by Jordan Miller-Stubbendick–

The kitchen counter is covered with a fine layer of flour. My hands rock back and forth over my grandmother’s rolling pin, smoothing cookie dough into a flat oval. My 3-year-old son’s eyes sparkle with delight as he selects the next cookie cutter he will use. “A circle!” he proclaims.

“I will make many circles!” Together we fill cookie sheet after cookie sheet with circles, stars, Christmas trees, hearts and dogs. Later, he delights in stirring drops of food coloring into bowls of white frosting until they bloom into red, green, blue and yellow. My mother stands to my son’s side, holding his 3-week-old brother in her arms. I watch with delighted eyes as my older son decides he will frost a yellow bell cookie for my younger son. I smile remembering Christmases past of making cut-out cookies with my own mother, happy to pass this tradition on to my two boys. I imagine we will do this Christmastime ritual for many years to come.

LIFE’S SPIRAL STAIRCASE

Tradition and ritual ground us as human beings. Our memories of holidays and other special occasions are full of well-loved foods, music, clothing and repeated actions that connect us across generations and time, with what has been and what is yet to be.

The church is full of once-a-year traditions too: waving palm branches on Palm Sunday, tolling a bell as the names of loved ones who have died are proclaimed on All Saints Sunday, lighting candles on a wreath for each Sunday of Advent. Taken together, these separate actions, performed once a year, tell the story of who we are as people of faith. The familiar words and actions anchor our lives, our relationships with God and each other. Even as we grow and change, we continue to order our lives by these rituals. Each time we encounter these rituals anew, we are slightly different people, tempered by current hopes and hardships, and at different points in our journeys through life and faith.

Religious scholar Karen Armstrong describes the process of repeating these same actions and rituals in her memoir, The Spiral Staircase (Anchor Books 2004):

My life has kept changing, but at the same time, I have constantly found myself revolving round and round the same themes, the same issues, and even repeating the same mistakes… I picture… a narrow spiral staircase… As I go up, step by step, I am turning, again, round and round, apparently covering little ground, but climbing upward, I hope, toward the light (p. 305-306).

We, too, climb our own spiral staircases of repeated traditions as we cover the ground of new situations and challenges in our own lives. The constancy of commemorating days and seasons in the church year gives us a larger context for the shifting moments of our individual lives and events in our communities and world. Through actions and words that we share with the historic and global church, we are gathered into the inclusive, immense family of God across generations and time, with the people we love best and people we will never meet. We learn that we are never alone, that we are held up and held together by the prayers and songs and repeated refrains that imprint themselves on our heart’s memory.

The ancient, familiar words of the liturgy highlight this connection. Hearing and speaking words that our ancestors in faith have spoken for thousands of years secures us in the worst of times to God’s larger promises and love—linking us to the church triumphant in the best of times.

Several years ago, I officiated at the funeral of a 5-day-old baby girl. I was so grateful that the words of the liturgy gave shape and form to the fathomless grief that threatened to swallow the sanctuary that day. The liturgy also bore witness to the reality that we are not the only ones to grieve. God’s care and love buoy us up in times of deepest sorrow. God guarantees life is stronger and more enduring than death. We lean hard on these promises, as did those who came before us, and time and again, they hold us up.

The Rev. Jordan Miller-Stubbendick serves as pastor of St. Paul Evangelical Lutheran Church in Niagara Falls, NY. She lives with her husband, Adam, their two sons, and their dog.

This article is excerpted from the May 2019 issue of Gather magazine. To read more like it, subscribe to Gather.

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