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?
20 Replies to “Will this World be for You a Tomb, or a Womb?”
Wow. Extremely good with a main point that resonates and several profound layers. You always help me get a clear glimpse as I grope along toward the Promised Land. At the risk of reducing it to topical banter I will suggest you should print it and send it to Jane Fonda. Seriously. http://www.usatoday.com/story/life/people/2014/02/25/jane-fonda-crying-have-little-time-left/5813211/
Monseigneur Charles, looking at the picture of you by your mother’s side is beautiful. It reminds me of the song “Mary Did You Know.” I bet your mother never fathomed that one day you would be a leader of the Catholic Church. I am 69 years old, with both my parents deceased. I feel sometimes, however, that they are still with me. I wonder if you ever get the same feeling. We are nothing without God, nothing but a puff of smoke. I pray that the remaining years I spend here on earth bring me closer to God.
” … we sing so highly of ourselves.”
This may be true if we were inclined to treat ourselves as an exclusive club that gathers to pat each other on the back for an illusion of perfection but, in The New Testament we are constantly told to admit to our imperfections and to reach out to others and accept them even if they’re imperfect.
The quotes that strike me most on this is Matthew 9:9-13 where sinners, not the righteous, are called and James 5:16. We admit that we are sinners and, that ourselves and others need to confess (acknowledge) this fact.
So, if we reach out we are told to stop pushing our religion and, when we give in to that and stop evangilizing actively (even though we display so as to evangelize at least passively) we seem to get accused of being exclusive – by those who demand that we act exclusive. I’ve never been asked to show proof of being a Christian to enter a Christian church of any demomination.
Yet, so many “modern” churches encounter sinners arriving in denial and so – they adapt to the denial by such things as altering the Sacrament of Marriage and eliminating the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
If we fall for outsiders’ false claims,and created illusion that we’re exclusive and; as a result; sacrifice Salvation from sin on an alter of pretending that sinning is a sort of perfection – whose alter are we worshiping at? We already know who uses illusions and trickery.
I accept that I cannot outsmart that individual but I know Who can and I turn to Him.
If we don’t submit to the Physician who has come to heal us from the sickness that came into the “womb” back in the Garden – what chance do we have to emerge safely from this womb?
I love your post and the photo! May your mother and all your beloved dead be in the loving arms of our Savior.
I’ve been sick for some time now and only getting on the mend, but I laughed when I read St. James this morning. I am indeed a puff of smoke! I’ve been contemplating is hope … yes, hope for relief, hope for my family to fix supper, but more than that, being with our Lord. He gives us the gift of Hope.
In Thee, O Lord, have I hoped, let me never be confounded. ~ Ps. 30:2
Because he hath hoped in Me, I will deliver him: I will protect him. ~ Ps. 90:14
A contrite and humble heart, O God, Thou wilt not despise. ~ Ps. 50:19
I wrote more about it on my blog: http://www.vijayabodach.blogspot.com/
Checked the blog and I surely sympathize with your affliction. I used to get severly disabling headaches and, although I may not have much to offer, I tried, unsuccessfully to deal with the stresses that brought them on until I developed an ulcer – also from the stresses.
Then I somehow found a way to shed the stress and, upon looking back, it was partly by deciding not to fret over small things and … what helped me to stop fretting so much was to keep reminding myself to be more patient in awaiting an overall outcome of which the little triggers were a small part. Ulcer left quickly and the headaches are extremely rare and, when they come are usually easy to “nip in the bud” with analgezic (sic)
Maria’s post (listed as at 5:11 PM) may be a help but I am willing to admit that I may not have enough to offer and so, my prayers will follow.
A wonderful blog displayed and very well done for someone with a migraine so, not meaning to be too overly critical but, didn’t you mean Psalm 51:17 in conclusion of the quotes?
Thank you, Monsignor, for constantly putting things into perspective for us. We’re just passing through. Actually, that thought comforts me.
Thanks, too, for sharing your beautiful photo and testimony of your mother. Brought tears to my eyes.
The Light of Christ IN us (“received in deep humility”) illuminates and makes transparent not only ourselves but all those around us (the world). The world hates the Light because it loves the deeds of darkness.
If the Light of Christ is IN us, we can be nothing else but humble, for we are made transparent, nothing is hidden, all our “deeds will be exposed”… praise be to God!!
John 3:19 And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. 20 For every one who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. 21 But he who does what is true comes to the light, that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been wrought in God.
Dear Msgr Pope,
Were your parents able to live lives of great joy in spite of the difficulties of your sister’s situation?
It must have been for them a terrible trial of faith.
I think you take this too far – the point isn’t getting so close to God that we ‘outgrow’ the physical; that’s a soft form of manicheism. You can see this kind of thinking in certain writings from the Middle-Ages – the world is essentially a great trap, which we must do our best to escape from. Not a lot of difference between that and the what the Cathars believed about the natural world.
When we die we don’t become disembodied spirits and stay like that for ever – we get resurrected, and there’s a new heaven and new earth that awaits.
Im a big believer in the resurrection of the body. No maniche I just read the scriptures such as Col 3 Since you been raised to new life seek the things above rather than that of earth. Of James who says a friend of the world is an enemy to God. I think rather it is you who taking things too far and reading things into what i have written. The Lord is clear that we must die to rise to new life. To lose or life to save it etc
We are so far from the current slaughtering of boy children in Nigeria as they attended a Christian school They are as the Holy Innocents, martyred after the birth of Christ. Vatican Radio website has details.
Thank you for sharing the bit of your own Holy Family experience ( a beautiful mama with a handsome baby ) and the reminder to look forward with hope to what awaits us , if we are faithful to that hope .
Has been thinking how God has it in such a way that bringing up a baby can seem to take so long, esp. in our modern culture so used to sensory stimulation , that many aspects of parenting can seem mundane !
There in comes the Holy Family experience and may be scriptures are intentionally silent about their lives to a great extent , so that each family can project themselves into same – beholding the Holy Face of The Lord often , along with that of His parents , with the joys and sorrows of their lives , asking their gaze to come often our ways , into all areas and moments that need the warmth of their gaze ..and doing so, on behalf of all in our lives , young and old , even into our family lines , thus cleansing those lines, in His mercy and to be sort of ‘born again ‘ and again ..in the embrace of The Holy Family ..
and parenting thus becomes what it is meant to be , a life of contemplation , anticipating what awaits us and may be babies thus brought up would be full of wisdom , grace and strenght , to become all that The Lord wish them to be – even good priests !
May The Lord let His Face shine upon us , our parents and all our departed , that we rejoice in same for all eternity !
Hey Msgr. Pope,
This was a great read for me. As a younger guy who is starting to get adjusted to a life of responsibility, sometimes its very easy to become overwhelmed. Its also very easy to become arrogant.
Its not hard to forget that we are only here a very short time, and that there is a far greater life that lies ahead if we do as the Lord wishes.
These kind of articles are a nice little wake up call to try and get things straight.
What an adorable photo of you and your mom! Thanks for sharing, Msgr.
i enjoy the melodies and rhythms of many (not all!) of the modern songs that have shown up in our Sunday Masses; but I agree with your thought that too much of the lyrics seems to be of a “feel good” nature, stressing us rather than praising God.
I’m also concerned about the tendency of those attending funerals or memorial services to assume “instant canonization” for the deceased. For me at least, this is particularly a problem when the deceased died in a traffic accident, or in a suicide. I pray regularly for some relatives and friends who experienced deaths of those types, as they were very unlikely to have had the benefits of death-bed Reconciliation and/or Anointing.
Thanks for letting me sound off.
Such a gorgeous picture and a lovely message with it. beautiful. You always put things into perspective for us. Here today gone tomorrow. God bless you for your lovely words of encouragement to us. We need to remind over and over again……..we are indeed but a puff of smoke……..
Maybe even worse (and more disorienting) are all of the songs where we sign about ourselves as God (“I Am the Bread of Life”, “I Will Lift You Up on Eagles’ Wings”, etc).
Very good post, and moving comments about your Mother who I am sure many of us ( your readers ) will remember in our prayers.
i love the tomb or womb analogy. Our journey into the heart of Christ is very like birth pangs. How we struggle against our former carnal impulses. How we fight against a native pride and arrogance, that continually shows some hidden face. Like Paul we run our races and pray that when we reach our finish line that we are embraced by the Heart of Love. Nothing this world has to offer is worth losing Christ.
God bless you Msgr. Pope. You always have such good food for our souls.
I am a week behind on reading the posts …. But Praise the Lord today was the day that I was meant to read this !! My own mother died 47 years ago today and I have been thinking of her all day and praying for her so when I read this I felt the tears just welling up and as I looked at the photo I saw her … she looks so much like my own mother …. God most definitely uses this post to speak to me …. I came to realize that today is the anniversary of my mother’s birth … the day she left the womb to enter into His glory …. She was a “puff of smoke” but that whiff of smoke still lingers in my mind and in my heart even after all these years .
God bless you, Msgr…. I pray for you often ……
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