There is a line in the first reading for Wednesday of the seventh week of the year that reminds us to be humble and to realize that things—including us—are passing:
You are a puff of smoke that appears briefly and then disappears (James 4:14).
This is an antidote of sorts to the modern tendencies of excessive self-esteem and lack of concern for our death. Despite the advances of modern science and technology, we cannot even be sure of the next beat of our heart. A man can be robust and confident, at the height of his career, and then suddenly gone.
To be sure, there is a glory to the human person, a glory that comes from God, but our sense of it must be received with deep humility. Whatever we have, we have received from God. St. Paul says, What have you that you have not received; and if you have received it why do you glory as though you had not? (1 Cor 4:7) Whatever glory we have is from God. We are small, contingent beings; each of us is but a puff of smoke, a vapor, a mist. The slightest wind will scatter us.
In the frontispiece of a family history, my father transcribed the following verse from Psalms:
As for man, his days are like grass; he flowers like the flower of the field; the wind blows and he is gone and his place never sees him again (Psalms 103:15-16).
It is similar to what James says in today’s reading. We are like a puff of smoke or a vapor just before the wind blows or the sun rises.
Our years are seventy, or eighty for those who are strong. They pass swiftly, and we are gone (Ps 90:10).
As Christians, we should not be depressed by such thoughts, but we should be sobered. This life and its worldly glories are not the point. What a cruel joke it would be if that were so! Nothing but a puff of smoke, scattered by the merest breeze—it would be cruelty to say the least.
We Christians know that our life here is like the time we spent in the womb.Our tenure here is temporary while we await a greater glory to come. The child in the womb enjoys its warmth and seclusion, but as it grows, the womb comes to seem confining and limiting. Then birth pangs usher in the news: “You were made for something larger, something greater.” Many things of this world give joy, warmth, and pleasure, but if we are faithful we outgrow them. Our heart expands and this world can no longer contain us.
The birth pangs of our looming death say to us, “You were made for something larger, something greater.” We go forth from the womb of this world to what the Psalms often call the wideness or spaciousness of the glory of God (e.g., 17:29; 117:5; 118:45 Vulgate). Most of us will need the “afterbirth” of this world purged from us. After that is done, we will be received into the loving arms of our God and Father. This is our glory: to be caught up into the heart of God our Father, who conceived us and who loves us.
James warns, within the wider context of calling us a “puff of smoke,” that we must be wary of a pride that roots us in this world and celebrates a human glory somewhere other than in the arms of God.
Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we shall go into such and such a town, spend a year there doing business, and make a profit” you have no idea what your life will be like tomorrow. You are a puff of smoke that appears briefly and then disappears. Instead you should say, “If the Lord wills it, we shall live to do this or that.” But now you are boasting in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil (James 4:14-17).
Yes, beware of arrogance; beware of your own plans. God must have His heartiest laughs when we tell him our “plans.”
People used to visit cemeteries frequently, but doing so is much less common in today’s busy, arrogant times. Make it a practice to walk frequently in the nearest cemetery, particularly during Lent. While there, behold the glory of this world and remember that whatever it gives it takes back.
Consider again the words of Jesus:
Unless the grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat. But if it falls and dies, it rises to produce abundant fruit (John 12:23).
What will it be for you? Will it be the passing glories of this world, which die and then are trampled underfoot, or are blown away like a puff of smoke? Or will it be the seed that is sown but dies to itself and rises to something far more glorious?
Will this world be for you a tomb, which seals you into itself, or a womb, which births you to new and greater life? The decision is yours.