Sunday, January 31, 2010

4th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)
Wearing Green in a Sea of Blue

Readings: Jeremiah 1:4-5, 17-19; Psalm 71:1-2, 3-4, 5-6, 15-17; 1 Corinthians 12:31—13:13 or 13:4-13; Luke 4:21-30
Picture: cc inboundpass

Dear sisters and brothers, some years ago, someone I know found himself at a college basketball game. The Jesuits were playing their traditional rivals La Salle. The La Salle supporters were all dressed in green, the Jesuit supporters in blue. Each group occupied its own section of the stadium. The rivalry couldn’t have been more intense. The atmosphere was rowdy and electric. Since my friend was studying with the Jesuits at the time, he naturally chose to sit with his classmates in the blue section of the stadium. And things would probably have gone well if that was all there was to it. Except that there was a minor complication. You see, although this guy was then attending a Jesuit college, he had previously graduated from a La Salle high school. What to do?

I suppose the politically smart thing to do would have been for him to sit in the blue section, to keep quiet about his earlier affiliation, and to cheer for the Jesuits. Or, if his loyalties were too painfully divided, he could have chosen not to go to the game. He could have watched it on TV instead. But my friend is not a politician. In order to be fair to both teams, he decided to sit with the other Jesuit fans in the blue section while wearing a green t-shirt. Not only that, but he also tried his best to cheer equally for both teams. Can you imagine what it must have been like?

Wearing green in a sea of blue… I’m surprised that he was able to leave the stadium in one piece.

We might say the same about Jesus in today’s gospel, which continues from where we left off last week. As you recall, Jesus is near the beginning of his public ministry. He visits the synagogue in his hometown, where he’s just announced to the people that the Spirit has anointed him to bring glad tidings to the poor. Everyone is thrilled. They want to hear more from him. And then what does Jesus do? He proceeds to antagonize them by talking about foreigners. To a group of enthusiastic Jews, Jesus starts talking about Sidonian widows and Syrian lepers. To proud members of the Chosen People he talks about gentiles being favored by God. It’s as though, like my friend at the ball game, Jesus decides to put on a green shirt while sitting in the blue section. It’s definitely not the politically smart thing to do. What’s even more surprising is that when the people try to kill him, Jesus manages to escape in one piece.

And this is not just a one-off incident. Jesus’ experience in Nazareth provides us with a pattern that characterizes the rest of his ministry. Even after leaving his hometown, Jesus will continue to speak on behalf of the outcaste and the excluded. He will continue to reach out to prostitutes and tax collectors. For, as the scripture scholars tell us, these groups of people are included among the poor to whom Jesus is sent to bring glad tidings. And when the religious authorities finally do succeed in putting him to death, Jesus still manages to escape their evil intentions. He is raised to life on the third day.

Of course, all of this may seem puzzling to us. Why does Jesus insist on antagonizing the authorities? Why does he choose to wear green in a sea of blue? And how does he manage to escape his persecutors when they finally catch up with him? It all doesn’t make much sense, especially when seen from a political perspective. A politician cannot help but be concerned with popularity. But Jesus is not a politician. He was anointed as a prophet. And, as was the case with Jeremiah in the first reading, this is how prophets operate. Like Jesus, Jeremiah too is appointed as God’s messenger even from his mother’s womb. Like Jesus, Jeremiah is called to go to his own people with an unpopular message. He is to tell them to submit to the Babylonian invaders whom God is using as God’s instruments. And, like Jesus, Jeremiah too will suffer rejection and persecution. But, as we heard in the first reading, God promises to protect him, to make him a fortified city, a pillar of iron, a wall of brass, against the whole land.

What the experiences of Jesus and of Jeremiah demonstrate to us is that, as politically foolish as it may be, it is in the very nature of a prophet to speak the inconvenient word, and to do the unpopular thing, to wear a green shirt while sitting in the blue section. All of this is, of course, far from easy to do. As Christians, we know that it is difficult enough simply to try to fulfill our various Christian duties: to go to Mass at least once every week and on days of obligation, to go to confession whenever we’re conscious of having committed any serious sins, or, in any case, at least once a year. And yet, is this really enough? Is it enough simply to be concerned with these religious practices? Doesn’t the Catechism of the Catholic Church also remind us that when we were anointed with the oil of holy chrism at our baptism, we were incorporated into Christ who was anointed priest, prophet, and king (CCC, 1241)? As baptized Christians, we too are called to be prophets as Jesus was before us. We too are called to speak the inconvenient word and to do the unpopular thing, to gather in those who may be left out by society, whomever these may be: the sick and the aged, the jobless and the homeless, the lonely and the forgotten.

And for us to do this, we need something that both Jesus and Jeremiah enjoyed, the thing that moved Jesus to touch and to heal lepers, even when the Law said that they were to be kept at a distance. This is the spiritual gift about which Paul writes so beautifully in the second reading: If I speak in human and angelic tongues, but do not have love, I am a resounding gong or a clashing cymbal. Might we not say the same about faithfully attending Mass every Sunday? If we have not love… And it is also through this same gift that the prophets like Jesus and Jeremiah find protection and sustenance, even in the face of death. Love keeps them in one piece, for love never fails.

Sisters and brothers, as baptized Christians and sharers in the prophetic anointing of Christ, how are we being called to wear green in a sea of blue today?

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Baptism of the Lord (C)
Baptisms and Border-Crossings

Readings: Is  40:1-5, 9-11; Ps 29:1-2, 3-4, 3, 9-10; Ti 2:11-14; 3:4-7; Lk 3:15-16, 21-22
Picture: cc Abeeeer

Dear sisters and brothers, some years ago, I joined a team of volunteers accompanying a group of catechumens on a weekend retreat in preparation for baptism. As the venue for the retreat was quite far away, the plan was for everyone to meet at the church very early one Saturday morning, hop onto a couple of tour buses, which would take us to a ferry terminal, where a ferry would then transport us to our destination. The journey went smoothly enough for me, until I got to the terminal. You see, although I had tried to remember everything necessary for the weekend, I’d missed one crucially important detail. I’d forgotten that more than just being rather far away, the retreat location was actually in a whole different country. I’d forgotten that the ferry terminal was also an immigration checkpoint, the crossing of which required a passport. Without this official document, the checkpoint became for me a terminal in the literal sense of the word, a dead end. Much to my embarrassment – What?! You mean Father forgot his passport?! – I had no choice but to go back home, retrieve my travel document, and then return to catch a later ferry.

The inconvenience caused by my own absentmindedness brought home to me two things that I don’t often think about. The first is, of course, the importance of the passport. Not only does it allow you to cross into a foreign country, but it also enables you to return home. With a passport, borders become checkpoints instead of dead ends. With a passport, you can safely negotiate border crossings in both directions. And you can do this because the passport tells people who you are, where you come from, what your nationality is, under whose protection you belong. But this crucial importance of the passport also points to a something else. It highlights the fact that border-crossings can be highly stressful and even dangerous undertakings. And this is, of course, becoming increasingly true in our post September 11th world. Today – especially after the exploits of the would-be Detroit bomber – even a passport-carrying traveler has to face a whole host of challenges, including ever-stricter packing guidelines and ever-more stringent security checks, not to mention the possibility that a fellow traveler might actually be a closet terrorist. All of which is enough to make us give up the idea of traveling altogether. Faced with so much stress, it’s probably understandable if we decide to forgo vacations and opt for stay-cations instead.

Which is why our celebration of the Baptism of the Lord on this last day of the Christmas season is so timely for us who are baptized Christians. For what is baptism if not a border-crossing? In today’s gospel, for example, we find people filled with expectation, and gathered by the banks of the river Jordan, where John has been baptizing. Why are the people expectant, if not because they think that John can help them to cross the border separating the kingdom of this world from the Kingdom of God? Why are they gathering at the Jordan, if not in the hope that its banks might turn into a checkpoint for them, a border-crossing into eternity? But John has no such pretensions. He makes it quite clear that although he can gather the people at the checkpoint, he cannot bring them across to the other side. To do that, they need someone else. And isn’t this what sets Jesus apart from John? Although the Baptist is able to show people the way to the border by teaching them to smooth out the highways of their hearts, only Jesus has the passport that is required to bring them across. It is for Jesus alone that the heavens open. Of course, the gospel gives us no indication that Jesus is carrying an official travel document. What we do find, however, is the descent of the Holy Spirit and the sound of the Father’s Voice declaring Jesus’ true identity. You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.

Out of all the people gathered at the borderlands of the Jordan, Jesus stands out because he alone has a passport. He alone is the Father’s only begotten Son. But that’s not all. Jesus stands out not only because of who he is, but also because of where he is going. Jesus stands out because of the particular direction in which he is traveling. Unlike all the others, who are hoping to cross from the kingdom of this world into the Kingdom of God, Jesus brings the Kingdom of God into this world. He is the One whom the Father sends to comfort, give comfort to my people. Isn’t this the mystery that we have been celebrating throughout this Christmas season? And, by becoming one like us, Jesus effectively transforms himself into our passport. Baptized in his blood, we become the adopted sons and daughters of the Father, able to pass safely into the Kingdom of God. Isn’t this the great gift that has been given us at our baptism? In the words of the second reading, when the kindness and generous love of God our savior appeared, not because of any righteous deeds we had done but because of his mercy, he saved us through the bath of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit… so that we might… become heirs in hope of eternal life. And isn’t this also the deeper reason why Jesus submits to John’s baptism even though Jesus is without sin? How else might those waiting at the borderlands of the Jordan finally be able to cross over into the fullness of life, if the One who alone is the Way and the Truth and the Life (John 14:6) does not come among them to lead them? How else would the ordinary waters of baptism be infused with the extraordinary power of the Spirit, transforming sinful enemies of God into beloved children of a compassionate Father? How else but by the immersion into these same waters of the sinless Body of the only begotten Son of God?

And yet, sisters and brothers, as marvelous as all this is, it is not quite the whole story. For checkpoints are meant to facilitate travel in two directions. And passports are meant to enable people to move freely both in and out. Similarly, to be a baptized Christian is more than just to enjoy the privileges of holding a passport into the Kingdom of God. It is also to share in the mission of Christ, who was sent by the Father into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him (John 3:17). A baptized Christian is called to travel in the footsteps of Christ, to cross borders in both directions, to share one’s precious passport with others, to comfort them with the same consolation that we have received, so that they too might enjoy the fullness of life. Indeed, this is a great challenge for us, especially today, when borders are becoming increasingly dangerous locations, not just borders between countries, but also those between races and religions, between ideologies and identities. Just this past week, haven’t we heard reports of a soccer team being machine-gunned on the border between the Republic of Congo and Angola, of Christians being attacked in Egypt, of churches being firebombed in Malaysia, and of people of Indian descent being targeted in Australia? News like this may tempt us to cling desperately to the safe and the familiar, to stay home and to steer clear of border-crossings. But to do so would be to fail to live up to our dignity as baptized followers of Christ, who chose us and appointed us to go out and to bear fruit, fruit that will remain (John 15:16).

Sisters and brothers, on this last day of the season in which we celebrate God’s coming among us as a human person, perhaps it is only right that we ask ourselves how the Lord might be inviting us to undertake border-crossings today. And whatever may be your response, please try not to do what I did.

Don’t forget your passport.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God
Recognizing the Face at the Door

Readings: Nm 6:22-27; Ps. Ps 67:2-3, 5, 6, 8; Gal 4:4-7; Lk 2:16-21
Picture: cc purplemattfish

Dear sisters and brothers, the story is told of a college professor who was a world-famous expert in his field of study. On one occasion, he was invited to give a speech at an important conference in a foreign country. Many people were looking forward to the event. Unfortunately, no one at the conference had ever seen him before. And the professor had a habit of dressing very casually. So, when he showed up at the door in a crumpled short-sleeved shirt, some old pants, and a pair of flip-flops, with his hair uncombed and his face unshaven, quite naturally, the people at the entrance asked to see his invitation. And when he said that he had left it at home, they refused to let him enter. Perhaps they thought that he was some crazy homeless person trying to get at the free food that was being provided for the reception. I don’t know what happened after that. But if there is a moral to this story, it’s probably this. To have a successful conference, it’s important not just to invite the right speaker. You also have to be able to recognize him.

Invitation and recognition: sisters and brothers, aren’t these also two of the main ingredients in our readings today? Notice how the first reading provides us with a blessing. Not just any blessing, but a very special prayer that Moses learns from no one else but God himself. By using this prayer, the people can actually invite God to show his face to them, and God promises that he will accept their invitation, that he will look upon them kindly and give them peace. And not only do our readings begin with an invitation, notice also how the gospel ends with the naming of the child of Mary. He is given the name Jesus, which, as you know, means God-saves. That he is given this name is a sign of recognition. It tells us that when God finally accepts his people’s invitation to show his face to them, Mary, the person at the door, recognizes him and lets him in. But not everyone does. As you know, Jesus had to be born in a stable because there was no room for him in the hotels and motels of his day. And even though king Herod suspects that the child is a king, instead of welcoming him, he wants to have him killed. On that first Christmas, when God finally did accept the invitation to show his face, not everyone was able to recognize and welcome him. And perhaps we should not be too quick to blame people for their failure. Just as few people might expect a famous professor to be dressed like a homeless person, even fewer expected God to show up as a helpless baby.

Invitation and recognition: sisters and brothers, aren’t these also two of the main ingredients that we need so much, even as we stand at the door of a new year? Many of us have come here this morning – when others might still be recovering from the celebrations of last night – to ask God for a blessing. We are inviting God to let his face shine on us in the year 2010. But, as the people at the conference found out, an invitation is only helpful if it is also accompanied by recognition. And recognition is not an easy thing to achieve. After all, do we really know what the face of God looks like? After having invited God to come among us, will we be able to recognize and welcome him when he really does show his face? Will we be able to recognize him, for example, if he shows up in the frightening face of a foreigner who might need our help, or when he chooses to wear the clothes of weakness and disease?

And yet, as difficult as it is to recognize the many different faces of God, it is not impossible. For, as the second reading tells us, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying out, ‘Abba, Father!’ And it is this same Spirit that enabled Mary and Elizabeth, and others like them, to recognize the face of God when at last he came. But first we need to pay attention to this Spirit. Like Mary, we need to learn to look closely at the events in our lives, reflecting upon them and pondering them in our hearts. And on this New Year’s Day, we might even like to take some time to look back on the year that is now past, to consider how God might have been showing his face to us there.

A couple of days ago, I heard someone tell a story of a woman who invited her family and friends to a big party at her house. She was very excited about it. She bought fresh lobsters and spent a whole day preparing and cooking them. And when the lobsters were finally ready, because there were so many of them, and because she wanted to surprise her guests, she put them in plastic bags and left them in the kitchen. Unfortunately, her son mistook those bags for garbage, and threw them all out. Another tragic result of misrecognition.

Sisters and brothers, even as we continue to invite God to bless us in the year ahead, how might we better recognize him when he shows up?

I wish you all a joyous and peaceful new year.