Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

July 31st, 2016

Deacon Blaine Barclay

At times the book of Ecclesiastes, from which our first reading is taken, reads more like a piece of existential literature. “Vanity of vanities, says the teacher. All is vanity.” Other translations render ‘vanity’ as futility, pointless, breath. “Everything is meaningless.” This belief that nothing has any meaning or value except what the human will imposes is quite common today but one does not expect to find it in the bible. Our Psalm touches on this experience as well, its words raw with the fleeting brevity of this moment that is the span of a human life. “You turn human beings back to dust…. For a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past…. It is like a dream”. And we all know the fleeting, ephemeral nature of dreams. Even when vivid, they dissipate quickly, like dust in the wind of waking life. Like a dream, like dust, in contrast to the abyss of God’s eternity our life is but a breath. Of course we all have moments when we are tempted to look at the world this way, life sometimes takes on this texture. But we are a people of Resurrection Hope. Our faith holds out for us a way through such experiences.

So what advice does our psalmist give us in the face of our radical poverty? “So teach us to count our days so that we may gain a wise heart.” Wakefulness in the face of our mortality is a key to wisdom. Mysterium Mortis; the mystery of death. A healthy awareness of his mystery will help us to wake up to the duty of the moment. Saint Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, whose feast day is today, uses a meditation on death as one of his famous rules of discernment. He says, “Imagine yourself at the end of your life, look back on your life, what do you wish you had done with your life? Do it.” If our life on earth is such a quickly passing shadow, it is no wonder that Saint Paul urges is to, “set your mind on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.” And then, by way of explanation, he says a strange thing. “For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” What does he mean, ‘you have died’? The Colossians he is writing to are very much alive, going about the business of everyday life, just as we do. And yet, according to Paul, the Colossians, and by extension each one of us, have died.

Saint Paul is of course speaking of Baptism. In the ancient Church the preferred form of Baptism was by full immersion. You were plunged down into the waters of Baptism. The old fallen human nature was being drowned so that the new restored, elevated, human nature could rise out of the tomb of the baptismal bath. Candidates would take off their old worldly clothes, symbolizing the old life they were leaving behind. Coming up out of the waters of Baptism, dying with Christ, dying to the old false self, the new Christian would rise to new life with Christ. They would put on a white garment symbolizing their new risen life with Christ. This is true for us as well, in Baptism each one of us has died to the old false self, crafted in the image of this world. Our second reading today speaks of being “stripped of the old self with its practices”. What are these practices of the old self that we need to be stripped of if we seriously want to enter into the new life of discipleship that our baptism calls us to? Saint Paul mentions a few. ‘lying’, “fornication (sex outside of marriage), impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed which is idolatry”.

In contrast to the way of life characteristic of old fallen human nature, the Baptized are meant to cultivate the life of the new self that is ‘hidden with Christ in God.’ Human nature has been elevated by the full humanity of Christ. The Christian life is a participation in his divinised humanity. Our fallen tendency however is to mask our mortality, to seek a kind of refuge in the idolatrous practices of the false self, to hold the fear of death at bay, to refuse the healing remedy of the cross and resurrection which is held out to us in our baptism. And so we fill our lives with things, with the trappings of conspicuous consumption, with the pursuit of power and influence. Saint Paul tells us that ‘greed is idolatry’. Idolatry is the fundamental, root sin in the bible. All sin has its root in our tendency to give our allegiance to something other than God. Jesus warns us of the danger of greed.  “For one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions”. He reminds us of what should be for each one of us a wakeup call. To the rich person in our story, addicted to stuff, to feeling in control, he says, “This very night your life is being demanded of you”. Responding to the wakeup call of our fragile woundedness, hanging on the cross, may we gain wisdom of heart, and become “rich toward God”.