The great church historian Jaroslav Pelikan famously said, “Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.” I’ve always liked this quote. It gets right to the point. And like all such pithy quotes, it also rewards further consideration.
On the Byzantine liturgical calendar, the third Sunday of Pascha celebrates the feast of the Holy Myrrhbearers—the women who came “early in the morning on the first day of the week” to anoint Jesus’ body after his crucifixion. This year it happened to fall on the same day as the feast of St John the Evangelist, or “John the Theologian” as he is called in the Orthodox Church. The coincidence of these feasts invites us to think deeply about the meaning of tradition.
The Myrrhbearers were among the only followers of Jesus present at his crucifixion, not just watching from a safe distance. The women saw Christ on the cross; they saw the empty tomb. When they encountered the angel in the tomb, he told them to go and proclaim to the disciples that the Lord had risen from the dead. They are the first “traditioners” of the Gospel. Without these women, the faith of the church would not exist. Tradition is a word whose root means “handing down.” What is the “living faith” they handed down?
Tradition or transferral?
I recently got a new smartphone. My previous phone was about seven generations old, which I think makes it 150 years old in iPhone years. I was pleasantly surprised at how easy it was to transfer the information—the pictures, the contacts, the data—from my old phone to my new one. You simply connect to the cloud and move the data. It’s seamless.
This is not what tradition is like in the life of the church: just a transfer of data from one person to another, from one brain to another. That is because the content of the tradition is not just information about God, or correct words and ritual forms. It is rather a living encounter with God, with the crucified and risen Lord, in the Holy Spirit.
When the Myrrhbearers encountered the empty tomb, their minds were scrambled. Their whole lives had to become different. The experience of the cross and the empty tomb was not just a data point that was seamlessly transferred to their brains. No, it prompted a reprogramming of their whole life. This is what the Myrrhbearers communicated to the disciples: a new life.
St John and tradition
St John has the distinction of being the sole member of the twelve male disciples who was present at the crucifixion. Like the Myrrhbearers, he too was an eyewitness. The first epistle of John speaks to the significance of that encounter for passing down the tradition. The epistle opens like this:
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, concerning the Word of life, the life was manifested, as we have seen, and bear witness, and declare to you that eternal life which was with the Father and was manifested to us. (1 John 1:1-2)
Leaving aside for the moment the disputed scholarly question of the its authorship, the Johannine letter corresponds to the experience of St. John by the cross, and his encounter with Christ after the resurrection. He repeats it again and again: the proclamation being “traditioned” was seen and heard and touched with hands and fingers.
The new life that this encounter prompts us to live is what John calls, “eternal life.” Eternal life this is not simply life after death. It is the life that was “manifested.” Eternal life is already beginning right now, today. It is this new life that is passed down in tradition.
To be a part of the living tradition of the dead means to have such an encounter such that we live in eternal life. The tradition is not only a thing to be kept and preserved, but also to be embodied in speech and action in our common life. It is that encounter with God that the church’s dogma, its liturgy, even the Scriptures themselves, authentically witness to. But without that encounter, they are but empty words and rituals.
Rev. Dr. Mark Roosien is Lecturer in Liturgical Studies at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music and Yale Divinity School and a deacon in the Orthodox Church in America.