Sunday, 8 August 2010

19th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C

This evening we have the Rite of Acceptance. The readings are pertinent to what we do. The first reading describes a future unknown—the after-life—which we should not be afraid of. The second reading speaks of how we are to conceive of the after-life—in terms of faith and hope. We are to live in faith and hope as we long for the after-life. Turning to the Gospel, we find the same focus on the after-life but this time, with a twist. Instead of the servant springing into action, it would be the master who serves the servant.

How are the readings relevant to the Rite of Acceptance?

First, the spotlight shines clearly on a topic many of us are uncomfortable or unfamiliar with—the after-life. This after-life is a reality that catches many unawares. We never know how close we are to death and different people respond differently. In general, there is a universal fear of death. For some cultures, it is a taboo subject and so, the first reading addresses this fear on the basis of historical experience. “That night had been foretold to our ancestors, so that, once they saw what kind of oaths they had put their trust in, they would joyfully take courage”. Trust has a historical basis as we see God’s faithfulness to Israel during the Exodus. But, because we cannot fathom what the after-life holds, the second reading encourages faith and especially holds up to us, the figure of Abraham, our father in faith. He left the very place he had called home for an unknown land promised to him and his descendants. According to the author of the Hebrews: Faith is the assurance of things hope for, the conviction of things not seen. However, nowhere does trust and faith encourage complacency—the complacency we are warned against in the Gospel. Instead faith leads to vigilance and the Gospel ends positively by describing the vigilance of the servant who is rewarded with the unthinkable. It the end, it is the Lord who becomes the servant.

We have two possibilities before us. The first possibility belongs to our faculty of choosing. We can choose not to fear and put our trust in the God who never fails. Thus, be vigilant because the reward is beyond expectations. Or second, and this is not always a matter of choice. Many are most “stuck” because of the “unpredictability” of death. Death is almost like a veil of darkness beyond which we peer.

Our response to the unpredictability of life often takes us along the path of a planner. In order to navigate the unknown we plan for any eventualities. We would want to make sure that every variable is under our control. For example, we are encouraged to engage a financial planner as we plan our financial future.

But, our response should not be just the mode of a planner. We must keep before us that no matter how much we plan, life has a way of behaving independent of our planning. When things do not turn out the way we have mapped out, planners usually develop cynicism. Cynicism is often a response to repeated failed attempts at corralling or controlling life.

A pilgrim, on the other hand, is one who accepts life as it unfolds. When I was studying in Dublin, I remember my complaints were always met by my Jesuit brother who used to remind me that “it could be worse”. A planner like me got really annoyed with such a view of life that seemed rather fatalistic bordering on apathetic. But, as I struggled to shape my life according to my schemes and schedules, I began to realise that he had not been wrong. Neither had he been fatalistic. Instead, he had a better pulse of life. Life’s failures and disappointments were the final statements in life but they were real occasions for spiritual growth. A pilgrim dares to accept life as it unfolds because he knows that there is a planner who is larger than the life we know.

This Sunday, the pilgrim invites the planner into a life of faith. Like Abraham who uprooted himself for a new country to stay. The only compass a pilgrim has is his faith in God. However, faith is not foolhardiness in the sense that it is an “either or” option—that one is either a planner or a pilgrim. In fact, we are both. We plan, in as much as we are a logical and a rational people. Organising life is part of what makes us human. And yet, we must never forget that we are pilgrims—people on a journey—recognising that this is not our homeland forever.

The rite of acceptance we celebrate invites this group of people to embrace a life which makes them pilgrims on a journey towards life eternal. The only price the pilgrims pay is faith and vigilance to the Lord’s call. The fulfilment of God’s promise is always beyond our expectation. At the end of this pilgrimage, the vigilant will be rewarded by the Lord who will come to serve him Himself. That is a promise we can stand on.