Sunday, August 02, 2015

Between Tourism & Migration

18th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

Sisters and brothers, do you like to travel? What comes to your mind, and how do you feel, when you hear the word travel? I’m not sure, but I think many of us would probably associate it with pleasure. With relaxation. With a vacation. With tourism. And that’s fine. These are valid reasons to travel. We visit new and exotic places. But only for a short time. And while we’re there, we bring with us as many of the comforts of home as we can. We make our trip as pleasurable and as trouble-free as possible.

And yet the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary tells us that the English word travel comes from a Latin root (trepalium) that, in the Middle Ages, was actually the name for an instrument of torture. And this association of travel with suffering and torment shouldn’t surprise us. For, in the Middle Ages, travel of any kind was a very difficult and exhausting affair.

And not just in the Middle Ages. Even today, travel can and does involve suffering. We may think, for example, of all those people who leave their homes to find work. Or in search of a better life. Not just those who are forced to do so. Those driven by war, or disaster, or oppression. But also those who choose, of their own free will, to leave home for good. Those who decide to migrate. For all such people, travel is often a struggle. More than just visiting another place for a short period of time, migration involves uprooting yourself. Making a new home in strange and uncomfortable surroundings. Surviving on new food. Enduring a different climate. Adapting to unfamiliar people. And being changed by the experience. It’s hard. Even painful.

This then is the difference between tourism and migration. Tourism is about pleasure. Migration often involves pain. Tourism is temporary. Migration permanent. The tourist leaves, only to return home at a later time. The migrant leaves, to make a new home elsewhere. One travels for leisure. The other for life. I mention, and perhaps exaggerate, this contrast between tourism and migration, because I believe it can help us to better appreciate what is going on in our Mass readings. Where we find people being challenged by God to change the way they travel. To stop being mere tourists. And to become true migrants instead.

In the first reading, God has brought the people of Israel out of Egypt. And they are now travelling in the wilderness. On the way to a new life in the Promised Land. God has called them to leave their former home in Egypt. To make a new home for themselves. Not just in the Promised Land. But in God. To entrust their lives into God’s hands. God has called them to undertake a mass migration. And, as with all migrations, this involves struggle and suffering.

But the Israelites don’t realise this. On their journey, they keep thinking and acting more like fussy tourists than determined migrants. At the first sign of discomfort, they complain. Although Egypt was a place of slavery, they continue to think of it as their home. They long for the food that they enjoyed there. We were able to sit down to pans of meat and could eat bread to our heart’s content. Their complaints show that the Israelites are not prepared for migration. It’s too difficult. To help them to keep going, God sends them quails and manna to sustain them on their way. To help them let go of their obsession with Egypt. So that they might embrace a fuller and deeper life in God.

In the gospel too, we find people being challenged to change the way they travel. Having earlier witnessed Jesus feeding five thousand with just five loaves and two fish, the people in the gospel travel across the Sea of Galilee in search of him. But when they find him, Jesus scolds them. Why? Jesus is unhappy. Not because they travelled in search of him. But because of their reasons for doing so. You are not looking for me because you have seen the signs but because you had all the bread you wanted to eat. The people travel in search of the familiar and the comfortable. Food that fills their stomachs. They travel only the way tourists do. Merely for pleasure. And not for new life.

Jesus calls them to change the way they travel. No longer as tourists. But as migrants. To be nourished by new food. Food that fills not just their stomachs but their hearts. Food that lasts not just a few days. But for all eternity. Food that doesn’t just nourish bodies. But brings fullness of life. Jesus invites them to find in him their permanent home. He offers them himself. Not just as a provider of free earthly food. But as the true bread that comes down from heaven. To come to Jesus. To believe in him. To feed on him. To make his concerns their own. All this requires travel. Not the travel of tourists craving temporary pleasure. But the travel of migrants seeking a new life. People willing to endure the discomfort and struggle of leaving the familiar behind. Of uprooting themselves. Of making a new home in Jesus as Lord.

To move from tourism to migration. From a temporary change of location for pleasure. To permanent relocation for new life. This is also what the second reading calls us to do. To stop living the aimless kind of life that pagans live. This is what our faith is about. Not just going on an occasional tour. Perhaps one hour a week in church on a Sunday. But committing ourselves to constant migration. To ongoing spiritual revolution. Continually putting aside the old self. The anxious, greedy, self-absorbed self. The self concerned with comfort and pleasure. And putting on a new self. The joyful, peaceful, loving, trusting, self-sacrificing self. The self willing to endure suffering. In order to settle in a new home. The self willing to bear the pains of migration. In order to find new life. This is what our faith is about. Travel as migration. Travel as Christ travelled. When he came down among us from heaven. And was raised up for us on a cross.

This is the call that is being addressed to us today. To stop thinking of our faith merely as something that comforts us and gives us pleasure. It does that too, of course. But only when we are willing to endure the struggle of relocation. When we are willing to expect hardship. And even to accept it as necessary for our growth in faith. An indispensable part of the process of letting God become more and more the centre of our lives.

Which is why I find myself wondering whether it is a good thing when the news tells us that more young people in China are turning to religion. What do you think? Whether or not it is a good thing depends very much on the reasons for their interest. On the kind of religion they are embracing. Is it only a matter of comfort and pleasure and self-satisfaction? Or is there also a willingness to turn one’s life around for the common good? This is the crux of the issue, isn’t it? And not just for the Chinese. But also for us. True Christianity involves travel of a very particular kind. The kind that is willing to accept struggle and suffering. For the sake of new life. This is what it means to believe in Christ.

Sisters and brothers, how are you being called to be less of a tourist, and more of a migrant, today?

1 comment:

  1. O Lord Jesus,

    You had once said : "Foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head." (Mt 8:20).

    Lord, You know the pains and sufferings of an itinerant traveller - during Your time on earth, You had travelled from one place to another, often walking on long difficult roads and rough paths, to preach the Good News and to bring God to His people. You know the hardships and the sufferings of a migrant constantly on the move...

    Teach us to learn from You to be a migrant - to dare to take up our cross and follow in Your footsteps; to be willing to suffer as we walk in Your ways..

    Indeed, the only way to God and to life eternal is via the narrow door/gate shaped in the form of a cross - this, let us never forget.

    O Lord, please lead and guide me as You are the Only Reliable Travel Guide and Companion along my Life's Journey. You will never abandon me on this journey of my life and You will watch over me and keep me all the way, until I reach my Eternal Home.

    Lead me, Lord & guide me along Your paths - to seek and find the narrow way.

    Be my Guide, Be my Light, Be my Way, O Lord,

    Lead me Lord, Today and always. Keep me ever close to You and never let me be parted from You. Amen.

    Sih Ying
    2 August 2015


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