Sunday, January 30, 2022

Guarding Against Glitter

4th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

Readings: Jeremiah 1:4-5,17-19; Psalm 70 (71): 1-6, 15, 17; 1 Corinthians 12: 31-13: 13; Luke 4:21-30

Picture: cc Jagrap

My dear friends, can you complete this sentence? All that glitters… That’s right! All that glitters… is not gold. And we know what it means. It’s a warning to us about the danger of chasing after shiny things, because not all shiny things are truly valuable. For example, a scammer may show us something shiny… like a job, or a cash prize, or the promise of companionship… and tempt us to give up something valuable in exchange for it. But once we take the bait, we discover that we’ve sacrificed our gold for worthless glitter.

I mention this not just because scams have been so much in the news lately, but also because of our scriptures today. In the gospel, Jesus does something puzzling. At the start of the reading, we’re told that, by preaching in his hometown, the Lord won the approval of all. But instead of happily enjoying this popularity, Jesus provokes his listeners. He makes them so angry that they even try to kill him. Why does he do this?

Isn’t it because the Lord realises that the glitter of popular acclaim is not real gold? Isn’t it because he recognises that their approval of him is born not of a true appreciation for what he is saying, or of who he claims to be, but rather of chauvinism? They are drawn to him simply because they want to claim him as their own. This is Joseph’s son, surely? And perhaps Jesus realises that giving in to their desires would mean compromising his own God-given mission, to bear witness to the truth of God’s love for all people, regardless of family or ethnic or national origin. To be seduced by the shine of popular acclaim, would mean sacrificing the solid gold of his own true identity and mission.

So, instead of encouraging their praise of him, the Lord bravely uncovers their scam, even at great risk to himself. Like Jeremiah before him, Jesus confronts the people with the truth of their prejudice. Not just for his own sake, but also to show them the reality of their hypocrisy, and to offer them the possibility of being set free from their sin.

By acting in this way, Jesus demonstrates in the flesh, what the second reading describes so beautifully in the abstract. Love takes no pleasure in other people’s sins but delights in the truth… Refusing to take pleasure in popularity, the Lord chooses to delight instead in the truth of who he is, and what he is sent to do. And he is able to make this difficult choice, because, by doing so, he is abiding in the Father’s love. Which gives him the strength he needs to face every eventuality, even a painful and shameful death on a cross.

My dear friends, actually, in our world today, there are far more dangerous scams than those that merely rob us of our money. What about those that tempt us with the glitter of popularity, or success, or comfort, only to take from us the gold of our health of body, or peace of mind, or closeness of relationship with family and friends, with nature and God?

Sisters and brothers, what must we do to keep helping one another guard against the glitter that is not gold today?

Sunday, January 09, 2022

It's Been A Long Day...

Feast of the Baptism of the Lord (C)

Readings: Isaiah 40:1-5, 9-11; Psalm 103 (104): 1-4, 24-25, 27-30; Titus 2:11-14,3:4-7; Luke 3:15-16, 21-22

Picture: cc Jay Hsu

My dear friends, do you ever feel like you really need a hug? What’s it like? Two days ago, this scene from a TV series caught my attention. A kindly proprietor of a bed-and-breakfast looks closely at a newly arrived guest, and tells him that he looks like he could really use a hug. True enough, soon after she gathers him into her arms, he starts to cry. Sorry, he says, embarrassed, it’s been a long day 

Similarly, in the first reading, the people of Israel are desperately in need of a hug. They too are having a long day. For generations, they’ve been living in exile, suffering the consequences of their sins. But now, God promises to gather them in a long, tender, consoling embrace, like a shepherd gathering lambs in his arms, holding them against his breast

And it’s perhaps with this promise in mind, that the people in the gospel seek out John the Baptist. They too are having a long day. They too are yearning to feel the warmth of God’s embrace. Isn’t this why they let themselves be immersed in the Jordan river? And yet, those waters have no spiritual power of their own. Which is one reason why Jesus submits himself to the same immersion. Not to be cleansed from his sins, for he has none, but to make the ritual richer in meaning. To signal that he himself is the Good Shepherd, who gathers lambs to his breast, by laying down his life on a Cross.

Even so, when we look closely at how the Lord’s baptism is described in the gospel, it doesn’t look like it happened only to benefit others. For soon after Jesus is baptised, while he’s at prayer, the Holy Spirit envelops him, and the Father’s voice caresses him saying, You are my Son, the Beloved; my favour rests on you. Just as he is about to begin his intense public ministry, just before he sets out to gather others into God’s embrace, Jesus humbly takes the time to allow himself to be embraced. First by the waters of the Jordan, and then by the power of the Spirit, and the tender assurance of his Father.

This resonates well with what we find in the second reading, which both begins and ends with a striking reference to grace: God’s grace has been revealed, and it has made salvation possible…. He did this so that we should be justified by his grace… We have no power to save ourselves, let alone others. What we have to do is to realise our own need for God, and to humbly draw daily from this power, as Jesus did.

Isn’t this a timely reminder for us, especially in these pandemic times? Much as the relentless grind of our daily routines, and the seductive shine of our high-tech society may prevent us from realising it, it’s been a long day for us. And we could really use a warm, sincere, reassuring, identity-restoring hug. To be reminded that, in Christ, we are already adopted children of a God who truly takes delight in us.

Sisters and brothers, sometimes it takes a tender hug to show us our own need to be bathed, not just by the waters of a river or font, but also in the tears that flow from a heavy and fragile heart. What will you do to let God embrace you today?

Sunday, January 02, 2022

Mildness, Meekness & the Magi

Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord

Readings: Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 71(72):1-2, 7-8, 10-13; Ephesians 3:2-3, 5-6; Matthew 2:1-12

Picture: cc Radio Alfa

My dear friends, I know this probably sounds silly, but do you get the impression that the virus is starting to see the light? What do I mean? Well, if it’s true that Omicron is milder than the earlier versions, then perhaps COVID-19 is finally realising that if it keeps insisting on killing its hosts, it will end up wiping itself out too. So instead of racing towards mutually assured destruction, it’s now choosing a gentler, friendlier, more enlightened path. It’s learning to live and let live.

Silly as it may sound, it looks like the virus is undergoing a conversion, much like the one to which we are called, as we celebrate a third Epiphany in the shadow of the pandemic. As you know, epiphany means showing. At Christmas, the light of God’s glory shows itself to all nations as a helpless little baby, lying in a manger. And our readings invite us to lift up our eyes and look, to ponder carefully this mystery, unknown to… past generations, but revealed now to us. To look, to ponder, so that, like the virus, we too may be changed.

To help us, the gospel presents a sharp contrast between two paths: that of Herod, and that of the Magi. We know well that Herod’s is the path of violence. He ends up sacrificing many innocent children. In contrast, the Magi walk the path of meekness. Not the weakness of doormats, but the gentleness of true followers and witnesses of Christ. For example, they refuse to let themselves be manipulated by Herod, but choose to return home by a different way.

And there’s a reason for the Magi’s meekness, as well as for the violence of Herod. The Magi’s meekness is prompted by their receptivity. When they learn about the coming of a king in a faraway land, they are thrilled. They clear their schedules, disrupt their routines, and set out into the unknown. They are willing to receive directions, even from strangers. In contrast, when Herod learns about Christ’s birth, he is resistant. He feels so threatened, that he even makes plans to kill the baby.

Also, when we ponder the receptivity of the Magi, and the resistance of Herod, we are led to a third contrast. For if the Magi are receptive, isn’t it because they are seekers of Truth? Isn’t this why they search the stars, and bravely go wherever their search leads them? On the other hand, what Herod values is not Truth, but control. It doesn’t matter to him whether or not Jesus is sent by God. Herod will not allow anything to jeopardise his own grip on power and control.

Control leading to resistance and violence, versus Truth leading to receptivity and meekness. These are the two paths our readings show us, calling us to reject the first, and to walk in the second. To become Truth-seekers, instead of control-freaks, receptive disciples, instead of resistant rebels. To stop doing violence… to ourselves, to others, and to our planet. To follow the God, who lies in a manger, and hangs on a Cross. 

Sisters and brothers, if even a deadly disease can mellow, what can we do to become more meek like Christ today?