Sunday, 1 August 2010

18th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C, Shaftesbury

Eccles 1:-2:23; Col 3:1-11; Lk 12:13-21
Today’s readings warn us of the need to place our hope in the things of heaven, not of the passing things of this world. I’d like to illustrate this point by referring to the life of St Bernadette and a promise made to her by Our Lady.

Two weeks ago I was in Lourdes, a site that attracts 6 millions pilgrims a year, and I was reminded while I was there of the promise made to the little girl Bernadette when Our Lady appeared to her. Our Lady said, “I do not promise to make you happy in this world, but in the next” –to repeat: not happy in this world, but in heaven.
And, thinking of that promise, I wondered what my own response would have been if Our Lady had said such a thing to me. I think I’d have wanted to say something like, “Thanks for the offer of happiness in heaven, but, could I perhaps have a little bit of happiness in this world too? I was rather set on a cosy little life in Shaftesbury, with the odd glass of red wine. OK?”
But such a response from me would be rooted in the fact that I have an insufficient grasp of the reality of heaven –I know of it, but it is not a thought sufficiently in my continual daily consciousness.

St Bernadette, however, saw more than I have seen. She saw the beauty of heaven, because she saw the beauty of heaven reflected in the beauty of the vision of Our Lady that she saw. This vision of the wonder of heaven enabled her to understand, in a way that is difficult for the rest of us, to understand at an experiential level how wonderful heaven is and how worth while it is to put aside all things in the pursuit of it. We need to strive to see things as clearly as she did, with the thought of the promise of heaven.

Let us think for a moment of that rich man in the Gospel parable. He was saving for tomorrow. In our debt-ridden present economic climate, saving for tomorrow might seem like a prudent, sensible, virtuous thing to do. But there is a selfish way to save, and an unselfish way to save. Part of what can help us see the difference is whether we can look at our actions and see them as laying up more merit for ourselves in heaven than they do for us on earth. And, if we live in the HOPE of heaven then we learn to almost instinctively judge our deeds in the light of heaven.

The promise of heaven is a measure that passes judgement, either positive or negative, on everything we do. Is what I am doing gaining me treasure in heaven, or losing it?
To come back to the promise St Bernadette received from Our Lady, St Bernadette was quite clear, as she said many times[1], that this promise of happiness in heaven was only conditional on her being good on earth. And, at its most basic level, this is true of each of us too:

In our second reading from Colossians we were reminded that, as baptised Christians, we “have been brought back to life in Christ”(Col 3:1), but if this is to mean something then we must have our action oriented towards heaven: “look for the things of heaven”, St Paul added.
Our first reading, with its powerful message from the preacher Quoheleth (Ecclesiates), spoke of the vanity of so much of the activity we pursue in this world: “vanity of vanities, all is vanity... what does a man gain for all his toil under the sun”(Ecc 1:2ff).
What does a man gain for his toil? It depends what toil he is doing, and who he is doing it for, and this was the point made by the Lord in the Gospel. The rich man selfishly toiling for himself, laying up treasure in his barn –what is this worth if he dies and he has not laid up “treasure for himself”(Lk 12:21) in heaven, in the sight of God?

Every deed we do, we need to ask, Is this laying up treasure for myself in heaven?
If my action motivated entirely by the thought of happiness in this world as if there was no world to come? Or, does my faith in the world to come help me detach myself from short-term self-seeking because I have the joy of living in hope of the eternal future: “you must look for the things of heaven, where Christ is”(Col 3:2). If we had such faith and hope we’d be content to have a promise like, “I do not promise to make you happy in this world, but in the next”.

[1] Rene Laurentin, Bernadette Speaks (Boston: Pauline Books and Media, 2000), p.602.

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