A Christian Approach to Purity

Last week, we looked at the Pharisaic approach to purity and contrasted it with Jesus’ approach.

As we noted, it is easy to turn the Pharisees into cartoon villains and not see them as human beings who made… pretty much the same mistakes many of us make today. They saw “purity” as a matter of separateness, of avoiding defiling things. Their very name comes from the word “separate” in Hebrew. And that approach is not a far-fetched approach to life if all you know of holiness is “Touch not, or you are defiled.”

Indeed, we should not be too quick to judge the Pharisees because we ourselves can act the same way, sometimes justifiably and sometimes not. At the “justifiable” end of the spectrum, every parent knows that there are certain things in this world you don’t want your kid messing around with. And before Reason starts to stir in Junior’s cerebral cortex, we teach kids in a manner very similar to the way God taught Israel. We don’t write them a Thomistic thesis on “Why Drinking from the Toilet is Unhealthy” or “Why You Should Not Watch That Immoral TV Show”. We say things like “Ick!” and that’s that. Junior understands that this is defiling and you shouldn’t do it.

But the time comes when Reason does kick in and the way we do life has to change. We have to distinguish physical defilement from moral defilement much as the moment came when Israel had to distinguish sin from the “unclean” food which represented sin. The “ick” we taught Junior about smoking is a different thing than the “Ick” we taught him about hanging around with thugs and beating up first graders for their milk money. One is unhealthy for his body, the other for his soul.

Beyond this, though, there is another dimension to holiness that has to be learned and many Catholics never do. It is the realization that we do indeed live under the New Covenant and that our primary mission as Catholics is to make the world holy, not to keep the world from defiling us. We have to learn that the Church ultimately has the upper hand against sin because we have the power of Christ.

Some Catholics really don’t get this. To illustrate, let me quote a Catholic who was participating in a recent on-line discussion concerning whether Harry Potter books were proper for a Catholic to read, “One drop of anything not authentically Catholic poisons the whole glass.”

Now, this is not a column about Harry Potter. So let’s restrain the urge to go there. This is a column about purity. And the fact is, it is false to say that “One drop of anything not authentically Catholic poisons the whole glass.” Neither Christmas trees, nor Maypoles, nor Easter eggs, nor iconography, nor statuary, nor prayer beads, nor wedding rings were Catholic in the beginning. They were pagan (meaning “human”) things. The Church looked at them and said, “All authentically human things can be Catholic things too!”

And this has ever been the Church’s approach. Everything from Stagecoach to 2001: A Space Odyssey is championed by the Vatican as good films without the slightest sense that, because they are the products decidedly non-saintly Catholics or unbelievers, they are therefore necessarily “poison”.

The basic principle we have from the New Testament is that the power of the Spirit can overcome the powers of sin, hell and death. It is what has ordered the Church’s missionary work since the beginning. That is the meaning of the strange Dominical saying preserved at the end of the gospel of Mark:

And these signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up serpents, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.” (Mark 16:17-18)

This language is particularly apt, particularly given the language we just saw above. The funny thing about the gospel is how often, in the history of the Church, the Church has fulfilled Jesus promise, “if they drink any deadly thing, it will not harm them” (Mark 16:18). The Church has drunk from all sorts of pagan wells, ranging from Plato and Aristotle, to the various ways in which Norse, German, Druidic, Roman, Indian, and other forms of pagan culture have been baptized and turned to the service of Christ. The Pharisaic approach is to reject–as the Pharisees rejected Christ–the possibility that he really holds power over the devil. It is a mentality that never considers the opposite possibility: namely, that Christ has power to conquer what defiled us under the old law and turn it to his glory.


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