I have a college classmate who is a priest in the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Church. Over the years, Fr. Michael has taught me many things in a calm, subtle and wise manner, not the least of which is the central importance of tradition to Eastern Orthodox Christians. Here’s how he explained the matter to me in a phone conversation some weeks ago:
Fr. Richard: I’m writing something on “tradition” for our diocesan magazine and I’ve been trying to remember that important word for “passing on or handing on” found in First Corinthians 15? I understand that it is particularly important theologically in the Eastern churches.
Fr. Michael: Right, it’s paradosis…and it means literally “a gift given forward.” Paul writes in First Corinthians 15:3: “For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received…” And in our Prayer of Institution in the Divine Liturgy, we quote St. Paul again: “For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread…” You see, this “handing on” is all about gift-giving – gifts to the Church; gifts for the world; and gifts that cause us always to remember the Blessed Trinity.
Fr. Richard: Yes, that’s our action in the Lord’s Supper or Holy Communion too, but I am moved by two things you’ve emphasized: 1) that all that we have is a gift, not a possession we have earned or can hold to or control; and 2) it is given forward, not a memory alone, a promise for the future. So, it really is about hope in important, last ways.
I never got to explore this point about hope with my friend in this particular conversation, but I plan to the next time we talk. I think this is exactly where the distinction between healthy traditions and dangerous (even idolatrous) traditionalism is marked. (You’ll remember the old line that “tradition is the living faith of the dead while traditionalism is the dead faith of the living!”) And certainly the Eastern churches are careful about making that distinction in our prayer and in our discipleship.
Upon reflection, following this impromptu conversation between two old friends who see too little of each other yet share much in life, I have begun to look for those “gifts given forward” manifested all around. The liturgical year is such a gift. It is shared by Orthodox and Anglicans, and through it we are enriched by Eastern Christian influences like the Great Vigil of Easter, expanded Advent celebrations, Eucharistic Prayer ‘D’, iconography and monastic prayer practices. But let’s never forget the gift of friendship that is at the heart of this “handing on.” It was to friends gathering together at table fellowship that Paul told what he knew about the love of God offered in that greatest of gifts given forward: Jesus the Lord. Likewise, it is among friends that we do our best forward-giving, and it is the purpose of the church to make the table of fellowship broader and longer and wider so that God’s gift – for God’s holy people – can be given forward.
Fr. Michael has taught me many things, and this insightful definition of tradition (paradosis) will not easily be forgotten, nor will it be stored away for my personal use. It will, with God’s help, be given forward for others to hear and know and share in their lives.
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The Rev. Dick Burnett serves as rector of Trinity Church-Capitol Square, Columbus.