When I was in graduate school in music, there was a quote from Charlie Parker that struck me, even though I’ve never played jazz. It went: “You’ve got to learn your instrument. Then, you practice, practice, practice. And then, when you finally get up there on the bandstand, forget all that and just wail.” At first glance, it didn’t make sense, but after I thought it out, it was profound. Any musical instrument has a technique of playing, learning basic scales, arpeggios, modes, mastering patterns. Every piece of music has its own peculiar characteristics of melody and harmony. Without having these things mastered and internalized, made part of you, then to some extent you’re fighting yourself and fighting your instrument, even if it’s your own voice, when you play for others. If you know you instrument thoroughly, so comfortable that you don’t even need to think about what you’re doing when you play or sing, then you become the music and whatever you may do with it or add to it will be natural. It takes a lot of hard work to be natural in music, but the trip is worth it.
In Jesus’ day, the hand washings the Pharisees are referring to are ritual washings that priests would do in the Temple. The spirituality of the Pharisees was to take the priestly purity code and extend it to ordinary people, and that in itself wasn’t really a bad idea. Jesus’ disciples get asked the question as an indirect attack on Jesus himself, trying to discredit him as a rabbi. Jesus’ answer is very straightforward and direct: the danger of such literal interpretation of ritual is there is nothing behind it, that the motivations are a long way from the intent. It makes no sense to purify the inside of a cup and not the outside. Hypocrisy is the perfect word for the attitude, and is something we wouldn’t accept today. We must live our Faith from the inside out, paying attention to cleaning both the inside and the outside of the cup. Rituals are important, but only if we take part in them from our hearts, only if they reflect who we are on the inside and aren’t done with the notion that they’ll do magic for us. Rituals without interior motivation do more to discredit Faith than reflect or proclaim it.
There is another point that gets lost much of the time: it is not what comes in from the outside that defiles, but what comes out from within. There are a lot of ugly sights, ugly sounds, ugly ideas in the world, and perhaps the best way to see them is as noise. There is a lot of noise in the world, and there is no good way to stifle it without becoming tyrants ourselves, which we should not do. It’s not the noise we hear that will hurt us, but the noise of pride, greed and selfishness we make that does us damage, in God’s eyes and in one another’s eyes. If our hearts are tuned right and our voices kept clean of noise, then the discordant noise the world produces will be drowned out, it won’t bother us. If we are focused on the song we’re singing and sing it well, then we won’t hear things that will hurt us, won’t pay attention to the clamor that threatens to silence us. We have no control over what goes on around us, its’s what goes on within us we need to learn to control, and when we can do that, what goes on around us doesn’t matter, and will be unremembered noise.
It’s fairly easy to tell if someone is playing notes or making music. The best musicians make it look easy, know the music so well the technique goes unnoticed, the difficulty of the music is unperceived. We want to hear people who become the music, who become what they’re singing or playing.
Christ is the song we need to sing from our hearts. We need to learn the heart of Christ, the mind of Christ, the spirit of Christ and practice it until it becomes second nature to us. This is our protection against Evil influences, and our guide to life in its fullness. St. Augustine’s feast day was earlier this week, and one of his great sayings was that we need to become what we eat. As we share the Body and Blood of Christ, we need to become what we eat and drink. Christ resisted temptation, presented on the outside what was on the inside, talked the talk and walked the walk. Our challenge as followers of Christ is to do the same.