Now What Do I Do (With All This Religion) – Br. Mark Brown

Mark-Brown-SSJE-2010-300x299The Book of Ecclesiasticus, also known as Sirach, has the distinction of being the only book in the Bible that counsels against putting your elbows on the table at dinner (41:19). Ecclesiasticus covers a wide swath of the human condition, from rapturous poetry in celebration of wisdom to the most mundane things, like how to behave at a dinner party.  Don’t eat too much, do enjoy the wine, but don’t drink too much.  Don’t interrupt the musicians. Don’t talk too much, don’t chew greedily.  Don’t be the last to leave. (Ch. 31-32)

There’s conventional piety, such as we heard a few moments ago, counsel on marriage, the discipline of children, etiquette and the conduct of business.  There are proverbs and aphorisms—it’s the Poor Richard’s Almanac of ancient Jerusalem, a Miss Manners of the second century B.C.  It’s very much concerned with ordinary daily life:  the ordinary daily life of an observant Jew.  The worship of God in the Temple with the appropriate sacrifices is taken for granted. The observance of the laws and ordinances is assumed.  The framework of the Jewish cycle of holy days is assumed.

Ecclesiasticus is a 2nd century B.C. answer to the question: “Now what?  I go to the Temple when I’m supposed to and I observe all the commandments—now what do I do, how does all this religion shape my daily life?”

We might ask a similar question today.  How does all this religion shape my daily life? We’ve finally made our way through the great yearly cycle that began four weeks before Christmas with the season of Advent; and we’ve just topped it all up with the Feast of Pentecost two days ago.   Now we’re in what we call “Ordinary Time”.  The Church has taken off her party clothes and put on an ordinary house dress.  It’s the green season, the green growing season.  We’ve been through the great feast days and seasons—the mystery of incarnation revealed; the manifestation of Christ to the whole world celebrated; the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus, the coming of the Holy Spirit–all laid out in sacrament, poetry, music and (here, at least) a highly stylized liturgy.

What do we do now, how does all this religion shape our daily lives?  Has it all been religious escapism? Pious fantasy?  How does it all relate to how we make our way through the ordinary day, the ordinary week, the ordinary life? The short answer is that in Christ, through Christ, the ordinary is transformed.  Daily life–work, play, relationships–is charged with an additional energy, an additional significance. The great feasts and seasons—laying out the major themes of the life, death, resurrection and return of Jesus Christ—can transform the rest of time, ordinary time.

There’s a fun song from the Broadway musical “Mame” called “We need a little Christmas”.  “We need a little Christmas, right this very minute; candles in the window, carols at the spinet.”  We do need a little Christmas.  And we need a little Advent, and a little Epiphany, and a little Lent.  We need a little Holy Week, and a little Easter, and a little Pentecost.  Right this very minute, as the song says.  Although these feasts and seasons are tied to events in the life of Christ, they lay out deeper mysteries to be absorbed, taken up into our lives.  Integrated, internalized.  Ordinary time is when we do this work.

Advent orients us to the fullness of time itself: the richness of the past in Christ’s first coming.  The pressing on toward the future in which Christ will come again.  The sanctity of this very minute, in which Christ comes to us in the midst of the most ordinary daily events. What might it mean to carry with us the awareness of the fullness of time and eternity? How might this awareness open an ordinary day, an ordinary moment to something extraordinary?

Christmas draws us to the mystery of incarnation: the capacity of human flesh to embody the Divine. We see this historically in the birth of Jesus of Nazareth.  We recognize within ourselves the capacity to embody the love of Christ, the grace and truth that Christ makes manifest in time and space, even in the most ordinary daily events.  What might it mean to carry with us the awareness that, in a sense, we, too, are the Word made flesh?  If grace and truth came into the world through Jesus Christ, as it says in John 1, how might we incarnate grace and truth on an ordinary day, in an ordinary situation?

Easter celebrates the victory of love over hate, the victory of light over darkness, the victory of life over every manifestation of death.  Taking this victory with us into the ordinary moments of life is transformative.  Knowing that nothing, not our sins, not the worst suffering, can separate us from the love of God in Christ, nothing can separate us from the victory of life in Christ, eternal life in Christ.  In his resurrection, Jesus claimed light, life and love for himself and for all of us.  Bursting forth from the confines of a dark tomb, he laid claim to all the broad and bright places of life—for himself, and for all of us.  What might it mean for us to lay claim to all the broad and bright and free places of life and reject all that is dark, confining, enslaving. What might all this mean on an ordinary day in an ordinary place?

We could go through all the feasts and seasons this way.  Yes, they commemorate events in the life of Jesus.  And they are annunciations—they announce to us the great landmarks on the path of life, the path of life that leads through the most ordinary places in the most ordinary ways.  The great feasts are about Jesus, and they are about us, about our lives in Christ, about our lives before God. The great feasts and seasons are transformative: they are supposed to leak out into the rest of the year, into the ordinary days and transfigure them.

Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Ascension, Pentecost: it’s been a feast of feasts. And no one can absorb it all at once; no one can internalize it all.  No single human being can embody all this fullness all the time. God knows we have limitations. So there is tremendous scope for individual variation, individual preferences. For a season of life we might be drawn particularly to the mystery of incarnation; in another season of life we might be drawn to the mystery of resurrection. With the great cycle returning annually, we have the opportunity over a lifetime to focus our humanity in different ways.

As we internalize these great mysteries, how we live and love and think and act are transformed.  The seeds planted in the midst of these great celebrations come to fruition in the green growing season we call Ordinary Time.  As we take these feasts into our being, we are transformed. And as we internalize these things, we also begin to externalize them. I think the plan is that as we ourselves are transformed, we begin to transform the world around us: our communities, our nation, our world, addressing the challenges of poverty, injustice, suffering.

The feasts are over—we’ve been to church.  Now what do we do?  I like the way Mary Oliver poses this question.  From her poem “The Summer Day”:

“Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?”

Life is wild and precious.  Life in Christ is wild and very precious.  Ordinary life in Christ is wild and precious and will transform the world.  But where we put our elbows probably isn’t all that big of a deal.

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  1. Dorthey Wimberley on February 14, 2016 at 12:48

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  3. barbara frazer lowe on September 17, 2013 at 10:11

    Br. Brown – Your ‘Word’ is such enriching, clear, lighting; forever needed. Thankyou.

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