Thursday November 18, 2010

Where Your Treasure Is

Jesus' teaching on love and worldly attachment features prominently in the final installment of the Harry Potter series, writes a campus minister.

Emily Strand, director of liturgy at the University of Dayton, is an avid Harry Potter fan, baking foods from the series and throwing an annual Harry Potter-themed Halloween costume party.

But the series offers more than just entertainment, it promotes Christian themes that can be a great springboard for discussing weighty issues, according to Strand.

As Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 hits theaters at midnight on Nov. 19, Strand reflects on the message taught by Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount: "Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also."

In addition to her role as liturgical director, Strand teaches courses on Catholic faith and worship for the religious studies department. She writes for the Canadian journal of pastoral liturgy, Celebrate!, and serves on various committees for the Catholic Archdiocese of Cincinnati.

Where Your Treasure Is
(A reflection on the release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part I)
By Emily Strand

In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Harry discovers two passages from the New Testament in the graveyard at Godric's Hollow. The first, from Jesus' Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew, is inscribed on the grave of Albus Dumbledore's mother and sister: "where your treasure is, there will your heart be also." The second, from St. Paul's first letter to the Corinthians, adorns the grave of Harry's own parents: "The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death." J.K. Rowling has said these passages from Scripture "sum up — they almost epitomize the entire series."(1) As fans anticipate the releases of Warner Brothers' two-part film adaptation of Deathly Hallows, a closer look at each passage frames the two parts of Potter's cinematic finale as stand-alone adventures. Deathly Hallows Part I, in theaters Nov. 19, is a story about choosing between the lure of the world and the love of family and friends.

This week in my "Introduction to Catholicism" class, we studied asceticism: the Christian discipline of subduing bodily desires through self-denial, fasting and relinquishment of worldly possessions. As we transitioned from observing the traditional ascetic lifestyle to noting the ways in which all Christians are called to self-denial for the sake of the Gospel, one student took issue.

"I don't understand why," he said with frustration in his voice, "Jesus doesn't want us to enjoy the good things in life, like nice cars and boats! Doesn't he want us to be happy?"

I responded with a passage from the Gospel of Matthew: "Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven… for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." (6:19-20a, 21) To be sure it is a troubling passage. Like the young man in Mark's Gospel, who asks Jesus what he must do — beyond the basics — to inherit eternal life, we walk away from Jesus' response ("go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven") shocked and grieving over our many possessions. But these worldly treasures keep us from a true expression of the Christian life, sapping our strength, humility and determination to bear the cross of Christ.

Why did Albus Dumbledore choose this troubling passage for his mother and sister's tombstone? In Deathly Hallows we learn the sad significance of the Dumbledore family's history; obsessive love — for power and prestige, for possessing the Deathly Hallows, for a sinister and brilliant young man named Gellert Grindelwald — pulls the young Albus away from his already broken home. His mentally disabled sister Arianna, who so desperately needed her brother's care after the death of their mother, perishes tragically in the crossfire of Albus' misguided choice of friends. This devastating loss of family, dreams and self-assurance makes Albus Dumbledore the man Harry Potter knew: the powerfully wise but inexplicably humble Hogwarts Headmaster, willing to sacrifice his very life to protect the students he had sworn to teach and nurture, even the one who would be his murderer.

"Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also." By the end of his life, Albus Dumbledore has stored the kinds of treasures which do not die with him, but remain to help Potter and others who continue the fight against the Dark Lord.

Voldemort, of course, has chosen a different path. He has intentionally secreted his very essence into objects of silver and gold, of power and of influence, all to preserve himself against the indignity of death. In the first part of Deathly Hallows, Harry, Ron and Hermione embark on a mission to destroy these Horcruxes, which unnaturally anchor Voldemort to life. But the objects themselves seek to destroy the trio, weighing them down, fostering mistrust and discord among the friends. Worst of all, the Horcruxes bring a sense of hopelessness to the three, which divides them for a time, until another object — one given by Dumbledore, which carries light instead of darkness — reunites them.

But the greatest objects of temptation for Potter are the Deathly Hallows themselves: those esoteric articles of magical myth, rumored to make their bearer "master of death." Even as Harry is horrified by Dumbledore's dark past of desperate longing for these powerful objects, he too finds himself obsessed by their potential. After all, wouldn't they help him in the fight against Voldemort? Wouldn't possessing them keep them out of Voldemort's grasping hands?

His salvation — both literal and figurative — comes through the sacrificial death of a great friend and disciple. Wisdom blossoms in Harry as he digs the grave of this friend, another soul lost to the Dark Lord, and honest grief bears in him the good fruit of conviction: Horcruxes, not Hallows. Becoming "master of death" is not the way to stop Voldemort. Rather, Harry vows to continue his strategy of destroying the "treasures" that Voldemort has stored. Harry forfeits the Hallows because he already possesses that most powerful, incorruptible treasure, bequeathed to him by Dumbledore, by his parents and others who have fought this fight before him: self-sacrificial love.

For more information, contact Emily Strand at 937-229-5750 or