One of the most exhilarating moments in the history of Broadway Musicals is the opening number of “Fiddler on a Roof”. You will remember that after the lone fiddler introduces the plaintive opening melody, Tevye reveals in his opening song the secret of what keeps the poor and oppressed Jewish community alive and hopeful: Tradition!
This ‘handing on’ of customs and understandings is a part of all human history. History teaches us that the past, with its learnings, insights, fears, and hopes can help us navigate present and future challenges. History is always instructive. As Santayana once said: Those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it.
I will never forget seeing that quote emblazoned at the exit of Dachau as a solemn warning and an inducement to remembrance, handing on knowledge that is critical for the future.
But apart from the vast canvas of history, even family understandings and customs are profitably handed-on in a personal tradition. I remember many stories that my Mom told me about her family in Italy and what they learned from the war. These things seemed to me, growing up in America, to be irrelevant until I learned from my studies how important it is to learn from what past generations have gone through!
In the area of Faith, tradition is of particular importance.
When studying Theology, the Catholic position regarding the Revelation that God gives us in this life as a Church was characterized by a duality. Protestants believe in only one source of Revelation: Scripture. Luther put it succinctly: Sola Scriptura (Scripture Alone). But the Catholic position was that God revealed His will in two ways: Scripture and Tradition. Even Scripture was seen as a kind of Tradition that was set down in writing; and in this decision, the Church decided what oral traditions were truly inspired. But even before there was a New Testament, the eye-witnesses of Jesus and His work on earth wrote down their recollections which became, through the Church’s prayerful choice, the New Testament. But this was formed from the great oral Tradition. What was written down, however, did not exhaust the recollection of the early church. Much valuable data continued to be shared orally. Even the Evangelist John says in his Gospel that all the books in the world could not contain all that the Lord taught and lived out.
Added to this is the issue of the interpretation of the written Revelation. Once the Church decided what constituted the Old Testament and the New Testament, there were widely different interpretations of the written text of Scripture. The Church had to gather in Councils and Synods to decide what was the correct or orthodox interpretation of a disputed passage and what was heretical. Gradually, fed by both Scripture and Oral Tradition, a body of officially understood teaching emerged which was added to in each of the centuries of the Church’s life. This grew into what is called the Magisterium of the Church.
The Magisterium of the Church is a priceless guide and protection for the believer. Church history is rife with well-intentioned believers who have wandered far from the Truth of Revelation due to human error and the temptations of the devil. But a humble and forthright acceptance of the Magisterium of the Church is a wonderful help in keeping on the right road of faith and devotion. Far from being a burden or a frustration, it is a gift.
This codification of the oral tradition and its valid interpretation of the Scriptural text requires a humble acceptance and a confident trust. One thing necessary of the believing pilgrim in this world is to realize one’s limitations and to accept the help that God provides. The traditions of the Church are guardrails that help the person reach their personal destination in Christ.
The world seeks to beguile us in saying: “Be progressive. These things are of the past.” But a trust in God’s Providence is necessary. Accepting the wisdom of tradition over the momentary insights of our limited minds requires a humility and a docility that is often frowned upon in this modern world.
Why not take advantage of the great sweep of accumulated wisdom that is the gift of tradition? While a healthy skepticism can be helpful in burning away the dross of error, if the skepticism becomes central this creates a general distaste and aversion to what is handed on for our benefit. Then we become losers in the journey of life.
So, thank God for Tradition!