Thursday, November 28, 2013

Suit Up; the End is Near

First Sunday of Advent Year A

A retreat master at one of our seminary annual retreats once shared this gem. After a near death experience, he came out having learnt one important lesson: “Never be caught naked or with your pants down when they come for your dead body!”  The thought of this triggered the memory of some childhood phobias. It was a good reminder to be always sufficiently attired, inside and outside of the privacy of my bedroom. But what happens when the unexpected takes place in the toilet or the bathroom? My fervent prayer to the Lord since then has been, “Lord, I don’t want to die this way!” Of course, the date and manner of my death was beyond my control or foreknowledge, but my prayer remains, “Please Lord, I don’t want to die with my pants down!”

Today, being the First Sunday of Advent, the first Sunday in our Liturgical Calendar, the Church once again proves to be paradoxical and counter-cultural. We speak of the end right at the very beginning, a clear reminder that what sometimes may appear to be the end, such as death, may actually be the beginning. This also helps us to keep in mind that all things come to an end and that our lives are rushing to this climatic moment in the history of salvation. The gospel stresses the suddenness and unexpectedness of this moment. The fundamental message here is the need to be ready at all times. It is futile for Christians to waste time calculating when the Day will arrive. Therefore, you also must always be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour. We should always be living with this keen awareness that the End may just be a breath or a heartbeat away.

But, for most people, including Catholics, it really doesn’t feel this way. The End doesn’t seem to be a big deal at all. The challenge for many modern Christians is not fear of martyrdom or persecution. It is the very real danger of getting tired, settling in, growing bored, and giving up on waiting for the Lord, convinced that the day of His coming will never arrive. It is the illusion of immortality. Many Catholics have lost the sense of expectancy or urgency, obscured by the tyranny of the ‘now’ – a culture which feeds our need for instant gratification and which is a stranger to the virtues of waiting, patience and silent endurance. A Jesuit writer once wrote, “The worst danger is not pain or poverty. The worst danger is sleeping through the drama of life, the struggle for life and for community against the forces of death and despair.” In other words, many would be caught with their pants down when the End comes and won’t even know what hit them. It is a world which thinks it is broad awake when it is really sound asleep. That is the greatest tragedy of all!

All of this does not allay or lessen my fear of dying in the buff. Since, Christ’s coming and the End is sudden and unexpected, how would I ever be sure that I’ll be properly dressed for the occasion? The truth is that I can never be certain. This is when the second reading, St Paul’s letter to the Romans, throws necessary light on my predicament. One of the crucial features of Paul’s strategies in all of his exhortations was to generate very strong and potent imageries in the minds of his hearers and readers. Here in this passage, St Paul uses the image of clothing, dressing and nakedness to stress the fundamental duty of every Christian, who is called to live in accordance with their dignity as children of God. My preoccupation with being ‘dressed up’ at the moment of my demise is actually misconceived and a distraction from a graver matter – being ‘dressed’ in Christ – or ‘putting on the armour of Christ’ or being ‘clothed in Christ.’

The clothing metaphor symbolises the identity and character of its wearer and it is hence universally understood that believers are being exhorted to adorn themselves with this identity in the world in which they lived. To put on the Lord Jesus Christ means that the Christian is to be cloaked, clothed, garmented with the character, the disposition, the attitude, the habits and the virtues of Jesus Christ. That is why we are called ‘Christians’ – a Christian is a ‘little Christ’ or ‘Christ-like.’  A Christian is revealed and distinguished by the nature of the “clothing” of honourable and righteous behaviour, which is the “armour of light”, that is, the Lord Jesus Christ. To put on Christ means throwing off the putrid and tattered garments of sin and darkness, in order that one may adorn oneself with the sturdy armour of light. It’s putting to the death the old self and putting on the new man that is continually being renewed in knowledge. Therefore, the most important duty as the Day of the Lord draws near is to live as children of the light, beautifully adorned in the robes of Christ, who dispels the darkness of sin and death.

Though St Paul obviously intended his clothing metaphor to have a spiritual meaning rather than be seen as a commentary of Christian-compliant dress code, this discussion on clothing oneself with Christ inevitably leads to the discussion of proper dressing for mass. Last week, I mentioned that the Eucharist is regarded as the eschatological meal, a foretaste of the heavenly banquet. If you remember the other parable of Christ concerning such a wedding banquet, the anonymous guests who were found to be not properly attired were thrown out into the night. Those of you here who now shudder as the spotlights hits you and as the temperature goes up on the seats you are sitting on, do not have to worry about what’s going to happen next. I’ve not instructed the Ministers of Hospitality to cast you out into the dark. But a word about proper attire needs to be mentioned here.

Many often resort to the usual not too Biblical maxim that ‘God judges our hearts, not our appearances’ as an argument to legitimise sloppy and bad dressing during liturgical services. We rant over the self-righteous Pharisees and anachronistic fashionistas who object to our choice or style of dressing. We claim that it boils down to humility and simplicity. Of course, let’s start off with the last argument – I believe that we can understand and accept that humility is not something we flaunt and wear on our sleeves like a badge. Similarly, the question of appropriate dressing is never about prudishness and fashion styles. It has everything to do with our clothing being a reflection of our identity, thus the metaphor chosen by St Paul. To deny that dressing has anything to do with our proper attitude and reverence for the mass is dishonest and it also rejects the principle of sacramentality which imbues our entire Catholic Theology of worship. Remember the age-old definition of a Sacrament, “Outward sign of inward grace.” The external is always seen as a reflection of the internal. So poor, sloppy dressing merely reflects one’s inner attitude towards the Eucharist – it is one which is impoverished, lazy, contemptuously familiar with the sacred, more self-oriented than God-oriented. It’s about convenience and comfort rather than providing due respect and honour to the one who allowed himself to be stripped of all honour so that he may adorn us with the glory and beauty of God.

And this is finally what is expected of us Christians at all times. Our constant orientation to the sacred, to the Kingdom of God amidst the mundane activities of human life and relationship. The difference between Noah and his neighbours was not that Noah and his family refrained from eating and drinking and marrying. Presumably Noah and his family were doing all those things as well. Even more telling, the difference between the two farmers and the two millers is not the farming and the milling. In each case, both people are doing the exact same thing. The difference lies not in the activity but in the awareness of the broader perspective of the Kingdom of God as one is going about the mundane activities of daily life. The passage is about orientation. Is the eating and drinking, the marrying, the work of tilling a field or grinding grain all there is? Are these tasks and relationships, important and vital as they are, the reason we have been created and given life? The answer of St Paul, the answer of the gospel of Matthew, the answer of the incarnated Christ whom we celebrate in Advent, is an unequivocal “No.” It’s not enough to be just clothed, but it is most necessary to be clothed in Christ.

As we attend to the details of being alive in the company of those who share our air and earth, we must also be alert to what God is doing in our world. We live in hope, a hope in the God who is, in the end, in charge of history. Meanwhile we tend fields and grind wheat, we drink, we go on with our work and play, we marry and of course, we die —but with a heart oriented to God and a mind alert to the incarnate Christ. We may never be certain that we would meet death being fully clothed, but let us for whatever reason be never caught dead without being clothed, dressed, garmented, armoured, dressed in Christ – for He is the only hope of our salvation! Only he can turn our darkness into light!

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