It is likely that while we were growing up, many of us wore clothing or played with toys that had been handed down to us from an older member of the family. At such times we grew into the clothing or took possession of the toys, making them our own. Now, as independent as we adults might like to think we are, in many ways we are still dependent on what has been handed down to us. This includes such basic realities as our cultural identity, language and history, many of our values and certainly our religious tradition.
In the First Letter to the Corinthians, Paul speaks of such handing down. He handed down to his Christian converts what he had received, so that, in their turn, they might hand it down to others—and so on and so on until the religious tradition, preserved yet reshaped in this process of transmission, is handed down to us. Now that we have received it, it is both our privilege and our responsibility to take our place in this ongoing process and to hand down the tradition to yet another generation.
What kind of people are called to transmit the religious tradition? Saints? Scholars? Someone other than me? The people called by God in today’s readings clearly and honestly identify themselves. Isaiah was “a man of unclean lips” (Is 6:5); Paul called himself “the least of the apostles,” because he “persecuted the church of God” (1 Cor 15:9); Peter admitted that he was “a sinful man” (Lk 5:8). We see from this that the treasure, which is our religious tradition, is entrusted to weak, limited, sinful people like you and me—the only kind of people there are.
The call to participate in transmitting the religious tradition comes to people within the normal circumstances of their everyday lives. Isaiah was in the temple, which was not an unusual place to find an observant Israelite. The Apostles, Galilean fishermen, were plying their trade on Lake Gennesaret. People are inspired in places and through events that are usually quite ordinary. What is remarkable is what they experience at these places and in these events. Isaiah was transformed so that he could proclaim God’s word; the Apostles were granted the courage they needed to bring others into their company.
For many of us, the call to participate in this ongoing process of transmitting our religious tradition will probably be far less dramatic than was the call of Isaiah, as recounted in the first reading. Still, we have responded as generously as he did, even though we may not realize it. We have declared: Here I am; send me—to teach or preach, to write or publish the good news. Send me to shape the minds and hearts of our children through the values that I have received. Send me to express God’s beauty through music, art or poetry, to demonstrate God’s justice through the way I conduct business, to impart God’s compassion on those in desperate need of comfort. Send me to announce to the world, by the way I live my life, that the tradition that was handed down is indeed alive in me.
We should not expect to see such dramatic signs as the miraculous catch of fish witnessed by the Apostles. We who prefer immediate results may not enjoy the fruits of our labors. But then, there is probably a good deal of embellishment in the story, embellishment that was meant to point out the extraordinary dimension of ordinary reality. Without it we might otherwise have overlooked the action of God, as we so often do in our own lives.
As stated earlier, when the tradition is handed down, it is preserved yet reshaped. In other words, its dynamic message addresses the needs of the present time, not the past. Because these needs change, the message is sometimes reshaped. Paul, for example, reminded the Corinthians that the Gospel he preached saved them. But saved them from what? Corinth was renowned for its unbridled sexual behavior. An ancient seaport, it was also an important commercial center. People there probably offered homage to fertility gods as well as to deities that promised prosperity. People today may not offer sacrifice to statues, but sexual license and inordinate consumerism certainly still plague us. In handing down the tradition, Paul’s summons to righteous living must be reshaped so that people today can hear and understand its challenge as if it is being spoken to them—for it is.
Today we stand with Isaiah in the temple, or with the Apostles on the shore of the sea, or with Paul in the midst of a thriving metropolis. We are the heirs of the tradition, a tradition that must be handed down if it is to remain alive. How are we going to entrust it to the next generation?