Saturday, November 04, 2006

30th Saturday in Ordinary Time (II)
Memorial of St. Charles Boromeo, Bishop
Between the Death-Bed and the Dinner-Table

Readings: Philippians 1:18b-26; Psalm 42:2, 3, 5cdef; Luke 14:1, 7-11

Among the more valuable graces with which one might be blessed is to find oneself by the death-bed of another, to witness that solemn final journey of another from this life to the next. Depending, of course, on the circumstances and the dispositions of our hearts, such experiences have the capacity to provoke profound questions within us: What will I be like when my time comes? What will be uppermost in my mind and heart? How will I react when death's curtain finally draws to a close the drama that has been my life? Morbid considerations, some might think. And yet, don’t such spiritual masters as St. Ignatius of Loyola recommend reflections like these, not least because thoughts about how one will face death can powerfully shape the way in which one lives one’s life, and vice versa?

Today we are graced to listen to the considerations that preoccupy the great apostle Paul towards the end of his own remarkable journey. The dilemma that he so poignantly describes in the first reading indicates to us what is uppermost in his mind and heart. We find here neither a desperate clinging to this life for its own sake, nor a tired resignation to the inevitable. What we do find is a tension between two deeply felt desires: whether to be gone and be with Christ or to stay alive in this body… to help you to progress in the faith and even increase your joy in it. As the time approaches when he must depart, the deepest desires of Paul’s heart are shaped by the two greatest commandments: love of God and of neighbour. At a time when many might quite naturally be preoccupied with self, how does Paul come to be so centred on God and others?

Is it not because he has spent a life-time allowing the Spirit of God to mould and shape the desires of his heart? Is it not because he has long been practicing the same kind of asceticism that Jesus describes in the gospel today? At a wedding feast, do not take your seat in the place of honour... make your way to the lowest place – not the place of manipulative attention-seeking but the place of compassionate service and self-gift. This is the place, for example, that Mary took at the wedding at Cana. Inconspicuously yet effectively she interceded when it mattered most. Why is Jesus so particular about conduct at the dinner-table if not because, trivial as it may seem, it has the capacity to profoundly influence our conduct on the death-bed as well. For it is at such apparently trivial locations as the dinner-table that the opposing desires of our heart are shaped: the desire for self-aggrandizement versus the desire for self-sacrificing service. And it is these desires that determine our conduct and our place at the heavenly banquet.

As we move between the dinner-table and the death-bed today, how might we yield more readily to the God who continues to mould our hearts on the way?

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