Sunday, October 15, 2017

Between Exoskeleton & Embrace

28th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

My dear friends, do you know who Ironman is? He’s the superhero who wears a special suit of armour that gives him incredible superhuman powers. And, apparently, this kind of technology is no longer to be found only in movies and comic books. As you may recall, earlier this year, the Straits Times reported that Singapore is developing a new Ironman-like suit–dubbed the exoskeleton. This suit will allow the officers of our Civil Defence Force to carry weights of up to 50kg without feeling any strain. Which will be very helpful to them, especially when they need to transport heavy equipment up a tall building. Or to lift large pieces of debris in order to free those who may be trapped under them.

Imagine that. Something that wraps around your body, giving you strength to bear heavy burdens. That’s what an exoskeleton can do. Doesn’t it sound incredible? And yet, my dear friends, isn’t it true that although probably few, if any of us, have actually worn an exoskeleton, this kind of experience is not really new to us? Haven’t you experienced something similar? Something that wraps around your body, giving you strength to bear heavy burdens? Think, for example, of the last time you received a hug from someone you love. Someone who cares about you. When you were going through a particularly difficult time perhaps. How did you feel? What difference did it make? Isn’t it true that a simple embrace, the feeling of being held and cherished and supported by a loved one, can help us weather even the most serious of storms? My dear friends, it may not be very high-tech, but isn’t an embrace very much like an exoskeleton? Something that wraps around your body, giving you strength to bear heavy burdens.

Something that wraps itself around us, giving us strength to bear heavy burdens. Sisters and brothers, I think that this is also what is at stake in our Mass readings today. As you’ve probably already noticed, there is something here that is quite unmistakable. Both in the first reading and in the gospel, as well as in the psalm, reference is made to a banquet. A banquet of rich food and fine wines prepared for people to enjoy. And it probably seems very puzzling, especially to us who live in Singapore, and who love so much to eat. But the people in the parable refuse to come to the banquet. They pass up an opportunity for free food. Good food. So stupid, right? And I’m not sure what you think, my dear friends, but it’s tempting for me to feel that I am not at all like these people. That I wouldn’t do the same thing. After all, am I not here, so early on a Sunday morning, to participate in this Eucharistic banquet? Have I not accepted the Lord’s invitation? Surely, I have. Or have I?

To answer this question, we need to remember what food is meant to do for us. That more than just filling our stomachs, it is meant to nourish us. To give us strength to face the challenges of life. Isn’t this what attendance at the banquet is really about? Not just the fulfilment of a weekly obligation. Not even just to give face to the host. But to receive and renew our strength. To experience what St Paul writes about in the second reading, when he says that there is nothing I cannot master with the help of the One who gives me strength. To receive the energy I need to face the challenges of life. But how, we may ask, is this strength being offered? How does it need to be received? What does it really mean to come and to participate, truly participate, at the banquet of the Lord? After all, isn’t it true that a banquet can be a rather impersonal thing? I can treat it like a common buffet, for example, and just keep shovelling food into my mouth, without actually paying attention to anyone else. What does it mean to truly come to the Lord’s banquet?

The first reading is helpful. For here, in addition to providing the people with food, the Lord of hosts promises to do something more. We’re told that the Lord will wipe away the tears from every cheek… Isn’t this such an intimate and deeply personal action on the part of God? That the Lord should place a hand on my cheek, and wipe away my tears. And perhaps I might even imagine God wrapping God's arms around me. Supporting me in the warmth of God's embrace. Isn’t this what we prayed for in our Collect just now? May your grace… at all times go before us and follow after us and make us always determined to carry out good works… In other words, may we always be surrounded, enfolded, embraced by your loving presence, O God. May you wrap yourself around us like an exoskeleton. Giving us the strength we need to help others.

And where do we find the answer to this prayer if not in Jesus? Isn’t this what it means to attend the banquet? First of all, to come to Jesus. Especially when I may be undergoing one difficulty or another. When I may be weak and struggling and weeping. To come to the Lord in my pain and confusion, and to give him the opportunity to tenderly wipe away the tears from my cheeks. To wrap his gentle arms around me in a loving embrace. To become my exoskeleton. Giving me the strength I need to bear the burdens of life.

And isn’t this where the chief priests and elders of the people fail? As much as they may faithfully fulfil all their religious obligations, they refuse to allow themselves to be vulnerable. To acknowledge their weakness. To come to Jesus. And could this also be where the guest without a wedding garment falls short? Even if he may show up at the banquet, he treats it like an impersonal buffet. He refuses to allow his tears to be wiped away. Or to enter the  intimacy of the Lord’s embrace.

All of which might lead us to to reflect on our own experience of prayer and the Sacraments. When we pray, when we come to Mass, when we go to Confession, to what extent do we allow ourselves to be vulnerable? To acknowledge our weakness? To let the Lord wipe away our tears from our cheeks? Enfold us in God's embrace? Strengthen us to to face the challenges of life? And what is the measure of all this, if not our ability to remain hopeful and even joyful in the midst of trial, and also to continue to reach out to care for those most in need of our help?

My dear friends, very soon the officers of our Civil Defence Force will have exoskeletons to wrap around their bodies, giving them strength for the important job of rescuing those in harm’s way. What must we do to continually wrap ourselves in the warmth of the Lord’s embrace, so that we too might help rescue others in need today?

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