Costumes not required.
A couple of years ago I was seated at a table in a diner with some friends, and a couple of nuns walked in and they were seated a few tables away. It was like going back in time: they were dressed in full habit, their hair completely covered with the wimple and veil, yards and layers of black and white material covering every piece of skin but for their faces.
Some of the people at my table took notice of this unusual sight, and one said that it was a shame that most nuns had abandoned that type of dress. “Why do you say that,” I asked, a little defensively, since I myself was not wearing clerical clothes (and usually don’t when I am not in Church or the school or the rectory). “Because,” someone else responded, “the nuns got a lot more respect when they wore their habits, they weren’t like ordinary people, you could tell right away.” A few others in the group agreed, stealing glances at the nuns who seemed to be having a good time over there.
As we were talking a real live bishop walked into the restaurant, red beanie hat and all, and he went right over to the table of nuns and sat down. It was really odd to see them all together at the table, it was like the holy table or something, and most people in the restaurant seemed to be checking them out. I got up to go to the bathroom, and as I walked near their table I admit that I tried to sneak a peak at the bishop, but a waiter got in my way and I couldn’t get a good look. Not that I know that many bishops or anything, actually I don’t know any bishops, but I was curious.
On the way back, I took a good look, and it dawned on me that the bishop was awfully feminine-looking with a rather large chest, and a glance at the nuns revealed that at least one of them appeared to have a fairly heavy beard, and I suddenly realized that it was Halloween weekend. I got back to our table, and the conversation had drifted into a debate about married priests. I thought to myself, should I tell them or not? Nah, I concluded. It would be more fun to let them all think the nuns and bishop were real.
The discussion got even livelier when I asked the group their opinion of women priests. We got into a huge discussion about the role of the priest in the church, and in the middle of it, one of the women in the group got up to go to the bathroom, and another one followed her. A few minutes later there was a shriek and a loud laugh, and the whole restaurant turned in the direction of its source—our companions had discovered the bishop in the ladies room adjusting her costume in the mirror.
It was a good joke for Halloween--which was a few days away--and ironic, to say the least, given the initial comments in our group about how much respect the habit gives the nuns who wear it.
Respect. Religious leadership. Costumes, for Halloween or everyday. That’s the focus and topic of all the readings today. Malachi criticizes religious leaders of his time in the first reading, has God say to them, “You have turned aside from the way…you have caused many to stumble… you have corrupted the covenant of Levi…”. And in the Gospel Jesus has pretty strong words against the priests of his day, Pharisees and scribes: “Their words are bold but their deeds are few…,” he said. “All their works are performed to be seen…they are fond of places of honor…and marks of respect in public…and of being called ‘rabbi’”, which in case you didn’t know it, means ‘O Great One’.
To be perfectly honest, that does sound pretty good, don’t you think, for someone or a whole lot of people to call you, ‘O Great One’ whenever you walk into the room? “‘O Great One’, please take my seat here on the subway,” “‘O Great One’, please let me deal with the Spectrum guy for you?”, “’O Great One’, may I get a latte at Starbucks for you?”
It sounds pretty good to me, but according to Jesus, it seems to be the wrong way to go. Even the title father, which most everyone uses with priests---Jesus says that it shouldn’t be used. “Do not call anyone on earth your father. Only one is your father, the one in heaven.” And I can understand what he’s saying there too, because to be honest, it is a nice title at times and it makes me feel a little special to be called father, but to be honest, I am not your father, I am not anyone’s father for that matter, and many of you have far more fatherly wisdom and love than I ever hope to possess.
It’s a title that goes back to the middle ages, went out of style for a while, and was revived by the Irish in the last century who imported to our country. The Bishop of Rome has the title “pope”, which comes from the Greek ‘papas’ meaning papa or daddy, and even that title seems to go against Jesus’ teaching.
Its about humility, right? It’s about the nature of leadership in the church or in anything as Christians. Jesus is pointing out to us that to be really holy has nothing to do with titles or costumes: to be respected as a Christian has everything to do with the quality and the quantity of your gratitude, and out of that gratitude, your love.
There was a wonderful film some years ago called King of Hearts. It takes place in World War I in a little town in France. The Germans have planted a bomb somewhere in the town and all the townspeople have fled, leaving behind only the “crazy” people in the asylum. A lone British soldier has the task of finding and disarming the bomb, but when he arrives in the town, unbeknownst to him, all the inmates of the asylum have escaped into the town and have put on the abandoned costumes of the townspeople. One becomes a baker, another a hairdresser, an elderly man becomes an altar boy to another guy who becomes a bishop. A bunch of women even take on the roles of ladies of the night. They put on the costumes of the sane people, and turn the town upside down into this strange oasis of peace amidst the insanity of war all around them. When the bomb is disengaged, the warring French and Germans return to the town with their insanity, and the inmates shed their borrowed clothing and voluntarily return to the asylum where real sanity exists. It’s about the costumes we all wear, but more importantly, about what we do, and who we are beneath them.
Halloween is a wonderful time to see the costumes we all wear in truth-filled exaggeration. Last week we were surounded by angels and devils, spidermen and wonderwomen, monsters and bums and presidents and maybe even a saint or two, and if we looked closely, we could see our dreams, our hopes, our nightmares, confusion and fears go walking by. There was a good chance to see a hairy nun or a busty priest, and you might have even been tempted to give them some respect.
I get the usefulness of costumes in our world. It helps allay the confusion at times. You may remember the flash mob that invaded the Best Buy store on 23rd Street a few years ago. Eighty of them dressed in the same blue polo shirts and khaki pants as the employees and just wandered around the store. If someone approached them looking for a Xbox or an iPhone and they knew where it was in the store, they simply directed the customer that way. It freaked out the management so much that they called 911 but the police said they couldn’t arrest someone just for wearing a blue polo shirt and khaki pants. It was a funny joke, and it does say something about the uniforms we need and the uniforms we wear.
I certainly see the value of wearing my own uniform of a priest. It can be helpful to people, but it also can signify lots of other things. And sometimes the uniforms and the costumes can get in the way. It’s easy to dismiss someone because of their uniform, but it can conversely elicit (sometimes) undue honors. And I have to be honest—there are some in the church who, like the Pharisees, believe that the clothes make the man. And sometimes they forget that a priest is essentially a servant, in all humility.
By Christ’s example that’s what priests are meant to be: to be last, not first, to be a brother to each and every one, and a channel of God’s love. The priest is meant to be a servant at-your-service, at the service of the people of God, to lead us in prayer, to be with us in despair, to rejoice with us in our blessings, and above all things to be gratefully humble, humble in the knowledge that God loves him as much--no more--than everyone else, gratefully humble that God expects him to be as Christ-like as everyone else...much like St Paul, whose words of affection and gratitude today are so wonderful to hear, whose humility was so apparent in everything he wrote.
It’s the prescription for every Christian, though, for all of us, not just priests. If we profess to be followers of the love beneath everything, Jesus the Christ, then we must serve one another in all humility. “The greatest among you will be the one who serves all the rest.”
And you know what? Costumes are not necessary.