SIC TRANSIT GLORIA MUNDI!
Catholic Homily/Sunday Reflection
18th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)
August 1, 2010
All of us mortals long for the more, the better, the greater, and the ultimate! The history of the world, and our own personal histories reflect this timeless and ageless truth – we look for fulfillment, for what satisfies, for everything that gives lasting meaning to our existence. We even pine for immortality, for the proverbial fountain of youth, physical prowess, and beauty. We hanker for everything that lasts, and all things that lend perfection and lasting dignity to our person.
All that we long for, and all that we look for are not bad in themselves. They are legitimate ends for men and women created by God with the natural tendency towards “self-transcendence.” This includes our legitimate desire for material wealth and prosperity.
Today’s liturgy, though, offers some kind of a “caveat” (a warning). Today’s readings would have us pause awhile and see beyond what we consider as the “ultimate.” The Lord, today, would have us reflect a little bit deeper on the values we hold dearly, on the priorities we have set for ourselves, on the targets we have focused on, and on the bases of the happiness and meaningfulness we have pegged ourselves and our lives on.
For, truth to tell, there is so much blindness in the world today, so much lack of clarity, so much lack of perspective.
The view from Hollywood, for one, is an absolutist one. Entertainment and fun is the ultimate gauge of one’s happiness and well-being. Everyday, we are bombarded by pictures of svelte, upbeat, and perpetually smiling actors and actresses, whose lives appear to revolve around party upon glitzy party, their seemingly happy and ever smiling faces paying tribute to the mantra of youthful life based for the most part on the culture of fun.
So is the view from Wall Street. Wealth and fortune, and the examples of those who made it, constantly hog the infotainment headlines. They act as the modern-day prophets of the capitalist gospel of prosperity and financial well-being.
This absolutist culture is nowhere more visible as in the marriage of capitalism and entertainment in the many shows that dot the prime time landscape: reality TV and shows that consistently gravitate towards Hollywood, New York, Chicago, and, of late, Las Vegas – all centers of commerce, entertainment, and fun. (Have you made a recent count of shows that have focused their sights on Las Vegas?) In many other places all over the world, entertainment and shows mostly revolve around the so-called “primate cities” which function as hubs of development, wealth generation, and the place where to get the “proverbial pot of gold.”
Today, the Church goes counter-cultural, as usual. Today, I am afraid, many people, especially the young, would find the Lord’s good news as one that rather goes against the grain. However, I would like to suggest that, more than being a put-down, today’s biblical readings are an invitation for all of us to gain back perspective, to put back the horse before the cart, and to regain our sense of clarity.
In a culture that has co-opted our minds, our attitudes, and our hearts, and which has gradually led us to absolutize and prioritize our “labor,” “toil and anxiety,” and all “the part of [us] that are earthly,” the Lord reminds us today through Qoheleth that “all things are vanity.” In essence, what we are told is not that all the above is bad, but that they are simply not the ultimate, for they are nothing but “vanity,” that is, mere “vapor,” “breath,” something that is merely transitory. They are useful and important, true, but transitory, not permanent. Being transitory, they are not to be considered the “end all and be all” of human existence.
I had the fortune of meeting and being a friend to a Filipino couple and their children over the past 20 years. When I got to know them, I was doing pastoral work as a substitute pastor in a big parish in Manila, while I was preparing myself to go to Rome for further studies. At that time, they had a booming and lucrative business that placed them among the more well-to-do members of the parish community. The relative wealth they enjoyed, however, did not get to their heads. They kept a low profile, while at the same time, gave generously to the church, while anonymously helping a number of poorer members of the parish. As I got to know them better over the subsequent years, I realized that their lives had been some kind of a roller-coaster ride, with the proverbial ups and downs, failures and successes, joys and disappointments. Their wealth and financial status shot up and shot down, in an unpredictable cycle that would have daunted people with lesser faith. But through all this, the family remained steadfast. They were happy when they lived in prosperity, but they were happy all the same when there was precious little to spare.
They were a clear example of persons who understood the relative importance of wealth.
Unfortunately, in my experience as a priest and an educator/teacher for so many years, I have also encountered people who showed exactly the opposite attitude. Already having more than they could reasonably use to live decent lives, they still want more and more. I have seen people whose drive for more seemed to be the all important rule in their lives, with their families taking a back seat, and values taking a still farther slot in their order of priorities. For some of them, the unbridled drive for wealth and/or power have gradually hardened their hearts, making them callous to the needs of others, and the welfare of their competitors or opponents, as the case may be.
And neither are Church personnel and religious priests immune to such a pervasive culture that can also lead some of us to resort to manipulation and machination in order to safeguard coveted, lucrative posts or hold on to power. To our shame, there are posh parishes all over the country that have become untouchable turfs of some well-connected clerics.
But what is sauce for the goose ought to be sauce, too, for the gander. All of us Christians, whether cleric or lay, would do well to reflect on the prayer that we blurted out after the first reading: “If today, you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.” We would do well to remember the relative nature of everything that we have on loan from the gracious generosity of God. “Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain wisdom of heart.”
Indeed, all the parts of us that are earthly, all that we consider important in this world, all that in our lack of clarity of mind and heart, we believe to be the ultimate values; indeed everything that in our shortsightedness, clouds our minds, and makes us lose perspective and miss the forest for a tree, will all one day disappear, for “the world and all its pleasures are fast drifting away.” Sic transit gloria mundi! That is simply the way of all earthly glory … like grass, they wither and die; they are here today, and gone tomorrow.