Imagine if you will a parish that decides to adopt a practice from the liturgy to use at home. The parish families are invited to bring a certain liturgical action into the home as a way of blessing the home and bring God more into their daily life.
Before each meal family members are encouraged to wash each other's hands and recite the words, "O Lord wash away my iniquity and cleanse me of my sin", as the priest does at Mass. Each member does this and assists the other members before eating. By this practice they recognize their sinfulness, they recognize their need for God, they recognize the sacredness of the family gathering and family meal. This is a great thing!
Now, fast forward a few generations and we might see something completely different. No longer do we see a heartfelt ritual that brings the family closer to God. Rather, we see a community that looks down upon anyone who doesn't practice this ritual washing. In fact, they are seen as sinful and asked to confess that they have failed in their duty and obligation to God. What once was a hearfelt act has now become a duty with a penalty attached for anyone who fails to follow the rule.
If we can understand this story and see how it could happen, we can understand Jesus' point in today's Gospel. The Pharisees are questioning why the disciples don't follow the rules and wash their hands before eating. Jesus basically points them to the story above.
The washing was originally intended for the priests, see Exodus 30:17 and following. The practice was later adopted by the people of Israel as a way of sanctifying their homes. However, over the course of time, the leaders made it a hallmark of holiness.
Jesus didn't have a problem with traditions as long as they were for heart reasons and not a marker of holiness. Only God can judge the heart. As Catholics we have many traditions. Some traditions are indispensable and unchangeable. As St. Paul says, "Hold fast to the traditions that I have handed on to you either written or by word of mouth." They have been handed on as part of the deposit of faith for 2000 years. We call these "Big T" traditions. Some examples of these traditions would be the Bible, the Sacraments, and the order of the Mass. If we seek to do away with one of these Big T traditions we rip the very fabric of our faith.
We also enjoy "small t" traditions. These are practices, customs, etc., that flow from our belief and love of the deposit of faith. However, unlike the Big T traditions, small t traditions can be done away with. They help foster and build our faith but doing away with them does not destroy the fabric of the faith. These small t traditions would include the Rosary, Stations of the Cross, and Holy Water. If I were to take any of these traditions away it would not destroy my faith. On the other hand, recourse to these traditions can foster my faith if done with the right heart.
If I pray the rosary daily, spilling out Hail Mary after Hail Mary with no thought or love in my heart but only out of a sense of duty, I am a miserable creature. However, if I pray the rosary daily, meditating on the life of Our Lord and His Mother, I can grow immeasurably in holiness as frequent recourse to their lives changes my life. In a sense, we can become the company we keep.
So, are you keeping traditions out of duty and fear or out of a love and a desire for God in your life? Are you keeping traditions with an empty heart? If so, ask God to renew your love for Him in those practices. Ask Him to reveal Himself through those small t traditions and in turn deepen your love and belief in the Big T traditions. "I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I have delivered them to you." - St. Paul -1 Corinthians 11:2
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