One of the criticisms of modern liturgy, and especially modern Church music, is that we sing so highly of ourselves. We are the “aware, gathered community” that, according to one song, has been “gathered in, and sung throughout all of history!” Another song seems to suggest that we have the power to “sing a new church into being.” Apparently the one Christ founded needs replacing!
A popular song back in my college years was “We are the light of the world!” And while it is true that Jesus called us this, it is clear that he meant it more as a challenge to us than as praise of us. Given the mess that this world is in, not to mention the darkness that permeates it, it does seem awfully bold to praise ourselves as being the “light of the world.”
I’m sure many of you could add any number of similar quotes from songs that illustrate our modern tendency toward anthropocentric praise of ourselves. I lost touch with most contemporary Catholic music when I began pastoring in African-American parishes some twenty years ago. Whether you like gospel music or not, there’s one thing you can’t deny: it’s all about God.
But given our tendency to praise ourselves in contemporary Catholic worship, I was amused at the line from the book of James from today’s Mass (Wednesday of the seventh week of the year). James says (according to the lectionary translation we are using),
You are a puff of smoke that appears briefly and then disappears. (James 4:14)
Whoops, where did that come from? How did that tough little phrase to get into our self-congratulatory party?…Oh, that’s right, God said it.
All kidding aside, and to be fair, there is a glory to the human person, a glory that comes from God. But our sense of it must be received with deep humility. For whatever we have, we have received from God. St. Paul says, “What have you that you have not received; and if you have received it why do you glory as though you had not?” (1 Cor 4:7) Whatever glory we have is from God. Of ourselves, we are small, contingent beings; each of us is but a puff of smoke, a vapor, a mist. The slightest wind will scatter us.
My father wrote, in the frontispiece of a family history, the following from Psalm 103:
As for man, his days are like grass; he flowers like the flower of the field;
the wind blows and he is gone and his place never sees him again
It is the same thing that James says in today’s reading. We are a puff of smoke or a vapor just before the wind blows or the sun rises. And David also says elsewhere,
Our years are seventy, or eighty for those who are strong. They pass swiftly, and we are gone. (Ps 90:10)
As Christians, such thoughts should not depress us, but they should sober us. This life, and worldly glories, are not the point. If they were, what a cruel joke it would be. A puff of smoke and then scattered by the merest breeze; it would be cruelty to say the least.
But for us Christians, we know that our life here is like the time we spent in the womb. Our tenure here is temporary, while we await a greater glory to come. The child in the womb for a while enjoys the warmth and seclusion of that secret place. But as growth takes place, the womb comes to seem confining and limiting. Then birth pangs deliver the news: “You were made for something larger, something greater.” Many things of this world give joy and a kind of warmth and pleasure. But if we are faithful, we outgrow these. Our heart expands and this world can no longer contain us.
The birth pangs of our looming death say to us, “You were made for something larger, something greater.” So we go forth from the womb of this world to what the Psalms often call often call the wideness or spaciousness of the glory of God (e.g., 17:29; 117:5; 118:45 Vulgate). Most of us who are faithful will need the “afterbirth” of this world purged from us. But this having been done, we will be received into the loving arms of our God and Father. And this is our glory: to be caught up into the heart of God our Father who conceived us and who loves us.
But as James warns, in the wider context of calling us a “puff of smoke,” we must beware of a pride that roots us in this world and celebrates a human glory somewhere other than in the arms of God. He says,
Come now, you who say,
“Today or tomorrow we shall go into such and such a town,
spend a year there doing business, and make a profit”–
you have no idea what your life will be like tomorrow.
You are a puff of smoke that appears briefly and then disappears.
Instead you should say,
“If the Lord wills it, we shall live to do this or that.”
But now you are boasting in your arrogance.
All such boasting is evil. (James 4:14-17)
Yes, beware of arrogance; beware of your own plans. God must have his heartiest laughs when we tell him our “plans.”
People used to visit cemeteries, but in the arrogant and busy times in which we live, such visits are rare. During Lent, make it a practice to walk frequently in the nearest cemetery. And while there, behold the glory of this world; whatever it gives it takes back.
Yet to those who are faithful, whose remains lie in whatever cemetery you walk through, consider again the words of Jesus:
Unless the grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat. But if it falls and dies, it rises to produce abundant fruit. (John 12:23).
What will it be for you? Will it be the passing glories of this world, which die and then are trampled underfoot, or as the puff of smoke, blown away? Or will it be the seed that his sown, but dies to itself and rises to something far more glorious?
Will this world be for you a tomb, which seals you into itself, or a womb which births you to new and greater life? The decision is yours.
I write this on the ninth anniversary of my mother’s death. She told me of Jesus and committed me to God (That’s my mother and me in the photo above right). Nine years ago, as her son and also her ministering priest, I placed her body into the Earth like a seed, so that she could rise to something new and more glorious that, “Eye has not seen nor ears ever heard, that no human mind could ever conceive.” (cf 1 Cor 2:9).
I who came forth from her womb, beheld her birth pangs as she went forth from the womb of this world. May Nancy Geiman Pope, and all of our beloved dead, rest now in that wider, that larger, that more glorious place we call Heaven.
I am confident she does; she died in faith. This world would not be her tomb. It was for her a womb, that birthed her to glory by God’s grace.
To this world, we are a puff of smoke. But to God, each of us is a beloved son or daughter that He seeks to birth unto glory. Will you let him?