Sunday, December 06, 2015

Preparing for the Ball

2nd Sunday of Advent (C)

Readings: Baruch 5:1-9; Psalm 125:1-6; Philippians 1:4-6,8-11; Luke 3:1-6

Sisters and brothers, earlier this year, Disney Pictures released a remake of the fairytale Cinderella. Did any of you catch it? Did you like it? I must confess that I was quite taken by the movie. Even found parts of it very moving. I’m reminded today of 3 scenes in particular. The first is when the fairy godmother prepares Cinderella for the Royal Ball. Magically transforming an ordinary pumpkin into a golden carriage. Common house mice into snow white horses. Lizards into pageboys. An inquisitive goose into a talkative coachman. A tired and torn dress into a breathtakingly beautiful blue evening gown. And, of course, glass slippers out of thin air.

But in this version of the story, Cinderella’s preparation for the Ball actually begins much earlier. Many years before the fairy godmother ever makes an appearance. And this is my second memorable scene. When Cinderella is still a little girl, her mother falls ill and dies. But before breathing her last, she shares a great secret with her daughter. Something that would see the poor girl through all the trials that life can offer. She makes her daughter promise always to have courage and to be kind.

And Cinderella never forgets this secret. Always keeps her promise to her beloved mother. Always chooses to be kind. Kind to people. Kind to animals. Kind even to the stepmother and step-sisters who so cruelly bully and abuse her. And, in the movie, it is actually this continual cultivation of kindness that accounts for Cinderella’s transformation. Her ongoing efforts at putting virtue into practice opens a space in Cinderella’s life. A space for the workings of magic. For where there is kindness, there is goodness, and where there is goodness, there is magic.

The third memorable scene takes place at the Royal Ball. Where Cinderella finally gets to dance with the Crown Prince. Unable to contain her amazement, she says to him, They’re all looking at you. To which he replies, Believe me, they’re all looking at you. And he’s right. The sight of the magically transformed Cinderella is so stunning that everyone can’t take their eyes off her. Such that the Royal Ball itself is transformed into her debut. Cinderella’s coming-out party. A showcase for her glorious beauty.

A magical transformation. Prepared for by a lifetime of virtue. Resulting in a beauty so glorious that all are transfixed by it. 

Transformation, virtue, and glory. Strange as it may sound, sisters and brothers, I believe our Mass readings for this 2nd Sunday of Advent contain these same three elements. In the gospel, John the Baptist makes his appearance. And he encourages everyone to repent. To be transformed. To prepare themselves for a great event. A royal event. A new day is dawning. A Crown Prince is coming to claim his throne. And John is his messenger. A voice cries in the wilderness: Prepare a way for the Lord… But what exactly does this preparation, this repentance, look like?

Curiously, the first reading describes it, first of all, as a change of one’s clothes. Not unlike the magical makeover that Cinderella receives from her fairy godmother. Jerusalem, take off your dress of sorrow and distress, put on the beauty of the glory of God for ever… And these clothes that Jerusalem is being asked to put on are made of no ordinary fabric. They are woven instead out of virtue. Of good behaviour. For Jerusalem is told that God will give her two names: Peace through integrity, and honour through devotedness. Integrity and devotedness. Virtues very similar to the courage and kindness that Cinderella promised her mother she would cultivate.

And it is this practice of virtue that then makes space for the workings of the magic of God’s grace. Slowly but surely transforming the people of God in the direction of perfection. Which is also what we find in the second reading. I am quite certain, St. Paul writes, that the One who began this good work in you will see that it is finished when the Day of Christ Jesus comes. For now, Paul can only pray that his beloved Philippians will continue cultivating virtue. Continue making space for the magical workings of the grace of God.

My prayer is that your love for each other may increase more and more and never stop improving your knowledge and deepening your perception so that you can always recognise what is best.  Increased love. Leading to improved knowledge. Resulting in deeper perception. And clearer recognition of what is best. As in the Cinderella story, what we have here is a magical transformation. Brought about by the continual cultivation of virtue.

But that’s not all. There’s something more. Something quite marvellous. Although all the readings speak in various ways about the need to prepare for the coming of the Lord. The first reading in particular describes this coming in a rather surprising way. The prophet encourages Jerusalem not just to change her dress. But also to stand on the heights, and to direct her gaze to the east. And what is she being asked to look at? We might assume that it is the glory of the coming of the Lord. And we would be right. But what does the glory of the coming of the Lord look like?

Surprise surprise! The coming of the Lord that Jerusalem is asked to witness actually consists in the approach of her own scattered children. Joyfully returning to her like royal princes carried back in glory. For God will make a way for them to come home. God will decree the flattening of hills and the filling of valleys. God will even provide shade. And will guide Israel in joy by the light of his glory. So that just as all eyes at the Royal Ball were fixed, not so much on the Prince, but on Cinderella herself. So too will God take pride in showing off Jerusalem’s splendour to every nation under heaven

A magical transformation. Made possible by the cultivation of virtue. Resulting in a showcase of breathtaking beauty.

This, my dear friends, is what we are doing in Advent. This is the promise we are striving to keep. Just as Cinderella had to promise to be kind instead of mean. So too are we invited to promise to be loving instead of selfish. To be forgiving instead of vengeful. To be merciful instead of indifferent. And to continue cultivating these and other virtues. For it is by doing this that we make room for the grace of God to transform us. And, through us, to transform our world. From rags to riches. Through grace to glory.

And truly, isn’t our world today crying out for transformation? Isn’t it covered in the rags of violence and hatred. Of greed and despair? In the midst of all this ugliness. When everyone is tempted to react by turning their faces. By closing their doors. By baring their teeth. By clenching their fists. We Christians are invited instead to continue committing ourselves to cultivating virtue. Especially the virtue of mercy. The same mercy that we celebrate at this Mass. The mercy shown to us in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Sisters and brothers, like Cinderella, the fairytale, Advent too is a time for transformation. Made possible through the cultivation of virtue. What must we do, you and I, to allow God to continue transforming us, through grace to glory, today?

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