, before eating, dressing, lighting candles and whatever activity one was engaged in. At the beginning, one finger was used in making the sign of the Cross on the forehead; later, two fingers were used. After the tenth century the sign of the Cross was made with three fingers pressed together to symbolize the Holy Trinity, as it is done today. The making of the Cross combines the Sacrifice of Christ and belief in the Holy Trinity, which are the epitome of faith in the True God. It was made with reverence, prayer, meditation and repentance everywhere and on all occasions.

 

Making the sign of the Cross today has lost much of its meaning among those who practice it irreverently. Some persons make the sign of the Cross hurriedly and carelessly, not conscious of the reason they are making it. The irreverent use of the sign of the Cross is especially evident during services of the church, when it is made by persons looking at or talking to neighbors. This is irreverent and shows disrespect. This sign should only be made when one is follow­ing the services diligently and attentively with prayer and reverence. The sign of the Cross should never be separated from prayers, invo­cations and communion with God. The sign of the Cross is made especially at the mention of the Holy Trinity.

 

ICONS IN CHURCH AND HOME

The tradition of placing icons in the church and home developed mainly from the necessity in the early second century to counteract a Gnostic sect's incorrect teaching that Christ was only a shadow and not a real Man. The Christians counteracted this incorrect teach­ing by emphasizing the reality of Christ as God-Man, for: the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth", John 1:14 (cf. 1 Jn. 1:l-4). The Christians emphasized the human nature of Christ in pictures, writings, hymns, prayers, etc. Thus the por­trayal of Christ developed in the course of time into -the icon. The Christians began to place the Icon of Christ in the church, and it later was joined by Icons of the Virgin Mary, Theotokos, and the Saints. The tendency of people to honor their beloved ones in pic­tures was reflected in their desire to have the pictures of Christ and the Saint out of reverence and honor, for "the honor which is given to the icon passes over to the prototype", the person himself.

 

The lighting of a candle, the making of the sign of the Cross and the kissing of an icon should not be misinterpreted as being made to the physical picture itself. These gestures should pass over from the icon to the person depicted. The significance of icons is that they should be used as reminders of the existence of the persons depicted and also help the believer to "imitate their virtues and to glorify God".

 

Reverence of an icon in itself, as an end, is idolatry. This is the danger that leads many Orthodox to misuse the tradition of icons in church and home. This practice led to the controversy over icons in the Christian Church during the eighth century, causing a division among Christians. This controversy led to the convening in 787 of the Seventh Ecumenical Synod which decreed that the icon be used to render honor but not worship, which is offered only to God. This historical decree of the Synod is the cause of the annual celebration of the Sunday of Orthodoxy on the first Sunday of Lent. Statues also are not permitted in the Orthodox Church or home. The perverted worship of statues caused the Seventh Ecumenical Synod to forbid their use.

 

Some Orthodox misinterpret the meaning and use of icons today. They direct worship and prayers to the icon itself, and fail to use the icon as a reminder to imitate the words and deeds of the saint depicted. Some Orthodox also over-emphasize the use of icons and create false stories which have been handed down from generation to generation. Such misconceptions are due to misguided piety and ignorance, which have resulted in cults. The "icon-worshipper" is a misled Christian who devotes his prayers and worship mistakenly. Such devotion creates fanaticism and arrogance to such a degree that it becomes almost incurable, no matter how much the correct posi­tion of the icon is taught and stressed by the Church. This misguided devotion is more evident among those who lack religious instruction. "Kissing" the icon, after making the sign of the Cross, is a reverent salutation; it is done with a slight bow, a social custom of the East.

 

DEATH AND FUNERALS

Death is considered a mystery, a commencement to everlasting life. The body of man was created by God as a divine vessel; the body is considered in Christianity as the temple of God, for "Do you not know that you are God's temple, and that God's Spirit dwells in you?", 1 Corinthians 3:16. The resurrection of bodies is revealed in Scripture and is a steadfast teaching of the Church for "// there is no resurrection of the dead (bodies), then Christ has not been raised: if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain", 1 Cor. 15:12,13. This belief is formulated in the Nicene Creed of the Church.

 

Before the official acceptance of the Seven Sacraments as such, the funeral service of the dead was included among the "sacraments". The funeral service consists of prayers, hymns and Scriptural read­ings to Almighty God for the forgiveness of sins of the deceased. The burial of the body should be in a consecrated place and in a plain casket. The body should be returned to the ground from which it was created, for "you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return", Genesis 3:19. The dissolution of the body must take place according to Scripture; when the body does not dissolve, additional prayers are said by the priest — even by the bishop — for its complete dissolution.

 

The tradition calls for the reading of prayers at graveside for the consolation of the family and also for commemorations in the church, which usually take place on the 40th day and one year after death. The commemoration services are offered for the dead as supplications for divine mercy on the souls who died in faith and were in communion with the Church. The tradition of offering boiled wheat (koliva) at the commemoration services is a symbol of resur­rection in the future life, for "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit", John 12:24. The prepared wheat was plain without any other ingredients added, and was eaten as a re­minder of everlasting life.

 

The gathering of relatives and friends after burial is a tradition from the early centuries for the consolation of the family, giving them strength and comfort. Food was served not only to relatives and friends, but also to the poor, who were called to share the food in memory of the deceased (cf. Apostolic Diatagai 8,44). Traditional­ly meat was excluded from this meal. The spirit of hope and faith in solemnity prevailed among the mourners consoling the bereaved family. The early Christians believed that the mystery of death was clarified by the teaching of the Gospel and the Church that the soul of the deceased was transmitted from death to life (cf. Colossians 1:13).

 

Burial traditions and interpretations of the early Church have lost most of their original heritage. The tendency today is to use air­tight and concrete vacuum sealed caskets to prevent the dissolu­tion of the body. This is contrary to the Scripture: "you are dust, and to dust you shall return", Gen. 3:19 (cf. John 12:24). It is for this reason that cremation is contrary to the teachings of Scripture and Church. Unfortunately, the misguided tendency today to obtain air-tight caskets is believed to be a special consideration for the deceased, which is contrary to the teaching of the Church. The wooden casket should be used, and not be placed in a concrete or other type vault. The custom today of distributing food and wine at the cemetery after burial is irreverent, lacking dignity and self-respect. This should not be practiced.

 

The gathering of relatives and friends after the burial is also practiced incorrectly today. These gatherings are held in restaurants and other public places where meat and drink are served, instead of being held on the church premises or in the home of the deceased. The meals are becoming more elaborate as time goes on. It is be­lieved by many today that this gathering must be held, and failure to do so would invite criticism. But these gatherings are not necessary if the family does not wish to hold them. Many times the gatherings that are held in public places take on an atmosphere of gayety instead of one of solemnity in the spirit of hope and faith for the consolation of the bereaved family. Also the symbolic meaning of the boiled wheat (koliva) is perverted and has lost its significance. The wheat is prepared today with many ingredients — sugar, candies, raisins — with the tray covered with powdered sugar for taste rather than as an offering of faith in everlasting life (cf. John 12:24). Tne commemor­ation service of prayers and hymns is the important offering, and the boiled wheat is only a symbol. Many believe that this service must take place exactly on the 40th day, and that holding it before or after this time would be a bad thing. This is wrong, for whether it was held 35 or 45 days after death is of no consequence or im­portance; tradition many times causes loss of significance or original meaning. The small sepulcher which is used by some in place of the tray of wheat is sacrilegious.

 

FASTING PRACTICES

The origin of fasting in the Christian Church is to be found in many sources. The first Christians inherited the practice of fasting from the Jews. Fasting also has pagan origins. The early Church usually tried to replace pagan fastings and feasts by giving Christian meaning to those observances through worship in the True God, moral uprightness, prayer and repentance. Fasting was developed as a meritorious work before God. The fact that fasting was not originally related to specific days and certain foods, indicates that fasting was not a virtue in itself. Fasting was a sign of self-discipline, and is mentioned by Christ Himself (cf. Mt. 4:2; Mt. 6:16-18). Fasting, prayer and alms-giving were considered the means of true repentance, along with humility and obedience to the Will of God.

 

The practice of fasting has lost much of its original meaning today. It is obvious that some persons place much emphasis on the selection of foods, and the duration of f- sting. In the concern over the selection of foods, the main purpose of fasting many times is overshadowed. Some fast or starve to lose weight during the lenten periods. Without religious presuppositions fasting for the sake of fasting or starving oneself is not fasting sincerely or reverently accord­ing to its deep significance. Boasting of one's fasting is a perversion of its ideal of humbleness and obedience to God's Will.

 

Need For Instruction for Use of Traditions

THE traditions and their symbols mentioned here are but a few of the many that need to be re-examined and placed in proper perspective. Many of these customs are related to so-called old wives tales and superstitions which have no place whatsoever in the life of the Orthodox Christian and only tend to alienate the Orthodox from practicing their faith correctly in the light of the Gospel of Christ. The only way to overthrow these customs and incorrect tra­ditions of today is to provide religious instruction not only for the young, but for the adult as well. Many adults look upon incorrect customs and traditions as being truths of the Church, and unfortun­ately they are handed down to their children, thus perpetuating them from generation to generation. This is very evident when young persons will defend an incorrect practice by saying, "mother told me so". Too much emphasis cannot be placed on this problem among the Orthodox. Constant hammering by the Church is needed to correct these incorrect, impious customs and traditions.

 

It is important to stress that these traditions and their symbols should not be eliminated, but should be practiced in their proper and original context as developed by the Church. Symbols and tra­ditions without the correct content and teaching of the Church can be a source of perversion and improper practices. Many of the sym­bols and traditions are external signs related to the experience of the early Christians. It is imperative that parents receive religious instruction on the teachings of the Church and its practices, for they are the natural conveyors to their children of the true meaning of faith and practice of the Christian religion. Customs and traditions must be held in their proper perspective. As Christ said, "This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of man. You leave the commandment of God and hold fast the tradition of men . . . You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God, in order to keep your tradition! . . . there is nothing outside a man which by going into him can defile him; but the things which come out of a man are what defile him", Mark 7:6,7,9,15.

 

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