Say the Black, Do the Red

For 18 January 2010, Monday, week 2 in ordinary time (2), based on 1 Samuel 15:16-23, Mark 2:18-22

The things we say and do often go together. In fact, they have to go together. Our deeds are words acted out, and our words are our actions uttered. A dissonance between them is what we call hypocrisy. This we all recognise well enough, often we see it more clearly in others than in ourselves, but that is part of the essence of being hypocritical – seeing that everyone is a hypocrite apart from ourselves.

Now if the deeds do not match our words, it causes a great unease in us (at best), or worse, it corrupts and perverts us. If for example, we said to someone ‘I love you’ but never made any efforts to contact them or see how they are or prayed for their welfare, then something is wrong. It’s worse than hypocrisy. It seems we are liars. Or, more charitably, we could say that we are well-intentioned, but that our intentions are not matched by deeds. Which really is a nice way to say that we are liars, I think.

What if deeds and words mismatched each other a great deal? For example, if a carer abused her ward? Can someone who is an abuser really be called a ‘carer’ then? And as for the child who is being cared for, how can she or he be expected to feel secure or cared for, when they have come to live in fear and dread?
So our words and deeds really do have to match if we are to be human, and especially if we are a new creation in Christ, and part of redeemed humanity that hopes for eternal salvation. One of the most important public acts where words and deeds must match is the liturgy. The traditional way of phrasing this was the axiom, lex orandi, lex credendi – that the law of prayer is the law of faith. In other words, the two are inextricably linked, and one supports the other: as we believe, so we pray; as we pray, so we believe. This interdependence, this happy commingling is so important that tampering with the one will inevitably change the other.

The liturgy is a common battleground, for everyone has an opinion on the liturgy, even if it is to think it is of no or little importance. But the liturgy is not something we do. It is God’s work, or it is nothing, Pope Benedict reminds us. Our earthly liturgy is nothing more than our sharing in the heavenly liturgy that takes place all the time; the Body of Christ sharing in the offering of her Head, Christ himself, to the Father, in the Spirit.

That’s why it is so damaging to tamper with the liturgy, as unfortunately too many priests and liturgical committees do. Instead of the liturgy being about God, it becomes a celebration of the self, or of the community – and it stay there, at the horizontal level of our mundane, banal existence, and we are not transformed. But true liturgy is about something the community can never be of its own, could never bring of its own. It is about what only God can do.

That is why liturgical norms must be adhered to, and why Vatican II reminds us that no one can tamper with the liturgy off his own bat, not even a priest, the Council adds, probably knowing all too well the arrogance of many priests who have done so, and who have continued to do so, down to our own time. One blog puts it as ‘say the black, do the red’, that is, for priests to say the black words printed in the missal, and to follow the red words (the rubrics) as instructions on how to celebrate Mass. What could be simpler?

The first reading tells us, ‘For rebellion is as the sin of divination, and stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry.’ As long as people strive to make liturgy more up-to-date or ‘relevant’, it will lose all relevance, and it will undoubtedly be tired and jaded. It is why we also need a new translation of the Mass in English! And desperately so!

Some of you may think, ‘How odd! Is he saying obeying rubrics about how many candles should go on the altar is going to save us?’ but that is to miss the point. The Scripture we heard says, ‘to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams’. Obedience to holy mother Church, which is Christ’s body after all instituted by Him for us and the world, is more than any cheap thrill sought for in messing around with the Mass or prayer. Seeking to touch the mystery, to be caught up in the things greater than we are, is better than to lower everything down to our humdrum, graceless existence. Far better! It is after all the difference between heaven and hell, between God’s work and gracelessness.

1 Samuel 15:16-23
Then Samuel said to Saul, “Stop! I will tell you what the LORD said to me this night.” And he said to him, “Say on.” And Samuel said, “Though you are little in your own eyes, are you not the head of the tribes of Israel? The LORD anointed you king over Israel. And the LORD sent you on a mission, and said, `Go, utterly destroy the sinners, the Amalekites, and fight against them until they are consumed.’ Why then did you not obey the voice of the LORD? Why did you swoop on the spoil, and do what was evil in the sight of the LORD?” And Saul said to Samuel, “I have obeyed the voice of the LORD, I have gone on the mission on which the LORD sent me, I have brought Agag the king of Amalek, and I have utterly destroyed the Amalekites. But the people took of the spoil, sheep and oxen, the best of the things devoted to destruction, to sacrifice to the LORD your God in Gilgal.” And Samuel said, “Has the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the LORD? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams. For rebellion is as the sin of divination, and stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry. Because you have rejected the word of the LORD, he has also rejected you from being king.”

Mark 2:18-22
Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting; and people came and said to him, “Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” And Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. The days will come, when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day. No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment; if he does, the patch tears away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; if he does, the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost, and so are the skins; but new wine is for fresh skins.”

Scripture passage from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Catholic Edition, copyright 1989, 1993, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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About Leon Pereira, O.P.

Leon Pereira OP is a friar of the English Province, assigned to Holy Cross
priory in Leicester. He is prior and parish priest of Holy Cross, Leicester (UK), and the editor of the preaching website Torch: .