In last month’s post, I began by looking at a single word. I thought that I would begin this month’s post in the same vein. Vaguely recalling a line from Sesame Street, therefore, “today’s posting is brought to you by the word”…tradition. ‘Tradition’ comes from the Latin word traditio, which means ‘handing over.’ The word ‘traitor’ also comes from this word; as in someone who ‘hands over’ things he shouldn’t.
In today’s gospel proclamation (Jn 17:20-26), we get a sense of what has been ‘handed over’ to us. This passage comes from a portion of St. John’s Gospel known as Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer (Jn 17). This is the prayer that Jesus offers to the Father during the Last Supper and, as Fr. Raymond Brown has noted, Jesus adopts the tone of “one who stands before the throne of God making intercession for us.” According to St. John’s Gospel, these are the very last words Jesus utters prior to his arrest.
At this crucial moment of Jesus’ life and ministry, he prays for us. We are the ones not present at the Last Supper, who will come to believe in him through the words of others (Jn 17:20). These words, handed down generation after generation, have come to animate – literally, to ‘give life to’ – our faith. And this handing on, this tradition, is of irreplaceable importance; because faith comes from hearing and believing. As St. Paul famously asked: “[H]ow can they believe in him of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone to preach?” (Rom 10:14). Christians are not formed by nature. Perhaps living in a predominantly Christian culture can help formation, but it certainly does not guarantee it; nor can it replace the personal act of faith. The early Christian theologian Tertullian once wrote that “Christians are made, not born” (Apol. 18). And this ‘making’ begins with faith.
At some point in our lives, we heard the proclamation “Christ is risen” and we believed. The vast majority of Christians were not like Ss. Mary of Magdala or Peter or Thomas – he actually got to poke his finger into Jesus’ side! Rather, most Christians have believed because the good news of Christ’s resurrection had been handed on to them. Our faith, therefore, has a mediator. It comes to us through the mediation of the Church. She has handed on the faith – first in preaching, then also in Scripture – since the day of Pentecost, and does so throughout the ages.
It is for us, therefore, that Jesus prays. And the content of his prayer is for our communion. He prays that his future disciples “may be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, […] that they may be one, as we are one” (Jn 17:21, 22). He prays that his entire Church, spread across lands and languages, time and eternity, might be one – one as God himself is one! Jesus’ prayer for our communion, therefore, is a prayer that we might participate in God’s own Trinitarian life.
What has been handed over to us is not some sentimental nicety or material benefit, like the recipe for Mama’s sauce or the deed to a house. The tradition we have inherited is that through which we have been joined to Christ by faith. It has formed us into a new people, where “[t]here is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28). It calls us into communion with one another, and into that loving communion which is our Triune God. Jesus himself has prayed for this to the Father; i.e., “that the love with which you loved me may be in them” (Jn 17:26).
Anthony Coleman teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online.