Sunday, December 02, 2012

1st Sunday of Advent (C)
Coffee, Karate and Christmas (II)

Picture: cc Mahadewa

Sisters and brothers, have you ever wondered why we begin a new church year the way we do? Why do we bother to spend four whole weekends of Advent, just to prepare for Christmas? Why don’t we simply do the same thing that others do on the 1st of January? Why not just dive straight into Christmas with a quick countdown and a bottle of bubbly? Although it may sound strange, I think the answer to these queries can be found by considering another question. Sisters and brothers, do you know the difference between coffee and karate?

As you may know, some years ago, Starbucks introduced a brand new product in the United States: instant coffee. And, as did earlier producers of instant coffee, Starbucks claimed that their instant coffee was as good, if not better, than the regular kind. To prove this, Starbucks invited people to take taste tests in their stores. I’m not a coffee drinker. And I don’t know the results of those tests. But if the claim is true, then coffee might well be something that we can enjoy instantly, without sacrificing quality.

But can we say the same for something like karate? Some of us may still remember the movie The Karate Kid. I mean the original version. Not the recent remake. In the movie, a teenager takes up karate to defend himself against a gang of bullies. But, although he’s very eager to learn, his teacher–who looks like a harmless little old man–keeps giving him ordinary household jobs to do. Paint the gate. Wax the car. Sand the wooden floor. At first, the boy is frustrated and impatient. Why is he wasting his time doing a maid’s work, while his bullies continue to improve their own fighting skills under another teacher? Why can’t he learn as quickly they seem to be doing?

It’s only later that the boy realises the truth. His chores were actually part of the training. For example, by repeatedly waxing the car, he was actually practicing the movements for defensive blocks. More importantly, his master was teaching him that karate is much more than about beating up an opponent in a fight. It’s also about discipline and perseverance, mercy and self-control. Things that his bullies had not learned. Even if they’d picked up some fancy moves rather quickly, theirs wasn’t the real thing. True karate requires much time, effort and self-sacrifice. Unlike coffee, there really is no such thing as instant karate.

And what about Christmas? Is Christmas more like coffee or karate? Well, it depends on whom you ask. Have you noticed, for example, how our local shopping malls have already started displaying Christmas decorations and lights? And playing Christmas music? Looking at how all these christmassy things seem to spring up almost overnight might make us think that, like coffee, Christmas too can be enjoyed instantly. But is this true? Is there really such a thing as instant Christmas?

Not if our Mass readings are anything to go by. While everything around us might lead us to think that Christmas has to do only with trees and tinsels, presents and parties, or even cribs containing statues of cuddly newborn babes, our readings remind us that it’s also about much more. Long before we hear anything about a baby born in a manger, the liturgy helps us to prepare for Christmas by reminding us about its deeper meaning. A meaning that has at least three parts.

The first part has to do with being saved from bullies. Recall what we heard in the first reading. The days are coming, says the Lord, when I am going to fulfil the promise I made… In those days Judah shall be saved and Israel shall dwell in confidence. To a small and insignificant race, a people constantly being bullied by larger, more powerful enemies, a people not unlike the Karate Kid, God promises safety and security.

And this promise is made also to us. Even if we may live in a relatively safe place, aren’t we still threatened by bullies of different kinds? Some of these bullies are more external. For example, rising costs of living. Or stressful living conditions, leading to all sorts of addictions. Or negligent employers, who house workers in bug-infested dormitories. Or misunderstandings with family and friends. Other bullies are more internal. Like greed and selfishness. Or the refusal to forgive. Or indifference towards the needs of the less fortunate. Whatever the form our bullies may take, Christmas is a celebration of how God comes to help us deal with them. But, if this is true, then we must first be able to identify these threats to our wellbeing. Who exactly are our bullies today?

But that’s not all. Advent has a second aspect. Not only does it give us the opportunity to identify our bullies, it also helps us to recognise the God who comes to deal with them. For God can show up in different ways. Sometimes in ways as surprising as a harmless looking old man, who just happens to be a karate master. And these appearances of God are not always as attractive as a cute little infant. In the gospel, for example, Jesus paints a terrifying picture of the circumstances surrounding his coming at the end of time. People will be dying of fear, he tells us, as they await what menaces the world... And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. And not just at the end of time. Even today, God often comes to us in surprising and unsettling ways. Such as when badly treated workers finally decide to go on strike. Advent is a time for us to learn to recognise and to welcome the God who may come among us in frightening ways.

But, for us to do all this–to identify our bullies and to recognise the God who comes to help us–we need to undergo training. This the third aspect of Advent. We need to learn to remain focused on God. To keep making our own the words of the psalm: Lord, make me know your ways... teach me your paths. Make me walk in your truth, and teach me: for you are God my saviour. We need to train to remain alert to the signs of God’s coming. In the words of Jesus, we need to stay awake praying at all times. We need to train also by leading Christ-like lives even as we continue to await God’s coming. Like the Thessalonians in the second reading, we need to learn to make more and more progress in the kind of life that we are meant to live. A life of love.

Sisters and brothers, it’s difficult to deny that we live in an instant world. Starbucks sells instant coffee. The internet give us access to instant information and instant friends. Many of us have developed very flexible thumbs from sending countless instant text messages. Of course, all this may not be a bad thing. Provided we remember that not everything can be obtained instantly. Some things need time and effort. Things like karate, of course. But also things like justice and peace and true friendship. As well as things like Christmas. Isn’t this why it’s important that we take very seriously this lovely and joyful season of Advent?

Sisters and brothers, how will you be spending your Advent this year? What will Christmas be like for you? Like coffee or karate?


  1. Fr Chris, the main bone of contention among the Smrt drivers is wages and not bug infestation. From reports so far, "The checks were done on Wednesday and officers found the dormitories at Woodlands and Serangoon were not overcrowded. But there were bed bug problems in some of the rooms, and the general housekeeping conditions of the rooms occupied by the SMRT drivers were below par compared to other rooms in the dormitories not used by SMRT employees.... Fumigation to control the bed-bug infestation was done last month, and again this week. If conditions do not improve, the company will look into arranging other housing options earlier."
    So there is a problem, but it does not look like intentional maltreatment.

  2. We live in an "instant" world, and we expect things in an instant. We want things fast AND as good as the "real" things. But life is not instant, and neither is Christmas. Hence, we all have to learn to be a bit more patient. Life in the SLOW lane is not always a bad thing. It's nice to have a change of pace.

    I'm going to use this Advent season to slow down, spend time with my kids and parents, clean my house for Chinese New Year, and declutter my heart and mind of worries and troubles. Merry Christmas!

  3. Indeed, we live in an INSTANT world with instant coffee & instant noodles etc... hence, we may be inclined to 'expect' God to work instantly, and to grant us our prayers and wishes the moment we ask Him... and we get impatient or angry with God when He seems slow to respond to our pleas and prayers.

    Yet, God is NOT a Coca-Cola machine.

    for all things spiritual - be it spiritual growth or our spiritual life/journey - these do NOT happen instantly, at the snap of our fingers - they need time to develop and the results often do not happen overnight..

    For us in this fast-paced society - for things spiritual, we need to let God be God in our lives and to allow God to TRAIN us - to wait on HIM, to be patient and to let things happen in God's time and ways.

    In the secular life, we focus a lot on continuous education and training - yet, do we do the same for our spiritual life?

    Do we take God and our FAITH seriously enough and do we see the need to undergoing TRAINING in our spiritual life?

    if so, do we allow God to TRAIN us?


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