These simple observations are sufficient to understand that the subjects of witness and tradition belong to each other. Although testimony appears in summarising fashion as the historical modality by which the truth of God is offered in an unconditional way to man, respecting and involving his freedom, tradition is the dynamic by which the truth given by God shows that it is able to traverse time and space, thereby always remaining contemporaneous with men of all ages. In this way, what is meant by the word Traditio intercepts the great Enlightenment objection to Christian revelation, which is still contemporary, of transmitting a truth that is historically conditioned and for this reason inexorably ‘past’.
In reality, the Christian consciousness has always been aware, albeit at times in an implicit way, of an insuperable historical conditioning, and yet it has also been aware of the ability of the Word of God to auto-mediate itself through Tradition. It is likely that the difficulty that at times Christians display when addressing the modern objection to faith depends in part on them having lost or at least reduced the meaning of tradition. For that matter, it is no accident that in our epoch this very word can be interpreted in very different ways. Like other etymologically positive terms, the word ‘tradition’ has over recent centuries acquired in an increasing way a rather negative connotation, and to such a point as to be confused with traditionalism, which is negatively understood as a kind of raft that the past places on our shoulders and which it would be a good idea to let fall as soon as possible; or, positively understood, as a nostalgic attachment to a past that does not want to speak to the present and the future. In reality, a true traditio has more to do with the present and the contemporary than with the past; or, if we like, has more to do with the past because it inexorably concerns the present in which we live. Von Balthasar had occasion to say: ‘tradition is first and foremost something that is living, which pushes forward, a constant immersion in the living Word in prayer and contemplation’.
One should also agree with Blondel who defined authentic tradition as a place of practice and experience: ‘a conserving and preserving force, [tradition] is at the same time educational and initiating. Directed lovingly towards the past where its treasure is, it goes towards the future where its conquest and light is […]. For it works, to sum up, wherever a saint, who continues Jesus amongst us, or the scholar who returns to the pure springs of Revelation, or the philosopher who strives to open up the roads of the future and to prepare the constant creation of the Spirit of news, lives and thinks in a Christian way. And this work spread through the limbs contributes to the health of the body, under the direction of the head who alone, in the unity of divinely supported consciousness, organises it and stimulates its advance’.
Although what Blondel observes refers in an immediate sense to Christian Tradition, yet it is the same elementary experience that binds all men in inevitably referring to the dynamic of tradition. One need only think of its rehabilitation at the hands of thinkers such as Gadamer from within the hermeneutic pathway: to be able to understand a text and to understand ourselves requires a recognition of tradition as an original fact to which everyone belongs’. The militant Enlightenment neutrality is abstractness and an incapacity to understand real man who lives in a flow of history which proceeds him and reaches him and to which he belongs. Without recognising this Vor-Verständnis, this pre-understanding, there is no interpretation of reality and history.
Even more radically, elementary experience enables us to understand the reality of tradition in its vital ability to connect generations that follow one another in time. The human person who fails to perceive his roots, in fact, is condemned to being lost. Man would not reach awareness of himself and would be lost if he were not given, with biological existence, also a positive work hypothesis as regards reality, which parents transmit to their children. In this perspective, tradition is not a burden from which one has to free oneself as soon as possible, but a positive hypothesis that a person needs in order to face up to the real. In this sense, tradition represents a constituent ingredient of the anthropological experience, of being there as children, thereby pointing to the meaning of ‘genealogy’, which identifies the nexus between the various generations, beyond simple ‘biology’.
In this context, it is advisable to refer as well to the characteristic of being a memory that the dynamic of tradition brings with it. It is like an internal engine of every authentic tradition which passes vitally between the generations. In memory the past is condensed and rediscovered in the present as a system of the person that grows with time, recognising what is given in reality and allowing an existential orientation. Man without a memory, freed of tradition, is not in the least a freer man, he is not faced with a cleared terrain on which he can build; rather, he does not even have the instruments by which to recognise the terrain that is in front of him and the connection between this terrain and his own freedom, in which he must plan his future.
The Delivering up of Christ
What I have in rhapsodic fashion referred to above in this paper, is now useful to us as a substratum in order to rediscover the explicitly theological value of Tradition. In order to enucleate the meaning of the Christian tradition, I would like to refer to a summary drawn up by Hansjürgen Verweyen of its various Biblical meanings. According to the thought of this theologian from Freiburg, the meaning of tradition can be summarised in essential terms in certain categories that refer to the event of Christ: ‘tradition’ can mean handing a man over to violence through another man; in addition, it can mean the handing over of a man for every man through God; tradition can also mean the handing over of self as dedication of this man for every man; and, lastly, it means the diachronic tradition of this man given for all through the ecclesial tradition. All of this was achieved in the existence of Christ. He was handed over to violence in his passion and death; but even prior to this he was has handed over out of love by God Himself to mankind [Jn 13:17]; Jesus himself gave himself up freely [Jn 10:11-18]; lastly the Acts of the Apostles and the letters of St. Paul well describe the diachronic meaning of handing over/tradition.
From this summary one can well understand how traditio refers to a dynamic reality; even more, to a ‘movement’ that springs from the heart of the Most Holy Trinity, flowing into the world for each and every man, and which possesses in itself the ability to keep itself contemporaneous. It is the Father who out of love for us and for our salvation gives, ‘hands over’, His Son in the Holy Spirit so that Jesus ‘delivering himself up’ in his death on the cross carries out his fatherly mission, achieving salvation for everyone in an unconditional way.
With this said, we can now return to St. Paul. It is certainly no accident that the Apostle of peoples described his communication of what in turn he received specifically in relation to the account of the Last Supper of Jesus with the apostles. Indeed, from a theological point of view, traditio as the free delivering up of self takes place originally in the institution of the Eucharist. Here Jesus, with a supreme act of freedom and in total obedience to the Father, gives himself beforehand, delivering himself up to the hands of his disciples so that they repeat this gesture as a memorial of his death and resurrection. As the Gospel of John states in particular, specifically in the paschal mystery Jesus appears fully as the witness to that truth [Jn 18:37], with which he coincides [Jn 14:6]. Indeed, in the handing over of the Eucharist that Jesus makes of himself to the Father, he corresponds (Entsprechung) perfectly to the life of the Trinity and becomes its insuperable expression.The eternal love between the divine persons is expressed in the devotion of the Son made flesh until the delivering up of himself. Indeed, everything that Jesus is, he is from the Father in the Holy Spirit. In the mission that characterises his life, Jesus grasps in time his always being the Son, to whom the Father has given everything, because everything that is of the Father is of the Son [Jn 17:10]. In the devotion of the Son is thus expressed the devotion of divine life.
In this sense one should say that in the original event of our faith, ‘witness’ and ‘traditio’ coincide in the same person of Jesus: since he delivers himself up for love, he is the witness to the salvific truth of God for every man. At the same time this delivering up founds his being present in time, at every moment, thanks to the intrinsically sacramental character of tradition itself. Significantly, Benedict XVI in his Sacramentum Caritatis stated that ‘The celebration of the Eucharist implies and involves the living Tradition’ [n. 37]. In the Eucharistic moment each believer is placed in front of the living and contemporary delivering up that Christ makes himself and is called to respond to this fully in personal terms.
A Permanent Presence
From what has been observed, a mystery follows that is decisive in understanding the dynamic of the Christian life: traditio is not conceivable without the recipient of this gift, that is to say the mystery of the Church, represented at the Last Supper by the Apostles and at the foot of the cross by Mary of Nazareth in the company of the beloved disciple of the Lord. Traditio thus contains the link between Christ and the Church, between ‘the Faithful Witness’, to which the Book of the Apocalypse refers, and Christian witness, whose subject is the Church. Expressed in other terms, Tradition (traditio) and reception (receptio) are two moments that intimately belong to the life of the Church and to every authentic Christian experience.
Here one should recognise first and foremost the primacy of Traditio: it is not the reception that founds the gift; it is the traditio that implies the reception. This element is decisive: on this depends the truth-containing capacity of Christian witness. This last, in fact, is not a divagation that is based on the values of the life of Christ but an authentic reception: every act of Christian witness is a reception of the gift that Christ makes of himself in time. In the circularity between traditio and receptio Christ shows that he is present here and now in the life of the Church. Tradition, as Benedict XVI has said, ‘is the permanent presence of the word and life of Jesus in his people’. It is no accident that the Church has always recognised the Word of God inseparably from its written attestation (Holy Scripture) and in the living Tradition of the Church. It is for this reason that Dei Verbum n. 12 reminds us that an authentic hermeneutics of Scripture can only take place in the ecclesial Tradition and can never be a private fact. Hence one understands the deep nexus between the written and handed down Word of God and the role of the Magisterium of the Church. All of this is profoundly linked to the Eucharistic character of tradition. Taking as true the anthropological dimension to which reference is made above, believing freedom can act authentically only if the gift of the truth of God is communicated unconditionally. The institutional dimension of the mystery of the Church takes on this reality.
In addition one should recognise the need for a personal receptio of truth by believing freedom, to the point of becoming authentic witnesses to that truth in the specific circumstances of daily life. The Holy Spirit, who worked through Mary in order to make her the Mother of God, and who works objectively in the sacraments, does not fail to move, internally, the freedom of believers towards personal receptio, the reception of the truth that is given so as to be, through their existence, witnesses to it amongst men of their own time. Ancient and recent, hidden or manifest, charismata enable each individual to receive the living Tradition of the Church, making himself a witness to the truth that has been given.
I would like to end this paper by referring to a valuable text of the Second Vatican Council: ‘This tradition which comes from the Apostles develops in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit. For there is a growth in the understanding of the realities and the words which have been handed down. This happens through the contemplation and study made by believers, who treasure these things in their hearts [see Luke, 2:19,51] through a penetrating understanding of the spiritual realities which they experience, and through the preaching of those who have received through Episcopal succession the sure gift of truth’ [DV, n. 8]. In this passage it is well demonstrated to us how what has been given to us once and for all in Christ grows in us and in the Church through the work of the Holy Spirit. Each generation does not confine itself to taking on what has been handed down to it but in receiving it through the help of the Holy Spirit and under the guidance of the Magisterium it makes it ‘grow’. In this way we can understand the importance of each spiritual experience of the various moments of the Church. Through the most varying experiences – I am thinking here in particular to cases of witness to the point of suffering and martyrdom, which are not rare nowadays – are discovered and explored the treasures that Christ gave to his Church. Witness and in particular martyrdoms are acts of an authentic reception of the delivering up that Christ made of himself once and for all and in this way in it infinite fecundity and profundity are manifested. Indeed, as Dei Verbum states: ‘For as the centuries succeed one another, the Church constantly moves forward toward the fullness of divine truth until the words of God reach their complete fulfilment in her’ [DV, n. 8].
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