Monday, March 9, 2015

Faith or superstition

Faith or superstition, miracle or magic. Today's first reading is the perfect text to show us the difference between the two. In the story today, the foreigner Naaman, is sent to Israel by his king to see if he can be cured of leprosy. Elisha the prophet tells him that all he has to do is wash seven times in the Jordan. His reaction is anger rather than gratitude. It can't be that simple? And yet it is.
And here we see the difference between faith and superstition.

The word superstition comes from Latin and literally means "to stand over." Superstition always sees itself as superior. It masquerades as a higher form of religion. It is always more complicated and always requires more.

Naaman wants strange incantations, potions made from exotic ingredients, something elaborate. In short, he wants magic. The problem is that God is quite simple. The name he proclaims as his own is 4 letters in Hebrew. God is trinity and perfect unity. Absolute simplicity.

Even in Christianity it remains simple. The door into the Church is baptism. And we recognize as valid any baptism that includes two things: water and "I baptize you, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit."

The oil, the candle, the white garment, are all called explanatory rites, to help one understand baptism, but they are not essential. Even the amount of water that is required is quite small. Some part of the head must get wet.

For each of our sacraments there are two simple elements, what we refer to as the form and the matter. The form is no more than a few words and sometimes a gesture. The matter is water, or oil, or bread and wine, etc. They are always simple and readily available.

During our liturgy we add songs and readings and other elements to help us to understand the deeper reality. Catholic worship uses every one of our five senses to bring us into union with God. But the heart of the faith is never complicated.

The caricature of Catholicism makes it look like superstition and magic. And yes, there are even those in the Church who, like Naaman, have gotten angry at the return to simplicity called for by Vatican II.

Often I find people are taken aback by the simplicity of the sacrament of Penance. That's it? That's all we have to do to be forgiven? And our answer is yes.

Or with Eucharist: so you believe that the priest says some words over bread and wine and they become the body and blood of Christ? And our response is, YES.

And for the Christian, every celebration of a sacrament is a miracle. In baptism, like Naaman we are washed clean and transformed into adopted sons and daughters of God. In marriage two are transformed into one.

Real faith does not demand extraordinary signs and complexities. Real faith, as opposed to superstition, can acknowledge the miraculous in the simple. Are we people of faith who can see the simply miraculous? Or do we really want magic?