Half a century since its original film adaptation, Fiddler on the Roof came to our local stage last week. I was seeing it for the first time but was familiar enough with it to anticipate at least the most celebrated of its catchphrases, “Tradition!”
What I did not anticipate was how the play’s handling of that topic within an early-twentieth-century Ukrainian-Jewish context would cast such a revealing light upon the Christian meaning of the term.
Without tradition, Fiddler’s protagonist Tevye tells us right at the start, the lives of his fellow Ashkenazi Jews would be as precarious as someone playing violin on a housetop. Making ends meet in the humble fictional village of Anatevka, he relates, is not easy, so “how do we keep our balance? That I can tell you in one word!”
Tradition not only dictates how he and his neighbors eat, sleep, work, and wear clothes, as Tevye elaborates, it also teaches them how to relate to each other as husbands, wives, sons, and daughters. It establishes the outward patterns of their daily lives, and even more importantly, reminds them daily of the hope that animates human life at its core.
“Because of our traditions, every one of us knows who he is and what God expects him to do.”
While teaching Sacred Scripture to my undergraduates, there comes a point when I like to emphasize both the continuity and disparity between Jewish and Christian traditions concerning the Messiah. Most Christians have heard plenty about the disparity: whereas many Jews in the first century were expecting a militaristic Messiah who would usher in a new era of politics at the point of the sword, Jesus Christ turned this expectation on its head when he came serving, self-abasing, and suffering to the point of his own death.
This is all true—and it is only half of the truth.
When we turn from the Gospels to the book of Revelation, and, accordingly, compare recollections of the first coming of the Messiah to depictions of his second, we find significantly contrasting pictures. Drawing imagery from the book of Daniel and other Old Testament prophets, Revelation’s depiction of the Messiah starts to look a lot more Jewish: from his mouth comes a sword of flame, and his words forcefully subdue all the powers and principalities of this world.
At the apocalyptic climax of history, the suffering servant is also the conquering king.
The Christian who holds these contrasting pictures together, then, can say with confidence that the early Jewish expectation of a martial Messiah was not wholly wrong, only wrong about the timing. Stated more positively, a Christian can affirm that Judaism’s messianic expectation is Christianity’s, but that, on the Christian view, it is a version that leaves out a big, important part of the story—indeed, a big part of the story that makes Christianity good news.
If you have not yet seen any version of Fiddler on the Roof—spoiler alert—it ends with the civic governors of Anatevka evicting the Jewish residents from their homes in a forced emigration to foreign lands. The concluding image of an entire populace pulling carts and carrying bundles down an open road calls to mind how many episodes in the long history of the Jewish people sound like bad news. Forced relocations, entrenched prejudice, social disadvantage, political persecutions, near extermination—from the outside, Jewish history and tradition can seem like a pretty dark legacy only dimly illuminated by hope in a future messianic intervention.
There is some continuity here, too: the Jewish people have never been wanting for bad news, but the same holds true for Christians. Since the fall of man, human life everywhere has been marred by disappointment, displacement, disasters, acrimonious divisions, and, ultimately, death. Whatever its shape and intensity, there is no escaping hardship in this world.
At the same time, there is another side to the story for those whose messianic hope is rooted in the first coming of Jesus Christ. Whereas Jewish tradition acknowledges the oneness of the creator God and looks forward to divine intervention at the end of history, Christian tradition also confesses that God accompanies along the way.
In a word, Christianity also proclaims the Paraclete.
Described by our Lord as an Advisor and Comforter who will lead his people into all truth, the Holy Spirit acts as a kind of down payment of the Promised Land or “foreign embassy of heaven” as God’s pilgrim people continue their unfinished journey toward total fulfillment. Like the pillar of flame that rested upon the tabernacle of the Old Covenant and guided the people Israel through the wilderness, so now the flame of Pentecost rests upon a new tabernacle—the people of God themselves—warming and illuminating the way to humanity’s everlasting homeland.
As individuals we may err, but as a people we can rest assured in this living and active sacred tradition. This does not eliminate hardships—as for the Jews in Anatevka, human life in every time and place remains precarious. There is no one alive who will not suffer at some point. Yet at the heart of the tradition that keeps Christians from tumbling into existential disaster like fiddlers falling from rooftops is an assurance that amounts to more than a practical guide to daily life between a past promise and its future fulfillment: Christian tradition includes a daily enrichment whereby the life of eternity becomes accessible now in the daily reentry of God among us.
Disaster, disintegration, and death will always barrage humanity in the pre-heavenly world, yet through the Holy Spirit, the miraculous, life-renewing presence of the incarnate God is always in our midst—tabernacling among us, again and again, in the consecrated bread and wine.
Christians, just like the rest of humanity, will never be wanting for bad news, yet the good news is always near at hand. “In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!” (John 16:33).
Fiddler on the Roof’s Tevye describes tradition as that set of observances that keep him and his Jewish neighbors from tumbling into calamity, and the same can be said about Christian tradition. Yet what a difference it makes when the observances at the center of one’s tradition are not only preservations of the past which look forward to an unknown future, but daily reacquaintances with an everlasting companion even now.