Glass Ceilings & Lowest Common Denominators

First Sunday of Lent


Last Friday was International Women’s Day, which I only found out about late in the day. Unfortunately I can be clueless like that. If it makes you feel any better, I usually don’t find out about National Middle Child Day until it’s almost over, and I am a middle child. So when I looked it up online, you know I had to, I discovered the date is either August 10 or August 12. Whoever is responsible for this confusion is probably unwilling to make up their mind on purpose, and every middle child is used to that.

So back to International Women’s Day. Along with the different perspectives that accompany this day’s observance across the world, we take the opportunity to celebrate the achievements of women, from famous icons across a broad spectrum of society to the unsung heroines we know first-hand, our mothers, grandmothers, wives, aunts, sisters, daughters, nieces, cousins, friends, even total strangers. And as many previously insurmountable barriers have fallen through generations of women’s struggles to gain equal respect, recognition, and opportunity, a recurring reference is made to “breaking the glass ceiling.” This arbitrary upper margin of opportunity and achievement has been unfairly more accessible to men than women. And awareness of it is a necessary first step to eventually eliminating it. Irving Berlin’s song “Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better” from the 1946 musical “Annie Get Your Gun” might not even be officially the first time anyone gave passing thought to women and men competing on a level playing field. But since then countless contests in sports, quiz shows, bar rooms, and backyard barbecues have ventured a definitive answer. Breaking the glass ceiling will mean finally achieving justice and fairness. But it isn’t broken unless you go past it.

Now if the glass ceiling is that upper margin of opportunity and achievement, is there such a thing as a lower margin? I have sometimes heard this comment when I fail to meet unspoken expectations, and someone will blurt out that I am, in their words, “only human” after all. This is hardly new information, of course. Aren’t we all “only human” after all? But the comment is often spoken with obvious disappointment, as in, “Your older brother was an excellent student;” or “That preacher really spoke to my soul;” or “My former priest was undoubtedly a saint;” sadly followed by “But you’re only human after all.” We all know what being “only human” after all is like, which looks to be the lowest common denominator. That has got to be our level starting point.

In today’s gospel reading from Luke, Jesus is still on cloud 9 after his baptism by John at the Jordan. A voice from heaven proclaimed him “my Beloved Son” as the Holy Spirit descended upon him in the form of a dove. Now there’s some major affirmation of his exalted dignity and divine mission as he was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. Jesus was confident of God’s favor and approval, loving his work, with no glass ceilings to break. After all, he was God’s “Beloved Son.” And the devil decided this was precisely the point to pick on.

“If you are the Son of God,” he taunted Jesus, suggesting there had to be some reasonable perks and advantages that came with the title he was probably unaware of. “You would never go hungry if you can turn stones into bread. And while you’re at it, how about a couple of juicy steaks on the grill, a salad bar … no, scrap the salad bar, an open bar, and an endless seafood buffet. And it wouldn’t be wrong or selfish at all since everyone would probably do that.”

“And I can give you fame and power and popularity because you’ll need all the help you can get if you’re going to rock this ‘Son of God’ gig. You deserve what’s yours, and so much more. This is your moment! It’s the supreme opportunity of a lifetime!”

“But wait, there’s more! I bet if you jump off the roof of the temple, angels will rush to rescue you, since you are the Son of God. Laugh in the face of danger! Jump in the deep end! Handle deadly snakes! Drink poison! The possibilities are boundless!”

And people have joked that I won’t get a ticket if I flashed my collar, that I shouldn’t pay market price for ordering lobster, and that a seat of honor and parade are legitimate demands every so often, and bad things shouldn’t happen since, you know, you’re a priest and all. So Jesus sets the record straight that his priorities do not include satisfying even his legitimate hungers, much less his need for personal validation, and still less any assurance he had even a smidgen of control over God.

Now temptation will offer you similar suggestions, that you deserve a break for being a Christian, so it shouldn’t be a problem if you ignore the rules every now and again, and all your years of religious observance gives you the right to demand more perks and better treatment, and that God will make sure no harm ever touches you or the people you love. But if we’ve been paying any attention at all, we might recall that the ultimate Model for our Christian life was unjustly accused, and condemned to die on a cross. And following after him, countless women and men have faced humiliation and endured untold suffering for courageously living by the values of the Gospel. We can never have any expectation of privilege or favor for simply being disciples of Jesus.

It’s ironic that when temptation actually succeeds at convincing us to give in, it will also assure us that any and all moral failings are perfectly normal, that they assure us we are “only human” after all. So although our selfish pride will demand loudly that we deserve exceptional privilege, it won’t be as loud and proud of our shameful episodes of exceptional failure. But what’s the big deal? We’re “only human” after all.

Jesus reminds us that although like him we are “beloved daughters and sons” of the Father, we are not immune to temptation and the daily struggle with selfishness and sin. The Holy Spirit has been poured into our hearts through the gift of faith, a faith we are encouraged to profess not only in words, but in our actions as well, and our way of life. This profession of faith takes place within the community of the baptized. For it is among fellow Christians in prayer and friendship that we gain strength and courage for the struggle. Jesus may have contended with the evil one all by himself. And our pride will convince us we have to go about our struggle alone as well. But we all know the forces of darkness, selfishness, and sin will never let up or take a break.

A regular penitent once told me their struggle with sin was wearing them down, and they were ready to give up. I said the battle for their soul was fierce because neither side has won yet. If you give up now, you just might tip the scale. Do we surrender to failure because we are “only human” after all? Or do we persevere in breaking all the glass ceilings because we are nothing less than “beloved daughters and sons” of God?

Rolo B Castillo © 2019