Friday, September 28, 2012

The Sign of the Son of Man, Part 2


Dear Parish Faithful,

I wrote earlier of living by and under the “sign” of the Cross, and practically about how we make the sign of the Cross over ourselves – a practice which clearly goes back to the ancient Church.  We belong to Christ – the crucified Lord of Glory.  However, we need to maintain a certain vigilance, because there are other “signs” competing for our loyalty – and even for our time, talent and treasure.  Although I admittedly do not encounter this much in my life today – though I believe a daily horoscope can still  be found in the newspaper - you may perhaps find yourself answering the question one day:  “What is your sign?” or “What sign are you under?”   This is all about the strange world of astrology, still a lucrative – if not ludicrous – enterprise in today’s sophisticated and highly-technological world.  (Astrology affirms my dreary conviction that people will believe in anything!).  Basically limited to vague and affirmative predictions concerning  romantic relationships and financial speculation  - at least on the popular level - the claim is made that your birthday determines the Zodiac sign under which you live and which has some mysterious way of determining your personality and your destiny.  This was popular in the time of the early Church, even among emperors and highly-placed officials, and has retained its hold to this day.  Many of the Church Fathers contributed devastating critiques of the claims of astrologers that are still effective to this day.  (There is an old joke that I am tempted to share here:  A person came to Confession and acknowledged to the priest that he periodically checks his astrology chart.  And the priest responded: “ Oh, and what does it say?”)    Referring to the bizarre world of astrological signs here is simply to point out one of many examples of the concept of a “sign” as a powerful and potent “symbol/representation” of an underlying reality to which human beings will devote themselves - often with heart, soul, mind and strength.  To place oneself under the sign of the Cross is to offer one’s heart, soul, mind and strength to God in a consciously  Christocentric manner.  (MK. 12:30)

The more marginalized signs, like those of the zodiac, are assumedly easy for Christians to ignore.  But the one pervasive “sign” that impinges upon everyone and which demands our attention is none other than: $$$!    The “dollar sign,” or, as we may say, the “almighty dollar” is an integral part of our lives.  For many, it “makes the world go ‘round.”  Questions and concerns about money loom large in our lives. However, with a reeling economy, we should be deeply sympathetic to all persons who have lost their jobs and who are suffering great anxiety concerning the future of their families. Many well-intentioned and hard working people find themselves facing financial hardships that are determined by factors well beyond their control.  Admittedly, it is difficult to reflect upon “ultimate questions” of God and salvation when one is uncertain about the most primary – if not primal – needs of food, shelter and clothing.  When this reaches the point of genuine hunger for one’s “daily bread” then the world is facing a crisis that is both economic and moral.  Wretched and pervasive poverty is not just God’s problem (“Why and how does God allow this to happen?”); but also our problem (Why and how do fellow human beings allow this to happen?”). This should awaken a sense of sympathy, compassion and support from those who are blessed with ample resources.  As St. John Chrysostom said:  “What you do for the poor and to the sick and to prisoners you do Christ.”  That is perhaps one crucial dimension of the place of money in our lives.

But we know that the “$” can awaken a myriad of enticements and temptations that can tightly grip the heart, soul, mind and strength of just about anyone who consciously or unconsciously succumbs to its lure.  And then the “$” becomes the “sign” that one lives by or under.  This “passion” can exist under a legion of expressions:  acquisitiveness, greed, conspicuous consumption, consumerism, materialism, avarice, etc.  We can begin to measure the meaning of life, or that allusive “pursuit of happiness” based upon material wealth – and judge others accordingly –  primarily, if not exclusively.  The quest for the virtues can be eclipsed by our quest to accumulate material wealth as the supreme virtue.  To live under the dollar sign can shrink one’s heart and squeeze the virtues of sympathy and compassion right out of it.  There can be a Scrooge hidden within all of us once the lure of the “$” becomes pervasive.   Jesus understood the nature of this struggle perfectly well: “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and mammon”  (MATT. 6:24).  And the Apostle Paul reinforces this in equally strong language:  “For the love of money is the root of all evils; it is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced their hearts with many pangs” (I TIM. 6:10).  We are thus meant to use money, but not to serve or love money.   Christian Stewardship is about the vigilant use of time, talent and treasure, embracing these gifts both with a sense of gratitude for the blessings that ultimately derive from God; and an openness to share our treasure beyond our immediate and essential concerns.

We may have the best of intentions to place ourselves under the sign of the Cross, but then somehow drift off and find ourselves under the sign of the dollar –  or under any other sign that is foreign to the meaning of the Cross of Christ.  We are surrounded by endless temptations to shift our loyalties away from Christ to some other “lord” or “god.”  But if the “sign of the Son of Man” is the Cross, then challenging though it may be, this is the sign we want to live by and under as Christians.

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