The Marriage between Form and Content

7 February 2006: Tuesday of the 5th Week in Ordinary Time
Mark 7, 1-13: Rules and Regulations

For the devout Jews, the Law was the Ten Commandments, and in an expanded form, the Pentateuch which contains several detailed regulations and instructions, and series of moral principles which one ought to interpret and apply for himself. In the 4th- 5th BC arose a class of legal experts called the Scribes who took upon themselves the expansion, amplification, and break down of these principles into thousands of little rules and regulations called the Oral Law of the Elders. The elders were not the officials of the synagogue, but the ancients like Himmel. In 3 AD, all of these little rules and regulations were compiled in a book called, “Mishnah” containing ways to wash hands, vessels, kettles, etc.

In other words, the essence of religion for the Jews is legalism: rules and regulations, rituals, ceremonies. The issue about the washing of hands was not about health or hygiene or even propriety, but about ceremony and ritual.

It is true that rules and regulations govern our worship and our identity. They are our “ways of proceeding” creating community and a shared culture with a set of values. These set ways and rituals that protect these values give palpable and external identity to the community. However, the essence behind these rules and regulations should not be forgotten or overlooked. Or else, they become empty and meaningless gestures. The essence does not change, but how things are done can be adapted and changed.

This is important for those who ‘perform’ the ceremonies and those who witness them. There is a danger for many of us to be pharasaic (like the Pharisees and scribes). For the priests, the altar servers, the Eucharistic ministers, the choirs, we should not remove our gaze on the reason of all our actions at mass and in other liturgies. This includes an intelligent approach to ritual performance: getting to know the meaning of the mass, the logic of the structures of liturgy, the specific roles one plays as a choir or as a lector, the meaning behind the symbols and gestures we use. To be pharasaic is to be like many rigid liturgists who are concerned about the externals, and often are too extremely disturbed by mistakes at the altar, and eventually forget true worship. We should not forget that people assimilate our actions more than our words. They imbibe our ways of doing things and our thinking. If we are more concerned about the performance of rituals but do not take time to explain the reason behind these gestures, the people might begin to value ritual and ceremony over and above the values of charity. No wonder many Catholics come to mass mechanically.

And for those who take part in these liturgies such as massgoers, we must be educated Catholics --- to grow from a devotional practice of faith to an informed and intelligent observance of our beliefs. I am not denying the importance of these rituals and traditions. Tradition is important. But I am insisting that the meaning of these gestures should be taught; or else, our religion will be more of form than content. Traditions embody a lot of wisdom and hard-earned knowledge and when it is used, it preserves our culture and provides a continuity to our lives and the generations after us.

However, tradition can become rigid and irrelevant, and prevents us from creative renewal. There must be a marriage between substance and medium. And in the event that our symbols are slowly being eroded (eg. the cross is now worn as a fashion accessory), it now extremely important to regain them before we also lose everything.

As I continually discover the meaning and profundity of our symbols and gestures as a priest in liturgy, I often find myself dreaming of explaining each to people. Because, when one begins to see how reasonable our faith is, how beautiful the essence behind these rituals and ceremonies, we begin to genuinely love the Church and experience God.

*picture by Neo Saicon SJ

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