Sunday, February 05, 2023

Of Straying Symbols & Christ Crucified

5th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Readings: Isaiah 58:7-10; Psalm 111(112):4-9; 1 Corinthians 2:1-5; Matthew 5:13-16

Picture: Aziz Acharki on Unsplash

My dear friends, what’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word hijack? If you’re like me, perhaps it’s planes or trains. But those are not the only things that can be made to stray far from their intended destination, right? What about signs and symbols? How about the thumbs-up sign, for example, or the heart symbol? Traditional expressions of friendship and affection. Yet, in recent years, haven’t they acquired a new significance? On social media, aren’t they also a unit of measurement? An indication of popularity. Even a reflection of self-worth. And a reason for competition. So that what was once a means of drawing people closer, has somehow also become a subtle way of pulling us apart.

But if even signs and symbols can be hijacked, then how might we guard against it? This is the question the scriptures help us to ponder today. In the gospel, Jesus uses two familiar symbols to describe his disciples: salt and light. And in this media-saturated society of ours, it seems natural to equate the call to be light with the need for more publicity. How else to shine, except by letting more people know about us and what we do? How else to be salty, except by becoming media-influencers in our own right? Which may well be true. And yet, even if we cannot deny the crucial importance of communications today, isn’t it equally important not to let our efforts at publicising the gospel degenerate into a numbers game, or a subtle exercise in self-promotion or ego-inflation? 

In fact, isn’t this the issue St Paul is addressing in the second reading? Divisions caused by people trying to outshine one another. To which Paul responds by reminding his audience that their light finds its Source not in any purely human wisdom, but in the power of the Spirit, flowing from an interior knowledge of Christ crucified. And isn’t this the same experiential knowledge that is embodied in the people whom Jesus addresses in the gospel? As we may recall from last week, it is while gazing at his disciples that Jesus is moved to begin his Sermon on the Mount by congratulating the poor in spirit, those who hunger for justice, those who mourn its lack, and are persecuted for its sake. They are the ones who shine out in the world, not by self-promotion, but by self-sacrifice.

For isn’t the poor and humble Christ the prime exemplar of that good person described in the first reading and the psalm? Isn’t he the One whose light pierces the darkness, particularly when he mercifully lays down his life for all on Calvary? So that by drawing close to the poor, by giving bread to the hungry, shelter to the homeless, and relief to the oppressed, we draw close to him, who did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, so as to draw close to us. Which may explain why, already back in 2013, Pope Francis was quoted as saying that he would like to have a church that is poor and for the poor.

Sisters and brothers, in this publicity-obsessed world of ours, what more can we do to guard ourselves from going the way of the thumbs-up sign today?

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