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I’m part of the seminary basketball team – yeah that should tell you how slim the pickings are for athletes at the seminary. But I’m a solid B-string bench warmer, and I have come to enjoy playing this sport if what I do can be called playing the sport.
Now, if you’d asked someone when I was about 16 years old, if they ever thought I would be part of a basketball team, they probably would have laughed. I certainly would have. I played a few pick-up games with close friends in high school and college, but I’ve never been exactly athletic!
Part of the reason for that is that when I was about 10 years old, I began quitting sports activities because I was not naturally gifted at them in comparison to others around me. When I looked around and compared myself to others (or was compared by others), I found myself lacking in the athletic department.
You see, the truth is like many young people, despite my protestation otherwise, I placed an unhealthy level of concern about what others thought of me. Though I could not have articulated it as a youth, I had developed at least the beginnings of the vice of envy. I compared myself with others, and I was sad because I came up short athletically. Because I knew I couldn’t be the best and I was afraid to fail, I rejected athletic activities. I feared to try because I knew I’d be judged by others and found wanting.
Because of this, I tended only to do those things that I thought I was good at. Thus, my life became consumed with academic pursuits. The result of this is that for many years I missed out on an entire part of life because I was too proud to do something when I thought I could fail. I refused to try something, avoiding athletic stuff at all costs because I wasn’t naturally perfect at it. And because I never was willing to risk failure, I did not develop that part of myself.
I found my identity in labeling myself as a “smart kid.” If I knew I couldn’t be the “smartest” kid, the best, I at least could find some sense of identity, some place in the world from knowing I was counted among the “smart kids.” I found my identity at school in getting As, doing robotics, and reading and hanging out with “smart kids.”
Yet how fragile this identity was! A bad grade, a teacher who didn’t like my style of work, getting a good grade but a grade lower than my friends – these things could shake my very identity out from under me. Thus, out of envy and pride, I was led to a host of sins because I was grasping after the identity – trying to hold on to “smart kid.” The envy in me was also present in many of my classmates in an overly-competitive system, where we measured the value of people by the grades they received on tests. It was exhausting.
How my life began to change when I encountered the Lord as a person with whom I could have a relationship! Slowly, and gently he has peeled back the layers of sin and revealed to me that my deepest identity is found in Him.
I think that something like the envy I experienced is happening in the second reading today. Paul founded the Corinthian church and loved them dearly. The entire letter to the Corinthians is an exhortation to be united in Christ.The Christians community of Corinth (a port city) was composed of a rather diverse group. They had rich and poor, they had Jews and gentiles, and these groups were often at odds with one another. They judged one another’s worth by their differences.
The Corinthians were at odds with one another for many of the same reasons we remain divided and at odds with one another today. They disagreed about liturgy; they disagreed about some moral issues; they disagreed about politics. If they’d known about tamales or Jamaica’s, they probably would have disagreed about how everything should be done.
It is telling how Paul says that they describe themselves. They identify as belonging to a particular leader. Saying “I belong to Chloe” or “I belong to Cephas” is a not so subtle way of saying, “I am a special type of Christian and you aren’t.” This type of identification is rooted in comparison and bears the vicious fruits of envy and division.
Paul rebukes the Corinthians for such division, which he finds incompatible with Christian discipleship. On the night before he dies, Christ prays that we may all be one as he and the Father are one.
The persons of the Blessed Trinity are in unceasing and perfect communion with one another. The Son is not threatened by the goodness of the Father or the Holy Spirit. There is no envy or division but only total self-giving. This type of giving takes nothing away from the person giving, rather expressed their deepest identity.
You and I are called share the very life of the Trinity, through union with Christ. Thus, the Christian life is about communion, rather than competition. Christ invites us to put away our envy and jealousy and recognize that our deepest identity – the deepest reality of who and what we are – is found in Him.
Each of us finding our identity in Him will be able to give ourselves totally away and in so doing, find our deepest fulfillment. This is why St. Paul invites the Corinthians (and us) to “be united in the same mind and in the same purpose.” We are one in Christ.
In Christ, differences do not cease to be present between the members of the body – you are not me, and I am not you, any more than the head is the same as the foot – but instead of being divisive, they become opportunities for charity and admiration.
The sin of envy is overcome primarily through genuine admiration. When I see the goodness of someone else (especially their strengths, which I lack), I have two choices:
On the one hand, I can allow myself to fall into envy by going into the mode of finding my worth through comparison. If I do this, I will probably begin to complain, to degrade the other person, or degrade myself. I will find every opportunity to destroy the goodness I see present because I operate from a sense that their gain is my loss.
On the other hand, if I recognize that my worth comes not from a comparison but from my identity in Christ, I can exercise the virtue of admiration/gratitude. I will see the other person’s goodness not as a threat to my identity but as a gift to be received. What is more, I begin to see that God has also given me gifts that I should share with others.
This past weekend the seminary basketball team was comfortably winning against a team, and so the coach put me in to give me a chance to play. I realized that competitive as I am – I wanted to win – I was playing more for excellence and the joy of playing than to win. It was a joy to play basketball, and when I scored a basket, the joy of the team was palpable.
When I compare myself to others, I’m not that good at basketball. But that does not mean I have nothing to offer. But that moment, the joy I brought others would not have been possible if I refused even to try to play out of pride. If envy had overtaken my heart, I also would not have had the chance to receive the gifts God offers me through the brothers around me.
This change is marked by a move in our hearts from the desire to be the “best” to a desire to be “excellent.” As Christians, we are called to excellence in Christ. My excellence does not threaten you, and your excellence does not threaten me. In fact, by helping you be excellent in Christ, I strive for excellence as well. When I know who I am in Christ, I am free to share my talents and strengths with others and to receive those of others around me gratefully. In both the giving and the receiving, we can admire the goodness of God, who makes it all possible.
Even our weaknesses, if we are humble enough to let them be known, become places of growth in Christ. We help each other grow as God’s own instruments, rejoicing in the strength of the other and sharing his burdens because through our communion in the Lord, they mystically become our joy and sorrow. All of us who are baptized share in this Body and the Eucharist which we celebrate is the sign and realization of this unity. We give thanks to God for the gift of our redemption and by being united to Him, we are united to one another and praise him for the way he loves us through others. May we be one in Him who died and rose for us.