Acts 2:14, 22-33
We know that tradition plays a prominent role in our Christian faith, along with the Scriptures themselves, which also, so far as we can gather, are products of tradition. Tradition is the handing over of stories from one group to the next, or from one generation to the next. It is not to be dismissed as unreliable and untrustworthy, liable to exaggeration, error and/or misinterpretation. Scholars of all kinds have come to respect traditions prevailing in areas of their own academic areas as indicators of underlying facts.
We hear of traditions at work even in today’s scriptures. Peter waxes eloquent, in his words to the people of Jerusalem, about the venerated King David and his role as a prophet in speaking about his offspring who would succeed him as king, and also about the messiah who was not to "…be abandoned to the netherworld", nor would "…his flesh see corruption." (Acts 2.31) This was a tradition familiar to Peter, and he called upon it without hesitation, to make a point with his listeners who also revered tradition, especially in conjunction with the venerated David. Peter doesn’t have to worry about the acceptability of citing tradition to recommend to his listeners the truth to which he was testifying regarding Jesus, even though He was killed by the very people to whom Peter was speaking, namely, "God raised him up, releasing him from the throes of death…" (Acts 2.24)
And then, in Matthew’s gospel, we hear his account of the amazing resurrection of Jesus from the dead, recounted to some women visiting the tomb and met by an angel with the message of His being raised from the dead, making them the source of several traditions about the resurrection, as they "…ran to announce this to his disciples." (Mt. 28.8) And shortly after this another version of the empty tomb story was getting underway under the machinations of the chief priests, reacting to the report from the guard at the tomb about "all that had happened" (28.11). And these wily clergy fabricated their version of these events by instructing the soldiers to say: "His disciples came by night and stole him while we were asleep". (28.13) And Luke continues: "And this story has circulated among the Jews to the present day." (28.15) Yet another tradition!
Something as momentous as the resurrection was bound to generate many stories that would enter into the tradition. Their variety and lack of coherence doesn’t militate against the truth of the resurrection of Jesus from the tomb. Rather, they witness to the momentousness of the event, so much so that no one version of it could adequately capture all its dimensions. So we welcome the tradition(s) that start as early as the prophet King David, and reach us even today. They witness to the powerful significance of the resurrection as an epochal event that begs the adequacy of any rendition of it to fully convey its significance for us.
Just as people, excited by some stupendous event they have just witnessed, express, each in his or her own way, what happened, so do the early witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus from death to new life. These excited and sometimes jumbled versions of what just happened, each witnessing to a remarkable event, are so many corroborations of the truth that something truly astounding HAS happened. What exactly happened: that is the question. But these several stories are as good a proof as any for the resurrection of the Lord from the tomb. We are heirs of a tradition to this effect. What does this mean? "…he received the promise of the Holy Spirit from the Father and poured it forth…" (Acts 3.33) And we are gifted by this promise. This is what the Resurrection means for us.
Fr. Sebastian MacDonald, C.P. is a member of the Passionist formation community at Catholic Theological Union, Chicago.