Sunday, December 04, 2011

2nd Sunday of Advent (B)
The Embrace of Inconvenience

Readings: Isaiah 40:1-5,9-11; Psalm 84:9-14; 2 Peter 3:8-14; Mark 1:1-8

Sisters and brothers, have you watched the delightful animated movie that is playing on HBO? It’s entitled Despicable Me. And it’s about a professional thief named Gru, who finds redemption when he goes out of his way to adopt three little orphan girls. One interesting thing about the movie is the gradual change in Gru’s attitude toward the orphans. When they first show up on his doorstep selling cookies, Gru refuses even to open the door for them. He turns them away because he sees them as a nuisance–an inconvenient interruption to his busy life of crime. But his attitude begins to change when his career suffers a setback. Thinking that the girls can help him to defeat a rival criminal, he sets out to use them for his own evil purposes. What Gru doesn’t count on is the power of these innocent little ones to get under his skin. Somehow they penetrate his hard exterior and touch his inmost heart. Although his initial intention is to exploit them, through his contact with the girls, Gru experiences a deep healing of the hurts of his past. In the process, Gru is transformed. The once self-centred crook becomes a caring father.

By embracing the inconvenient, the thief comes to discover what is most important. The hardened criminal is enfolded by the tenderness of love. In going out of his way to welcome the homeless, Gru himself finds his way home. A similar process is described in our Mass readings for this 2nd Sunday of Advent. Today, our first reading and the gospel speak to us about a messenger and his message. The message itself is supposed to be an attractive one. It’s supposed to be good news. Console my people, console them, says your God. God is coming to save God’s people. But, although the message is appealing, it is also highly inconvenient.

For one thing, the messenger himself is far from attractive. The description of John the Baptist in the gospel must surely sound very strange to us. In place of the familiar and lovable, red and round figure of Santa Claus, we’re greeted instead by a skinny crazy fellow dressed in camel-skin. And instead of a sack, full of presents, and a friendly Ho Ho Ho, John comes empty-handed, screaming demandingly at the top of his voice. Nor is he easy to find. John proclaims his message not in the centre of town–not amid the bright and colourful lights of Orchard Road–but in the desolate and dangerous surroundings of the wilderness. To meet this messenger, to hear his message, we have to go out of our way. We have to embrace inconvenience.

And this inconvenience is not just something external. It’s not just a matter of making a slight detour to meet someone who looks and acts a little peculiar. The inconvenience is also something interior. For the message of consolation that this messenger brings is also a call to conversion. A call to examine our lives anew, and, wherever necessary, to rearrange our priorities. Let every valley be filled in, every mountain and hill be laid low. Let every cliff become a plain, and the ridges a valley. We need to prepare the way for the God who is coming into our hearts and into our world.

And yet, as inconvenient as it is to meet this messenger and to receive his message, the gospel tells us that all Judaea and all the people of Jerusalem made their way to him. Why? Why did all these people go out of their way, not only to meet and to listen to what looked and sounded like a crazy person, but also to allow themselves to be plunged by him into the cold waters of the Jordan River? Why? Why not just continue going about one’s own daily business? Or, speaking for ourselves, why not just continue celebrating Christmas the way many Christians do every year? Buying and exchanging presents. Cooking and eating meals. Even dressing up for Midnight Mass. And carolling with the choir. Why bother to embrace inconvenience?

Unless, of course, inconvenience is the crux of the matter. Unless there is something sorely lacking in one’s yearly routine. Unless one is longing for something more. And this is precisely what we find in our readings. In the first reading, the people are deeply aware that they are living in exile in Babylon. They are far away from home. In the gospel, even though the people are living in their homeland, they are keenly conscious that the territory no longer belongs to them. They are labouring under foreign occupation, under Roman rule. More importantly, these forms of political exile point to a deeper spiritual state. For no matter what our nationality, no matter whether or not we are living in our own country, we Christians believe that we find our true home only in the Kingdom of God. And we still await the coming of that Kingdom in its fullness. As the second reading tells us, what we are waiting for is what the Lord promised: the new heavens and new earth, the place where righteousness will be at home. We are still longing for a place and a time when the peace of God will be enjoyed by all. When the hungry will be fed, the sick healed, and the oppressed set free. When every tear will be wiped away. Such is our longing. And such is the reason why people may be led to embrace inconvenience.

The danger is that many of us may have actually become too comfortable even in the midst of our exile. Like the character Gru in the movie, we may have become so used to a hardened life, centred only on ourselves, that we don’t even yearn anymore for something different, something better. Why bother to remember that other people may be suffering, if my immediate family and I are not? Except that my comfort may actually be very superficial. And in my quieter moments, when I allow myself a brief pause from ceaseless activity, I may feel strangely far away from home.

In such a situation, it’s not always a bad thing when inconvenience comes knocking on my door. Whether it be in the form of a person in need or a report of disaster, a sudden illness or a failed relationship, a financial loss or a career setback. As Gru discovered, such irritations might actually turn out to be blessings in disguise. Messengers from God, urging me to prepare the way for the One who is coming to make all things new.

I’m reminded of a family I once had the privilege of meeting. One of the children was born with Down Syndrome. I asked the parents what it was like to raise such a child, thinking that it must be very challenging. Their answer surprised me. They said that this child was a great gift from God, for whom they were extremely grateful. For it was this child that brought the family together. It was this inconvenient child who daily reminded the rest of them of the meaning of love.

Sisters and brothers, in your lives, are there any inconveniences waiting to be embraced today?

1 comment:

  1. In my sharing with a group today, the obvious message of repentance went contrary to the joyous mood of celebrating the Advent. Presents are exchanged during Christmas and often the baby Jesus is thrown out with the wrapping paper, when we resume our routine lives.
    How do I “prepare” for the birth of our Lord? Will I pause and ponder deeper during prayer? What penance can I glean from the example of John the Baptist, whose whole being is prayer? Anticipating and awaiting for the One who comes, the incarnation in a lowly manger.
    In re-examining my life through prayer and penance, would I be able to attain the peace that I long for? Can years of callous living, induced by gradualism, be redirected? If I make a start now, the process can gradually be reversed, with realized hope. The reminder to repent could not come at a better time.


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