Sunday, December 29, 2019

This Little Light of Mine...

The Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph (A)
Video: YouTube TeachForIndia

My dear friends, do you use candles? As you know, they come in different shapes, sizes and colours. Some even have different smells. So how do you tell a good candle from a better one? Or if you were asked to describe an ideal candle, a model candle, what would you say? Is there even such a thing as a model candle? What do you think?

I’m sure not everyone will agree with this approach, but perhaps one way to do it is to first ask what a candle is for. And if we can agree that a candle’s primary purpose is to receive and bear a flame, then we might say that an ideal candle is one that does that best. So that even if a candle may not be as pretty or as large as another, or may not smell as nice, we could still say that it is a better candle, if it burns more brightly and more steadily, even when placed under conditions that are less than ideal.

Following this approach, we can also begin to discover what we need to do to care for a candle. For example, I’ve been told that the wick sometimes needs to be trimmed, so that it won’t smoke when it burns. The point is that we judge what is good for a candle by considering what will help it to better receive and bear a flame.

But why, you may be wondering, am I talking about candles on a day when we should really be talking about families instead? To answer this question, it’s helpful to remember that the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph is presented to us today as an ideal, as a model for us to imitate. In the words of the prayer we offered earlier, God has been pleased to give us the shining example of the Holy Family… And yet, my dear friends, in what way is the Holy Family meant to be an example, a model for us? What exactly about Jesus and Mary and Joseph are we supposed to imitate?

It may be useful for us first to remember that there are at least two important ways in which the Holy Family was less than ideal. First, it did not conform exactly to the usual shape of a conventional family. At least not according to the particular standards of its own time and place. For although Mary was married to Joseph, and Jesus was her son, Joseph was not the boy’s biological father. Isn’t this why Joseph originally intended to break his engagement to Mary?

Second, in addition to not conforming exactly to convention, the Holy Family also lived, at least initially, under conditions that were far from ideal. Not only was Jesus born in a smelly stable, and placed in an unsanitary box, used to hold food for farm animals, the gospel also reminds us of the challenging circumstances the Holy Family had to face, soon after Jesus was born. To escape the murderous intentions of King Herod, they had to flee by night into Egypt. And even after Herod had died, and they could finally return to Israel, they had to be careful not to settle in the lands ruled by Archelaus, one of Herod’s sons who was known for his cruelty.

But if conformity to convention and ideal conditions are not the things that make the Holy Family an example for us, then what exactly are we called to imitate? What is it that makes Jesus, Mary and Joseph a model family? The answer is actually not difficult to find. For we all know that God brought the Holy Family together for one main purpose. Namely, to become  that human candle capable of receiving and bearing the light of Christ into the darkness of our world. 

And this was by no means an easy thing to do. It required much courage and trust in God. Enough courage and trust to agree to become an unwed mother. Enough courage and trust to accept a wife pregnant with someone else’s child. Enough courage and trust to adopt the life of refugees, willing to leave the comforts of home for places yet unknown. And to do this not just once, but time and again.

How, we may wonder, was the Holy Family able to do these extraordinary things? The gospel gives us an important clue in its inspiring description of how, no less than three times, Joseph receives instructions from God in a dream, and then, upon waking, follows those instructions to the letter. I’m not sure about you, my dear friends, but I tend to think that Joseph and Mary must surely have had dreams of their own. Their version of the five Cs perhaps. But what makes them models for us, is their willingness to allow God’s dreams to replace their own, in order to better receive and bear the light of God’s love and reconciliation into the darkness of our world.

All of which gives us a wider context in which to understand the particular behaviours that both the first and second readings invite family members to adopt toward one another. To obey and to respect one’s parents, even when they grow old. Never to drive one’s children to resentment. To give way to one’s husband in the Lord. To love and to treat one’s wife with gentleness… Just as there are ways to care for a candle to keep it burning bright, perhaps we can see these behaviours as different ways by which families can cultivate that awesome capacity that the Holy Family had. The capacity to let the message of Christ find a home in us. To dream God’s dreams, even when they may be contrary to our own.

And that’s not all. There is an even wider context to all this. One which we recognise by noticing how the second reading begins by addressing not so much many different families of blood, but the one family of faith. You are God’s chosen race, his saints; he loves you… It is this one family, gathered by God in Christ, to whom is entrusted the responsibility of receiving and bearing Christ’s light in the world. So that, even if I happen to be single, without children of my own, or even if I may, for whatever reason, be estranged from my natural family, today’s feast is still significant for me. For we are all part of the one family of God. Called to receive and to bear Christ’s light into the darkness of our world.

In the words of that lovely song that we learnt as children…

This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.
This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.
This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.
Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine…

Sisters and brothers, what will you do to care for your candle, so that it may shine ever more brightly today and everyday?

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Beyond the Guilt of Celebration

Nativity of the Lord (Mass During the Day)
Video: YouTube Global News

My dear friends, do you ever feel guilty for enjoying yourself while others are suffering? As you know, this past Sunday, the Australian Prime Minister had to issue a public apology, after having been widely criticised for going on a family holiday in Hawaii, while his country frantically battles the catastrophic wildfires that continue to rage in three states. Abruptly cutting short his break, the embattled PM was reported as saying, When you make a promise to your kids you try and keep it, but as prime minister you have other responsibilities...

I’m not sure how you feel about this, my dear friends. Personally, I couldn’t help feeling sorry for the poor man. And it didn’t help that his apology appeared together with a moving story about the thousands of volunteer firefighters, who continue to plunge bravely into the very disaster that their own PM had been criticised for trying to escape.

My dear friends, I hope you don’t think I’m being a wet blanket by talking about such things on this joyous Christmas day. Why bring up bad news when our first reading speaks to us precisely about one who brings good news? I do it because this sharp contrast between a vacationing prime minister on the one hand, and volunteer firefighters on the other, helps me grapple with a troublesome question that I can’t help asking myself today: Should I feel guilty for celebrating Christmas while so many people around the world are suffering? What do you think, my dear friends? Does this question ever bother you? How do you address it?

It may help to begin by recalling what exactly is the good news we are gathered here to celebrate. In the first reading, the reason for rejoicing is provided by God, who comes to console a broken people. A people who have been living for long years in the darkness of exile, far away from home. To this suffering people, God promises the unimaginable joy of seeing God face to face. God promises to come to them in person, and to bring them back.

For us Christians, this inspiring promise, made in the first reading, finds its true fulfilment at Christmas. The other readings remind us that the helpless and homeless little baby, born among farm animals at Christmas, and laid by his mother in a manger, is none other than the only begotten Son of God. The Eternal Word, through whom God creates and sustains all things, and yet who humbly and heroically chooses to enter our world, by being made flesh, by assuming a human face.

Like a volunteer firefighter, plunging bravely into the frightening flames, Jesus dives into the darkness of suffering and sin, in order to draw us into the light of God’s tender Embrace. As the gospel tells us, here is a light that shines in the dark, a light that darkness could not overpower. And to all who accept him he gives power to become children of God.

I’m quite sure, my dear friends, that all this is by no means new to you. We all know it quite well. For we hear it every year. And yet, don’t we need to ponder more deeply the practical implications of this great Mystery? Especially its implications for how we ought to celebrate this feast?

For I believe there is a way of celebrating Christmas that actually distracts us from the Mystery. There is a way of celebrating Christmas that treats it as nothing more than a highly-anticipated holiday. A much-needed break from the struggles of human living. Even an escape from the many problems we may have to face on a daily basis. Which is perhaps not itself a bad thing. Given how stressful life in Singapore can be, surely we could all use a break. I know I can.

And yet, could it be that, by celebrating Christmas in this way, we are somehow shortchanging ourselves? For what happens to us after the holiday has come and gone, after all the feasting and gift exchange is over? Don’t we feel as though we have to drag ourselves back to face the difficult reality from which we have been taking a break? Doesn’t our joy often seem all too superficial and short-lived? Perhaps not unlike how I imagine the poor Australian PM might have felt after his own short-lived family holiday.

In contrast, if I were to take to heart the belief that at Christmas we welcome a light that shines in the dark, then perhaps I’ll aim to celebrate this solemn feast less as an escape, and more as a precious opportunity to encounter the One who comes to meet me precisely in the very darkness that I so often try so hard to avoid. Offering me the courage and strength I need to continue to grapple with the challenges of my own life. And even drawing me to enter in some way the darkness of others who suffer. Sharing with them the same consolation that I myself have first received from the Lord.

Perhaps this is why Christmas lasts for more than just one day. Perhaps this is also why the Pope encourages us to keep gazing intently upon the nativity scene that we have set up in the Place of Gathering. For perhaps it is only by doing this, especially over the next two weeks of the Christmas season, that I will receive the gift of encountering the light that insists on shining out in the midst of the darkness.

So should I feel guilty for celebrating Christmas while so many others are suffering? Even while the rest of our world may be burning? Only if I choose to celebrate like a vacationing prime minister. But certainly not if I do so like a volunteer firefighter.

Sisters and brothers, how will you choose to celebrate Christmas this year?