Vanity of Vanities

(Homily for Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C)

Bottom line: The media create a world of vanity or illusion: They exaggerate trivial things and trivialize great things. Jesus wants to free us from vanity so we can pursue things that matter.

Recently I attended the 35th year reunion of my ordination class. At the closing Mass, one of our classmates gave a thoughtful homily. He began with a humorous reflection. He noted that when we had our first class reunion, we talked about our pastors. At the next reunion the focus changed - we talked about our bishops. This time - being in our early sixties - we talked about our doctors!

The years do go by rapidly. Today's Psalm describes our lives as a passing dream - a flower that unfolds in the morning, but by evening wilts and fades. The same Psalm says that seventy is the sum of a man's years - or eighty if he is strong. That seems about right.

Even though our lives pass swiftly, the psalmist does not encourage resignation. He tells us to "number our days aright," to live each day to the full, to pursue things that matter. That is challenge today. We live in a world of illusion - created by mass media. They exaggerate trivial things and trivialize great things - or simply ignore them.

Let me give an example. On June 3, 2007, armed gunmen murdered a young priest named Fr. Ragheed Ganni. They first tortured the priest by shooting his arm off and then proceeded to execute him along with three subdeacons (Basman Yousef Daoud, Wadid Hanna and Ghasan Bida Wid). It happened in the city of Mosul right after the Iraqi priest and subdeacons had offered Sunday Mass. This dramatic event speaks volumes about how civil strife in Iraq is affecting the country's large Christian community. But the media had no time to report the murder of Fr. Ganni. They had more compelling news that week. They gave viewers a minute by minute report on a model named Paris Hilton. This might appear amusing, but it illustrates the world of illusion that surrounds us. The sad part is that the media not only report what is happening; they create the reality we live in. As Pope John Paul II observed, "If it doesn't happen on television, it doesn't happen."*

The media have a powerful impact on all of us, especially on young people. A 2004 study on "body image and media" interviewed 10,000 women in the U.S., Canada, Britain, China and Brazil. Only two percent of the women considered themselves beautiful.** It wasn't just modesty. The media have set an impossible standard of beauty. No matter how lovely a young lady is, she feels she does not measure up. It used to be that the most popular gift for a girl graduating from high school was a car or a vacation. Today the most popular gift for a high school graduate is cosmetic surgery. They are willing to submit to painful and expensive procedures because they do not think they are naturally beautiful.

Cosmetic surgery is not a sin. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with altering ones appearance. But there is something radically wrong when a person cannot recognize their own God-given beauty. I don't believe that only one in fifty women is beautiful. It is just the opposite. The problem is that the media, especially television has created a false standard of beauty. They do it to sell their products. You will only buy something if you feel dissatisfied with what you've got. An organization call Teenage Research Unlimited has determined that one in every four commercial pertain to physical attractiveness - and that the average American child sees thousand of commercials each year.*** These commercials slowly build an illusion in the minds of young people - and not so young people. Today's first reading says, "Vanity of vanities!" Vanity means illusion - appearances designed to deceive. Today's media manufacture illusion - and it does terrible damage.

The vanity of physical appearance affects us all. However, as a person gets older it becomes harder to maintain the vanity of looks. Sooner or later the law of gravity sets in and the different parts of the body show its effect. Unfortunately, as the vanity of looks loses its hold, another vanity can take over. Jesus talks about it in the Gospel. A man can start to think that wealth will give him security: a piece of real estate, an IRA, social security, a retirement plan, an investment portfolio. These things aren't bad in themselves, but they can make a man think he has a hedge around him - and that he doesn't need to let anyone in, not even God.**** To such a man Jesus says, "You fool! This very night your life will be demanded of you."

None of us knows our moment of death. At my class reunion, we prayed for five members who had died. My grandmother used to say, "the young may die; the old must die." When that moment comes, the illusions will fall away and we will see ourselves as we are.***** Now is the right time to ask what one is living for. Am I living for anything? Where do my standards come from? Have I asked what beauty is? Or would I rather simply absorb whatever the media offer? Jesus wants to free us from vanity so we can live for great things. He offers a wellspring so we can recognize beauty and heroism. As today's Psalm says, "Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain wisdom of heart."


*Cited by Teresa Tomeo in her essential book, Noise, How Our Media Saturated Culture Dominates Lives and Dismantles Families, p. 154.

**Noise, p. 106.

***Ibid., p. 104-105.

****Once an elderly man started giving away the assets he had carefully built up. Some people criticized him: "Don't you want to leave an inheritance for your children?" they asked. He replied, "I want my children to be sad when I die." This sardonic joke makes a point similar to today's parable of the foolish rich man.

*****Even then one can turn from reality and cling to illusion. That state is called hell. The person who thinks that a merciful God could not allow hell would do well to read C.S. Lewis' The Great Divorce

From Archives (18th Sunday, Year C):

2013: Rich in What Matters to God
2010: This Very Night
2007: Vanity of Vanities
2004: Midsummer Day's Wake-Up
2001: What Matters to God
1998: The Rich Fool and The Wise Poor Man

Other Homilies

Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C

Bulletin (35th Anniversary Reunion, Capital Campaign, Recommended Reading: The Man Who Warned America)


Pictures from Class Reunion

The Martyrs No One Cares About By Michelle Malkin

My bulletin column

St. Mary of the Valley Album

(July 2010)

Bulletin (St. Mary's Parish)

Are these homilies a help to you? Please consider making a donation to St. Mary of the Valley Parish

World Youth Day 2013

(click on the picture to view 40 slides from our WYD experience)

MBC - Mary Bloom Center, Puno, Peru

(new, professional website)

KRA's & SMART Goals (updated June 2013)

A Homilist's Prayer