Saturday, December 20, 2014

Proof of the Pudding


4th Sunday in Advent (B)

Picture: cc Nickster 2000

The proof of the pudding is in the eating. Sisters and brothers, I’m sure you’re familiar with this old English saying. You know what it means. It refers to how the true value of something is judged, not so much by looking at it, but by experiencing it. By putting it to use. So a house, for example, may look very elegant and impressive on the outside. But you still wouldn’t consider it a good house, if things start to fall apart soon after you move in. If the floor tiles start popping up, for example. Or the water pipes start leaking. Or the paint begins to peel. In that case, you could probably use another saying to describe the house. A Chinese one this time. You could say that the house was ho kua bo ho jiak (好看不好吃). Nice to look at, but not good to eat.

And it is, of course, wise to recall these proverbs not just after you’ve moved into the house. That would be too late. Better to be mindful of them while the house is still being built. So that you’ll take care to ensure that the house is properly constructed. Built to be lived in. And not just to be looked at. So that you’ll remember to make certain that, in constructing your house, the contractor uses durable materials. And good workmanship.

But why talk about building houses in Advent? As you know, Advent is a time for making space for the God-Who-Comes. In a sense, in Advent, we make an effort to build a spiritual house for the Christ-child. So that there will be a place fit for him to live in–in our hearts and in our homes, in our church and in our world–when he comes to us at Christmas. But what kind of building must we do to ensure that Jesus finds a fitting welcome? A house that’s not just nice to look at. But also good to eat. Fit for the Lord to live in. This is the crucial question that our Mass readings help us to answer, on this 4th and final Sunday of Advent.

The first reading presents us with a rather curious situation. King David wants to build a House, a Temple, for God. But God refuses to let him do so. Why? Why not let David go ahead with his plans? I’m not sure, sisters and brothers. But perhaps it has something to do with how God wants God’s House to be built. At this point in the story, King David has just succeeded in defeating all his enemies. After a string of victorious battles, the Lord has finally given him rest. But David doesn’t seem to want to rest. He prefers to quickly get busy again. To undertake a huge building project to add to the list of his achievements on the battle-field.

God, however, seems mindful of the dangers that come with this kind of building. Building on one’s own achievements. Building from a interior place of busyness and restlessness. Very likely God knows that this kind of building too easily leads to the inflation of one’s own ego. We end up building a house not for God but for ourselves. A house that might be nice to look at, but not good to eat. So God stops David. And, instead, reminds the king that all the achievements he has accumulated so far, have been attained only through the help of God. They are blessings. So that, rather than presume to build a House for God, David should first take time to rest in, and to be grateful for, the house that God is building for him. And his people.

In this way, God teaches David (and the rest of us) the proper way to build a House for God. A space fit for God to live in. And not just nice to look at. Such a holy place must be built not on one’s own achievements. But on the blessings received from God. Not from an anxious need to remain constantly busy. But from a place of tranquility and rest. Rest that God alone can provide. Rest in the delight that our loving God takes in each and all of us. Without our having, or being able, to do anything to earn it. This is how we build for the sake of God. And not just to feed our own hungry egos. It is only in this way that we can do what the second reading encourages us to do. To give glory to him through Jesus Christ for ever and ever. Amen.

But, even if all this theory is true, how does it translate into practice? What does it look like when someone finds the courage to build in this way. To build on blessings rather than achievements. To build from a place of rest rather than anxiety. To build to glorify God rather than to feed one’s own ego. The answer is found in the gospel. Here, it is Mary who shows us how to build a House fit for God. It is Mary who demonstrates to us how to make a space for God to enter into our hearts, into our lives, and into our world.

Notice how the building is done only at God’s initiative. Only on the foundation of God’s blessing. That is why the angel calls Mary highly favoured. Full of grace. Her part is only to obey. To yield to God’s call. To accept God’s gift. Which, in itself, is not an easy thing to do. For, to do this, Mary has to adjust the plans that have already been made for her and Joseph, her betrothed. She has to consent to being the mother of a child whose father is not her husband. A very dangerous prospect at the time. It is no wonder then, that Mary is, at first, deeply disturbed.

And yet, she courageously brings her unrest before the Lord. She bravely questions the angel. Who tells her what she needs to hear, in order for her to once again find rest. So that, by the end of their conversation, Mary is able to give to the angel her generous consent. To say yes to making a space for God in her heart and in her womb. And, in the process, God finds a home on earth. A Temple made not of stone, but of human flesh. Built not on human achievements, but on divine grace. Constructed not to feed egos, but to glorify God.

All of which should help us to reflect on our own ongoing efforts at preparing for Christ’s coming at Christmas. Very likely, we are buying gifts and organising parties. We have put up cribs and decorated Christmas trees. We have gathered with others to share our prayers and to confess our sins. All these activities are good and necessary. Important ways by which we prepare to welcome the Lord. And yet, it also remains crucial for us to remember the lesson that our Mass readings are teaching us today. That all these efforts of ours at building a spiritual house for God will only bear good fruit to the extent that we are truly building for God and not just for ourselves. Truly building on our blessings and not just on our achievements. Truly building from an interior place of rest and not restlessness. And to do this means that, more than frantic activity, what we need is patient courage. Courage that Mary had. Courage to count our blessings. To rest in God’s love. And to give praise and glory to the Lord of our Salvation.

Sisters and brothers, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. How good is your pudding today?

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