Saturday, July 15, 2006

Handing On What Was Handed On

This Sunday on the Byzantine calendar marks the commemoration of the fathers of the early ecumenical councils (Heb. 13:7-16 and John 17:1-13). The reading from the Letter to the Hebrews urges us today to remember our leaders, those who spoke to us the word of God, and then to imitate their faith. That is what we are doing as we celebrate the fathers of the ecumenical councils. The author of Hebrews also warns us not to be led away by strange and diverse teachings—another reason to celebrate the fathers, who have defined the dogmas of our faith and hence have protected us from strange and heretical ideas. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever, so we should be aware that new ideas that contradict what has already been definitively proclaimed are not of God. That doesn’t mean that there can’t be fresh formulations and clarifications of the ancient truths—for every age has to receive the Gospel in a way that it can understand, and hopefully always deepen faith and understanding. But nothing may be discarded or changed that has been delivered to the Church by the apostles and fathers as the true word of God.

The hour has come, Jesus declared in his “high-priestly” prayer—the hour of the glorification of the Son, i.e., his suffering, death, and resurrection. Jesus was aware that the Father had given Him power and authority to give eternal life to “all those whom You have given Me.” Here we touch on a mystery, one which perhaps we can never adequately explain this side of eternity. If Jesus refers to those whom the Father has given Him, does that mean that there are those whom the Father has not given Him, the only Savior? Perhaps one of these was Judas, whom Jesus referred to as the “son of perdition.” Later in his prayer, Jesus said that none of his disciples was lost, “except the son of perdition, that the Scripture might be fulfilled.” And when many of Jesus’ disciples ceased to follow Him after He solemnly declared that we must eat his flesh and drink his blood to have eternal life, He said: “That is why I told you that no one can come to Me unless it is granted him by the Father” (John 6:65). In his prayer He also said He was praying not for the world, but for those whom the Father had given Him. I think we have to leave this mystery in the depths of the wisdom of God, and simply pray for the salvation of all. Or, we can pray, as I do, based on this prayer of Jesus, for those whom God has given us. Each individual is not personally responsible for every individual in the world, for no one can carry that kind of burden. But God has given us those for whom He wants us to be responsible, for whom He expects us to pray and even suffer. Some of these we may know (our own family, friends, and those who have asked our prayers), but there may be many others that we don’t know—among whom may be those for whom we would not otherwise be inclined to pray—so in praying for those whom God has given us, we exclude no one for whom God wants us to pray. We may be surprised to find out in the end just who the beneficiaries of our prayers and sacrifices actually were!

Jesus said that to those whom the Father had given Him, He would grant eternal life. Immediately He tells us what this means: “Eternal life is this: that they know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom You have sent.” Will we know the true God by reading the Catechism or other books? We will certainly gain important knowledge about God, but to know facts about Him is not the same as knowing Him.

Learned theologians can still lose their souls if they do not have a personal relationship with God, if they do not love Him and do his will. So the knowledge Jesus is talking about is an experiential knowledge, i.e., knowledge in the biblical sense of intimate relationship. If we have faith in the true God and if we love and obey Him, then eternal life has already begun for us, for eternal life is not merely an endless duration of life, but a spiritual quality of life, a life that is wholly permeated by the grace of the Holy Spirit, and thus it is a life of love and joy in the Lord. According to St. Paul, life in the Kingdom of God is “righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Romans 14:17), and that can begin, and must begin, here on earth.

The connection with the fathers of the Church in this Gospel is Jesus’ handing on of his word to the apostles, who were then to hand on his word to others. “I gave them Your word,” Jesus said in his prayer to the Father, and then He prayed for “all those who believe in Me through their word.” The fathers were the transmitters of the apostolic teaching to the whole Church, and their successors have handed it on from generation to generation, to this very day, in which we can enjoy the privilege of embracing the richness of the heritage of Christ, handed on through the apostles and fathers. But it can’t stop with our generation. We have not only to receive the word, but to live it and to pass it on to others—intact, unadulterated, undiluted, in its full power, truth, and spiritual dynamism, for this is the word that leads to personal knowledge and experience of God, and hence to salvation.

One of the great crises in the Church today is the refusal to accept the Gospel as handed down by our fathers in the faith. What we see in many places is the radical reinterpretation of the gospel, so much so that it is hardly distinguishable from today’s social and political trends—or from the heresies long since condemned by the fathers. Rather than receive the tradition, they want to “re-imagine” God. Well, if they have to re-imagine God, it must mean their god is a product of their imagination in the first place, so they can re-imagine all they want—it will never be the true God who grants eternal life.

The true God is fully manifest only in the One whom He has sent, his only-begotten Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. This is not a restriction, a narrowing, as if life could be fuller by embracing other faiths, other gods. The parameters of the true faith simply exclude all that is false, all that is evil, all that is not of God. Therefore the only thing we are missing out on by embracing Christ alone is error, evil, and Hell. I’ll take that kind of narrowing any time! But embracing Christ is more than excluding evil. Jesus spoke the words of his prayer for this reason: “that they may have My joy fulfilled in themselves.” It is for our joy that we are called to embrace the true faith, to enter into that saving knowledge of God and his Son Jesus Christ.

So let us rejoice that the Faith has been handed down to us intact, that we are among those whom the Father has given Jesus; we are his disciples and friends. And let us be faithful in both transmitting and living the true faith—that Christ’s joy may be fulfilled in us, as we grow in knowledge and love of the true God unto eternal life.