Sunday, December 14, 2014

Naked Unto Joy

3rd Sunday in Advent (B)

Picture: asiaone

Sisters and brothers, if the news reports are to be believed, there were at least 100 very happy people on Orchard Road last Thursday morning. Perhaps some of you know what I’m talking about. You know the reason for the joy. You know that, on Thursday morning, a certain clothing store on Orchard Road launched its annual winter promotion by offering free clothes to its first 100 shoppers. Of course, that in itself is no big deal. After all, distributing freebies is a common sales gimmick. What made the event stand out was the fact that, in order to get the free clothes, the first 100 customers had to show up at the store half-naked! That’s right. It was a Semi-Naked Sale. Come in swimwear, and we’ve got you covered. That was the slogan.

And what do you think was the response? Well, pretty good, apparently. The first two people in line started queueing from as early as 11pm the night before! And, by 8am on Thursday morning, there were already close to 70 people outside the store. All eagerly waiting to experience the joy of being clothed for free. So eager that they were willing to shed their dignity. To strip off their garments. To bare their bodies. If only partially.

Sisters and brothers, before you rush off to report me to the Archbishop, please let me assure you that I am in no way expressing support for or approval of this Semi-Naked Sales Promotion. Much less am I suggesting that we do the same here in church. I mention this only because, strange as it may sound, I think it bears more than a passing resemblance to what we find in our readings on this 3rd Sunday of Advent.

As you know, traditionally, the 3rd Sunday of Advent is also known as Gaudete Sunday. From the Latin word that means rejoice! And indeed our readings today are full of joy. Filled with encouragement to rejoice. It’s as though our liturgy were carrying out a winter promotion of its own. A pre-Christmas campaign of joy. And, like that sales event on Orchard Road, the first reading describes this joy in terms of someone getting clothes for free. I exult for joy in the Lord, the prophet exclaims. My soul rejoices in my God, for he has clothed me in the garments of salvation, he has wrapped me in the cloak of integrity...

But what does this mean for us? What are these garments of salvation? What is this cloak of integrity? And how does this person come to be clothed? The first reading compares these clothes to the finery worn by a bride and her groom. Except that, as we all know, it’s not really the clothes and accessories themselves that bring joy at a wedding. These things symbolise something much deeper. At a wedding, the bride and groom dress themselves up not just in specially tailored fabrics. And finely crafted jewellery. When they get married, the couple are actually clothing themselves in one another. In the love that they have for each other. This is the deeper reason for their joy.

Similarly, the joy that the prophet speaks about in the first reading does not come from being clothed in any ordinary outfit. Not even something made by the most famous of fashion designers. What the prophet rejoices in, the thing that he is being clothed with, is nothing less than God Himself. The spirit of the Lord has been given to me, for the Lord has anointed me… This is the cause of joy. Not just being clothed in garments of gold. But being anointed by the Spirit of God. Being wrapped in the power and presence of God.

And this is also the reason why, in the second reading, St. Paul wants the Thessalonians to be happy at all times. Not so much because all their problems have been solved. Or because they have nothing anymore to be sad about. But because, in Baptism, they have all been clothed in Christ Jesus. Wrapped in the Spirit. Who keeps them safe and blameless. Even in the midst of their struggles. Helping them to remain faithful to God. Even as they continue to do what we ourselves are doing in this beautiful Season of Advent. Await the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.

But that’s not all. Joy and clothing are not the only things that our liturgy has in common with that sales event on Orchard Road Thursday morning. There is something else. The joy that God provides in our readings is offered to a particular group of people. In the first reading, the prophet is sent to comfort a people in Exile. To bring good news to the poor, to bind up hearts that are broken. In the responsorial psalm, the Blessed Virgin Mary sings of how God looks on his servant in her nothingness. How he fills the starving with good things. And sends the rich away empty. The people that God chooses to clothe in garments of joy are people who are in need. People who are, in a sense, naked. And not just naked. But unable to clothe themselves. And not just unable to clothe themselves. But ready and willing to acknowledge and to accept their inability. To embrace their vulnerability. To own up to their weakness. To their need for God.

This too is what we find in John the Baptist. In the gospel, the Baptist has no illusions about who he is and what he can and cannot do. He accepts that he is not the light. Only a witness to speak for the light. He freely admits that he is not the Christ. Not the Saviour of the world. Indeed he considers himself unfit even to undo the sandal-strap of the One who is coming after him.

What we find in John the Baptist, sisters and brothers, is a refreshing humility. A paradoxical modesty. That is unafraid to stand naked before God. And it is precisely into the hearts and lives of people such as this that Christ the Lord chooses to come. People willing to be stripped of all the things that others may use to cover up their human weakness. People willing to come before God in their nakedness. It is precisely such people that God chooses to clothe in garments of joy.

All of which should prompt us to reflect upon ourselves. We who continue to prepare ourselves to welcome the Lord when he comes at Christmas. We who make it a habit to buy and to wear  new clothes in the festive season. Which, in itself, is not a bad thing. As long as we do not forget that what’s more important is to allow ourselves to be anointed, enwrapped, by the Spirit of God. To be clothed in the precious Body and Blood of Christ. And this is something that we cannot do for ourselves. It is a gift from God. Freely given to those of us who are willing to lay bare those areas in our lives that we prefer to keep under wraps. Areas where we are weak and vulnerable. Helpless and needy. Places where our consciences may have been pricked. Our egos deflated. Our hearts broken and torn...

Sisters and brothers, there seems to be no shortage of people willing to bare their bodies before others. Just to receive clothes that will last for a few years. How willing are we to bare our souls before God. So as to receive garments that will endure for all eternity? On this 3rd Sunday in Advent, how ready are you to stand naked before God today?

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