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Christ is risen! Indeed He is risen!
The Resurrection and The Willow - Holy Tradition

Russian Palm Sunday
Russian Palm Sunday

Orthodox Christians of the Eastern and Western Churches are familiar with the term "Tradition" and its role in the preservation and continuity of their religion. A simple dictionary definition of "tradition" would be the handing down of opinions, doctrines, practices, rites and customs from father to son, or from ancestors to posterity by oral communication. As understood by orthodox Christians, however, "Holy Tradition" or "Apostolic Tradition" is the transmission of the Word of God in its entirety which had been entrusted to the Apostles by Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit to and through the successors of the Apostles so that enlightened by the Holy Spirit it may be faithfully preserved, expounded and spread abroad by their preaching in successive generations. [1] Stated in other words, Holy Tradition means the faith and practices imparted by Jesus Christ to the Apostles and handed down by their successors from generation to generation in the Church. It is the whole system of doctrine, Church governance, worship, spirituality and art which orthodox Christians have articulated through the ages. [2] Holy or Apostolic Tradition differs from the ecclesial traditions, i. e. various theological, disciplinary, liturgical and devotional traditions and customs born in the local churches over time. Both the Eastern and the Western Churches acknowledge that Holy Tradition contains within it the Scriptures, both Old and New, with particular emphases upon the latter for the simple reason that the creation of the Church on the first Pentecost precedes in time the writing of the various books of the New Testament attributed to the Apostles by several decades. Moreover the canon of the New Testament did not come into existence in its present form until the end of the 4th century and was not accepted by all of the ancient churches until two centuries later.

As is evident from the above, mere ecclesial traditions and customs such as the ritual use of flowering willow branches by Slavs and its Resurrectional significance do not rise to the dignity of Holy Tradition. This custom is practiced by Orthodox and Greek-Catholics of the Byzantine/Slavonic liturgical tradition and is also shared by some Roman Catholic Slavs. It is firmly grounded in the Eastern Church's emphasis of the Holy Resurrection as the greatest day in the liturgical calendar and in the history of mankind. For orthodox Christians the Resurrection is no mere allegory or metaphor of periodic renewal or rebirth. It refers in orthodox Tradition to an actual historical event in which Jesus Christ as True God and True Man arose bodily from death in the grave to resume for a time His prior existence among the living. This historical event is attested to in the writings of the Apostles and by the Tradition which contains them. Thus, when the Orthodox and Greek-Catholics proclaim that "Christ is risen" and receive in reply "Indeed He is risen", they are making a public declaration of faith in the Risen Christ as Savior of mankind. When they assert in the Resurrection Troparion from Resurrection Matins to Ascension Day loudly and repeatedly "Christ is risen from the dead, by death He conquered death and to those in the graves He granted life" they confess the very essence of their faith and hope for their own bodily resurrection on the Last Day.

Winter Scene
Winter Scene

What is the relevance of the weedy willow to the above? In and of itself - nothing! It belongs neither to the life and Gospel of Christ nor to Holy Tradition. No one can claim that the willow custom is apostolic. Many orthodox Christians, Greek, Middle Eastern and non-Slavic, hold the Resurrection is the same esteem without even knowledge of the Slavic custom. The advantage in having the custom, as distinct from not having it, lies in the appreciation that it is just one more jewel in the precious crown of the Resurrection, one more way in which orthodox Christians can venerate in a public and pious manner their affirmation of the event, one more building stone in the edifice of Christian traditions and one more hosanna in praise of the Risen Christ.

As stated in earlier essays of this Web site, religious traditions and customs derive mainly from important doctrines and serve to support those doctrines in a visible and practical manner. Unsupported by traditions and customs, doctrines may become mere abstractions devoid of flesh. Tragically we Americans are in danger of succeeding to an inferior understanding of the important doctrines of the orthodox faith with less devotion and interest in its preservation. After a generation or two in America, religious traditions tend to evolve into mere shadows of their former significance. Thus for many Orthodox and Greek-Catholics of the Byzantine/Slavonic liturgical tradition, the willow custom finds rationale in the notion that willows serve merely as substitutes for palms which do not grow in Eastern Europe with profound loss of its Resurrectional significance. Even religious customs shared by most Christians surrounding Christmas are corrupted by the merchants and secularists. Thus "Merry Christmas" has become "Happy Holidays" and the Christ Child yields to Rudolph the Red-Nose Reindeer. The much-prized American diversity is the graveyard of ancient Christian traditions and customs as we sink into the Serbonian bog of indifference.

What then is the relevance of the willow custom and why bother to understand and maintain it? First, it is a simple and easily understood custom that heralds the Resurrection in a beautiful and expressive manner. Second, it is easily maintained in most of North America where pussy willows can be cultivated. And third, it can be shared with non-Slavic and non-orthodox Christians who possess no meaningful Resurrectional customs of their own.

Thy Resurrection, O Lord our Savior,
The angels in heaven sing,
Enable us on earth,
To glorify Thee with purity of heart.

[1] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 80-82.
[2]The Orthodox Church by Timothy Ware [Bishop Kallistos of Diokleia], pp 195 - 198.

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Copyright 2001-2003 by Robert L. Schwind. All rights reserved.