Sunday, August 1, 2010

Vanity of Vanities!


Readings for Sunday, August 1:
Ecclesiastes 1:2; 2:21-23
Psalm 90:3-6,12-14,17
Colossians 3:1-5,9-11
Luke 12:13-21

In January of 2005, I had the opportunity to go on a pilgrimage to Rome with a group of guys from the seminary. With us came a couple of the monks from the Abbey where we studied, one of whom had actually spent a number of years in Rome studying. He would take us around and show us interesting sights that many would miss if they didn’t have a guide. As we were walking down the street one day, we came across an interesting little carving in a marble tile on the wall. It was an image of a skeleton with wings pointing to a little banner that had a Latin inscription that said “Hodie Mihi, Cras Tibi.” Under it there was a little slot for money to be deposited. Curious as to what it meant, I asked the priest if he knew. He explained that the Latin phrase meant “Today for me, Tomorrow for you” and that it was a place to make donations to pay for upkeep of the cemeteries or to keep a candle burning in prayer for those who had died. The skeleton pointing to the sign was essentially a dead person saying, ‘I died today, it could be you tomorrow.’

That story came to mind as I was reflecting on this gospel passage because I think it hits both points that Mother Church is trying to illustrate in choosing these readings today. First, we are all going to die. And second, we can’t take anything with us when we go.

I’m sure that most anyone who has had a close brush with death can tell you that the experience forces you to reevaluate some things and, if not ready to leave this earth, to get prepared for when the day truly does come. I can’t help but think of the movie Bucket List as a prime example of this; people’s priorities start to come to the forefront. I’m also reminded of a book by Saint Robert Bellarmine, titled “The Art of Dying Well.” On first hearing the title, our modern ears probably find it a bit strange. In the book, St. Robert points out that dying well is nothing other than dying in the state of grace and thus meriting eternal life. With that in mind, the way to ensure that one dies well, he says, is to be sure that one lives well. It is to be prepared always for the death that each one of us will come to experience at some point. So how does one get prepared? How does one live well? For that answer, we now turn to the second point that Mother Church seeks to make to us today – that we can take nothing with us when we die.

In the first readings we hear those anguished cries on the lips of Qoheleth, also known as King Solomon: Vanity of vanities! All things are vanity! King Solomon was a man of great wealth, a man with more precious metals and gems than we could fit into this church building. He could have anything he wanted and, for a time, took full advantage of that power. But as he was faced with the fact that he would one day die, he realized that his earthly fortune really was not so important. Everything he worked for, he tells us, is to be passed on to someone who hadn’t earned it. His cries are reasonable if we understand that he had put all of his trust in his wealth and power and only much later realized the pointlessness of it.

This sense of being wholly consumed with self-concern, power and wealth are also what we find in the parable that Jesus tells us, as well as the man who raised the question about sharing inheritance. In the parable, the landowner was so self-concerned that rather than rejoicing in his abundant harvest and sharing it with others, he makes the choice to tear down his barns and build even bigger ones in order to hoard all of the fruit produced. And like King Solomon with his riches, it is all in vain; but it was too late to change.
So what does all of this mean for us? How do these stories about men who lived two and three thousand years ago relate with you and me? Put simply, they challenge us to look at our own lives and see how we measure up. Do we live like Solomon and the men in the gospel had done, putting our hopes and dreams in worldly things? Or do we live the call of Christ, storing up treasure in heaven?

Since none of us is perfect, it is clear that all of us are somewhere on the sliding scale between the two. I recognize that in my life there are some times where I tend to put my trust in earthly things – trying to seek happiness in buying new CD’s and taking pride in my personal book collection. I’m sure some of you may have similar things that you may from time to time put your trust in as being your real treasure. But the thing is that ultimately we are called to realize that these should not be our greatest treasures, and are but faint shadows of the great treasures that the Lord desires for each of us. The real treasures that the Lord God desires us to have are not books or music, clothes or jewelry, cars or homes or lots of money. What the Lord wants for us is the treasure that lasts for eternity – love. And I don’t mean warm, fuzzy, puppy dogs and butterflies love. I mean deep, committed, self-sacrificing, self-giving love.

Rather than storing up treasures for ourselves and putting our trust in created things, the Lord desires us to be willing to give of ourselves to others. This may come in the form of financial giving, but more importantly it comes in the personal call to service that each one of us has received from the Lord. It is by serving others that we are able to show love and to receive love. You may be familiar with the story of Saint Lawrence, a deacon in the third century. He was the keeper of the money for the Church in Rome and the Roman emperor called him in one day and demanded that Lawrence bring him all of the Church’s treasure. The next day Lawrence arrived with a large number of crippled, sick, poor, and blind people because he knew that the true treasure was not gold and fine jewels as the emperor thought. He knew that other people, especially those in need, were the greatest of earthly treasures because by serving them, great treasures were being stored up in heaven. The marble cemetery collection tray stood as a reminder of that – if tomorrow we can be called to the Lord, then we ought to give of ourselves in service today.

In addition to that aspect of serving and loving others, we of course recognize that God is our ultimate treasure, being love itself. He Who showed the depth of His love by offering Himself on the cross stands as our greatest treasure and we have the blessing of receiving His Sacred Body and Precious Blood from this altar today and experience a preview of the greatness of the treasure that He has in store for us in the life to come. What better aid can there be in helping us to learn the art of dying well?