Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Wednesday of the Third Week in Lent

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

We place a high value on creativity and originality. From our childhood, we are both encouraged to find, and within ourselves long to discover, what sets us apart from everyone else. It is not just that we want to excel or that we want to be better at everyone else in something. We might want that, but many are happy not to be the best, or even among the best, in what they value most. Rather, what is more important is that there should be something that comes from us, that is our individual and unique contribution to the world.

Where there is much that is good and true about this view, it can and has had unhappy consequences in the spiritual life. Specifically, from the desire to present and pass on to the world principally what comes uniquely from ourselves, there arises the temptation to augment, diminish, or otherwise alter the public revelation received from God, modified to match what we take to be our own private insights. This temptation is old, and coincides with God's public revelation of the Law on Sinai with the rebellion in setting up worship of the Golden Calf, and it continues to the present day with a dizzying array of sects and self-published contributions to how God ought to have made his will known.

For some, this temptation may take the form of a fear that the revelation, on its own, is unconvincing, or in need of supplementation to be rightly received. This appears to have been the fear of the Pharisees who worried that the disciples of Jesus transgress the tradition of the ancients since they wash not their hands when they eat bread. Jesus sees through their fear to locate as well their pride. Why do you transgress the commandment of God for your tradition? he asks them, noting their failure to uphold what is clear in the Law — Honor thy father and thy mother — while likewise failing to see that uncleanness comes not from food, but from the heart ... But to eat with unwashed hands doth not defile a man. For Jesus, the symptom is clear and culpable, whatever the origin: This people honoreth Me with their lips: but their heart is far from Me. And in vain do they worship Me, teaching doctrines and commandments of men.

Yet, others may depart from passing on the public revelation not for fear that the Law will be lost, but that they themselves will be erased, blotted out, outshone by the Word of God. Under the weight of the glory of God's Law, is there any hope that a mere creature of flesh and blood, formed of the dust of the earth, can stand? Even those who accept with earnest sincerity what was revealed in the voices, and the flames, and the sound of the trumpet, and the mount smoking on Sinai through Moses, what was confirmed by Jesus himself, might worry that universal and unambiguous obedience and docility to the whole of God's revelation will necessarily mean an unbearable sameness among God's people? Without my special spin, my unique insight, my unanticipated contribution, will there be anything left of me when I have received the Law and passed it on?

Our fears here are, however, altogether mistaken. It is error and rebellion, not obedience and docility, that is intolerably monotonous. Indeed, it is hard to imagine any heresy or human pretension to profound insight about God and the world that has not been repeated over and over across the generations with dull regularity. God's majestic revelation, on the other hand, is fruitful in surprising ways. The same Law, after all, gives us both Moses and David, both Esther and Daniel. As fulfilled in Christ, is produces both Peter and Paul, the irascibility of Jerome and the sweetness of Francis de Sales, the fierce publicity of Joan of Arc and the quiet seclusion of Thérèse de Lisieux. The majesty of the Law is not such that it blots out what is true in us, but that in the dizzying array of innumerable right responses to the Law, something of the unfathomable bounty of God might be shown. If its glory causes us to tremble, this is only to remind us that God is come to prove us, and that the dread of Him might be in us, and we should not sin.

Yet, because this revelation is a public gift, and not merely a matter of each person divining his own version or crafting his own proposal, we have the greatest of obligations to pass it on whole and entire, without addition or subtraction. We do so in our teaching, of course, and even more so in the kinds of lives we lead: lives of moral uprightness, to be sure, and lives marked by wisdom as well. Moreover, we especially hand on the Law in its fullness through our joy, the joy that comes from knowing a Lord who has come so close to us to reveal to us his Word — the Word revealed in fire and a dark cloud on Sinai, but more gloriously and profoundly in the Word we receive at the altar, the Word into whose likeness we are formed more and more by grace in the Spirit, the Word made flesh, our Lord Jesus Christ.

Grant, we beseech Thee, O almighty God: that we who seek the grace of Thy protection, may be freed from all evils and serve Thee with a quiet mind.

1 comment:

Raymond said...

This is terrific! It reminds me of Pinckaers analogy of playing the piano. Once each of us not only accepts but thoroughly understands the rules of harmony, only then and within these rules can marvelous extemporaneity come forth.