Traditions are all around us. They are the beliefs and practices that are passed down from one generation to the next. They can be family traditions, cultural traditions or religious ones. If it isn’t Christmas without Grandma’s special sugar cookies, there is no celebration of Punxsutawney Phil (or Agua Fria Freddie) prognosticating the approximate end of winter, or fireworks on the Fourth of July, then those days are just days like any other. Some families eat turkey for Thanksgiving and ham for Christmas. Some might do it the other way around, both or neither; it’s all about what they usually do. Some put up the Christmas tree the weekend after Thanksgiving, others wait until Christmas Eve and yet others do it sometime in between. Traditions are like that. Even the celebration of Advent, Christmas and Epiphany are traditions wrapped in traditions. They comfort us in times of trouble because we don’t have to think about what to do, we just do it the same way we’ve always done it because, well, because we’ve always done it that way. They bring people together – but they can separate them as well. Like with most things, it’s all in how they are used. Still, we celebrate traditions, even if we don’t always remember quite why.
The story of Jesus begins with lots of tidings, “I bring you glad tidings of great joy,” is a message we hear and think of angels flying about, singing joyfully in the night sky. Tidings (which are plural) are news, information, and/or notification. In the case of Jesus, it was good news, glad tidings, while the messenger bringing the news of the defeat at Marathon definitely brought ill tidings indeed. Oddly enough, it’s one of those words we usually only hear at Christmas – and Advent. It’s a traditional word used in a traditional story told in a traditional way. But we recognize it for what it is, a notification of a great event that changed the world.
Theophany is a word that isn’t in everyday conversation any more than tidings, but it is a word that is appropriate for consideration during Advent. It comes from the Greek, theo- for God and –phanein, to show. Together they point to a manifestation of God that can be seen and heard. Remember the pillar of cloud that guided the Israelites on the exodus? That was a theophany. The burning bush that spoke to Moses? Another one. The calls of the prophets were often theophanies. Probably the one we most think of this time of year is the appearance of Jesus, the visible and audible presence of God on earth. He was God and yet not God, a theophany that is also a Christophany, a revelation or manifestation of Christ after his resurrection. There are also angelophanies, appearances of angels who speak God’s message. In any case, a theophany is God made manifest in some manner or other, as the hymn “Songs of Thankfulness and Praise” (Hymnal 1982, #135, among others) delineates. We celebrate the theophany of God among us in the observance of Christmas, welcoming a newborn infant into the world, a world that will be changed by his presence. He is Immanuel, God with us, theophany.
Trees aren’t specifically Advent-related, but they do make their appearance in homes during this season. Born in the time and place where Advent meant winter, a cold, dark, dreary time where most green things were dead or dormant. But there were evergreen trees, trees that remained green all year. They were a sign of life in world that seemed to illustrate death, so it seems natural that a tree would be invited into the house in the heart of winter to remind people to remember that spring would come again. Many churchmen decried the practice as Pagan (which it originally was), but gradually it became part of the Christian tradition. Nowadays artificial trees have somewhat replaced natural trees in many homes, the candles that used to decorate them have become tiny LED lights, either clear or multi-colored, but Christmas trees are firmly entrenched in the traditional celebration of Christmas.
The glow of decorated trees and tales of glad tidings are parts of our traditions this time of year. If there are special services in the area, they are a wonderful way to add a new tradition to the season. Above all, look for the theophanies that tell us God is among us, even in very tiny and unexpected ways.