Sunday, January 19, 2020

Moving To Be Still

2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)
Video: YouTube G5AppleMac

My dear friends, which do you think is more difficult to do, which takes more effort, more energy? To keep moving about, or to be still? To shift continually from one location to another, or to remain in the same place? What do you think?

At first glance, the answer seems obvious, doesn’t it? Surely moving about takes more energy than staying still. And yet, have you ever tried to remain in one spot, while standing up in a jerky bus or a speeding MRT train? Not so simple then, right? Easy enough to keep still when my surroundings are stationery. But far more difficult when everything around me is in rapid motion. For then, I need to know how to continually make just the right adjustments to my body, in order to stay in one place. Too much movement in one direction, or too little in another, and I end up losing my balance. I get dis-placed.

When everything around me is in motion, I too need to keep moving in order just to be still. This is a useful thing to remember, given what we find in the second reading, taken from the beginning of St Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. Here, Paul greets the Christians at Corinth in a very particular way. He tells them that they, together with Christians everywhere else, are called to be saints, called to be holy. The translation we are using, taken from the Jerusalem Bible, expresses this sentiment in an interesting turn of phrase. Paul says the Corinthians are called to take their place among all the saints. So the second reading presents holiness as a place, a location, at which we, the followers of Christ, are called to remain, to be still.

But what does this spiritual place look like? And how does one remain there? The other readings offer some indications. In the first reading, the Servant of God also receives a call to remain engaged in a mission. To be the light of the nations. What does this entail? How does one take and remain in this place, the place of a light?

John the Baptist gives us a helpful illustration in the gospel. For what is John doing, if not acting as a light to those around him? And notice that he does this by engaging in a series of significant actions. We may say that he remains in one place by making certain distinctive movements. Perhaps the most obvious of these movements is how John points others to the presence of Jesus among them. Look, he says, there is the lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world.

And even if the reading doesn’t mention it explicitly, we can sense the excitement in John’s words and actions. He points Jesus out not just in a mechanical, matter-of-fact kind of way. Not just how some of us may sometimes drag ourselves to work on a weekday, or to church on a Sunday. Not as a burdensome duty. But rather, in a way that plainly shows his own enthusiasm and joy. His gratitude at being given the privilege to serve in this way. So that we can easily imagine John uttering these words from the responsorial psalm: He put a new song in my mouth, praise of our God.

Pointing and praising. This is perhaps the most obvious movement that John makes as a light. But it is by no means the only one. For I can point someone out only to the extent that I am first able to recognise that person. This is also what happens to John. This is how the gospel passage begins. Seeing Jesus coming towards him, John said… Out of the crowds of people flocking to him, John is somehow able to identify Jesus as the lamb of God, as the Salvation that God is offering to the world. Before the pointing and praising, there is a perceiving and knowing.

But, even so, it’s important for us also to notice that John did not always recognise Jesus. Not just once but twice, John openly confesses that I did not know him myself. So how did John come to recognise the One whom he initially did not know. Again John himself makes it clear that he was able to do so only through a revelation from God. God taught him the distinguishing characteristic of the Lord’s coming. The one on whom you see the Spirit come down and rest is the one…

Which suggests to us that even before perceiving and knowing Jesus, John was already in constant communication with God. John was making the same movement that the psalmist claims to have been making in the opening verses of the responsorial psalm. I waited, I waited for the Lord and he stooped down to me; he heard my cry… Before the pointing and praising, before the perceiving and knowing, there is first a pleading and waiting. A yearning and a begging to see the Lord’s face, to hear the Lord’s voice, to discover God’s true location. The better to keep moving and remaining there.

My dear friends, could it be that, if we were to imagine holiness as a spiritual place we are all called to occupy, then we remain in this place only by moving in the same ways that John the Baptist does in the gospel? By pleading and waiting. By perceiving and knowing. By pointing and praising. Could it be that progress in the spiritual life actually requires constant movement, in order to remain in exactly the same place?

Which should not surprise us. We who live in such a fast-paced society, where things keep changing so rapidly that it’s often difficult to keep up. How do we cope? How do we strive for holiness? Perhaps the lesson in our readings today is that we need to avoid two opposite extremes. First, the tendency to allow ourselves to be swept along by the tide. To move simply because that’s what everyone else is doing. And, second, the contrary tendency to refuse to move. To cling stubbornly to familiar and comfortable ways for their own sake. Even when it may become clear that they are no longer helpful for keeping us close to God.

Instead, we are called to move, to adjust ourselves, but only as much as is necessary for us to remain where God wants us to be. I’m reminded of these words from a hymn that we sometimes sing…

Be still for the power of the Lord is moving in this place.
He comes to cleanse and heal, to minister His grace.
No work too hard for Him. In faith receive from Him.
Be still for the power of the Lord is moving in this place.

Sisters and brothers, if life is really like a speeding train, then what must we do to keep moving in order to be still today?

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