Several years ago, I had the privilege of going to a local art gallery and watching two Tibetan Buddhist Monks working on a sand mandala. A mandala is a source of meditation for Buddhists that has iconic value; it is usually a figure seated in the center in the lotus position, with designs surrounding it within a circle. If the Buddha or as aspect of the Buddha is not the central figure of the mandala, then he is usually present somewhere looking on. The monks worked on these highly detailed pictures taking a small pitcher of sand and is tapping the side of it, almost grain by grain building up the picture over time. In the background they played recordings of Tibetan monks chanting: some folks didn’t appreciate it as much as I did, but it’s an acquired taste. They worked painstakingly over two or three weeks to create this mandala, and one Saturday morning the work was done, and it was there in its entirely to be admired. Around midday, they undertook the ceremony of ritually disassembling the mandala. They chanted, took out special implements, and then began cutting apart the mandala, inviting the kids to take part and scooping the sand into small containers which they gave to as many people as possible. Then there was a great procession to the local creek, accompanied by chanting, where the monks and all poured the sand into the stream for it to flow away.
The idea behind this is that all things are temporary, all things are fleeting, and the peace and blessing that the mandala created was to be spread through the community when the time came to disassemble it. Pouring the sand into the stream was symbolic of the peace flowing through time and out into the community.
Today we are called to remember the transitory nature of our own existence. Jesus and his disciples come to the Temple in Jerusalem: the heart of ancient Judaism. Who knows whether it is their first journey there or not; for some it probably their first trip, and it is understandable that they would stand around in awe of the richness of the surroundings and the fine craftsmanship, taking pride in the accomplishment of their people and the glory of God represented there. What Jesus said to them must have taken them aback: the first hearers of this Gospel knew that they Temple had been destroyed when they heard this, but Jesus’ disciples must have been astounded. The other Jews there must have thought Jesus out of his mind, particularly when he talked about raising it up in three days after tearing it down. But Jesus is right: all things are transitory, all things are fleeting and even the greatest works of the human race exist only a short time on earth, even those of stone.
As workers in the vineyard, it is all right to take moderate pride in what we accomplish through the years. We touch many lives for good, we help heal wounds, we bring comfort and peace, we teach, we build wonderful schools and churches and other buildings. Our God works wonders and it is a privilege and a blessing to be part of that. Yet we are susceptible to a temptation within that: we can become too fond of what we’ve accomplished, what we can do, if we cannot admit that it is passing and if we cannot give it up. It’s hard to give away what we’ve worked hard for, to leave behind places we have called home. We are tempted to forget that our work can be like that sand mandala: products of loving attention, vessels of peace and blessing, but fleeting. We can forget that even mortar and stone are not forever.
This is not a sad realization. As we enter this time of the year when fall deepens and turns to winter, memories of summers past are valuable and reminders of the eternal spring that will be ours. We do not need to fear the passing of this world as a time of tragedy and destruction and destruction because we know that the coming of the fullness of the Kingdom of God will be better than we can imagine. As Catholics we do not see ourselves as sinners in the hands of an angry God, or as a people afraid of being left behind. We do not have to give into the temptation to become prophets of doom because we see things falling apart. Things falling apart is part of life; what is truly beautiful is never really forgotten and what is truly valuable is never lost.
The art that lasts, the art that comes from God is Compassion. The art of healing hearts, the art of turning to those in need, the art of seeing the God-given dignity in others and responding to it, is an art that lasts forever. Christ is the great artist, and turning to real beauty, turning to Compassion, is the artistry we are all called to.
Today and every Sunday the Church celebrates the beginning of eternal spring. It is a spring that embraces all the beauty of life that has been and is now and brings it to completion in the Great Banquet feast of the Kingdom. Here at this table we share, in the Body and Blood of Christ we share, we give thanks for all that has been, all that is, and all that will be. This banquet is the ocean where all the streams bearing the peace and blessing of millions through time find their goal and their end.