Thursday, November 29, 2012

Making A List

First Sunday of Advent Year C

There’s certainly excitement in the air whenever December comes round. The festive mood is evident as we make the crucial countdown to Christmas. Dusty and weathered old Christmas trees are taken out of their boxes, Christmas shopping lists are drawn up, leave forms are submitted early, holiday recipe books get taken off the shelf, train and bus tickets are bought for the long trip home. It’s no wonder why some people collapse from exhaustion during the holidays. Last week, a little boy proudly told me that he was busier than his Parish Priest. He boasted that he had no free evenings to spare because he was fully occupied with carolling practices. With a bruised ego and not wanting to lose to an 8 year old, I retorted, “What’s there to practise? Everyone knows their carols. Carolling practices are just another excuse to sing carols!” Despite my cynical grumblings, I must admit that I do have a soft spot for Christmas carols. And old time favourite is “Santa Claus is coming to town.”  I especially love the part that goes, “He's making a list and checking it twice; Gonna find out who's naughty and nice.” Everyone dreams of being on the ‘nice’ list, but ‘naughty’ can be fun too.

It never occurred to me that the silly old carol had a certain eschatological undertone to it till I began humming the tune whilst preparing this Sunday’s homily. The word eschatological or eschatology comes from the Greek word Eschaton, which means ‘last,’ here referring to the Last Things (death, judgment, heaven and hell), or in common parlance, the end of the world. So, what has a silly happy carol, which no one takes seriously, got to do with a morbid and serious topic like the end of the world? What both the song and the end times have in common is that both speak of the coming of a certain important personage which heralds a time of reckoning. The significant event that marks the beginning of the end would be the Parousia, the coming of the Son of Man in glory. As the gospel tells us today, it isn’t Santa who’s coming to town. Sorry to disappoint some of you. It’s someone far better! Jesus Christ! And his list of naughty and nice has more serious implications than ensuring that you are guaranteed a present underneath your Christmas tree. In fact, it concerns our very salvation.  

The million dollar question: What must we do if we only had a little time left? Well, here’s a list to start with:

  1. Quit the job you’ve been thinking of leaving for the last few decades and tell your boss, to just “go to hell!”
  2. Sell your house, liquidate all assets, and buy a one way ticket around the globe.
  3. Go out in style – ride out in glory, with a certain heroic bravado (and whole lot of stupidity).
  4. Lie down and just wait for death to overtake you. As the Borgs in the Star Trek sci-fi series would announce before they forcefully assimilate other cultures, “Resistance is futile!” What’s the point of doing anything? It’s all going to end anyway.
  5. Tell the girl you’ve been secretly having a crush on for so long what you truly feel about her, even if it’s going to risk a slap on the face.
  6. Drink yourself silly, party all night and break every rule.
  7. Climb Mount Everest, go bungee-jumping, hike up Machu Pichu, swim with the Great White Sharks, do a Monty in public!
  8. Start stockpiling candles blessed by a priest to weather the three days of darkness – better safe than sorry.
  9. Or just scream at the top of your voice, “I can’t think ... I can’t think ... I can’t think!!!” while hyperventilating.

As you can see from the above list, people can be quite creative when reacting to the ‘end.’ Early Christians too reacted in different ways to news of the imminent coming of Christ: shock, anger, fear, weariness. Many were driven into a state of panic and terror. Some were so crippled by fear of the end times that they lost all interest in any activity. Others descended into wild debauchery and immorality, hoping to get a last fling before it was too late. Others neglected their duties and obligations to their families and communities because they believed that all their energy should be invested in preparing for the end. The advice offered by today’s readings is thankfully much more sober. In fact, sobriety together with vigilance, prayer and good behaviour are thrown into the End Times bucket list. These are jointly held up as virtues that need to be fostered by every Christian in preparation for the end.

In the second reading, we witness the earliest writings of the New Testament in the shape of St Paul’s First letter to the Thessalonians. The theme and content of Paul’s letter gives a clue of the sentiments of the early Christians who live twenty years after the death and resurrection of Christ. Many of them would have been hanging on to the promise that they will not see death until they had personally witnessed Christ’s Second Coming. Their faith would have been seriously shaken when their members began to succumb to death. Would the dead be disadvantaged? Were they believing in a lie? And so we find Paul attempting to strengthen these converts in their new faith. For Paul, an essential part of the Christian message was the Second Coming. Without that event, the story of salvation was incomplete. Although Paul believed that the Parousia was imminent, the preparation which he proposed was different from the options adopted by his audience. He taught them that Christians should always be concerned with pleasing God in their conduct. The ultimate goal for every Christian was a life of holiness, which meant not only freedom from sin but also love for everyone. In the gospel, we are told that holiness is attainable through vigilance and prayer.

Holiness and vigilance seems to be worlds apart since the latter implies some form of belligerency. Now, you may think that I’m beginning to sound like a Christian fundamentalist who constantly sees the world as divided into two irreconcilable spheres – Christians and others. But the qualities of sobriety and vigilance are specifically pointing to such a reality, that we are at war with evil, something that many have grown accustomed to, and others refuse to mention, since it is believed that such words like ‘evil’ should be banish to the Dark Ages together with other words like ‘heresy’, ‘error’, ‘sin’ and ‘hell.’ It is precisely to correct this erroneous form of thinking that our Holy Father, Pope Benedict had said that the members of the Church on earth are aptly described as "ecclesia militans," the Church militant, since it is "necessary to enter into battle with evil." He recognised that although the term "ecclesia militans" is "somewhat out of fashion," it is nevertheless true, in that "it bears truth in itself." Evil is seen in many forms of violence but according to him, also "masked with goodness and precisely this way destroying the moral foundations of society."

So what does it mean to be vigilant and watchful? I find great inspiration from this explanation taken from one of the works of Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman: “This then is to watch: to be detached from what is present, and to live in what is unseen; to live in the thought of Christ as he came once, and as he will come again; to desire his second coming, from our affectionate and grateful remembrance of his first.”

And so we Christians should never fear the End Times. On the contrary, we should look forward, joyfully welcome, and indeed desire the day when Jesus comes back to rule his creation and restore what once was pronounced “Good”.  We as Christians long for the day when all things are made new again, when there will be no more sorrow, when there will be no more tears, pain, and suffering.  We are an eschatological people awaiting the day when God sets things right again. After the storm of destruction, suffering, and death, we will see “the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory,” and we will know for sure that “our liberation is near at hand.”

You may be familiar with this oft quoted phrase, “We are an Easter People and Alleluia is our Song” which comes from one of my favourite theologians and Fathers of the Church, St Augustine. This is so because the resurrection of Jesus Christ is the centrepiece of our Catholic faith.  But today’s readings also remind us that “We are an Eschatological People and Maranatha is our Song.” (Maranatha, Aramaic: "O Lord, Come!") My thoughts go back to a dramatic scene in the second instalment of the Lord of the Rings Trilogy, the Two Towers. At the final moment when the Battle of Helm’s Deep seemed lost, with the good guys, the humans facing imminent and total annihilation, surrounded by a formidable army that outnumbered them, numerous enemy orcs with only murder and destruction on their minds, the defenses of the fortress breached, when all hope seemed abandoned, one of the chief protagonists, the valiant Aragorn remembered a promise made to him by a close friend and ally, the wizard Gandalf, "Look to my coming on the first light of the fifth day, at dawn look to the east." And sure enough, in the heat of battle, Aragorn looks up to the hills and sees Gandalf riding a white horse, framed by the rays of the morning sun which rises dramatically behind this Messianic like figure, as if on cue. And one can almost hear the strains of the orchestra playing and the choir singing:

So you better not pout, you better not cry,
Better not shout, I’m telling you why,

Jesus Christ is coming to town!

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