One great danger of modern times is the development of the cult of personality. While some will immediately think of popular religious figures, others may think of someone like David Koresh, who was a destructive figure, and others may name more popular televangelists who promote themselves more than they do the Gospel. However there are others: political figures and social activists, entertainment icons, talk show hosts and populist academicians, among others. While the phenomenon of idolizing popular figures is not unique, modern media sources have made it much easier to fall into that trap.
At the time of Jesus there was a similar tendency to exaggerate the importance of certain religious figures within Jewish society. The people recognized the importance of the extensive learning of the rabbis, and the religious significance of the priests and Levites, and treated them with a deference that bordered the extreme. Over time, this exaggeration gave rise to periods of clericalism within the Church.
Jesus addresses this problem in the Gospel. While Jesus often criticizes the learned and the wise, especially the Pharisees and the Scribes, he is not an anti- intellectual nor is he a plebeian in the classical sense. From Jesus we get a sense that while one respects the office that a person holds, it is the office that makes the man, and not the man that makes the office.
The principal issue at stake is two-fold. Of primary concern is replacing God with human idols. Perhaps there is a reason why in English we use two distinct religious terms to refer to these extreme popular figures: idol (a false god) and icon, (a prayerful artistic rendering of God, the Virgin, and the saints). We run the risk of worshipping and attempting to emulate fragile, sinful, and otherwise normal human beings. They use their gifts and talents, not for the greater honor and glory of God, but for their own aggrandizement. It is increasingly rare that popular figures are seen as men and women of faith exercising humility for their talents. Often when they are, they are roundly mocked for their stance.
The second danger is the diminishing of our own value, experience and humanity. When we idolize others we diminish our own self-worth. Yes, there is a proper deference that we give to others because of their learning, their talents or their heroic virtues, but it does not mean that we then diminish our own value which was created in God’s image. When we try to emulate them, or place all of our trust in them and their opinions or insights, we not only lose objectivity, we disvalue our own learning, insights and potential.
It is interesting that while this teaching of Jesus is clearly expressed in the Gospel, the remaining New Testament works do not reject titles of respect and honor for the disciples. Clearly the Church from its earliest days interpreted this teaching of Jesus as a warning, not so much of the titles in and of themselves, but of the dangers of the self-importance that such titles often bestow upon those who receive them. The Christian is called to genuine humility, to recognize that God is the source of all that we have and are, and that each of us stands before God as the individual person he called us to be. Both Job and St. Paul reminds us that we come into the world with nothing and we take nothing with us when we go.
Let us turn from our idols and instead recognize the work of God in the world.
Nov. 12 – We must prudently use the oil we have been given
Olive oil in various forms graces virtually every kitchen in America. While it was not the case even 30 years ago, we have developed a cultural love for olive oil and many different kinds of oil as well. Not only do we use oil in preparing and enhancing our food, we use it as a body lotion, and even as fuel for cooking or igniting a fire.
Of course, this is not new. The ancient world used oil – and in the Middle East almost exclusively olive oil – for all of these functions and more.
In the Church, olive oil is used in the dispensation of several of the Sacraments. We are anointed with olive oil twice at Baptism and again at Confirmation. We are anointed with olive oil in the Sacrament of the Sick. Priests are anointed with olive oil on their hands at ordination and bishops are anointed on their heads. Each of these oils – the Oil of Catechumens, Sacred Chrism and Oil of the Sick – includes different distinctive spices offering very different aromas. All of the oil used in a diocese in a particular year, are blessed by the bishop at the Chrism Mass during Holy Week.
This Sunday we hear a parable by Jesus about 10 virgins awaiting the arrival of the bridegroom. Not knowing when he would come, five of them used their oil sparingly and brought more with them. The other five squandered what they had and ran short, so they were unprepared for the bridegroom’s arrival. As the first five were hesitant to share their spare oils, the foolish ones had to go off to find oil and missed the arrival of the bridegroom. When they tried to enter the banquet they were denied entrance, while the first five entered with the bridegroom.
It would seem that there are very clear sacramental allusions in this parable. The use of oil as a sacramental sign began even during the ministry of Jesus. He sent the 72 ahead of him with the instructions to anoint the sick. In his Epistle, St. James instructed the Church to anoint the sick with oil to bring them healing and the strength of the Holy Spirit.
Oil – a simple and ubiquitous substance – is transformed from its mundane use to a sacred use through the power of the Holy Spirit acting in and through the bishop, the successor to the apostles. This oil is used, not foolishly, but with the clear and specific intention and purpose of transforming the one being anointed.
In Baptism, we are transformed into a child of God and made ready to participate fully in the Paschal Mystery and the life of the Church. In Confirmation we are transformed by the Holy Spirit and infused with the Gifts of the Spirit to make us a new creation in Christ. In priesthood ordination one who is already ordained as a deacon is now set aside to become alter Christos, standing before the assembly as the minster of the Sacraments. A priest to be ordained a bishop is transformed into a successor of the apostles, sharing in the fullness of the priesthood of Jesus Christ. In the anointing of the sick we are healed of our weakness, that weakness that comes from sin, and brought healing, strength and consolation. At the end of our lives, we are prepared to share in the life we are gifted with at Baptism.
We have been given our share of the oil and are called to use that oil wisely. The bridegroom, Jesus Christ, will demand of us an accounting of the oil that he has given to us. We can either squander that oil by ignoring the life of faith, therefore wasting the oil on life in the world, or we can use that oil to enlighten our lives and the lives of those around us by living a life of faith.
Father Garry Koch is pastor of St. Benedict Parish, Holmdel.[[In-content Ad]]