Saturday, October 29, 2011

Taking off our masks

A six-year-old was excited about his Halloween costume. “Mom, I want to be the Pope for Halloween!" he said. "Son, you can’t be the Pope," the mother said. "You’re not Catholic. You’re Lutheran." The boy thought about it a moment and considered his alternatives. After a few minutes, he asked, “Well, then is Dracula a Lutheran?”

Of course, tomorrow is Halloween, which for many is a dress-up day in which children run from house to house in their costumes begging sweet treats. I read in the newspaper that among the most popular costumes this year are Angry Birds, zombies, Captain America and Charlie Sheen (no comment). Halloween is a day of make-believe, a day of pretending to be someone, something that we are not.

I want to talk a little bit about pretending today, but first I need to begin with a brief Latin lesson. So, pay attention, there may be a quiz at the end. The Latin verb, teneo is translated to mean “I hold.” Many common English words contain versions of this Latin verb. For example, if you add the prefix “ex” meaning “out” to the verb teneo you get the word “extend” – which of course means to “hold out.” Or add the prefix “re” to our root and you get the word retain, or to hold back. You get the idea. Well if you add the prefix “pre” which means “in front” to our root, you get “pre-tend” or that which you hold in front of you so that you are not seen, but only the image. This is essentially what children do at Halloween – they pretend; they hold in front of them an image that is different from who they really are. In fact, very often, the image that they hold in front, or that they pretend to be, is so different that it is hard to recognize the true person.

Well, our readings today, are very apropos to this theme of pretending. In our first reading, the prophet Malachi has strong words for the priests of his time who pretend to conduct the ritual sacrifices properly, when, in fact, they were bringing substandard and blemished animals to be sacrificed at the altar of the Lord. They were bringing pretend offerings while “retaining” or “holding back” what was real and holy from the Lord. Malachi tells the religious leaders that if they continue misuse their God-given powers, then terrible things will happen.

And we heard in our Gospel passage today, “Do and observe all things whatsoever [the Pharisees] tell you, but do not follow their example. For they preach but they do not practice.” Jesus is speaking about a group of pretenders, the Pharisees. Jesus tells His disciples and the crowd to adhere to the demands of the Law of Moses, but as for those who interpret the Law for their own benefit, do not follow what they do. They are pretenders, holding in front of themselves religious symbols. As Jesus said, “They widen their phylacteries and lengthen their tassels.” Phylacteries are containers affixed to arms and foreheads. Inside are written important verses of the Law. People who see them are impressed believing that those who wear them are as holy as the verses themselves.

Jesus reminds His listeners that it is not what one wears outside that makes a person a follower of God’s ways. It is not the name “teacher” or “father” or “master” which make a person a reflection of God’s holiness. Rather, it is what is written in your heart, shown forth by the way you live and what you do, that gives witness to a person’s holiness. Becoming a servant, a child, a humble person, are ways of revealing true Godliness, true holiness. Jesus, of course, is the true opposite of the Pharisees. He is no pretender, but rather Jesus is the real deal. He lives what He preaches and invites His followers – He invites each one of us – to let go of any pretending in our lives and to follow Him in what we say and in what we do.

So for each of us here today, the question is not “do I wear a cross,” but rather “do I bear the cross?” It is not only a matter of going to Mass every Sunday, but of going forth from Mass every Sunday to live what we have received. Too often, we hide the identity that God has placed within us; we hold back the holiness that God wants us to share with the world. We pretend to be someone we really are not.

The day after Halloween is All Saints Day. It is the day we celebrate all those who put aside their natural pretenses and witness to Christ living within them. Costumes are for fun; but being uncovered from the pretenses we wear in our daily lives is a true, Godly joy. In the ritual for the Ordination of a Deacon, the Bishop hands the Deacon a Book of the Gospels and says to him, “Receive the Gospel of Jesus Christ, whose herald you now are. Believe what you read, teach what you believe, practice what you teach.” This is also the call of all of us today. You can enjoy an evening of pretending on Monday, but after that and always, cast off all pretenses, throw aside whatever false image of yourself that stops you from being a herald of the Gospel.

Let us all take up the charge to be true heralds of Jesus Christ in every aspect, every moment of our lives. Let us believe what we read, teach what we believe and practice what we teach.

May the Lord give you peace.

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