22nd Sunday Ordinary Time 8.29.2021
It was brought to my attention several days ago that us Catholics worship statues, use holy water to drive away evil spirits, drink blood, crawl on our knees, pray for the dead etc. These are good in that we call them sacramentals, listen carefully, they are not sacraments where we truly encounter the Risen Lord; they do, however, help us to focus our attention on our need for God in our daily lives. That was not the first time I heard this over my years as a priest. Nonetheless, from my own experiences with some of our own it gets even more off track.
What do I mean by that, prayer and certain actions are a means to an end, putting my life and will in the hands of God with faith and trust in Jesus Christ, developing a strong relationship that assures me that God loves me unconditionally and that on our part we need to desire this deep relationship with God revealed to us as Jesus Christ, He is the end, the be all and the end all. All that we do must point us in His direction.
In our first reading today, we hear Moses instructing the people, “Now, Israel, hear the statutes and decrees which I am teaching you to observe, that you may live…Observe them carefully, for thus will you give evidence of your wisdom and intelligence to the nations…” In our second reading from St. James, “Humbly welcome the word that has been planted in you…Be doers of the word and not hearers only, deluding yourselves.” This scripture closes: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God….is this: to care for orphan and widows in their afflictions and keep yourself unstained by the world.
The scriptures are noticeably clear, we don’t use prayers, rosaries, falling before statues as the end game, they are merely a means to an end, worship of Jesus Christ in actions that are directed towards caring for the marginalized, the “throw always of our society,” what St. Mother Teresa called, those living on the “periphery of society.” I have often said, those living on the “edge” if society need our help to survive.
Let us examine more closely the gospel message from the Gospel of Mark. “Pharisees…scribes gathered around Jesus, they observed that some of his disciples ate their meals with unclean, unwashed hands…all Jews do not eat without carefully washing their hands, keeping the tradition of the elders.” I ask you, what religious traditions did you grow up with? I have noticed as I traveled across our country, that the Catholic Church from region to region is very different in various parts of our country, and in fact around the world. The Eucharist is the same but what happens around this most sacred event various in many ways, it’s not uniform.
Returning to Moses, “there are many other [rituals]…the purification of cups and jugs and kettles and beds.” Then Jesus responds, “Well, did Isaiah prophesy about you hypocrites, this people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines human precepts.”
What are we to make of this gospel passage? Let me share with you a few examples, sometimes I see people praying their rosary (that’s not a bad in its own rite), right through the readings, the homily and even more importantly walking by the altar right at the point of the consecration. Or looking at their watches, I can only wonder what’s on their minds; it certainly isn’t here in this precious moment when the Holy Spirit transforms mere wine and bread into the body and blood of Jesus Christ.
Coming to church is the possibility of encountering Jesus Christ in various forms: the gathering of the faithful to build a community of caring, sharing, and experiencing love given and love received by others around us.
We sing songs of phrase to God for all we have received as gifts; we stand, we kneel, we raise our hands in praise of God who has created us and who loves us unconditionally. We turn to each other and offer the sign of peace, a peace that is to be real and genuinely given and received. We enter in song, and we leave with a song on our lips, hearts renewed to go forth and care for others.
In caring for others, we continue what we have done in church; we put into action our prayers and our worship of God through helping others, especially those who are on the edge of society, that Mother Teresa was called to serve and so are we, “the very poorest of the poor.” And if we don’t then we must be aware that perhaps — God is calling us, hypocrites, whitewashed sepulchers.
At the height of this Covid pandemic we could not gather and worship together, the best we could do is watch the mass on TV. It’s better than nothing but it lacks all those characteristics that I just mentioned. Some have remarked to me, “Father, it’s so good to be back in church with the people,” and I respond, “as it is for me too.” If you, yes all of you decided that you had no need nor desire to come to church, then there would be no need for me and other priests, you would put us out of business. As I have also over these many years been told or heard, priests need to get a real job. Is that what you want, I think not even though some do.
The sacraments that we use in our private prayer time are great in bringing us closer to our need for intercessory prayer from saints, the love and healing that we receive through the Blessed Mother, praying the rosary, Stations of the cross, to strengthen us in our pain and suffering. These are not the heart and soul of our faith and cannot be the focus of our relationship with God.
They are to be used to bring us into a deeper and more loving relationship with God through our caring and loving of others as I have often said…to those who live on the EDGE of society. This can only be accomplished when we build a strong, deeply personal, loving relationship with God through his son Jesus Christ. AMEN.