Saturday, October 27, 2007

Removing our masks

Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time, October 28, 2007:

A tourist in Vienna is going through a graveyard when all of a sudden he hears music. No one is around, so he starts searching for the source. He finally locates the source and finds it is coming from a grave with a headstone that reads: Ludwig van Beethoven, 1770-1827. Then he realizes that the music is the 9th Symphony and it is being played backward! Puzzled, he leaves the graveyard and persuades a friend to return with him. By the time they arrive back at the grave, the music has changed. This time it is the 7th Symphony, and again, it is being played backward. Curious, the men agree to consult a music scholar. When they return with the expert, the 5th Symphony is playing, again backward. The expert notices that the symphonies are being played in the reverse order in which they were composed, the 9th, then the 7th, then the 5th. By the next day the word has spread and a throng has gathered around the grave. By now, they are all listening to the 2nd Symphony being played backward. Just then the graveyard's caretaker comes upon the group. Someone in the crowd asks him if he has an explanation for the music. "Oh, it's nothing to worry about," the caretaker says, "He's just de-composing!"

With our youth group’s Haunted House taking place this weekend, I couldn’t resist a little grave humor. Later this week we will celebrate in consecutive days, Halloween on Wednesday and then the Solemnity of All Saints on Thursday. 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 real pretending and covering up true identities. I’m always amazed when I go through our Haunted House how difficult it is sometimes to figure who is who. 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 and past the necessity of masks, costumes and pretenses. Saints after all are merely people who have been able to get past the falseness and pretending in life to the point of being simply and fully the person God created them to be. They have let go of ornaments, cover-ups, 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 Gospel passage from Luke that Jesus addressed “to those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else.” It is of course, 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 sanctity, or sainthood, 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 visible 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 unclean money they were said to be in a state of ritual uncleanliness. As far as the religion of the day was concerned, tax collectors 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 theirs but on the gracious mercy of God.

So, who is wearing the mask and who is living in the truth? Surprisingly, we see that the Pharisee is more interested in the external appearance exalting himself. His prayer was all about the mask of his life and not about the truth of who he was before God. He was so focused on himself, his superiority to the tax collector and his own spiritual accomplishments that there was hardly 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 an all powerful God. This is a life without pretense; a life that seeks only to follow our loving God.

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 indeed 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 is indeed 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 a third time, and a fourth time and a fifth, 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 childhood 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 terribly 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 latter went home justified, not the former; for whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

We pray 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 God give you peace.

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