That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, concerning the Word of life—the life was manifested, and we have seen, and bear witness, and declare to you that eternal life which was with the Father and was manifested to us—that which we have seen and heard we declare to you, that you also may have communion (koinonia) with us; and truly our communion (koinonia) is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ. And these things we write to you that your joy may be full. (1 John 1:1–4)
Typical of St. John’s writings, a vast reality is packed into a single sentence. In but a few phrases, he describes the full life of the Church and its place in the world. He does this under the heading of communion (koinonia). Later centuries would search for adequate language to express what St. John says here.
The Councils used the language of nature and person to express our union with Christ. Christ assumed our human nature in the Incarnation, uniting Himself to us, and us to Him. We say that “He became what we are that we might become what He is.”
But St. John’s language has a dynamic quality to it unmatched in later centuries. He begins by speaking of Christ as “the life which was with the Father.” He places that dynamic quality into a context that is extremely vivid: “that which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled…” What he expresses and declares to his readers is a completely “immersive” and “participatory” experience. It encompassed the whole being of those who were there.
The startling reality of this testimony of St. John is that he relates something beyond what “happened,” or what he “saw.” The “life” which was with the Father continues with him in what he describes as “communion” (koinonia). The life which was with the Father is now also with him. And, at the very heart of his message: this “life” of communion is available to all. It is this “life” itself that he declares to us.
There is yet another aspect of St. John’s words, utterly essential to their meaning and import: he writes in the plural. What he describes is not a private matter, but relates what “we” have experienced and known. Who is the “we”? Some scholars describe this as the “Johannine Community,” the Church surrounding the noted Apostle. It is clearly the Church, but, I think it describes that first Apostolic generation, the eyewitnesses who became “communicants” of eternal life in Christ. Additionally, I think we could and should identify this experience described by St. John as what Orthodoxy means when it says, “Tradition.”
For a variety of reasons, most people confuse “tradition” with the notion of “the way we have always done things.” This is neither its meaning nor does it express its importance. “Tradition” means that which has been “handed down,” or “delivered” to someone. It can refer to any number of things: beliefs, practices, authority, etc. However, here in St. John, we clearly have a reference to something being handed down which is itself “living.” What has been given is the “communion” with the Father and the Son, as well as a communion with the living community of the Church. And this communion is “life.”
Orthodoxy is often characterized as a “way of life.” I suspect that many imagine that phrase to describe a “way of doing things” exemplified by certain beliefs and practicies. Though there are beliefs and practices that are an intimate part of Orthodoxy, it should be rightly understood as a way of “life,” that is, of an abiding in the the living communion of the Godhead.
For example, though Orthodox Christians offer up morning and evening prayers (often as prescribed in various prayerbooks), the most prevalent teaching on prayer is that of the “unceasing remembrance of the Name of God.” This practice of the Jesus Prayer has its roots in the depths of the monastic life and unites the whole of Orthodox daily life, both monastics and non-monastics. It is said that monastics do not live a different life from those in the world, but a more intense form of the same life. This is fully in accord with the “tradition” of communion invoked by St. John.
I have had a rich experience in the work of nurturing the Orthodox way of life with converts. There are aspects that include teaching and nurturing a way of understanding and seeing – “traditioning” Orthodox doctrine. Of far greater and more lasting import, however, is something that only comes with time. I have seen this in myself as well as in others. I would best describe it as the movement of external forms into internal reality. St. Paul says this when speaking to a young Galatian community:
“My little children, I labor in birth again until Christ be formed in you,” (Gal. 4:19).
He can write to them, repeating the arguments and teachings that they have heard before, but nothing is settled until that life (which is Christ) is actually formed within them. St. John, strikingly, describes this under the heading of love. For St. John, it is love (particularly the love of the brethren) that is the mark of true spiritual formation. It is in his epistle that he famously declares that “God is love.” From that, he says that anyone claiming to know God but who does not love is a “liar” and the “truth does not dwell in him.”
The love of which St. John speaks is no mere moral action – it is nothing less than the actual life and love of God dwelling in us.
“Do not marvel, my brethren, if the world hates you. We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love his brother abides in death. Whoever hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.
By this we know love, because He laid down His life for us. And we also ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. But whoever has this world’s goods, and sees his brother in need, and shuts up his heart from him, how does the love of God abide in him?” (1 John 3:13–17)
This is the most fundamental form of the tradition – that which has been delivered to us. Just as the life of Christ is given in the sacrament of His Body and Blood (“As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so he who feeds on Me will live because of Me.” John 6:57), so His life is given as well in the fullness of the Church. This is the true “content” of all that we receive in the Church. It is not a particular activity or pattern, but the content (the life and love) that has been vouchsafed to us in the whole of our life together. However, we do not abstract that life from the activity and pattern of the Church. These patterns and actions are the vehicles that nurture the life within us. Nevertheless, if we do not see the love of the Father and the Son in the life that we are given, then we are missing the very heart of the faith.
This is our communion – the very life of God – the God who is love.