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Monday, August 31, 2015

Second thoughts - Adding to and subtracting from the law

In your observance of the commandments of the LORD, your God,
which I enjoin upon you,
you shall not add to what I command you nor subtract from it. 

So, in this new "second thoughts" category, I want to offer when I can some thoughts from after experiencing the word of God in liturgy, rather than in preparation for it. It is so often a different experience, and I thought I might try to capture it on Mondays when I have time and memory.

I'm pretty clear about the "not adding to" the law part, at least that's what I was getting at when I wrote last week. Maybe because I'm an American, and thus a descendant of British jurisprudence, but in America we take our law pretty seriously. If you don't think so, count up the number of lawyers we have, the size of the legal code, the time it takes to become a lawyer, and, finally, the number of jails and prisons we build with public money to deal with the most serious of lawbreakers. I don't care about all that today, except that American approach to law is quite rigorous compared, say, to some older European nations like Italy. And we tend to put all laws on a very high plane of respect, whether they're constitutional provisions or local ones. And where I think we Catholics might get into trouble is when we make the transference from civil jurisprudence to ecclesial law. 

Worse, when we make God into a judge, enforcer, and executioner of the law, forgetting that Jesus Christ is the image of the invisible God, and that "he who has seen me has seen the Father." If God wanted to be seen as a judge, Jesus could have looked a lot more like one. In fact, he even says in one gospel, "Friend, who made me your judge or arbitrator?" (Lk 12:14) (I write that with a smile: don't take that too seriously!)

But we do that, all of us do in our own way, those of us in positions of authority maybe especially so. We set up ways of working in our dioceses and parishes, ways of organizing worship or membership or sacramental preparation at home, and I think it's fairly often that our rules become laws and suddenly everyone is negotiating a maze of laws that, if not obstructing the great commandments to love God and neighbor, at least make them more difficult objects of focus. 

Which is not to say that structure isn't important. It's just that, like everything else in the church, it ought to be at the service of, well, service. The role of all church leadership is service, from the lowly parish musician to the pastor. I create structures, sure, to facilitate participation, to honor the guidance and discernment of councils, popes, bishops, and tradition, to maintain fairness and equality among church members, but when those structures and rules stop becoming ways of serving and start being a means of controlling people or enforcing a "one size fits all" kind of faith or worship, then I have to begin to wonder whether I've tread into territory where my mouth is full of religion, but my heart belongs to the Divider.

It gets confusing. I used the example of funeral music (wedding music is the same) in my Wednesday post about the weekend scriptures. We have traditions in the church about what is appropriate music for worship and what isn't. Those traditions are on a continuum, not everything is cut-and-dried by any means, but when they come into conflict with grief or with marginal or incipient faith, what then? The grieving widow who wants "Marine Hymn" for her husband's funeral, or the Catholic fiancĂ© of an "inquirer" who has her heart set on a song from a vampire movie for their wedding? And before anyone responds too quickly, this in a church where bishops and pastors regularly defy (or disregard) church law regarding, say, the baptism of children of catechetical age, and withhold confirmation and even Eucharist until later, when the law is clear that the sacraments of initiation should all take place at the same time?

I think much of this goes back to a loss of communal identity in the church, which simply means that we haven't rediscovered who we are in an era when fundamental self-understanding of who God is and who Christ is and what difference it makes for the church is in flux. I think this is a good thing. It's uncomfortable to live in this cloud of unknowing, but it's where we belong. It gives us the opportunity to focus on the big issues that the gospel yesterday provides: people are hungry. Worry about feeding them first, then worry about the consequences and the law. "You disregard God’s commandment," Jesus admonishes us, "but cling to human tradition." 

We know that, at the time the second gospel was written, there were rivalries and divisions in the church that resulted from competing theologies of membership. Some Jewish Christians wanted non-Jewish converts to be subject to the Torah and undergo circumcision; others, Paul among them, were adamant that God's call to faith justified, and there was no need for compliance with other laws of Judaism. Some of this disagreement may have made its way into the animosity that appears in the gospels between Jesus and the scribes and lawyers. Whatever its origin, though, the experience seems to be endemic to religion: laws made by the community and its leaders tend to be taken too seriously, the forest of laws and traditions soon obscuring the light on the river, where the voice of Abba calls each one "beloved," and opens the heart to the realization that all are thus called, brothers and sisters of the Firstborn, Jesus. It may not be necessary to cut down the forest so much as to keep in mind that the voice, the light, and the river are still there, and that they are our goal. Staying together on the path with intentional compassion as the flock makes its way together to the glade is something to strive for, as well as trying to hold fast to just who is the good shepherd, and who are the sheep.