Coptic Orthodox Diocese of the Southern United States
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"Beware lest any one cheat you through philosophy and empty deceit, according to the tradition of men, according to the basic principles of the world, and not according to Christ" (Colossians 2:8). Could St. Paul be referring to the Old Testament Mosaic traditions and rituals as being useless to spirituality, since they did not have a saving power? Can we extend this explanation to cover New Testament traditions as well? What is the role of rituals and traditions in spiritual life?  

When St. Paul talked about the "tradition of men" to the Colossians he was warning them against those who alter the Divine Tradition. He is instructing them not to follow the tradition according to the doctrine of the Jewish teachers; or, according to the Mosaic institutions, as explained by the Scribes, Pharisees, and Sadducees in general. By "the traditions of men", St. Paul, mainly refers to doctrines and teachings men, unauthorized by God, have taught as allegedly received from Him. Our Lord frequently refers to and condemns these traditions. "He said to them, 'All too well you reject the commandment of God, that you may keep your tradition" (Mk 7:9). (See also Mk 7:13; Mt 15:2-6)

By no means did St. Paul teach that we should NOT hold on to traditions; we read in his second letter to the Thessalonians "Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our Epistle" (2 Thes 2:15).

Our Lord Jesus Christ never said that we should reject the teaching of the Old Testament. If you read carefully the Sermon on the Mount, He never said that the Old Testament commandments were wrong or obsolete or that we should no longer follow them "Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill" (Mt 5:17). His message was to teach us how to go beyond these commandments and follow them in a more spiritual way. "For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the Kingdom of Heaven. You have heard that it was said to those of old, 'You shall not murder, and whoever murders will be in danger of the Judgment. But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the Judgment" (Mt 5:20-22) and so on.

Concerning the rituals question: What do we consider "rituals" is it only baptism and communion? How about prayers?

Our Lord gave us clear instructions on how to pray (Mt 6:5-7) and St. James taught us about the Unction of the Sick (James 5:14-15).

From the Apostolic Age, the Christian Church did not neglect the living traditions of the Old Testament. She refused those traditions which opposed the Word of God and accepted others after Christianizing them to serve the new faith. For example circumcision in the Old Testament became baptism in the New Testament and sacrifices in the Old Testament became the Eucharist.

If we understand the meaning of the rituals and the reason behind why we adhere to them the way we do, we would significantly benefit spiritually. Consider the Divine Liturgy, from the start to the end; it is a reminder of both the Old and New Testament beliefs. Further, it makes us not only remember the institution of the Eucharist but it takes us through the whole journey of salvation. For example, the washing of hands of the priest three times which to the Jews meant ritual purity, now reminds us of our obligation to be clean from all sins and transgressions. The procession around the Altar with the Lamb wrapped in a veil symbolizes the carrying of the body of our Lord Jesus Christ wrapped in linen to lay it in the tomb and so on.

For further reading I recommend "The Orthodox Concept: Tradition and Orthodoxy" by Fr. Tadros Y. Malaty" and "Understanding the Liturgy" by Fr. Athanasius Iskander.
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