Sunday, August 25, 2019

Open Sesame!

21st Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

My dear friends, are you familiar with the words open sesame? Do you remember where they come from, and what they do? As some may recall, in the story, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, open sesame is that magical command that transforms a hard wall of rock into an inviting doorway. Open sesame is that secret password that grants access to an amazing place, where a great treasure is hidden. My dear friends, if you were given a powerful password like open sesame, how would you use it?

Transformation and access. These are the things that open sesame brings. Transformation and access. These are also the same things that we find in our Mass readings today. In the first reading, God promises to work a marvellous transformation. Not only to change strangers – gathered from the nations of every language – into servants of God’s will, and singers of God’s praise. But also to grant these same scattered and separated peoples privileged access to the amazing place that is God’s holy mountain in Jerusalem. There to enjoy, together with God’s chosen people, the wondrous treasure of engaging in united and wholehearted worship of the one true God.

Transformation and access. These are also what we find in the second reading, which speaks of how the painful experience of suffering can be transformed into a fruitful process of discipline, by which defiant delinquents are moulded into obedient daughters and sons of God. Here, those discouraged and knocked down by the trials of life, are given access to the precious treasure of peace and goodness that only God alone can give.

Amazing transformation – of separation into unity, of suffering into sonship – amazing transformation and privileged access to the highly treasured but often elusive experience of true reconciliation and peace. This what we find in the first two readings. And isn’t this something that we need so much especially today, when the nations of our world remain so painfully torn apart both within and among themselves? Divided by economic, political and social pressures alike? And what about we who live in such an apparently calm and peaceful place like Singapore? Don’t we yearn for the same things as well? Burdened as we are by pressures of our own? Having to struggle to stay close to those whom we love, even as we feel constantly pulled away by the many different attractions and anxieties of daily living.

But how, we may ask, how is this transformation brought about? How is this access gained? How does God fulfil God’s promise to gather the scattered, and to parent the orphan? If open sesame is the wondrous word that works this magic for Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, then what is its equivalent in our readings today?

The answer is found in the gospel, where Jesus encourages everyone who wants to be saved to enter by the narrow door, because… many will try to enter and will not succeed. What is this narrow door, which offers access to the treasure of eternal salvation? What is this tight passageway that transforms unwanted trespassers into valued guests, to whom are granted privileged places at the feast in the kingdom of God?

In the gospel, what brings about this marvellous transformation, what grants this privileged access, is not open sesame, but the far more powerful Word-Made-Flesh, Jesus the Lord, who is himself the difficult but life-giving portal through which we are all invited to pass. But, in order for us to better appreciate what this means, what this looks like, we need to pay close attention to the background against which the Lord’s words are spoken. Notice how the reading begins.

In the opening line, we are told that Jesus is on a journey. He is passing through towns and villages… making his way to Jerusalem. And we know what this means. We know that the Lord is not just on a carefree excursion. Rather, he is already walking that at once cruel yet compassionate Way of the Cross. He is submitting himself to the process of lovingly laying down his life, so that others might be rescued from death. By the steadfast love that he bears in his Sacred Heart – both for his heavenly Father and for his earthly sisters and brothers, for you and for me – the Lord is in the process of transforming the hatred and violence directed at him into channels of reconciliation and peace, signs of his coming kingdom. He is blazing a path for us, gaining us access, from death into the fullness of life.

So that to experience this same transformation, to gain access to the place where the Lord is going – the place where true gladness is found – it is not enough for us simply to speak his name, the way we might utter a magical command like open sesame. For the name of Jesus is not just a word to be spoken with our lips, but a pathway on which we need to walk with our very lives. To enter through this narrow door, is to allow ourselves to be moulded more and more into the likeness of Christ, God’s only begotten Son.

And to do this we don’t really have to go too far out of our way, in desperate search for opportunities to suffer. For Christ himself did not have to go looking for the Cross. What he did was to live a truly loving, genuinely selfless life, in a world that rewards selfishness and greed. And the Cross found him.

Could it be that to enter by the narrow door is simply to strive to do the same. To draw near to Christ by first receiving his love, and then doing whatever I can to share it with others. Not just by making time for those I love – which is difficult enough – but also by reaching out in some way to those I don’t typically care much about, those who don’t usually feature on the radar screen of my life, but who may need my help. And then to courageously embrace the consequences of this love, even if it means having to undergo hardship and suffering of some kind. For this is how the Lord transforms orphans into adopted children. This how once excluded strangers gain access to the kingdom of God.

Sisters and brothers, in Christ, a powerful word has been given to us. How are you choosing to use this God-given open sesame today?

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