Reference: 2 Peter 1:12-21
Mentioning the study of history can bring back thoughts of a teacher droning on about events and dates that seemed very irrelevant to life for a teenager whose musings were elsewhere. The result is that many Americans adults have little interest in or appreciation of history. That has many consequences, not least for Christians.
Christianity depends on history. Some religions are based on the wisdom and law expressed in a sacred book, some in the cyclical patterns of the seasons. While these religions may have accounts of past happenings, the existence of the religion does not depend on them.
But for Christianity, if the cross and resurrection are not real historical events, we are, as St. Paul notes (1 Corinthians 15:12-20), wasting our time and should have stayed in bed. It is the collective memory of these events, shared from generation to generation, people to people, which is the base truth of our Faith.
History is simply the memory of the past. In rehabilitating history from that dull stuff that bored you, note that history is simply another word for memory. We understand the importance of memory at the personal level. The sadness of someone being afflicted with Alzheimer’s or dementia is a fact for many families. The loss of memory strikes at the heart of what it is to be a person, to have a being. We are who we are because of the thread of remembered events, and especially remembered relationships. You cannot love if you cannot remember your loved ones. You cannot define who you are if you cannot remember your identity. Normal life cannot function without memory.
Because Christianity depends on shared memory for its truth and being, a loss of interest in that memory is equally devastating. St. Peter clarifies this, pointing out that what he and the other disciples transmit are not made up stories and myths, but carefully defined memories of what they witnessed.
We call it Tradition, capital “T.” The Greek word is παραδοσιs, paradosis, the passing forward of the gifts we have received. In the living community around the Holy Spirit, it passes the torch of Christian memory, successfully shaping the being of each new Christian generation with the memory needed to know who we are, who loves us and who we love, and why we have our existence, vocation and purpose. If all we have is a vague “Judeo-Christian heritage,” (which by definition does not have the Cross and Resurrection as a common memory but rather as a sharp divide of disagreement), we are lost in corporate Christian dementia. Note that we are not addressing “traditions” here. These also are shared memories of how things are seen and done, which not only all churches, but all communities, cultures, nations and families have. Some are good, some bad, but they are not Tradition, which means specifically the shared Christian memory passed on from the saints of old, celebrated vigorously among us today in all places and told by us to those who have ears to hear, delivering it forward.
In harmony with the general disregard for history, many find Tradition irrelevant or even counter-productive. The evangelical style around us tends to be immediate, existential and current. You must be saved now, yesterday is gone, tomorrow may be too late. That which has formed you is unimportant, and life after being saved is a matter of behaving yourself and waiting until you are lifted to Heaven.
In the long process of maturation to Faith, there may for some come such a moment of existential crisis where an up/down decision is imperative. If that happens to you, the moment of crisis has likely been fermenting in the Holy Spirit for some time, until something causes it to suddenly boil over. Whether God’s grace comes into your consciousness suddenly or through a long, steady journey, it has been there all along, he has been there all along, even when you were unaware. His grace always arrives through the faithful transmission (trans-mission) work of the Holy Spirit in the community of Christians, and is bestowed on us in baptism. It is this bringing forward of the sacrifice of Christ on the cross which saves us, not any decision on our part. Our decision to accept or reject the gift of God’s grace is part of the continuing process of our life, but the gift is permanent and not of our own doing. That is why baptism is indelible and irrevocable. To remember that we are in the glorious company of prophets, apostles, saints, martyrs and teachers who have brought this gift to us is crucial. Without that memory, we are empty of being, identity and relationships, unable to understand that salvation is more than a personal matter activated by my efforts and thoughts.
Sometimes, those of us of catholic persuasion keep the memory fresh, the Tradition intact, yet fail to connect it to the Eucharist, which is its center. The reason is understandable. Some others would make Eucharist into an event only of memorial without grasping that Eucharistic remembrance is the process of bringing forward the real Presence of Christ. Taking his Body and Blood is precisely what he commanded us to do “in remembrance of me.” In reaction to the misunderstanding and denigration of the fullness of remembrance, we downplay the importance of the Eucharist as a feast of remembrance. Yet it is the remembrance that re-calls (epiclesis) over and over the living Bread among us.
Doctrine in this context is not the stacking of stale dogmas in neat piles. It is, as Peter puts it, “when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ,” the relived, recalled memory of when “we ourselves heard the voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain” (2 Peter 1:16-18). This living memory, through all the generations, has the power, the dynamis, to make us fully alive, and to incorporate the living Presence into our existential life each week, its power and grace remembered and delivered anew every Eucharist.
Peter is relating the history of the Transfiguration and the Baptism/Chrismation of Jesus, so we may understand the glory, honor and majesty which surrounds the Presence, the seen and unseen hosts who always join us in the feast, as we once again bring forward the central moment of history to celebrate the shared memory, the Tradition.
When it delivers the astounding grace and glory of God to us, history can be exciting….and necessary.