A call to deeper unity: our shared call to love

A call to deeper unity: our shared call to love

Sister Jacqueline Sanchez-Small offered these reflections on readings from Deuteronomy, James, and Mark on Sunday, August 29.

Back in my wild college days, I went through a phase where I was absolutely fascinated by Judaism. I was active in Catholic student groups and always at Sunday Mass, but on Saturday mornings I snuck off to the local synagogue. What was I doing there? Rebelling against my Catholic upbringing? Maybe at first. But I kept going back because of what I saw on my first visit, which happened to be a holiday called Simchat Torah—which means the Joy of the Torah, or the Joy of the Law.

They celebrated with a lively procession: dancing people carried the giant scrolls all the way around the sanctuary seven times, as music played and the congregation sang and twirled and ate candy, with the kids cheering and bouncing.

Even at regular Shabbat services, when it wasn’t a holiday, some of that rejoicing, that love of the Law, was palpable.

The reading from Deuteronomy (Dt 4:1-2, 6-8) shows the origin of that Joy in the Law.

In this scene, which leads into receiving the Ten Commandments, Moses explains to the wandering Israelites that the law is what James would call a “good and perfect gift.” (Jas 1:17-18, 21b-22, 27) For the Jewish people, the Torah means something like what Jesus means to Christians: this is God breaking into our world, connecting with the people in a special, permanent way.

The Commandments mean that God’s will is not as mysterious as it was before, when it was revealed just occasionally, in pieces, to a few great figures. They are available to everyone, enduring forever, a foundation of moral order after decades wandering the desert, after generations of trauma in Egypt. Everyone, now, can hear God’s voice and align themselves with it. And when they don’t know what to do, they can refer back to it.

What a sense of security, of safety, of joy, they must have had.

But as generations passed, the people faced new challenges, new disasters. In response, they expanded the law, adding systems of regulations and rituals far beyond what God gave them in the wilderness. The practices were meant to protect the people to point them, over and over again, back to God, and to offer clarity in times of confusion. After all, if some law was good, many laws must be better, right?

One of the additions to the law was the ritual hand washing Mark describes, which was developed when the Israelites were in captivity in Babylon in 500 BC.

Now, as COVID has shown, hand washing is a good idea. But the Pharisees practiced an elaborate, complicated ritual that had little to do with germs, nothing to do with God’s law, and a lot to do with a sense that the world—another good and perfect gift—was threatening the Israelites’ worthiness, their identity. And Jesus’ disciples didn’t keep this tradition, in a time when the Jewish people really were threatened, held in the grip of the Roman occupation. You can see why the Pharisees were upset.

In challenging, violent times, like the moment we’re in right now, it’s tempting to do all we can to hold up our institutions, practice our rituals, and honor our traditions. We turn to things that feel sacred and unquestionable, even if, underneath it all, they’re more about feeling safe than about glorifying God or living out what is true and good.

I know I do this. When I’m afraid or uncertain, I want things to be VERY clear, VERY familiar. And I’m not alone.

Consider the divides in the Church, the way that Christians look with suspicion on those who worship differently. Think of all the beliefs we pass on from one generation to the next about what women and men, or Black or White people, are capable of, or supposed to do or look like, instead of allowing each person to be who they were made to be. And think of all the little rules around comportment that we invent for ourselves and expect others to follow.

Chaos is frightening, and it’s natural to want to find and follow some kind of order. But following God’s laws give us peace, boldness, and joy; the rituals and rules we construct for ourselves just take the edge off our anxiety.

So now, when the future of religious life, the future of the Church, the future of the country, the future of the planet, feels so vulnerable, what if we had the courage to cling less tightly to our human traditions? What if we questioned the rigid gifts given by our institutions, and followed the most basic principles given to us by the Holy One: reverence for God and for each other?
Does that mean risking our purity, our identity?

In this Gospel passage, (Mk 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23) Jesus gives us an indication of what’s at stake in stepping away from tradition, and he uses language that may make us uncomfortable. But let’s explore that word “defiled.” It’s a loaded, violent-sounding word in English, but in the Greek, the word is, “koino,” which just means “common,” as in, something that isn’t set aside as sacred. “Regular.” “Normal.” In fact, a name for early Christian communities was “koinonia,” because they held everything in common and felt so united.

Here, Jesus is, as always, blurring the divide between what we consider heavenly versus earthly. He tells us that the dangers of the outside world can’t make us “common,” as in, “not sacred.” It’s the human struggles of harming each other and striving to get what we want is what makes us “common,” as in, “like everyone else.” He says that our failures are not a reason to remove ourselves from the common table or shun those who follow different human practices. He is calling us to deeper unity with each other, and a greater awareness of God’s loving presence everywhere around us, even—maybe especially—in places we consider broken, polluted.

What would happen if we actually believed and lived this? If we moved from the security of our own silos and moved toward—not a wishy-washy middle ground that compromises on principles—but a truly common ground, based on the shared call to have a loving respect for our creator and each other?

If we really took this teaching to heart, the results might make us overflow with joy.

— Jacqueline Sanchez-Small, OSB, is a novice with the Erie Benedictines and has a Masters degree in Divinity as well as a Masters in Social Work.