Keeping Up Appearances
4/1/2018Supreme Chaplain Archbishop William E. Lori
God’s mercy sets us free from slavery to sin and the prison of our pretensions
IN THE EARLY 1990s, there was a popular British sitcom called Keeping Up Appearances. As the title suggests, the show was all about trying to look better than one really is. The central character, an overbearing middle-class married woman named Hyacinth Bucket, is a caricature of a social climber whose uppermost thought is to win the acceptance of those she considers socially superior. Insisting that her pedestrian last name, Bucket, be pronounced “Bouquet,” Hyacinth does her best to conceal her humble roots — only to be embarrassingly foiled by her earthy relatives who inevitably show up at the wrong time and place. For devotees of British humor, Hyacinth’s antics are invariably hilarious.
The beauty of this sitcom is that in laughing at Hyacinth we also laugh at ourselves. It may not be our conscious goal to impress the local gentry, but in one way or another, all of us like to keep up appearances. We, too, may wish for people to think of us as more talented, prosperous, successful, generous, humble or virtuous than we are. We seek to hide our weaknesses. We gloss over the disparity between our public and private selves, especially those inward thoughts, words and deeds that do not match our public image.
Embedded in this false image is an inept snobbery. Like Hyacinth, we may begin to believe the myths we have fabricated about ourselves. We may imagine ourselves to be superior to members of our family, our co-workers, friends and acquaintances. Usually, we fool no one — least of all, God.
This Easter season is an opportune time to examine our consciences, allow the Holy Spirit to reveal our true selves to us, and receive God’s mercy.
TRAPPED BY FEAR
A false self-image is flimsier than gauze, but it often acts as a barrier, a set of heavy locked doors that prevent others from entering and enjoying real friendship and communion with us.
It also functions like a prison. We are trapped inside this false image, alienated by fear of what others might think of us. Worse still, this false self-image keeps God at bay as well. It’s our way of saying that we’re not created in God’s image but in our own; we choose our aspirations over his gifts. Living in this self-made prison, we find authentic peace of mind and heart in short supply. We live in fear and anxiety that we will fail, that we will be humiliated, that we will lose our standing.
With this in mind, Holy Week and Easter constitute a moment of truth. On the first Easter Sunday evening, the risen Lord Jesus passed through the locked doors of the Upper Room. There he appeared in his glorified humanity to the fearful Apostles. The Lord did not undertake to explain to these, his closest followers, exactly what had transpired the past three days of his passion, death and resurrection. Instead, he said to them, “Peace be with you. … Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained” (Jn 20:21-23).
Thus the Lord takes his followers to the heart of the mystery: God’s Son became one of us so that he could die on the cross and rise from the dead for the forgiveness of sins, defeating sin and death by the power of divine mercy. By bequeathing the Holy Spirit, Jesus passes this power over sin to his disciples so that it might reach all of us through the sacrament of reconciliation. For, as Jesus said of the promised Holy Spirit, “When he comes he will convict the world in regard to sin and righteousness and condemnation” (Jn 16:8).
FREED BY MERCY
The Sunday after Easter is known as Divine Mercy Sunday. It is a day when the Church reads the aforementioned Gospel account of Jesus’ appearance to the disciples on Easter Sunday. In parishes throughout the world and at places of pilgrimage like the Saint John Paul II National Shrine in Washington, D.C., Catholics gather on this day for Mass, the Divine Mercy Chaplet and the sacrament of reconciliation. It is a sacred moment of truth when we allow the risen Lord to pass through the locked door of our fearful hearts, to gaze at us with the eyes of mercy and to reveal us to ourselves.
The examination of our consciences and the confession of our sins unmask our self-righteousness and the pretensions of our hearts. In the words of absolution, through the power of the Holy Spirit, the priest — acting in the person of Christ — forgives our sins and frees us from our self-made prisons. As the Spirit of the risen Lord descends upon us and cleanses our souls, we rise from the death of sin and begin to experience a new freedom to follow Christ. Our relationship with the Church is renewed, and we receive that peace the world cannot give (cf. Jn 14:27).
The first principle of the Knights of Columbus is charity expressed in service to others, especially the vulnerable and those in need. Charity is not merely an external action, but rather flows from hearts purified by the power of God’s merciful love. How important it is, then, that we embrace the gifts of the Easter season, leaving our false images behind and humbly turning to the Lord.