Saturday, March 17, 2007

4th Sunday in Lent (C)
What Are You Doing?

Readings: Joshua 5:9a, 10-12; Psalm 34:2-3, 4-5, 6-7; 2 Corinthians 5:17-21; Luke 15:1-3, 11-32

Sisters and brothers, you’ve probably heard that well-known story about the reporter who visits a construction site to interview some of the workers. She approaches the nearest worker and asks him: what are you doing? Drenched in his own sweat and covered in dust from head to toe, the man turns to her with a resentful look on his face and says, can’t you see? I’m breaking up these stones. The next worker she approaches with the very same question reacts quite differently. This one gives her a weary smile of resignation and says, oh, it’s hard work, but I’m feeding my family. But it’s the response of the third worker that moves her most of all. Although he looks pretty much the same as the other two, and although he too is busy breaking stones, he turns to her enthusiastically, with a grin on his face and a sparkle in his eye, and exclaims, I’m building a basilica!

The point of the story is quite clear, isn’t it? The things that we do everyday and the way in which we do them depend very much upon the meaning we attach to them. Very much depends upon our being able to see the bigger picture, our ability to make the connection between breaking stones and building a basilica.

This, of course, is not an easy thing to do, especially when the work is plentiful and tiring. When we’re stressed out with juggling two thousand and one things, including the demands of parents and children, of bosses and employees, of God and church, it’s really difficult to connect with the bigger picture. It’s so easy to be caught up instead in the daily grind and then to find our energy gradually draining away. Joy gives way to depression, enthusiasm to resentment. Even the discipline of Lent itself can be experienced as yet another unwelcome demand placed on an already packed schedule.

Isn’t this why we need to listen carefully to the message being presented to us in the readings of today? In the midst of our busyness, in the midst of our prayer, fasting and almsgiving, the readings invite us to raise our heads from our preoccupation with breaking stones in order to look at the brand new basilica that is taking shape. We are invited to consider the big picture that gives meaning to our struggles and so recharges and renews us.

This big picture, this brand new basilica, is not really about what we are doing, as much as it is about what God is doing for us in Christ. As Paul tells us in the second reading: For anyone who is in Christ, there is a new creation… God in Christ was reconciling the world to himself… and he has entrusted to us the news that they are reconciled. This is the marvelous construction project of which we are a part. In Christ, God is bringing together all the scattered fragments of creation into a single whole. To paraphrase St. Francis of Assisi, where there is hatred, God sows love, where there is injury, pardon, where there is doubt, faith, where there is despair, hope, where there is darkness, light, and where there is sadness, joy.

But reconciliation is a very big word. It’s difficult enough to pronounce it, let alone to imagine what it looks like. Thankfully our readings present us with three images of how God is reconciling the world to himself in Jesus Christ, three images that are as beautiful as they are powerful.

In the gospel, we find the image of two people embracing. The wayward younger son has been very foolish and selfish and irresponsible. By asking for his inheritance before the death of his father he was actually saying that it didn’t matter to him whether his father was alive or dead. So he is indeed right to say that he no longer deserves to be called his father’s son. Yet, even when he is a long way off, his father, forgetful of his own dignity, joyfully rushes out to embrace him. And we know, of course, what this embrace signifies. This is really an image of the reconciliation that God effects in Jesus Christ. Especially by stretching out his arms on the cross, Christ becomes the way in which the Father gathers all of us into his loving embrace. This is an image of the brand new basilica that we are helping to build. By the little things we do everyday to reach out to the different people in our lives – people who may be lost and alone – we too are allowing ourselves to be the arms by which the Father gathers others into the warmth of his embrace.

Then, in the first reading and in the gospel, we find an image that is especially familiar and consoling for Singaporeans. It is the picture of people eating. Both the Israelites in the first reading and the younger son in the gospel are treated to a big makan – a wonderful feast. After a long journey through the desert, the Israelites are fed by God with the produce of the Promised Land. Similarly, to celebrate his younger son’s return, the Father throws a party in his honour and feeds the one who had hungered for the husks that the pigs were eating.

This too is an image of how God is reconciling the world to himself. Through his life, death and resurrection, Christ becomes the bread broken and the wine poured out for the life of the world. And we participate in this sacrifice not only through our presence at the Eucharistic table. In addition, through the daily sacrifices that we make for the sake of others, like Christ, we allow ourselves to become bread that is broken and wine that is poured out, so that the hungry and the thirsty might find food and drink.

The final image is that of homecoming, of entering the place where we truly belong. Just as God leads the Israelites into the Promised Land, so too does the Father invite both his sons to enter his house for the celebration. Once again, this is a powerful image of what reconciliation looks like. God gathers God’s scattered children into the hospitality of his heavenly home. We are reminded of the assurance that Jesus gives his disciples in John’s gospel (14:1-2): Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God still, and trust in me. There are many rooms in my Father’s house; I am going now to prepare a place for you...

Isn’t this also what we are about? Through our Lenten activities, we are not only asking to see more clearly the way to God's house, but we are also committing ourselves to lighting up the way for others. As Jesus tells us in the Sermon on the Mount, no one lights a lamp to put it under a tub; they put it on a lamp-stand where it shines for everyone in the house (Matthew 5:15).

This is what reconciliation looks like. It looks like people embracing and eating and entering into the Father’s house. But, just like the elder son in the gospel parable, we have a choice whether or not to participate. We have a choice whether or not to embrace and to be embraced, whether or not to join in the feast, whether or not to enjoy the Father’s hospitality. We have a choice whether to help to build the basilica or simply to continue breaking stones.

Sisters and brothers, on this fourth Sunday of Lent, if a reporter were to ask you, what are you doing? how would you respond?

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