Sunday, November 28, 2010

1st Sunday in Advent (A)
Rousing the Baboon Within

Sisters and brothers, some of us here may still remember the documentary from the mid-1970’s entitled Animals are Beautiful People. It contains a sequence showing how an African tribesman goes about catching a baboon. First, he finds a large anthill, in which he drills a small hole. Into the hole, he pours a handful of wild melon seeds. Then he hides nearby and keeps watch. The curious baboon sticks its hand into the hole and grabs the seeds. But, once it does this, its hand gets stuck. The baboon can, of course, release itself quite easily, if only it lets go of the seeds. But it doesn’t seem to realize this. It struggles mightily, but unsuccessfully, to get free, all the while holding on tightly to the seeds, until the tribesman comes over and captures it.

What is it about the baboon that makes it fall into the tribesman’s trap? We can't know for sure what its exact intentions are, but we can perhaps make a guess by observing the baboon’s actions. On the one hand, from its violent attempts to get its hand out of the hole, it’s clear that the baboon wants to be free. But it’s just as clear that it also wants to keep those melon seeds. It refuses to let go of them. What the baboon doesn’t seem to realize is that both these desires are in conflict with each other. To enjoy its freedom it has to relinquish the seeds. It can’t have both. By setting this trap, the tribesman has, in effect, presented the baboon with an opportunity to make a choice. It has to choose between freedom and a handful of seeds. But the baboon fails to realize this. Instead of choosing one or the other, it tries to cling to both. As a result, it ends up letting the tribesman choose on its behalf. Instead of seizing the opportunity that he gives it to make a choice, the baboon allows itself to be seized by him.

Similarly, according to our readings for today, when Jesus comes again at the end of time, we too will be given the opportunity to make a choice. In the first reading, we are told that the time will come when the mountain of the Lord’s house will be established as the highest mountain. Here, God’s peace will prevail. On this holy ground, weapons of war will be transformed into instruments of harmony and service. People will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. All we have to do to enjoy this peace is to climb the Lord’s mountain. Or, in the words of the responsorial psalm, all we need to do is simply to go rejoicing into the house of the Lord. This is the opportunity that Christ will present to us when he comes again. We will be given the choice to climb the Lord’s mountain, to enter into God’s house, to enjoy that wonderful peace that the world cannot give. Which of us will not want to do this?

And yet, although this may seem like an easy choice to make, in the gospel, Jesus warns us that things may not be so simple. When the time comes to enter God’s house, various things may hinder us from seizing the opportunity. For example, Jesus reminds us of the experience of Noah, in the book of Genesis, just before the Great Flood covered the earth. At that time too, the people were given an opportunity to make a choice. They could either survive the flood by joining Noah in his ark, or they could lose their lives in the waters. Quite surprisingly, not only did the people refuse to help Noah, they even laughed at him. And when the floodwaters rose they all perished because they were too preoccupied with the ordinary affairs of life. As Jesus tells us, they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage. Although these things were not wrong in themselves, so caught up were the people in them that they were oblivious to the coming of the Flood, until it was too late. Not unlike the baboon in the documentary, when the time came to seize the opportunity to survive by entering the ark, the people instead allowed themselves to be seized by the waters and to be swept away.

All of which should help us to understand better what Jesus means when he tells us to stay awake! Clearly, he doesn’t mean that we should all stop going to bed at night. The baboon in the documentary and the people of Noah’s day did not get into trouble because they didn’t drink enough coffee. Their problem was their lack of awareness of their own deepest desires. The baboon let its craving for melon seeds frustrate its desire for freedom. The people of the Flood let their busyness with the affairs of daily living get in the way of their desire for survival. To stay awake, then, means to become more aware of what all of us really want in the depths of our hearts. It has something to do with realizing that, among our many desires, some are more important, more basic, than others. To wake from sleep is come to realize, for example, that freedom is more important than melon seeds, or, in the words of the Sermon on the Mount, that life is more than food and the body more than clothing (Matthew 6:25). Finally, to wake from sleep is to get in touch with that one deepest desire that we all have.

It is this same desire that St. Paul is talking about in the second reading, when he tells the Romans: it is the hour now for you to awake from sleep. They must throw off the works of darkness and put on the Lord Jesus Christ. They must make no provision for the desires of the flesh. Instead, they are to cultivate their desire for the Lord, allowing everything they think and say and do to flow from this deep yearning. And this is not an easy thing to do. It is not easy, for example, to stay in touch with our own deep desire for peace, when we are still feeling the hurt that someone else may have caused us. It is not easy to remember that we really want more out of life than money and power, when everyone else around us seems to care for little else. It is not easy to remain connected to our desire to show compassion for those in need, when we ourselves may be struggling to make ends meet. To do all this requires preparation. Which is why we need this season of Advent.

During this time, we make a special effort to prepare ourselves for the coming of the Lord. Together, we carefully search our hearts to see if there are any desires that may be hindering us from choosing Christ above all other things in this world. Humbly, we examine ourselves, to see if there are any melon seeds to which we are clinging, and which may be hindering us from entering the peace of the Lord. 

And even as we do all this, we realize our own weakness. We recognize that all of us -- myself included -- need God’s help to stay awake. Which is why, as you will recall, in our opening prayer just now, we prayed that our heavenly Father might increase our longing for Christ our Savior, that the dawn of his coming may find us rejoicing in his presence.

Sisters and brothers, when we look into our hearts and into our lives today, is there a baboon that needs awakening?

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ The King
Partly Same Partly Different

Sisters and brothers, a young family has just finished watching a movie together in their own home. Mommy then walks into the dining room and is shocked to find little Richie eagerly licking the top of the dinner table. What are you doing?! she exclaims. Looking up innocently, Richie replies: In the movie, Forrest Gump said that life is like a box of chocolates. I just wanted to get a taste.

What do you think, sisters and brothers? Is life really like a box of chocolates? Then why does the thought of Richie licking the dinner table seem so silly? The answer is quite obvious. In the movie, Forrest Gump doesn’t say that life and chocolates are the same thing. The box of chocolates is used only as an analogy to help us to understand the real thing. That’s what analogies do. An analogy helps us to understand something because it is similar to it in some way. So, according to Forrest Gump, you can gain an insight into life by looking at a box of chocolates. In both cases, you don’t know what you’re going to get.

But even if they do share something in common, a box of chocolates and life are also very different in other respects. You can’t expect to experience a chocolatey taste when you lick a table. If you do, then you’ve mistaken the analogy for the real thing. And, instead of helping us, the analogy has become an obstacle. For the analogy to do its work, we need to pay attention not only to the similarities, but also to the differences. Only then can we truly enter more fully into the mystery of life. Otherwise, like Richie, we will only end up sliding our tongues on a piece of wood.

And it’s important for us to keep this in mind today, as we celebrate the solemn feast of Christ the King. For just as Forrest Gump uses a box of chocolates to help us gain an insight into life, today’s feast invites us to consider kingship as an analogy to help us enter into the mystery of Christ. Our readings do this by bringing together two images in a very striking way. In the gospel, we have the very painful and distressing image of Jesus dying on the Cross. After having been betrayed by his friends and tortured by his enemies, our beloved Lord is cruelly put to death between two criminals. What is really happening here?

To help us understand, the first reading gives us another image, from another time and place. On Mount Hebron, about a thousand years before the crucifixion of Christ on Calvary, David is anointed King of Israel. In the first reading, we have the coronation of a conquering king. In the gospel, the crucifixion of a convicted criminal. The image of David is presented to us as an analogy, to help us enter more deeply into the mystery of Christ’s crucifixion, the same mystery we are celebrating at this Eucharist. But to benefit from this analogy we need to consider carefully both the similarities and the differences.

The crucifixion of Christ is similar to the coronation of David in that neither of these events happen by accident. Instead, it is God who uses what happens for the benefit of God’s people, to bring them peace. In the first reading, we are told that it is God who chooses David to shepherd my people Israel. Similarly, the second reading tells us that by Christ’s suffering and death, God transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son. Just as King David brings peace by unifying the twelve tribes of Israel, so too does Christ reconcile all things to himself. The crucifixion is also a coronation. The condemned criminal is also a king.

But we cannot stop here. To enter more deeply into the mystery of Christ, it is important that we also consider the differences between Jesus and David. First, they each bring a different kind of peace. In the first reading, David brings about a political peace that extends as far as the borders of Israel. In contrast, from John’s gospel, we know that Jesus does not come to establish an earthly kingdom (18:36). Nor is the peace of Christ limited to any one nation. As the second reading tells us, Christ’s peace extends to all creation. All created things, including even the angels, are part of the Kingdom of Christ.

And not only do David and Christ bring different kinds of peace, but the means that they use are also very different. The peace that David brings comes through the power of the sword. David had led the Israelites to victory in battle. In contrast, the second reading tells us that the peace of Christ is won not through the taking of an enemy’s life in battle, but by the shedding of Christ’s blood on the wood of the Cross.

We can also see another difference between the kingship of David and that of Christ when we pay attention to how David becomes king in the first reading. The elders of Israel accept David’s authority on behalf of the rest of the people. In contrast, in the gospel, the rulers of the people are among those who reject Jesus. We’re told that they even sneer at him as he hangs upon the Cross. The only one who acknowledges Christ as King is an outlaw. And notice how he does this. No one does it on his behalf. Humbly admitting his own sinfulness, the repentant criminal uses the Lord’s name to make a very personal appeal. Jesus, he says, remember me when you come into your kingdom. And Jesus grants him his request. Today you will be with me in Paradise. Unlike David's, the kingship of Christ cannot ultimately be accepted by others on our behalf. Each person must submit to it for oneself.

But having said all this, there is still a problem that we need to consider. As we said at the beginning, an analogy works by relating something we wish to understand to something we know already. So we try to enter into the mystery of Christ through the analogy of kingship. But some will argue that few of us know the meaning of kingship today. There aren't many kings left in the world. In this country, there is a President, but he is not a king. Even so, isn’t it also true that many of us still submit to kings of a different sort. Aren’t many of us ruled by things like money and power and fame? And isn’t this modern society of ours constantly trying to gain king-like control over things? With our machines, we try to conquer nature. With our medicines we try to prolong life and delay death. Even if there aren’t many kings left in the world, for better or for worse, aren’t we still very familiar with kingship? Isn’t this how many of us try to be happy?

All of which makes it important for us who are Christian to bear witness to the truth that these forms of kingship are not the real thing. At best, they are only analogies that might help us to enter into the mystery of Christ. But, for that to happen, we need to pay close attention to the ways in which the Kingship of Christ differs from them. Otherwise we will simply be the same and no different from everyone else. We will mistake the analogy for the real thing. And, like little Richie, we may even end up licking the dinner table in an attempt to enjoy the taste of chocolate.

Sisters and brothers, who is our king today?

Sunday, November 14, 2010

33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time
Tanned or Toasted
Picture: cc mecredis

Sisters and brothers, do you like to go out under the sun? What happens to you when you do? I know some of us may very quickly turn red all over, like a boiled lobster. Their skin burns easily under the sun. Some others may tend to break out in freckles. Then again there are those of us who just develop a nice tan. It’s interesting, isn’t it, how the very same sun can cause such very different reactions?

But the scientists tell us that, especially these days, because the ozone layer is being eroded by pollution, more of the sun’s rays are getting through. So whatever our skin type -- even if we have a naturally dark complexion -- it’s not advisable to be exposed to the sun for too long. Otherwise, the doctors tell us, in addition to sunburn, there is also a risk  that we might develop skin cancer. 

Still, whether we like it or not, we all need sunshine. Not only do our bodies require it to manufacture essential vitamins, but even our emotional health is connected to sunlight. We all know that in the fall and winter months, for example, when the days are short and the nights are long, people are more prone to depression. And, of course, many people think that having beautifully tanned skin can make us look healthy and attractive. All of which means that these days one thing is becoming ever more important: sunscreen. Whether or not we use sunscreen can mean the difference between a tan and a burn, between healthy skin and cancer.

Which may be a useful thing for us to keep in mind while we meditate on our readings today. As you know, we’re approaching the end of the Church’s liturgical year. Next week is the last Sunday. Today our readings invite us to reflect upon the Second Coming of Christ at the end of time. The first reading gives us a striking image of what this will be like. The day is coming, we are told, when a new Sun will rise. And, like the one that we see everyday, this new rising Sun will cause different reactions in different people. For some, this Sun will be like a blazing oven. It will set them on fire. They will be burnt to a crisp. In contrast, others will find healing in the Sun’s rays. Instead of getting toasted, they will develop a nice tan. And there is a reason for this difference.

The first reading tells us that those who will become like burnt toast are the proud and the evildoers, while those who will be nicely tanned are those who fear the Lord’s name. But what does it mean to be proud, or evil, or to fear the Lord’s name? To answer this question it’s important to notice that the Sun in the first reading is not just any kind of sun, but the Sun of Justice. This is the same justice that we sang about in the responsorial psalm: The Lord comes to rule the earth with justice. More than just a keeping of rules and regulations, this justice involves people being in right relationship with God and with one another. This is the justice by which empty stomachs will be filled, hungry hearts satisfied, tear-stained cheeks wiped dry, and the weapons of war put away. So that at its coming the people will sing joyfully before the King, the Lord. And not just the people, but also the plants and the animals, and even the land and the sea. All of creation will rejoice. Let the rivers clap their hands, the mountains shout with them for joy before the rising Sun, the Lord who comes to rule the earth with justice.

And this then is also what separates those who will be burnt from those who will be tanned. The first group are considered proud and evil because they live lives contrary to God’s justice. Like those whom St. Paul criticizes in the second reading, these people consistently act in a disorderly way. They care only for their own comfort and their own satisfaction. They neglect and even oppress the poor. They promote conflict. In our day, they may be polluters of the environment.

In contrast, the second group, those who will find healing, have applied the sunscreen that is the name of the Lord. Only this is no ordinary sunscreen. It’s not just a lotion that one applies to the skin. Instead, like what we heard in our opening prayer, this protection is the truth that the Lord gives to us all to drink. More than shielding their skins, it also expands their hearts with the joy of his promises. It strengthens them to live according to the justice of the Lord. Not only do they care for those in need, but they also live according to what is written in the Prayer of St. Francis: where there is hatred, they sow 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.

In other words, when the Sun of Justice rises, those will enjoy healing who are presently doing what Jesus tells us to do in the gospel. In an often cold and hostile world, they consistently give testimony, they bear witness, to the love and justice of the Lord. And they do this even at great cost to themselves. As Jesus tells us: they will seize and persecute you... because of my name. But the good news is that, when the Sun of Justice finally rises, their fidelity to the name of the Lord will protect them like sunscreen. Not a hair on their heads will be destroyed. Their perseverance will secure their lives.

Sisters and brothers, these at once consoling and challenging words are especially relevant for us today. As you know, on October 31, just two weeks ago, the Church of Our Lady of Salvation in Baghdad, Iraq was attacked by terrorists during Mass. 51 parishioners were killed, including two priests. Since then, other churches around the country have also been attacked. More Christians have spilled their blood. Some have lost their lives. And all this simply because they bear the name of Christ.

And what about you and I? Even if we may not be experiencing persecution to the same dramatic degree as our sisters and brothers in Iraq, we too are being called to continue bearing witness to the Lord’s name. We too are being invited to find ways in which, in our own lives, we can bear witness to the justice of the Lord. And not only does our world need our witness but, as our readings tell us, how we respond to this call will also determine what happens to us when the Lord comes again.

Sisters and brothers, when the Sun of Justice finally rises upon us, what would you rather be, tanned or toasted?

Sunday, November 07, 2010

32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time
Between Cannibalism and Care
Readings: 2 Maccabees 7:1-2, 9-14; Psalm 17:1, 5-6, 8, 15; 2 Thessalonians 2:16-3:5; Luke 20:27-38

Sisters and brothers, did any of you watch the movie that was playing in our local cinemas last year entitled The Road? It’s based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy of the same name. The story is set in a time after the apocalypse. The sky is dark and the landscape is gray. All the trees are dead or dying and the weather is bitterly cold. A man and his little boy are walking along a road, heading south. To stay alive, they have to scavenge for whatever food and water they can find. They must also be very careful, because the road is highly dangerous. There are ruthless gangs patrolling it, who have resorted to eating human flesh to survive. And all the father and son have for protection is an old pistol, loaded with two bullets.

I won’t say much more about what happens in the movie so as not to spoil it for those who haven’t watched it and who may want to do so later. But I do want to offer a reading of what the movie might be about. It is a depiction of life. The road represents life. Although it is filled with hardship and danger, the road is the only thing there is. You have no choice but to travel on it. And the road keeps going till you die. After that it may go on for others but not for you. All you can do is walk the stretch of road allotted to you, and to keep walking until death overtakes you. Death marks the end of the road for you.

But even if you can’t choose another road, in the movie, you can choose how you wish to walk this one. You can either choose to be a cannibal -- someone who’s willing to kill and eat other people in order to survive -- or you can choose to be like the father and son. In spite of their hardship, they refuse to kill others, except in self-defense. Their mode of survival -- the way they choose to walk the road -- is not cannibalism but care. Not only do they care for each other -- to the point of being willing even to lay down their lives for each other -- at some point in the story, they show their willingness to care even for people with whom they have no blood relation. They share their meager supply of food with a stranger, a helpless old man.

What do you think, sisters and brothers? Do you agree with the movie’s message? Do you agree that life is a road that ends when we die? That we can’t choose another road, but that we can and must choose how to walk this one: either to be a cannibal or a caregiver?

Like the movie, our readings today also speak to us about a road. In our responsorial psalm, the psalmist tells God that he walks in the paths of the Lord. My steps are steadfast, he says, my feet have not faltered. But what is this road that the Lord offers us to walk? Is it the same road as the one in the movie? The Sadducees in the gospel would probably say yes. For them, as in the movie, the road of life ends when we die. There is nothing for us beyond death. The Sadducees deny that there is a resurrection. But Jesus disagrees. According to him, the road of life does not end at death. Instead, Jesus insists that, for those who are deemed worthy of the resurrection from the dead, in death life is not ended but transformed. They can no longer die, he says, for they are like angels; and they are the children of God because they are the ones who will rise

Unlike our movie, our readings today tell us that we do have a choice about which road we wish to walk. We can choose either the road of the Sadducees (and the movie) -- the road that ends with our death -- or we can choose the road of Jesus -- the road of the Resurrection. And the road we choose affects the way in which we live our lives. We see this in our first reading, where it is their hope in the Resurrection that gives the mother and her seven sons the courage to resist the king’s unlawful commands, even on pain of torture and death. You are depriving us of this present life, says one of them, but the King of the world will raise us up to live forever. In a similar way, in the gospel, Jesus too walks the road of the Resurrection. And he will mount the cruel cross on Calvary in the hope that his heavenly Father will raise him from death on the third day.

But there is still something crucially important that remains to be said, isn’t there? Is it enough for us simply to choose to walk the road of the Resurrection? Like the father and son in the movie, don’t we need also to decide how we want to walk this road? For example, isn’t it true that, in the gospels, the Pharisees also have a firm belief in the Resurrection? Yet Jesus criticizes their way of walking the road. And, to take an extreme example, we might also consider the terrorists who brought down the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Those Al Qaeda agents had the courage to lay down their lives because, like the people in our first reading, they believed they were heading for a better existence after death. And what about people like that pastor in Florida, who wanted to burn copies of the Holy Qur’an? Don’t they also believe in the Resurrection? But are they walking this road in a way that the followers of Christ are called to walk it?

How then are we to understand the difference? What is it that should distinguish our way of walking the road of the Resurrection from the way of the Pharisees, the terrorists and the bigots of this world? Perhaps this is where our movie might yet have something to teach us. For isn’t there something that connects the Pharisees, the terrorists and the bigots of this world with the cannibals in the movie? Like the cannibals, in their concern for their own way of life, each of the first three groups of people are willing to sacrifice the well-being of others. To follow their own strict reading of the Law, the Pharisees are willing to sacrifice those most in need. To overthrow a society that they consider deeply sinful, the terrorists are willing to sacrifice the lives of many innocent people. And by calling all Muslims terrorists, the religious bigots among us end up imitating the very people they are fighting against. 

In contrast to these forms of cannibalism, our readings call us to a different way of walking the road of the Resurrection. In the second reading, although St. Paul prays to be delivered from perverse and wicked people, he does not call for any form of violence against them. Instead, Paul prays that the Lord will direct our hearts to the love of God and to the endurance of Christ. What does this mean if not that, in walking the road of the Resurrection, we are called to exercise the care that Christ shows to us sinners, the same care that the father and son exercise in the movie?

Today our readings present us with two distinct decisions. Not only are we being asked to choose the road on which we wish to walk, we are also being asked to decide how we wish to walk it. Not only are we being asked to prefer the road of the Resurrection to that of the Sadducees, we are also being called to turn from the cannibalism of the terrorist so as to embrace the care of Christ.

Sisters and brothers, how are we responding to this call today?