“Handing on the tradition” is a phrase often connected with matters of faith. It conveys how it is that generations pass along the beliefs they have inherited from still older generations all the way back to the beginning. How might we visualize this process?
One image is a kind of hierarchical chain, the highest link connected to the lower ones which descend all the way to the bottom, that is to the present day. In this configuration, Jesus entrusts the truths and riches of his Good News to those first disciples who then pass it on to other believers, people like the apostles and then the Popes and the Saints. These believers in turn hand on Jesus’ message to the rest of us, passing it down through that whole series of descending links.
Visualized this way, people in the present time do not so much encounter Jesus directly as rather know him through the testimony of others – similar to what occurs on that PBS show, Roots, where the guests do not connect with their ancestors personally but rather through the historical record.
But there’s a more immediate way to conceive to conceive this transmission process. It has been imaginatively captured by scripture scholar Sr. Sandra Schneiders in her phrase, “There are no second-generation Christians.” No matter in what era we are born, our connection with the Lord Jesus is here and now, person to person, and not second hand. This mind-set figures prominently in St. John’s Gospel where Jesus describes His relationship to his followers as immediate: “I know mine and mine know me.” Using the metaphor of a shepherd who sacrifices for his sheep, the relationship is direct, no inferring of a substitute shepherd acting as a go-between. Whether the first generation or the hundredth, everyone is taken into Jesus’ immediate presence as given through His Spirit.
The Lord’s second claim, “the Father knows me, and I know the Father,” reinforces this immediacy. “Just as I and my Father know each other, so the sheep and I know each other, face-to-face, no intermediaries.” Again, there are no second-generation Christians. The Risen Jesus is as present to all of us now in essentially the same way he was present to those post Easter disciples. Through His Spirit, we are at this moment being gathered into God’s family.
This realization that we are all of this first-generation speaks directly to our lives of prayer.
Am I aware that when I “come to Jesus,” I am encountering Him personally and not initially through someone else’s testimony? This is a nearer kind of presence, different from that delivered by a book or movie about some historical figure. Jesus’ nearness is immediate, not primarily mediated. When I pray, I come into direct, face-to-face contact with the Risen Christ in His Spirit. When I address God, I step into the personal space of the divine. This is the Creator close by, the nearness of God filling me here and now.
St. Vincent frequently attests to this proximity. In a letter of spiritual direction to St. Louise he writes, “It is His good pleasure that we remain always in the holy joy of his love.” (Vol 1, p. 36. February 9, 1628). He testifies again and again to the presence of Christ, certainly in people who are poor but indeed in everyone.
“I know mine and mine know me” – words of Jesus that convey His immediacy to every age, words that attest there are no second-generation disciples.