While it may not seem very important to us, when we read the letters of St. Paul, we must remember that several parts of the Jewish faith stand out as being extremely important to them as a people. Among these issues are their dietary laws, the keeping of the Sabbath, and the circumcision of male children. Each of these things involved what we would call specific observable behaviors. One was identified as Jewish by whether or not they observed the dietary laws, whether or not they observed the prohibition to work on the Sabbath, and whether or not the males were circumcised.
In order to understand this better, think back to the days before Vatican II when Catholics were easily recognized by such specific observable behaviors that set them apart from other Christians. Catholics didn’t eat meat on Fridays. Catholics began and ended their prayers by making the sign of the cross. Catholics went to Mass every Sunday.
Our Catholic culture has shifted somewhat away from these outward signs of our faith. Many men and women who consider themselves Catholic do not attend Sunday Mass. The prohibition of eating meat on Fridays has been relaxed and is kept only on the Fridays of Lent. Making the sign of the cross in public is no longer as widely practiced. Instead we have shifted our attention to signs of faith that are not specifically observable.
When we read the letters of St. Paul, in particular the passage from I Corinthians that is part of today’s liturgy, we have to remember that when St. Paul spends time speaking about things like eating the meat that has been sacrificed to idols, he is speaking about the observable behaviors expected of Jews. The Christian community by this time was made up of Jewish and Gentile converts. Sometimes friction between these two groups arose because the Jews still clung to their traditions while the Gentiles tended to ignore them. So St. Paul tries to focus their attention on things that really matter.
There is a lesson in this for us today. Oftentimes frictions arise between people simply because while we may have the same faith, we don’t behave in the same manner. For instance, while the current custom is to receive the Eucharist while standing, there are still Catholics who insist on kneeling down to partake of the Eucharist. While a few Catholics cling to the notion of receiving the Eucharist on the tongue, others have adopted the newer practice of receiving the Eucharist in their hands. St. Paul counsels us to be mindful of the sensibilities of others, to remember that sometimes what may seem inconsequential to us is very important to others. Above all, we must remember that we all partake of the Body and Blood of Christ. Our unity is based upon our faith in Jesus, not in our outward behaviors.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator