On my recent trip to Poland, I ended up unexpectedly back in the Stare Miasto of Kraków–fog (mgła) had delayed my flight, giving me 12 extra hours in the city. Since I was alone, I walked for half an hour from the apartment where I was staying into town, first up to the Dominican Church to pay my respects. I entered during the consecration and felt overwhelmed (by the way, at a Monday noon Mass, there was standing room only in a fairly large church). Then I wandered to the Rynek Głowny and sat down with a cappuccino to people-watch.
I felt more unsettled than I had expected. Six years ago I visited Kraków for the first time, also on a cold October day. The coat I wore was the same one I had bought in the train station there. It made me nervous to contemplate the differences between myself as I was then and as I am now. I had visited Kraków at a time in my life before anything had really hurt me–when the trauma of moving from home and of studying abroad were the most difficult aspects of my life. I returned 8 months later with my dearest friends, before we had to worry about parting ways. It is still difficult for me not to become emotional when I think about how happy we were then.
Other places like New York keep up with the changes six years have wrought. Why, my dearest city, must you always remain the same? Why do you hold such sweet memories in perfect fixity? Why have you not grown weary as I have?
When he reached the place, Jesus looked up and said,
“Zacchaeus, come down quickly,
for today I must stay at your house.”
And he came down quickly and received him with joy.
Today’s Gospel passage is one of my favorites because it’s so easy to picture–we’ve all seen kids climb up on their parents’ shoulders, or climb up on barriers or mailboxes to see a parade. I am reminded of the time my friends and I saw Pope Benedict in Yonkers and literally had to jump over gates and trash cans since we had accidentally gotten shut out the section of seating our friends were in.
But the similarity between the two events goes deeper than that for me. Jesus looks up at Zacchaeus and sees in him all his potential for holiness, qualities that the grumblers around him do not see, perhaps do not even believe he has. And Zacchaeus responds with both joy and repentance, offering to make amends for his extortion. We see here a pattern of behavior common to the Gospels: God’s Mercy–>Gratitude–>Generosity/Renewal. Sometimes when we notice in ourselves a spiritual roadblock to generosity or charity, it can be helpful to step back and ask, “Do I need to remind myself to accept the mercy of God? Am I grateful for His mercy?” I often find that when I am finding it difficult to be generous to my brother or sister, it is because there is some sin on my heart that I need to go confess, or some doubt in God’s love towards me.
And the reason I love this passage so much is that something very similar happened to me when Pope Benedict began to speak–for the first time, I heard someone tell me they wanted me to be a saint, that this was the only option, to strive for sainthood. For the first time I felt that someone (who didn’t even know me!) believed in the potential for holiness that was in me. And for the first time in 19 years of being a Catholic, I believed that God wanted me to be in heaven with Him. That He didn’t simply tolerate me, but that He actually wanted my companionship, to “stay at my house.” And this necessitated a change in my life, which has been markedly different ever since that day.
Christ calls us out of the tree–the site of the Fall–towards companionship. There are things, as Zacchaeus realizes, that we must give up to get it. And yet in the joy that follows this choice, the memory of those things begins to fade and is replaced with more joy, and great peace.