VANITY OF VANITIES
Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Scriptural Readings: Ecclesiastes 1:2, 2:21-23; Psalm 90:3-4, 5-6, 12-13, 14, 17; Colossians 3:1-5, 9-11; Luke 12:13-21
My dear encountered couples:
Three years ago, I attended the 40h year reunion of my ordination class. At the closing Mass, one of our classmates gave a thoughtful homily. He began with a humorous reflection. He noted that when we had our first class reunion, we talked about our pastors. At the next reunion the focus changed - we talked about our bishops. This time - being in our late fifties - we talked about our doctors!
My dear friends: The years go by so fast – very rapidly, right? Today's Psalm describes our lives as a passing dream - a flower that unfolds in the morning, but by evening wilts and fades. The same Psalm says that seventy is the sum of a man's years - or eighty if he is strong. That seems about right.
But even though our lives pass swiftly, the psalmist does not encourage resignation. He tells us to “number our days aright,” to live each day to the full, to pursue things that matter. That is challenge today. We live in a world of illusion - created by mass media. They exaggerate trivial things and trivialize great things - or simply ignore them.
Let me give an example. On June 3, 2007, armed gunmen murdered a young priest named Fr. Ragheed Ganni. They first tortured the priest by shooting his arm off and then proceeded to execute him along with three sub-deacons. It happened in the city of Mosul right after the Iraqi priest and the subdeacons had offered Sunday Mass.
This dramatic event speaks volumes about how civil strife in Iraq is affecting the country's large Christian community. But the media had no time to report the murder of Fr. Ganni. They had more compelling news that week. They gave viewers a minute by minute report on an actress named Lindsay Lohan.
This might appear amusing, but it illustrates the world of illusion that surrounds us. The sad part is that the media not only report what is happening; they create the reality we live in. As the late Pope John Paul II observed, “If it doesn't happen on television, it doesn't happen.”
The media have a powerful impact on all of us, especially on young people. For instance, a 2004 study on “body image and media” interviewed 10,000 women in the U.S., Canada, Britain, China and Brazil. Only two percent of the women considered themselves beautiful. And it wasn't just modesty. The media have set an impossible standard of beauty. No matter how lovely a young lady is, she feels she does not measure up.
You know, it used to be that the most popular gift for a girl graduating from high school was a car or a vacation. Today the most popular gift for a high school graduate is cosmetic surgery. They are willing to submit to painful and expensive procedures because they do not think they are naturally beautiful.
Don’t get me wrong, folks. Cosmetic surgery is not a sin. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with altering one’s appearance. But there is something radically wrong when a person cannot recognize their own God-given beauty. I don't believe that only one in fifty women is beautiful. It is just the opposite. The problem is that the media, especially television has created a false standard of beauty.
And they do it in order to sell their products. You will only buy something if you feel dissatisfied with what you've got, right? There is an organization called Teenage Research Unlimited. This organization has determined that one in every four commercials pertain to physical attractiveness - and that the average American child sees thousands of commercials each year. These commercials slowly build an illusion in the minds of young people and not so young people.
What does our first reading today say? “Vanity of vanities!” Vanity means illusion - appearances designed to deceive. Today's media manufacture illusion - and it does terrible damage. The vanity of physical appearance affects us all. However, as a person gets older it becomes harder to maintain the vanity of looks. Sooner or later the law of gravity sets in and the different parts of the body show its effect.
Unfortunately, as the vanity of looks loses its hold, another vanity can take over. Jesus talks about it in today’s Gospel. A man can start to think that wealth will give him security: a piece of real estate, an IRA, social security, a retirement plan, or an investment portfolio. These things are not bad in themselves, but they can make a man think he has a hedge, a barricade around him – that doesn’t need to let anyone in, not even God. To such a man Jesus says, “You fool! This very night your life will be demanded of you.”
None of us knows our moment of death. At my class reunion, we prayed for four members who had died. My grandmother used to say, “the young may die; the old must die.” And when that moment comes, the illusions will fall away and we will see ourselves as we are.
So, now is the right time to ask what one is living for. Am I living for anything? Where do my standards come from? Have I asked what beauty is? Or would I rather simply absorb whatever the media offer?
Jesus wants to free us from vanity so we can live for great things. He offers a wellspring so we can recognize beauty and heroism. As today's Psalm says, “Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain wisdom of heart.”