When I was in high school in South Jersey in the late 2000s, I had a classmate who thought that pie was the funniest thing in the world. It wasn’t that pie was his favorite food or that he liked classic pie-related humor such as hitting clowns in the face with pies; he simply found the concept of pie hilarious and brought it up whenever a funny conversation was being had. He may have thought that “pie” was an inherently funny word, the way some people feel about “pickle” or “filibuster” or “Basingstoke.”
One day, someone in my class took a small packaged pie from someone else’s desk during lunch and threw it from the classroom’s second-story window when nobody was looking. Our teacher obviously suspected my classmate who thought pie was the funniest thing ever was the culprit, but he genuinely seemed not to have done it. She subjected us to several weeks of collective punishment, and this was punctuated by other classmates falsely confessing, Spartacus–style. The whole ordeal ended, not because the actual pie defenestrator came forward, but because our teacher ran out of things she could ethically do to collectively punish us after turning the only cushioned chairs in the classroom to face the wall.
I bring this up not only to share a funny story from my salad days but to demonstrate the problems inherent in trying to vigorously enforce even the most basic rules on people who aren’t receptive to them. It wasn’t that anyone in my junior-year homeroom actually thought that stealing and destroying other people’s property was acceptable; it was just that the approach our teacher took was heavy-handed and nobody was willing to cooperate with it because a relationship of trust between us and our particular teacher had not been there to begin with. Most people involved would have been happy to help the teacher get to the bottom of the incident had the circumstances (most notably her presumption of guilt on the part of the pie-obsessed class clown) had been different.
This Advent I’m going to be writing a series of four reflections on the connection between “rules” on a much higher level–the moral law–and the relationships that we have with one another and with God. Reflecting on, meditating on, and attempting to understand this connection properly, is a key task. It has implications for aspects of the Advent season such as preparing our own lives and our own hearts for the coming of Jesus; if, as today’s Gospel reading warns us, we “also must be prepared, for at an hour [we] do not expect, the Son of Man will come” (Mt. 24:44), it would be best that we as well as He be properly open to the encounter. It’s this openness that we get, or at least seek, through grace and through faith.
When many of our Evangelical Protestant brethren talk about a “personal relationship with Jesus,” it can give the impression that this is a substitute for living an upright life; that impression repels many Catholics from this terminology. However, that relationship genuinely is important. It is important not because we need to have touchy-feely and highly emotive spiritualities, nor because there is a right and a wrong way to “feel about” Christ, but because we need to understand to Whom we are accountable for our lives. When we throw the pie out the window it’s not wrong just because it upsets a goading schoolteacher. We must account for our lives, in the end, to a power greater, more legitimate, and more loving and forgiving than that.
This connection between law and relationship also has broader implications for thorny issues in Catholic life, like the accusations of “legalism” and “rigorism” that are always getting thrown back and forth in informal, and sometimes formal, theological debate. There is also a whole dimension of Christians’ ability to understand Judaism that could do with a serious housecleaning around ideas like law and freedom. My next three reflections will focus on some of those aspects of this important and under-discussed link between our morals and our faith.
Image: Advent Sunday street festivities in Stockholm, Sweden. From Wikimedia Commons.
Nathan Turowsky is a native New Englander and now lives in Upstate New York. A lifelong fascination with religious ritual led him into first the Episcopal Church and then the Catholic Church. An alumnus of Boston University School of Theology and one of the relatively few Catholic alumni of that primarily Wesleyan institution, he is unmarried and works in the nonprofit sector. He writes at Silicate Siesta.