Repentance: an essential qualification

All three readings of the day talk about repentance, which is a channel for God’s blessings and graces.

In the First Reading (Jon 3: 1-5, 10), the vicious city of Nineveh changed its ways, following Jonah’s teaching, and was saved; and in the Gospel (Mk 1: 14-20), Jesus asks his people to ‘repent, and believe in the Gospel’ in order to be saved. Something there surely is that doesn’t love a hardened heart and calls us to compassion!

Jonah is a prophet best remembered for spending three days in the belly of a large fish. Another memorable passage is the prophet’s preaching: ‘Forty days, and Nineveh will be destroyed.’

Nineveh was the capital of Assyria, an aggressor country that the Israelites dubbed unjust and cruel. And therein lies the paradox of the narrative: God sends His prophet to an enemy country!

But all is well that ends well, for despite the prophet’s many subterfuges, he ends up in Nineveh and preaching there. As a result, upon taking God’s message seriously, the city was saved; and Jonah, too, whom God reproached, finally experienced His mercy and love.

So, it is not the belly adventure, if at all, that matters but the fact that God reaches out to everyone. The city dimensions are grossly inaccurate (the city, whose walls had a perimeter of twelve km only, was not very large) but that hardly matters. The crux of the message is that salvation is open to all – even to those who at first might oppose Him; all they must do is repent for their folly and acknowledge His kingdom.

That is also the essence of the Gospel. Jesus said: ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the Gospel.’ The Gospel is none other than the Good News as announced by Jesus Christ, and its proclamation; repentance, nothing but a genuine change of heart.

Jesus uttered those words as He entered Galilee after John's arrest. He knew that John’s end had come and that He had to begin His own mission. It was indeed a relay, for Jesus left behind the quiet life of Nazareth and went out to proclaim the Kingdom of God as the Precursor had done… It was also a replay, for Jesus knew full well that a similar fate awaited Him. King Herod had detested John’s prophetic witness: how would he ever come to love Jesus’ testimony? Moreover, Jesus not only called people to repentance but also to faith in God.

But that is not all. ‘Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men,’ Jesus promised Simon and Andrew. This momentous assurance is a call to you and me as well. And we are told that ‘immediately they left their nets and followed Him.’ Now, what about you and me?

We often get entangled in our worldly nets, in our worldwide web, finding it embarrassing to even acknowledge, let alone proclaim, Jesus. We are concerned instead about what our neighbour will think of us, how mentally feeble and foolish they would regard us, if drawn into such 'fantasies'….

True Christians, on the other hand, consider that fantasies are in fact the stuff of the secular world! St Paul in the Second Reading (1 Cor 7: 29-31) is unequivocal: ‘The form of this world is passing away.’ So, we ought to give up all that we cling to, repent for our wrong actions, and earnestly seek the Lord our God. After all, He is the Way, the Truth and the Life. Repentance, then, would make a world of a difference; it would change everything.

The Apostle adds: ‘The appointed time has grown very short’. This is a reference to the time between the first and the second Coming of Christ. Are we ready to keep our eyes trained on Him? The renunciation of matrimony, mourning, or even rejoicing would be only symbols of our dedication to the Lord’s service, and repentance an essential qualification to enter the kingdom of God.


Are we ready to serve?

After the festive period of the birth, epiphany and baptism of Our Lord, it is the complete mystery of Christ that is focussed on in the Ordinary Time of the liturgical calendar. On this Second Sunday, the Readings portray the ever-readiness of Christ’s first three disciples and highlight a comparable personage of the Old Testament.

Samuel is that figure who, a millennium before the coming of Jesus, played a key role in Israel (cf. First Reading, 1 Sam 3: 3-10, 19). Born in answer to his mother Hannah’s incessant prayers and dedicated by her to God, Samuel worked under Eli the high priest. One night, he heard a voice calling his name. He thought it was Eli but it wasn’t. After this had happened three times, Eli, realising that it was the voice of the Lord, taught Samuel to say: "Speak, Lord, for Your servant hears."

Spiritually mature that he was, young Samuel answered God’s call without ifs or buts. As a prophet, he facilitated the transition from pre-monarchical period to the monarchy under Saul, king of Israel, and then again from Saul to David. He guarded the religious heritage and identity of Israel during the country’s defeat and occupation by the Philistines. Samuel was a priest, prophet and judge rolled into one, a key figure in state affairs.

A parallel figure in the New Testament is Simon, whom Jesus named Cephas, meaning Peter, for upon this ‘rock’ He would build His Church. The exact moment of their meeting is the interesting subject of today’s Gospel text (Jn 1: 35-42). Peter answered Jesus’ call, which had come to him through his brother Andrew. The latter and John the Evangelist were the first two disciples to whom John the Baptist showed the “Lamb of God”. For sure, the duo was drawn into a sublime interaction with Jesus, going by the fact that they met from the ‘tenth hour’ (4.00 pm) until late, so they even stayed with Him that night!

Look at how none of these individuals dreamt of acquiring power and influence, but of building God’s kingdom. John the Baptist did not project himself as the Lamb of God but humbly introduced Jesus as such. He was an honourable man who suffered a humiliating death by decapitation. That is how men and women of honour and merit are treated by the world, whereas those with nuisance value find their way into the corridors of power and many who flout moral and ethical principles are pampered by family and friends.

To such misguided elements, St Paul in the Second Reading (1 Cor 6: 13-15, 17-20) is loud and clear: ‘Shun immorality’. Although it is individual sexual immorality that the Apostle of the Gentiles is railing against here, we could stretch his censure to those devoid of principles, so much so that the writer had earlier used the expression ‘temple of the Holy Spirit’ with reference to the community (3: 16).

Since our concern must be to know what the Lord wants of us, readiness to serve Him cannot be on our terms. We ought to delight in His law in the depth of our hearts, and like Samuel, listen to His voice; or like Andrew, John and Peter, be ready to follow in His footsteps. But none of this is as easy as it seems, particularly when we are bent on doing our own little thing; rather, it calls for total commitment, self-effacement and self-denial; it demands of us readiness to face misunderstanding, ridicule, rejection, vendetta, abuse and violence, for God's sake.

On the other hand, the joy of knowing the Lord and serving Him makes us strong and happy. It prompts us pass on that joy to others; no wonder the Baptist introduced Jesus to his disciples, and Andrew quickly lets Peter in on his secret. What about you and me, what do we do?

Are we ready to serve, or are we entrenched in our petty affairs? Samuel and Peter remind us that we too have a vocation. In fact, the world would have been a better place if every parent taught his child to say, as Eli did: "Speak, Lord, for Your servant hears." With this prayer always on our lips, slowly we would begin to realise that nothing else really matters in life except our readiness to serve Him.

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Manifesting Christ

Today's First Reading (Is 60: 1-6) delightfully addresses Jerusalem. Isaiah proclaims the good news that the city will rise and shine as soon as it catches sight of the Lord. Whatever may happen to the world, the Lord’s glory will been seen upon holy city. Kings and nations will fall prostrate before her; her diasporic children will return, and all roads will lead to Jerusalem.

That is unmistakably the good news of salvation that the world will receive when the Divine Babe is born in Bethlehem, just 8 km away from the capital. Darkness or hopelessness may cover the earth and even thicker its peoples, but Jerusalem shall be covered by a multitude of camels as harbingers of hope; they will come from Midian and Ephah (both in present-day Saudi Arabia) and Sheba (now in Yemen and Ethiopia); they will bring gold and frankincense and proclaim the praise of the Lord.

Among those rare words of radiance, resplendence and rejoicing, it is anybody’s guess why Isaiah had no place for myrrh. In ancient times this resin, used for embalming, was almost as precious as gold. Why did the Magi offer it to the newborn? St. Augustine believes that Jesus received “Gold, as paid to a mighty King; frankincense, as offered to God; myrrh, as to one who is to die for the sins of all.”

What Isaiah had prophesied did happen. As today’s moving Gospel text (Mt 2: 1-12) tells us, three wise men of the East – whose origin, names and professions remain a mystery – came on camels, looking for the king of the Jews from the Royal House of David. He came as the spiritual king, and this made Herod the temporal king jittery. Like all devious men, he tried to charm the threesome, but failed.

The chief priests and scribes whom Herod had contacted were fully aware that Bethlehem of Judea was destined to receive the Messiah. St Matthew says that the king was troubled “and all Jerusalem with him”. They are the same parties that would later put Him to death.

Meanwhile, with no other GPS but the star to guide them, the Magi followed its trail “till it came to rest over the place where the Child was born.” And what is more, after they had fallen prostrate, worshipped Him, and offered their precious gifts, “they departed to their own country by a different way.” Good old Isaiah had foretold: “And nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising.”

By relating that episode, the Gospel writer shows how the One that the Jewish authorities rejected the pagans came to adore… Jesus Himself said no one is a prophet in his own land. Very often those to whom much is given and from whom much is therefore expected, give very little in return. If the Son of God could be treated thus, what right do you and I have to feel disheartened when a friend or relative gives us the cold shoulder or a thumbs-down?

So be it. God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. God’s plans will never be frustrated; He will use others as His instruments. As St Paul points out in the Second Reading (Eph 3: 2-3, 5-6), the Gentiles are now “fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the Gospel.” Israel’s loss became the world’s gain.

Whereas at Christmas God humbled Himself, today at the Epiphany He is manifested as God and Universal King together with His Spouse, the Church (the New Jerusalem). He is no longer the Old Testament’s Messiah expected to come for one race and country alone, but the Messiah awaited by the peoples of the world. Let us manifest Him through our words and actions – through our threefold baptismal vocation as priest, prophet and king.


Gazing admiringly at Nazareth

Today we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Family of Nazareth, rightly portrayed as a model of virtue, and which will stay so till the end of times. Thanks to their supreme example of faith and love, families in our times too can, against all odds, aspire to grow in wisdom and divine favour, if only we fulfil God’s precepts and labour honourably.

In the First Reading (Gen 15: 1-6, 21: 1-3), Abraham and Sarah are precursors to the Holy Family of Nazareth. Abraham was tenth in the descent from Noah and like him kept the faith. When directed to leave his native Ur of the Chaldees (near present-day Baghdad) for an unknown land, Canaan, Abraham did so ungrudgingly. God promised to make him the father of His people Israel, and they would multiply like the stars of heaven. But since until a decade later he was still childless, his overaged wife, anxious to accomplish the Abrahamic covenant, permitted her Egyptian slave Hagar to sleep with Abraham, and she bore him a child, Ishmael.[1]

When Ishmael was fourteen, Sarah, who was ninety-nine and her husband a centenarian, gave birth to Isaac. It could only happen by Sarah’s faith, as the Second Reading (Heb 11: 8, 11-12, 17-19) emphasises. Years later, the near-sacrifice of the same Isaac on Mount Moriah would be another highpoint, however paradoxical, of the couple’s faithful obedience to God’s Word. How was Abraham expected to sacrifice his only son who was destined to continue the family line? The Letter to the Hebrews states, very perceptively: “He [Abraham] was confident that God had the power even to raise the dead; and so, figuratively speaking, he was given back Isaac from the dead.”

God speaks to us in myriad ways, sometimes in paradoxes, obviously to test our faith. His ways are not our ways; his logic not ours. Yet faith is not blind obedience to random demands from human institutions but a willing surrender to God’s will; it is an interior disposition rooted in the certainty that God who is ever faithful fulfils His promises. Scores of things happen that we fail to make sense of at first; they are not of our making nor to our liking, but there comes a point when everything begins to fall into perspective and we feel at peace. So, if the world mock at us and we feel helpless, let it be; like Chesterton’s Donkey, we ought to keep our secret still.

Today’s Gospel text (Lk 2: 22-40) presents two other wise individuals who lived by faith. To Simeon, the last prophet of the Old Testament, the Holy Spirit had revealed that he would not die before seeing “the consolation of Israel”. So, when he recognised the Messiah on the day of the purification, he sighed: “Lord, now let your servant depart in peace… for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” And likewise, the elderly widow Anna spoke of Him to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

The ending of today's text evokes the joy of innocence: “And when they had performed everything according to the law of the Lord, they returned into Galilee, to their own city, Nazareth. And the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favour of God was upon Him.” It was not their will, but God’s will that mattered. Jesus was above all of the Temple’s structures and rites, yet He submitted Himself to the Mosaic law regarding the first-borns. That is a picture of a religious duty properly fulfilled by parents who can thus serve as living examples of faith and integrity to the younger generations. And Like Mary and Joseph, Simeon and Anna, too, belong to the small remnant of Israel who live their faith in humility and faithfulness to God’s law. In our day and age, alas, we too are a small remnant, aren't we?

May God grant such gratifying experiences to every parent and child in our menacing world so full of uncertainty and turmoil. Isn't it absurd that the awful spectre of war should loom over God’s own country that gave birth to the Prince of Peace? But that is a paradox that can be resolved when we seek the theology of history. God forever upholds His covenant with us if we remember, as Abraham and Sarah did, that He is our God and we fulfil the law. They conceived, achieving what two dudes never will, try as they might!

The remarkable example of the Holy Family of Nazareth has never been more pertinent than today. It speaks not to individual families alone but to the world as a whole; and it speaks not to the domestic church alone but to the Universal Church. Let us realise that, even while pious appeals are issued to families to aspire for holiness, the very institution of the Family, which is the basic unit of society, is on the point of being destroyed by the stroke of a Vatican pen…. But we are not to lose hope, for popular wisdom has it that God writes straight with crooked lines.

[1] Ishmael and his mother Hagar left to chart a future of their own.


Waiting in faithfulness and love

What a joy it is to reach the fourth and last Sunday of Advent! The season is a run-up to the arrival of the Messiah at Christmas and a prefiguring of His Second Coming at an unknown time in the future. It behoves us to wait in hope, and like the poor shepherds on that cold winter night on the hills of Bethlehem, we too will be let in on the divine secret.

The First Reading taken from the Second Book of Samuel (7: 1-5, 8b-11, 16) recalls the time when God had handpicked David from his pastoral calling to become king of Israel. The man after God’s own heart, who was favoured with peace and happiness, now wished to return the favour by upgrading the shelter of the Ark of the Covenant. He opened his heart in this regard to prophet Nathan.

But then, that very night God unfolded His plan to build the royal house of David as a temple to the Living God. It is another matter that subsequent generations were unfaithful; they lost the Ark of the Covenant and the Temple built by David’s son Solomon was destroyed. God renewed his covenant yet again, by sending His Only Son Jesus (as Son of David) to be born in Mary’s womb (the temple or tabernacle) and establish God’s kingdom (not a political one).

Unfortunately, the Jews unfolded their own story of unfaithfulness. They unceremoniously rejected the Messiah. No wonder, the Temple that had been rebuilt was destroyed (70 A.D.) and the Jews dispersed, suffering persecution worldwide. This is in stark contrast to Mary who was faithful. She gave her fiat, convinced that she was part of a Godly plan, and famously said: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” That is the highpoint of today’s Gospel text (Lk 1: 26-38).

Let us learn from Mary. Even when we find it difficult to suspend our judgement and wear God’s thinking cap, try we must, for that is when God steps in and unfolds our personal roadmaps. We are called through Baptism and the other Sacraments to have a peek into that mystery. And a fuller understanding of it will come in due time.

That is why, St Paul in the Second Reading (Rom 16: 25-27) gives glory to God for “the revelation of the mystery which was kept secret for long ages.” This time around, it stands revealed to the Jews and pagans alike; it is the plan of eternal salvation wrought through His Son Jesus Christ. It is realised through the Cross, against all expectations, and manifested by the proclamation of the Gospel by the Apostles. And likewise, Mary continues to guide the Church by her supreme example of faithfulness.

Waiting for someone is a sign of faithfulness and love. And eventually God rewards humankind with “the gift of God Himself”, as Pope John Paul II says in his encyclical Redemptoris Mater, talking about the Virgin Mary: “The fullness of grace announced by the angel means the gift of God himself.” Hence, until Christmas, which is a few hours away, and until the Lord’s Second Coming, we can do nothing better than chant: “I will sing for ever of your love, O Lord.”

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A command called ‘Rejoice!’

Today is Gaudete Sunday. It comes with the good news that we are created by God to rejoice in Him. It’s a command. That’s what Gaudete means: Rejoice!

But then, why are we so often at the end of our tether? And can we afford to rejoice when the world is in a shambles and our personal lives awry? Yes, we can, for Christian joy is not bound to our whims, nor does it depend on how smoothly life is going; it doesn't depend on our bank balance or on how well our house is decorated, at Christmas or other times. Joy comes from accepting God’s will for us and feeling complete and fulfilled in our Christian vocation.

It is also important to note that Christian joy is not about frolicking but thanksgiving; it’s not about praying only when trials and temptations, pain and suffering come our way, but about having the Lord before our eyes at all times. So, feeling miserable is about having failed to rejoice in the Lord in the first place. He is the Alpha and the Omega, the be-all and end-all of our life. Thus, Christian joy is basically a spiritual, not a material, joy; it is an inner joy that spills out into externals, and not the other way round.

In the First Reading (Is 61: 1-2a, 10-11), the Prophet is upbeat about the Lord anointing him to bring good tidings to the afflicted; to bind up the broken-hearted; to proclaim liberty to the captives; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour and the day of His vengeance. Above all, the Lord’s promise to have righteousness and praise to spring forth before all nations is a cause for joy.

Here, “the year of the Lord’s favour” and “the day of the vengeance of Our Lord” may sound contradictory. It must therefore be clarified that while the former referred to the restoration of God’s people from Babylonian captivity (comparable to the “year of Jubilee” when liberty was proclaimed throughout the land, in Leviticus 25); the “day of the vengeance of Our Lord” refers to the time when God will judge His enemies on the last day. Favour and vengeance will go hand in hand, as God’s mercy and justice always do.

Isaiah's New Testament counterpart, John the Baptist, too, was happy to be anointed by the Lord. Today, St John the Evangelist (Jn 1: 6-8, 19-28) speaks of him as having been sent by God to bear witness to the Light, Jesus Christ. St Mark’s Gospel last Sunday described him as a man clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather girdle around his waist and surviving on locusts and wild honey; and today, we get to know him a little better through St John.

When questioned about his identity, the self-effacing Baptist made it clear that he was not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor even a prophet… “I am the voice crying in the wilderness”, he said, very simply, and quoting Isaiah, exhorted the people to “make straight the way of the Lord.” He clarified that whereas he baptised with water, among them stood One who would baptise them with the Holy Spirit and fire (cf. Lk 3: 16).

From Lk 4: 21 we know that, in the temple, after reading out that marvellous passage from Isaiah, Jesus commented: “This passage of Scripture has come true today, as you have heard it being read”, meaning that He was the long-awaited Messiah whose coming -- filled with the Good News of Salvation -- heralded the “year of the Lord’s favour” in modern times.

It is a pity that, like the Jews of yore, we too sometimes fail to pay attention to the One standing among us; we fail to hear the Good News. Yet, Jesus is invariably in the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the homeless, the sick, and those oppressed for speaking the Truth…. For whatsoever we do to the least of our brethren, we do unto Him!

But let bygones be bygones. Let us resolve to be different from now on. It is never too late to turn a new leaf, make a new start. Let us believe and trust in the Lord always, give Him praise and thanks for all that He means to us. Let us not think of Jesus only when Christmas is round the corner. Rather, let us look forward to Christmas in the perspective of His Second Coming and be ready to receive Him in His glory.

That is why St Paul's advice (Thes 5: 16-24) bears repetition: “Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you… hold fast what is good, abstain from every form of evil.” That will ensure we will be blameless and joyful at the Second Coming.

Joy is a consoling certainty for us whose God is close to us and ever present in our midst. He is Emmanuel, God with us!


Preparing the way of the Lord

‘Prepare the way of the Lord’ is the refrain of today’s three Readings. That is what God said to His people in the Old Testament and the Evangelist repeats in the New. And that is also what God says to all men and women of goodwill today.

The Readings are most apt, for Advent is a time to change ourselves for the better, to renew our aspirations for things from on high, to convert our hearts and minds to God and neighbour. Thus, preparing the way of the Lord always brings joy and fulfilment.

God’s message through the Prophet Isaiah in the First Reading (Is 40: 1-5, 9-11) must have greatly soothed the nerves of his enslaved lot. God promised the Jews liberation from their exile in Babylon and worked out a plan for their return to the land of their ancestors. Obviously, the people’s collaboration was a must if they were to find peace and salvation; and it is equally true today, for us who are enslaved by materialism and godlessness. It calls for renunciation of sin and a radical change of heart on our part, in anticipation of God’s forgiveness and continued love.

That is the Good News of Salvation (or Gospel). Today, St Mark (1: 1-8) points to John the Baptist as that divine messenger sent to “prepare the way of the Lord” and to “make his paths straight” – that is to say, help people adopt a course of behaviour in keeping with the Lord’s commandments. The essential condition is that we repent for our sins and confess them. To restore our relationship with our Divine Master, we have to avail ourselves of the sacraments of Penance and Holy Eucharist.

What better time to do so than now? Christmas is a reminder of that uncertain time in the future when we will see God face to face. So, Advent is a time of expectant waiting and preparation for both the commemoration of Christ’s Nativity at Christmas every year and for the return of Christ at the Second Coming. When will this be? It could happen at any time: it could take a second or an eternity.

Meanwhile, let’s realise that Jesus comes into our hearts every single day; so, every single day is a preparation for that moment in our personal and collective lives when the Lord will appear to us in person.

St Peter in the Second Reading (2 Pet 3: 8-14) reminds us that “with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.” We may think that He is slow to come, but He is not; what we perceive as a delay could well be an extended time for preparation, a bonus to be grateful for. Are we going to make use of it effectively? The Lord does not wish that any of His children should perish but that all should reach repentance.

What matters most is a quiet but earnest spiritual preparation; hence, the refrain: “Prepare the way of the Lord”. Our Lord does not expect us to merely prepare a way for Him, by means of a loud and pompous celebration. It is, unmistakably, a straight and narrow path of patience and prayer.


Watchful and Happy

To be watchful and happy was the priest’s clarion call at a death anniversary Mass I attended yesterday, the last day of the liturgical year. The inspired celebrant referred to the apocalyptic times, as suggested by the day’s Readings, and then spoke with unction about the dispositions proper to the new liturgical season beginning today: Advent. It is a time to be happy, but as in life in general, we ought not to lower our guard, for only watchfulness can ensure true happiness, he said.

Today’s Gospel text (Mk 13: 33-37) echoes that message as Our Lord exhorts us: “Take heed, watch and pray: for you do not know when the time will come.” This is the final part of Jesus’ eschatological discourse, occasioned by a disciple’s praise for the built heritage of Jerusalem. “Look, teacher, what stones and what buildings!” And Jesus said to him, “Do you see these great buildings? There will not be one stone left upon another that will not be thrown down.” Well, what words and what foretelling! In 70 A.D., the Romans destroyed the city and the Temple.

As an upshot of the parables heard on the last three Sundays, “when the time will come” does not refer as much to the forthcoming Christmas Day as it does to the Parousia or Second Coming. Jesus compares the situation to a man on a journey: when he returns, unannounced, wouldn’t he like to find the doorkeeper on guard rather than asleep? He could arrive in the evening, at midnight, cockcrow or in the morning – the four parts or vigils of the night – 18-21 hours; 21-24 hours; 0-3 hours; 3-6 hours, respectively. Likewise, Our Lord will come at a time least expected of Him; so, “Watch!”

The first Sunday of Advent sees the return of the season’s best-known Prophet: Isaiah. He is no sentimental softie. In the First Reading (Is 63: 16b-17; 64, 1.3b-8), pointing to the Lord’s kindness as a cause for humans to go astray and not fear Him, he urges the Lord's early coming: “O that thou wouldst rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains might quake at thy presence.” He compliments those who “wait for Him” and implores Him to not leave people to their iniquities, for “thou art our Father; we are the clay, and thou art the potter; we are all the work of thy hand.”

Truly, who are we without the Divine Potter? Only dust. Yet, how quickly we forget Him who has made us! We act with arrogance and offend Him night and day, whereas those who fear the Lord beseech Him: “God of Hosts, turn again, we implore; look down from heaven and see. Visit this vine and protect it, the vine your right hand has planted.” (Ps. 79: 15-16)

Finally, St Paul (1 Cor 1: 3-9) thanks God for the spiritual gifts with which He has enriched his mission. However, we know that graces do not come at once; like yeast, they are meant to grow till the glorious revelation of Our Lord Jesus Christ. God who has called us into the fellowship of His Son will sustain us guiltless till the “Day of Our Lord”. And how is the Apostle so sure that this will happen? He first visited his people two millennia ago, just as the prophets had announced, and will keep his promise to visit us again!

Everything happens in His time; all we need to do is keep watch. Simple shepherds once did so in Bethlehem and became harbingers of the Good News. While watchfulness is a laudable Christian attitude, Parousia, however, must never become a cause for fear, anxiety or any morbid curiosity.

Likewise, let us not make externals the focus of Christmas; instead, let us establish our hearts in holiness at the coming of Christ (1 Thes 3: 13). It is not for nothing that, before His departure, Our Lord and Master spoke of vigilance. In vigilance and patient persistence lies the secret of eternal bliss.


Glorious end, splendorous beginning

Today is the thirty-fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time and last of the liturgical year. Whereas ‘thirty-four’ is just another number, ‘last’ might arouse emotions. Hence, after experiencing a year of highs and lows, or a spectrum of emotions produced by the liturgical seasons, it is time we declared Our Lord Jesus Christ as the king of our minds and hearts. Which could be another way of looking at Christ as Universal King.

To many today it may feel outdated and pointless to think in terms of kingship. That is because those with vested interests have led us to question that old and deep-rooted tradition. It is undeniable, however, that kingship goes back to the Old Testament where God was keen on a godly leader to shepherd His people. The choice of David who was a shepherd in the literal sense brought alive the concept of a later shepherd-king who would be the Messiah. But particularly in our day and age, the idea is not to be confined to the spiritual realm but rather to be contrasted with phoney leadership in the secular realm.

From the First Reading (Ezek 34: 11-12, 15-17) it is amply clear that a true king ought not to be oppressive or tyrannical (as the kings of Israel indeed were, in the days about which Ezekiel writes); on the contrary, a good king ought to be sincerely interested in the welfare of his people, and like a shepherd, zealously guard his flock, of which Psalm 23 is the epitome. The Lord says that He Himself will seek out and rescue His scattered sheep. He will “feed them in justice” and, very importantly, “judge between sheep and sheep, rams and he-goats”.

That feeds into the Gospel idea of the Last Judgement as depicted in the last of the trilogy of parables (Mt 25: 31-46) that Our Lord related before He walked up to Calvary. The Lord announces that “before Him will be gathered all the nations, and He will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and He will place the sheep at His right hand, but the goats at the left.”

As in the parables read last two Sundays, those who by their acts of love (corporal works of mercy) towards the little ones please the Lord will be rewarded: “inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world”. On the other hand, judging between sheep and sheep, those who have not proved worthy of God will be cursed “into the eternal fire prepared for the devil”. Strong words that we cannot afford to pass over.

In short, if the unrighteous will go away into eternal punishment and the righteous into eternal life, it befits us to consider whether we are ready for the day of reckoning – whose time we do not know! Are we prepared to set our eyes on Heaven and sacrifice some things on earth? Now is the time and the moment to decide. This Advent, only a profound spiritual preparation will qualify us to receive the Lord God of Hosts at Christmas.

How well the Second Reading (1 Cor 15: 20-26, 28) rewinds to the time when Adam, who brought death to humankind, and races back to when Jesus the New Adam brought us new life! St Paul was talking about the resurrection of the dead, about all that stands depleted and will be vivified by the Son of God. It is not physical death alone but the death of our consciences that is at stake and which only the Lord can heal.

Finally, behold the history of the future: Jesus, after destroying every rule and every authority and power, and having reigned until He put all His enemies under his feet, He will destroy death and deliver the kingdom to God the Father. And then, “when all things are subjected to Him, then the Son Himself will also be subjected to Him who put all things under Him, that God may be everything to everyone”.

Today we are given a foretaste of a glorious end that will herald a splendorous new beginning, through Jesus Christ Our Lord and Universal King.


Good and Faithful Servants

Still on the theme of wisdom, on this penultimate Sunday of the liturgical year, the Church urges us to plough through life with faith and hope in the Lord. Goodness and faithfulness pay dividends.

The First Reading (Prov. 31: 10-13, 19-20, 30-31) sings a paean to the feminine gender. It provides a model of a worthy wife far more precious than jewels! She does all she can for her husband and family. Her worth goes beyond mere beauty and charm, for she is strong, skilful, hardworking, trustworthy, and above all, charitable and God-fearing. A wife, mother and homemaker like that is wisdom personified. She deserves to receive her hard-earned reward and to be praised in public for what she has accomplished.

In a male dominated Israel, women must have welcomed those verses as a breath of fresh air. In our day and age, however, they may be dismissed as a load of hot air. But that is a flawed reading, for the same degree of virtue is expected of man as well. And perhaps the best earthly reward a woman can hope for is a like-minded husband, whose responsibilities the Evangelists and St Paul have carefully delineated. Man and woman thus qualify to work hand in hand to instal the values of the kingdom of heaven here on earth.

Even though Psalm 128: 1-5 dwells upon the blessings in store for the God-fearing, we hasten to point out that fear of the Lord is not a negative feeling but one of reverential respect. It is a life-giving, not a paralysing, awe, which helps us stay on track and not depart from the Lord’s precepts. Such a benevolent fear is a far cry from the useless servant’s neurotic fear, as seen from the Parable of the Talents that makes up today’s Gospel text.

In the said Parable (Mt 25: 14-30), a man going on a journey for an unspecified period of time (symbolic of Jesus, whose Second Coming we await) entrusts his talents to his three servants. Interestingly, a talent was then a denomination of weight (of any precious metal), not a natural aptitude or skill, as we know it now.[1] And how did the threesome look after the traveller’s estate? The two to whom he had assigned five and two talents, respectively, traded intelligently and doubled their number, whereas the servant to whom only one had been delegated miserably failed to even make a start…. Truly, from those who have received much, much is asked for in return, both on earth and in Heaven: a good reason not to quibble about uneven distribution!

When we look at those talents as material wealth, we at once understand that it is natural that we grow them. But then, when we regard them as abilities, be they physical, social or intellectual, with which God has endowed His children: how many cultivate them, let alone be grateful for them? How many are used for the common or greater good, be it in church or civil society, to help usher in the kingdom of God?

To judge whether or not some activity is worthwhile, the Gospel values should be our benchmark. Such an attitude would emphasise sharply the precepts of God’s kingdom. It would also embolden us to share our light and not hide it under a bushel.... Are we, then, good stewards of the spiritual software that God has provided us with? Do we value the Sacraments, cherish the Word of God, follow the Commandments? In other words, are we committed Christians?

We can’t afford to take it easy. Hence, in the Second Reading (1 Thess 5: 1-6), St Paul stresses the importance of vigilance, stating that “the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.” The Day of the Lord is a concept that comes down from the prophetic and apocalyptic visions of the Old Testament. The Apostle proceeds in opposites, letting us see that the more we think there is “peace and security”, the more we are surprised by disasters. Which makes of Jesus our one and only spiritual insurance. So, even if a situation looks bleak, the children of the light will see the thief coming, as long as they remain “alert and sober”.

Eternal vigilance is indeed the price of liberty. When there is no vigilance, individuals, families and associations, press, education and the war against forces of evil stand compromised and the Kingdom jeopardised. And considering that the roll will be called up at the Final Judgement (cf. next Sunday’s Gospel at Mt 25: 31-46), happy are those who, like Emperor Dom Pedro II of Brazil, can say:

E entre visões de paz, de luz, de glória,

sereno aguardarei no meu jazigo

a justiça de Deus na voz da história!

 (And amidst visions of peace, of light and of glory,

Serenely will I await in my tomb

the justice of God in the voice of history!)

-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-

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[1] For the etymology of the word ‘talent’, see https://www.oed.com/dictionary/talent_n?tl=true