Sunday, December 25, 2022

Redemption of Benefits–Benefits of Redemption

Solemnity of the Nativity of the Lord

(Mass During the Day)

Readings: Isaiah 52: 7-10; Psalm 97 (98): 1-6; Hebrews 1: 1-6; John 1: 1-18

Picture: cc Christchurch City Libraries on Flickr

My dear friends, do you remember when you last received a shopping voucher? How did you feel? Did it set your heart racing with excitement? Recently, I bought something online, and received the offer of a $5 discount on my next purchase. To enjoy this benefit, I only have to remember to redeem the voucher, the next time I buy something on the website. Benefits and redemption, two words that should be familiar to anyone who has ever used a voucher.

I realise that this mention of such an apparently secular activity like shopping–and on Christmas Day, no less–may puzzle and even upset some of us. But it’s not my intention to scandalise or to scold. I think we all know well enough that, contrary to what the advertisements may say, Christmas is not just an excuse to buy more things, but a celebration of the birthday of a special person. The One whose coming brings considerable benefits, as our scriptures remind us…

How beautiful on the mountains, are the feet of one who brings good news, who heralds peace, brings happiness, proclaims salvation…. they shout for joy together…. for the Lord is consoling his people… Peace and happiness, salvation, joy and consolation… In case all these benefits don’t sound juicy enough to set our hearts racing with excitement, the gospel goes even further. It tells us that he gave power to become children of God… Power to become children of God. Could anything be greater than that?

And yet, although these benefits are offered to everyone, they need to be redeemed before they can be enjoyed. How? According to the gospel, it is by accepting him, by believing in his name, by submitting to his authority over all of Creation. By truly letting him become the Lord of my life. In other words, to do here on earth, what the second reading says all the angels of God are doing in heaven: to worship him.

To worship him with our hearts and minds and voices, as we do whenever we gather here to celebrate the Eucharist. And to continue worshipping him with our whole lives, even after we leave this sacred place. For since the Eternal Word has become flesh, and after he has completed his loving pilgrimage from cross to grave to sky, every place is now made sacred by his presence. Even the darkness of death cannot overcome the power of his light.

But to truly worship him, I need to stop paying homage to other gods, like money, power and popularity. I need to stop acting as if I were God, trying to control and manipulate everything and everyone for my own purposes. True worship requires a heart made poor and humble by suffering, embraced in love and trust. Isn’t this what that beautiful Christmas crib conveys to all those who have the eyes to see?

Sisters and brothers, much as shopping vouchers may set some hearts racing with excitement, even they will soon expire if left unredeemed. What must we do to truly welcome and worship the poor and humble Jesus this Christmas?

Sunday, December 18, 2022

Soothing the Soreness of the Heart

4th Sunday in Advent (A)

Readings: Isaiah 7: 10-14; Psalm 23 (24): 1-6; Romans 1: 1-7; Matthew 1: 18-24

Picture: cc Mira Pangkey

My dear friends, has your throat ever felt so sore that it was difficult to swallow, let alone to speak? What did you do? Sometimes lozenges can help, right? Placed in the mouth, and allowed to slowly dissolve on the tongue, a good lozenge can soothe the throat, making it easier to swallow and speak.

Although there is no mention of sore throats or lozenges in our scriptures today, it is clear that both Ahaz and Joseph are having difficulty swallowing God’s will. Shortly after Ahaz is crowned king of Judah, his northern neighbours, Israel and Aram (Syria), join forces to invade him. In a panic, he seeks the help of the mighty Assyrians. The prophet Isaiah tries to persuade him to turn to God instead. But, with his enemies already at his doorstep, Ahaz can’t accept the prophet’s assurances. His fear gets the better of him. Rather than trust in an unseen God, he submits instead to a foreign power.

Like Ahaz, Joseph also finds it difficult to accept God’s will. He wants to send the pregnant Mary away, because he thinks that’s what the Law requires. But he eventually changes his mind, and accepts Mary. And he is able to do this because, unlike Ahaz, Joseph receives the words of the angel the way someone with a sore throat might suck on a lozenge. He truly takes them to heart, allowing them to soothe away his misgivings. Do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife

Like Ahaz and Joseph, we too are called not just to keep welcoming the Lord into our hearts and lives, but also to proclaim the good news of his coming. As the second reading reminds us, through (Christ) we received grace and our apostolic mission to preach the obedience of faith to all pagan nations in honour of his name. But, again like Ahaz and Joseph, we may find this call difficult to swallow. Especially if our hearts are sore, burdened by worries and hurts, doubts and misgivings of one kind or another, including the lingering unexamined trauma caused by the pandemic. 

Thankfully, the scriptures offer us soothing lozenges, in the form of three names. The first is David, which appears in all three readings. As we ponder this name, we realise that, in speaking to Ahaz and Joseph, God isn’t just interacting with isolated individuals, but with the single household, which they represent, the House of David. And God’s love is so steadfast, God’s patience so enduring, that despite being rejected again and again, God still keeps reaching out. Until, many generations after Ahaz, a true Saviour and Messiah can finally be born. Isn’t this what the name Jesus Christ means? Not just any saviour, but the long foretold anointed one, born of the House of David. By whose Dying and Rising, God truly becomes Emmanuel, the God who is eternally present to all who have the courage to receive him.

DavidJesus ChristEmmanuel. Sisters and brothers, as Advent draws to a close, how might we allow these powerful lozenges to soothe our sore and tired hearts, making us ever more receptive to the Lord today?

Sunday, December 11, 2022

Between Sleep & Joy

3rd Sunday in Advent (A)

(Gaudete Sunday)

Readings: Isaiah 35: 1-6,10; Psalm 145 (146): 6-10; James 5: 7-10; Matthew 11: 2-11

Picture: By Tony Tran on Unsplash

My dear friends, have you ever had trouble sleeping? Anyone who has will know that sleeping is not exactly the same as eating or drinking, both of which I can usually do whenever I wish. But sleep is not within my control in quite the same way. When I tell someone, I am going to sleep, what I really mean is that I am preparing to welcome sleep when it comes. This usually involves being in a particular place, and adopting a certain posture. I go to bed, lie down, and wait for sleep to come. Bed and lying down. Place and posture.

But why talk about sleep in Advent, when we are so often told to stay awake? It’s because, in Advent, we are also told to do something else. Especially today, our liturgy is filled with calls to rejoice. And our readings show us that joy is rather like sleep, the coming of which we can only prepare for, by waiting at a particular place, and adopting a certain posture.

In the first reading, those asked to rejoice are actually in the wilderness of Exile, while the people in the second reading are enduring trials of some sort. And, in the gospel, John the Baptist is stuck in jail, for speaking out against King Herod. It’s also helpful to note that, just as I can decide whether or not to go to bed, all these people can actually choose to leave this uncomfortable spiritual place. By forgetting about the homeland from which they have been exiled, or forsaking the faith for which they are being persecuted. 

But the joy promised them is not the kind that comes from escape or avoidance. Rather than distracting themselves or running away, they are encouraged to adopt a certain spiritual posture, comprising at least 3 aspects: courage, patience, and alertness to the signs of the Lord’s coming. Strengthen all weary hands, steady all trembling knees and say to all faint hearts, ‘Courage! Do not be afraid. Look, your God is coming… to save you.’ … You… have to be patient; do not lose heart…. Go back and tell John what you hear and see…. and (blessed) is the (one) who does not lose faith in me…

Choosing to remain in a painful place of trial, while adopting a  courageous posture of faith. To do this is also to follow the example of the prophets of old. And not just the prophets, but Christ himself, who has already died and risen to life to set us free. Preparing for joy, through place and posture. Perhaps this is what Pope Francis was doing, when he recently shed tears while praying before a statue of the Immaculate Conception for the people of Ukraine.

Place and posture, prophets and prayer. This is how we Christians welcome joy. Something we do well to remember particularly in these troubled and troubling times, when the temptation is great to turn to cheaper, shallower, less enduring, and far more dangerous forms of consolation.

Sisters and brothers, if rejoicing is truly more like sleeping than eating and drinking, then how might we better welcome the joy of the Lord into our hearts and homes this Advent?

Sunday, December 04, 2022

Of Viruses & Vipers, Protection & Peace...

2nd Sunday in Advent (A)

Readings: Isaiah 11: 1-10; Psalm 71 (72): 1-2, 7-8, 12-13, 17; Romans 15: 4-9; Matthew 3:1-12

Picture: by LN on Unsplash

My dear friends, do you feel safe here? Without giving it much thought, perhaps some of us will quickly say yes. And yet, aren’t many of us, including me, still wearing our masks and sanitising our hands? Why, if not because even this sacred place is not as safe as it looks? There remains at least a hidden threat of viral infection, requiring measures to make the space safer, especially for those more vulnerable.

It’s helpful to keep this in mind, as we ponder the scriptures today. For that consoling picture of peace that Isaiah paints in the first reading is also an image of safety. Safety from threats both obvious and hidden. Safety for children and those more vulnerable. In this vision, the lamb finds it safe to live with the wolf. The young child suffers no harm when it places its hand into the viper’s lair. And a little boy is allowed to lead them. How is this wonderfully safe space created? It results from the wise rule of the coming king, whose reign is marked by discerning impartial judgment, and responsible courageous action to protect the vulnerable, and keep the dangerous in check. He does not judge by appearances… but judges the wretched with integrity… His word is a rod that strikes the ruthless, his sentences bring death to the wicked.

We see something similar in John the Baptist's interaction with the Pharisees and Sadducees. By calling them a brood of vipers, John indicates that, like poisonous snakes (and coronaviruses too), they pose a hidden threat to the vulnerable. They hide their self-promoting other-exploiting intentions under pious appearances. Yet without a true change of heart, simply going through the motions of being baptised in water will do them no good. The Lord who is coming will test them in the purifying fire of the Holy Spirit, and they will be burnt up, unless they repent.

All of which may help us better understand what the second reading is asking of us. More than just tolerating and being friendly with everyone, we are to welcome one another as Christ welcomes us. Christ, who did not condone our wrongdoing, but mercifully and courageously bore the cross-shaped consequences of calling us to repentance. So as to lead us into the Reign of God, where everyone, particularly children and the more vulnerable, finds true safety.

I’m reminded of these words spoken by the Archbishop of Canterbury, on his visit to Ukraine: There will be no peace till we stop lying. You’ve got to tell the truth, however painful. There can never be a way forward built on lies… Beyond countries torn by war, can’t the same be said of other spaces haunted by less obvious threats? Spaces both religious and secular, real and virtual, public and domestic? Just as mask-wearing and hand-sanitising help keep us safe in a pandemic, so too do truth-seeking and truth-speaking enable us to blaze a surer path from danger to safety, from conflict to peace.

Sisters and brothers, what must we do to help one another receive the courage to walk this path together more faithfully this Advent?