Sunday, February 14, 2016

Questions of Safety


1st Sunday of Lent (C)


Sisters and brothers, I think most of you have heard about the powerful earthquake that struck the city of Tainan, in southern Taiwan, last Saturday. But did you know that all but two of the people who were killed when the quake struck were inside the same 17-storey apartment complex? Why did this building collapse, when many others around it remained standing? This is the question the authorities are now asking. And for good reason.

Examination of the collapsed building has revealed that tin cooking-oil cans and styrofoam appear to have been used as filler material inside some of its concrete beams. It’s too early to say whether any laws were broken in the building’s construction. But it is clear that the authorities are now taking the matter very seriously. Serious enough that, on Tuesday, three former executives of the company responsible for erecting the building were taken into custody for questioning.

I’m not sure, sisters and brothers, but I imagine the relatives of those who died are probably wishing that these questions had been asked earlier. That checks were made sooner. To ensure the building was properly built. Steps taken so that its occupants might have a reasonably safe structure in which to live.

And if this is true of a physical building, shouldn’t it be true of my spiritual life as well? When disaster strikes, will I be able to withstand the shock? Or will I simply crumble and collapse? Like that building in Tainan. How really safe and secure is the spiritual structure in which I live? What can I do to make it stronger? What questions do I need to ask? What checks do I need to make? What steps can I take? These are some of the things that our Mass readings help us to ponder on this 1st Sunday in Lent.

We see this especially in the opening lines of our responsorial psalm. He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High and abides in the shade of the Almighty says to the Lord: “My refuge, my stronghold, my God in whom I trust!” But what does it mean to dwell in the shelter of the Most High? To abide in the shade of the Almighty? And what can I do to ensure that I am indeed living in this safe and secure spiritual Place? Each of our Mass readings provides its own answer to these questions. And these answers can be summarised in three words.

The first word is ritual. For the first reading describes a ritual celebrated by the People of Israel. To offer to God the first-fruits of the harvest. And this ritual involves three actions. The first is pronouncement. After the people have approached the priest at the altar, they are asked to remember and to recite aloud all that God has done for them. Especially how God heard their voice when they called on the Lord. How God rescued them from slavery in Egypt. And led them to the Promised Land. After they have made this prouncement, they are then asked to lay (your gifts) before the Lord your God, and bow down in the sight of the Lord your God. Presentation and prostration. These are the other two actions of the ritual.

But that’s not all. The ritual actions of pronouncement and presentation and prostration are not meant to stand on their own. They are, rather, an expression of a whole way of life. A life that constantly and carefully recalls and recites the Lord’s goodness. A life that repeatedly presents to the Lord the very best of what I have and who I am. In gratitude for all that God has done and continues to do for me. A life that is, above all else, an act of worship to the Lord. To celebrate this ritual is really to commit myself to keep on dwelling in the shelter of the Most High. To keep on abiding in the shade of the Almighty. And so to enjoy the safety and security of the Lord’s embrace.

The second word is reading. For this is what St. Paul is doing in the second reading. He helps his readers, and all of us, to read and interpret Scripture. And he assures us that the Word of God, which provides us a safe shelter, is not very far away. It is, instead, very near to us, it is on our lips and in our hearts. All we have to do to continue to live in this powerful Word is to keep believing in our heart and to keep confessing with our lips. To keep living a life that is rooted and grounded, shaded and sheltered, in the love of God shown to us in Christ Jesus.

The third answer to the question of how to take shelter in God is provided by Jesus in the gospel. After being baptised in the Jordan River. And after being filled with the power of the Holy Spirit. Jesus doesn’t just rush headlong into his public ministry. Instead, we are told that he is led by the Spirit through the wilderness. He makes a retreat. Why a retreat? Apparently only so that he can be tempted by the devil. But why? Wouldn’t it be better not to be tempted? Perhaps. But, then again, perhaps not. For if the strength of a building is not tested, how will we know it is strong enough to withstand an earthquake? So Jesus allows himself to be tempted. To be stress-tested. To practice resisting the devil’s cunning tactics. Such as the temptation to use his power for self-serving purposes. And the temptation to worship anything, or anyone, other than God alone. As well as the temptation to put God to the test by acting recklessly instead of responsibly.

In successfully resisting each of these temptations, Jesus demonstrates the structural strength and firm foundation of the spiritual building in which he lives. More than any other person, it is Jesus who shows us what it means to dwell in the shelter of the Most High. And to abide in the shade of the Almighty. For he will continue to dwell and to abide in the will of God, even when this dwelling turns into the darkened shade and the crushing shelter of the cruel Cross. And his Father will reward his trust by raising him from death to life.

Ritual, reading, and retreat. Three ways to help us to keep dwelling in the shelter of the Most High. To keep abiding in the shade of the Almighty. And are these not the very things that make up this great Season of Lent? What is Lent, after all, if not one long retreat? A time when we practice resisting the devil. And what are we invited to do more in Lent, if not to celebrate rituals? More frequently and more conscientiously. Liturgical rituals like the Holy Eucharist, and the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Devotional rituals like the Stations of the Cross, or the Holy Rosary, or the Chaplet of the Divine Mercy. Personal rituals, like prayer and fasting and almsgiving. And what good will all these rituals do us, if they are not informed by the careful and attentive reading of Sacred Scripture?

But still, as important as they all are, we need to remember that the practices of ritual, reading, and retreat will benefit us only to the extent that we connect them to the rest of our lives. So that our whole life becomes a continual act of worship to God. For everyone who calls on the Lord will be saved.

Sisters and brothers, it is truly tragic when we question the safety of a building only after it collapses. And kills many people.

How is God inviting us to question our spiritual safety today?

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