Sunday, January 07, 2018

Between Country Club & Community Centre

Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord

Picture: cc Jnzl's Photos

My dear friends, if you had a choice, and if money wasn’t an issue, which would you prefer to join? A country club or a community club? We all know the differences between the two, right? One important difference is, of course, the quality and range of facilities available. Typically, in addition to the usual swimming pools, tennis courts, billiard tables and so on, a country club also offers a golf course, and much much more. A community club? Well… much much less. Which is one reason why country club memberships usually cost an arm and a leg.

But the facilities are not the only reason why people are willing to pay such a high premium to join a country club. There is actually another reason. Do you know what it is? It’s called exclusivity. As you know, community clubs used to be called community centres. They cater to the recreational needs of the ordinary man and woman in the street. Which is why fees are deliberately kept low. So that as many people as possible can join. In contrast, a country club membership is expensive, not just because the facilities are good. But also to keep most people away.

Inclusivity versus exclusivity. Isn’t this the key difference between a community club and a country club? Isn’t this why people are willing to pay so much more for one over the other? Imagine, for example, if you joined a country club, which suddenly announced one day that it was lowering its fees, and opening its doors to everyone. How would you react? Would you want to remain a member? I have to confess that I would probably think twice.

But it’s not only a matter of club memberships. Our desire for exclusivity expresses itself in other ways as well. For example, could it also have something to do with the results of that recent study that has uncovered a clear class divide in Singapore? Sociologist, Vincent Chua, one of the researchers responsible for the study, was reported in the newspapers as saying, We have shifted from a society based on race to one based also on class…. Even if you give people equal opportunities, they will still gravitate to hang out with their own kind…. People like to be with people like themselves…

People like to be with people like themselves… What’s wrong with that? I like that too. Described in this way, exclusivity may sound harmless enough. Until we allow ourselves to ponder its deeper implications. Its more serious consequences. Which is precisely what our Mass readings help us to do today. As you’ve probably already noticed, on this solemn feast of the Epiphany, our readings draw a very sharp contrast between light and darkness, day and night. In the first reading, Jerusalem is told to arise, shine out. For, though night still covers the earth and darkness the peoples, Jerusalem’s light has come, the glory of the Lord is rising on you.

But what does this light, this glory of the Lord, look like? For us Christians, the glory of the Lord is seen above all in the coming of Christ. Which is nothing if not an act of merciful inclusivity on the part of God. For God is clearly in a class far far above our own. And yet, rather than excluding us, God chooses to reach out to us in Christ. To even come among us as a helpless baby, in order to make us members of that Divine Community Club that is the Holy Trinity. In the words of the psalm, God has pity on the weak and saves the lives of the poor… Not just the weak and poor of Jerusalem, but of all the nations. All those previously thought to be excluded. People, by the way, like you and me. In the words of the second reading, pagans (like us) now share the same inheritance… they are parts of the same body, and… the same promise has been made to them, in Jesus Christ…

Perhaps more than anything else, the solemn feast of the Epiphany highlights to us the incredible inclusivity of God’s merciful love. A love that then calls its recipients to respond in the same way. Notice how Jerusalem is expected to react to the hordes of people streaming towards her from every nation. She is told that, at this sight (at the sight of these strangers coming to join her country club) you will grow radiant, your heart throbbing and full, since the riches of the sea will flow to you, the wealth of the nations come to you… Jerusalem is expected to see the approach of foreigners not as threats and liabilities, but as gifts and blessings. Their coming should fill her not with fear but with joy. This is what it means for her to arise and shine out. To choose to bask in the inclusive light of the glory of the Lord.

But if inclusivity is what the light looks like, then what about the darkness? The gospel describes this in a very striking way. At the beginning of the reading, we’re told that after Jesus had been born… (after the light had come) during the reign of King Herod, some wise men came to Jerusalem from the east… It is possible, I think, to read this reference to King Herod not just as a description of the political situation, but also of the spiritual condition, of Jerusalem at the time. The reign of Herod is the exact opposite of the glory of the Lord. It’s another way of saying that night still covers the earth and darkness the peoples… What is this night? What does this darkness look like?

We see it most clearly in Herod’s response to the wise men. We’re told that when King Herod heard what they had to say, he was perturbed, and so was the whole of Jerusalem. Herod feels threatened by the birth of an infant king. And, out of his anxiety, he deviously plots to have the baby killed. If the light that Christmas brings is God’s precious gift of inclusivity, then surely, the night that Christ comes to dispel is the darkness of exclusivity. The desire of people like Herod to want to be only with people like themselves. A desire that leads not only to worry and anxiety, conflict and division, but also to violence and death.

The reign of King Herod. Isn’t this a night that continues to cover the earth today? The craving for exclusivity that leads to the cruel expulsion of people from their homes. The rejection of refugees who have nowhere else to go. The hardening of borders of every kind. Geographical and political. Social and economic. Even religious and cultural… And yet, within the current darkness of exclusivity, we Christians dare to celebrate the solemn feast of God’s inclusivity. The coming among us of a light that challenges us to arise and to shine out. To reach out to, and to hang out with, those who may be different from us in some way. Especially those who may be most in need of our help. To allow them to join our company. Just as Christ came to draw us into his.

My dear sisters and brothers, perhaps there is nothing really wrong with being members of an exclusive club. Provided that we also take care to cultivate open hearts, and to live inclusive lives. What steps are we taking to keep doing this today?

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