Saturday, February 22, 2014

Between The Artist & The Fool


7th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Picture: Luna Park NYC

Sisters and brothers, when you were in school, did you have a least favourite subject? Do you still remember what it was? Or, for those who happen to still be in school, what it is? I’m a little embarrassed to say this, but one of my least favourite subjects in school was art. And the reason is simple. I wasn’t very good at it. Or, to use the more technical, and also more honest, term: I sucked. I used to dread it when the art teacher would come into class and give each of us an assignment to create something beautiful. Commissioning us, as it were, to produce a work of art.

The most difficult thing for me was when we were told to draw or paint something from scratch. On the basis of nothing more than our own imagination. I just didn’t know where to begin. But even when we were given something concrete to reproduce, like an apple or a flower, I still found it a great challenge. Somehow, as hard as I tried, my copy just never did look very much like the real thing. I just wasn’t able to create something beautiful. It was as though I was born without an artistic bone in my body. Which is why I never did like art class very much. What I disliked most was the pressure I felt. The pressure to produce something I just wasn’t able to produce. A thing of beauty.

Which probably explains why my first reaction to our Mass readings today is one of anxiety and discomfort. For what is God doing in our readings if not commissioning a work of art? A thing of beauty? In the first reading, God tells Moses to speak to the whole community of the sons of Israel and say to them: ‘Be holy...’ And, what God expects from the whole of Israel in the first reading, Jesus asks of each of his disciples in the gospel: You must be perfect. And the same demand is, of course, also addressed to us: Be a holy community! Be perfect individuals! In other words, be a thing of beauty! What does this sound like, sisters and brothers, if not a commission? It would seem that God is inviting us to become artists. To make of ourselves a glorious work of art.

It is no wonder then that I should feel anxious. I feel like I’m being asked to do something I’m not good at. To produce a thing of beauty. To create a work of art. And it doesn’t comfort me very much that God gives very detailed specifications for what this artwork should look like. For these requirements seem too burdensome for me to fulfill. In the first reading, we’re told to love your neighbour as yourself. And this love is to be expressed in not ever bearing grudges against another. But, rather, in openly telling the other of his or her offence. In the gospel, Jesus makes even more stringent demands. We’re expected to love not just our neighbour, but even our enemy. To return good for evil.

And what is perhaps most intimidating is the model that is presented to us to imitate. We’re asked not just to be holy and perfect. But to be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy. To be perfect just as your heavenly Father is perfect. Sisters and brothers, it seems that what our readings are commissioning us to produce in our own lives is not just any ordinary work of art. But nothing less than an image of God himself!

Now I’m not sure how you feel about all this, sisters and brothers. But when I listen to these words, it feels a little like I’m being transported back in time. Back to when I was in school. Back to that dreaded art class. I feel as though I’m again being pressured to produce something beautiful. Something that I don’t have the ability to produce. Is it any wonder that my first reaction is anxiety and discomfort? And, following this first reaction, there is also a second and a third.

My second reaction is to try to find some loopholes in God’s commission. Some possible exceptions to the general rule. Sure, God is asking me not to hate, but to love my enemies. This may be true in general. But maybe this doesn’t quite apply to some specific people. Like the noisy person who lives next door. Or the busybody who shares my office. Or the fellow motorist who just cut into my lane. Or the foreigner who has just stolen my job... Surely these are not my enemies. And, of course, surely I don’t really hate them. Hate is, after all, such a strong word. I just prefer not to have anything to do with them. That’s all.

My third reaction is simply to ignore what is being asked of me. To try not to think about it too much. Just like how I used to procrastinate whenever I received an assignment in school that I didn’t really like. I just used to push it out of my mind for as long as possible. Hoping that it will go away. That the teacher may forget about it. Or change her mind, and cancel the assignment. Which, of course, never happened.

Anxiety and discomfort. Compromise and procrastination. These are among my reactions to the pressure that I feel our readings are putting on me today. The pressure to be an artist. The pressure to produce, in my life and in my world, a thing of beauty. A work of art. And yet, sisters and brothers, is it possible that I may be mistaken? That I am looking at our readings in a wrong way? Could it be that there is another more helpful way to look at them? And, if so, what might this be?

I think we find more than a hint of an answer in our second reading. Here, St. Paul uses two words to describe God’s people. Didn’t you realise, he says, that you were God’s temple. And if anyone thinks of himself as wise… he must learn to be a fool… A temple and a fool. Do these things have anything in common? I’m not sure, but I think they do. The scripture scholars tell us that the word in Greek that is translated as temple actually refers not to the whole temple, but only to the Holy of Holies. The most sacred part. The place reserved for the Presence of God. And we know that, at least in Jesus’ day, this portion was left empty. Also, the Latin root for the word fool actually means a windbag. And, like the Holy of holies, a windbag is essentially empty. It contains nothing but air.

All of which may indicate what our readings are asking of us. It is true that God is commissioning a work of art. That God wishes us to be beautiful. But nowhere in our readings are we pressured to produce this artwork ourselves. Nowhere in our readings are we asked to become artists. Instead, what we are asked to do is to become empty. Like the Holy of Holies. Filled with nothing but the Presence of God. Or like a windbag. Filled with nothing but the powerful wind of the Spirit of God. We are asked to allow God to be our Artist. To allow God to shape and mould us into a thing of beauty. Into a work of art.

And isn’t this why we are here this evening? Not so much to make ourselves beautiful. Like someone applying cosmetics. Much less to show off our own beauty. What we are here to do is to submit ourselves to the hands of the Divine Artist. To bring the many things that fill our hearts and our lives, and to lay them down before God. Joining them to the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross. So that God can continue to fill us with His presence. To transform us from within. To make of us a work of art.

Sisters and brothers, God is asking us not so much to be artists, as to be fools. Not so much to produce, as to submit. What must we do to respond ever more generously to this invitation today?

1 comment:

  1. O Lord, let me be a fool for Christ -

    for the wisdom of God is unfathomable to humankind and man's wisdom does not impress God either.

    I would rather be a fool for Christ in the eyes of humankind than to appear as the "wisest fool" in the eyes of God.

    Between God's wisdom and the pride of the human race - which one would you choose?

    Seeing IS Believing
    24 February 2014 12.40pm

    ReplyDelete

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