Editor’s note: Fr. Michael Della Penna, OFM, is the Director of the Valley of the Angels Orphanage in Guatemala, an FMS partner site. As a guest blogger for FMS’ 2017 Advent blog series, Fr. Michael emphasizes the importance of keeping Christ as the first priority in our lives and cautions against false idols.
As a child, it was always exciting to see the opening credits appear at the beginning of every movie proudly displaying, in big bold letters, the names of my favorite actors who were starring in the film. If we are honest, we probably have all been, at one time or another, fascinated by, and maybe even infatuated with, these people: the breathtakingly beautiful and romantic movie stars of Hollywood, or the dashing actors we saw in our favorite television shows, or the exciting pop stars we watch on music videos. Whether it was a rock star, sports star, or movie star, our idols often seem larger than life and their sparkle and glitter captivate and excite us, lighting up our imaginations in a way almost nothing else does and making our hearts beat a little faster.
For as bright and shiny as even the biggest stars are, however, almost all of them, over time, eventually seem to fade and sputter out. Rather than being the great, hoped-for enduring celestial lights they are built up to be, they often disappoint us, proving only to be mere shooting stars that rise suddenly to great fame, briefly dazzle us in the darkness, but inevitably fade, fizzle, and are extinguished, only to be forgotten.
There is one star, however, which is the exception. This star is quite different and will never fade out. Although this star is the biggest of all stars in the world, He ironically has very few real fans and often goes unrecognized. Paradoxically, it is He who can be described as fanatic, as He constantly seeks each of US and deeply longs to be the true star of OUR lives. Who is this great and mysterious hidden star who is our biggest fan?
The last words of Saint Elizabeth of Hungary, a great Franciscan secular saint who died on November 16, 1231, were: “Then he created a new star, which had never shone before.” As Saint Elizabeth looked at this star, she passed away. This star, of course, was and is the true star of Christmas night, the real star of Bethlehem, the incarnate Son himself, Jesus Christ who identified himself by saying, “I have come as light into the world, that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness” (John 12:46).
In the Light of Faith, Pope Francis warns us of what happens when we fail to follow the True Star, renouncing the search for a great light that is Truth itself and settling to be content with smaller lights that illumine the fleeting moment and yet prove incapable of showing the way. We become confused and, eventually, lost. “It is impossible to tell good from evil,” says Pope Francis, “or the road to our destination from other roads which take us in endless circles, going nowhere.” He continues:
Once man has lost the fundamental orientation which unifies his existence, he breaks down into the multiplicity of his desires; in refusing to await the time of promise, his life-story disintegrates into a myriad of unconnected instants. Idolatry, then, is always polytheism, an aimless passing from one lord to another. Idolatry does not offer a journey, but rather a plethora of paths leading nowhere and forming a vast labyrinth. Those who choose not to put their trust in God must hear the din of countless idols crying out: “Put your trust in me!”
We get lost when we confuse icons, which are meant to be signs of something greater, with idols. In contrasting icons and idols, Christopher West aptly identified the root problem we sometimes fall into through our fanatic devotion and “worship” of these ultimately false stars. He tells us that we can sometimes make false idols of others who at first excite and provide a semblance of satisfying our deepest longings, but who, eventually, can only disappoint us. We can then get angry at and even grow to despise these idols who have let us down and denied us the lasting fulfillment they falsely promised.
The stars of Hollywood, television, and music are not the only false idols we can construct, however. Idolatry can be subtle and we can easily make sex, power, drugs, and money, or even our very own spouses, friends, or children into false idols. And that list doesn’t even include the hidden idols of “I,” or coolness. Instead of seeing these beautiful people and things as gifts and icons that God has placed in our lives to communicate His love and point us to the True Star, we make them ends in themselves, thus placing an unbearable burden on them to satisfy all the deepest longings of our hearts. Idols such as these are fantasies that not only deceive and disappoint, but also steal and take away our freedom, causing us to serve them.
West relates a very humorous and liberating conversation he and his wife Wendy had several years ago when they went out for dinner one night. Wendy had been noticing there was something different about their marriage in recent years, something good.
She asked me if I had any insight into what it was. After reflecting a bit, I said with a smile, “Yeah, I think I know what is. I think I’ve been realizing deep in my heart that you can’t satisfy me.” She got a big smile on her face and said “Yeah, that’s it, and I’ve been realizing the same thing—you can’t satisfy me either.” I imagine anyone overhearing us in the restaurant would have thought we were about to get divorced, but to us that realization was cause for joy and celebration. We had never felt closer and freer in our love.
Saint Augustine wrote that “Our hearts are restless till they rest in you Oh Lord.” Truly, it is only when we stop expecting false, illusionary stars in our lives to be “god” for us that we can be truly free to love others authentically as they really are, without demanding perfection of them. It is only to the degree that we are free from idolizing these false stars that they can be icons pointing to the light of the True Star who alone can satisfy. Moreover, we ourselves can become icons that point to Jesus, who eclipses every other light and invites us, through faith, to reflect His light to others in order to show them the way. Indeed, it is our faith, the opposite of idolatry, that allows us to break with idols in order to turn to the living God in a personal encounter.
Franciscan Missioners have a particularly vital role and must not hide the light of their faith under a bushel basket. Rather, through their genuine witness, they must be unafraid to let their lights shine brilliantly before to all and to be lights which are capable of illuminating every aspect of human existence. In this way, we are invited to become like Mary, who, like the moon, has no light of her own, but perfectly reflects the Son.
Thus, we too can become holy icons who star in the greatest role this world has to offer, pointing beyond ourselves to the Greatest and Biggest Star of them all, Jesus Christ, the Super Star who alone offers the satisfaction of fulfilling all our deepest longings and hopes.
Reflection question: In what ways can you become a holy icon and reflect the Son to all those around you?