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A Departure From Tradition

By Sherene Joseph
In eLetter
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It is not Christmas for me unless I sing "Silent Night." It is my favorite Christmas carol ever! But I have celebrated a few Christmases where I have not sung it.

In those instances, we were in churches where the service was in my native language, Tamil. I grew up learning to speak the language but cannot read or write it. Being unable to read the language proves challenging when you are inside a church holding a hymn book. While I can comprehend most of the service, I cannot participate in it in an embodied way. I cannot sing the songs or read the Scripture lessons.

I grew up attending many different denominations as a child. Although raised in the Church of South India, we mainly went to a non-denominational church. During my high school years, we attended a Protestant church. During my years in college, I attended Methodist, Anglican, Pentecostal, and even Assemblies of God churches. I am comfortable attending all of them. I can make my peace with the service—traditional, contemporary, or charismatic—knowing that no matter the denomination, we are all worshipping the same God.

But in 2021, I found myself in a church where I could not sing "Silent Night." That year we visited India over Christmas and attended church with my parents. I knew, of course, that the service would be in Tamil, and I was dragging my heels. Coming out of the pandemic, I wanted a sense of normalcy in my Christmas celebration. I wanted the traditions my children and I were used to in the United States. I wanted a Christmas service where I could worship precisely the way I wanted. So, I sulked, standing in church on Christmas morn. I was supposed to be celebrating the birth of our Lord, but my heart was not in it.

I stood there looking at the faces around me, voices raised in song, and everyone dressed in their Christmas finery. The fragrance of jasmine filled the air. The ladies wore gold bracelets on their arms, their silk sarees moving softly with the early morning breeze. Sparkling lights shone from the trees around the churchyard, and I couldn't help but see the joy in their faces. They sang with passion and enthusiasm. They were delighted to be in church celebrating Christ's birth. Yes, some young mothers looked tired with babies in their arms, older couples could not stand through the service, and many volunteers were running around outside the church setting up extra chairs and coffee. But they were happy to be there! They were there to celebrate Christ's birth, no matter the challenges.

I realized then that there is something supernatural and humbling about being in a worship service where you know everyone is praising God, even when you don't understand the language. It was hard to be embodied in the service, but I could worship God. I could delight in the music. I could read the scripture lessons in English while the rest read them in Tamil. I could understand the gist of the sermon, even if I did not get every word. I could still celebrate Christmas in my heart, knowing I was there with my immediate and church family.

In a way, I could worship God in my heart by just watching others worship Him. I could rejoice with them. Christmas is always in our hearts. Christ was born for us, and He died for us. It was Christmas on the 25th, and it would be Christmas on the 26th. I did not technically need the music and the carols to celebrate. If God sent Jesus to be our Savior, I did not require language, lyrics, or comprehension to celebrate.

During this season of Advent, we naturally turn to our traditions. We want to honor and celebrate in familiar ways. Our practices are comfortable. We pass them down from generation to generation. We feel displaced when we do not do things as we always have. We perhaps rebel and try to control things to have them exactly as we want.

But what if we tried something new? What if we stepped out of our comfort zone? What if we intentionally changed our traditions? What then? What could we learn from someone else? What if we shook things up a little in our homes and families? What would we be able to teach our children? How would we grow?

This Advent, I encourage you to try something new. Embrace something different. Break away from tradition. It will always be there when you want to return to it, but you might discover more profound delights and mysteries of God you never expected.

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