Teaching the Tradition


by Fr. John Oliver

I write these words on my laptop computer, as both of us are traveling south on Interstate 75. Don’t worry; I’m not driving: I’ve never been much of a multi-tasker.

My wife and children and I are on our way to the Parish Life Conference of our Diocese. We’re somewhere in Georgia, headed for Florida, and my wife is nicely, if anxiously, navigating through a moving field of 18-wheelers – “mobile landmines,” she calls them.

It occurred to me just minutes ago that, because I have always had relatives in the Tampa area, I have traveled this interstate for most of my life. The memories are good, very good, and there are so many of them that they whirl by like all these road-side trees.

Both sets of grandparents lived in Florida, and my family would travel this interstate once or twice a year toward a destination of sandy beaches and grandparent indulgences and a particular kind of love: a love without condition or expectation or demand. We would often stop at the same hotels, the ones with swimming pools. And I remember that delicious feeling of running, fresh from the pool, toward an air-conditioned hotel room and certain dinner. And now, here I am traveling this interstate with my children.

As the miles pass, I unearth a few stories from my childhood. Right now, my children are young enough that they’re actually interested. I speak of fishing in the rain with my grandfather, and floating down the rivers on an inner tube. I tell them of the time I came across a nest of freshly-born raccoons, and the mother who expressed her disapproval...convincingly. And I tell them of how my grandfather and grandmother lived, of the summer church services and the amazing love. And as I strain my voice to be heard above the noise of wind and wheels on pavement, I think to myself: “I hope something very precious is being passed on right now.”

When the Apostle and Evangelist Luke describes the process of handing on that which he has received – the events of salvation – he uses the word paradosis. His Gospel begins, “Inasmuch as many have taken in hand to set in order a narrative of those things which have been fulfilled among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word delivered them to us…it seemed good to me…to write an orderly account also.”

The Apostle Paul took his transmission role seriously, too. Like a priceless diamond carefully passed from one person to another, the Gospel experience that changed his life would be passed along from him to others. The Christ he freely received would be freely shared. That’s how he describes in First Corinthians what he’s up to: “For I handed on to you as of first importance what I also received…” And, the apostle passes on more than just the name of Christ; he passes on His body, too: “For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus, on the same night in which He was betrayed, took bread…” As Paul received the Eucharist, so does he pass the Eucharist on. Elsewhere, in Philippians (chapter two) and Colossians (chapter one) and Ephesians (chapter five), St Paul highlights theological content that apparently had been part of communal Christian hymnody. As Paul received the liturgy, so did he pass the liturgy on.

In the writings of St Paul, there is much evidence of an already-existing church – a community of believers into which he was baptized, with whom he communed, and whose traditions he faithfully transmitted: “For I handed on to you as of first importance what I also received…”

St Paul uses the word tradition to describe this process of faithfully passing on that which he had received. “Therefore,” he writes to the brothers in Thessaloniki, “stand firm and hold fast to the traditions – the paradoseis – that you were taught by word or our epistle.” By oral tradition or written tradition, he means.

These traditions flow from a single source: the life of the Holy Spirit in the Church. More than the words of Scripture, more than the words of saints, authority rests with the Holy Spirit who inspires, who equips, who distinguishes truth from falsehood, right from wrong, good from evil, life from death. As long as there are faithful persons open to the leading of the Holy Spirit, the truth as expressed by the Church will remain.

Father Sophrony Sakharov, in his beautiful introductory work to the life of St Silouan, describes it this way: “Suppose that for some reason the Church were to be bereft of all her liturgical books, of the Old and New Testaments, the works of the Holy Fathers—what would happen? Sacred Tradition would restore the Scriptures, not word for word, perhaps—the verbal form might be different but in essence the new Scriptures would be the expression of that same 'faith which was once delivered unto the saints.' They would be the expression of the one and only Holy Spirit continuously active in the Church, her foundation and her very substance.”

We creatures who live in time – like parents and children – attempt to take the timeless things that matter, and make them available to others. We do it awkwardly, to be sure. Even as my wife and I drive these children south on Interstate 75 to a Parish Life Conference, I am certain that what they are receiving from my life is a mere fraction of the abundance available to them. But then I console myself: they do have their mother.

But they also have their church and their friends and their books and their pilgrimages and their curiosity. And they have the grace imparted through the Mysteries in which we partake but about which we comprehend so little. And so, in the end, we Orthodox Christians take the Story we have received and pass it along, trusting that the angels will compensate whenever and wherever we fall short.

Years ago, I visited an Orthodox Christian church in St Petersburg, Russia. It was a Sunday morning and it felt as if the whole neighborhood was there. Believers of all sizes and ages moved around during the Divine Liturgy, and though I understood so little of the language, I felt as if I was able to participate in the Liturgy with these brothers and sisters.

Shortly after the reception of Holy Communion, near the end of the service, I stood in back of the church and watched the faithful slowly disperse. Then, I noticed two figures toward the front, just standing there. An elderly woman (I’m going to guess she was in her seventies) was leaning over a child, a small girl, who stood in front of her. They were so close it looked as if their long skirts melded into a single earth-tone fabric.

The woman, whom I assumed to be the grandmother, was whispering to the child and occasionally gesturing with her hands – pointing toward this, then pointing toward that. They stayed like that for a long time – grandmother hovering over granddaughter, just whispering. “Hmm”, I thought, “I’ll bet something very precious is being passed on right now.”