28 February 2024

Fakin' it ain't makin' it

2nd Week of Lent (W)

Fr. Philip Neri Powell OP
St. Albert the Great, Irving

One day during lunch at Notre Dame Seminary I was passing around an Ignatius Press catalog. One of the seminarians glanced at the address label and asked how I go the title “Very Reverend.” I said, “Because I'm prior at St. Dominic Priory. They probably got it from the Catholic Directory.” Seminarians being seminarians, they started calling me “Very Rev Philip Neri.” I countered with, “That would be 'the Very Rev. Fr. Dr. Prior' to you peons!” We got a good laugh out of it. But my underlying – and formational point, I hope – was that fancy ecclesial titles tell us nothing about the holiness of the title's bearer. They tell us nothing about the bearer's actual relationship with God. Father, Sister, Brother, Your Eminence, Your Holiness – none of these is descriptive of the person beyond his or her place in the hierarchy. In fact, I'm almost convinced the Lord allows these titles to test his vowed and ordained servants for humility and obedience. But Catholic Officialdom is not the only place where religious theater can quickly overtake one's earnest striving for holiness. By virtue of baptism, we are all priests, prophets, and kings. Everyone of us is vowed by baptism to be Christ in the world for the world. Here's your Lenten challenge: are you Christ in the world for the world? Or, are you an actor in religious theater?

It's a question for me as well. After all, the preacher preaches to himself first! So I'm not just being rude. The temptation is real. Very real. The rewards of appearing to be holy can be seductive. I get to be thought well of. I get all the public benefits of being holy w/o the bother of actually being holy. Who knows? Acting religious in public might actually rub off on me a little! The best part though is thinking of myself as holy, appearing holy, and getting to judge those who are not as holy as I am. The problem of course is that I could start to believe my part in religious theater is real and mistake faking it for making it. The only audience member clapping at that point is the Devil. When the sons of Zebedee ask to be elevated above their fellow disciples, Jesus asks a pointed question: Can you drink the chalice that I am going to drink?” They answer: “We can.” A suicidal Hamlet says offstage: “Ay, there's the rub.” The sons of Zebedee have no idea what that chalice is or what it means. Besides, Jesus says, places of honor are not his to give. If he can't give them to us, we certainly can't give them to ourselves.

What the sons of Zebedee don't know and we do it is that the chalice Jesus drinks is the chalice of sacrificial love. It's not a cup of power or a cup of wealth and influence. It's the chalice of service and surrender; a slave's cup, leading to the Cross, the tomb, and – in hope – the resurrection. We are in a time of examination. Look hard at your religiosity. Look hard at your public holiness. Make absolutely sure that the inside matches the outside. Make sure that the depth of your love goes deeper than a finely tailored costume and a few scripted lines. Christ has handed you his chalice. Before you take and drink, ask yourself: am I Christ in the world for the world? Or, am I faking it so as to be seen making it?   

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