Friday, November 1, 2013

Come down the Tree of Narcissism; Go up the Tree of Salvation

Thirty First Ordinary Sunday Year C

No one denies the vast benefits of Facebook, Twitter, and the likes in deriving and disseminating all sorts of information and staying connected at an instance. I have personally benefited from the use of social networking and see its value in terms of the new evangelisation and the ‘new media’ which the last three Popes have frequently spoken of and demonstrated through their own savvy use of technology in the service of the gospel. I state all these knowing that what I have to say next may sound holier-than-thou and self-righteous. But here it is: the increase in the use of social media is indicative of the relentless rise of narcissism in our culture. As some social commentators have noted, narcissism has reached epidemic levels. We’re on constant display. The raunchy, goofy, poignant, sexy or drunken self-portrait has been a common sight since phone camera met social media. Every word we say can be posted. Everything we do can become an instant YouTube video. Every mistake we make and every race we win is a public affair.

Narcissism means having an inflated or grandiose sense of self. A narcissist thinks she is special, unique, and entitled to better treatment than others. The term ‘narcissism’ comes from the Greek myth of Narcissus, a handsome Greek youth who rejected the desperate advances of the nymph Echo. These advances eventually led Narcissus to fall in love with his own reflection in a pool of water. Unable to consummate his love, Narcissus lay gazing enraptured into the pool, hour after hour, and finally changed into a flower that bears his name, the narcissus. Despite its alluring promises, the truth is that narcissism kills.

Narcissism distorts our vision of humanity. We have been made in the image and likeness of God in order that we may come to know Him, love Him, serve Him and be with Him in beatific union for eternity. Yet, narcissism has caused us to fall in love with our own image, a false idol.  Narcissism in itself becomes a springboard for materialism and greed. We covet things of this world, rather than recognise that they are meant for the common good and for God.  We buy, we hoard, and start all over again.  Focusing narrowly on our own inner thoughts, experiences, feelings and felt needs, we ultimately cut ourselves off from the unfamiliar.  Wrapping ourselves in a cocoon of inwardness, we feel cozy in or own personal cult of self worship. Ultimately, we suffer from an addiction to ourselves. 

Someone once described this modern narcissistic culture by using this analogy – in the past, someone would climb a mountain in order to see the world. But now, people would climb the mountain in order for the world to see them – literally screaming for attention: ‘Look at me!’ Today, we are presented not with a story of a man climbing a mountain but a story of one who climbs a sycamore tree. Perched in its branches we find our man, Zacchaeus. So why was Zacchaeus up the tree? You can say that Zacchaeus was old school. He was not up the tree as a sort of personal announcement to the large crowds gathered there (an ancient form of social media, I guees), ‘Look at me!’ He was there because he was curious. Mystery had drawn him to the crowd and ultimately led him to climb that tree. Jesus was passing through Jericho that day, and many people were crowded around him as he walked through the city.

The curiosity of Zacchaeus, his thirst and desire to see Jesus reveals a powerful truth - God cannot be found by looking within yourself, your heart, your feelings and your experiences.  His Word is not the same as some inner voice.  His presence is not some warm feeling in the depths of your heart or the fluttering of butterflies in your belly.  Our God is a God who hides Himself where He may be found with certainty.  He hides himself in the mystery of the Incarnation – in the person of Jesus Christ.

Now, we could spend a lot more time discussing why Zacchaeus climbed up in the sycamore tree. We could debate—and many commentators have—exactly how much Zacchaeus knew about Jesus before he climbed the tree. We could speak about how impressed we are at the ingenuity and creative quick thinking of Zacchaeus or wonder whether we might have done the same thing. All these discussions may be fascinating but it’s really losing sight of the forest for the trees (or at least one tree)! The lesson of that tree really isn’t about Zacchaeus nearly as much as it is about Jesus. That tree is where Jesus came to save a sinner. Zacchaeus receives more than he bargains for as Jesus will summon Zacchaeus from his perch atop the Sycamore and invite himself to dine at the reviled tax collector’s home. His encounter with Jesus would change everything. He would ultimately find liberation from his narcissistic obsession with wealth. Jesus taught him to look beyond himself and his goods.

Last week, I had the opportunity to share with you the profound connection between the liturgy and the virtue of humility. Today’s story illustrates how the liturgy can save us from ourselves – Good liturgy puts the brakes on narcissism. Notice that we are bombarded throughout the week with secular ‘liturgies’ (social media, rituals of affirmation we receive at home, at work or in school) that guide our loves and desires towards a ‘me, me, me’ kingdom, rather than God’s kingdom. It’s a self-focused kingdom: a kingdom that loves me and only me. But liturgy protects us form simply making worship into a self-pleasing act. Church then, is meant to be the place away from it all. The home away from self-display. It’s meant to be the place where the liturgy guides us towards a desire for God’s kingdom, to worship Him and not ourselves. And that is why I have put a stop to the habit of applauding during the mass. It’s not because I’m an old Scrooge, an avowed party-pooper and wet blanket. It is because our applause takes away our focus from what is most significant. Pope Benedict XVI said: “Wherever applause breaks out in the liturgy because of some human achievement, it is a sure sign that the essence of liturgy has totally disappeared and been replaced by a kind of religious entertainment.”

Thus our first priority if we are to affect a reform of our lives and of the life of the Church is the reform of how we celebrate the liturgy. As another priest blogger puts it: ‘Save the Liturgy, Save the World.’ We must be taught again that the Mass is not a what, it is not a human rite which can and should be manipulated so as to express human desires or to promote human goods. The Mass is not another tool to serve a ‘function.’ The Mass is rather the prayer of self-offering of Jesus Christ to His Father for the remission of sins. Our usual complaints often betray our misconceived idea of the liturgy – music must be louder and more ‘happening’, benches and kneelers must be softer, church must be cooler, homilies must be funnier, and services must be shorter. The perduring idea that the liturgy should correspond to my likes and dislikes perpetuates individualism within the liturgy.

Time and time again, the assumption is that the key to drawing back young people to our parishes and churches is simply to make a few style updates to the liturgy that would cater to their contemporary taste – edgier music, more casual services, exciting innovative homilies with lots of lame jokes thrown in at regular intervals, loud bands and concert style rallies, an updated web site that’s awesomely cool. The truth is that these young people have enough of this outside the Church. It would truly be tragic and ironic and ‘boring’ to witness the same old thing when they step into church. But here’s the greater truth, the liturgy is not meant to feed the addiction to self and be another outlet for narcissistic expressions. The liturgy is not meant to please the crowd and be another avenue of entertainment. The liturgy is the Source and Summit of our lives – it is the Father's gift of Himself in Christ to us and, through Christ, our offering of Christ and, with Him, of ourselves – our minds and hearts, our daily lives – to the Father. The truth is that many young people are indeed being drawn back to beautiful traditionally faithful celebrations of the liturgy, because just like Zacchaeus, they sincerely want to see Jesus. They want the real thing, not a performer merely play-acting and attempting to please the crowds.

Today, we are invited to ascend the ‘Tree’, not the sycamore tree that Zacchaeus climbed – the sycamore tree is just type of something far more important. The sycamore tree reminds us of  the Tree of Life, once denied to Adam and Eve when they fell into sin of self-idolatry, narcissism in its most ancient form; the very Tree which now awaits us in the gardens of Paradise. It is the Tree on which our Saviour hung, the Cross, once barren and wintry but now burgeoning with new life, announcing a new springtime of the resurrection. Augustine of Hippo, in his commentary on the Gospel of St Luke, wrote : “The crowd laughs at the lowly, to people walking the way of humility, who leave the wrongs they suffer in God’s hands and do not insist on getting back at their enemies...Say what you like, but for our part, let us climb the sycamore tree and see Jesus. The reason you cannot see Jesus is that you are ashamed to climb the sycamore tree” … the Tree of Life, the Cross of our Redemption and Salvation.

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