For more reflections on the Basilica Hymns of each season, purchase Perpetual Jubilee: Meditations on the Chaldean Liturgical Year on Amazon.com.
Much of the Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament comes to us in the form of a tirade against the misery of this passing world. The Book of Ecclesiastes begins, “Vanity of vanities, vanity of vanities! All things are vanity! What profit has man from all the labor which he toils at under the sun?” The cry of the prophet, so full of vigor and emotion, can be used as a kind of tuning-fork against our own souls: what is our reaction when we hear his cry? What is our response when someone questions the value of “all things?” Is this prophecy another expression of the cynicism we discussed last week?
The spiritual atmosphere of the Bible, and therefore of the Church, is a refined mixture of varying attitudes toward this world and life within it. On the one hand, we have the certainty that this world, as it is created by God, is “very good,” and is declared to be so by its Creator in the book of Genesis. On the other hand, we have the passage above and dozens of others seeming to question the very value of this world. Even Christ himself shows such a refined approach to this world, using, on the one hand, so many examples drawn from nature and telling us to “look at the birds of the sky” (Matthew 6:26), and only a few verses before commanding, on the other hand, that we “store up treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor decay destroys, nor thieves break in and steal.” (Matthew 6:20)
The key to understanding this, the ratio behind the refinement, is the concept of “profit.” It is true that this world is good and beautiful, that it is in place for our enjoyment and delight in the Creator, but it is not something beyond us. On the contrary, the Basilica Hymn of the Fourth Sunday of Lent discusses how it is somehow contained within us: not only are we a part of it, it is a part of us. Gaining it, therefore, is to gain nothing more than we already have. Indeed, Christ even asks, “What profit is it for a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?” (Matthew 16:26). The whole world is worth exactly what we are, and certainly not more, and so to gain it and all its pleasures is to retain our net worth, but to make no profit at all.
It is the human drive to find something more, something more real, more valuable, more wonderful that makes us desire and that makes us human. This need is confused when it thinks that this “more” is to be found in this world, and disappointed when it looks there and does not find it. “More” is found in Christ himself, the union of God and man and of heaven and earth, who came that we may “have life, and have it more abundantly.” (John 10:10)
In the eighteenth chapter of the Gospel of Luke, we are given two paradigms for our relationship with God, one good and one bad: “Two people went up to the temple area to pray; one was a Pharisee and the other was a tax collector. The Pharisee took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself, ‘O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity – greedy, dishonest, adulterous – or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.’ But the tax collector stood off at a distance and would not even raise his eyes to heaven but beat his breast and prayed, ‘O God, be merciful to me a sinner.’” (Luke 18:10-13)
After having realized the emptiness of this world, it would seem that the natural thing to do would be to look to the world beyond, but surprisingly it is not so simple. It is the Pharisee who faces “up,” presumably toward heaven, and the tax collector who “would not even raise his eyes to heaven.” Christ condemns the attitude of the Pharisee as arrogant and inappropriate before God, and praises the spirit of the tax collector. Where should we be facing? Is it enough to be simply unsatisfied with this world and want heaven? Is heaven something we can steal, a palace we can storm, simply with the force of our desire and feeling of deserving? Christ’s answer is no, and this answer points us to another reality in addition to the “vanity” of this world: the reality of sin. Factoring sin into this equation we realize that things are much worse than we thought: not only must we look beyond this world to find fulfillment, we must look beyond ourselves as well, toward Christ and his forgiveness. Not only are we empty without the higher reality of heaven, we are wounded and sick and cannot even enjoy the partial pleasures of this world without his mercy.
Even without the reality of sin, placing our hopes upon this world is frustrating and ultimately empty. But when sin sneaks in, all the more must we reach out to what is beyond this world – to the One who is beyond this world – not only for fulfillment, but even for healing and forgiveness. The Basilica Hymn of the Second Sunday of Summer summarizes these ideas succinctly and powerfully in the form of a prayer to the Lord, remembering how little profit there is in this world, recalling its end and the Day of Judgment, and expressing the attitude of the tax collector who was made a model for all of us:
O Lord, I have neither profited from this present life, through the multitude of my sins, nor from eternal life, through those faults that are mightier than I. In shamefacedness do I stand on the day of judgment, as I tremble and groan forever, without escape. I call your mercies to come to my aid, O Lord, that on the day of your coming, you may forgive my sins, and have mercy on me!