The first age of history awaited the coming of Christ. Right after the Fall of man, the Lord promised a Redeemer Who would crush the head of Satan. Then He promised Abraham that the world’s blessing would come from among Abraham’s descendants. As a sign of his faith in this promise, Abraham submitted to circumcision.
Forty-two generations passed between the Lord’s promise to Abraham and its fulfillment in the womb of the Virgin. Plenty of time to build up a complex set of customs, even if your nation isn’t being given explicit commandments by Almighty God Himself. When you throw that into the mix, you wind up with customs that have all the trappings of sacredness. Circumcision may not be pretty, but sacred? Yes.
However: The actual coming of the promised Messiah requires a thorough re-evaluation of all customs, no matter how sacred. Yes, the Lord commanded circumcision as a sign of Abraham’s faith in what was to come. But now that the hope of ancient Israel has been fulfilled, and Abraham himself has rejoiced to see the day of Christ, maybe we don’t necessarily have to insist that all new Christian men submit to the mohel’s knife?
Indeed not. The Messiah said baptize, not circumcise. Circumcision was always a symbol of the interior reality anyway. As the Lord put it through the prophet Jeremiah (4:4), Remove the foreskins, not of your outer members, but of your hearts!
Now, certainly it is true that, without our established customs, we lose our way altogether. When in doubt—which we often are—it usually makes sense just to do things the way we have “always” done them. The longer we have been doing something in a particular way, the more likely that there are a million reasons, which we don’t even know, as to why we should, indeed, do it that way.
But no custom can bind us definitively unless Jesus Christ Himself instituted it. Christ Himself, and His love for every human being, must be the measure of all human customs.
We live in the age of the New Evangelization, which means we must consider ourselves the spiritual brothers and sisters of the Apostles and first Christians. A world that does not know the Savior awaits us, and that world needs Christ.
The world, though, does not necessarily need to be like us. Yes, like us, precisely to the extent that Christ has taken over our lives. Yes, like us, if “like us” means like the saints. But, otherwise, Christ wants everyone to be themselves. On the one hand, there are the basic rules of Christian living, the fundamental principles of decency, justice, and respect. Then, on the other hand, there is the breathtaking array of ways in which God has made us to be ourselves.
Our parish communities have excellent customs. Some of them may have been originated by the Apostles, like serving spaghetti dinners one Friday a month, or eating cookies after Mass, or having committees.
But: There are our community’s beautiful particular customs, and then there is the fundamental life of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. We always have to keep in mind that everyone is welcome to experience, and indeed everyone has a right to experience, the fundamental life of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church right here in our parish-church buildings.
In other words, everyone has the right to hear the Word of God and to receive the sacraments from the hands of the priest, according to the rules established by a higher authority than us—and that is the fundamental reason why our buildings were built.
The more we keep this in mind, the more evangelical a community we will be.