Daily Masses of Ordinary Time arrive, and we go barreling into the middle of St. James’s letter to the Catholic world. Kind of a shock to the system.
On sweet Pentecost Sunday, we heard the Lord commend us with these words: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Today God’s Word says to us: You are a puff of smoke that appears briefly and then disappears.
St. James wrote a “tough love” letter. A few years ago, I went through it and picked out fourteen sayings worth keeping in mind, like…
“Consider it all joy when you encounter various trials.”
Or: “Judgment is merciless upon one who has not shown mercy.”
Or: “Pure religion is this: care for orphans and widows, and keep yourself unstained by the world.”
Severe. St. James wrote some severe things to us—altogether true things; eminently helpful things–and severe.
But let’s not forget how St. James begins. He reminds us evanescent puffs of smoke: “The Father of lights, with whom there is no alteration or shadow caused by change, willed to give us birth by the word of truth.”
The idea that we human beings come and go from the stage, like puffs of smoke—that is wisdom in many religions and philosophies. We stare at the ocean, or at the Grand Canyon, or Mount Kilimanjaro, or Niagara Falls, and we think to ourselves:
“Gosh, I am small, in the grand scheme. Maybe I really don’t need to get quite so upset when my DVR malfunctions. Or when people in front of me drive slower than I would want them to.”
But this very same wisdom, when meditated upon by a baptized Christian, has a completely different meaning. To a Christian, the smallness of a single human life in this cosmos does not mean: ‘I am basically nothing.’ It means: ‘Life as I know it on earth is small and short. So let me get my own ego-maniacal nonsense out of the way. No sense in getting distracted from the eternal life that the Creator of the earth has in store for me in heaven.’
A puff of smoke dissipates, like our mortal flesh will dissipate in the grave to which it will inevitably come. But God has given us puffs new birth through baptism into Christ—new birth in the indestructible life of the divine Son.
For now, during our brief pilgrimage of seventy years, or eighty if we are strong—for now, we share in Christ’s life by humble, obedient faith. As St. James puts it to us in his extended tough-love sermon: Say to yourself, you puff of smoke, ‘If the Lord wills that I should live until tomorrow, great. If not, great.’
We have nothing to fear either way. Not because everything is ultimately meaningless. But because we have enduring life held in store for us in heaven, where Christ our Head has gone before us to prepare our place.