2nd Sunday of Advent (A)
Picture: cc Mark Morgan
My dear friends, are you familiar with the Bat-Signal? Do you know what it is? It’s something found in the Batman comics. You know, of course, who the Batman is, right? That fictional crime-fighting superhero, who protects the people of Gotham City. Whenever there is a serious crime wave. A crisis that even the police cannot handle on their own. The Police Commissioner switches on a special searchlight. Which projects the shape of a bat high up into the night sky. This is the Bat-Signal. It is, first of all, a sign of distress. A cry for help. A call to the Batman to come and save a city engulfed in darkness.
And the citizens of Gotham know that they can rely on this signal. They know that, once the sign of the bat flashes in the sky, the Batman will come to save them. Which is why the signal is not just a call for help. Not just a cry of distress. It is also a sign of hope. A promise to the people that their suffering will soon be ended. That help is on its way. That justice will eventually be meted out. And peace restored once again.
Of course, for the criminals in the city, on the other hand, for those responsible in some way for the people’s suffering, the bat-signal sends a very different message. It serves as a warning to the bad guys. Giving them due notice that their days of oppressing the good citizens of Gotham are quickly coming to an end. That they themselves will be sternly dealt with. Provided they turn over a new leaf. Provided they stop ignoring the rights of the poor. Provided they take steps to reach out and to help the needy. To restore justice. To work for peace.
A single signal shining in the dark, communicating different things to different people: A cry for help. A message of hope. A call to repentance. This is what the Bat-Signal stands for. This is what we find in the comic books. But not just in the comic books. Believe it or not, my dear friends, we find something similar in our Mass readings on this second Sunday in Advent.
The first reading speaks of a shoot springing from the stock of Jesse. The rise of a descendant of the father of King David. Someone who becomes a meaningful signal for a defeated nation. A country overrun by its enemies. A people walking in the darkness of exile. Someone who becomes a sign of their deep distress. Expressing their fervent cries for help. A sign simultaneously promising them that their suffering will soon be ended. That judgment will eventually be given in their favour. That justice will be meted out. A verdict for the poor of the land. A rod that strikes the ruthless. Sentences that bring death to the wicked. Which is why this same signal is also a warning to their enemies. Calling them to change their ways. To cease preying on the weak. To stop feeding on the flesh of the poor. To become like the lion who learns to eat straw like the ox. So that both predator and prey can live together. Enjoying the justice and peace that come to those who fear the Lord.
A single signal shining in the dark, communicating different things to different people: A cry for help. A message of hope. A call to repentance. We find the same thing in the gospel. This time, the signal comes in the person of John the Baptist. He is the voice that cries in the wilderness. He is the signal shining out in the darkness of the people’s distress. For not only is their land occupied by the Roman army. More importantly, their hearts and their lives are oppressed by the tyranny of sin and selfishness. Of ignorance and self-righteousness.
To them John offers a message of hope. Hope in the coming of the Lord. Who dispels the night of sin with the bright light of love. And, like the Bat-Signal, John’s is not just a message of hope for the oppressed. It is also a call to repentance for their oppressors. An alarm meant to awaken those who are asleep. Those still trapped in their own complacency. Those who assume they have nothing to fear, simply because they are the children of Abraham. The chosen people God. (Or simply because they are baptised, and faithfully go to Mass every Sunday.) To these, John issues a dire warning: Even now, he says, the axe is laid to the roots of the trees, so that any tree which fails to produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown on the fire…
A single signal shining in the dark, communicating different things to different people: A cry for help. A message of hope. A call to repentance. This is what we find in each of our readings today. And this signal is meant not only for us, who are gathered here this evening. Not only for our parish. Not only for the rest of the Catholic Church. This signal is meant for the whole world. As the first reading tells us, the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples. It will be sought out by the nations. And the second reading reminds us that Christ became the servant of circumcised Jews not just to fulfil the promises made to the patriarchs. But also to get the pagans to give glory to God for his mercy. The signal that we find in our readings today is meant not just for us, but also for the rest of the world. A world that remains plunged in the darkness of war and conflict. Of ignorance and disbelief. Of greed and lust for power. Of selfishness and sin.
But how can we expect our world to see and to recognise this signal? Provided, of course, that we are able to see and to recognise it first for ourselves. To see and to recognise it not just as it is proclaimed here in this church. But also as it continues to shine out in our world. I’m reminded, for example, of that encouraging news report in today’s issue of the Straits Times. Which tells the story of Jaycie Tay and John Shu. Of how, in 2013, 29-year-old twice-divorced and twice-incarcerated mother of four, Jaycie, happens to meet 47-year-old married father of two, John, at a bus-stop in Yishun. Jaycie is nearing the end of an 18-month sentence for drug offences. And waiting for a bus to take her back to her half-way house. John has to take a bus that day, because his motorcycle is in the shop.
They strike up a conversation. And John learns of Jaycie’s difficulties, as well as her desire to pursue a diploma, to give her children a better future. The two become friends. A few months into their friendship, John, who earns just over $2,000 a month, gives Jaycie $6,000 to pay for her diploma and other expenses. Why should I calculate so much about helping others? He says. I see Jaycie as a family member, like my younger sister. On her part, Jaycie completes her diploma, and has recently embarked on a part-time programme towards a degree in Business Studies. I never thought a stranger (who became a friend) would help me so much, she says. I hope that by sharing my story, other former offenders can also feel there is hope in life.
A signal shining in the dark, communicating different things to different people: A cry for help. A message of hope. A call to repentance. Isn’t this also what the story of John and Jaycie can be for us? Are there not similar stories in our own lives? Similar cries for help. Similar messages of hope. Similar calls to repentance. To recognise these signs and to respond adequately to them. Isn’t this what it means to celebrate Advent?
My dear friends, even in the midst of the darkness of our world, the Bat-Signal is already shining clearly in the sky. How are we being called to respond to it today?