Saturday, May 24, 2014

Celebrations in Contrast

50th Wedding Anniversary Mass of Charles & Suzanne

Readings: Ruth 1:16-17; Ephesians 4:1-6; John 17:20-23
Picture: cc Ross2085

Charles and Suzanne, sisters and brothers, have you ever noticed how you can read your smartphone more clearly when you look at it in the dark than in broad daylight? And, of course, you know the reason why. It’s the same reason why we switch off all the lights in the church before we screen a movie. It’s also the same reason why a white shirt seems to get dirty so much faster than a black one. Not that the white shirt is actually dirtier. It’s just that the dirt is more visible against a lighter background than a darker one. We call this contrast. We see things more clearly when we see them in contrast. So dirt is more obvious on a white shirt. Light shines out more brightly in darkness.

I mention this because it helps me to understand something about our Mass readings that at first seems very puzzling. As you know, we are all gathered here for a joyous celebration. Today we rejoice with Suzanne and Charles on the occasion of their Golden Wedding Anniversary. We join them and their family in giving thanks to God for 50 years of faithful and fruitful married life. And, typically, on an auspicious occasion like this, we expect everyone to be on their best behaviour. All of us. Including our jubilarians themselves. And me as well. We are expected to speak only about joyful things. To think only happy thoughts. To focus only on the brighter side of life.

And yet, when we look closely at our Mass readings today–readings which, by the way, were specially chosen by Suzanne and Charles–we find something quite surprising. Perhaps even unsettling. When we take the trouble to examine them closely, we find that each of our three readings is actually set against a background of deep darkness.

The first reading is taken from the beginning of the book of Ruth. Here we find Ruth speaking to her mother-in-law, Naomi. But before we examine Ruth’s words, it’s important to first consider their context. As you know, Naomi is a Hebrew woman from Judah. Years ago, a famine had forced her, together with her husband and their two sons, to become refugees in the foreign land of Moab. There both her sons married foreign wives. Ruth being one of them.  Then, one by one, her husband and her two sons died. Leaving Naomi and her two daughters-in-law to fend for themselves. With her family torn apart by death. Her heart broken by grief. Naomi decides to leave Moab. To return in sorrow to her homeland. This, my dear friends, is the background to our first reading. Truly, a situation of darkness.

We find something similar in the gospel too. The reading is taken from chapter 17. It is part of the High-Priestly Prayer of Jesus. And, again, it’s important to notice the setting for this prayer. Which is, as you know, the Last Supper. Earlier, in chapter 13, Jesus had washed his disciples’ feet, and shared a meal with them. Then, Judas Iscariot had left to betray his master. And, upon Judas’ departure, the gospel-writer had described the situation in these words: Night had fallen. Night had fallen. Not just because the sun had set. But because the Son of God would soon set out for his Passion. Night had fallen. Bonds of trust and friendship were being broken. Even as the body of Christ would soon be torn open. Again, dear friends, a situation of darkness.

And the darkness in the second reading is even more obvious. We find it already in the very first sentence. Using the name of the apostle Paul, the writer of this letter to the Ephesians refers to himself in a very striking way. I, the prisoner in the Lord, he writes. Reminding us of how Paul’s ministry ended. Of how the apostle was placed under house arrest in Rome. Before finally being beheaded by his enemies. Again, my dear friends, as in the other readings, a situation of darkness.

All of which may make us scratch our heads in bewilderment. Why these readings? Why all this darkness? Especially on a day like today. A day when most people would choose to look only at the light. Dear friends, Suzanne and Charles, please don’t get me wrong. I am not criticising your choice of readings. Indeed, I think you’ve chosen very well. In selecting readings set against a background of deep darkness, you actually help us to see more clearly. To see, by contrast. The bright light that shines in the dark. A light that darkness is powerless to overcome.

In the first reading, Naomi is in a truly vulnerable position. In a patriarchal society, with all the men in her family dead, she no longer has any social standing. And yet, in this darkness, Naomi thinks only about the welfare of her daughters-in-law. Instead of clinging to them, she tells them to leave her. To remain in Moab. To re-marry. To make better lives for themselves. And what’s even more remarkable is Ruth’s response. Although Naomi faces an uncertain future, Ruth chooses to remain by her side. Against the darkness of a family broken by disaster and death, we see, by contrast, the bright light of an enduring bond of love and fidelity. Wherever you go, I will go. Wherever you live, I will live.

This contrast is apparent too, in both the gospel and the second reading. At the Last Supper, even though Jesus knows that his disciples will soon be scattered. Even though he knows they will break their bond of friendship with him. Jesus remains faithful to his Father and to his friends. Right to the end. He even prays for the very people who will deny and desert him. He prays for unity and fruitfulness. May they all all be one… so that the world may believe it was you who sent me… Unity and fruitfulness. The same things that the prisoner in the Lord writes about in the second reading. Even though his imprisonment separates him physically from his friends, the writer continues to express his care and concern. He encourages his friends to maintain their ties of fidelity and love. Do all you can to preserve the unity of the Spirit by the peace that binds you together. There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God who is Father of all...

All of which should help us to better appreciate why Suzanne and Charles have chosen these dark readings today. Perhaps they are reminding us of the very thing that we continue to celebrate in this season of Easter. The Good News that, because Christ has risen from the dead, we really do not have to fear the dark. On the contrary, when we face the darkness in our lives with open eyes and courageous hearts, we actually allow the light to shine out all the brighter. All the more clearly.

Isn’t this also what we see when we gaze upon Suzanne and Charles? At the family they have raised. At the life they have built. Over 50 years. In the midst of the darkness of rising divorce rates, what we see here is the bright light of a love and a fidelity that continues to stand the test of time. A bond that endures, because it is rooted in the fidelity of Christ himself. And isn’t this also what we Christians are all called to do? To let our light shine out in the dark. Shine out by contrast. So that others may see Christ more clearly. May experience God’s love more deeply.

My dear friends, Charles and Suzanne, as we celebrate this joyous occasion, how might our Lord be calling us to continue to let his light shine out in the dark–shine out by contrast–today?

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