Wednesday, November 23, 2016

The Lie of Ostentation

Advent is on its way, and we ought to remember that the season of Advent is a little Lent. It must have a penitential character in order to clear out the dead wood from our lives and thus open ourselves to continually receive Christ anew. Far from Christmas decorations going up, it is perhaps more fitting that existing clutter be taken down so that the Christmas decorations may more properly take their place nearer to the great Feast of the Nativity.

In the sixth chapter of St Matthew's Gospel, we read of Our Lord's injunction against ostentation and empty practice. There are those Persons of Importance who give alms just so that people can see them give alms. Yes, that does indeed inspire other people to give alms, but not in the right way. These Persons of Importance like to say long prayers mainly because they want to be seen to be great prayers. Yes, it encourages others to say long prayers, but not in the right way. These Persons of Importance like to make a show of their fasting and their suffering so that others may think them dreadfully humble and terribly noble in their suffering. Yes, it encourages others into self-abnegation and patience, but not in the right way.

Our Lord is clear that ostentatious "piety" is more damaging to the community than the real thing. If a Pharisee shows people who to reverence God because he wants people to think him holy, then the fact is that these folk will only do so out of deference or toadying up to him rather than any honest devotion to God. To give alms just because a Person of Importance gives alms, to pray just because a Person of Importance prays, to fast because a Person of Importance fasts demonstrates a mild form of idolatry which, if unchecked, can blow into full idolatry. These folk need to give alms, pray, and fast because the One of Greatest Importance wants them to, and wants them to want Him for Who He Is. Their Salvation lies in His hands and not in their following of certain practices which have no piety in themselves.

Of course, we all have people whom we admire, yet the Holy Saints always want us to look where they are pointing rather than to look directly at them. Some of them indeed wore the gorgeous ropes of Popes, Pontiffs and Prelates, but they did not cling to them and wore them only in their duty as representing the authority of Christ. They were not known for their sartorial elegance!

Yet some Persons of Importance, the would-be ascetics ostentatiously dress themselves in rags with a silent cry of "look at me and how humble I am!" This is the Lie of Ostentation: we can (perhaps unwittingly) set ourselves up as idols for others, and thus lead them blindly into a form of idolatry.

The objects of our admiration have to be Ikons, not Idols. We have to be able to see Christ in their lives, Christ motivating them, Christ leading them, Christ shining His light through them. Never once does Christ say, "look at me, I'm humble!" or "look at me, I'm giving alms" or even "look at me, I'm healing someone!" His acts speak for themselves. He isn't ostentatious but speaks the truth and backs His words up with actions.

Our Christmas decorations can lead us into the same trap if we are not careful. All these garish lights point to the genius of the exploiter of the National Grid rather than to the little baby whose life, death, and resurrection saves us all.

This Advent, let us examine ourselves for the things that we do in order to appear as a Person of Importance, and put aside such foolish, vain, and dangerous ideas so that we may learn greater Humility and seek first Our Lord and God so that His light might shine more purely and truly through us drawing the world to Him and the glorious Eternity He has planned for it!

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