Tradition

Concerning the teachings of the Church, whether publicly proclaimed (kerygmata) or reserved to members of the household of faith (dogmata), we have received some from written sources, while others have been given to us secretly, through apostolic tradition. Both sources have equal force in true religion. No one would deny either source—no one, at any rate, who is even slightly familiar with the ordinances of the Church. If we attacked unwritten customs, claiming them to be of little importance, we would fatally mutilate the Gospel, no matter what our intentions—or rather, we would reduce the Gospel teachings to bare words. For instance (to take the first and most common example), were is the written teaching that we should sign with the sign of the Cross those who, trusting in the Name of Our Lord Jesus Christ, are to be enrolled as catechumens? Which book teaches us to pray facing the East? Have any saints left for us in writing the words to be used in the invocation over the Eucharistic bread and the cup of blessing? As everyone knows, we are not content in the liturgy simply to recite the words recorded by St. Paul or the Gospels, but we add other words both before and after, words of great importance for this mystery. We have received these words from unwritten teaching. We bless baptismal water and the oil for chrismation as well as the candidate approaching the font. By what written authority do we do this, if not from secret and mystical tradition? Even beyond blessing the oil, what written command do we have to anoint with it? What about baptizing a man with three immersions, or other baptismal rites, such as the renunciation of Satan and his angels? Are not all these things found in unpublished and unwritten teachings, which our fathers guarded in silence, safe from meddling and petty curiosity? They had learned their lesson well; reverence for the mysteries is best encouraged by silence. The uninitiated were not even allowed to be present at the mysteries; how could you expect these teachings to be paraded about in public documents? Why did the great Moses not open every part of the meeting-tent to everyone? The unclean he placed outside the sacred precincts, while the first court was assigned for the ritually pure. He judged only the Levites worthy to serve God, while sacrifices, burnt-offerings, and other priestly functions were reserved to the priests. Only one chosen from all the priests was admitted into the innermost sanctuary, but only on one day each year. Even on this one day he entered for only a short time, so that he would be amazed by the novelty and strangeness of gazing on the Holy of Holies. Moses was wise enough to realize that triteness and familiarity breed contempt, but the unusual and the unfamiliar naturally commands eager interest. In the same way, when the apostles and Fathers established ordinances for the Church, they protected the dignity of the mysteries with silence and secrecy from the beginning, since what is noised abroad to anyone at random is no mystery at all. We have unwritten tradition so that the knowledge of dogma might not become neglected and scorned through familiarity. Dogma is one thing, kerygma another; the first is observed in silence, while the other is proclaimed to the world. One form of silence is the obscurity found in certain passages of Scripture, which makes the meaning of some dogmas difficult to perceive for the reader’s own advantage. For instance, we all pray facing East, but few realize that we do this because we are seeking Paradise, our old fatherland, which God planted in the East in Eden. We all stand for prayer on Sunday, but not everyone knows why. We stand for prayer on the day of the Resurrection to remind ourselves of the graces we have been given: not only because we have been raised with Christ and are obliged to seek the things that are above, but also because Sunday seems to be an image of the age to come. Notice that although Sunday is the beginning of days, Moses does not call it the first day, but one day: “And there was evening and there was morning, one day,” since this day would recur many times. Therefore “one” and “eight” are the same, and the “one” day really refers both to itself and to the “eighth” day. Even the Psalmist follows this usage in certain titles of the psalms. This day foreshadows the state which is to follow the present age: a day without sunset, nightfall, or successor, and age which does not grow old or come to an end. It is therefore necessary for the Church to teach her newborn children to stand for prayer on this day, so that they will always be reminded of eternal life, and not neglect preparations for their journey. The entire season of Pentecost is likewise a reminder of the resurrection we expect in the age to come. If we count that one day, the first of days, and then multiply it seven times seven, we will have completed the seven weeks of the holy Pentecost, and the season ends on the same day it began (Sunday) with fifty days having elapsed. Therefore this season is an image of eternity, since it begins and ends at the same point, like a circle. During this time the ordinances of the Church instruct us to pray standing, and by this reminder our minds are made to focus on the future instead of the present. Also, every time we bend our knees for prayer and then rise again, we show by this action that through sin we fell down to earth, but our Creator, the Lover of Mankind, has called us back to heaven.

St Basil the Great. On the Holy Spirit,

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