Herald of Hope

Some weeks ago (Tuesday, Feb. 8, to be exact), the daily Gospel reading highlighted an ancient controversy between Jesus and a few of the Pharisees who complained with mild displeasure that the disciples of Jesus didn’t wash their hands before sitting down for a meal. (Mark 7:1-5) If it were my mother speaking to us as kids prior to supper, they would probably have a point. As Pharisees, however, the issue had an even deeper dimension.

You see, the Pharisees at the time of Jesus had developed a profound spirituality within Jewish tradition. They extended the sanctity of temple worship to the family table, and expected the same personal preparation for meals as would be required for public worship — with the careful cleansing of the dishes as well as the ritual purification of the participants. For them, supper was truly a form of ritual liturgy in a domestic setting, and profoundly sacred. Conversation among family members at table was to be approached with the same respect as solemn temple sacrifice: joyful and fraught with grace and meaning. Some form of purification was required for both. Hence, the group of visiting Pharisees complained about those who did not wash their hands before the meal. Every meal was holy, they insisted, and deserved preparation — ritual as well as culinary.

A participant in the Pharisaic tradition himself, Jesus shared their sense of the spiritual importance of shared meals. The Gospels (perhaps especially Luke, which was written for educated and somewhat affluent folks) are filled with stories of the conversations and challenges associated with Jesus and his colleagues at the table. Jesus was often invited by fellow Pharisees to a meal and, in that context, they were constantly speaking about the will of God. Their conversations had the character of dialogue homilies.

All of that comes to mind once again as we travel through another Lenten season. Every day of life amid God’s creation is blessed, but the days of Lent are uniquely so. These are days when we are invited as Christians to spend our 40 days of preparation for Easter in a thoughtful and focused fashion.

It’s easy enough to give up candy or cocktails or to limit our hours before the television. What if our Lenten resolution, following with contemporary adjustments like the ancient practice of the Pharisees, was simply to make each family supper something special? Listening carefully to what each person is saying and making sure that even the unasked table needs of others are quickly met would be a gift. Offering to do the dishes afterward would be presumed. Serving others would be taken for granted, and would somehow become uniquely “holy.”

Hand washing, however, may not be required to engage in God’s work throughout the day, nor for any of the practices we may choose for this year’s special Lenten activity.

I decided to spend time this year with some extended daily prayer over the inspired text of the Letter of James. Its emphasis on the need for good works as an expression of our embrace of God’s gift of faith, even though the importance of that letter was hotly debated among Catholics and Lutherans so many centuries ago, seems like a worthy exercise during these days of Lent.

A wonderful Lenten experience could simply be a resolution to treat all family meals as uniquely holy and as opportunities of mutual support, encouragement and even, on occasion, a friendly challenge to each other’s charity and spiritual growth. The basic vision of the Pharisees, namely the sacred character of family meals, was not a bad idea. Moreover, thinking about all the activities which express our faith and give evidence of sharing God’s work in our frail world seems like time well spent during the gift of yet another Lent.