Sunday, November 22, 2020

Between Price & Process

Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe

My dear friends, do you know the difference between a big price-tag and a new recipe? Have you ever seen something you like in a store, and rushed over to check its price, only to discover that the item is way above your budget? What does it feel like? Or, on the other hand, have you ever received a detailed recipe, giving you all the instructions you need to prepare the food that you love? What is that like? I think it’s not difficult to imagine the contrasting feelings evoked by these experiences. Just as the price-tag may discourage and depress, so too is the recipe able to excite and to energise.

I mention this because, at first glance, our Mass readings may look a lot like no more than a big price-tag. The gospel presents us with an image of the king as a judge, who exacts a hefty price from those wishing to attain their hearts’ desire. To enter into eternal life, one must show mercy to those in need. To the hungry and thirsty, the lonely and naked, the sick and imprisoned… And perhaps there are those who may feel that this is a price far more than they can pay. Particularly those of us who may struggle just to bear the stresses and strains of daily living, and who fail to care enough even for themselves, as they’re too busy worrying about others.

Which is why it’s helpful to consider the other roles played by our heavenly king. In the first reading, before claiming to be a strict judge, God promises to serve his people as a loving and merciful shepherd. One who does exactly the things expected of those in the gospel. As shepherd, God takes painstaking care of his needy and vulnerable sheep. Feeding and healing, protecting and guiding them.

As we ponder this consoling image of the shepherd, perhaps we may be drawn to recall how, in so many concrete ways, we ourselves are shepherded by God. How we ourselves are shown mercy. Most of all through the sacrifice that we celebrate at this Mass. And, when we do this, when we remember all that we have received from the Good Shepherd, even over this past year of global pandemic, perhaps we will better understand and accept another role that the king plays in our readings today.

The second reading tells us that Christ will subject everything to himself and, eventually, to the Father. The role the king plays here is that of conqueror. Except that Christ conquers not with sharpened sword, or smoking gun, but with broken Body, and Blood outpoured. It is by pondering this image, of Christ on the Cross, that we receive the strength to submit our lives to him, and to be transformed by his example.

First, to receive the care of the shepherd. Next, to submit to the power of the conqueror. And, only then, to satisfy the requirements of the judge. Together, don’t these images appear less like a depressing price-tag, and more like an exciting recipe?

Sisters and brothers, as we rejoice in the reign of Christ the King, what will you do to prepare for his just judgment today?

Sunday, November 15, 2020

Dance Steps

33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)
(World Day of the Poor)

Picture: cc Juliana Chong

My dear friends, do you dance? As you know, dancing involves movement. But not all movement is dance. To dance is to move in a certain way. One’s movements must match the music heard in the ears… or in the heart. We might say that dancing begins not by wilfully performing some movement, but by humbly receiving a rhythm. First I listen to the music. Then I match my movements to what I hear.

Perhaps the same can be said about what we find in our readings today. Something that is described in different ways. The first reading and the psalm call it wisdom, and the fear of the Lord. The other readings speak of staying wide awake and sober, of being prepared for the master’s return.

At first glance, the readings may give us the impression that being well-prepared is all about movement. The first reading tells us that the perfect wife is always busy, not just with household chores, but also with reaching out to the poor. And it seems that the wicked servant in the gospel is punished only because he doesn’t do enough. Doesn’t move enough.

If our reflection were to go no deeper than this, then we might feel obliged simply to do more. To engage in more vigorous movement. Perhaps to join a new ministry in church, or to volunteer at a charity. All of which may actually be good and commendable actions, if we can sustain them. But could it be that, just as there is more to dancing than movement, there is also more to wisdom than simply engaging in more activity?

Consider where that wicked servant might actually have gone wrong. How did he become so paralysed by fear? Was it not because he failed to properly receive the precious gift that had been given to him? Commentators say that, in the parable, a talent signifies a very large sum of money. We might think of a million dollars, for example. Could it be that, if only the servant had considered the immense trust that must have accompanied the handing over to him of such a large sum, he might have been moved to match that gift with a more courageous and creative response?

Could it be that, if we find it difficult to reach out to the poor in more sustained and creative ways, it’s because we don’t ponder enough how much God has reached out to us, and continues to do so, especially here in the Eucharist? Preoccupied with securing our own greater comfort, we fail to listen to the silent cries of those who may lack even the most basic necessities. How then can we expect to match our movements to the rhythms of our merciful God?

I’m reminded of these words from a hymn we used to sing:

Dance, then, wherever you may be,

I am the Lord of the Dance, said he.

And I'll lead you all, wherever you may be.

And I'll lead you all in the Dance, said he.

Sisters and brothers, on this fourth World Day of the Poor, how might we better help one another to enter more fully into the Lord’s Dance today?

Sunday, November 08, 2020

Travelling in Truth

32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Readings: Wisdom 6:12-16; Psalm 62(63):2-8; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; Matthew 25:1-13

Video: Disney Movies on YouTube 

My dear friends, do you know what a seasoned traveller looks like? It’s usually someone who takes care to research a travel destination, so as to prepare well for the trip. Bringing warm clothes, when visiting a cold climate. Or sunscreen, if remaining in the tropics. But preparing well for a journey involves more than just bringing the right stuff. When planning a mountain-climbing expedition, for example, even more important than having proper equipment, is to ensure that one is in good physical condition. The body must be trained for the trek. Otherwise it won’t be able to keep up.

This wisdom of a seasoned traveller is something like what the first reading encourages us to cultivate. The wisdom to know where one is headed, in order to prepare well for the trip. And the second reading tells us that our ultimate destination is to be with God in Christ. So that it doesn’t matter whether we are alive or dead when Jesus comes again in glory. For, even if we were to die before then, Christ will raise us up again. If we remain faithful, we shall stay with the Lord for ever. But how to remain faithful?

If it is true that our life’s journey stretches beyond time into eternity, if our final goal is indeed hidden – beyond the struggles of this passing life – in the enduring embrace of God in Christ, then how should we prepare for the trip? This is the crucial question that the gospel helps us to ponder.

The parable teaches us that being well-prepared for the Lord’s coming is like having enough oil for a lamp. And scholars say this points to something the gospel writer has already highlighted much earlier. In chapter 5 verse 20 – in the Sermon on the Mount – Jesus tells his disciples, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

To have oil for our lamps is to be trained in the righteousness of Christ, and to resist the hypocrisy of his enemies. It is to cultivate right relationship – with God, with oneself, and with others. Today, righteousness is seen especially in compassion shown to those who suffer, including Mother Earth. But even more basic than that, righteousness is shown in the care one takes to speak the truth, even when it may be more convenient to tell a lie. All of which may explain why the wise bridesmaids did not share their oil with the foolish ones. They couldn’t. For righteousness is more like physical conditioning than sunscreen. It can’t be borrowed or lent.

Some of us may still remember the story of Pinocchio, the little wooden puppet on an exciting quest to become a fully human boy. An especially significant moment on the puppet’s journey is when it learns the importance of speaking the truth. For its nose grows longer whenever it tells a lie! In an age of so-called alternative facts and fake news, isn’t this lesson in integrity something that we urgently need to learn anew?

Sisters and brothers, as we continue our pilgrimage into eternity, what must we do to help one another become ever more seasoned travellers today?