Sunday, November 27, 2022

Negotiating the Junctions of New Life

1st Sunday in Advent (A)

Readings: Isaiah 2: 1-5; Psalm 121 (122): 1-2, 4-5, 6-9; Romans 13: 11-14; Matthew 24: 37-44

Pictures: By Pawel Czerwinski & Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

My dear friends, can you predict what will happen in a situation like this? Let’s say two cars are waiting, side-by-side, at a traffic junction. What will happen when the lights turn green? In the past, we could say with some confidence that both vehicles will quickly make their way across the junction. But these days isn’t it just as likely to find at least one car staying put? And we know why, right? Speaking from embarrassing personal experience, it’s because the driver’s eyes are fixed not on the lights, but on his phone.

Strangely or not, this is the image that initially comes to mind, when one hears the gospel speak of how, at the Son of Man’s coming, of two men in the fields one is taken, one left; of two women at the millstone grinding, one is taken, one left. But notice how all four people are equally engaged in the ordinary busyness of daily life. Yet, somehow, two manage to remain alert to their master’s coming, and are ready to welcome him when he finally arrives. How do they do it?

Perhaps it’s by first taking to heart the crucially important, yet too easily forgotten, message of the second reading. Which reminds us that, whether we happen to be working in the fields or grinding at the millstone, gathered round a conference table or conversing on Zoom, we are always also simultaneously waiting at a junction, at the borderlands between darkness and light, between selfishness and love. Where to remain alert and ready is to strive continually, not just to resist one’s own self-indulgent tendencies, but also to abide by and actively promote gospel values, such as justice, mercy and peace. To let our armour be the Lord Jesus Christ.

To do this is to allow our lives in this passing world to be informed by the vision of the eternal kingdom that is to come. As a result of which, something happens to us. Our hearts and desires take on a certain shape, gradually moulded into the image of Christ. Moving us to yearn for what Christ earnestly desires, and to be repelled by what distresses him.

So that even if, despite our best efforts to change the world for the better, we may seem to make little progress, we will yet find ourselves eagerly awaiting the fulfilment of that consoling vision of peace described in the first reading. The time when our loving and compassionate God will truly wield authority over the nations and adjudicate between many peoples. When nation will not lift sword against nation, and there will be no more training for war. And with hearts filled with true Advent hope, we too will cry out with the psalmist: I rejoiced when I heard them say, ‘Let us go to God’s house.’

All of which may bring to mind junctions of a different sort. Not those so easily obstructed by distracted drivers like me, but the ones occupied by uncertain yet hopeful spouses, clinging tightly to each other, as they share in the joyful pain of bringing new life to birth.

Sisters and brothers, what must we do to help one another find and wait expectantly at such places this Advent?

Saturday, November 12, 2022

Between the PSLE & the Parousia

33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

Readings: Malachi 3: 19-20; Psalm 97 (98): 5-9; 2 Thessalonians 3: 7-12; Luke 21: 5-19

Picture: Rohit Farmer on Unsplash

My dear friends, what do you think an anxious parent will say to a child preparing for the PSLE next year? I’m not sure, since I don’t have kids of my own. But, rightly or not, drawing from my memories of what was said to me, back when I was a student facing a major exam, two things come to mind. The first is the seriousness of the matter, the dire consequences of failure versus the rewards of success. The second is the need for constant effort, to not leave things till it’s too late.

Consequences and constancy. Coincidentally or not, these are also what we find in our readings today. As usual, as the liturgical year draws to a close, we are led to consider the end of time, and how to prepare well for it. The first reading does this by describing a sharp contrast in consequences. On the one hand, for the arrogant and the evil-doers, the day of the Lord will be like a fiery furnace, burning them all up like dry grass, leaving neither root nor stalk. On the other hand, those who fear the Lord will experience this same fire as a welcome sun of righteousness, gently caressing them with healing in its rays. The message could not be clearer. Be prepared, because the consequences will be serious.

Although the second reading doesn’t directly mention the end of time, its message is no less relevant. For it highlights the need for constant effort. Paul tells the Thessalonians not to live in idleness, doing no work themselves but interfering with everyone else’s. Instead they should imitate Paul and his companions, who work night and day… so as not to be a burden to others. But if preparing for the end of time really means no more than working hard everyday, then we can probably breathe a sigh of relief since, for many of us here in Singapore, work is practically an addiction. So, if not just work, then what does constant effort really look like?

We find the answer in the gospel. Here what’s perhaps most striking is how closely the scary conditions Jesus describes mirror what we see in our world today. Nation (fighting) against nation, and kingdom against kingdom…. great earthquakes and plagues and famines here and there… And yet, the Lord makes it clear that the end is not so soon. Facing these terrible calamities, we disciples of Jesus need first to guard ourselves from being deceived. Not to blindly follow influencers of one kind or another. But to persevere in bearing witness to the Lord. Even if doing so may attract hatred and persecution, even from our own family. Constantly trying to live according to the Lord’s values, instead of those of the world. Regularly sparing at least a thought and a prayer, if not a hand of assistance, for those who suffer.

Still, as serious as the consequences may be, watching for the end of time should not be all doom and gloom. However stressful it may be to study for the PSLE, preparing for the Lord’s coming should also bring us deep joy, at the presence of the Lord. For, as our opening prayer reminds us, it is full and lasting happiness to serve with constancy the author of all that is good. Sisters and brothers, how might we help one another to receive and experience this grace today?