Friday, December 30, 2011

A Year of Blessings

Solemnity of Mary Mother of God Year B
New Year’s Day

You know what they say about the Chinese … OK, its not just the straight hair … we are unrepentant story tellers. Here’s an old story that comes from my tradition. Some of you may be familiar with this.

A father and his son were poor farmers. The only prized possession they had apart from the small piece of farm land which they tilled was an old horse. One day the horse ran away.
“How terrible, what bad luck, Mr Lim” said the neighbours.
“Good luck, bad luck, who knows?” replied the wise old farmer.
Several weeks later the horse returned, bringing with him four wild mares.
“What marvellous luck, Mr Lim” said the neighbours.
“Good luck, bad luck, who knows?” replied the old man.
The son began to tame and train the wild horses, but one day he was thrown and broke his leg.
“Oh dear! What bad luck,” said the neighbours.
“Good luck, bad luck, who knows?” replied the farmer.
The next week the army came to the village and conscripted all the able bodied young men in the village. The farmer’s son was still disabled with his broken leg, so he was spared. “So … Good luck, bad luck, who knows?”

So what’s in store for this coming New Year? Good luck or bad luck? As we stand at the threshold of a new year, it is natural that many would attempt to divine their fortune for the following year. We would certainly like to ward off the misfortune that we had experienced in the past year and pray for a real break in fortune for the next. You don’t have to grab an almanac or get the latest Lillian Too’s feng shui book for 2012 in order to get your annual predictions. Today’s liturgy and readings provides us with all the projection that is necessary.

On the first day of the New Year, the Church celebrates the Solemnity of Mary Mother of God. But this feast isn’t really about Mary. It’s about Jesus. By celebrating this feast of Mary and affirming that she is Mother of God, we are also affirming that Jesus is God. Mary is not only the mother of Jesus, she is also the mother of God. Jesus is God. The baby that was born on Christmas day, the baby whom some call the Son of Mary, today we acknowledge as the true Son of God.

We may be wondering as to what significance this knowledge brings to us. The answer lies in the second reading. St. Paul writes: “When the appointed time came, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born a subject of the Law, to redeem the subjects of the Law and to enable us to be adopted as sons.” That’s it. God’s Son became man so that we can become sons and daughters of God. Our salvation did not only take place on the cross. Our salvation begins with Christmas – when God became man. Today’s feast of Mary, Mother of God, confirms this central faith of Christians everywhere … our Saviour is not just some great human personage or enlightened soul, our Saviour is God. Christmas is the feast where we celebrate and proclaim our faith that this immortal Deity took on the flesh and mortality of a human person in order that all humanity may assume the divinity of his nature. Son of God became man in order that men may become sons of God.

Thus, if we were to wonder whether the following year will be filled with blessings or curses, we already have the answer. This is our greatest blessing – being called children of God. We often pray that God will bless us with good luck, or with riches, or with good results at our exams, or with good children, or a good bonus or win fall, or with success. But we often forget that his greatest blessing isn’t in all these things. God’s greatest blessing isn’t found in good luck or riches or in success. His greatest blessing comes in the form of our adoption as his children. We can call him “Abba Father” and he calls us his sons and daughters. This is our most precious blessing.

Mary understood the meaning of this truth – that our greatest blessing lay not in fortunes, good luck, and perfect conditions but in our new relationship with God. Today, in the gospel we read of how “Mary treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart.” What were some of the things she treasured? Instead of having rich and powerful visitors, she was contented with the visit of poor and humble shepherds. The shepherds were not rich or powerful but their presence was far greater than the presence of any king or rich man because the shepherds could recognize the blessing of God in the baby Jesus, while others couldn’t. Any mother could have wished that they could have delivered their baby in a clean hospital or a comfortable house, but Mary was contented with the stable and the animals who shared their home with the holy family. Although rejected by men, the animals welcomed the Son of God.

How was Mary able to recognize these blessings in midst of what appears to be misfortune? Mary provides us with the example of prayerful reflection. Prayerful reflection allows us to walk by faith and not by sight. Prayerful reflection allows our vision to penetrate the darkness of misfortune in order for us to behold the face of God who continues to shine on us in both good times and bad. When we are unable to savour silent prayer, meditation and contemplation, we will find ourselves impoverished. When we recognize God’s greatest gift and blessing in the person of Jesus who made us sons and daughters of God, then we will be contented with whatever we have. If we are sons and daughters of God, then we are also his heirs. What is the inheritance that we will receive? Our inheritance is eternal life, in that which is imperishable and not in the worldly possessions that are perishable. We don’t have to wait till after death to claim it in heaven. This inheritance is already ours – Now! We are children of God, that is a treasure in itself – and we have no need for any other.

So, what’s my two cents worth of prediction for the following year? Would it be a good year or a bad year? Let me tell you without any doubt – it’s going to be a splendid year, a great year, a marvelous year – a year of blessings. A year where we can continue to be assured of our inheritance that has been won for us in Christ.

And so as we rejoice with Mary over the treasure of her son, Jesus, the Son of God, I pray that you will receive God’s every blessing, especially the blessing of being called children of God. Using the words of Moses, let me say to you:
“May the Lord bless you and keep you
May the Lord let his face shine on you and be gracious to you.
May the Lord uncover his face to you and bring you peace.”

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Greatness wrapped in humility

Christmas Dawn Mass Year B

If you had attended last night’s midnight service you would have heard the words of the angel who announced the good news of Christ’s birth to the shepherds. The sign by which they are to identify the saviour would be this, “You will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger."

Not much of sign. Truth be told, it would actually seem to be an anticlimax for many who had awaited for Israel’s salvation. After the powerful announcement made last night with a full angelic choral presentation - a more dramatic entry would have been expected at this morning’s mass – with lots of pyrotechnics, trumpets blaring, distinguished and influential audience present to witness the event. The only witnesses of this event apart from the Holy Family seemed to have just been a disparate group of shepherds and some dumb animals in a stable.

The discovery of the shepherd when they came to the place where the infant was born and now lay wrapped in swaddling clothes parallels another discovery made at dawn, the breaking of light after the long darkness of night – the women disciples of Christ who came early to the tomb where their master was laid were also surprised to discover an empty tomb. In both scenarios, one that comes at the beginning of the story whereas the other at its very end, story writers would have opted for a more dramatic presentation. But the lack of accouterments and frills is deliberate, at least from a theological perspective. It highlights rather than dims the profound significance of this event – the mystery of Christmas.

So what is the mystery revealed by this epiphany? Greatness is wrapped in humility. Power is couched in vulnerability. The presence of God is concealed in his seeming absence. In the Day mass for Christmas, we will hear the beautiful prologue of John’s Gospel declare, “And the Word was made flesh and made his dwelling among us.” This is the same Word , who is God for all eternity, by whom all creation was made, and who chooses to become flesh, and become a helpless child wrapped in swaddling clothes to lie in a feeding trough of animals rather than some gilded cot in a palace. “Flesh” or ‘sarx’ in Greek evokes not only humanity but also weakness, fragility and mortality. It connotes being human and mortal with all its limitations and weaknesses.

In various times and in many different ways, God reveals himself to the people of Israel through signs and wonders. He reveals himself in his power and transcendence. But in time, God reveals himself in weakness: he becomes a man – a weak child born into a poor and non-influential family, a child who will grow to be man who will be crucified, sentenced to death as a heinous criminal. He accepts the limitations of human nature and the risk of hostility and rejection.

Christ’s descent to our ‘flesh’ and our fragility is the ultimate manifestation of God’s love: it enables us to rise with him. God became weak that we might become strong. St Athanasius of Alexandria puts it beautifully, “He became what we are that he might make us what He is.” Or in a more audacious statement, St John Chrysostom declares, “God became man in order that we might become gods.” In the third Christmas preface, we hear these words, “God has become one with man, and man has become one again with God.” It goes on to say that when the eternal Word took upon himself our human weakness, he gave our mortal nature immortal value.

So, today, we are invited to follow the shepherds to hurry to the manger of the Lord and to behold the beauty of God’s love manifested in the Christ Child. There is no need for accouterments, pyrotechnics, drum rolls, trumpet blasts and cannon salutes, just silent adoration as we kneel before our king, the Lord of all ages now wrapped in swaddling clothes. In our silence, we may perhaps hear the inspired words of an ancient Egyptian Christian who penned these words as if they were the words of Christ himself, “I became little so that in my littleness I could carry you to the height from where you have fallen. I will carry you on my shoulders.”

Light shines brightest in Darkness

Christmas Midnight Mass Year B

When I was a child I used to be afraid of the dark. I shared a room with my older brother but that was no consolation. My brother would take great delight in aggravating my night fears by making spooky noises and sounds in the next bed. He would often tell me stories of ghosts, vampires and witches that will snatch me from my bed and whisk me away into the night. Sometimes I’ll pull the covers over the head to prevent the vampires from sucking my blood dry in the night. I had my revenge – well, at least in my dreams. My dreams often contained a simple narrative where he turns into a werewolf or vampire and then pursues me round the house. The story would, however, always have a happy ending. The both of us would end up in the kitchen where I would take my mom’s vegetable chopper and gleefully chop him to pieces! I also had another manner of revenge. I would plead with my parents to keep a small light lit throughout the night. Of course, my brother hated to sleep with the lights on. But, then it’s payback time!

I can’t remember when I finally slept without the lights on. It seems that I just grew out of it. I had prayed that the darkness would just go away. But eventually learnt to live with it with the sure confidence that I would not be consumed by it and there was always the certain hope of the next day’s dawning light. But being an adult doesn’t mean that we have grown out of all our fears. In fact, many adults have acquired more fears than when they were children. There are many things that we are fearful of, and I’m not even speaking of neurotic phobias. These fears resemble the darkness of our childhood. Such fears can range from fear of creepy crawlies to fear of what appears to be oddly ordinary, such as persons and flying. Still others are frightened of the unknown. Many are frightened of death. Today, most of us continue to live in fear. We fear the uncertainty of the future. We fear that our loved ones will leave us. We fear failure. We fear that people will laugh at us. We fear that no one will love us, and so we try to please everyone in order to make them like us or love us. We fear the changes that are taking place: our children growing up; our friends moving away; losing a job. And because we live with so much fear, we too look for that light in the darkness that will reassure us that everything is fine.

The darkness has come to symbolize everything that doesn’t seem right in our lives – our frustrations, our setbacks, our losses, our failures, our pains and hurts. We try to break free of the darkness on our own, but sometimes the prison in which we find ourselves encased in seems too formidable or large for our very best efforts. But the experience of the darkness has also brought about a greater appreciation of its antithesis. In a way, darkness has taught me to appreciate the light. One often fails to appreciate or recognize the light unless one sees the stark contrast when it is juxtaposed against the dark.

On this Christmas night, we see the interplay of light and darkness. The Prophet Isaiah in the first reading prophesied that a people who live in darkness will see a great light. The fulfillment comes in the gospel story of shepherds caring for their flock in the fields on that first Christmas night. These shepherds are away from the hustle and bustle of urban living, away from the light pollution of the cities that dim our vision of the stars. They truly live and work in darkness. But it is not just physical darkness that we are speaking of. The shepherds were often regarded as the scum and refuse of society. They were frequently stereotyped as petty thieves, cheats, and were regarded ritually unclean by their more pious and righteous neighbours. The darkness in their lives encompassed both sin and alienation. They were proverbially ‘the people who lived in darkness.’ It may seem strange and out of place to see that the angels chose to appear before them to bring good news of the birth of a new King. It would not be surprising, however, if we can understand how light stands out brighter in the midst of darkness. The city folks who were often enamoured by other bright attractions and those others who had everything together that very night, would pay little attention to a strange constellation of stars. The artificial lights of their lives had blinded them to seeing the true light. Only those who live in darkness and could recognize their very situation could hope, long and expect to see the light.

Today, Our Saviour has been born to us! He is that light in the darkness! He is the Messiah long promised by God through the prophets! He is the Prince of Peace and the Lord of Lords! In today’s gospel, the angels announce his arrival with these words: “Do not be afraid!” “Do not be afraid” because a child is born for us, “a son given to us and dominion is laid on his shoulders; and this is the name they give him: Wonder-Counsellor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace.”

All of these do not make any sense to someone who seem to have it all together. Who looks for a Saviour unless one feels the need to be saved? Who searches for the light unless one is experiencing darkness? Who strives for peace unless they are undergoing turmoil? Who cries out for strength unless one knows fear? We often come to a sorry conclusion that Christmas isn’t Christmas till it happens in your heart – a song that tends to equate our subjective feelings with the essence of Christmas. There is often an erroneous presumption that unless everything is perfect or goes according to plan, then our Christmas will be disaster. If this is really the criteria by which Christmas should be judged, then the first Christmas would be a massive catastrophe – the census came at a wrong time, the delivery room was a sanitary nightmare and the birth could have happened under better times and circumstances. Yet, it in spite of so many things going wrong, it remained nevertheless the first Christmas, the greatest Christmas ever celebrated. A celebration of light in the midst of darkness.

This is what Christmas is all about. Christmas isn’t about the absence of darkness, but being able to see the light in spite of the darkness, a light which the darkness can never consume, a light which will prevail, a light which will show us the way. We, who have walked in darkness, in the darkness of sin, in the darkness of our fears, in the darkness of our failures, loss and disappointments, have now seen a great light. It is Jesus Christ. St. Paul tells us in the second reading: “He sacrificed himself for us in order to set us free from all wickedness and to purify a people so that it could be hive very own and would have no ambition except to do good.” Therefore, “Do not be afraid.”

If you are afraid of being alone, if you are afraid of growing old alone, “do not be afraid” because you will never be alone, God is with you. If you are afraid of the future, if you are anxious about what is going to happen to you, “do not be afraid” because God has already established his kingdom of peace, and nothing will prevail against it. If you are afraid of making certain difficult decisions, if you are afraid of standing up for the truth, “do not be afraid” because “God’s grace has been revealed, and it has made salvation possible for the whole human race and taught us that what we have to do is to give up everything that does not lead to God … that we must be self-restrained and live good and religious lives here in this present world.”

On that first Christmas Day, the angels announced this news of great joy to the shepherds. Today the angels and the saints and the entire Church announces this same good news to you: “Today a saviour has been born to you, he is Christ the Lord.”

Saturday, December 17, 2011



我们都知道圣诞期间是给予的时期。 我们忙着为他人买礼物。 我们尽量为对方物色适合的礼物。 但,事实上,我们通常所选的都是我们所喜欢的。因为我们所喜欢的礼物,我们也以为那人必会喜欢。

这也是读经一中的达味王所想的。 这时的达味王已年老并打了无数的胜战,他想可以退休享受晚年了。然而,他感到内疚因没有为天主做些什么。 为此,达味王决定为天主建筑一座殿宇按放约柜。这是他给天主的礼物。他没想到这并不是天主所要的。


我们常以为要做个好基督徒,我们必须把宝贵的献给天主。 我们以为我们可以以我们的礼物贿赂天主。事情并不是这样的。一个好基督徒,首先而最重要的是要学习接纳天主所愿赐给我们的一切。

这就是玛利亚的特质。玛利亚没有什么可奉献给天主。她只不过是一位十四岁的女孩。没有人会认真看待一位孩童或青少年。她可以奉献什么给天主呢?而她是一个女人。在犹太的社会里,女人只是二等公民 - 她们的地位只比佣人稍高一点。玛利亚一无所有,没有才能,没有能力奉献什么给天主。 天主却拣选她做他圣子的母亲并降福她。 玛利亚在天主眼中获得宠幸因为她随时“聆听”。 玛利亚之伟大皆因接纳领受天主赐给她的一切。

今天,我们或许认为没什么可献给天主。那可是真的 - 我们所献的并无所值。我们所有的都是天主所赏赐的。我们所能给于的并不重要。问题是我们必须问我们自己 - 我们是否准备从天主手中接纳一切?做个领受的人而不是给予的人并将自己放在施与者的权下。我们不能有所选择。我们只能选接受或拒绝所给于的。有时,这引起恐惧。但是没什么可怕的。我们被召把我们的生命交在天主的手里。我们必须让天主掌管我们的生命。

让我们与玛利亚齐声向天主说:“我是上主的婢女” - “我们只是上主的仆人”。 “愿照你的话成就于我!”

Giving and Receiving

Fourth Sunday of Advent Year B

We all know that Christmas time is a time for giving. We are busy buying presents for one another. We try to choose the gift that will suit the person. But the truth is: many of us actually choose gifts that we would like. Because we like the gift, we often think that the other person would like it too.

This was what King David in the first reading thought. Being old now and having fought many wars, He thought that he could now retire and enjoy his life for the rest of his years. And yet, he felt guilty that he had not done enough for God. Therefore, David decided to build a temple to house the ark of the Covenant. It was his gift to God. Little did he realize that that was not what God wanted from him.

Instead of King David making a gift of the temple to God, the reverse happened – God blessed David and promised him a dynasty, a house, that will last forever. Instead of David attempting to glorify God by building the temple, God chose to glorify David – to make him great in the midst of all nations.

Many of us think that if we want to be good Christians, we must be able to give something which is precious to God. We think that we can bribe God with our gift. This is not so. Being good Christians, first and foremost, means learning to receive and accept from God’s hands whatever he wishes to give us.

This was the quality of Mary. She had nothing to give God. She was a young fourteen year old girl. No one takes a child or a teenager seriously. What could she offer God? She was a woman. In Jewish society, women were second class citizens – they were only a little higher than the servants. She had no possession, no talent, no power to offer to God. Yet God chose her as the mother of His Son and He blessed her. She had won God’s favour only by being attentive to God’s will. She had won God’s favour only because she was ready to ‘listen.’ Mary is great because she learnt how to receive and accept from the hands of God whatever He wished to give her.

Today, we may think that we have nothing to give God. That may be true – no gift of ours is worthy. Everything that we have comes from God. What we are capable of giving isn’t that important. The question we must ask ourselves- are we prepared to receive from God’s hands? To be the receiver instead of the giver places us in the power of the giver. We can’t choose the gift. We can only choose to accept or reject whatever is given to us. Sometimes, that can be frightening. But there is nothing to be afraid off. We are called to place our lives in the hands of God. We must allow God to take control of our lives.

Let us unite our voices with the voice of Mary: “I am the handmaid of the Lord” – “We are merely the servants of God”. “Let what you have said be done to me.”

Friday, December 9, 2011

Joy is the fruit of Hope, not naive optimism

Third Sunday of Advent Year B

Today, I opened the newspapers and just like any other ordinary day of the week I’m confronted with a whole range of bad news, disasters and tragedies. Even if we were to come across some piece of good news, one isn’t really sure whether it’s the truth or just another propaganda churned out by the establishment. The politics in this country is really so bad that I don’t think I would even vote in the next elections. What’s the point? All the candidates would be equally abysmal. There is simply no hope that things are going to get better. The economy is going to the dogs and there is nothing I can do about it. My job is at risk, I’m not sure if I will be retrenched or whether I will be able to find a job after that. I can’t even migrate since I don’t have the money to do so and all these countries where my friends have migrated to have since imposed conditions that are impossible to fulfil. My doctor just diagnosed me with cancer and tells me that I’ve got a few more months to live. What am I complaining about? Perhaps, this is the best news yet. It would mean that I wouldn’t have to endure any more dreary years of pain and suffering. Recently, I’ve lost someone very dear to me and no amount of grieving is going to take away the pain of the loss. Sigh ….

This litany of sorrows and woes is just a simple demonstration to show that it is not difficult to see the negative, the dark and gloomy and to find ourselves stuck in a mire of despair. It is no wonder that so many people in our society are depressed, cynical and suicidal. Joy, on the other hand, is something elusive. We experience fleeting moments of happiness but then the looming darkness, which never really disappears, returns to burst the bubble of our naïve optimism.

Against this tide, not just a tide but a tsunami of despair, today’s liturgy shouts out this refrain: “Rejoice! Exult for Joy! Be happy at all times!” Our senses seem to want to shout back: “What’s there to be joyful about?” “Is the Church blind?” “Is God blind to our troubles?” Well, you need to understand that Joy is the central theme throughout the readings this Sunday. Indeed, the Third Sunday of Advent is called “Gaudete Sunday.” “Gaudete” is the Latin word meaning ‘rejoice.’ What joy can there be in the midst of so much pain, suffering, gloom and darkness? It is certainly not the joy that emerges from some false optimism on our part that things are going to get better – too often, we can attest to this, things in fact get worse. Neither is it the joy that comes from creating an illusory world in our minds where pain and suffering is denied. So what is this joy which the readings are speaking of? The answer lies in Christ. It is the joy of knowing that our Lord, the light of the World, is coming. He is coming to dispel the darkness of our lives.

We are called to rejoice, because the Lord is coming – he is coming to save us, to liberate us, and to give us new life. Many of us may be experiencing some form of darkness in our lives. We find ourselves in the midst of problems without any apparent solution. We see ourselves ‘captives’ of our difficult circumstances, there seems to be no way out. Our hearts may be broken because of rejection or we have been hurt by the actions and words of others. We see ourselves poor, hungering and thirsting for friendship, understanding and a sense of belonging. Some of us find ourselves trapped in the darkness of sin.

If we see ourselves in any of these situations, rejoice and be glad, because the today’s readings promise good news. This is the promise of God, as St. Paul tells us in the second reading: “God has called you and he will not fail you.” God is always faithful. God keeps his promise. God will not fail you. This is the good news of the prophet Isaiah in the first reading: The Spirit of the Lord has been given to us – it is good news to the poor, healing to the broken hearted, freedom to the captives, a message of blessing for everyone. The Good news is that which is announced by John the Baptist in the gospel – Jesus has come – he is the Light of the World – and he is waiting to enter into your hearts and into your lives once again.

Thus, Joy surprises us. It shows up in unexpected places. It goes against the tide. We often think that being pessimistic is realistic. It is joy which gives a realistic vision of life. When I speak of joy, here it is not the false optimism that things are going to get better in the near future or that you would find an answer to your predicament. Rather, this joy is one which springs from faith and hope – it is based on our hope and belief that God has not abandoned us even when we do not see him in the midst of our troubles.

St. Paul says, "Rejoice always!" It's not a suggestion, like "cheer up, " or "look on the sunny side." It is, rather, a command, "Rejoice." Not only when things are going well. Not just when I am getting my way - but always. "Rejoice always." St. Paul can command joy because joy requires a conscious choice. Thus, joy is not just the consequence of your surrounding circumstances – when thing are going well for you. Rather, joy is always a deliberate choice. You can choose to be joyful even when things don’t seem to be going according plan.

So, what’s the formula for this joy? Do we need to whistle a tune or sing Bobby Mcferrin’s ‘Don’t worry be happy’? Do we need to escape into an imaginary world so that we can consider all pain and suffering as illusory? St Paul in today’s second reading gives us the answer: to pray without ceasing, to give thanks on all occasions and to avoid sin and evil.

Joy comes to those who pray without ceasing, to those who are committed to pray not only in moments of joy but also in times of sorrow, who are able to pray in the midst of troubles, confusion and the even during the dark night of the soul, where our prayers seem unanswered. Prayer is giving voice to our hope. It is a hope that does not disappoint because it is based on our firm belief that God has not and will not abandon us. Therefore, Christian hope has nothing to do with the false optimism or wishful thinking that our sickness will be healed, the problem will be solved, the obstacle would be removed, and the pain would be relieved. All these things may continue to accompany and harangue us, and yet we believe that they do not mark an end to life and joy. We will be delivered in one way or another. God has promised something far greater than the momentary relief we seek in this present life. God has promised us eternal life. This is our confident expectation.

How do we know that our hope will not be in vain? It is through the virtue of gratitude. Gratitude is remembering how God has delivered us from past evils, how God has intervened in a situation that seemed hopeless, how God has sustained us to endure the greatest of trials and how God remains faithful to his promises. Hope is firmly anchored in the history and narrative of Scriptures. Gratitude brings to mind the memory of God’s faithfulness which pierces the misty veil created by our present difficulties.

Finally, joy comes to those who persevere in their pursuit of holiness, who choose to avoid sin and evil in their daily lives. Mankind constantly searches for the sociological, economic, political or even philosophical reason and cause for suffering. What man often forgets is that suffering has its roots in a theological cause – it is sin and evil that brought suffering into this world. No amount of motivational programming, counseling, socio-economic-political reform will be able to rid this world of suffering unless man is prepared to address the issue of sin and evil.

Rejoice and be glad, the good news is that God has not abandoned us. He is here present among us. There is joy in knowing that God waits for us although we may have forgotten him. God waits for us although we may have stopped waiting for him. He keeps a lantern lit in the window, so that we who are lost would find our way home. This is true joy – knowing that no matter what happens in life, no matter how bad the situation may become, God’s love for us will endure and will triumph at the end.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Prepare the Way of the Lord

Second Sunday of Advent Year B

"Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths." The monumental feat which is implied by this text may be entirely lost on us unless we have travelled along one of these mountainous winding roads, especially those that cut across treacherous terrain. As we stand in awe of such magnificent engineering, a question often crosses our mind would be this, “How in the heavens did they manage to do this?!” Today, modern technology has vastly simplified the construction of tunnels, bridges and roads with the invention of dynamite, excavators, tractors, tunnel drills and other engineering equipment. Despite all the technological know-how and heavy machineries, any engineer or contractor would still tell you that it is anything but an easy feat. But now try to imagine the same feat accomplished by human hands with only the aid of axes, hammers and stone.

Understanding the biblical allusion, the historical context, and the phenomenal physical challenge of the project would help us understand and appreciate the call of John the Baptist in today’s gospel.

First, the passage is a quotation, with minor alterations, from the Old Testament. Although, he attributes everything to the prophet Isaiah, St Mark is actually quoting two different biblical references to speak of the ministry of John the Baptist and the content of his message. The first part of the prophecy which refers to the ministry of John the Baptist as the messenger is actually a paraphrase taken from Malachi 3:1 which speaks about the prophet Elijah returning to prepare the way presumably for the Messiah. Later, St Mark would provide a detailed description of the clothing and diet of John the Baptist which is almost identical with that of the prophet Elijah, the Tishbite, mentioned in the First Book of the Kings. With Elijah’s reappearance, the long awaited Messiah would not be too far behind. When that day finally arrives, Israel’s liberation and vindication would be at hand.

But it is the second part of the text when it speaks of the voice and the message announced that draws our attention to the preparation needed to welcome the Lord. Again here, we see another paraphrase of the Old Testament, in this case from Isaiah 40, which we had heard in today’s first reading. Isaiah 40 was written as a message of hope to Israelites and Judeans who were in exile in Babylon, promising them that they will return home to the Promised Land from their long exile, a journey that will take them over the desert sands. Thus at one level, it is message that promises liberation from captivity – good news that the Israelites who have lived as prisoners in exile will now finally experience freedom and be able to return to their beloved homeland. At a second level, it speaks of their foundational experience, liberation from slavery in Egypt and their journey in the desert for forty years under the guidance of the Lord.

But the text still has another older historical allusion. The idea is taken from the practice of eastern monarchs, who, whenever they entered upon an expedition or took a journey, especially through desert and unchartered territory, sent harbingers before them to prepare all things for their passage, and pioneers to open the passes, to level the ways, and to remove all impediments. This was usually done during times of peace. In times of war, the hazardous or difficult terrain often offered a natural defense or barrier against the enemy. The king or his country would not gain any advantage by remodeling the terrain to facilitate an easier passage. But during times of peace, especially after the king had won a great victory, his victory procession returning to his capital would be supplemented with an exaggerated ceremonial pomp and pageantry. It would be unsightly and unbecoming if the king had himself to maneuver across these natural barriers and obstacles. Thus, the leveling of the hills, the filling of the valleys and the straightening of the paths became symbolic of his victory not only over his enemies but also over the forces of nature. It was a great homecoming.

A well documented example of this monumental engineering feat is that of the funeral procession of Alexander the Great, whose body was transported in a golden pavilion pulled by sixty over mules from Babylon in the East to the distant oasis town of Siwa in Egypt in the West. Historians record that an army of craftsman, labourers and engineers had been sent ahead of the funeral cortege in order to ‘prepare the way’ that was befitting for a man, an emperor who had united the known world from the East to the West.

Having looked at both the scriptural and historical allusions, we still have to consider one last feature, which is the enormous physical challenge of the project. Why did Isaiah and later the gospel writers choose this imagery? It is apparent that these were not minor public works like the periodic repairs and maintenance conducted by our JKR. Rather, it involved reshaping the terrain on a monumental scale. Thus when both the Prophet Isaiah and John the Baptist made this call, it can only be understood as a call to re-landscape our lives. It is a call for radical conversion. This is reinforced by the image of the desert. The desert, in any event, can be a formidable foe. The desert changes anyone who dares to accept its challenge. The Israelites traverse the desert for 40 years after their departure from Egypt before they could arrive in the Promised Land. The 40 years did not only symbolised a whole generation, but a radical transformation of these people from being just slaves, no-people, a people without identity or nationality into God’s own people.

Thus, both the physical challenge of the project of landscaping and the desert imagery emphasises the extent of the change required to welcome the King. Conversion is anything but easy. Rearranging your furniture is much easier than changing persons. It is not enough to make cosmetic changes to our life, for example, stop or reduce your smoking; becoming a bit more patient with the people you live with, coming for Mass on Christmas Day, or making little changes here and there. In order to prepare for the coming of Jesus, our lives must undergo a deep and thorough conversion. It involves dying and being reborn. There is a need for repentance, a turning away from our sins, a rejection of our old way of life especially when that was leading us away from God.

Thus, the readings for us are a call to make preparation through repentance and conversion. We need to sincerely identify the obstacles that impede the coming of the Lord into our lives. Selfishness, sloth, greed, lust, vanity, indifference and sin marks the mountains, the valleys and the crooked ways which form an obstacle to Christ making his way into our hearts and into the world.

Today, these themes of liberation, peace, victory, homecoming and conversion converge in St Mark’s introduction to the gospel, the good news, of Jesus Christ. John the Baptist, the harbinger of the king, the new Elijah, the herald and forerunner of the Anointed one, appears on the scene to call for this radical and monumental work in preparation for the coming King. This time, it would be no ordinary mortal that we are awaiting for. It is no human king who would eventually witness the disintegration of his kingdom, as Alexander posthumously did. This is a king that could only be judged by radically different categories as John the Baptist pointed out – “One that is mightier than I is coming … I have baptized you with water; he will baptize you with the Spirit.” So let us “prepare the way of the Lord, and make straight his paths” because our liberation is coming, he is the Prince of Peace and our Victorious King.