Friday, March 4, 2011

Friday of the Eighth Week in Ordinary Time (I)

Sirach 44:1, 9-13 / Mark 11:11-26

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedastal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Percy Bysshe Shelley, Ozymandias (1818)

There is a kind of wisdom that cautions against trying to leave a lasting legacy. This is the theme of Shelley's Ozymandias. That poem, not unique in its sentiment even if especially apt in its wording, tells us of Ozymandias, Ramesses the Great of Egypt. As great as this pharaoh was, the poet reminds us that even one of his great power could leave only the slightest trace, and that an ironic one. In commanding those famous lines to be carved upon the pedestal of his image — Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair! — and meaning to evoke awe or envy in the viewer, he unwittingly invites us to witness as his true legacy only a colossal wreck and the emptiness of the lone and level sands that stretch far away.

This seems in many ways to be the wisdom that Sirach means to impart to us. He reminds us that, apart from those famous men of whom he is about to speak, there are many others whose names and deeds are long forgotten. Such as these are, on the face of it, convertible with those who never even existed, for when they ceased, they ceased. In fact, they are as though they had not lived, they and their children after them. So much for seeking a lasting legacy. If even Ozymandias leaves only the irony of the absence of his greatness in mockery and warning of all who would pretend to significance, what is there to say about those of humbler state?

But surely we ought to want to make a difference? Would it not be wrong not to want to contribute to the world, not to want to leave an impact, not only in the present, but for the generation and generations to come? Is it not a moral fault, a vice, to hide one's gifts and talents in a false humility that refuses to make a name for oneself? After all, God repeatedly promises the patriarchs and the good kings of Judah and Israel that their memory will not perish from the earth. What God promises is surely neither wrong nor in vain.

This is why Sirach does not leave these forgotten men in oblivion. Despite what seems to be the case, Sirach assures us that these were good men, and that they do have a legacy. They legacy, he tells us, in in their families, not simply insofar as such derive their life from their ancestors, but also their way of life, their morals, their thought and culture. Indeed, even is those who come after them are less in virtue or have become even humbler, more obscure than their fathers before them, Sirach assures us that the continuity of their families into the present is due to God's faithfulness to these good men of old, men forgotten by the world, but remembered for ever by God.

This, too, should be our goal, whether the families we produce are from natural families or spiritual generation through friendship or the sacraments. We ought to strive not like Ozymandias to have our name overshadow the centuries leaving nothing in the end that can resist corruption, but rather to seek that the good we do now will have an effect, not only for us, but for others to come, leading to everlasting life. We should hope that those to come after us, whether they be more famous than we are and exceed us in name and deed, or whether they be humbler and less notable, who may be less than we are in virtue and grace, will nonetheless be sustained in their efforts at least in part due to God's fidelity to the witness we have given to the Gospel during our own lifetime. This is the name we ought to make for ourselves, this is our legacy: that the monument by which we are known is not a ruin carved in lifeless stone, but the faithfulness God shows to those who, even ignorant of our names, yet follow in our steps.

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