Sunday, March 14, 2010

4th Sunday in Lent (C)

Of Homecoming and Setting-Out

Pictures: cc bernardoh

Dear sisters and brothers, have you ever asked yourself what the most joyful time of the year is for you? What is your favorite celebration? Is it Christmas? Or Thanksgiving? Or Easter? Which is it? And what do you like about it? Is it the gifts, the food, the company? What makes it joyful for you? What makes it a celebration?

For many people of Chinese descent – as well as the Vietnamese, Japanese and Koreans, among others – the major civil celebration of the year took place about a month ago, when the Lunar New Year came around. Many things go into this celebration, which traditionally lasts for fifteen days. Of all these things, three seem to stand out as most important. The first is what happens even before New Year’s Day. Traditionally, especially on New Year’s Eve, much work is done to put the household in order. As far as possible, debts are paid off, the house is cleaned, and much food is prepared. Then, on the eve of the New Year, after all the work is done, the family gathers for a feast. Together family members partake of the Reunion Dinner. And, not unlike what is done here at Thanksgiving, those living outside the family home will often return for this feast. And then, the next day, when the New Year finally arrives, people will leave their homes to go visiting. They go out to extend to others their good wishes for the year that is just beginning.

Cleansing, feasting and visiting. These are three of the more important things that go into the celebration of Chinese New Year – three things that can really be condensed into two. There is first a homecoming, and then a setting-out. There is first a putting of one’s own household in order, and then a going-out to celebrate with others. Both of these elements are important. The celebration would not be complete – the joy would not be as full – if any one were missing.

And yet, if an outsider – someone unfamiliar with the customs – were to pay a surprise visit to a family at any time other than the feast on New Year’s Eve, the visitor might be forgiven for failing to realize that a celebration was in the works. How could there be a celebration, for example, if everyone was sweating it out, scrubbing floors and dusting windows? Or how could there be a celebration if no one was at home, if everyone was out visiting? As understandable as this puzzlement may be, it also uncovers to us our own rather limited view of what a joyful celebration must look like. Very likely, many of us expect a celebration to involve lots of happy people, gathered in one place, eating, drinking, socializing, and having a good time. Which is why it can be very difficult for us to understand why our Mass prayers refer to Lent as a joyful season. In this time of strenuous self-examination and self-denial, where exactly is the joy to be found? Could a celebration really be in the works if everyone is engrossed in the demanding disciplines of prayer and fasting and almsgiving?

Our Mass readings help us to answer this question by showing us what a celebration looks like in the scriptures. The most obvious thing here is, of course, the feasting. In the first reading, Joshua finally leads the people of Israel across the Jordan and into the Promised Land. Encamped at a place called Gilgal, they feast on the produce of the land for the first time. In the gospel, the loving father welcomes his prodigal son with a grand feast, in which the main course is a corn-fed calf. But even if feasting appears to be the most prominent aspect in these celebrations, it is by no means the only one. Two other things are just as important. First, as with Chinese New Year, the feasting in our readings is preceded by a homecoming. The meal enjoyed by the people of Israel follows their arrival at their new home in the Promised Land after forty years of wandering in the desert. And the feasting in the gospel parable follows the eventual return of the prodigal after long years of dissolute living far from his father’s house. Also, this homecoming – of the prodigal son as well as of the people of Israel – is not just a change in physical location. More importantly, it is also a spiritual return, a cleansing of the heart, an ordering of one’s life, a mending of relations. The people of Israel acknowledge once again that they are nothing without God, just as the prodigal finally comes to his senses and realizes that he can only truly be at home with himself when he returns to the side of his loving father. Before the feasting, there is first a cleansing and a homecoming. To truly be joyful, the one who is lost must first be found.

And that’s not all. Again like the celebration of the Lunar New Year, after the homecoming and the feasting, there is also a setting-out. Isn’t this what we see the father doing in the gospel parable? Just when the party is at its height, when the heady wine is flowing freely, and the juicy steaks are hot off the grill, the father leaves the comfort and warmth of his own home, to plead with his older son. Indeed, it’s quite striking, isn’t it, that in this parable the father is hardly ever at home? We find him more often outside: dashing along the highway to embrace the returning prodigal child, or standing on his doorstep to plead with his sulking older son, begging him to join the celebration. In the father’s actions, we find a model of what a true Christian celebration involves: not just a homecoming and a feasting, but also a setting-out.

And it is to this same model that St. Paul refers us in the second reading, when he writes: God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ… entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. So we are ambassadors for Christ, as if God were appealing through us… be reconciled to God. Here we have a beautiful image of what our celebration looks like. It has to do with reconciliation, a return to right relationship. Which involves not just a homecoming but also a setting-out. For aren’t these the very things that make one an ambassador? One cannot be an ambassador without a country to call home. Nor can one be an ambassador without, in some sense, setting out for a foreign land. Both the homecoming and the setting-out are essential aspects of the celebration. Both are motivated and immersed in joy, the same joy that we celebrate at this and at every Eucharist, the joy won for us by the life, death and resurrection of Christ, the joy of being ushered into the fullness of a new life in Christ. As St. Paul tells us in the second reading, whoever is in Christ is a new creation: the old things have passed away; behold new things have come…

Sisters and brothers, on this fourth Sunday of Lent, how willing are we to leave the old to embrace the new? How ready are we for both the homecoming and the setting-out? How prepared are we to enter more fully into the celebration?

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