Sunday, February 09, 2014

Being Polished To A Shine

5th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Picture: cc Terry Robinson

Sisters and brothers, do you ever pay attention to the vessels that we use at Mass? The chalice and the ciboria that we will soon bring up to the sanctuary, and place on the altar? Do you ever notice how they always look so clean and bright and shiny? How do you think they remain that way? Despite being used day after day, and week after week? This, of course, doesn’t just happen naturally. As you know, left on their own, many metallic surfaces have a tendency to tarnish. To grow dull and dark. So, if the vessels we use at Mass remain bright and shiny, it’s only because someone–probably one of our hardworking sacristans, or one of their helpers–someone has taken the trouble to wash or to polish them regularly.

And we know what washing and polishing involves. There is usually both an addition and a subtraction. First we need to add something. A mild detergent or a metal polish. But this addition is done for the sake of subtracting something else. The dirt or tarnish that has accumulated over time. Only when that has been removed, does the vessel become shiny once more. Only then, can its surface receive and reflect the light that falls upon it.

Washing and polishing. Adding and subtracting. This is how we make tarnished objects shiny again. This is how we make them  capable once more of receiving and reflecting the light. It’s helpful for us to keep this in mind, especially on this 4th Sunday in Ordinary Time. For today our Mass readings are all about the need to keep on shining. Your light will shine like the dawn, says the prophet Isaiah, in first reading. And, in the gospel, Jesus  says the same thing: Your light must shine in the sight of men.

But what does it really mean to shine? And how exactly do we go about doing it? Our readings seem to give us very clear answers to these questions. In the gospel, Jesus equates shining with letting others see our good works, so that they may give the praise to our Father in Heaven. And the first reading offers us some very concrete examples of what these good works might be. Share your bread with the hungry, and shelter the homeless poor, clothe the person you see to be naked and do not turn from your own kin. In other words, be merciful to those most in need of mercy. It would seem then that the message in our readings is simple and straightforward enough: As Christians, we are to shine in the world by doing good to others. By showing mercy to the many among us who need our help.

But is this really all there is to it? Is shining really only a matter of addition? Of simply adding more good deeds to our already busy schedules? I ask this question for several reasons. For one thing, we all know that it’s actually quite possible to do good deeds for less than honourable reasons. To make our good deeds become more about us than about the people we are trying to help. We may have heard of corporations, for example, that give to the poor only for the corporations’ own benefit. To avoid tax. Or to gain publicity. And what is true of companies, is also true of individuals. Sometimes, some of us give, only in order to get something back. And even if we do manage to bring ourselves to give without expecting anything in return, doesn’t it often remain a challenge for us, to keep ourselves from taking too much pride in what we do? From secretly, or not so secretly, congratulating ourselves too much?

And isn’t it also true that there is often a limit to how much we are willing to give? Whether it is a matter of our money, or of our time, or of our effort, there does usually come a point, doesn’t it, when it begins to feel just too burdensome to continue giving or doing? A time when, for example, we may find ourselves feeling disappointed and disillusioned, because our efforts do not seem to lead to lasting results. Perhaps we may even become resentful of the very people we are trying to help. Isn’t this why some of us speak of donation or compassion fatigue?

Why, do you think, sisters and brothers, we encounter such unfortunate experiences. Is it not because we focus too much on ourselves? On what we can do? On what we can contribute, or add? Forgetting that we are only able to shine to the extent that we receive and reflect the light of God’s mercy. As we prayed in our opening prayer just now, we are called to rely not on ourselves, but solely on the hope of heavenly grace. And when we focus too much on ourselves, instead of causing us to shine with the mercy of God, our charitable works may actually serve only to tarnish us further. By inflating our egos. By puffing us up with pride. Or by breaking us down in disappointment and disillusionment.

If this is true, then perhaps there is something important that we can learn from the observations we made earlier, concerning the washing and polishing of the vessels we use at Mass. The process, you will recall, involves not just addition, but also subtraction. Detergent or polish is added only so that the dirt and tarnish may be removed. Similarly, perhaps we need to perform good deeds in such a way as to remove from ourselves our own selfishness and self-absorption. Our tendency to cling stubbornly to our own self-interest. To rely only on our own strength.

And, in order to do this, it’s helpful to remember that when our responsorial psalm talks about the just man, it speaks not just about his hands, but also about his heart and his head as well. With a firm heart he trusts in the Lord. Open-handed he gives to the poor. His head will be raised in glory. What this tells us is that, if we wish to shine out in the world, we need to focus not just on what we do with our hands. But also on where we place our hearts. In performing our good works, we need to truly allow our hearts to go out in compassion to those who are suffering. In such a way that we may, if only for a moment, forget ourselves and our own petty concerns. Allowing ourselves to be filled, not just with pity for those who suffer, but also with trust and hope in God. Whose mercy is without end.

Realising that even if we may not succeed in ridding the world of suffering completely, or immediately, there is no need for us to be disappointed or disillusioned. For we believe that, contrary to appearances, God continues to hold the world securely in the palm of his hand. In the warmth of his embrace. Promising that a day will come when every tear will be wiped away. And God’s promise has indeed already been fulfilled in the Dying and Rising of Christ our Lord. The very Mystery that we are gathered here to celebrate at this Mass. A Mystery that gives us the strength we need to persevere in doing good. Even when we may face failure, or persecution. Isn’t this what St. Paul means when he writes, in the second reading, about relying not on his own power, but on the power of the Spirit. The power that comes from knowing Jesus as the crucified Christ.

Sisters and brothers, we live in a dark world. A world that very much needs the light of God’s mercy. In our homes and in our workplaces. In our church and on our streets. What more can we do to allow God to polish us. So that we can shine out more brightly with the light of Christ today?


  1. O Lord,

    May I always remain as an unpolished diamond in Your Hands,

    for only IN YOU am I safe and ready to be used (by You)

    Use me, Lord, as your servant to serve You and Your people,

    Let me shine only for Your greater glory and not for my own self-glory.

    Lord, may YOU I-N-C-R-E-A-S-E as I decrease. Amen.

    Seeing Is Believing
    9 February 2014 11.40am

  2. The green on the background of this blog makes me breath easier - my mechanism of breathing is damaged.
    After I take a couple of deep breaths, visualizing the green grass, then, I start reading the blog....

  3. Our world is filled with darkness, traps and lies.. But, the only way to reach out to those who are still wandering in the dark, is to open ourselves and place our trust in God, and reach out to them with great love. We have to trust that one day... Our God will let them see the light and truth. Peace, Zita