Saturday, October 26, 2013

Shedding our masks to be counted as saints

HOMILY FOR THE 30th SUNDAY OF ORDINARY TIME, October 27, 2013:
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A tourist in Vienna was going through a graveyard when all of a sudden he heard music. No one was around, so he started searching for the source. He finally located the music coming from a grave with a headstone that read: Ludwig van Beethoven, 1770-1827. Then he realized that the music was the 9th Symphony being played backwards! Puzzled, he left and persuaded a friend to return with him.  By the time they returned, the music has changed. This time it was the 7th Symphony, and again, it was being played backwards.  The men decided to bring in a music scholar and when they returned with him, it was the 5th Symphony playing, again backwards. The expert noticed that the symphonies were being played in the reverse order in which they were composed, the 9th, then the 7th, then the 5th.  By the next day, word spread and a crowd gathered around the grave. By now, the 2nd Symphony was playing backwards.  Just then the graveyard's caretaker came upon the group and someone asked if he had an explanation.  “Oh, it's nothing to worry about,” the caretaker said, “Beethoven’s just de-composing!”

With Halloween just a few days away, I couldn’t resist a little grave humor today.  And of course, toward the end of the week, we will celebrate in consecutive days, Halloween on Thursday and then the Solemnity of All Saints on Friday.  There is an interesting juxtaposition between these two celebrations.  On Halloween, there is, of course, the tradition of dressing up in costumes and putting on masks. It is a day of pretending and covering up our true identity.  But, then, on the day after Halloween, on All Saints Day, we celebrate the exact opposite.  Really, what All Saints Day is about is a celebration of all those women and men who grew out of the need to put on a mask.  Saints, after all, are merely people who have been able to get past the pretending in life to the point of being simply and fully the person God created them to be.  Saints let go of cover-ups, falseness, masks and pretenses and instead live in the truth of who God is and who they are in His sight.

And, in this week where we will go from costumes to saints, we have this wonderful Gospel passage from Luke that Jesus addressed “to those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else.”  It is the story of two men at prayer – one a Pharisee, one a tax collector; and I would suggest, one perhaps wearing a mask and the other one on the road to sainthood, to living in the truth of who he is before God, a sinner in need of redemption.

In Jesus’ time, the Pharisees, one of the major religious groups, were very disciplined and devout men of God. They were serious-minded believers who had committed themselves to a life of regular prayer and observance of God's Law, even going far beyond the requirements of the law. They fasted twice a week, on Mondays and Thursdays, even though the law only required people to fast once a year, on the Day of Atonement. They gave tithes of all their income and not just of the required parts. When the Pharisee in the parable said, “I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity -- greedy, dishonest, adulterous -- or even like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income,” he wasn't kidding. I bet there are very few of us today who could measure up to the external moral standards of the Pharisees.

Tax collectors, on the other hand, were generally regarded as people of low moral standards. Because tax collectors worked for the pagan Romans, mixed up with them and constantly handled their money they were said to be in a state of ritual uncleanliness. As far as anyone was concerned, they were public sinners on the highway to hell. But the tax collectors knew that the voice of people is not always the voice of God. They still hoped for salvation not on the merit of any religious or moral achievements of their own but on the gracious mercy of God.

So, who is wearing the mask and who is living in the truth in this parable?  Surprisingly, we see that the Pharisee is more interested in external appearances. His prayer is all about the mask of his life and not about the truth of who he was before God. He is so focused on himself and his superiority to the tax collector and his own spiritual accomplishments that there was hardly any room for God.  By contrast, the tax collector, whatever his failings may have been, knew who God is and who he is before God. He prayed sincerely, “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.”

Just as we know on Halloween, appearances can be deceiving. The model person in the parable Jesus puts before us is, of course, the tax collector who honestly acknowledges his faults and begs for help from a God who is full, even overflowing with mercy. This is a life without pretense; a life that seeks only to follow our loving God.  This is what holiness looks like on the inside.

There is a story about a young woman who died and went to heaven.  Her life on earth had been a life full of sin and when she arrived at the Pearly Gates she was told that she could only be admitted under one condition: she must return to earth an bring back the gift that God values above all others.

The young woman returned and one day came upon a young man who had just died for his faith in God.  She thought, “This is the gift that God values most: the blood of someone who has died for their faith.” She took a drop of the young man’s blood and brought it back to heaven. But, when she presented it, she was told there was something that God values even more than this.

She returned again and came upon an old missionary preaching God’s word among the poor.  She thought, “This must be the gift that God values most: the sweat of the brow of someone who has spent their life bringing the good news of salvation to the poor.” But, she was again told there was something that God valued more.

Returning over and over again, she kept bringing gifts, but was still told there was something God valued more highly. Finally, one day she was about to give up when she came upon a child playing at a fountain. The child was beautiful and innocent. At that moment, a man on horseback rode up and dismounted to get a drink at the fountain. When the man saw the child, he remembered his own former innocence.  Then he looked into the fountain and saw the reflection of his own face. It was hardened and weathered. He suddenly realized that he had wasted the life that God had given him. At that moment tears of repentance welled up in his eyes and rolled down his cheeks and fell into the fountain.

The young woman took one of the man’s tears and brought it back to heaven. When she presented it, there was great joy among the angels and the saints.  This was, indeed, the gift God valued above all others: the tears of a repentant sinner.

“The tax collector…beat his breast and prayed, ‘O God, be merciful to me a sinner.’ I tell you…the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

We pray, today, for the grace to be like this tax collector, to remove the masks, the costumes, the pretenses we wear in life and to live in the awesome reality of who we are before our God – and in this way count ourselves among the Communion of Saints.


May the Lord give you peace.

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