Do our traditions help or hinder the communication of the Gospel?
It was about this time last year that I happened upon two students in the lobby of Wycliffe College. They were Chinese students who were part of an English as a Second Language (ESL) group who had rented space at the college and who were enjoying a break from class. They were gathered around the centre table in the lobby, and were taking pictures of a Latin-American pastoral scene depicting a man and a woman surrounded by a variety of animals. As I moved closer, I was surprised to notice something conspicuously missing. Someone had stolen Baby Jesus!
Only later did I learn that no one had stolen Jesus, but that this was actually intentional. The idea is that leaving Jesus out of the nativity scene during Advent helps increase a believer’s anticipation of what is to come. It is one of those many symbols and traditions that intensify the Christmas season for the believer. Well, I’m not an Anglican, and learning the ins and outs of the liturgical calendar has been a steep (but highly edifying) learning curve. Back to the case of the missing Jesus.
Despite this enlightenment, there was part of me that still felt uneasy with the encounter. I wondered what the students thought of this scene. In all likelihood, they had no Christian background to draw from. Did they think that the figurines were nicely painted? How were they going to explain the pictures to their friends and family back home? Will they say, “See how Canadians have nice figurines” or “It was strange that they had this in the lobby of their university”? I wondered if it would have made any difference if Baby Jesus had been there. I wondered if they would ask the deep questions I hoped this scene would provoke.
I began to wonder too about the relationship between liturgy and proclamation, or symbol and evangelism. Ideally, there is no tension: they are meant to augment each other. But in some contexts, either one may simply serve to obscure the other. Some of our liturgical practices, while they can heighten the meaning for believers, are often incomprehensible to those outside the church, or from outside North American culture. Is it possible that our traditions actually veil Jesus for outsiders?
Just a week ago, as I was thinking about this, I happened upon the exact same scene, although this time there were three international students standing at the table. This year Wycliffe has opted for a more traditional Middle-Eastern scene, complete with camel and magi. There is also a manger for a baby—and, once again, no baby (yet). Was this scene just as strange to them as the year before—or was it even stranger because of the Canadian student (me!) who blurted out, “You know that there is supposed to be a baby there?” I quickly realized that they were early in their ESL course, and did not understand what I meant. So on this occasion a verbal explanation did not help, and I was left with the image on the table, pondering whether it could still communicate something that my words could not.
I am grateful for what I have learned about liturgy in recent years. There is a deep void in my own tradition, and my spiritual life has been greatly enriched by my time and exposure to Anglicanism. My concern is pragmatic. What are we communicating to those outside the church? Is our message clear and accessible?
I have also come to realize that it does not have to be an either/or situation. After I had ranted for a week to anyone who would listen, in front of the table at Wycliffe, the chair of our student council placed a nice explanatory note in front of the nativity scene explaining the tradition and the symbolism. It was nice to see another visiting student reading it the other day.
It is through small steps of this kind that we can translate the richness of our liturgy and traditions for the benefit of people whose background does not include the story of Christmas.
The Christmas season is one of the few windows we have where our culture invites us to reveal the deep truths of the Christian message and the true hope we have in Jesus Christ. What are we communicating—and how?
Steve Hewko is a doctoral student at Wycliffe College studying interdisciplinary Islamic and Christian theology. He has spent time working in campus ministry in Canada and as a missionary in West Africa. Steve is married with three children.