Tuesday, November 1, 2011

11-10-30: 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time

Thirty First Sunday in Ordinary Time

Malachi 1:14-2:2,8-10 / Psalm 131 / 1 Thessalonians 2:7-9,13 / Matthew 23:1-12

Clothes, especially clothes worn for rites and rituals, can be an outward expression of an interior attitude. That, at least, is what Jesus seems to be saying in today’s gospel. Jesus remarks that the elaborated ritual clothing that the Pharisees wear – their widened phylacteries and lengthened tassels – suggests their desire to be the focus of the religious limelight, the center of everyone’s attention, and their profound lack of humility. For all their widening and lengthening, the Pharisees had nothing on Bishop Edward Slattery of Tulsa, Oklahoma last year when he celebrated the Tridentine Mass at the National Shrine wearing the enormous cappa magna – a scarlet cape with a train of what was supposed not to exceed ten feet – it looked much longer.

No doubt it’s liturgical exaggeration such as this which causes a lot of gleeful mimicking on Halloween every year. In recent years evangelical Christians, among others, have objected to the celebration of Halloween since it has an obvious pagan origin. They forbid their children to don costumes less they somehow emulate the evil of a fictional fiend or invoke the presence of a hellish devil. They may be on to something here. Very few of us are immune to the dictates of dress codes. We dress not only to conform but to impress and even to protest. Costumes – indeed, all clothing – possess a symbolic value. But the costume does not so much invoke another personality as much as evoke those elements of our personality already present and waiting to be acknowledged which, I would argue, is a very good and healthy thing.

The late Steve Jobs, the subject of an intriguing piece by 60 Minutes last week, would wear black turtle necks consistently – and want his employees to do the same. In his younger days, while employed at Atari, Jobs would intentionally not bathe and wear the same clothes each day. His motivations in both instances are unclear, but his biographer, thoroughly intrigued by the fact that Jobs was abandoned at birth by mother and father and adopted, seemed to place his flawed personality as well as his unique creativity to these inauspicious beginnings – there seems to be some mystery to his history, as Cardinal Newman would put it.

I remember as a young boy being addicted to the Superman series on our black and white TV. I would come home from school every day to watch the reruns, hoping they would play that very first episode where Superman’s strange and mysterious origins would be alluded to before he was adopted by the kindly Kents. Although my parents would not tell me of my adoption for another seven years, I somehow knew Superman’s origins and mine were strangely similar, feeling at home in places we didn’t initially belong. Come Halloween I would choose his costume to wear – it fit so well.

Many years later, making a presentation at an adoption conference, I talked about Superman and my affinity for that particular costume. In the audience was a dad with his adopted son who would later tell me that, as a boy, his son would wear his Superman costume all the time. Clothes and costumes are outward signs of interior realities. Though it’s hard to imagine Bishop Slattery, as wonderful a man as I’m sure he is, possibly measuring up to that enormous cappa magna that trailed magnificently, and not so humbly, behind him down the aisle of the National Shrine.

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