If I tell you about earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has gone up to heaven except the one who has come down from heaven, the Son of Man.
Jesus met incomprehension in his conversation with Nicodemus, although the esteemed member of the Sanhedrin was a "teacher in Israel." The Pharisee's theology had been drained of God's living presence. Despite their scrupulous devotion, the Father of Jesus seemed a "deus absconditus" since no prophet had appeared in many years. (Not counting John the Baptist!) He could not comprehend the Word who spoke to him in that darkened room; he could not apprehend the Presence of God in that historical moment.
Tradition is always, of course, a human creation. We pass along from one generation to the next our language, customs, ideas, beliefs and expectations. We build tradition into the structures our children inherit. If they renounce a particular tradition they have to decide what to do with the structures that support it. When they decide to maintain the tradition they maintain the buildings.
The Holy Spirit has helped us create these traditions from Abraham to the present day, but as the times change -- "in the course of human events" -- the Spirit inspires us to alter some traditions, abandon others and create new ones. New developments, if they are truly of God, will be recognized as true to our deepest traditions.
When the bishops of the Second Vatican Council directed liturgists to translate our prayers into the vernacular languages, they recognized the tradition that predated the Tridentine Mass. They remembered the early Christians who understood every word of the Mass as their priests read the prayers in Greek, Aramaic, Russian, Coptic or Gaelic. They realized that a congregation reciting the rosary while the priest whispered Latin prayers, despite its charm, was not true to the tradition.
The original tradition of Jesus recognizes and welcomes his Spirit moving among us. There is no knowledge of Jesus without the Holy Spirit, who remains an ever-present historical force. The Spirit of God demands rethinking, re-imagining and rebuilding. It expects challenge as well, and the constant need for study and reflection. The Spirit guides each Christian toward unity and reconciliation in the Body of Christ, and understands this task is historical, requiring endless patience and tact. Nothing worth doing can be done by one person in less than one life time.
Many people were suspicious when the first Jesuit pope introduced his method of discernment. The practice of discernment fits our time, which has welcomed spiritual disciplines like meditation, the daily examen, "a searching and fearless inventory," lectio divina, and the practice of the presence of God.
Discernment supposes that God has an intention for every person at every point of her life. She may approach the Lord in prayer and ask, "What do you want me to do?" Discernment assures us that God's will is not alien or bizarre; in fact, it will be attractive, if challenging; and eminently reasonable. Discernment understands that not everyone should do the same thing. One person may be a pacifist; the other might enlist in the army. Both are directed by God's Holy Spirit.
Nicodemus was confused by the arrival of Jesus in Jerusalem. He was not prepared for the changes that would soon overwhelm the city when the Roman soldiers left not one stone upon another. He could not imagine the rebirth that might come with upheaval. However, he spoke with the Lord and the New Testament remembers him as a friend of Christians.
During our changing times when the only certainty about the future is that we'll be astounded by it, we ask the Lord to give us Nicodemus' willingness to listen to the Lord, to be challenged by him, and to follow the Spirit's lead.