Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time [C]
Ecclesiastes 1:2; 2:21-23 — Colossians 3:1-5,9-11 — Luke 12:13-21
August 1, 2010
[Y]ou have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. These words that
wrote to the Colossians seem mysterious.
In fact, this verse intertwines two mysteries. Saint Paul
Regarding the first mystery: what is
claiming, when he tells the Colossians that they have died? Of course, he’s not talking 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. Saint
[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 pond. The stone beings to sink as soon as it hits the water, and that impact causes a large splash. But 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.
The moment of impact is the moment of your baptism: an experience of dying in Christ. Baptism is the beginning of the Christian life. But baptism is not the end of the Christian life. From the moment of baptism onwards, the death of baptism leads to 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 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 a right 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 right 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 is 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 has been filled by mankind with sin and suffering, God teaches us through asceticism how better to suffer this valley of tears.
X X X
Regarding the second mystery: what is
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. Saint Paul
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—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 rejecting sin, and the death of Christian asceticism. This may not sound optimistic. It may sound gloomy to say that our salvation is found in 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, secondly, reject sin: you take off the old self with its practices of sin. 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 are not of the world. We live amidst things that will pass away. But in our souls, we bear the grace that poured forth from Jesus on
Calvary, and that
pours forth from Jesus in the Eucharist.
This grace, in which is hidden what matters to God, is the grace that
will carry us aloft, through this world, into a joy that will