The disciples of John approached Jesus and said, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast much, but your disciples do not fast?” Jesus answered them, “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.”
The section of Matthew’s gospel from which we read today considers the perennial religious question of who is allowed to be counted among the believers and what universal practices are required. As Daniel Harrington, S.J. puts it, “The problems about who may be part of a religious community and what kinds of religious practices are appropriate at any given time are always matters of controversy.” (The Gospel of Matthew, p. 129) In the verses preceding the above, Jesus calls Matthew, the tax collector, to follow him. Then arises the question of fasting and Jesus’ response that new wines must be put into new skins.
The universality and adaptability of Jesus’ teachings are always a challenge to our human tendencies to racism, nationalism, exclusivism, sectarianism, and xenophobia. From Jesus’ perspective, one tribal, cultural, and national way of doing things is not any more holy than other ways. It is the poor, the weak, the sinners, the excluded, the despised who, realizing that the “bridegroom is with them,” are the ones rejoicing. it is the self-righteous and the superior ones who are left gnashing their teeth in envy and rage.
We live in a moment where what was the former “Christian world” is experiencing a surge of religious, cultural, and nationalistic populism. It is a fearful time, and in the face of fear we human beings withdraw into the familiar and the familial. As Harrington points out, in religious, as well as social and national communities, the question of who may belong and how to live or practice within the society is a perennial one.
Adrian van Kaam points out that human beings are “traditional to the core.” What he means is that we are who we are in significant part because of the “form traditions” in which we have been raised. At times segments of a population fail to recognize the significance of this truth. It is through our traditions, as we have have uniquely appropriated them, that we give form to our life and our world. As limited and finite beings, we are not infinite possibility. Even when a person attempts to change his or her key and enduring form tradition, that person will always, to some degree, carry with him or her that tradition in which his or her early life was given shape. For example, Buddhism is very influential in my own understandings and even spiritual practice, but I shall always practice those as a Christian.
On the other hand, it is possible for us to recognize and realize that our tradition, as central as it is to our own formation, is not the only one, that our way is not the only way. Even further, as was happening in the time of Jesus and in the Matthean community, a tradition can change and adapt over time. A tradition lives in the practices of its adherents, and, in the face of changes in life and world, the tradition can take new forms — new skins for new wines. The reality of the significance of tradition and the urgency of transcendence is experienced in human life as a tension. In times of profound and cataclysmic change, the tension can be acute, and even at times seemingly unbearable.
We need to feel anchored in life and in the world and, at the same time, to know the freedom of spirit and transcendence that is always calling us beyond our current form of life. We need tradition to live, but that tradition, to stay alive, needs to be open to and constantly reformed by the presence of difference, by openness and hospitality to the stranger.
It is no accident that God visits the people of the scriptures as a stranger to whom they offer hospitality. As Mystery, God can only truly visit us when our preconceptions and our tendencies to withdrawal and isolation in our certitudes is broken open by one who is “other” to us. We can understand this much better in theory than in practice. To some degree, real hospitality to the other and the stranger is always experienced as a shaking of our foundations. It is a summons to a transcendent faith, hope, and love that we understand to be not in our own ideas, security directives, customs, and practices but rather in the Mystery in whose goodness we trust even in the face of darkness and uncertainty.
It is by uniquely and deeply appropriating our own form tradition that we have the roots and the ground to engage those who follow a different way. That one’s own tradition is not the only and absolute way does not at all diminish it. Its transcendent aspects will always endure. Its accretions and accidents will always change, in part through its inter-forming with what is foreign and other to it. In the gospel, the fact that the disciples of Jesus were not fasting in the same way as others was experienced as a threat. In the same way, Jesus himself, as one whose very life poses questions for the dominant culture, becomes a threat to be eliminated. For some of his contemporaries, he is a stranger who cannot be welcomed.
On December 30 of last year, Huston Smith, the great interpreter and practitioner of world religions, died at the age of 97. Born of and raised by Christian missionaries in China, Smith is an exemplar of a person who deepened in his own Christian tradition throughout his long life, and who not only studied and appreciated but lived and practiced some of the great truths of the world’s other great wisdom traditions. Without knowing him, I suspect that over the years he came to live this openness not with the tension we initially experience but rather with a growing faith, hope, and love in the God who is the end of all paths and who transcends them all. In an interview at the end of his life, he was asked what he might like to be different if he were to live again. This brilliant and transcultural figure responded in simplicity: “I’d like to be a little kinder.”
When we are fearful as human beings, we cannot be kind. We want to hide and be protected behind the walls of our own kind, behind the certitudes of our finite beliefs, behind the doctrines of our own superiority. It is being formed more deeply through our traditions that we experience our own ground. If we are living the heart of the tradition in truth, however, we shall discover that it is God as Mystery that is truly the ground of our being. We need a way to discover this, but it need not be the only way.
Lent is a call to detachment and abandonment to God. There is no more difficult act of detachment and abandonment than trust that our safety and security lies not in our own power, ideas, culture, or tradition but only in God. Recently, Martin Scorsese has made a film based on the novel of Shusako Endo entitled Silence. It is the story of two young Jesuit priests who enter a 17th century Japan that is hostile to Christianity in search of a confrere who has disappeared and perhaps apostasized. Sebastian Rodrigues, the priest narrator of the novel, is finally forced to step on the image of Christ as an act of denial of his faith in order to spare the suffering of others. The conflict of the novel deals with the faith of the priest, but also the possibility or impossibility of Christian faith in Japan. Is the Christian faith so European that it cannot take root in Japan? Throughout the tortures and horrors around them, the priests experience and struggle with the silence of God. Yet, Endo suggests, it is in Rodrigues’ very weakness and failure, as all of the tradition he had vowed to defend appears to fall away, that he comes to love more purely and to recognize the presence of the Lord in his very life.
Our faith and tradition are ways of affording us the ground and security to encounter the world as it is, not a means to hide from it, not a bludgeon with which to beat others into submission. We are called to be formed by the practices of our tradition into a unique presence of the Lord to the world in service. We are called to be servants of the others, not competitors with them. The traditions are not the problem or the obstacle. It is our failure to live them at their depth and in their truth that leads us to use a false form of them as weapons against each other. The fruit of truly living out the call and the way of our path is, as Huston Smith said, “to be a little kinder.”
I, too, stood on the sacred image. For a moment this foot was on his face. It was on the face of the man who has been ever in my thoughts, on the face that was before me on the mountains, in my wanderings, in prison, on the best and the most beautiful face that a man can ever know, on the face of him whom I have always longed to love. Even now that face is looking at me with eyes of pity from the plaque rubbed flat by many feet. “Trample!” said those compassionate eyes. “Trample! Your foot suffers in pain; it must suffer like all the feet that have stepped on this plaque. But that pain alone is enough. I understand your pain and your suffering. It is for that reason that I am here.”
“Lord, I resented your silence!”
“I was not silent. I suffered beside you.”
. . . .
No doubt his fellow priests would condemn his act as sacrilege; but even if he was betraying them, he was not betraying his Lord. He loved him now in a different way from before. Everything that had taken place until now had been necessary to bring him to this love. “Even now I am the last priest in this land. But Our Lord was not silent. Even if he had been silent, my life until this day would have spoken of him.
Shusako Endo, Silence, trans. William Johnston, pp. 203-4