22nd of the Year, 29 Aug 21
A few months ago I met up with some friends. It was during whichever period it was when you could only meet up with people outside so we met in the great outdoors not far from Chequers, the official country residence of the Prime Minister, though we didn’t see Boris and Carrie on our walk. Maps had been consulted and there were different routes we could take: this was clearly going to be a serious excursion! And while it’s often commented on that I walk quickly this doesn’t necessarily indicate I have a great love for walking. Off we set and it quickly became apparent this was not going to be a short walk and nor was it necessarily a flat one. Morale took a definite turn for the worse when the only pub on the route was closed and when the clouds got darker and looked close to bursting. And then during the last stretch we turned a corner and behold there was a hill and not just any hill but I am sure the world’s steepest hill. So I pushed the occupied push chair up said hill. I’d like to say there was a glorious view at the top of the hill and I think there was but I was just too cross to be honest to take any notice of the wretched thing!
“Lord, who shall dwell on your mountain?” the psalmist asks as we heard just now. But it’s not a question expecting a response from the Almighty: it’s perhaps more of a sigh in the same way we might say to ourselves at different times in our life, “How on earth am I going to do this?” There is perhaps even a sense of intimidation in the question: can it really be possible to be able to dwell on the mountain of the Lord? In the same way we might look at a big hill at the end of a long walk and think am I really going to make it?
The Psalmist gives us the answer and we might reflect on what’s listed in that Psalm we heard and ask ourselves how we live up to the mark. Walking without fault … acting with justice … speaking truth from the heart … never slanders with the tongue and so it goes on. It’s in stark contrast to the Pharisees in our Gospel. Having been looking mostly at St John 6 for the last few weeks we now return to St Mark’s Gospel and the Pharisees are rubbing their hands together because they’ve found another fault with Jesus and his disciples: “some of them were eating with unclean hands.”
Remember, “Face, space, hands,” or whatever the slogan was?! Well, this was a first century equivalent handed down as a sign of purity for in the market place the Jew would have mingled with Gentile and become ritually unclean. It’s not clear how widespread this practice was, indeed perhaps it wasn’t that well known at all because St Mark has to explain it, as we heard. It perhaps was something only done by the priests of the Old Law and this was why the Pharisees thought Jesus’ disciples should do it too.
I want to look at the concept of tradition, which literally means something handed down, before returning to steep hills.
Traditions can sometimes carry on though their original meaning is obscure. Let me give you one example. While we’re singing or saying “Lamb of God you take away the sins of the world” the priest saying Mass places a piece of the Host, the Body of Christ, in to the Chalice. Centuries ago in Rome when the Pope was saying Mass on Sundays, deacons would take a piece of the Host he had consecrated and take it to all the other churches and it would be placed in the chalice of that Church. It sounds odd, does’t it, to think a deacon would walk in from the Pope’s Mass and place something in our chalice. But it revealed community and fellowship: we don’t just do this by ourselves.
The symbolism has a Scriptural basis because we read in I Corinthians 10:16-17 ~ “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? … Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.” When we receive Holy Communion we not only reveal our unity with Jesus Christ but with Christians living and departed who have been nourished by this same banquet.
The rite still envisages this piece of the Host being placed in the Chalice during the Agnus Dei. It’s a tradition that teaches us an eternal truth. Traditions are important in the life of the Church because while God is alive and reigning today, He revealed Himself supremely through Jesus Christ when He was born of the Blessed Virgin Mary two thousand years ago: that was the high point of revelation of who God is (see Hebrews 1:1-3) not thousands of years before then with Moses or Abraham, not five hundred years ago at the Reformation, nor indeed a hundred and fifty years ago when the JWs started wondering around.
We need the traditions for this simple reason, that Jesus coming to earth is how we are to know the Father. We see this instantly being the orienting principle of the first Christians. After the Ascension in to Heaven, the disciples choose someone to replace Judas so there can be twelve again and they have to choose someone who “has accompanied us throughout the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us,” (Acts 1:21). In other words, someone who could continue the tradition. Also, when Paul is writing to the Corinthians only twenty years after the Last Supper, he says to them “I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when He was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, “This is my Body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me,”” (I Corinthians 11:23-24). We need traditions and we need to hand on traditions.
What our Lord condemns in the Gospel today are empty traditions. The washing of the hands had become the thing that mattered to the Pharisees, not the important means of schooling ourselves in the need for holiness of life. We can think of other examples today: take, for example, the family that gathers to celebrate Christmas without going to Mass, which is just hypocrisy. Take another example, if you make the Sign of the Cross without being profoundly grateful for what our Lord endured for sinful humanity and determine afresh to ground your life in the Passion of Jesus, then don’t make the Sign of the Cross.
Be warned though, that when we realise this truth - that the action and the tradition should reflect an inner conviction - there’s a danger that we give in to the modern and harmful maxim of “If I don’t feel like it, I won’t do it.” From Jonah not wanting to go to Ninvevah to Jesus agonising in Gethsemane we see this is not how God wants us to make decisions about what we spend our time doing. For often the action or the tradition because it is part of our spiritual discipline reminds us of how we ought to be feeling, what our life as a Christian should look like. I might feel like I can’t be bothered to phone someone up or go and visit them but I have to force myself to do that because it’s what priests should do and it’s what all God’s people should be about as we minister God’s love to others.
Indeed, it feels like climbing a mountain, when we realise our discipleship of God is lacking something and we need to get it back in to shape. One of the biggest barriers to our growth is the realisation of what it is that needs to change. We can get stuck in complacency, thinking we do enough. Or we can get stuck feeling inadequate - I need to do more … I need to change - but never being very specific about what that looks like, leading us to feel yet more inadequate and then losing confidence in the decisions we have already made. A great way out of these cycles is to have a plan: “I need to sort out this relationship, this bit of my life has not been offered to God properly, I’ve never really tried to live out this commandment.” Talk to me about it as that might help, talk to anyone about it.
As we emerge out of the pandemic I would offer three bits of advice on climbing this hill: first, I think a lot of people are tired because the inner reserves have been exhausted as they were needed to get through things and many haven’t been able to have a proper holiday. Secondly, things feel much harder when we’ve stopped doing them: from getting to Mass to coping with rush hour traffic and a million and one other things. We will need to shove ourselves a little harder back to climb that mountain of the Lord, to flourish in that stream faithfully next to the Lord.
The third bit of advice is that which our Lord observes in the Gospel today: that we blame external factors for what we have to realise is our failure in discipleship: “Nothing that goes into a man from outside can make him unclean; it is the things that come out of a man that make him unclean.” Most recently, we blame the pandemic. For much longer, we’ll have been blaming other things, other people, things from our past, or whatever it might be. It’s human nature to blame others: read Genesis 3 again and you’ll see God asks Adam why he sinned; he blames Eve and she blames the serpent and they both infer it’s God’s fault really for putting them there in the first place.
This is not to be our way, my friends: “The Just will live in the presence of the Lord,” the Psalmist proclaims. Justice is to give too God and to give to people what is their due. Such as these will indeed ascend the mountain of the Lord, fortified by the grace we receive at this Mass and given a vision of what that Kingdom looks like. Amen.