23 Oct 2016
30th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C
It was Christmas morning, and John was opening a present from his 5-year old daughter. She had a worried look on her little face as she watched him. He peeled off layer after layer of paper—she had wrapped it well. She put her finger up to her mouth as he opened the box. And out he pulled an art project, made from macaroni noodles. Only, about half the noodles had fallen off and were lying in the box.
“Well, what’s this?” John asked, with a warm smile on his face. “It’s supposed to be a picture of you, daddy,” she said, “But it looked better when I put it in the box. I don’t know what happened.” “Well, that’s okay,” John said, “It’s beautiful the way it is. And do you know why it’s beautiful?” No, she shook her little head. “It’s beautiful,” he said, “because it’s the thought that matters. And what I see here is a beautiful thought from my beautiful daughter. Thank you!” And the Christmas festivities went on.
“It’s not the gift, but the thought that counts.” Henry Van Dyke, a Presbyterian minister and poet in the 19th Century gave us that phrase. And it’s as true today as it was then. It’s the thought that matters behind what we do and what we offer; there’s where the value is—it’s in the spirit with which something is given.
We hear the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. Both of them offered prayers. And they were fine prayers. One was a prayer of thanksgiving, the other was a prayer for mercy and forgiveness. But the spirit behind those prayers was entirely different. As we heard, the Pharisee “spoke the prayer to himself;” he was saying words to hear himself speak. The prayer never made it to God because that wasn’t the “thought” behind the prayer; that wasn’t the intention behind it.
Of course, the tax collector prayed with a different spirit. And he was heard by God—not because he said fewer words or because he lowered himself in appearance—but because the “thought” behind his prayer revealed that he loved God and depended on him. In other words, “The Lord hears the cry of the poor;” those who are “poor in spirit,” who offer him the gift of prayer in a spirit of . . . honesty, dependence, and trust.
And so, every one of us is, potentially, “the poor.” For instance, when we come to Mass, each of us comes here with some disposition. Some of us come here because we adore God, and we just enjoy listening to his words and simply being in his presence. Some of us come here because it’s the weekend, and it’s just what you’re supposed to do on the weekend. And maybe some of us are here because mom and dad said, “Ok, get in the car.”
Those are all reasons to be here. But it’s the “poor in spirit” who have the best experience here. And we can all be the “poor in spirit,” regardless of how we got here. It depends on the spirit—the “thought”—with which we participate in the Mass.
Now, I imagine we all know that coming to Sunday Mass is an obligation. It’s something expected from every member of the faithful, and it’s one of the “precepts of the Church.” We have our “Sunday obligation.” As the Catechism  puts it, “The Church obliges the faithful to take part in the Divine Liturgy on Sundays . . . :” emphasis on the idea of “taking part” in the liturgy. The “taking part” in Mass refers to the “thought” we give to it. Our obligation isn’t just to show up; our obligation is to be thoughtful about what we’re doing.
And this is the same obligation there is the Sacrament of Matrimony. Did you know that husband and wife are obligated to love one another? Most people don’t think of it that way, but that’s what the marriage vows put into place: an obligation. “I promise . . . to be true to you, in good time and in bad,” and so on. “I promise” to love you, whether I feel like it or not. There’s the obligation.
But, for the most part (and hopefully it is for the most part), a married couple isn’t focused on the obligation, because they’re too busy being in love with one another, and being dependent on each other, and trusting one another. And it’s that spirit—it’s that “thought”—which we hope to bring to Mass, and to our relationship with God in general. It’s a beautiful thing to come and take part in the Mass because . . . you want to. It’s a beautiful thing to adore and trust God simply because . . . you do.
“It’s not the gift, but the thought that counts.” We each love and worship God imperfectly. And we love our neighbors and ourselves imperfectly. And that’s okay. What matters is: Are we trying? What kind of thought do we put into it?
Ironically, the most “perfect” thing we can do is to admit our imperfection. If you remember, the Pharisee’s prayer wasn’t a bad prayer; it was, essentially, a prayer of thanks. Even Saint Paul’s letter sounds a lot like it. But the Pharisee was missing the all-important spirit of poverty. The thought behind his words was, essentially: “God, look what I’ve done; aren’t you proud of me!” All he needed to do was to go a little deeper and say, “God, I couldn’t have done it . . . without you.”
No matter what we do in life, no matter how we take part in the Mass, no matter how perfectly or imperfectly we love God and others, what’s important is the thought we put behind it all. Then, someday, when we turn our life over to God in a box, and he sees all the loose macaroni noodles in the bottom, he’ll say, “Well done. Thank you for the beautiful thought.”