Even when the will is perverse – even when a creature is enthralled and captivated by one great sinful adhesion, which makes one’s days a flight from God towards lust or power – even then some few good and commendable acts contradict one’s general attitude. These isolated acts of virtue are like a clean handle on a dirty bucket; with them, God can lift a soul to his peace.
Fulton J Sheen Lift Up Your Heart
In this evening’s ﬁrst reading we see God’s Creation in its perfection and its peace: ‘God saw that it was good’. Here we find all that is needed for human flourishing through staying close to Him and listening to what he says to us and doing it. We see the traditional notions of marriage and family as ordained by God, for our good, and with which we meddle at our peril, and that of the whole of society in general. We see the need for rest – it’s something ordained by God, and which the modern world with its 24/7 always on mindset seeks to erode. It’s something against which we need to fight, because it is wrong and it’s not good for us. We need to rest, to have time off, to spend it in rest and relaxation with our nearest and dearest, it helps give our lives value and worth and first and foremost it is holy, it is set apart for rest and refreshment by God – we cannot simply disregard this divine command because it’s inconvenient in the modern world. It shows us that when the world and the Church are in conflict it is the Church which truly values humanity and affords them proper dignity and respect, rather than seeing them as a commodity which is to be exploited.
As someone who is part of the religious establishment I must admit that I always get more than a bit concerned when I am faced with Our Lord confronting the Pharisees. It is, I would suggest, a good and a healthy thing simply because it reminds me that I am never to ask the people of God to do something which I do not. It forces me to examine who and what I am, and what I say and think and do, which is never a bad thing.
The Pharisees approach Jesus to point out that his disciples have not been following the letter of the law, and eating with unclean hands. They are, as ever, keen to point out minor outward transgressions, and are themselves unable to see the bigger spiritual picture. Our Lord is right to say to them:
“Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written,
“‘This people honours me with their lips,
but their heart is far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’
You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.” Mk 7:6-8
Outward conformity then just will not do; we cannot simply go through the motions and expect everything to be alright in the end. We need to honour God with our lips and with our hearts, so that what we think, what we say, and what we do are all in accord with each other: otherwise we are hypocrites and no better than the Pharisees.
They saw the law as salvific: if you do the right thing, everything will be fine. Their mechanistic approach to religion is cold, dead and empty, and through the words of Jesus we know that it is not pleasing to God. We cannot and should not fall into the same trap as them.
We are here tonight to take time to begin our preparations for Lent, to prepare to enter into the desert of repentance, like our Lord spending forty days in the desert before starting his public ministry. We are to give our souls and lives a spiritual spring-clean. We prepare to celebrate Our Lord’s Passion, Death and Resurrection just like those preparing for Baptism did and still do: in prayer, with fasting, with self-denial, and through the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation. We prepare by examining our lives and our consciences to confess our sins to God, so that he can heal and restore us. It may sound scary, but take it from me, as someone who does it regularly, it really isn’t: it’s wonderful, it’s a chance to lay down your burden and feel the embrace of a loving Father around one of his prodigal children. It’s why today is called Shrove Tuesday – people were shriven – they confessed their sins as they prepared to enter this solemn time. They faced up to the fact that they were sinners in need of God’s love and mercy, who needed to be healed and restored by him, it wasn’t something they could just do on their own. It is not easy to recognise that we are work in progress, and that we need God to be at work in us; but this is exactly what Jesus came to show us. He came to heal and restore us, to forgive us our sins, suffering and dying for us – weak, foolish sinful humanity that we are. He came to restore the image of God in us, to take us back to the perfection of Creation, to turn us from the disobedience of Adam and Eve to the obedience shown by his mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the obedience which her Son lives out even to his death on the Cross for our sake, and beyond.
So let us prepare to worship him in spirit and in truth, not just with our lips, but with hearts, minds, and souls and lives cleansed, healed, and restored by the one perfect sacrifice for sin, who gives himself, in his word, in his Body and Blood, in the Sacraments, and the teaching of the Church, his body, filled with his Spirit, so that we may have live in all its fullness and give glory to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory dominion and power, now and forever