The thirteenth chapter of Saint Luke’s Gospel records a heartbreaking moment in Jesus’ ministry. While teaching in the synagogue on the Sabbath, he sees a woman who suffers from a curvature of the spine (which doctors today would diagnose as scoliosis), immediately calls her to Him and heals her on the spot. (Luke 13:12)
The ruler of the synagogue, who no doubt invited Jesus to come and teach as a famous rabbi, could not be more callous in his reaction. Completely inured to the woman’s suffering and the joy of her miraculous healing, he sees nothing but a legal transgression of rule against working the Sabbath. “There are six days on which men ought to work,” he cries angrily. “Therefore come and be healed on them, and not on the Sabbath day.” (Luke 13:14)
In the synagogue ruler’s words, we can clearly the slavery to which religion subjects. You might think such a statement rather strange, coming from a “purveyor of religion” like myself. But the fact is, I do not consider myself a “religious” person. Nor do I consider my chosen form of Christianity a religion in the classical sense of that word.
In the ancient understanding, religion was that set of principles, rules and rituals by which a deity could be appeased, so that people could gain some sense of control over those elements of life that were beyond their control. For example, if it did not rain and the crop failed, religion was used to access divine favour and restore the harvest.
By definition, the deity was inaccessible and unapproachable. Even when the gods disguised themselves as human beings, it just that: a disguise, rather than a true mingling. The mythological examples of union between gods and humans are exceptions that prove the rule, for such unions usually had dire consequences. In the normative ancient understanding, the deity could only be accessed through the religious apparatus, and even this did not give humans contact with God or the gods, as much as it mediated between two utterly disparate realities.
All religions of the world were built on this understanding, including Judaism. If human beings followed the Mosaic and Levitical laws, God would be happy and grant them the good life: wife, numerous children, cattle, sheep, and monetary wealth. If one violated the law, elaborate corrective measures needed to be enacted before God was appeased and universal harmony restored. This explains the indignation of the synagogue ruler in Saint Luke’s Gospel. Here, in his synagogue, in the middle of a sacred ritual, the order of the universe has been upset. God is offended and now restitution will have to be made.
What the synagogue ruler does not understand, however, is that Jesus is not just another religious authority, another interpreter of the law. In the person of Jesus, the transcendent and unapproachable God overcame His own nature and made Himself entirely accessible to us. As such, we no longer need to use rituals, rules and regulations to somehow inspire His favour. We can now know God’s will from the inside. United to Christ in baptism, we can participate in implementing of that will directly. To put it simply, God became Incarnate in order to put an end to religion as it had been known until then.
We are tempted, though, is to act as if this had never happened, to turn our religious activities into a means to appease a distant god. Some of Christian religiosity purports to be spontaneous or non-liturgical, while other forms are distinctly liturgical and ritualistic. Either way, the temptation is the same: do church stuff to make God happy.
This tendency fits perfectly with the prevailing secularism in our society. Secularism says that there is a spiritual compartment to life that serves to make us better members of a pluralistic world. Religion agrees that religious activity results in earthly blessings that allow us to live happily in our secular world. Secularism says that the place of religion is Sunday or other designated holy days. Religion agrees that certain sacred times, places, rituals and words are appropriate to converse with the divine power, while the rest of life is profane, the realm of the secular. Indeed, secularists and religious people are quite happy together, because their beliefs complement one another perfectly!
The Gospel, though, reminds us that the Incarnation has done away with the distinctions between secular and religious, sacred and profane, clean and unclean. The rituals of Christianity—Sunday worship, prayer, charitable acts towards one another, and so on—exist not to appease some inaccessible divinity, but as a means to reconnect us with and reintegrate us into our revolutionary and miraculous inheritance: the reality of our direct, unmediated access to the almighty God in Jesus Christ.
Paradoxically, then, our “religious” activities exist to remind us of the end of religious slavery. We worship, pray and do charitable works in order to wake from the slumber of secular-driven religiosity, to open our eyes and encounter God in all times and places, in every moment to embrace Him and be embraced; to love Him without restriction and in return to receive His infinite, all-consuming love for us.