Masks, Hypocrites, and Saints

All Saints: Oct. 31–Nov. 1, 2009
Rev 7:2-4, 9-14; Ps 24:1-6; 1 John 3:1-3; Matt 5:1-12a

If one of my late grandmothers were here, she would have taken one look at you sitting here in the pews and said, or at least thought, “You’re all a bunch of hypocrites.” Why? What did you do? Well, you’re in church! And she would think that I, as the priest, was the worst one of all! When she was growing up in Michigan in the ’20s and ’30s, she was raised Methodist; and as soon as she had the chance she left it all behind—home, Michigan, church. As my mom was growing up, she regularly heard my grandmother say, “The church is just a bunch of hypocrites.”

My grandmother wasn’t very nice sometimes, was she? And why talk about hypocrisy on All Saints?

Our word “hypocrite” comes directly from the Greek hupocritês, which meant an actor in the theater—someone who played a role that he was not, and maybe even wore a mask. As Jesus used the word, in the original Greek of the New Testament, and as we do today, a hypocrite is someone whose appearance and heart don’t match; someone who says and does things to win the esteem of other people. The hypocrite wants other people to think that he is better than he is; that he does only good actions, when that is not the whole truth; that he is acting only for good motives, like serving God and other people, when really his motives are mixed.

Many people celebrated Halloween yesterday by putting on costumes and masks, dressing up as many different things—but often as ghosts, skeletons, zombies, monsters—something to do with death and rottenness. Hypocrisy is like Halloween, but in reverse. In the Gospel of Matthew [23:26-27], Jesus said, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites. You are like whitewashed tombs, which appear beautiful on the outside, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and every kind of filth. … on the outside you appear righteous, but inside you are filled with hypocrisy and evildoing.” On Halloween, the living put on the mask of death and rottenness; but in hypocrisy, the dead and rotten put on the mask of life and health.

No one likes hypocrisy in others. But perhaps the people who most strongly object to it are teenagers and young adults. They are just getting out from under the authority of their parents and teachers, and they are very ready to point the finger at those who have been telling them what to do, and say, “Look at how you live! You don’t live according to what you tell me to do either! You hypocrite! I am going to be authentic.” And perhaps that young person does live in some consistent, “authentic” way—for a while.

So how is it that this “authentic” young person turns into one more hypocritical not-so-young person? And hypocritical sounds pretty harsh, so let’s say, “inconsistent.” It might be that the young person discovers that authenticity carries consequences. If they are authentically selfish, they find that others disapprove. If they are authentically selfless and generous, they find that they don’t get everything they want. Perhaps one day they realize: “If I appear one way on the outside, while I do something different on the inside, I can have it all! I don’t have to choose!”

Or maybe their inconsistency is born in a different way. Perhaps they discover that it’s hard to live up to their moral ideals. They try, and they fail. And they still do believe in the ideals, and they want others to follow them, including their children. Now, so far so good, right? That’s our condition as sinners. But what makes it inconsistency or hypocrisy is if they not only speak the ideals, but also pretend that they live up to them—and hope that that no one ever finds out the truth.

Does this inconsistency hurt anyone? I think there are two big dangers that come from it. One is that the hypocrite will deceive himself, and come to believe his own propaganda: believing that he really is good and upstanding and even better than other people. This was the state of those who opposed Jesus and shut him out, not letting him heal and strengthen them.

Another danger is that the hypocrite may cause disillusionment and despair in others. It may the angry disillusionment in someone who doesn’t want to follow Jesus’ way and now has an excuse not to. Or it may be the sad disillusionment of someone who was hoping that the stories about Jesus and his promises were true, and now it seems that they are not; and all his hopes fall to the ground.

Enter the saints.

The saints all started somewhere that was far different from where they ended up. I have a book entitled “Saints Behaving Badly” that is a lot of fun, as it details some of the most colorfully sinful pasts of some of the saints. If we scan down its table of contents, we see entries like:

  • St. Matthew, extortionist
  • St. Christopher, servant of the devil
  • St. Pelagia, promiscuous actress
  • St. Moses the Ethiopian, cutthroat and gang leader
  • St. Olga, mass murderer
  • St. Margaret of Cortona, rich man’s mistress
  • St. John of God, gambler and drunkard
  • St. Philip Howard, cynic and negligent husband

But of course not all of their sins were so attention-grabbing; some were much more ordinary sinners, such that we would recognize them as being like us. In fact, no matter who you are, you will find among the saints men and women who are just like you. Some were rich; some were poor; some, middle class. Some were kings and queens; some, lawyers, teachers, doctors, nurses, farmers, soldiers, servants, housewives. As we heard in the first reading, they came from every nation, race, people, and tongue; they came from every continent, every ethnic group, every manner of dress and way of life.

And we can bet that most of them were hypocrites at some point, pretending to be better than they really were. But we know that every one of them, at some early point in their growth in holiness, took off the mask so that they could face who they really were and be honest in God’s sight. And what did they see when they did? They found Jesus looking on them with love and mercy: loving them intensely just as they were; and also loving them too much to let them stay that way. And so we might say that the moment that they took off the mask and looked into Jesus’ eyes is when their story really began.

As we look at the tremendous variety in this great multitude of saints, one thing we can say is that every one of them is holy. Now the funny thing about English is that it sounds like an assertion to say, “a saint is holy.” But that is because our language gets split between the linguistic roots behind “saint, sanctity, sanctification,” and “holy, hallowed, holiness.” In other languages, it is just one word. In Spanish we would be saying, Un santo es santo: a saint is holy.

And what is this holiness? It is first a quality of God himself, three times holy, as we sing in every Mass: “Holy, holy, holy Lord.” And it is something which he gives to other things and people, sanctifying them, making them holy. With the People of Israel under the Old Covenant, this was something largely external. Then Jesus Christ was seen to have a holiness of a higher order, identical to the holiness of God the Father. And in the New and everlasting Covenant, for which he shed his precious blood for you and for all, Christ gives his holiness not just externally but internally. He gives us his Holy Spirit to dwell within us and to change us: not just at the level of the hypocrite’s mask, but in the heart. So that, in the words of today’s psalm, our hands may become sinless, our heart may become clean, our desires may become not for what is vain. It is a holiness that penetrates the heart, to our most secret thoughts and desires and wants and fears.

So why this Feast of All Saints? Nine hundred years ago, St. Bernard of Clairvaux said in a homily:

Why should our praise and glorification, or even the celebration of this feast day, mean anything to the saints? What do they care about earthly honors when their heavenly Father honors them …? … The saints have no need of honor from us; neither does our devotion add the slightest thing to what is theirs. Clearly, if we venerate their memory, it serves us, not them. … I tell you, when I think of them, I feel myself inflamed by a tremendous yearning.

When we look at the saints, we see what we want to become. We certainly see their blessedness in heaven, where they are face to face with God, in the Beatific Vision, and where there is no more death or mourning, wailing or pain, for he has wiped very tear from their eyes [Rev 21:3-4]. But even more than that, I think we see what we want to become. In the lives of the saints, we see what it looks like to love without limits, without pretending or hypocrisy; without hurting, or gossiping, or backstabbing; to love without lust or resentment or lying; without selfishly holding back or holding on. In the lives of the saints we see what it looks like to live out Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount: what it looks like to be clean of heart, poor in spirit, merciful, peacemakers; what it looks like to hunger and thirst for righteousness. We see what it looks like to be patient and kind; faithful, hopeful; strong, wise; afraid of no one, never conquered by temptation; and always walking in the sight of God.

St. John tells us, Beloved, we are God’s children now. Through our baptism, we are little saints. But we are meant for much more. We are meant to grow up into big saints, like the saints we celebrate today; we are meant to become like Christ.

We know what it cost them. How many of the saints were martyrs? And we know that all of them, before their death, had to die little deaths each day, as they had to make those hard, little, internal choices; against temptation and sin; and for being and living in a holy way. We know the cost. But look at the result. Isn’t that what we want to become?

In our world today, we need more than ever to tell the stories of the saints. People like my grandmother need these, to learn that holiness really is possible. We need them, to see and imitate the model of their lives. We need to get to know the saints, to make them our friends. And we need to seek their intercession, to ask God to help us in our journey as we follow in their footsteps.

Six hundred years ago, St. Catherine of Siena said, “If you are what you should be, you will set the whole world on fire.” Is it time to take off the Halloween mask of hypocrisy and step into the light of All Saints? In the words of St. Therese of Lisieux, “You cannot be half a saint. You must be a whole saint or no saint at all.”


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Published in: on November 1, 2009 at 10:01 am  Leave a Comment  
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