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?

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