Sunday, September 01, 2013

Between Acting & Authenticity


22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

Picture: cc Cliff

Sisters and brothers, I’m sure you’ve heard of the Academy Awards right? More popularly known as the Oscars? Perhaps you’ve watched the award show on TV. You know what it looks like. You can recall the glitz and the glamour. You also know what the Oscars are for. You know that they are given every year to people who have distinguished themselves in the film industry. And one important way to distinguish yourself–though not the only way–is of course by being a good actor. The Oscars are, among other things, an acting award.

They honour celebrities. People who have become famous for their extraordinary talent at pretending to be someone they are not. Their ability to assume a personality other than their own. To put on a mask, as it were, whenever they wish. To appear happy, when they’re actually feeling sad. Or friendly, when irritated. Or interested, when they really couldn’t care less. This is what the Oscars do. They honour those who can act. And it’s not only the Oscars that do this. We also have the Emmys for TV. The Tonys for theatre. The Golden Horse in Taiwan. Our own Star Awards... And then, of course, we also have, on a much smaller scale, the unofficial, nameless performing awards. Those prizes that are presented, from time to time, to actors of a different sort. As when someone in the office gets promoted, not because he’s a particularly good worker, but simply because he has a talent for telling the boss whatever s/he wants to hear.

Now, I hope you don’t get the wrong idea, sisters and brothers. I have nothing against the Oscars. Or against acting, for that matter. In fact, I’m not ashamed to admit that watching movies is one of my favourite pastimes. The reason why I mention the Oscars is not because I wish to criticise them, but because I think they can help us to uncover one way in which we may very easily misunderstand what our Mass readings are actually telling us today. As you’ve probably already noticed, our readings speak to us about the importance of being humble. The greater you are, the first reading tells us, the more you should behave humbly, and then you will find favour with the Lord. In other words, be humble and God will reward you. That much is clear. What is less clear, however, is what it really means to be humble. What true humility really looks like.

At first glance, it seems that humility looks a lot like play-acting. That to be a really humble person is to be nothing more than a good actor. Isn’t this what we seem to find in the story told by Jesus in the gospel? Why should I first take the lowest–the least honourable–place at a wedding feast? Is it because I think that’s where I truly belong? No. I take the lowest place, only because I hope to be promoted by my host. And not just promoted, but promoted in front of all the other guests. In my heart of hearts I actually want to occupy a higher place. If possible, even the highest. But I only pretend that I want the lowest one. So that I can be rewarded. Sisters and brothers, if this is what being humble looks like, then isn’t humility no different from acting? And isn’t the wedding feast in the story very much like the Oscars? An award ceremony for great pretenders? A celebration of those with a talent for appearing to be someone they’re not?

Sisters and brothers, I think we can trust our instincts if we feel uneasy with this interpretation. If we somehow find ourselves unable to escape the nagging feeling that humility shouldn’t look like this. After all, why should I pretend to be less than I really am? Shouldn’t I be true to myself? And is God really not much different from an award presenter at the Oscars? Can the God of Truth actually be a reward-er of pretense? Surely we have gone wrong somewhere. And perhaps where we’ve gone wrong is to take the story that Jesus tells too literally. We have forgotten that the story is meant to be, not a piece of practical advice for celebrities attending an award ceremony, but a parable. Jesus’ primary concern is not really our conduct at any ordinary wedding feast, as important as that may be. What Jesus is talking about is another great event. The very same wonderful occasion so vividly described for us in the second reading.

What you have come to, the reading tells us, is Mount Zion and the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem where the millions of angels have gathered for the festival. We have come not to any ordinary place. Not even to an annual award ceremony. But to God himself. And in this divine place, at this heavenly event, we are no longer simply guests hoping to be honoured at someone else’s celebration. Nor are we celebrities participating at some media-saturated extravaganza. For here at this festival, everyone is a ‘first-born son’ and a citizen of heaven. Here we truly belong. This is our party.

And what’s more important is how we obtain this status. Not through any merit of our own. Not because we are particularly talented or capable. Or rich or righteous. We have made it here only because of Jesus. He is the mediator who brings a new covenant and a blood for purification which pleads more insistently than Abel’s. If we have been found worthy to be present at this event, it is only because God has shown us boundless mercy. If we have been found fit to participate in these festivities, it is only because we have first been purified by the blood of the Lamb. So that what we celebrate is not our own achievement, but God’s generosity. Not our talent, but God’s mercy. The responsorial psalm puts it well when it teaches us joyfully to exclaim, in your goodness, O God, you prepared a home for the poor. Truly, this is what God has done and is doing for us. Indeed, we are the poor. Poor at least in spiritual merit, if not in material resource. For without Christ and his Cross, we would all be lost. Cast out in the darkness. Far away from home.

If all this is true, then what we find in our readings looks less like an award ceremony for the rich and famous than it does a soup kitchen for the hungry and homeless. Less like a gathering of publicity-craving celebrities than an assembly of those being fed on the broken body of the crucified and risen Christ. Those who have finally come to accept their own poverty. Their own inability to save themselves. However hard they may try. Isn’t this what humility really looks like? Not pretense. But truth. Not manipulation and competition. But openness to receive what we would otherwise be incapable of attaining for ourselves. Isn’t this what humility really means? Not acting, but authenticity? Not an award ceremony, but a celebration of the hospitality and mercy of God.

And isn’t this also what we are celebrating here today? The feeding of our deepest hunger. The quenching of our most urgent thirst. A feeding and a quenching that we can only truly experience to the extent that we are willing first to accept our own poverty in the sight of God. And doesn’t this also help us to understand why it is only proper that Jesus should expect us to reach out a caring and helping hand to those who are unable to repay us? To the aged and the sick. To the hungry and the homeless. To the lonely and the depressed… We show hospitality to others without expectation of return, because this is precisely what we have first received from God.

Humility is more about authenticity than acting. And the spiritual life is more of a celebration of God’s hospitality than it is an award ceremony. Sisters and brothers, in our lives as individuals and as church, what more can we do to go beyond the Oscars today?

1 comment:

  1. Before You, O God, all truths are revealed and there is no room for pretence and falsehood.

    As I come before You, here and now - teach me to accept my own poverty - be it my weaknesses, my limitations, my helplessness and my failures.

    Like the publican, let me say with all honesty and humility: "Have Mercy on me, Lord, a sinner".

    Teach me to own my weaknesses and to learn the poverty of spirit.

    Lord, teach me to be humble like to You, to dare to be different - to be YOUR LIGHT amidst all the darkness of this world.

    Help me to remain true to You and to be my authentic and real self before all that is superficial, plastic and fake.

    O Lord, You are the Only Authenticity in our passing superficial world of today... when all things fade and pass away, You are the Only One who will remain.

    Therefore, teach me, Lord, to hold on to You, and to grow towards being my real and authentic self so that i will always give you Glory and Honour, Praise & Thanksgiving as my Lord, my God and my All.

    Pax et Bonum.

    ReplyDelete

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