Saturday, March 14, 2015

Between Achievement and Art

4th Sunday in Lent (B)

Sisters and brothers, do you ever think about the things that make you happy? What are they? When do you experience joy? I’m not sure, sisters and brothers. But I tend to think that, especially here in Singapore, many of us associate joy with success. With personal achievement. So I feel happy when I get a promotion, for example. Or receive a pay-rise. Or do well in an examination. Or succeed in getting the person I like to go out with me. In all these situations, I feel happy because I can take pride in my own achievement.

And I experience this kind of joy even when the achievement is not properly mine. I may take pride in the success of my children and grandchildren, for example. Or rejoice when my favourite soccer team wins the championship. Or when my old school has the most number of straight-A students. These are actually the successes of other people. But I’m happy all the same, because I somehow claim the achievements as my own.

All this is fine and good for those of us who happen to be super-achievers. High fliers. Those for whom everything we touch turns to gold. But what if our efforts keep meeting with failure? What if we keep encountering disappointment? One after another? Is it impossible then for us to be happy? When we have nothing to boast about? Are we doomed to be forever depressed?

The answer, of course, is no. No, we are not doomed to depression, just because we encounter failure. Yes, it is still possible to be happy, even in the face of disappointment. And that’s because the joy of achievement is not the only kind of joy. Not even the purest kind. There are other joys. There is, for example, the joy we experience when we see a beautiful sunset. Or when someone does something nice for us. Something that we don’t even deserve. Or the joy that comes from knowing that we are loved and accepted as we are. Even though we fail.

Sisters and brothers, the joy of achievement is not the only kind of joy. And it’s important for us to remember this especially today. As you know, sisters and brothers, the 4th Sunday of Lent is also called Laetare Sunday. From the Latin word that means rejoice! I’m not sure about you, sisters and brothers, but I sometimes find it very puzzling that here, in the middle of Lent, we are invited to rejoice. Halfway through a season in which we do penance for our sins and shortcomings, when we struggle to turn away from our failures and infidelities, what do we really have to be happy about? Nothing really. At least not if we are looking for the happiness that comes from our own successes. But the joy of Lent is not the joy of achievement. The joy of Laetare Sunday is of a different kind. It comes from a source other than ourselves.

Our readings help us to better understand, and to enter more deeply into, this joy. To begin with, the first reading tells the story of the people of Judah, around the time of their Exile in Babylon. It begins as a very tragic tale. A sad sad story of failure and disappointment. Repeatedly the people sinned against God. Kept worshipping false gods. Added infidelity to infidelity. And yet, God remained ever faithful. God never forgot them. Refused to abandon them. Continued to keep them in mind. Even while they were in exile in Babylon. Eventually, God raised up Cyrus king of Persia, who defeated the Babylonians. And allowed the people to finally return to their home. To their own land. To rebuild the Temple. This is the joy that the first reading invites the people to experience. Not the joy that comes from their own achievements. For they have none to boast about. But the joy that comes from the unwavering love and mercy of God.

And what the first reading does for the people of Judah, the second reading and the gospel do for us. For the history of our relationship with God is not much different. Like the people of Judah, we too have sinned and broken faith with God. We too worship false gods. Like money and success. Or popularity and prestige. Or even anger and resentment. Yet God never forgets us. Refuses to abandon us. Just as Cyrus is raised up in the first reading. So too, in the gospel, we are told that the Son of Man must be lifted up. Raised up high upon the Cross. Where he lays down his life for us. Setting us free from our exile in sin.

This, my dear friends, is the true reason for our joy. Not our own achievements. For we have none worth talking about. But the love and mercy shown to us by God in Christ Jesus. As the second reading reminds us, it is by grace that you have been saved, through faith; not by anything of your own, but by a gift from God; not by anything that you have done, so that nobody can claim the credit. We are God’s work of art, created in Christ Jesus to live the good life as from the beginning he had meant us to live it.

Sisters and brothers, the joy that our readings are inviting us to experience is not the joy of achievement. At least not our own achievement. It is, rather, the joy in God’s achievement. The joy of knowing that something marvellous has been done for us. And to us. Without our deserving it. It is the joy of being chosen by God to be God’s special work of art. The joy of being moulded by the hands of God into something beautiful and precious. Beautiful and precious not because we achieve great things. But simply because we are loved by God. Loved even to the extent that Christ would lay down his life for us.

And yet, sisters and brothers, we have to be honest with ourselves. It is not an easy thing for us to enter into this joy. This joy of being God’s artwork. Even though it is offered freely to us. With no strings attached. It is not easy because, more often than not, we keep clinging to our craving for success. We keep focusing only on ourselves. And on our achievements. Just like someone, who fails to rejoice in the beauty of a brilliant sunset, because s/he is too busy fiddling with the cellphone. Or too preoccupied with the business of daily living. We fail to rejoice in God’s love, because we are too busy trying to earn it.

Isn’t this why we continue to require the discipline of the season of Lent? Through prayer, fasting and almsgiving, we allow God to refocus our attention. To help us to let go of our craving for success. Our need to take pride in our achievements. So that we can rejoice in what God has done and continues to do for us. And so that, by entering this joy, we can also begin to usher others into it as well.

Sisters and brothers, today is Laetare Sunday. Today we are invited to rejoice. What must we do, you and I, to deepen our experience of the joy of the Lord, and to share it with others, today?

1 comment:

  1. O Lord,

    May YOUR JOY remains my STRENGTH always.

    Teach me to REJOICE IN YOU, always.

    Let me see YOUR LIGHT in my deepest darkness

    Let me feel YOUR JOY in my sorrows

    Let me experience YOUR PEACE in my turbulence - even where turmoil and unrest fills my heart.


    Come Lord Jesus -

    Come and fill my heart with Your JOY on this Laetare Sunday. Amen.

    With a Joyful Trust and Gratitude,
    Sih Ying