Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Reflection for 11 February 2009

The Hebrew word adam means human being, and the word adamah means earth or soil – the adam comes from the adamah, the people come from the dirt, get it? That works the same in our language – the word human comes from the same root as humus, or dirt, which of course comes from the same root as humility or humble. Where the first reading tells us, “Remember where you come from, that you are in fact made of the stuff of the earth,” the gospel reinforces that and undercuts our seemingly inevitable tendency to make ourselves out to be more than we are. We don’t like being reminded of our humble origins, that we are made of dust, that we are all going back to dust, so we try to create an identity for ourselves, typically by comparing ourselves to other people, distancing ourselves from what is not as holy, not as pure as we are. Jesus warns that situating uncleanness or impurity outside of ourselves is a dead end, is a cover story for trying to create our own righteousness. You may avoid eating unclean foods, but still be loaded down with hard-heartedness, violence, self-importance, and above all, major blind spots about your own need for the divine mercy. The stuff that comes out of us, rather than the stuff that goes into us, should give us pause. I may want to present myself as a relatively well-educated, more or less competent professional, but the Joker puts it this way in The Dark Knight: “Madness is like gravity – all it takes is a little push.” I know how easily my own capacity for violence or self-aggrandizement can come to the fore, most likely when that image of myself as competent, respectable, in control is under attack. None of us want to be reminded that under all the personas we create (persona means “mask,” by the way), we’re made of dirt and we’re naked. On my own steam, I’m nothing – I cannot create a mask big enough to undo my screwiness, my self-centeredness, and my own finitude. That’s the bad news – we twist ourselves into knots trying to forget our own messiness, trying to forge personas that we can take pride in. The good news is that we don’t have to do any of that stuff. Who we really are is already established before we can do anything about it. Yes, I come from dust and I’m returning to dust, but I’m made a little less than the angels, and my name is written in heaven. There is nothing for me to boast about, because I had nothing to do with it, but that is fundamentally the only identity that can give me any satisfaction – who I am is who I am in God, and nothing more. Even if I could create myself like that, it’s all disappearing – how much stuff I know, how tight my waistline is, how nice my hair looks (ha), how much respect I can get out of other people.

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