Normally, I would not devote Christmas to writing a blog post. But thanks to the miracle of modern technology and the dependable lack of dependability of our domestic air carriers, I am currently bestranded at the airport with not much else to do but write!
Yesterday, on Christmas Eve, my wife and I visited Lucibello’s Bakery in New Haven. We were looking to pick up cannoli for Christmas. When we arrived, we found quite the scene! We were number 52 and they were on number 5!
No one there seemed particularly perturbed to be waiting, in fact everybody was in pretty good spirits. As I was waiting, I began to listen to the folks talking in line. One said, “Oh, I remember when this was on Chapel Street, going in as a kid” another said, “This was always part of our Christmas.” People walked out with boxes stacked high, full of pastries of all sorts.
While in line, I happened to read a piece from the New Haven Register about the bakery. There were a number of lines that jumped out at me about this 80 year old bakery. The article reads, “Customers who have been frequenting Lucibello’s Italian Pastry Shop for years — many long-time shoppers who came as children now visit with their own kids in tow — find a menu there today that remains true to the store’s origins.”
The owner says of the shop, “We just never changed anything. Everything is still made by hand, from scratch…” That, he said, has been a key to the business’ longevity.
My favorite line in the interview was when the owner attributed the success the bakery has seen to “keeping up with tradition.” He says, “From what everyone tells me, nothing has changed from when they were little.”
I love the phrase “keeping up with tradition.” There is something marvelous about the notion of studying, praying with, reading, and taking in the traditions we have as if they are living, vital things and not merely the remnants of a charming but bygone era. In an institution like the Church, keeping up with tradition is our role and duty as we curate the mysteries we have been handed.
Of course, there are alterations and advances in the life of the Church that we should welcome. But there are also such departures from the history, theology, and tradition of the Church that the believer is left lost and without any significant tie to or understanding of what and who we are.
It is our role, as leaders, to keep up with the tradition. To know it so well that when we must make alterations or innovate, we know exactly why and how and what the intended consequences are and what unintended consequences might be wrought.
I am convinced that there is a deepening desire among many for places, experiences, and encounters that resonate with authentic history and communicate something deeper than what can be found in the mass market. Lucibello’s, the bakery, is a wonderful example. It is locally owned, the owners live in the community, they are steeped in a long history, they understand the tradition, and more importantly they understand just what that tradition means to their customers.
The owner might rather like to innovate with some new pastry, and says he has slowly added an item or two here and there, but the root of their success is their understanding that their customers are coming to be part of an experience – something that hearkens back in time and place and tells a much longer story. He says, “It is rewarding, he said, to see the loyalty of Lucibello’s customer base. The bakery has become part of family traditions for generations of local shoppers…”
Moreover, they specialize in what they do well. We could learn from this as a Church. We will probably never do certain things as a church that other churches seem to do so successfully. The key to our longevity will be knowing what we do well and doing it with intention, reverence, and care. The key will be keeping up with the tradition. At Lucibello’s, “We’re kind of unique here,” says the owner, specializing in only several certain items rather than many different types of cookies, cakes and pastries. “Customers like knowing they can find their same favorites at the shop that they did years ago. It’s the memories…”
Another customer recalled, “It was old-fashioned — cakes in the window, glass cases all over the place,” he said, adding little has changed over the years. The article closes, “The day before Christmas, it’s ridiculous,” he said referring to the crowds. Faggio said he looks forward to the holidays, when it is not uncommon for customers to be lined up early in the morning waiting to buy family favorites. “That’s when you really see the tradition,” Faggio said. “We have lines out the door. It’s amazing.”
It really is amazing.
As I celebrated mass yesterday and read Luke’s account of the Nativity at the midnight mass, I couldn’t help but reflect on the nature of tradition. How we pass on from one generation to another that which is holy and vital in our faith. We keep alive this story of God with Us in a way that renews the promise of the creche in each of our lives and homes.
There are many of us who love the new in the Church. I am one of them, I am always looking for some new program or project that we can take on to deepen our missional engagement with the city around us. Yet no new program, project, or liturgy or can have any meaning without a connection to the deeper tradition of the Church. Without a grounding in what we have received we are simply making up the faith we would like to have rather than deepening our life in the one we have inherited.
For example, when someone decides to innovate and design their own liturgy without the benefit of the centuries of liturgies we have been handed, they are selling short the movement of the Holy Spirit over our history – a movement which has brought together the strands of theology, prayer, and reason in countless ways. It is not ours to decide, on our own, if it is somehow outmoded.
Those coming to our churches, like those to the bakery, are looking for that which draws them back. They are searching for that thing, that intangible and indescribable experience that they once knew. They are looking to be part of something larger than themselves, deeper than their knowing, and stronger than their fears. They will not return if they find the slipshod, the careless, or the needlessly “innovative.”
I think of my family’s return to the Church. It was through Rite I morning prayer with hymns and anthems and an East-facing celebration of the Eucharist. Anything more innovative than that would have sent us searching again – for what we could not have said – only that we kept not finding it. The generation before us has dedicated itself, in so many ways, to undoing the traditions of the Church. In many ways this has been necessary and healthy.
The new task is the more complicated and deeper one – reconstructing that which has been lost and rediscovering those elements that could be carefully and lovingly restored. Let’s commit ourselves to keep up with the tradition – to dwell in and with it so that we can draw others into its mystery and welcome still more home.
It’s not only that. The fact is that liturgy has worked for thousands of years. It’s worked to teach the faith, and it’s worked to help people pray and maintain their spiritual balance. It’s worked to help people deepen their spiritual lives, and it’s worked to give voice to their joys and sorrows. It’s worked to give comfort in times of sorrow and hope in times of despair.
For me, this is why ad hoc liturgies are neither appropriate nor useful. (Not to mention that there are plenty of places out there that do them on a weekly basis, depending mainly on what the pastor happens to want to emphasize! This is a primary reason I belong to this church and not one of those.)
I came to the church to begin with solely for the sake of maintaining my spiritual condition. For many of us – more, I think, than many people acknowledge – this is absolutely necessary to our well-being. We are the canaries in the coal mine, if you like; we can tell you what works and what doesn’t – and we’re the first to know when the church is going south.
I’m not as big a C.S. Lewis fan as many others are, but he was surely right when he wrote, in “Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer”:
Every service is a structure of acts and words through which we receive a sacrament, or repent, or supplicate, or adore. And it enables us to do these things best — if you like, it ‘works’ best — when, through long familiarity, we don’t have to think about it. As long as you notice, and have to count, the steps, you are not yet dancing but only learning to dance. A good shoe is a shoe you don’t notice. Good reading becomes possible when you need not consciously think about eyes, or light, or print, or spelling. The perfect church service would be one we were almost unaware of; our attention would have been on God. …. “But every novelty prevents this. It fixes our attention on the service itself; and thinking about the worship is a different thing from worshipping. The important question about the Grail was ‘for what does it serve?’ …. But if each form is snatched away just when I am beginning to feel at home in it, then I can never make any progress in the art of worship.
More than that, even: words repeated again and again are in that way made available to the believer for contemplation – and also as immediate emotional and/or psychological aid – at times outside the church service itself. And after all, we spend the vast, vast majority of our lives outside of church services.
I mean, it’s fine if somebody prefers another way to worship; there are plenty of choices out there. But I need this way, which is why I belong to this church.
Elizabeth Ring said:
I hear echos of Phyllis Tickle’s comments about searching for the ancient future. Thanks for an excellent reflection.