Sunday, November 24, 2019

Do You Like Dogs?

Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe (C)

My dear friends, do you like dogs? Here in Singapore, if I were to say that I like dogs, I think you all would understand what I mean, right? I probably mean that, given a chance, I’ll be happy to have a dog as a pet. But, as you know, in certain other parts of the world, when people say that they like dogs, they may actually have something very different in mind. Do you know what it is? Yes, in some cultures, a dog is seen not primarily as a pet, on which to shower one’s affection, but more as a delicacy, with which to tingle one’s tastebuds.

This is just one example of something that we all know quite well. Different people, looking at exactly the same thing, often see something very different. What looks like an object of affection to some, might be seen by others as food… or a nuisance… or even a cause for fear. And I’m not sure if you’ll agree with me when I say this, but the reason for these differences is because we see things not just with our eyes, but also through our appetites or desires, shaped as these are by the particular culture or society to which we belong.

All of which may help us to ponder more deeply what we find in the gospel reading today. The scene is actually quite straightforward. A condemned criminal named Jesus is being put to death on a cross. But the writer takes pains to describe the different reactions of various groups to this same scene.

First, we’re told that there are people who just stayed there before the cross watching. We’re not told what they are thinking or feeling. All we know is they simply stand and look, without getting involved. Just as passers-by might gather around the scene of an accident today. Some even taking pictures, and posting them on social media. Perhaps, for these people, the scene serves only to feed their curiosity.

Next, we’re told that the religious leaders jeered at him. They make fun of Jesus, whose condemnation they themselves had a hand in orchestrating. For them, perhaps, the scene serves as much to gratify their lust for power, as to allay their fear of losing it. And the soldiers carrying out the execution join the religious leaders in mocking Jesus, by urging him to save himself. Perhaps these military men are so bored by their dull daily routine, that they hope to find, in the misery of a dying person, the possibility of some brief mindless diversion.

Then, our attention is drawn to the sharp contrast between the respective reactions of the two other condemned criminals crucified with Jesus. We’re told that the first of these abuses him. It’s as though he sees Jesus as a kind of punching bag on which to vent his anger and resentment. His disappointment and disillusionment with his own wasted life.

Finally, and most incredibly, the second criminal, looking at the exact same scene, sees something very different from all the others before him. In the gruesome and tragic sight of a crucified man, this criminal sees what the second reading calls the image of the unseen God and the firstborn of all creation. More than that, he even goes so far as to say to Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.

Looking on, as our Lord dies painfully and shamefully on the cross, this criminal is somehow able to see a king in the process of entering his kingdom. And he is moved to do on Calvary what the Israelites in the first reading did at Hebron. In his heart, he crowns Jesus as his king. And, in so doing, he is taken out of the power of darkness and brought into the kingdom of the Son. Whereas others may see nothing more than an object of curiosity or a threat to power, a distraction from boredom or an outlet for resentment, this criminal is able to see and to seize a precious opportunity to sneak into heaven by acknowledging Christ as king.

Incredible as it may seem, this marvellous ability, demonstrated by the second criminal in the gospel, is actually something that should characterise every Christian. For to be a follower of Christ is precisely to be able to recognise in every situation an opportunity to crown as king the One who made peace by his death on the cross. And isn’t this something that our world still needs so much today? For even though more than two thousand years have passed since that fateful afternoon on Calvary, when Jesus died on his cross, don’t we continue to encounter many similar scenes of suffering and conflict?

The situation in Hong Kong perhaps comes most readily to mind. As do the various examples of the international ecological crisis – wildfires and drought in Australia… severe storms and flooding all over the world… But so too do the recently released results of that important study done by NUS Assistant Professor Ng Kok Hoe. According to which there are now no less than 1,000 homeless people in Singapore.

And I’m sure each of us can match these more public scenes of suffering and conflict with other more personal ones we each encounter everyday. Scenes from work and home. Scenes involving clients and colleagues, friends and family alike. Scenes that offer precious opportunities for us to choose to imitate that second criminal in recognising and crowning Christ as king.

My dear friends, just as the future of dogs may well depend on human appetites, so too does the fate of our world depend on our willingness to centre our desires on Christ. As the second reading reminds us, God wanted all things to be reconciled in the Cross of Christ, everything in heaven and everything on earth…

Sisters and brothers, what must we do to allow God to keep shaping our appetites and desires, so that, in every situation we face, we may see Christ more clearly and crown him more wholeheartedly as king today?

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