Sunday, October 30, 2011

Check out my Phylacteries

Readings for Sunday, October 30:
Malachi 1:14-2:2, 8-10
Psalm 131:1-3
1 Thessalonians 2:7-9, 13
Matthew 23:1-12


People often ask me why I wear a cassock rather than ‘normal clothes’. My short answer is always that it reminds me of who I am and it lets other people know that I’m not a normal person – I’m a Catholic priest. That doesn’t mean I’m better, but does mean I am different. And that visible, external marker helps people to identify that invisible, internal reality.

The idea of using external signs to mark internal realities is not uncommon. In fact it’s abundantly common. Sports players wear a specific jersey to mark themselves as part of a team. We wear clothing that marks us as being fans of a certain team. We put stickers on our cars to indicate what school we support or political views. That and many other things mark us off as belonging to a specific group. And the same is true of religion.

Each religion is often marked by some external sign that sets them apart as belonging to a certain group – either by language, style of dress, specific times for prayer in the day and throughout the year, rituals, and other such things mark a person as belonging to a certain system of religious belief.

We hear about one of those marks in our gospel today as the Lord points out the phylacteries of the Pharisees. I’m a big visual learner, so I went online and googled ‘phylacteries’ and the pictures were rather interesting. To be short, Orthodox Jews follow the mandate of the Lord to bind the ‘Shema’ (Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one) on their heads and wrists, and they do so with little boxes and long straps which wrap around their forehead and spiral down their arms; it was a very visible thing. It showed those around them that they were in prayer. By widening their phylacteries, the Pharisees they were showing off and implying that they were better and their prayers held more weight because of their rank. Our Lord points out that their beliefs did not match with their external actions. It was taken too far.

As Catholics we also have a number of markers that we can point to – most vividly the ashes we receive on Ash Wednesday - but there used to be many more. Our 55 and up crowd may remember others such as meatless Fridays, the wearing of scapulars, bowing one’s head at the name of Jesus, Ember and Rogation days, 40 Hours devotion, lighting candles, novenas, making the sign of the Cross as you pass a Catholic Church and many other pious practices that were common in the pre-Vatican II age. These were all external marks of internal realities. You don’t make the sign of the Cross as you pass a Catholic Church unless you believe in Real Presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament, you don’t fast or abstain from meat unless you realize the need for penance and its value for sanctification, and you don’t light a candle in front of a statue unless you know the power of the saints’ in our lives. There are all things that clearly marked us as Catholic. And while they’re not entirely gone, they have largely disappeared from our Catholic culture. I dare say that most of my generation has never even heard of an Ember Day, much less know what it is (it’s a seasonal day of penance). Sometimes these pious actions went a bit too far though. I have heard stories of people that press themselves against walls in a stairwell, almost to the point of falling down, so as not to be in the way of a priest because they were always taught “Don’t touch Father!” because it was a sign of respect. Pious practices such as that exaggerated sign of respect certainly needed to be looked at with a closer eye and some education clearly needed to take place on what is realistic and what is overdone. But the problem is that often we threw out the baby with the bathwater. Rather than try to educate on a proper expression of piety, we got rid of the signs entirely.
Coming back around, I noted at the beginning that often our exterior marks what we really believe. If we rid ourselves of the external signs and rituals of our faith, what then holds us together as a Catholic community? As that familiar hymn says, “They’ll know we are Christians by our love”. But how do they know we are CATHOLIC Christians?