Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Wednesday, Third Week in Lent

Exodus 20:12-24 / Matthew 15:1-20

We put on our Sunday best to go to Mass, or dress up in those special, rarely used, suits and dresses to visit our grandparents. We clear off our desk and turn off our e-mail before we make that important call to our employer, our doctor, our lawyer. We make sure to spend at least a quarter of an hour, maybe more, before and after we have received Communion. We do these and any number of other things surrounding the more important features of our life. We hedge them about, erect fences and gateways, buffers between our daily round of trivialities and these other moments.

It is not that we confuse the hedge with the field, of course. God is praised and worthy of praise whether we are dressed to the nines or robed in sackcloth. Our grandparents appreciate the visit, not the shine on our shoes. Crucial communications with the professionals who sustain our lives, physically and socially, do not require clean desks. The Lord Jesus Christ is as present and available to us in the Eucharist whether we have prepared from before the dawn or have barely made it past the threshold to hear the Sanctus bell ring.

So, why do we do it? Why do we add this distance between us and what we honor and desire? Surely we do so, at least in part, out of fear. When the people of Israel gathered at Sinai and the Lord delivered to them his Law, there was left no room for doubt that this Law was holy, that is was decreed from the depths of God's majestic power. Warned by God through Moses to keep away from touching the mountain, the people of Israel did God one better and took up a position much farther away. Even when comforted by Moses, that meekest of prophets, they remained at a distance. They knew, in the thunder and lightning, the trumpet blast and the mountain smoking, that God's commandments were not simply the manifest principles of moral action evident to the natural light of reason. They were these, of course; the sons of Jacob knew the wrongness of murder long before the Exodus. Now, however, they knew the depth of these dictates, that what was right and wrong was rooted in a profound, deep, personal, holy and majestic truth, in the very being of God almighty. It was with this awareness that the Israelites stepped back even farther. They wanted to be sure not to offend a God as holy as the Lord God.

So, too, did their sons step back, if figuratively, and take a position at a greater distance around all of the things of the Law. God decreed a rightful and religious attention to what was eaten, and to honor that majestic God on Sinai, no longer visible to instill fear, the Jewish people hedged their food with the washing of hands. God had decreed a unique and total dedication to him by those who served in his Temple, and so his people drew back a greater distance and removed all gifts to the sons of Levi from narrow, family interests and devoted them to the Lord's worship. In itself, none of this comes from malice. If from fear, then surely in part a holy fear. The Jewish people of old knew that the memory of God's majesty on Sinai might fade, but the need to honor the holiness of the Law remained constant. Indeed, apart from some special reminders, some indicators of holiness, it would be all too easy to treat the things of God with disrespect, as no better than the trivial matters of our lives.

We, of course, do the same. When we dress up for church, when we make our acts of preparation for Communion and for thanksgiving after Mass, when we do any of those many things to ready ourselves for the holy things of God, we do so out of fear. We fear because we know ourselves too well. We know that without these hedges, without these fences, we will stumble aimlessly and carelessly, and like the blind man guided by the blind, fall into a pit we might have avoided.

Even so, we run the same risk as those first to hear the word of God. We Christians are not immune from sharp looks or silent reproaches. We roll our eyes and shake our heads at the all-too-casually dressed churchgoer, the young man with the shirt emblazoned with a message or questionable taste or the young woman willing to reveal more than modesty might suggest. We grind our teeth and clench our rosaries over the commonplace banter in the pew before Mass or the raucous greetings and planning for brunch as the the priest has cleared the sanctuary. So worried are we about the cutting down of our hedges that we forget that what we really longed for was the field on the other side. So put out of sorts at our interrupted preparation, we forget that God will be as happy to receive us ill prepared and a little out of sorts as calmly disposed. Indeed, we will find his countenance altogether terrifying if we approach it with calm and reserve, only at the cost of charity towards our neighbor.

Ought we to fear the things of the Lord with the holy fear? Of course we must. Let us guard ourselves, though, lest by taking a safer position much farther away, we draw so far as to miss him and those whom he loves altogether.

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