Twenty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time (B) | Fr Dominic White reflects on the good structure that is necessary for our lives to resonate with divine beauty.
I’ve just been visiting my godson, ten years old and a budding composer. He asked me what makes a good piece of music. I said to him you need a good tune (he’s already got one) and – because this is what the experts say – a good structure. People need to hear that good tune develop, and come back. And no harm repeating it a bit.
I think this might help us understand this Sunday’s readings – in the context of being a Catholic Christian today. On the face of it, the first reading from Deuteronomy seems to be all about the importance of the Jews keeping all the laws and observances that God had given them through Moses. But Jesus seems to get rid of all this, abandoning even the fairly basic Jewish custom of washing one’s hands before meals. And Jesus’ reasons are easy to understand: the Pharisees keep all their regulations about ablutions, pots and pans and more, but their hearts are far from God. It’s not what goes into us that counts, but what comes out of us in the way of our behaviour. So St James insists that “pure, unspoilt religion” is coming to the aid of orphans and widows when they need it – and “keeping oneself uncontaminated by the world” (we’ll come back to that).
But don’t we have lots of laws and observances in the Catholic Church? Sunday Mass, Friday abstinence, rules about how to celebrate the liturgy, customs like genuflection, blessing oneself with holy water, grace before meals… I’d like to suggest that these are not just laws come back, in spite of what Jesus said. Rather, they’re like the structure of a piece of music. Jesus himself is like a musician – he says in John 5:25 that “the hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.” All these laws and customs which are the practice of Christ’s Body the Church, are there to help us hear the voice of Christ, and come to life.
In itself, observing these laws and customs does not add up to holiness. Older members of our churches often speak to me of growing up with a religion consisting largely of a list of rules and obligations: going to Mass every Sunday (itself celebrated according to strict rules), “saying my prayers”, and not eating fish on Fridays, “performing your Easter duty” and much more. Many were glad to see some of these obligations go, perhaps preferring more informal celebrations and ways of praying, and looking more outwards to the world and its needs. But a significant number of young Catholics seem hungry for a stricter observance, more customs, more liturgy! Is this just the conflict of generations? Or could both positions having something to say about today’s readings?
On a human level, the “return to observance” can be about wanting a stronger Catholic identity in a secular society in which there are also people of other religions, such as Islam and orthodox Judaism, which have a strongly visible identity (dress codes, food regulations, etc.). Psychologically, customs and practices can be very good for us. They structure our lives (chaos is no good for our mental health), give us identity and thus community (we’re Catholic Christians) and more meaning (by saying grace, we recognise that food is not just fuel, but, God’s gift to us from the earth). Good customs connect our faith with our lives.
But we must not become enslaved to a structure – we can say grace, think we’ve “done it”, and have not heard the voice of God. And we can make exactly the same mistake with more informal ways of prayer and social action. I may be faithful to my daily half hour of prayer and volunteering – but was I listening out for God’s Word in my life, or just making myself feel good?
Some of our structures are fundamental – like Sunday Mass (cf Hebrews 10:25). Others, like Friday abstinence from meat, have a new significance when our global environment is being damaged by over-consumption of meat. Good Catholic practices open us to conversion of heart, structure the music which is our lives: our being and doing become more just. So we learn to avoid what St James calls contamination by “the world”. This is not running away from creation or ignoring all the good and beauty in others, including those who don’t share our faith. “The world” is about unjust structures, the bad, ugly, discordant music of an unjust society which oppresses the poor and puts people at the vulnerable beginnings and ends of their lives in danger of death. The structure, the cosmos of Christ, is a new heaven and new earth, the freedom of true harmony.
To live well we need the freedom, the inspiration, of the Holy Spirit. This is amply demonstrated in the lives of the saints. Most of all, Our Lady saying yes to being the Mother of God – and jumping into the unknown. But also St Dominic leaving the secure, regular life of a Cathedral canon to found the wandering Order of Preachers, going from place to place to preach, yet with the structure of contemplative community life – just as Jesus and his disciples could leave behind the food customs of the Jewish law on the basis of God’s truth. Indeed, Jesus, God become human, is our structure.
If you listen to J.S. Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor, you find music that builds on a perfect technique and brilliant structure with great inventiveness and colour. Not a bad image of what a Christian life might look like, and perhaps it’s no coincidence that Bach was known as a deeply religious man.