Sunday, September 2, 2012

Empty?

Readings for Sunday, September 2/ 21st Sunday of Ordinary Time:
Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-8
Psalm 15:2-5
James 1:17-18, 21-22, 27
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Are our words and actions empty? Or is there something behind them? This is the question the Lord poses to us this week. Our readings from Deuteronomy and the Letter of St. James both speak of the necessity of following the ways of the Lord, of being ‘doers of the word and not hearers only,’ as the apostle puts it. But placed alongside the Gospel passage we come to see that while works are good and necessary, they are all for nothing if our heart is not in them.

The Jewish people had a great system of laws, especially about what constituted being clean or unclean, which determined to what extent one could participate in religious ceremonies. These laws were often quite detailed and so one could easily get lost in the externals and forget the Lord behind it all. For instance: a hollow vessel made of pottery could become unclean inside but not on the outside, and if it became unclean on the inside it had to be smashed into pieces small enough that the largest piece would not hold enough oil to anoint the little toe. A flat plate without a rim could not become unclean, but one with a rim could become unclean.  Also, and I thought most amusing, a three-legged table could not become unclean. If it lost one leg, or even two legs, it could not become unclean. But if it lost all three legs, it was officially a board, which could become unclean. These are just a few of the numerous laws that the Jewish people of Jesus’ day lived by. It would be easy to get so caught up in the externals, insuring that you had fulfilled all of the little requirements that the relationship with the Lord came as the cost.

We Catholics are a lot like our Jewish ancestors, in that we too have many rituals, rules, and rote prayers that we recite. And the challenge that the Lord gives to us, like that given to the Jewish people, is not to get caught up in the externals of the faith such that we forget the internal realities that must lie behind them for us to be truly spiritual people. This is difficult because it’s easier to come and simply rest in the externals of things rather than the deeper sense. As a seminarian and as a priest I feel this temptation quite often. Did I say Mass today? Yes. Did I pray that Divine Office as Mother Church requires of me? Yes. Did I do everything my role as associate pastor requires of me, and that which the pastor asked of me? Yes. That’s easy to say because it rests in externals. To ask whether when I celebrated Mass I was fully attentive and not letting my mind wander and think about all the things going on around me is quite another thing than simply doing Mass. To ask whether I prayed fervently and sought to hear God’s voice in the union of my prayer is much more than simply reading words from a page or reciting prayers with my lips. And to check of my ‘to do’ list for the pastor is much easier than to ask whether I did everything humbly, joyfully and generously. Our Catholic faith is a beautiful one and one that expresses itself in very visible ways. But if we have nothing behind the words we say and the actions we do then we are fooling only ourselves.

And so I ask again. Are our words and actions empty? Or is there something behind them?