EARNING ONE'S KEEP; WORKING FOR KEEPS

Catholic Homily/Sunday Reflection for the 33rd Sunday of Year C

OF SET-UPS, UPSETS, AND RESETS

By Fr. Chito Dimaranan, SDB

Last week, we alluded to the importance and necessity of having perspective. To have perspective is to have a frame on which to set a picture, a ground on which to locate a seemingly smaller reality. To have perspective is to be endowed with a point of view, to see the bigger picture, as it were, and not to miss the bigger forest for just a few trees.

The seven brothers and their heroic mother of last week’s first reading, definitely had perspective. That perspective of faith in the resurrection was what gave them the courage, the strength, and the endurance to withstand a painful and cruel – grisly – death. On that score, the Sadducees, disbelieving as they were, of the resurrection, lacked the necessary perspective to see beyond earthly existence. Their ridiculous – if, impossible – scenario in the impertinent question posed to the Lord, betrayed their utter lack of perspective.

This Sunday, we get to understand the concept a little more – and with a lot more graphic and concrete details to boot! That perspective takes the form of what Malachi and the apocalyptic writers call “the day of the Lord.” In a language that sounds as gruesome as the language of the seven brothers’ account of their martyrdom, the day of the Lord is presented like fire that razes “all evildoers” [who] will be set on fire, “leaving them neither root nor branch.” But Malachi makes sure that the bigger picture behind the grisly images is proclaimed: “for [those] who fear [God’s] name, there will arise the sun of justice with its healing rays.”

Although Marshall McLuhan quipped long ago that “the medium is the message,” in the case of today’s first reading from Malachi, the picturesque images used ought not to be mistaken for the message. The snapshot ought to be distinguished from the frame on which it is set. The frighteningly concrete images of fire and destruction ought not to obscure the bigger truth conveyed by the passage that “the Lord comes to rule the earth with justice” (Responsorial Psalm).

That big picture is summed up by the phrase “day of the Lord.”

The truth is couched in metaphor, in concrete images that sound frightening to modern ears. But the frame on which such images are set, the ground on which those metaphors are based, have to do with the certain truth that God is coming with both majesty and power to set everything aright, to reward the good, and to punish evildoers. And the only way this can be done is to “raze everything to the ground” and start anew on a clean slate. This basically means to transform the world as we know it, to renew all, and restore everything to its original state of utter blessedness.

In computer terminology, I would like to use the world “reset.” Perhaps a close analogy to explain this truth is the concept of “burning” rewritable DVDs or CDs. To renew the contents of a re-writable DVD or CD, ironically, even computer parlance calls it “burning.” One cannot put in new stuff to the disk unless one burns it, unless one very literally razes its contents and restores it to its pristine state. Only then can one hope to put in new data. For it to be renewed, it needs to be overhauled by passing through “Nero’s” hands, so to speak.

Sometimes, to continue on with my computer analogy, when one “resets,” one’s computer, one loses data. When one empties one’s “cache,” one loses even those data one doesn’t want to lose. One very literally starts out again, on a clean slate. One gets transformed. One gets cleansed of old “files” that encumber one’s CPU and slows down operations.

The “day of the Lord,” pictured thus, offers us a positive perspective. Instead of being razed, one is renewed. Instead of being emptied, one is made whole and rendered receptive to a fresh influx of grace. Instead of being encumbered by old data, and countless “cookies” that weigh the CPU down, one is cleansed and made whole once again. The UPSET that took place because of too many viruses of sin in our lives, is RESET, and the original SETUP is restored.

Our times call for focus. Our times call for perspective. We live dissipated lives, bombarded as we are with the so-called “info-flood.” As the gospel of Luke says, there are too many who come and speak like they were the true voice, who talk like they come in Christ’s name. Too many “pop ups” clutter the screen of our spiritual lives. Too many “worms” try to (pardon the tautology), worm themselves into the system and destroy us from within. “See that you be not deceived, for many will come in my name …”

It would do us good to see our lives in terms of what we are all too familiar with. Whether or not one is computer literate, one readily understands the concrete image of razing that figuratively refers to renewing, not destroying. In this sense, then, the apocalyptic language that, at first, frightens, really in the end, enlightens. It brings to the light, and to the fore the truth that stands behind our conviction of the resurrection of the dead. It brings into relief the frame on which is set the metaphorical images of fire and stubble that would all be consumed, the earthquakes, famines, and plagues. That frame which constitutes the bigger, more important reality is the second coming of the Lord, the so-called “last things” that constitute the essential tenets of Christian faith that is expressed succinctly thus: “Stand erect and raise your heads because your redemption is at hand” (Lk 21:28)

Shrine of Mary Help of Christians
Paranaque City, November 13, 2007 9:50 PM

EARNING ONE’S KEEP; WORKING FOR KEEPS
[Alternative Reflection]

Last week, we were actually reintroduced to a topic which Christian tradition has always considered integral to faith – our belief in the end times, or what systematic theology of yore, has referred to as the study of the so-called “last things,” (ta eschata) or eschatology. Our reflection last week led us to reflect on how, as Christian followers of the Lord Jesus Christ, we are, in a very real sense, citizens of two worlds – earth and heaven, and that whilst Jesus’ “kingdom of God” has not fully come to fulfillment, we Christians believe that the Kingdom of God has irrupted into human history, and that we are already immersed in the “already” and the “not yet” dimensions of what Malachi and other prophets were speaking about. We are basically living in a frontier world; with eyes set solidly on heaven, but with feet fully grounded on terra firma.

It is important for us, however, not to fall naively to a too literal interpretation of the “signs” that both Malachi and the Gospel passage from Luke speak about. To err on the side of literalism is to overemphasize the “already” to the exclusion of the “not yet.” To err on the side of spiritualism is to miss the power of the meaning and the message behind the same signs, and to miss the worth and meaning of what is in the here and now. It means to invalidate the world. It means to render our human nature as embodied spirits, and life itself in this world as worthless, futile, and ultimately meaningless. At the end, it means to invalidate everything human, everything earthly, everything created by a God who “saw that [everything] was good.”

Paul should know. Paul, who preached tirelessly about the need to “set [our] sights not on things below, but on things above,” nevertheless shows us not to be so taken up with the thought as not to be engaged anymore in doing earthly things, and helping build a society along the spirit of God’s reign. Paul gives in to righteous boasting as he declares: “You know how one must imitate us. For we did not act in a disorderly way among you, nor did we eat food received free from anyone. On the contrary, in toil and drudgery, night and day we worked, so as not to burden any of you.” Paul was not busy with ministry alone. He was also busy earning his keep, so as not to be dependent on anyone.

I would consider today’s readings, among many others, as a big lesson on a Christian sense of balance in today’s complex world. A proper Christian sense of balance is the ability to keep the healthy dynamic tension between the drive for the “not yet” and the complacency over the “already.” A healthy balance would mean a proper valuation of the created world and its goods, on the one hand, and the hopeful imagination of one who knows that “the world and its pleasures are fast drifting away,” on the other. To be so engrossed in this world and what it offers is to identify the world with God’s Kingdom. To be so focused solely on God’s reign to the total exclusion of worldly realities is to act like disembodied spirits, who have nothing at all to do with life in the world. Such would mean we all have no responsibility in and for the word, in the false – if literal – belief that the end times are already here. In that view, the Kingdom of God is totally other-worldly, and has no connection with life in this world.

Christian theology does not support such a bipolar view.

Donald Messer, in his book A Conspiracy of Goodness (1992), narrates a real-life story of a man more than six feet tall, who, in a moment of a sudden boat tragedy, offered to make himself a human bridge to connect the chasm that was too wide for elderly and weak people to jump across. He literally became a bridge which spelled salvation for all those people, who otherwise, could not have saved themselves. Twenty people walked over his outstretched body. Andrew Parker by name, he single-handedly, and by means of a heroic act, changed the meaning of bridge-maker forever. He became very literally a pontifex, a pontem factor, a bridge-maker. He straddled two realms separated by a deadly, churning chasm of chaos over the waters. Messer suggests that such an image could very well represent what we as baptized Christians, ought to be – a community of bridge-makers.

As bridge-makers, we see life as just one single continuum, one reality. There ought to be no extreme polarization between earthly life in the present and the end times that Malachi and Luke’s gospel refer to. If life is just one, then we cannot say that earthly life is intrinsically evil and the other totally holy. The world, where we are all born, is the arena of our salvation. If that is so, then salvation not only begins, but also takes place also in this life, by way of life in this world. In that sense, there is potential holiness and salvation in the work we do, in the ordinariness of everyday life, in the mundane concerns that occupy us during the day. Holiness is to be sought for in the context of earthly life. Holiness is not to be divided into two types: the inferior kind which is the way of ordinary people in the world, and the superior type, which is done by people who take themselves away from the world to be “far from the madding crowd,” and perhaps spend long and sleepless hours in front the Blessed Sacrament. No, there is only one Christian holiness, and that holiness bridges the gap between the here and now, and the coming, and awaited glorious coming of Christ.

St. Therese of Lisieux, who considered herself the “little flower” for the child Jesus, is a shining example of holiness in the every day, ordinary reality. She did no outstanding deeds by worldly standards. She did not even leave her monastery at Lisieux. She did not spend long hours of adoration and prayer. She did not even look for painful self-inflicted suffering or mortification. But she found union with God in simple things, in little things, and insignificant deeds, but all done with extraordinary love. Whilst she did not seek voluntary suffering, she willingly accepted it when it came, and saw in it a channel, a bridge, through which she could express her love for her savior, represented by the child Jesus.

St. Therese was a thoroughly modern and absolutely relevant saint whose sanctity fits the demands of our modern times. Dead at 24 years old, little did she realize that, in her short life, she had acted exactly like Andrew Parker, and bridged the gnawing gap created by a mistaken notion of holiness as only about doing heroic and extraordinary things.

The world and life in this complex world is so ordinary. Everybody joins the rat race for more, for bigger and bigger homes, for more and more luxury and comfort. The name of the game is competition and unbridled thirst for power and wealth. Everybody thinks it is normal and routine now to sacrifice values for the coveted more. But it is precisely in this ordinary world populated by ordinary people that sanctity is born. It is precisely in this rat race world, that people like Andrew Parker come to the fore. It is in these prosaic times that the poetry and passion of heroism surfaces, when prophets and bridge-makers like Archbishop Romero, Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Ninoy Aquino of the Philippines, in a sense, even Gorbachev and Reagan, and the thousands of selfless and dedicated missionaries all over the world “stand erect and raise [their] heads, because [their] redemption is at hand” (Alleluia verse). Like Paul, like Christ, like the holy women and men known and unknown, they toil and work – even suffer tribulations. Living in this world of ordinariness, they earn their keep in the meantime. But ultimately, they all work for keeps, for eternity, in the conviction that for those “who fear [the Lord’s] name, there will arise the sun of justice with its healing rays.”

St. Rita Parish, Dundalk, MD November 14, 2007

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