Jesus changed radically our understanding of life in a way that will never change again. The Apostles are witnesses in a way no one else can be. Their testimony would have little or no significance today if it were simply an account of a past event. What makes it significant is the fact that we are participants in the same event the apostles interpret.
This interpretation only has meaning to the extent we share in the same happening and reflect on it and give our own prophetic interpretation, making real here and now the conversation between God and ourselves. So, what did the apostles pass on?
First and before all else – it was the happening. How do you pass on a happening? They did it through life in community, inviting others to share the way they lived, which was how they lived with Jesus, a life energised and transformed through the experience of the Resurrection. They spoke, and what they said took on meaning for their hearers.
Out of this living experience of sharing life each generation gave its own interpretation in words. Clearly, over time, the interpretation changed quite a lot. It is tempting to ask, as a consequence, where did revelation end and theology, liturgy, catechesis etc. take over? This is the Church, the struggle to live a life of love and trust – celebrating this life in the liturgy, sharing explanations through theological reflections and catechesis – this is our participation in revelation, it is revelation. Revelation is not simply a record of what was revealed before; a record playing over and over again. Revelation is the living and intensely personal reality of our communion with God, when God communicates not some factual information but his own fully alive reality – hence the relevance of a contemplative heart.
If Christian life is such a part of revelation, does this mean that every word and explanation is just as good as any other – how do we know we are not fooling ourselves, and where does the dogmatic teaching of the Church and its moral guidelines fit?
Revelation is first of all a happening – but has to be expressed in words, which is how all human understanding comes into focus. We can’t live meaningfully without such expression. Words are a community product – my words have meaning because society has agreed a common meaning for them. When the Church wishes to share its experience, it has to agree on the way it explains itself; on its common understanding of the world, history and most especially, God. It must have a statement of its prophetic interpretation of events through which God reveals in the community – the events of Jesus’ life and the original formation of the Church. It must also have an interpretation of how God self-reveals in community – through sacraments and the life of charity.
Because salvation is a community happening, it is counter-productive to promote chaos and disruptions in our search for unity through understandings of life already achieved. Our continued sharing in revelation is guaranteed in the unity of the Church – requiring continuity in teaching and authoritative judgements. This presumes that continuity is guaranteed through living dialogue and that authority is exercised as a form of serving the life. Continuity would be pointless where it an empty shell formed from the past, now withered and gone. Revelation is real when it is alive, and it is alive when people are creatively involved.
Revelation did not end when the apostles died out; because it is not a collection of factual information about happenings beyond our experience, but the self-communicating of God. Revelation is not a finished product, it does not consist of unchanging truths, but of the living reality of God-with-us. Revelation was not closed with the death of the last apostle, rather was it opened in the way of a love affair which is not completed when two people marry, but marks a real beginning.