Saturday, August 10, 2019

Acronyms of Alertness

19th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

Picture: cc Choo Yut Shing

My dear friends, do you know what AERO stands for, A-E-R-O? How about PERT, P-E-R-T? Some of us may recall that these acronyms are the names of groups that have been formed to help the Catholic Church in Singapore prepare for emergencies. They are our contribution to SGSecure, our nation’s response to the threat of terror. AERO stands for Archdiocesan Emergency Response Operations, and PERT stands for Parish Emergency Response Team. 

Here at St Ignatius, for example, our own PERT has been conducting briefings, where key personnel are taught how to perform CPR, how to provide First Aid, how to use a fire extinguisher, and so on. I myself have participated in one of these sessions. Of course, providing and undergoing such training requires time and effort. It’s inconvenient. And yet, which of us would dare to say that it is not necessary? We know that it’s important to be prepared. So that when an emergency does arise, we are not caught napping. As has been rightly said, when it comes to a terror attack, it is not a question of if it will happen but when. Staying alert can make the difference between life and death.

AERO and PERT. I mention these acronyms of alertness, because they can help us appreciate the importance of what Jesus is saying to us in the gospel. You… must stand ready, because the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect… Like AERO and PERT, our Mass readings emphasise the importance of staying alert since, like a terror attack, the coming of the Son of Man is also not a question of if but when. Something for which we need diligently to prepare, even though it may be very inconvenient.

As inconvenient as staying awake late into the night, waiting for the return of the master of the household, who has been delayed. Or, for the Israelites mentioned in the first reading, as inconvenient as carrying out God’s instructions for celebrating the first Passover. Having to eat hurriedly a whole roasted lamb, after smearing its fresh blood on your doorposts, while dressed to leave forever the only home you’ve ever known, to embark on a long journey to an undisclosed location.

Or, for Abraham and Sarah in the second reading, as inconvenient as, not just moving to an unknown destination, but also, on reaching that place, having to refuse to allow yourselves to get too comfortable in it. Living there, instead, in tents while (looking) forward to a city founded, designed, and built by God. Recognising that you are only strangers and nomads on earth, longing for a better homeland in heaven.

My dear friends, like AERO and PERT, our Mass readings remind us of the importance of being willing to endure inconvenience, in order to stay alert, to be prepared for the coming of God’s kingdom. But what does this actually look like? What is the spiritual equivalent of learning how to perform CPR and how to use a fire extinguisher? To answer this question, it’s helpful to recognise an important point of contrast between AERO and PERT, on the one hand, and the alertness proposed to us by Christ, on the other.

A terror attack is, of course, a bad thing, an emergency, a serious threat to society. So that dealing with such an attack has largely to do with staving off its bad effects, and restoring society, as quickly as possible, to what it was before. The assumption being that the situation before the attack is a good thing. Something worth restoring.

Which is no doubt true. However, in contrast, the alertness in our readings has to do not so much with staving off something bad, as with welcoming something good, the coming of Christ and his kingdom. Indeed, if there is something bad in our readings today – something that needs changing – it’s the current situation. In the first reading, for example, the Israelites were oppressed and enslaved in Egypt. That was their situation. It was to set them free that God sent Moses.

In the gospel too, the Son of Man comes not to condemn but to save God’s people – to save us – from our current situation, from the bad effects of idolatry and oppression. So that to be alert is to realise our own need for the Lord, to learn to recognise the signs of his coming, by constantly cultivating and deepening our relationship with him, so as to be willing and ready to welcome him whenever he comes to rescue us.

Even so, perhaps we who live in Singapore – and particularly here in the parish of St Ignatius – perhaps we may be forgiven for wondering whether we need to be rescued in the first place. Isn’t our current situation already good enough? Isn’t it worth fighting to preserve? Yes, of course it is. And yet, can we deny that there are aspects of the status quo that may need challenging and changing? Are there not forms of idolatry and oppression from which we need to be set free?

For example, do you know what S-O-S stands for? Apart from being an international distress signal, S-O-S also stands for Samaritans of Singapore, an organisation dedicated to preventing suicides. According to statistics released by SOS two weeks ago, the number of suicides in Singapore rose 10 per cent last year. And, among boys aged between 10 and 19 years old, there were 19 suicides last year – the highest since records began in 1991 and almost triple the seven cases recorded in 2017. The situation looks grim enough for SOS senior assistant director Wong Lai Chun to be quoted as saying, “It is disconcerting to know that many of our young feel unsupported through their darkest periods and see suicide as the only choice to end their pain and struggles.”

My dear friends, I do not know the exact cause(s) of these alarming statistics. But I wonder if they are not an indication that, as important as it is for us to be prepared to face the future emergency of a terror attack, it’s at least as important for us to address the current emergency of so many of our teenaged children choosing to kill themselves. Could it be that, much as the status quo in Singapore is worth fighting to preserve, it also needs to be challenged by the Gospel of Christ? That liberating food, of which we Christians are the appointed stewards, the ones given the responsibility of feeding the master’s household at the proper time.

Sisters and brothers, there is at least one distress signal – one SOS – already sounding in our midst right now. What must we do to become alert enough to better respond to its call today?

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