October 30, 2011
Readings for The Thirty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time: Mal 1:14b-s, 8-10; 1Thes 2:7b,13; Mt 23:1-12
Tomorrow evening many children and a few adults will put on masks, wigs and outlandish clothing and act like something they are not. Halloween is a fun day, especially for children. They dress and act as ghosts, monsters or other terrible things and are rewarded with candy. I am grateful that our elementary school forbids evil costumes and it is always amazing to watch their creativity as they strive to win the best costume prize. Halloween is unhappy for my dog, Molly because even she is donned with a costume each year and joins in the parade. As much fun as the day may be, eventually the masks come off and our little monsters return back to being monsters of another sort.
Today's Gospel has Jesus criticizing another sort of monsters, the false religious leaders of His day. They wore their own costumes and acted a part without living sincere religious lives. The phylactery were a pair of small black leather boxes containing scrolls of parchment inscribed with verses from the Torah, which are and were worn by observant Jews during weekday morning prayers. Jesus had no problem with the wearing of the phylacteries; He condemned the use of them as masks to cover up the insincerity of the Jewish religious leaders. As a priest wearing colorful robes, sitting in a place of honor in the church, I know that I need to pay extra attention to today's message.
Jesus also reminds us that all of these earthly titles and honors are passing; teacher, master, father, mother, doctor, pastor, boss, judge, lawyer.....all these titles in the end are very empty. All of these titles that we have in our world can very easily become like costume we wear on Halloween, covering up our true selves. We all have titles! We all have roles to play in this world. Jesus is reminding us that the outward roles we play in this world are not necessarily our true selves. All of them in the end are constantly changing and in the end they will not mean much. Our true identity is only found in our fulfilling of God's call for us in our lives.
During the coronation ceremonies of the new popes, between the years 1409 and Paul VI in 1963, as the newly chosen pope proceeded from the sacristy of St. Peter's Basilica carried in his great chair, the procession stopped three times. On each occasion a papal master of ceremonies would fall to his knees before the pope, holding a silver or brass reed, bearing a tow of smoldering flax. As he burned the cloth he would say in a loud and mournful voice, "Sancte Pater, sic transit gloria mundi!" (Holy Father, so passes the glory of the world).
We see this with the demise of Muammar Gaddafi this past week. For four decades Gaddafi ruled Libya through terror and fear adorning himself with outlandish costumes and giving himself titles like, king of kings. He portrayed himself as the glorious father of his nation, but he was perceived by the world and most of his people as the "madman of Africa". Eventually, his empire crumbled, his pictures were torn down from buildings, he was found and shot in a gutter and his dead body was put on public display.
This week as we celebrate All Saints Day and All Souls Day we especially remember that the mask that all of us wear in this world will one day be stripped away and we will all stand naked in front of our Lord. As a famous epithet on a grave reads, "Where you are I once was and where I am you will someday be." On Tuesday we celebrate the holy ones who stand in the presence of God whom we call saints. The saints gained their holiness through dying to themselves and living true loving lives. Each in their own way was able to remove the false costumes of this world responding fully to the call of God in their lives. Through good lives, martyrdom or personal suffering they were able to polish the vessel of their lives and they were prepared to be filled directly with the fullness of God's grace as they entered heaven.
Where the saints are we all wish to be! That is our goal; we should all desire to live lives of saints now so that we can be one with them in heaven. Unfortunately, most of us have a long way to go before we are ready for heaven. We are wearing masks and not our true self as God intended us to be. With our pride, jealousies, angers, greed, lusts and other sinful inclinations we have distorted the beautiful creation that God began in us. We can shed our monstrous selves only through the grace and the love of our Lord Jesus Christ. On All Souls Day we pray for all those who have gone before us and are still in the process of purification as they prepare for entry into God's presence in heaven. Let us put on the costumes of saints and strive to be our holy selves and put aside our distorted selves.
Father John Provenza