Sunday, July 28, 2013

Between the Packaging and the Present


17th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

Picture: cc Steve Baty

Sisters and brothers, do you ever receive gifts from others? What does it feel like? Every year, around Christmastime, my community receives gifts from very kind and generous people. Usually we get food hampers. Which we appreciate very much. Typically, the food is packed in the usual way. In a basket of some kind, wrapped in cellophane. But, some years ago, we received hampers that were packed differently. Not in the usual flimsy baskets. But in solid boxes. I still remember one hamper. It was packed in a square bright-red box that looked like a mini suitcase. Complete with a little handle. And two golden fasteners. One on each side. The bag looked so attractive, that I saved it. In fact I still have it today. I use it for storing things. But here’s the sad thing. I may still have the box. But I can no longer remember anything about the food that was inside it. Nor about the person who gave it to us.

What do you think about that, sisters and brothers? To pay so much attention to the packaging, but to forget all about the present itself? Imagine for a moment that you were the one who gave me that hamper. How would you feel? I’m not sure. Maybe you’d be happy that I at least found some use for the box. But what if I had saved only the box, and threw out all the food that came in it. How would you feel then? Probably not so good. Not so good, because I did not properly appreciate your present. And not just your present, but also you yourself. After all, isn’t that the reason why we call them presents? Because we somehow make ourselves present in the things we give to others? As the poet Kahlil Gibran once wrote: You give but little when you give of your possessions. It is when you give of yourself that you truly give. If this is true, then to receive a gift well, it’s important not to confuse the packaging for the present. The box may be attractive. But the food is the real gift. And not just the food, but the giver, whom the food represents.

To receive a gift well, we must learn not to confuse the packaging for the present. And it’s important to keep this lesson in mind today, because it can help us to understand something that our Mass readings are trying to teach us. As you know, today’s readings are all about prayer. And not just any kind of prayer. But good prayer. Effective prayer. This is what the disciples are asking Jesus about in the gospel. Lord, teach us how to pray… And not just to pray in any ordinary way. But to pray as the Lord Himself prays. To pray so that God will listen to them. This then is the question, sisters and brothers, that we are being invited to ponder today: How can we pray well? Pray effectively?

The answer Jesus gives is surprisingly simple. Shockingly clear. Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened to you... In other words, if you want to pray well, if you wish to pray effectively, then don’t give up. Just keep on praying. Just keep on asking... searching... knocking... This is what Abraham does in the first reading. In his prayer–in his conversation with God–Abraham does not give up. He keeps on pestering God until he finally gets God to agree to give him what he wants. So this is the answer: Good prayer, effective prayer, is persistent prayer. As simple as that.

But is it really so simple? Is it really true that all I need to do to get what I want is to keep asking God for it? Is prayer really only about persistence? If that’s the case, then what do you think will happen if I keep praying for a BMW 7 series? And what if I made a 9-day novena for that intention? Or, better, what if I prayed for it 24 hours a day, 7 days a week? Do you think I will get it? Of course, I’m just trying to be funny. I don’t really need a BMW. But what if I were to pray for something more serious than that? Like a better job. Or a good spouse? Or a baby? Or better results in my studies? Or for the conversion of a child of mine who has gone astray? And what if I were to pray for days and months. Even for years. And still not get it? What then? Does it mean that our readings are wrong?

I’m not sure, sisters and brothers. But I think we find the answer in  something in our readings that we haven’t mentioned yet. Something important. Especially here in Luke’s gospel, although Jesus tells us to ask, to search, and to knock, he doesn’t really say that we will get exactly what we ask for. He doesn’t say that if I ask for a BMW, that is what I will get. What Jesus says, instead, is that the Father will give me the Holy Spirit. And the Spirit is, of course, nothing less than God’s very Presence. This is what Jesus is promising us. This is the fruit of good prayer. If we keep praying, we will receive God’s Presence. This is the Gift that God is always eager to give to us. God wants to give us Himself. God wants to give us His Presence in the Holy Spirit. And not just in the Holy Spirit, but also through Christ Jesus our Lord. As the second reading reminds us, it is in the dying and rising of this same Jesus that God has forgiven us all our sins. In Christ, God has cancelled every record of the debt that we had to pay; he has done away with it by nailing it to the cross.

This is the precious Gift that God has given to us, and continues to give to us even today. Here and now, as we gather around the altar at this Mass. This is the priceless Present that God keeps offering us. A present that we learn to receive by praying without giving up. I may begin, for example, by praying persistently for a BMW. And, hopefully, as I continue to pray, God will help me to see that I don’t really need a BMW. Hopefully, God will help me to realise that what I need more is to feel secure in God’s love and care for me. What I need more is to experience God’s Presence, in and around me. And then to be moved to share that Presence with others. The BMW I may not get. (Probably won’t get.) But a deeper relationship with God I will. Simply by persisting in prayer. By spending quality time conversing with the Lord. Bringing to God what is in my heart. And listening to what God wishes to say to me.

But, even so, it’s not always easy to see this. Especially if I keep insisting on getting the BMW. If I keep focusing my attention on the things that I want. Instead of on the God who wants to be with me. The God who is always and already present to me. Caring for me. Protecting me. To do this is very much like what I was doing with the Christmas hamper. It is to confuse the packaging for the present. It is to fail to do what we were asking God to help us to do at the beginning of this Mass. You will remember that, in our opening prayer just now, we asked God to grant that we may use the good things that pass in such a way as to hold fast even now to those that ever endure.

Sisters and brothers, isn’t it true that very often what we pray for are the things that pass? And that’s fine. That’s all right. We do need these things after all. Even if they do eventually pass. Even Jesus teaches us to pray to the Father for our daily bread. But could it be that all these things are only the packaging? Could it be that the true Present that God wants to give us, the actual Gift that God has already presented to us, is really God’s own Self? Through the Son, in the Spirit? This above all is the Gift that never passes away. This beyond all else is the Good that ever endures. And it is this that God is ever willing to bless us with always.

Sisters and brothers, how can we pray so as to accept more readily, to appreciate more deeply, this God, who continues to make of Himself a priceless Present to us today?

1 comment:

  1. O Lord, as you continue to shower us with your gifts daily, may we not forget YOU, the Giver.

    May we never take YOU for granted.

    Lord, as we come before YOU in prayer, may we learn to DWELL IN YOU, the Generous Giver who keeps on showering us with your gifts of graces and blessings unconditionally...

    O Lord, for YOU are more than all the gifts you give us and our restless hearts can only find rest in YOU and YOU ALONE.

    Only You, O Lord, can our hearts find its total and complete fulfilment.

    Come Lord Jesus, M--A--R--A--N--A--T--H--A.

    Pax et Bonum

    ReplyDelete

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