Saturday in the 6th Week of Ordinary Time (I)
Profession of Final Vows by Fr. Christopher Wee, SJ
Maranatha Retreat House, Bentong, Pahang, Malaysia
Picture: cc Brook Ward
My dear friends, I hope you don’t mind me asking, but where do you keep your valuables? I mean things like your money, your jewellery, and important documents like the title deeds to your house. Where do you keep all these things? Do you hide them under your mattress? Or in your pillowcase? Or behind the walls of your house? I’m not sure, sisters and brothers, but I suspect that few people actually keep their valuables in their own homes anymore. They prefer instead to surrender them to a bank. They open bank accounts and maintain safe deposit boxes. Why? For the simple reason that they trust the bank to keep their valuables more securely than they themselves can. And how do they know that they can trust the bank? Usually from experience. They have trusted the bank before. And the bank has proven itself trustworthy in the past. (Although, of course, we have to admit that some banks are more trustworthy than others.)
We surrender our valuables to the bank, because we trust it. And we trust it, because our we’ve had positive experiences with it in the past. Experience, trust and surrender… These are the steps by which we safeguard our valuables. And, strange as it may sound, this is also what our Mass readings are speaking to us about today. Except that the readings call it by another name. They call it FAITH.
As you know, at daily Mass this past week, we have been reading from the beginning of the book of Genesis. We have listened to the stories of Adam and Eve. Of Abel and Cain. And of Noah and the Tower of Babel. Today, the first reading from the Letter to the Hebrews reminds us that these are not just random tales of long dead people. No. All these are stories of faith. They show us what faith looks like.
For example, Noah’s faith is seen especially in his obedience to God. Not only does he build an ark exactly according to God’s instructions. He’s willing also to move into the ark together with his entire family. And a whole multitude of animals besides. And he does all this while there is not even a cloud in the sky. No obvious sign of rain. Let alone a great flood. He does all this even when others laugh at him. And call him names. He obeys. He surrenders himself and his whole family to God. Why? Because he believes what God has told him. He trusts that God knows best. That his valuables are most secure when they are surrendered into God’s loving hands. And how does he know this? From prior experience. From his encounters with God in the past. Experience, trust, and surrender. These are the ingredients of faith. This is what faith looks like.
Faith as experience, and trust, and surrender. This is also what we find in the gospel. This is the deeper significance of the Transfiguration. I’m sure none of us will deny that the Transfiguration is a remarkable experience. Jesus brings his three closest friends up a high mountain, where he shows them what he really looks like. He gives Peter, James, and John an awesome vision of his glory as the Only-Begotten-Son-of-God.
But it’s important for us to realise that, on its own, this experience falls short of faith. Seen in isolation, the Transfiguration is nothing more than a feel-good pick-me-up. Not unlike the buzz we may get from a strong cup of coffee. Which quickly passes. Leaving us sleepier than we were before. Or the spiritual high we sometimes feel after an intense retreat. Which eventually fizzles out. Leaving us wondering if the experience was real, or only in our imagination.
The experience of the Transfiguration becomes faith only when we recognise and respond to it for what it really is. First, and above all, an invitation… a call… A call to trust… and to surrender. This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him. Listen to him. Obey him. Follow him. And we listen and obey and follow him not by stubbornly seeking to remain on the Mountain of Transfiguration. But by courageously accompanying the Lord down into the Valley of Distress. Along the Way of the Cross. For it is only by enduring the Cross that we come to experience more deeply how truly trustworthy is our God. That even in the face of pain and suffering, of disappointment and discouragement, our God remains ever faithful to us. Bringing us from despair to hope. From darkness to light. From death to new life.
Isn’t this why Jesus warns the three disciples to tell no one what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead? We can only truly appreciate the significance of what happens on the Mount of Transfiguration, let alone to share it with others, when we have first accompanied the Lord down into the depths of the Valley of Distress. When we have first trusted him enough to surrender to him all our joys and sorrows. All our dreams and disappointments. Everything that we hold dear. To entrust our very lives into the warm security of his loving embrace.
All of which may help us to better appreciate what Fr. Chris Wee is about to do later in this celebration. He is about to profess his final vows in the Society of Jesus. As you know, he has actually already made a first profession way back in 1987. And, according to Jesuit practice, that first profession was already a perpetual profession. In making it, he had already bound himself forever. What then is the difference, we may wonder, between that first profession and the one he is about to make today?
I believe there is more than one answer to this question. The first answer is legal. As the Jesuits among us should know quite well, according to Jesuit law, the first profession was binding only on Fr. Chris himself. Then, in a sense, he had freely offered himself to the Society of Jesus. Today, by allowing him to make his final profession, the Society of Jesus, in its turn, binds itself to him. Accepts him completely as one of its own.
However, in addition to this legal difference, I believe there is also a deeper spiritual one. A difference that comes from Fr. Chris having, since the time of his first profession, accompanied Jesus a little further along the Way of the Cross. Descended with our Lord a little lower into the Valley of Distress. And so experienced a little more intimately the trustworthiness of our God. Bringing him joy in sorrow. Assurance in anxiety. New hope in disillusionment. In other words, the difference between the two professions can also be measured in the depth of Fr. Chris’ faith. A faith the implications of which he will soon commit himself again to live for the rest of his life. Continuing the cycle of experience, and trust, and surrender.
So we thank you, Fr. Chris, for giving us the opportunity today to witness and to ponder the inner workings of God’s gift of faith. And we thank you, my dear friends, for being here to support us. And to join us in recognising with ever greater clarity, and responding with ever wider generosity to God’s call to faith. And, most of all, we thank our merciful God for the precious gift of vocation.
My dear sisters and brothers, where are you keeping your valuables today?