We used to have a rule in the Church that we could only celebrate Mass on an altar stone – a dedicated piece of marble with the relics of saints sealed inside it. When the priest was celebrating a house Mass or a school Mass, this would have to be placed on the table, with the bread and wine to be consecrated, placed on top.
In 1983, when the Catholic Church updated its law code in the West, this rule was dropped. Now I can celebrate Mass on any suitable table. Did we need the old rule? Yes and no. Yes, we needed something to remind us that when we celebrate Mass, we’re doing something profoundly holy. No, we didn’t need a rule that created practical difficulties for celebrating Mass when it was needed.
In today’s First Reading, Na’aman does a curious thing. He asks for two baskets of soil from Israel to take home to Syria! He believed that the god who had cured him was a local god in Israel, who could only be worshipped on Israeli soil. But we know that the whole earth belongs to God: wherever we stand, the ground is already holy ground!
It’s good to have special places and things which we recognise as holy. Often, I’m asked to bless rosaries, statues and medals. Doing this gives honour to God. But you can still pray with a rosary that hasn’t been blessed, and if you wear an unblessed medal as a sign of faith, God honours your faith!
When we celebrate Mass now, we don’t use an altar stone, but we do use this – a corporal. The name comes from the Latin for body, corpus. Now, not a stone but a cloth marks the place where the Body and Blood of Jesus will become present. Like many things in our religious services, it has a dual purpose – one is practical, one symbolic. The practical purpose is to catch crumbs, tiny particles of the Blessed Sacrament. This is why our altar servers – I hope you’re listening! – are always supposed to fold it inwards, and then carry it flat away from the altar, never to flick it out into the air! The symbolic purpose is to mark out a Holy of Holies within the space on the altar, just as the ancient Jewish Temple had its Holy of Holies, where the High Priest went only once a year, within the larger Holy Place where the priests offered sacrifice every day.
Do we need holy things? Yes and no. No, we can pray to God any place, any time, any way, without needing any special equipment. God is as close as our next breath. But yes, if we have an Icon Corner or a Bible Corner in our home, or a holy table in our classroom at school, these things can help to remind us to stop and turn to God in our daily life.
In today’s Gospel, ten lepers cry out to Jesus for mercy. He sets them a challenge. “Go and show yourself to the priest!” Now it was written in the Jewish Law that when lepers seemed to be healed, they had to go to a priest who would confirm they were free of disease, and they could make a thanksgiving offering. But here it seems that the lepers only got healed after taking that first step of faith on the journey towards the Temple – daring to go there even while they were still unclean!
Then there’s this one foreigner, who turns back to give thanks to Jesus. Does that mean the point of the story is “Don’t forget to say thank you”? Yes – and no. Yes, Jesus commends him for giving thanks. But perhaps there’s something deeper, too. “Go and show yourself to the priest.” Perhaps the Samaritan recognised that Jesus is truly a High Priest. The others were comfortable with the old law which said the priests were in the Temple in Jerusalem. That wasn’t wrong – but they were so used to doing things that way that they couldn’t see that Our Lord was a priest too!
We get comfortable with our old ways and can feel unsettled when our Church changes the rules about things. Do we have to abstain from meat on Fridays? How long do we have to fast before receiving Holy Communion? Which days, apart from Sundays, are Holy Days when we have to attend Mass? What’s the response to “The Lord Be With You?” Just when we think we know what we’re supposed to do to be a “good Catholic”, the bishops go and change the rules! But these rules are about external things. If we’re bothered by changes like this, it might be telling us that we know how to be a Catholic, but not why. That’s a challenge to us to find out!
Jesus met the lepers when he was on the borderland between Galilee and Samaria. All of us have borderlands, the interface between the things we know and are comfortable with, and things which are unknown and unfamiliar. The Parish Mission coming up at the end of this month is an invitation to expand our borders, to become familiar with new things.
Lots of things will try and get in our way. Our doubts will say that it’s not important, it’s too complicated, and we’re not worthy. But it is important, it’s not too complicated, and although we are unworthy of God’s love, we have the wonderful words from the letter to Timothy: “Christ is faithful, even when you are unfaithful.” Let’s expand our borders, commit ourselves to the coming mission, and get to know our faith so well that we will never feel disturbed at changes to things which are merely external! We don’t need soil from Israel, or an altar stone – but let us always remain faithful to our Rock, Jesus Christ. Amen!