Be Not the First…

Father Sebastian McDonald, C.P.
Father Sebastian McDonald, C.P.

“Be not the first by whom the new is tried, nor yet the last to set the old aside.” This old American piece of folk wisdom is not quoted much in recent times, as it was earlier on. But maybe it should be. There is a fair amount of wisdom connected with it.

It starts off with some advice by not pursuing every new fad that comes to our attention, in an effort to keep up with everyone else trying it. This is a cautionary warning supported by the personal experience of some who have pursued this course of action, and burnt their fingers in doing so. When something is new, precisely because it is new, there are often unknown or unseen problems involved that only multiple uses of it, by a number of persons, can substantiate, either that it is something reliable and trustworthy, or that it is flawed and problematic, and better left alone and unused—until improved.

One phase of life where this cautionary approach plays out is in experimental medications. The present ebola crisis brings to light the use of a new, experimental drug, manufactured by a small company in Kentucky, developed out of the tobacco plant, indigenous to that state. It was used, apparently successfully, on two missionary persons working in Liberia, who contracted the disease. They were among “the first by whom the new is tried…”

And yet, if precaution is needed against hastiness in trying new methods or equipment that are relatively unfamiliar to us, there is a corresponding warning about going to the other extreme, and balking on setting aside a way of thinking, or of doing things, that has been our standard way of proceeding for a long time. But, as the axiom above warns, be not “the last to set the old aside”.   After all, if we have developed a way of doing things, or of thinking, that has served us well over the years, why would we be motivated to set it aside and take our chances on a different mode of procedure that might fail to satisfy us, or even lead us astray? The “tried and true” has the value of an old, trusted and reliable “friend” in the journey of life. From experience I know that it “works”.

The current pharmacology industry presents us a large variety of medications to address our bodily and sometimes our mental or emotional status , but few of them measure up to the reliability and durability of the age-old aspirin regime. While cautionary warnings accompany new medications on the market, the old reliable aspirin continues on in its well established track record to deal with “what ails us”. It works.

So, what to do? Never try the new, and always cling to the old? Not necessarily. We can look to Jesus for guidance in this conundrum.   We can see, in His relationship to His revered and native Jewish religion, that He was a law-abiding Jew. He was not for jettisoning the Jewish religion because of the historical aberrations into which it fell over the centuries. He frequented the temple precincts and the synagogues. He loved this House of His Father. But He had some problems with the public face some of the Jewish leadership gave to religious practice. So Jesus followed a long line of Jewish prophets before Him and criticized some of what He saw going on in the temple precincts. He sought to purify and restore the pristine beauty of Hebrew worship. This, of course, incurred the wrath of Jewish leadership, especially the priesthood, and resulted in His repudiation and rejection, to the point if being executed as a public criminal outside the city walls of Jerusalem.

With that, something new occurred: the birth of Christianity, built on the foundations of Judaism but enriched with the teaching and the life of Jesus as the new High Priest.   Jesus didn’t create something totally new; He purified the old. In so doing He was not to be the first by whom the new is tried, nor was He to be the last by whom the old was laid aside. He was the first by whom a new and refined Judaism came to birth, nor was He the last to lay the old aside, as the annals of subsequent Jewish religious history illustrate. Christianity is built on Judaism but rises into something new and different: a blend of the old and the new.


Author: CPP

We are a community of laymen and laywomen who, with vowed Passionists, seek to share in the charism of St. Paul of the Cross through prayer, ongoing spiritual formation, and proclamation of the message of Christ Crucified.

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