Sunday, October 01, 2017

Between the Pool & the Pebble...


26th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Picture: cc gcmenezes

My dear friends, do you still remember the story of Narcissus? As you know, he was a very handsome young man. Unfortunately, he was also rather proud and conceited. To teach him a lesson, an enemy tricked him into gazing into a pool of water. At which the arrogant youth promptly fell in love with his own reflection. So obsessed was he by his own good looks that he couldn’t bear to tear his eyes away. He remained stranded at the pool. Neither eating nor drinking. Caring neither for himself nor for others. Until eventually he died.

So goes the story. A tragic tale of extreme preoccupation with self. And yet, we may wonder, how Narcissus could be saved. Assuming there’s someone who cares for him. Someone who takes pity on him. Someone who wishes to show him mercy. What might that mercy look like? How might the young man be helped to leave his pool of self-absorption? And so be set free?

Of course, if Narcissus were not so handsome, perhaps it’d be enough simply to call to him. To warn him of the danger. But the young man’s appearance is simply too enticing. Even to himself. In order to help him turn away, a more drastic step is needed. Can you think of one? I imagine that a possible solution might be to throw a pebble into the pool to disturb his reflection. To show Narcissus that he is staring only at an illusion. And so to draw his gaze away. Away from his reflection, to something else. Something real. Something truly life-giving.

How might Narcissus be saved? How might he be set free? I’m not sure, my dear friends. But I believe that this is the question our Mass readings help us to ponder today. Of course, I’m not suggesting that our readings propose a cure for psychological narcissism. I do not have the expertise to make such a claim. If anything, I speak more of a spiritual condition than a psychological disorder.

Consider the parable that Jesus tells in the gospel. Two sons are asked to work in their father’s vineyard. One says no, but then later obeys. The other says yes, but then fails to follow through. I wonder whether the situation of these boys might not be similar to that of Narcissus. At least at the beginning. Why do they find it difficult to heed their father’s call? Could it be because, like Narcissus, both are stranded at the pool of self-absorption? Both are focused only on themselves and their own interests. They can’t tear their eyes away from their respective reflections.

But, if this is true, then how is it that one son eventually manages to break free? While the other remains trapped? It may be helpful to remember that each of these boys represent particular groups of people. The son who refuses to go, but later does, refers to the tax collectors and prostitutes. The public sinners. The son who agrees to go, but then fails to do so, points to the chief priests and elders of the people. The religious authorities. Those appointed to offer sacrifice, and to provide spiritual leadership. Those considered more pious and holy than everyone else. In other words, to be honest, people like me.

According to Jesus, the public sinners are able to repent, to turn away from their self-absorption, simply by hearing the call of John the Baptist. But the religious leaders are not. Why, we may wonder, is the voice of one crying in the wilderness enough to convince one group to repent, but not the other? Could it be because one group’s reflection appears more attractive, more enticing than the other? Could it be that the public sinners are not so attached to their own reflections, because they know their own sinfulness. They perceive the ugliness in their own lives. It is, after all, plain for everyone to see.

The religious authorities, on the other hand, the people like me, have an obviously handsome and polished image. They do seemingly pious and holy things. They speak apparently inspiring and inspired words. How difficult it is to tear my eyes away from my own apparent good looks! How hard to heed God’s call to repent, when I feel no need for repentance. Blinded as I am by my own dazzling performance. How challenging it is to make efforts to seek and do God’s will, when I am already so busy doing so many apparently godly things.

And yet, in the midst of my preoccupation with myself. Even as I may remain stranded at the pool of self-absorption. God refuses to give up on me. God continues to desire and to work for my salvation. To show me mercy. For as the first reading reminds me, God has no interest in the death of a sinner. But rather that the sinner might renounce his sins and live. How does God do this for me? How does God show me mercy?

The answer is found in the second reading. Into the stagnant pool of my self-absorption, God casts the precious pebble of Christ’s self-emptying sacrifice on the Cross. Disturbing the false image of my superficial piety. Uncovering the truth of my obsession with myself. Moving me to do what Paul tells the Philippians to do: everybody is to be self-effacing. Always consider the other person to be better than yourself, so that nobody thinks of his own interests first but everybody thinks of other people’s interests instead. In your minds you must be the same as Christ Jesus (who)… emptied himself… 

To allow one’s gaze to be drawn away from self towards Christ as he hangs on the Cross. The ultimate sign of God’s mercy. Isn’t this the call that we gather to celebrate at this Eucharist? Isn’t this the foundation of ministry in the Ignatian tradition? Ever to keep and to ponder in my heart that three-fold question: what have I done, what am I doing, what ought I to do for Christ?

As you know, many are saying that we live now in perhaps the most narcissistic of times. Due in large part to the influence of social media, many of us find it difficult to shift our attention away from ourselves long enough even to see to our own deeper needs. To receive God’s love for us. Let alone to attend to the needs of others. To share God’s love with them. Today, spirituality itself runs the risk of becoming just another commodity. Something people buy to help them cope with the struggles of daily life. To feel better about themselves. Without actually being set free from their self-obsession. And yet, even in a world such as this, we dare to believe and to trust that God continues to show mercy. That God continues to desire and to work for our salvation.

My dear friends, as we rejoice and give thanks for the past 20 years of the Cenacle’s fruitful presence in Singapore, how might God be calling all of us to continue shifting our gaze away from the pool of our self-absorption to the pebble of Christ’s self-sacrifice? And to help others to do the same today?

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