Sunday, November 18, 2018

Ready for Take-Off

33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)
World Day of the Poor

Picture: cc abdallahh

My dear friends, does the name Anthonius Gunawan Agung ring a bell for you? It belongs to the 21-year-old air traffic controller, who was on duty at the airport in Palu city, Central Sulawesi, on that fateful evening of Friday, the 28th of September. The day when the earthquake struck. At the moment the quake started, Agung was clearing a plane for take-off. According to eyewitnesses, the young man insisted on remaining at his post, even as others fled the control tower, which had started to crumble. Only after the plane had departed safely, did Agung attempt to leave by jumping from the fourth floor. Sadly, he was seriously injured, and did not survive. His last recorded words to the pilot were clear for take-off.

I’m sure many of us will agree that, at a time of danger and great distress, Agung’s brave act of self-sacrifice is like a beacon of light shining brightly in the darkness. How did he do it? How was he able to respond so calmly and so courageously in such a chaotic time? What kind of training did he undergo? What kind of preparation? … My dear friends, I do not have the answers to these exact questions. But I believe it is questions like these that our Mass readings and prayers are inviting us to ponder today.

As we approach the end of the Church’s liturgical year, our readings speak to us about the end of time. Which, we believe, will coincide with the Second Coming of Christ. Both the first reading and the gospel describe this as a time of great distress. Perhaps it will be similar to what it was like for the people of Palu when the earthquake struck. The readings tell us that, although many will perish, certain people will be spared. Instead of being engulfed by the darkness, they will shine as brightly as the vault of heaven. Who are these people? These brightly shining lights? And how are they able to escape destruction?

The first reading calls them the learned, and those who have instructed many in virtue. The gospel speaks of them as those chosen by the Son of Man, whom he will send the angels to gather… from the four winds… Again, my dear friends, who exactly are these people? And, more important, how do we, how do I, join their ranks? What must I do to shine out in the darkness like they do? My dear friends, don’t you think that these are important questions for us to consider?

We find the beginnings of an answer in the psalm. Which reminds us that, in times of danger, our safety depends not on our own courage and heroism, but rather on the compassion and love of God. Isn’t this why we pray: Preserve me, God, I take refuge in you? I take refuge in the Lord by letting God become my portion and cup. My prize. By keeping the Lord ever in my sight. Trusting that God will show me the path of life, and the fullness of joy in God’s presence. In other words, according to the psalm, if I want to shine out in the darkness, to survive the destruction, the first thing I need to do is to learn to place all my trust in the Lord. To find my rest, my refuge, in God alone.

How do I do this? Well, I can begin by honestly examining my own heart. And I don’t mean consulting a cardiologist. But simply to reflect regularly on what I value most in my life. What or whom do I consider my portion and cup? My prize? My deepest desire, and highest priority? Where does my heart seek and find its rest? In success and achievement? In money and popularity? In friends and family? Or in the love of God alone?

Then, in addition to examining my heart, I need also to regularly recall my blessings. The many gifts I have received from God. Gifts which I so easily and so often take for granted. Preoccupied as I sometimes am with the many petty frustrations in my life. To remember and to give thanks for God’s gifts. And to allow my gratitude to lead me to realise how worthy our generous God is to receive my trust.

Of course, when I recall my blessings in this way, it’s likely that I will be led to remember God’s most precious gift of all. The gift that we are gathered here to celebrate. The one that the second reading speaks about when it reminds us that Christ has offered one single sacrifice for sins. And so achieved the eternal perfection of all whom he is sanctifying. Like, that courageous air traffic controller, Christ has laid down his life in time, so that all those who trust in him may be cleared for take-off into eternity. If I want to survive the trials at the end of time, then I need to draw ever closer to Christ in the here and now. To learn to think his thoughts. To imitate his actions. To gradually become like him.

But to become like Christ, I must first be able to find him. Where can Christ be found? Perhaps we all know the answer to this question. We believe that there are two inseparable places where Christ is found. Christ is found in prayer (especially prayer informed by the scriptures). And Christ is found in the poor. Yes, to draw near to Christ, it’s not enough for me to communicate with him in prayer. I also need to do what Pope Francis encourages us all to do in his message for this 2nd World Day of the Poor. To listen carefully, and to respond generously to the cry of the poor. Also to share in some way in God’s efforts to set them free from the distressing effects of injustice and oppression.

Gratitude and trust. Prayer and poor. These are the steps by which we are trained to shine out in the darkness at the end of time. But, of course, for some of us, all this may seem like too much work. Too heavy a burden. Too costly a sacrifice. Aren’t we busy and stressed out enough as it is? Who has the time to do all this? And yet, it may be good for us to ask ourselves what we are busy and stressed out about? What are we looking? Are we not looking for the same thing that is repeatedly mentioned in our prayers for today’s Mass. Surprisingly, perhaps, the word that keeps recurring in our prayers today is not burden or obligation or even sacrifice, but happiness. For example, in the opening prayer just now, we prayed for the constant gladness of being devoted to God. For it is full and lasting happiness to serve with constancy the author of all that is good.

Not just any passing pleasure. But constant gladness. Full and lasting happiness. This is what we expect to receive when we draw close to Christ. When we seek and find him both in prayer and in the poor. This is the precious gift that is meant not just for us to enjoy by ourselves. But also for us to share with a world that so often finds itself lost and stranded on the runway of life.

My dear friends, as Anthonius Gunawan Agung did so courageously at Palu, Christ has laid down his life to clear a path for us to eternal happiness and safety. What must we do to walk this path, to claim this gift, for ourselves and for others, today?

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Between Fighting Elephants & Trampled Grass

32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)
Picture: cc Gaurika Wijeratne

My dear friends, have you ever seen elephants fighting before? I myself have not. But do you know what happens when they do? According to an ancient African proverb, when elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers. I recently saw a tragic example of this in a news report on the BBC. Which showed heartbreaking scenes of severely malnourished children in a hospital in Yemen. They were reduced to skin and bone. Suffering from starvation. And their pitiful mothers could do nothing but look on helplessly and cry. They were starving because there was a famine. And the cause of the famine is, of course, the ongoing civil war in Yemen. A war being sponsored by foreign powers.

When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers. This is true not just of military conflicts. As you know, some say that the current trade war between the US and China will have a significant negative impact on smaller Asian countries. Nor is it only on the international stage that these things happen. For example, which of us can deny that when marriages break down, and parents divorce, it is often the little children who are most affected?

When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers. I mention this because I think it can help deepen our appreciation for our Mass readings today. At first glance, their message for us seems clear enough. The readings obviously inspire in us a word of admiration and praise. Praise for the incredible generosity of two poor widows. One in the first reading, who shares her last scraps of food with a hungry prophet. And the other in the gospel, who contributes all her meagre savings to the Temple in Jerusalem. Admire them. Praise them. Imitate them. This is what our readings seem to be telling us. Which is fine and good and true. And yet, there is more. What is this more?

When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers. We find this in our readings too. Why, we may ask, is the poor widow and her son starving in the first reading? Why is there a famine in the first place? Like the situation in Yemen, the famine in the first reading is the result of war. Not a military conflict, but a spiritual struggle. The reading is taken from chapter 17 of the first book of Kings. Earlier, at the end of chapter 16, we’re told that, after marrying Jezebel, the daughter of the king of Sidon, Ahab, the king of Israel, had led his subjects into idolatry. He began worshipping Baal, the god of his new wife. The god of the Sidonians.

Immediately after that, Elijah, the prophet of God, is sent to Ahab to announce a famine. A famine not just in Israel, but also in Sidon, the territory of Baal. A famine that is the result of Ahab’s idolatry. A famine that is the Lord God’s way of waging war against Baal, in order to win back the hearts of the people of Israel. In order to recall them from idolatry to true worship. From death to life. So that, if the widow and her son are starving in the first reading, it is because there is a battle raging between God and Baal. Between true worship and idolatry.

When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers. The situation is perhaps a little less obvious in the gospel. But here too, we find something similar. Why, we may ask, should a poor widow, who owns no more than two small coins, be expected to contribute to the maintenance of the Temple? Shouldn’t the Temple be contributing to her upkeep instead? Jesus gives us the answer in the first paragraph of the reading. Where he scolds those in charge of the Temple, for (swallowing) the property of widows, while making a show of lengthy prayers.

Despite their outward display of piety, the scribes in the gospel are actually no different from Ahab. They have fallen into idolatry. They worship the false gods of money and popularity. And, as a result, the poor suffer. Like her counterpart in the first reading, the widow in the gospel is herself a casualty of a spiritual conflict. A victim of the structures of sin.

When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers. If all this is true, then in addition to inspiring a word of praise for the incredible generosity of two widows, the readings also serve as a cry of lament for the injustice that’s done to them. Lament over the tragic circumstances that cause them to suffer. Situations far beyond their control, powerless as they are. Situations caused by the sinfulness of others.

And it’s difficult to deny that situations like these are to be found not just in biblical times. They continue even now. People forced to flee their homes, as much by the inequalities of our global economy, as by the ravages of war. Our own beloved Catholic Church scarred so terribly by a shameful history of the sexual abuse of children and the attempts to cover it up.

When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers. Thankfully, that is not all we find in our readings today. For, more than just a word of praise and a cry of lament, the scriptures also contain a message of hope. Hope that is found especially in the merciful actions of God, who upholds the widow and orphan but thwarts the path of the wicked. Unlike a careless elephant, God doesn’t just trample mercilessly on the grass. On the contrary, God makes every effort to be present to it and to protect it. To accompany it and to care for it.

In the first book of Kings, God sends the prophet Elijah not just to provide for the widow of Sidon, but also to confront the wicked king of Israel. In the gospel, God sends Jesus, God’s Only Begotten Son, not just to point out the hypocrisy of the scribes and the generosity of the widow, but also, to match and to outdo that same generosity with his own. By eventually laying down his life on the Cross to save us from our sins. Or, in the words of the second reading, to do away with sin by sacrificing himself.

More than just a word of praise and a cry of lament, our readings contain for us a message of hope in the undying love and mercy shown to us in Christ. A message of hope that is also, at the same time, a call to action. A call not just to imitate the generosity of the widows, but also to receive for ourselves, and to share with others, the merciful love of God. To learn from the examples of Elijah and Jesus, how to recognise situations of injustice. And, when necessary, to speak out against them. Injustice in our world and in our society. In our schools and in our workplaces. In our Church and, yes, even in our own homes… A call also, in so far as we are able, to accompany and to care for the casualties of conflict. If not in person and through material assistance, then at least in thought and in prayer.

When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers.

My dear friends, what must we do, as individuals and as a community, to be ever more mindful of the helpless grass that’s so often and so easily trampled by fighting elephants today?