Friday, December 01, 2017

Visions in the Night

Memorial of Ss Edmund Campion, Robert Southwell, Priests
& Companions, Martyrs
(Day 2 of SFX Triduum)

Picture: cc Hartwig HKD

My dear friends, do you still remember what we talked about yesterday? As those of you who were here may recall, we suggested that, just as there are 3 R’s to environmental protection (Reduce, Reuse & Recycle), and 3 R’s to primary education (Reading, wRiting, & aRithmetic), there are also 3 R’s to missionary discipleship. And, yesterday, we talked about the first of these 3 R’s. Do you remember what it is? Yes, receptivity & responsiveness. The ability graciously to receive and generously to respond to the Call of Christ. This evening we want to reflect on the second R of missionary discipleship.

But first, let me again ask you a question. Which of these do you think you are, an optimist or a pessimist? Someone who sees a glass as half empty, or half full? Some of us may remember the story of the artist who painted a big black spot on a plain white canvas, and then showed it to some friends, asking them what they saw. As might be expected, everyone saw the black spot. To which the artist replied: But what about the white canvas? Don’t you see that too? As you know, this story is sometimes told to remind us not be pessimistic. Not to keep obsessing over black spots. But to be optimistic. To focus instead on the white canvas. Sounds like good advice, right? Since too much pessimism can lead to depression. And, in extreme cases, even to suicide.

And yet, haven’t we met people who are too optimistic? Who focus only the bright side of things, and ignore the darkness around them? We may imagine, for example, a family that refuses to acknowledge that one of its members has a problem with alcohol, or drugs, or gambling, or sex. So the addict does not receive the help that is needed. And the whole family suffers. The same can be said about citizens who ignore the injustices that may be taking place in their own country. Allowing these to continue unchallenged. Causing much harm. Extreme optimism can be just as destructive as excessive pessimism.

But if neither optimism nor pessimism is the way to go, then what other option do we have? For us, the answer is clear. The properly Christian alternative to optimism and pessimism is something we call hope. Which has at least two main ingredients. The first is the ability to recognise the light that endures even in the darkness. Which then leads to the second ingredient. The ability to remain resilient even in times of trouble. To be able, like a rubber ball, to keep one’s shape even after having been tightly squeezed. And to bounce back up again, even after being repeatedly knocked down. Recognition and resilience. This, my dear friends, is the second R of missionary discipleship. Something we find in our Mass readings today.

The first reading is set in a time of deep darkness for the people of Judah. They have been conquered by their enemies. Jerusalem, the Holy City, has been overrun. The Temple destroyed. Many of the people sent into exile in Babylon. Daniel is one of these exiles. Brought to Babylon as a young boy, he has been forced to serve in the court of the king. Where he struggles to remain faithful to the commandments of God, while living among a gentile people. How does he stay so heroically resilient? How does he steadfastly keep his shape as an observant Jew?

The first reading tells us how. He does it not by being optimistic. Not by ignoring the darkness. But rather, by actually gazing steadily and courageously into it, while crying out to God. As a result, his prayer is heard. And he is rewarded with visions in the night. Visions that may at first appear terrifying. Visions of powerful beasts with the ability to do immense harm. To cause unspeakable damage. Bible commentators say that these beasts symbolise the different empires that rise and fall at this time in history. Causing the people great suffering. But these visions are given to Daniel not to unsettle and to frighten, but instead, to encourage and to reassure him. For the power of all these beasts is seen to pass away. After which Daniel is given a final vision of yet another kingdom. An empire of a different kind, which overcomes and outlasts all the earlier ones. And which endures forever. A kingdom established by God himself. Who is symbolised by the one of great age. Seated on a fiery throne. And who confers lasting authority on a mysterious unnamed figure. One like a son of man. Whose sovereignty is an eternal sovereignty that shall never pass away.

What Daniel receives in his visions of the night, is the gift of hope in time of trial. The power to recognise, in the midst of deep darkness, the truth that even as all other kingdoms pass away, God’s reign of love will ever endure. And, in recognising this truth, he finds in it the strength to stay strong in the face of oppression. To remain faithful to God even when pressured to do otherwise. To keep his proper shape as a beloved member of God’s chosen race. God’s holy people. And to continue to bear witness to this hope in a foreign land. Recognition of the signs of God’s reign, leading to resilience in the face of hardship and oppression. This is the gift given to Daniel in the first reading.

And this is the same gift offered in the gospel as well. As those of us who have been following the weekday Mass readings may recall, Jesus has been speaking about a period of trial that is approaching. As well as about his own second coming at the end of time. Like those in the first reading, these will be times of deep darkness. But, even in the darkness, there will remain unmistakable signs of light. Signs that the disciples are being taught to recognise. In the parable of the fig tree, Jesus invites them to look out for the buds that signal the onset of summer. The coming of God’s kingdom of love and justice and peace. Which will give them strength to endure their trials. For the promise made to Daniel in the first reading finds its fulfilment in Christ in the gospel. Jesus is the son of man on whom an eternal sovereignty is conferred. Jesus himself is the Sign of all signs. For by his Cross and Resurrection, he has redeemed the world.

As in the first reading, so too in the gospel, the gift of hope is offered to the people of God. To the community of disciples of the Lord. And what we need to realise is that we too are members of this community. Which now calls itself the Church. A community made up not just of individuals, but also of families of different shapes and sizes and situations. Which is why the Christian family is sometimes called a domestic or household church. A privileged place where the gift of Christian hope is joyfully received and bravely lived. Where individuals learn to see visions in the night. To recognise the signs of God’s illuminating presence and action in a world so often engulfed in darkness and despair. Signs such as the current visit of our beloved Pope to Myanmar and Bangladesh. Signs that, once recognised, bring with them the resilience that Christians need to retain their proper shape as chosen disciples of the Lord. Loving and serving others as he did. Bearing witness to peace and justice and mercy, even when it may not be comfortable or convenient for them to do so.

My dear friends, as missionary disciples of Christ, we are called neither to pessimism nor to optimism. Neither to focus only on the black dots or the white canvasses of life. But rather to look beyond them to Christ. To receive his gift of hope. And to become beacons of his light in a darkened world. What must we do, as individuals and families, to live up to this call today?

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