Monday, July 18, 2011

Homily 16th Sun O.T., Year A–Unity and Uniformity

wheatharvestSince I’ve been ordained, and especially now as we approach a new school year, I’ve been reflecting on my years of seminary from an outside perspective. It is clearer to me now how the gravity of our mission there, to be formed into priests of Jesus Christ, sometimes caused us to over-emphasize certain things, or to make too much of things. For example, I could have been on time for Morning Prayer for 30 days in a row, but being late on the 31st day would be the one everyone noticed the most. Or… everyone on my side of the chapel would be reciting their part of the psalms of Morning Prayer in perfect unison, but it would be that one guy who read too fast that would most catch our attention. This type of perfectionism was not very helpful.

Perfectionism can creep into a parish also, on both of our parts. For me, in my first months of priesthood, as I am growing as a celebrant and wanting to pray the Mass exactly as it is given by the Church; sometimes it is the one missed word or messed up gesture that sticks out in my mind the most. On the other hand, it wasn’t too long ago when I was in your seat noticing the one family who came in late or the one who left early. This type of perfectionism isn’t helpful either. What is most helpful I think is for us to distinguish between two things: unity and uniformity.

There is a big difference between the two. Unity is more internal, uniformity is more external. Unity comes from above and is a gift from God; it is something that we cannot ultimately make ourselves. Uniformity is something we can make ourselves when we get everything looking the same. We should be more concerned with unity than uniformity

For example, at the seminary, on a rare day we may have all been reciting the psalms in perfect unison, in perfect uniformity, but with a far from perfect unity – one guy may have been meditating carefully upon each stanza as he read it, while another, though keeping pace, was miles away in his head thinking about the paper he still had to turn in while the words ran mindlessly from his mouth. Again, unity is a much deeper, more profound reality than uniformity. Uniformity is when we are all doing the same thing at the same time. But true unity is when God gives us the grace to be one in our hearts and minds.

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus compares the kingdom of God to a man who sowed good seeds of wheat in his field. But, the man’s enemy crept into the field and later sowed weeds among the wheat. The type of weeds the evangelist has in mind is a type that looks exactly like the wheat but if eaten is toxic to humans and animals. It can only be distinguished from the wheat once they are both fully mature – then the farmer who knows his fields like the back of his hand is able to tell the slightly smaller and more slender ear of the weeds from the taller and more healthy ear of the wheat. When the farmer’s servants learn about the weeds they become concerned with the uniformity of things and they ask if he wants them to pull up the weeds. But the farmer, who is more concerned with unity, forbids them, because the servants don’t have the close eye that he has – they may accidentally reach for and pull the wheat thinking it is the weeds. This is where we get the common phrase, “Taking the good with the bad.” The farmer is concerned with the unity of the wheat and its inner integrity – the wheat should not be pulled as if it was a weed to be discarded. The two should be allowed to grow together until the very end when the taller ears of wheat can be harvested together, cut near the head, leaving only the smaller weeds behind. It is then that the weeds can finally be pulled and cast into the fire.

In our nearest, most visible experience, the kingdom of God, the field of seeds, is the Catholic Church with God as the farmer and us as the wheat. The devil is the enemy, and those who come from him, those who do evil, are the weeds. The field, the Church overall, is good, but it endures the harsh reality of being made up of some members that are good and others that are bad. Even though the devil was defeated once and for all by Christ’s Passion, Death, Resurrection and Ascension, his victory will not be completely manifested until the end of time when Christ comes again in glory. Until then, God allows those who do evil to live and work alongside those who do good according to his larger plan. But, when the last day comes, the Son of Man must present a perfect kingdom to his Father. Then Christ will execute his judgment through his angels who will gather together like a harvest those who are in sin and are doing evil deeds and give them the reward they have earned and have shown they have wanted: an eternity of pain that comes from being in the darkness of separation from God. This is where we get the popular image of the Grim Reaper – the angel who reaps what we have sown. On the other hand, those who are in a state of grace and have led lives of good works of faith will shine as bright as the sun in the Kingdom of the Father.

What should we do then between now and the last day, whose timing only God the Father knows? What does this parable mean for us? I think it reveals the lesson that we should concern ourselves more with the deeper reality of unity, like the farmer, than with superficial uniformity, like the servants. One way that we can do this is by looking at our personal lives, our families, our groups of friends, our parish, and our Church in general and embracing only what is true, good, and beautiful. Like unity – truth, goodness, and beauty come from God and if we can carefully discern what these are and live our lives according to them then we will be responding to the grace and the call to unity and we will truly be unified.

The Catholic Church is one of the finest handmaidens of the gifts of goodness, truth, and beauty. But how can we make our part of the kingdom truly unified by these gifts if we reject them elsewhere? If we consume the toxic weeds of lies, distortions, slander, gossip, and deceits of the world then it will be hard for us to be unified by the often challenging Truth of Catholic teaching. And so we can all uniformly recite the creed but in our hearts not really believe everything we are professing. If we consume the toxic weeds of accepting certain behaviors or lifestyles of the world then we will begin to demand that the Church conform to the world, rather than the world conform to the Church. And so we hear people often challenging the Church to accept as Good the world’s definition of marriage, divorce, contraception, etc. If we consume the toxic weeds of things that are ugly – praising architecture, music, artwork, or prose that lacks any objective standard, depth of meaning, or historical continuity – then it will be hard for us to accept true Beauty in the Church and we become satisfied with lower forms of architecture, music, artwork, or prose that take away our Catholic identity.

The devil wants us to be concerned merely with uniformity – as long as we busy ourselves with saying the same things or looking the same way then to him we’re all right, because we’ll be distracted from the deeper values that affect true Christian unity. The devil wants us to uniformly sell the farm on trivial things. To combat this, we need to help each other discern what is really True, Good, and Beautiful in every area of our lives and only accept those things rather than their distortions. In our world, sometimes it is hard to discern the difference between the wheat and the weeds. But the more we tell the truth, choose and do good works and value what is beautiful deep-down, the easier it will be to discern them and be united by them.

We have to let ourselves be formed by them. When you commit yourself to no more white-lies at work or to only telling the truth to your spouse then you become a truthful person and the truths the Church professes become more acceptable. When you commit yourself to only acting like a gentleman or a lady when you’re out with your friends or doing good deeds for others on your day off, then goodness becomes part of your lifestyle and the morals that the Church upholds you will want to instill in your family or the world around you. When you read Scripture, spiritual works from faithful authors, or classic novels; watch movies that are well-written and with a positive message; or listen to music of true quality, meaning, and talent, then you can appreciate the beauty of manifestly Catholic architecture, sacred hymns, religious artwork, and quality appointments and vestments – even in a small country parish.

Be formed by what is True and you will be truthful. Be formed by what is Good and you will be good. Be formed by what is Beautiful and you will be beautiful. Accept only these and your family, your circle of friends, your workplace, and our parish will in turn be True, Good, and Beautiful. And we will be truly Unified by God. Yes, the false, evil, and ugly will grow up right along with us. But if we concentrate on forming ourselves for true inner unity rather than be distracted by mere superficial uniformity then we will have nothing to fear. We will come to full stature in Christ. We will become the acceptable sacrifice in his hands, for the praise and glory of his name, for our good and the good of all his Church.

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