Some years ago, I was a missionary in south-western Zimbabwe. We priests resided in Plumtree, a small town, and visited, at least once a month, the 25 small communities in the rural area surrounding the town. One year on Ash Wednesday, I visited a remote community that had gathered in the homestead of a Catholic family to celebrate this special day. The community consisted of about 30 families. As the visit of the priest was a joyful occasion, the women had cooked a mouthwatering meal and the smell of stewed chicken welcomed me. “Chicken on Ash Wednesday!”, was the first thought that crossed my mind. While greeting the community members, I thought about what I should do. Should I tell them that eating meat is inappropriate on this special day of fasting? If I do so, then I would follow the tradition of the Church but also embarrass them and make them lose face in front of their neighbors, who also joined the celebration. Or, alternatively, should I eat the meal with them, then celebrate the Ash Wednesday service with the community, and afterwards discuss with the community leaders the meaning of this day and traditions that are observed on this day, such as abstaining from meat and alcohol?
After a short prayer and reflection, I decided to do the second. I chose not to follow the Church teaching even though I value the observance of fasting and abstinence and am aware as an anthropologist of the importance of such traditions as a marker of a religious identity. Instead, I felt that the right thing to do was to accept the genuine kindness of the community, not to embarrass them in front of others, and to teach them afterwards about the meaning of Ash Wednesday and Lent.
This event came to my mind when I was reflecting over the readings of today. We have heard the prophecy, spoken by Isaiah, of the messiah, of the Christ, who will raise up Israel and bring God’s salvation to the ends of the earth. We as Church continue the mission of Christ to bring salvation to everyone but, as we have heard in today’s Gospel, the experience of infidelity is part of being a disciple. Judas Iscariot betrayed Jesus, as did Peter. If even Peter, the saintly first pope, denied his savior and did not live up to his commitment, then it is not surprising that we, who are far less saintly, betray Christ and his mission.
But how do we know when we betray Christ and his mission? My experience is that it is not easy to know what to do in a particular moment. The event that I described earlier, taught me that even following Church teachings and traditions may not always be what Christ wants us to do, even though such teachings and traditions make perfect sense in many if not most situations. In other words, just following the church teachings and traditions is not necessarily synonymous with following Christ. We still need to reflect and pray to find out if these are meaningful and appropriate in a particular situation.
In other words, we need to pause, to reflect, and to pray over our Church’s traditions and teachings and ask the Lord to show us what we ought to do in a particular situation as individuals and as a faith community.
Let us take time during this week to pause and reflect on our mission as followers of Christ. As baptized we have received the Holy Spirit and we can trust that the Spirit will guide us during this process. Let us ask the Spirit to show us what we should do today. As we soon celebrate the Easter Triduum – the day before Christ’s death, his passing, and his resurrection – let us renew our commitment to serve the mission of our Lord.
P.S. Following that Ash Wednesday visit, the community stopped cooking meat on days of fasting and abstinence and this tradition became a marker of identity for the Church.
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