The Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time [C]
Ecclesiastes 1:2; 2:21-23 + Colossians 3:1-5,9-11 + Luke 12:13-21
July 31, 2016
“[Y]ou have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.”
In 1998, while in my first assignment as a priest, I was invited to attend a conference in Oxford, England about Cardinal Newman. Newman taught at Oxford as an Anglican priest, but during his years there he studied his way into the Catholic Church. In later life, he said, “To be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant.”
Since this would be my first trip to Europe, I decided to see as much as possible. But when my plane landed in England, I did not head straight to Oxford. The first site I visited wasn’t the great monastic Ealing Abbey, or the cell where St. Thomas More was imprisoned by Henry VIII. Eventually I did visit all those sites, but not first.
My first visit in England was to a rather small apartment in London with the address of 221B Baker Street. One of my boyhood heroes lived in that apartment for many years, although—truth be told—he’s a fictional character by the name of Sherlock Holmes. His apartment, maintained by a group of fans, was one of the highlights of my trip, even though it was entirely secular.
The reason why I read all of the adventures of Sherlock Holmes over and over when I was a boy is how those stories are all about mystery. When you read one of them, you have a great mystery set before you, and you’re challenged to solve the mystery.
But in fact, each story presents two mysteries. The chief mystery is the crime—or we might say, the sin—that’s been committed. The mystery lies not only in who committed the crime, but also in how the crime could have been committed. Most of the crimes seem impossible: for example, someone is murdered in a room that’s locked from the inside. The reader is challenged to solve the mystery of how such a crime could have been committed.
But there’s a second mystery as well. About halfway through an adventure, the great detective announces that he’s solved the insoluble mystery, but he does not tell you how he solved it. Only later in the story does Holmes reveal on the one hand the solution to who committed the crime and how, but on the other hand also the solution to how he put the clues together to solve the mystery.
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The older I get, the less I think about mysteries that have solutions to them. Instead, a different type of mystery occupies me. These are mysteries of our Faith. They’re not absolutely mysterious: that is, there are things we can say about them. But there are no solutions to these mysteries.
For example, take the mysteries that Saint Paul describes in today’s Second Reading. There are two of them, and both describe your life as a Christian.
Regarding the first mystery: what is Saint Paul claiming, when he tells the Colossians that they “have died”? He says: “Think of what is above, not of what is on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ your life appears, then you too will appear with Him in glory.” Of course, St. Paul is not talking here about a physical death. He’s talking, rather, about the death that marks the life of every person who follows Jesus. In this regard, Saint Paul’s claim is as true of us in the 21st century as it was of the Colossians in the first century. Imagine Saint Paul writing this letter to you, and claiming: “you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.”
“[Y]ou have died….” What sort of death marks the life of someone who follows Jesus? What sort of death marks your life because you follow Jesus? Picture in your mind a large stone being thrown mightily into a deep lake. The stone beings to sink as soon as it hits the water, and that impact causes a large splash. Then, while the stone continues to sink, smaller splashes rise and fall in the water, as the impact of stone and water spreads outwards in wider and wider circles. This image symbolizes your Christian life. How so?
The moment of impact is the moment of your baptism: an experience of dying in Christ. Baptism is the beginning of the Christian life, and of course we should never underestimate the magnitude of the gift of Baptism. Nonetheless, baptism is not the end of the Christian life. From the moment of baptism onwards, the death of baptism makes waves in your life. Baptism echoes in many smaller deaths in your daily life.
What do these waves look like? What are they called in the spiritual life? They are called asceticism. Asceticism is a habit of the Christian life. It’s a good habit, and so we call it a virtue of the Christian life. Asceticism is the good habit of self-denial. To the world, this sounds like foolishness: how can denying one’s own self be good? To the world, what is good is to promote oneself, to inflate oneself, to indulge oneself. But the Christian looks at life differently. Baptism is the source of our whole life on this earth. Baptism—itself an immersion into the Death of Jesus on the Cross—is the pattern for the asceticism of our daily life as Christians.
Every act of Christian asceticism that you choose is the sacrifice of something good. On the other hand, not doing something that’s evil is a moral imperative. We must not do what is evil. But we may do what is good… or, we may not do what is good. Regarding what is good, we are free to do, or not to do. It’s from this freedom that asceticism derives its value. To sacrifice what is good, when we have the moral freedom to enjoy it, turns something good into something better!
To repeat all this in a little different way: not doing something that’s intrinsically evil is commanded by God, and must not be done by every Christian, in every circumstance. But asceticism is different. Asceticism is not doing something that’s good, something that we are in fact free to do, because we want to sacrifice that good thing to God. We want freely to lift up to God what is good.
Here’s an example: a person is always free to eat what his body expects in order to function in a healthy manner. But a person may freely choose to sacrifice this same good—that is, a healthy meal that his body expects—as an act of asceticism. Will his body perish because of his asceticism? No: Christian asceticism should never cause irreparable harm to the human person. But even an athlete, when he wants to strengthen his muscles, has to tear them down first.
A true act of asceticism has two ends. The first end of asceticism regards God: that is, to recognize God as the source from whom all blessings flow. The second end of asceticism regards oneself: that is, to discipline one’s body and soul, so that I become less attached to what is earthly, and so that it’s easier for me to accept suffering. God does not want us, in an absolute sense, to suffer. But because we live in a world that man has filled with sin and suffering, God teaches us through asceticism how better to suffer this valley of tears.
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Regarding the second mystery: what is Saint Paul claiming when he tells you that “your life is hidden with Christ in God”? We hear a clue in the last words of Jesus’ parable: “Thus will it be for all who store up treasure for themselves but are not rich in what matters to God.” Jesus makes a sharp contrast, and Saint Paul echoes this contrast in our Second Reading with two sets of images. Saint Paul first exhorts us to “[t]hink of what is above, not of what is on earth.” Later he exhorts us by noting that “you have taken off the old self with its practices, and have put on the new self.”
These contrasting images distinguish the life of one whose “life is hidden with Christ in God” from the life of one whose life is not thus hidden. What would this latter person’s life look like? The person who constantly thinks “of what is on earth”, who has not “taken off the old self with its practices”, who stores up treasure for himself, but is “not rich in what matters to God” talks to himself a lot. What does he say to himself? He repeats to himself over and over: “Now as for you, you have so many good things stored up for many years, rest, eat, drink, be merry!”
But as the years wear on, and this person wears down, he ceases to believe his own words. He ceases to believe in himself. He becomes the man of our First Reading—Qoheleth—who finally recognizes, with honest courage, that his life—as he has lived it—is nothing but “vanity of vanities!” For him, in his “old self”, “[a]ll things are vanity!”
When Jesus stands face to face with Qoheleth—that is, when the Gospel is proclaimed to those whose lives echo Qoheleth—how does Jesus move Qoheleth and his followers to take “off the old self with its practices and… put on the new self”? The answer, in one word, is death: the death of Christian Baptism, the death of converting away from one’s sins in sacramental Confession, and the death of Christian asceticism. This may not sound optimistic. It may sound gloomy to say that our salvation is found through death. It may sound gloomy to say that vanity is dispelled and meaning is found by entering freely into the death of Christ.
But when you hide your life “with Christ in God”, by entering into the death of Christ, God opens up your life. God first, through your Christian Baptism, pours into your life the graces that make you His child. He makes you a member of Christ’s Body, the Church. You, then, secondly, reject sin: you take “off the old self with its practices” of sin in sacramental Confession. You, thirdly, through your Christian asceticism, put to death the good things that you are otherwise free to enjoy.
You put on Christ. You clothe yourself in Christ. As Christians, we live in this world, but we are not of this world. We live amidst things that will pass away. But in our souls, we bear the grace that flowed from the Sacred Heart on Calvary, and that flows through the Eucharist. This grace, in which is hidden what matters to God, is the mystery that will carry us aloft through this world, into a joy that will never end.