Monday, 24 December 2007

4th Sunday of Advent Year A

I wish Christmas were over. Why? In some places, the way a feast is celebrated is rather prolonged or aggressive. For example, in the Philippines, the preparation for Christmas is already afoot comes September... it seems that when the month ends with “ber”, Christmas preparations would start. We may not begin in September but we are no less aggressive or intense in our preparation.

That is why, I wish Christmas were over. The aggressiveness with which Christmas is anticipated with so much effort is put into “celebrating” Christmas before the actual feast itself that when the actual day finally arrives, we are already too tired to celebrate—a feeling that as Christmas arrives, it’s already passé. The same can be said for our Moon-cake festival, Aidl-Fitri or the Lunar New Year celebration.

But, Christmas is essentially a religious feast. Regrettably, the aggressiveness of our commercial celebration tends to overshadow the spiritual aspect of Christmas. I am not against the commercial celebration of Christmas. What I am lamenting may be the poverty of our spiritual preparation for Christmas.

Christmas is a religious feast and the 4th Sunday of Advent brings out more of this aspect as we stand at the threshold of Christmas. First of all, the word "religion" is widely understood by many to be a set of common beliefs and practices generally held by a group of people, often codified as prayers, rituals, and religious laws. That is why the airy-fairy spirituality is so much more popular because “religion” is rigid whereas spirituality is seemingly more spontaneous. But the more fundamental meaning of the word “religion” has something to do with “re-alignment”. Thus, to be religious is fundamentally to be re-aligned with God.

Advent is clearly a period of re-alignment. We see how as the drama of both Mary and Joseph unfolds, it also reflects their alignment with God as the one who is at the centre of their will. Mary, who was found with child not of her future husband, risked everything she was. Joseph, an honourable man, when told to accept a child not of his, did exactly as he was told.

The circumstances of their lives may not be simple or straightforward. But what they show us is that the alignment of their lives with God’s will has something to do with a firm belief that God is in charge. This God who is in charge challenges our current cultural presupposition that we are the masters of our destiny. We are constantly urged to take charge of our lives and to make things happen. So much so that, when we encounter failure, it is because we hadn’t tried hard enough.

In the gospel, we learn that God takes charge in really critical situations—what can be worse than after having prepared for a wedding, the couple finds out that one is pregnant and the child is not the fruit of their love. The first reading assures us that God is really in charge. It is this: the maiden is with child and will soon give birth to a son whom she will call Emmanuel, a name which means “God-is-with-us”. God is in charge by being with us. Both St Paul in the 2nd Reading and the Gospel confirm this when they speak of Jesus as the Son of David and the Son of God. Every king in David’s line is an embodiment of God’s promise to be with us and this promise finds its fulfilment in Jesus.

If we accept that Christmas is a religious feast, then, we are asked to submit to the demands of divine desire or accede to the sovereignty of God’s will. For those who do not believe, to be aligned with God is escapism. Karl Marx says that “religion” is the opiate of the people. But, for those who believe, alignment with God can only result in the freedom to truly embrace life without escape. We do not need to buy more, eat more or undergo cosmetic surgery to escape from the “cruelty” of life.

Mary and Joseph illustrate for us that our personal history, no matter how much the world may measure it as failure, is always the arena for the exercise of God’s sovereignty and a display of God's love. It is also a reminder that there can never really be any doubt about the ultimate victory of God's goodness. It is incredibly consoling to know that a good and loving God is in charge of history.

Religion, far from shielding us from the reality of life, actually brings us into life and helps us especially at those times when life does not make sense. For example, the death of a parent before his or her time, the loss of an only child. For many of us, life’s “downs” are proofs of God’s absence. Whereas, in the case of Mary and Joseph, life’s vicissitudes are charged with the presence of God. And they prove that by acceding to God’s will.

Indeed in these two days before Christmas breaks upon us, may we find the time to sit religiously with God asking for the grace that our life be a reflexion of God’s will, a reflexion that indeed God is with us: Emmanuel.