The Gospels relate an incident in which Jesus’ disciples are criticized by the Pharisees for plucking and eating heads of grain on the Sabbath. Jesus defends His disciples and says that the Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath.
The Pharisees had many rules and regulations so they would look like the important ones in their communities and lord it over everyone. What is Jesus saying? He is saying that He comes, not to do away with the law of Moses, the law, and the prophets, not to do away with the Old Testament, but to make it new! To transform it, to show that “Here is the place of the Lord.”
In reality, the Pharisees had this law that you could not do anything on the Sabbath, on the Lord’s Day. You could not prepare meals, for example. You had to prepare them another day but could eat them on the Sabbath. So when the apostles and Jesus were walking through the fields, picking the grain, rubbing it in their hands to remove the chaff, and then eating it, the Pharisees were considering that they were preparing a meal. That seems absurd to us!
But when we look at human Church law, sometimes people can be like the Pharisees. Let’s s look at the laws of fasting and abstinence. When someone is extremely ill, they can’t fast. That is why the Church has ways of going around certain laws. If someone is perfectly healthy, they have the strength and obligation to follow the laws of the Church on fasting and abstinence. You may recall in the “old days,” the Church had a law that, if you were going to receive Communion, you could not eat after midnight. Now if you went to brush your teeth in the morning and some of that water dripped into your throat, you could not receive Holy Communion. Today we have to fast for one hour before we receive the Lord in Holy Communion. It’s no big deal, is it? It’s almost like it’s nothing any more because, many times, we eat earlier before we get to Mass and, depending on the length of the homily, it could be an hour and a half after we have eaten before we receive Holy Communion.
But if someone is sick, they can receive Holy Communion. In Canon Law, it says that, if a priest has to say more than one Mass a day, he can eat a meal between Masses. See, the Church is not so rigid with its laws. This does not mean that, when Jesus says, “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” you go out and figure you are free and can do what you want! No, we are talking about human laws, not the moral law. The Church is always understanding of human law and takes into consideration the person. If someone works tremendous hours during Lent and their job is so strenuous that they can’t sustain their lives without eating meat, then they can eat it if their spiritual director or confessor give them special permission.
Of course, we cannot do away with the laws of the Church just because we feel like it. The Bishops can give permission to disregard a law in special situations. For example, the Bishops, on St. Patrick’s Day, will give a dispensation from not eating meat. Why do they do that? Because they know that many Irish Catholics are going to eat it anyway and the Bishops don’t want the people to sin. If we feel that it is impossible for us to keep a Church law, now I am not referring to the Moral Law and the Ten Commandments, then we ought to consult our our parish priest. You can’t make up your own mind about these things. But the Church can give a dispensation in special circumstances.
Jesus makes us ask, “What is important?” Is it the law? No, it’s not. It’s giving ourselves completely to the Lord Jesus Christ. What is the reason for fasting one hour before receiving Jesus in the Eucharist? Only because it’s a law? That would be crazy. It’s because we love the Lord so much that we know Jesus is truly present in the Blessed Sacrament. Why do we abstain from meat on Friday’s during Lent? Because, again, we want to focus on Jesus Christ. Fasting is to purify us, to make us holy, to transform us. We hear people ask, “Why did the bishops do away with abstaining from meat for the rest of the year?” We forget that the Bishops told us that, if we don’t abstain from eating meat on Fridays the rest of the year, we have to do another form of penance. It’s all about giving ourselves to Christ, becoming like Christ, being transformed. But not being like the Pharisees who built up so many laws that no body but themselves could follow them all, and then they would look good in the eyes of the people. We have the laws to guide and transform us, to bring us to Him. So when the Pharisees said, “Look at those disciples, preparing a meal on the Sabbath,” we know that they were not doing that any more than if we take a piece of bread and eat it. We are not preparing a meal! Laws are to help us fall in love with Jesus.
God love you,
Fr. Jay Finelli