Monday, 19 November 2007

33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C

To many people the end of the world is tragic. Christianity, however, thinks otherwise. It is not an end but rather a beginning—an event not to be afraid of. Our fear is natural because of the unknown but our fear could also mask a lack of firm belief in the resurrection.

But, given that our conception of time is somewhat linear—yesterday, today and tomorrow (past, present and future) travel in a straight line—then, it makes sense that every ending is also a beginning. Hence, the old world needs to end before a new world can come about. The best analogy is the birth of a child. The womb is a paradise of security—food and lodging are assured. Yet, a child needs to leave the security of the womb before it can experience the freedom of an independent existence. Just like what Jesus told his disciples after his resurrection—in not so many words—“Even if you all enjoy my presence, yet, I must be gone before the Spirit can come”. Something must end before a new era begins.

Therefore, the end that the first reading and Gospel are pointing to, cataclysmic as it may be, is not an ending to be feared but instead to be welcomed—just like the Apostles welcoming Pentecost. We welcome the end because we look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.

But, our "looking forward" to the end is tempered or “moderated”. It is a looking forward set in the present. In fact, the apocalyptic feel of the first reading and Gospel is tempered by St Paul’s focus on the present. How? The first reading speaks of the coming days marked by fiery furnace and the Gospel about the days when the Temple will stand no more. But smacked in the middle, we hear St Paul telling people to imitate him in not being idle. By profession, Paul was a tent-maker. The context of his exhortation to imitate was because people thought that the end was near and as such they found excuses to be lazy.

St Paul making tents shows us that our concern for the future should be grounded in the present. As Jesus says, “Take care not to be deceived because many will come using my name proclaiming that the time is close at hand”. What you should be concerned with is how you actively live your present calling.

The key to being grounded is patient endurance and it is active rather than passive. The word “patient” may suggest passivity in the face of a situation beyond our control. But, our endurance is active because no matter how difficult, extenuating or trying a situation may be, it is never totally out of our control. No matter how constricted my freedom may be, yet I always possess a modicum or a small measure of inner freedom over my actions and my responses. Life imposes a lot of constraints upon us and that is to be expected. I give an example which I know of—as a priest I have many responsibilities and chief amongst them is being a shepherd. The shepherd [like our stained glass] is where the sheep are. If you ask me, many of the social responsibilities like functions or BEC gatherings, etc. are not my cup of tea. But given that they are part and parcel of the pastoral duties of a shepherd, I still have the freedom to choose to be happy or to be miserable. Here I need to make a clarification just in case I get invited out. I don’t want you to think that every time I go out or am in the midst of a social function, I am suffering because I am not. I have chosen to be happy in a situation over which I often have no control—that’s the point I want to make. [1]

The same can be said of married life too. Once married, there is already a tying down, a schedule to keep. [2] You can’t simply go out until 2:30am as if you were single. You have to explain to your husband or wife. There are housing or car loan repayments and all the attendant duties that come with married life. Sometimes the person you marry may even turn out to be less of what you had expected. In a situation where the Church says clearly: “no divorce”, you can choose to go through the motion or maybe ignore the constraints through excessive drinking, smoking, eating, extra-marital affairs, shopping, reckless driving or you can choose to be happy in a marriage—choose to work out a marriage, choose to respond positively, to have hope. This is the meaning of patient endurance. When a situation is beyond your control, you still can choose to live rather than to exist.

Otherwise, we are saying that we are no better than animals because we only respond to whatever is done to us. Actually, it is a feature of our age to moan and groan about what is being done to us because we have been somewhat brain-washed into believing that we are victims of circumstances. When we have no control, we see ourselves as victims and victims often suffer passively.

Our endurance is active, set in the present because it is based upon the resurrection. The first reading is clear about that. “But for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness will shine out with healing in its rays”. The good news is that Baptism has endowed us with the grace to persevere. Confirmation strengthens us with the gift of fortitude and through the frequent reception of the Sacraments of Confession and Eucharist, we are nourished in the endurance race for which we have been entered.

Finally our endurance makes sense, that the present is embraced because there is a saying in St Paul to Timothy, that if we have died with him, we shall also live with him and if we endure because we love him, then we shall reign with him. (2 Tim 2:10-12). Each time we make the sign of the cross as we enter the Church, we are reminding ourselves that we die with Christ at our baptism in order to share in His resurrection.
[1] In actual fact, the line between what is “private” and what is expected of me is sometimes not clear… It is part and parcel of being a public person. Either you live with it or you end up embittered by the fact. Many of our celebrities want the fame of publicity but not the responsibility that comes with being a public person.
[2] Indian weddings illustrate this “tying” point because there is the ceremony of the thalli tied around the woman’s neck. A bit unfair because the woman does not tie her husband with the thali but it says something to us about being tied down by commitment.