Symbols and traditions

“Hot cross buns! Hot cross buns!
One a penny, two a penny!
Hot cross buns!

“If you have no daughters, give them to your sons!
One a penny, two a penny!
Hot cross buns!

The English nursery rhyme is a reference to the traditional buns that mark the end of Lent. The buns, often baked with raisins and cinnamon, date back at least to the 12th Century, when legend has it a monk marked the buns being baked for Easter Sunday by pulling a knife across the dough in the sign of a cross. The tradition has since become one of making a cross with frosting on the top of the buns.

I took hot cross buns to share with the staff of Western South Dakota Juvenile Services Center on Good Friday. It seemed like a nice snack to share with the Corrections Officers and teachers, many of whom are fairly young. I had forgotten that last week was Spring Break in Rapid City schools, which meant that the teachers were not in on Friday, so I had a few to share with others throughout the day. The surprise to me was how many of the 20-something people I encountered had never heard of hot cross buns. They didn’t even know the song.

After all we live in the United States, not England, where hot cross buns are especially common. In England, hot cross buns are so closely associated with Good Friday, that in 1592, Queen Elizabeth I decreed that they could only be eaten on Good Friday, Christmas and for burial ceremonies.

So I told them an abbreviated version of the story. It was an interesting opportunity to share a bit of the faith - not a traditional teaching or preaching opportunity at all, just a chance to talk a bit about Christian traditions in a secular setting. Chaplains are schooled not to engage in evangelism or attempts to convert or change the faith of those we serve. Our role is simply to be there for them when needed and to be attentive to their spiritual needs. I do a fair amount of connecting young people with other churches as part of my work as a chaplain. It isn’t about growing our church, but rather about serving our community. Our congregation has been a part of Rapid City for 140 years, during which time we’ve not paid a penny of property tax except for an occasional special assessment. In that time, we’ve received police and fire protection services as well as the support and good will of the community. Paying back by serving the community in small ways is a tradition as old as the congregation itself.

I wonder how many other Christian traditions are part of my life that might not make sense to others.

A teenager, in another setting, commented on the fact that I was wearing all black. The occasion was the public viewing and family service for a teen who had died and the teen commented that he didn’t believe in wearing all black at funerals. I responded that my choice of clothes was because it was Good Friday. He had never heard of a tradition of wearing black on Good Friday. I have no idea of the origins of the tradition.

Here’s a tradition about which I know, but have seldom observed in recent years. The tradition is flying kites. In some places, kites are flown on Easter Sunday. In other places they are flown on Ascension Day, which falls on May 30 this year. A simple diamond kite is a symbol of Jesus because the sticks of the kite are formed into a cross. When the kite is flying, the winds “lift high the cross” symbolizing the ascension of Jesus to reign over all of the world. It is, I think a rather obscure tradition, probably not observed in many places. Less clear to me is the tradition of flying kites only after 3 pm on Sundays. That may be a tradition based on the fact that our father took a nap on most Sundays and Sunday afternoon activities had to wait until he had been given a chance to rest. I can find no references to that particular tradition in my sources.

We do a modified Tenebrae service as part of our Maundy Thursday service in our church. Traditionally Tenebrae was reserved for Good Friday with the extinguishing of candles as the story of the crucifixion is read from the Gospel texts. Another part of the tradition is called the “Strepitus.” Near the end of the service a loud noise is made to symbolize the moment when Jesus died. There are various methods of performing the Strepitus. In some congregations a couple of pieces of wood are slammed together. In others a drum is beat. A loud closing of the book, the banging of a heavy object on the communion table or a brief erratic burst from a pipe organ are also used to perform the Strepitus. I guess we had our own version of the Strepitus in our church yesterday, which was Holy Saturday and not Good Friday, when the organ tuners went completely through the organ. 33 ranks of pipes, with ranks as small as 12 pipes and as extensive as 60 pipes make up our pipe organ. That’s something like 1180 pipes. Each had to be played individually and tuned by a person who crawls through the organ chambers on hands and knees, sometimes hanging from ladders and walkways to reach the pipes. It takes several hours and if you are in the building while it is going on, you begin to tire of the sound quickly.

Other traditions, such as fasting from meat, refraining from drinking alcohol, not lighting candles, and clearing certain symbols and items from the sanctuary are all parts of the observance of Holy Week.

Today, however, we make a sudden change of direction, for it is Easter. We begin a seven week, 50-day-long season of breaking into the joy of Resurrection. It is one of the most sudden and emotional shifts of the Christian calendar.

A colleague sent me an email on Good Friday stating that the forecast for this morning was for rain and wondering if that would affect our sunrise service. I wrote back. “I don’t know about you, but I’m waterproof. Bring an umbrella. Easter comes, rain or shine!”

Happy Easter!

Copyright (c) 2019 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!