February 18, 2014 Leave a comment
The disciples had forgotten to bring bread, and they had only one loaf with them in the boat. Jesus enjoined them, “Watch out, guard against the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.” They concluded among themselves that it was because they had no bread. When he became aware of this he said to them, “Why do you conclude that it is because you have no bread? Do you not yet understand or comprehend? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes and not see, ears and not hear? And do you not remember, when I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many wicker baskets full of fragments you picked up?” They answered him, “Twelve.” “When I broke the seven loaves for the four thousand, how many full baskets of fragments did you pick up?” They answered him, “Seven.” He said to them, “Do you still not understand?”
What does Jesus mean by “the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod”? Certainly the disciples did not understand Him. They took leaven literally and assumed Jesus was to refer to the actual leaven, or yeast, that goes into baking bread. Our Lord’s meaning is something else entirely (hence His stern rebuke of His disciples who, despite being the closest companions of the Son of God, still default to a materialistic way of thinking).
Leaven, as stated above, is yeast, the ingredient which makes bread rise. It goes at the heart of the dough and is integral to the success of the whole bread baking enterprise, which in 1st century Palestine was a critical and labor-intensive daily activity. Furthermore, unlike the rest of the ingredients, leaven is alive. It possesses a life of its own (as least until the baking is finished), and this life serves to transform the final product into which it is placed.
In the context that Jesus intends to communicate to His disciples, and to us, “leaven” refers to whatever it is that rests at the center of our souls and thereby animates and drives our lives and our actions. For the Pharisees, this “leaven” in their souls was observance of the Mosaic Law. Their entire lives and conceptions of themselves depended on it and all its minutia. For Herod, a pagan Gentile, his leaven was hedonism and indulgence of the appetites. Both of these foci, Christ is warning us, are roads to perdition.
As Christians, Jesus Christ, and nothing and no one else, must be the life and leaven of our souls! We are meant to live with Him dwelling within us, in our very heart of hearts, animating our souls by the virtues of faith, hope, and charity. The more He lives in us, the more we rise to become like Him Who is the Bread of Life.
Anything other than this is an obstacle to salvation. The hedonism of our present age has obvious soul-destroying effects, but we also need to be on guard against the leaven of the Pharisees. Our current Holy Father, Pope Francis, has devoted a good deal of time talking about this subject.
As human beings with personalities and preferences, we are bound to be drawn to various forms of worship, spirituality, and forms of prayer, and apostolates inside the Church, and well we should be! As St. Therese so eloquently put it, some of us are called to be roses, others lilies, some daisies, and still more to be tiny wildflowers. However, if we idolize these preferences by allowing them to supplant Jesus and the life of Christ at the center of our souls, they become a hinderance, rather than the particular means of our salvation.
Liturgy is one prominent and contentious example of how this can occur. If one is a devotee (as I am) of the Extraordinary Form of the Mass, and this devotion becomes such a “proof” in your mind of your own piety that you neglect to care for the needs of Our Lord in the distressing disguise of the poor, then the Mass of the Ages has become, for you anyway, the leaven of the Pharisees. By the same token, one can adhere to a very progressive liturgical style and congratulate oneself on creating a very welcoming, inclusive environment. However, if in doing this, you cause the Body of Christ to be made subject to routine abuse through the improper reception of Holy Communion, or if you water down the essential truths of the Faith in order not to cause offense, thus leading others into error and sin, then you too have taken a leaven that is not Christ into your heart.
Lord Jesus, You are the Bread of Life. Through the reception of Your Word and the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar, take up Your dwelling in our hearts and drive from our souls all that would hinder us from dwelling with You for all Eternity in Heaven. Amen.
Coronation of the Virgin, by Fra Angelico, 1434-1435. Musée du Louvre, Paris