Recently, I was staying in another part of the country where there is a large population of traditional Jews. It was interesting for me, while at the mall or playground, to see women with their heads covered, or with three quarter sleeves, skirts to their knees and flat shoes. There were often young men in yamakas with long curls framing their faces. It seems, just by my ignorant observation, that there are various degrees of strictness in the dress codes. No matter what the length of their skirts or their hair styles, however, it is clear at first sight that such a man or woman is Jewish, and I deeply respect their discipline in keeping the customs of their ancestors.
As you read the Old Testament, you can get wrapped up in books like Leviticus, where the laws seem to get kind of ridiculous. Later on, in the prophetic books, we moderns can find ourselves scratching our head as to why brave young men would go to their deaths rather than munch a mouthful of bacon. The Law of Moses was worth dying for not because pork harbored bacteria or because washing one’s hands before eating was good hygiene. Jews took the Law seriously because their laws made them different from all the other pagan nations. They were chosen by God to be set apart from the others, and their dress, customs and rituals were outward signs of this fact.
There are several places in the Old Testament where the people of Israel tried to keep up with the Joneses (or in their case the Babylonians or the Greeks or whichever other nation they happened to live near), and every time they got into bad trouble. Their breech of the smaller points of the law led them to idol worship every time. Worshipping a false god instead of the One who chose you, consecrated you and freed you from slavery? That’s a pretty big deal.
So, what about us? Why don’t we eat kosher and wear yamakas? Some chalk it up to the Old Testament vs. New Testament God thing. You know, the God of the Old Testament was a rules guy who liked to smite people for no reason. The New Testament God is a kind of hippie Jesus who tells us just to stay cool and not kill anybody. This, of course, is not the reason. God didn’t just wake up one day and decide it was time to ditch the rules he’d been enforcing for several thousand years. He is a God of reason and order. Why, then, do Christians not keep Jewish customs?
The earliest Christians dealt with that question in the Book of Acts. Both Jews and Gentiles were coming into the Church, and the question arose: do the Gentiles need to keep all the Jewish customs? This would have been a daunting task. Aside from the obvious question of circumcising adult men, the Law had become so complicated that it would have been like learning a whole new language and culture. It is revealed to Peter, of course, that the Gentiles only needed to refrain from the most offensive dietary practices and stay chaste in order to become Christian.
The reason the Christians didn’t need to become Jewish first, was that in Jesus, Judaism was now fulfilled. Israel was chosen to stand out in order to be an example to the whole world, the firstborn son of mankind. I used to be very uncomfortable with the idea that God chose the Israelites. Come on, isn’t that a little unfair? Doesn’t God love all the people he created? Yes! Though salvation came through the Jews, it has now been opened up for all of us in Jesus. The scattering of the nations that took place at the Tower of Babel is undone at Pentecost. Christianity brings all nations together.
All that being said, what is the role of outward customs for us as Christians? Should people be able to tell we are Catholics by seeing us at the mall or the park? To answer this, I want to quote the letter to Diogetus, written about 125 AD. It states:
For the Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe. For they neither inhabit cities of their own, nor employ a peculiar form of speech, nor lead a life which is marked out by any singularity… But, inhabiting Greek as well as barbarian cities, according as the lot of each of them has determined, and following the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food and the rest of their ordinary conduct, they display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life.
In other words, the Christian faithful (priests and religious aside—perhaps a topic for another column) are not called to any particular customs, dress or language that immediately identify us as such. Since God wants all people in the fold, Christianity, indeed Catholicism, is designed to exist beautifully and harmoniously with every single human culture. But let’s not skip that very last line I quoted above. The whole point of the Christian “fitting in” with the culture is for him to stand out. There should be something different about us. But it should be found not on our dinner plates or our heads. It should be seen in how we live.
Other people should, through interaction with us, see that we are kinder, more patient, more compassionate, joyful and at peace in adversity than the average person on the street. At the risk of getting a 70’s song stuck in your head, they’ll know we are Christians by how well we love.
Love is choosing the good for another and will often be misunderstood by our society. It also sometimes has outward expressions like the sign of the cross, ashes on the forehead or a crucifix around the neck. It sometimes means we have to leave our vacation spot to get to Mass, or order fish sticks instead of a burger on Friday. We have a Catholic culture to be sure. But these things are meant to speak to our inner transformation in Christ. Without the Holy Spirit active in our lives, our churches are museums and our customs just empty superstitions.
So next time we run into someone whose dress or customs outwardly reveal their faith, let’s take it as a reminder that we need to roll up the sleeves of our oxford shirts and get just as serious about the state of souls, that we may both blend in and stick out for Christ.
Copyright 2010 Libby DuPont