Assistant Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy
Love is not pompous, it is not inflated.
Pomposity by its very nature is inflated; it focuses completely on the individual, the self. Pompous people puff themselves up—inflate themselves—even to the point of ridiculousness. There is no consideration of the other at all, except perhaps in terms of how the other can be exploited to serve me, validate me, make me feel better about myself. Not only that, but pomposity and inflation are also relegated entirely to the visible surface. It’s all flash and virtually no substance, and it’s all about me.
We suspend dislike of grandiose flashiness on occasion; in the context of celebrating individual and personal achievements, it’s proper to be pompous (or “ceremonial” if you want a more positive spin). An example: college graduations. Faculty members and students sporting elaborate regalia process to Edward Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance” (how apt is that?), and each person’s credentials are practically inscribed in the very garments worn. He’s an alumnus of Harvard. She’s graduating summa cum laude. They’re receiving Master’s hoods. But everything is operates at the surface level (how many people in the history of academia have received their diplomas sporting a birthday suit beneath their gowns?). The ceremonial pomposity and inflatedness of a college graduation don’t even begin to tell the full story of what it took to earn that cap and gown: the interminable stacks of books, the all-nighters, the research papers, the comprehensive exams, the final projects, the stress, the breakdowns. In other words, pomp is not about to convey suffering. Inflation is not about to betray weakness.
In terms of love, pomp and inflation have no place whatsoever according to St. Paul, and they can be manifested in two ways: either a person puts on airs in order to garner the admiration of another (like a male peacock displaying a brilliant fan of feathers), or a person puffs up defensively in order to maintain an aura of perfection (like those overly obsessed with physical appearance). Either way, pomp and inflation are about creating an alternate reality (or at least a prettier, more festive one); thus, they are about concealing the true reality. They are about presenting the most attractive sides of the self and avoiding the truth. The truth is that human existence is often ugly, both on the surface and beneath it. Our bodies become sick, old, and frail, and they finally give out on us in the end. Our hearts are vulnerable to our own character flaws as well as those of others. Love seeks to heal the other, but pomp and inflation pretend that there is no need of healing.
In His self-giving love, Jesus breaks the surface of the gilded worlds we create for ourselves and dives into the ugly brokenness of our humanity. He spits into the dirt and makes a muddy paste so that He might spread it onto our eyes and heal our blindness (cf Jn 9:1-41). He touches our ears and tongue so that we might hear and speak and sing anew (cf Mk 7:31-37). But in the end, even these miracles are not enough to heal us completely. Jesus must strip Himself of every shred of dignity and pour Himself out completely, until His lungs are utterly deflated and His heart is pierced by a lance.
Pomposity walks across a stage to receive praise and accolades; Love staggers up a hill and is nailed to a Cross so that others may be glorified. Inflation conceals all in an effort to appear perfect to others; Love holds nothing back so that others may become perfected.
Love is not rude, it does not seek its own interests.
These descriptors are somewhat similar to the two just discussed, but St. Paul nuances his message here. A rude person doesn’t care how his or her actions affect other people. They may not be self-absorbed to the point of being pompous, but neither do they take any consideration of how their words or actions are being received or perceived by others. On the one hand, this might be interpreted as freedom, or even a lack of jealousy as discussed in yesterday’s post; a person who doesn’t care what others think is to be applauded for being above the opinions of peers. We in American society particularly value this—it’s a manifestation of our high-spirited individualism. And to an extent, we should avoid placing too high a value on what others think of us. But rudeness takes this indifference to an unhealthy level. Rudeness puts the self first every single time. Rudeness makes no efforts to ensure another’s comfort or well-being. Rudeness ignores the thoughts and feelings of others, causing hurt, and even scandal. Rudeness exclusively seeks its own interests.
We’ve all experienced rudeness in society at some point. For me, it’s almost always when I’m driving somewhere. I’m astonished by the rudeness I witness on the road: people speeding, changing lanes without signaling, talking on cell phones—nine times out of ten, driving seems to be every person for him- or herself. And when I see this, it’s as though that person has said to me, “My life is more important than yours. You are of no consequence. You are an obstacle to be overcome.” I really have to struggle against retaliation in such instances, which would do no good anyway since offenders can’t hear me yell at them from my car. Regardless of the futility in fighting back, it’s a real interior battle for me to love in the face of rudeness.
Rudeness can take more sinister forms as well. I think of times I’ve been out in public with my young nephews or nieces and I overhear strangers’ nearby conversations riddled with foul language (or, according to my nephew, what Spongebob Squarepants would call “Sentence Enhancers”). I bristle when I hear people talk like that in public, and as I immediately move the kiddos away I think, “Ugh—how rude!” It’s as though those people are saying, “The innocence of that child is of no consequence to me. I don’t care if I’m scandalizing them. I do what I want.”
Jesus has many responses to such people, the first and foremost of which is what we refer to as The Golden Rule: “Do to others whatever you would have them do to you” (Mt 7:12). He says it another way later on in Matthew’s Gospel: “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mt 22:39). But even these maxims for moral living have the self as a reference point, and we “selves” are flawed. We don’t always want to love our neighbors as ourselves; sometimes we want our neighbors to love us as we love ourselves. So Jesus must take this even one step farther, saying to us on the night of the Last Supper: “I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another” (Jn 13:34). No longer are we to use ourselves as the point of reference in how we treat other people. Now we are to follow the example set forth by Jesus Himself. We are to follow Him by responding in love to the rude and the self-interested: “The Lord GOD opened my ear; I did not refuse, did not turn away. I gave my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who tore out my beard. My face I did not hide from insults and spitting. The Lord GOD is my help, therefore I am not disgraced; Therefore I have set my face like flint, knowing that I shall not be put to shame” (Is 50:5-7). We are to follow Jesus by turning the other cheek, going the extra mile, pouring ourselves out as a libation – even for those who care nothing for us in return.