SET APART, NOT FOR GLORY, BUT FOR SERVICE

Catholic Homily/Reflection
4th Sunday of Advent - Year A
By Fr. Chito Dimaranan, SDB

This Sunday, just as we are stepping onto the threshold of the much-awaited time of fulfillment of the promises of the Lord, we are told stories of tests, trials, failures, and flying colors!

Ahaz is given the opportunity of a lifetime. He is told by the Lord to ask for a sign … “a sign as deep as the netherworld, or high as the sky.” He is, to use a contemporary figure of speech, given some kind of blank check, a capital he could use to show his faith in the word and promises of the Lord. Ahaz, we are told, fails the test. False modesty and feigned piety do him in. “I will not ask! I will not tempt the Lord.”

Joseph, betrothed and practically joined in marriage to Mary, as was the Jewish custom at that time, also undergoes a particularly trying ordeal. Already given to him in a marriage that only needed the formalities as set by the law, Mary was “found to be with child.” Just one step towards the consummation of that marriage, Joseph agonizes, suffers, and feels sorely tested. In his virtuous (just) nature, compassion reigns supreme, and he swiftly acts so as not to put Mary to shame. Boldly, humbly, and courageously – for one who, to all appearances has been “cheated” – Joseph decides to “divorce her quietly.” Tried and tested to the core of his being, Joseph remains true to his virtue and character, and passes the test with flying colors!

For both Ahaz and Joseph, it was not a case of simple personality tests; it was in both cases, a test of faith. In both cases, however, such faith became the grounding of a personality that would either break down or brook solid in the face of trials.

Our Advent waiting is fraught with equivalent tests. For many in affluent America, right after Thanksgiving day, (as early as 5 a.m. for many), Christmas went full swing with the mad rush to shopping malls to get the biggest bargains! No, this is not the Christmas that the liturgy is preparing us for, but the commercialized Christmas whose patron saint is the gender-bending Santa Claus, a Christmas whose temple is the ubiquitous cathedral of commerce. In a culture that cannot wait, we have anticipated the joyful banquet that Advent is supposed to be preparing us for. In a computer world of fast-paced search engines, the sleigh filled with consumer items has gone much faster than the reindeer. We have begun eating the dessert and the sweets, so to say, much earlier than the main course that is the Christmas mystery. In more a more familiar figure of speech, we have put the cart before the horse.

Advent, the supposed time of waiting and preparation, is all but glossed over and ignored. In its place, we have taken to thinking of gifts to be given and gifts to be received, and forgot all about Him whose coming gave the original and only valid meaning to gift-giving.

Still for others in the rest of the marginalized world, Advent waiting may be fraught with a series of disappointments. Employees of firms and factories closing down all over the world may be waiting with dread for the day they would receive their last paycheck. A great many of the 45 million Americans (from 1.5 million just a few years ago) who suddenly found themselves without any health insurance surely would rather not wait for the day they might get sick. For the thousands of families in the Philippines who lost loved ones, in a series of natural calamities, and whatever little they had, now buried under mud and debris, brought about by the callous, selfish, and greedy machinations of their more affluent fellowmen who denuded precious forests and mountains, there is precious little to wait for, to hold on, and hang onto for dear life. Their little dreams and hopes now lie buried under an avalanche of logs and thick gooey mud. A source of subsistence wages for a great many of the poor, those logs have been the steady source of sleighs-full of wealth for politicians, military officers, government functionaries, communist rebels, and unscrupulous businessmen and middlemen alike. Having killed the goose that laid the golden eggs, the Filipino people, can only wait with dread and untold fear, for the next mostly man-made calamity.

For many in similar predicaments, Advent time is a painful time. Still for many, it might be a futile wait, like the proverbial “waiting for Godot,” an angst-filled and empty waiting time for something that may not come.

Whether one is in a place where “sleigh bells ring,” or in a place where ominous claps of thunder and reports of roaring rain and mud-soaked logs fill the uncertain air, waiting could be problematic and fraught with difficulty. The comic strip “Family Circus” says it all. The day before Thanksgiving Day (in America), the little boy tells his Mom: “I wish, I wish, it were already Thanksgiving!” When asked why, he said: “So I could begin wishing it were already Christmas!” People wait avidly for Christmas. In some places like the Philippines, it has begun yet last September. And when Christmas day really comes, everything falls flat on its face. There is a sudden “denouement,” a precipitous drop in people’s expectations. Built up to a frenzy months and weeks before, it fails to satisfy when it’s finally there. Once gifts are opened, and Santa’s predictable presents are taken off their tinsel wrappers, far from the deceptive glow of halogen lamps in crystal caged shelves of malls, they fail to give the promised lift, the expected fulfillment as promised by the vendors, and by glossy mouth-watering brochures.

Everything turns out to be vanity .. and all is vanity, especially for those who lack the right perspective that today’s readings remind us of.

We are reminded today that everything turns to vanity when waiting is not spurred on by faith, when we do not really see what we are waiting for beyond what glitters and glows. The Gospel shows us how even Joseph’s disappointment turns into active engagement with God’s will when he saw what it all meant, when he saw the vision of an angel who said: “do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home.” Joseph’s faith, already strong in the first place, came out even stronger, when God’s dream became his own dream, when God’s vision became his own vision and mission.

Advent waiting that is based on our own selfish dream is bound to be disappointing. Advent dreams that are not in keeping with God’s dreams for us and the world are bound to fall flat on their faces. Like the purely earthly dreams for gifts that glitter, in the long run, they do not satisfy us fully. Like the sinful, get-rich-quick dreams of the illegal loggers in the Philippines, which are not obviously in syntony with God’s dreams for everyone to enjoy the fruits of the earth, in the spirit of equity and solidarity, they end up in disaster for everyone, both now and in the future.

Advent means waiting alright. But it has as much to do with listening as with waiting. We who claim we believe in this God who came, still comes, and yet will come in and through Christ, have some listening to do. Like Joseph, we need to stop, look, and listen to His gentle nudges and reminders … never to be afraid, for God has become Emmanuel, “God-with-us.” He invites us now, as he did Joseph, to make His dream for the world and for humanity, our very own.

The Gospel tells us that “when Joseph awoke, he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him.” What, then, are we to do?

St. Paul shows us the way. Unlike Ahaz, who hid behind a thin veneer of pretended religiosity and hypocrisy, despite the Lord’s telling him to ask, Paul listened to the Lord and obeyed. He became, in his own words, a “slave,” an “apostle,” and “set apart” for the gospel of the Lord. Paul’s faith, in other words, was not one to remain on the level of pietistic declarations and hypocritical, shallow attachment. It was not a faith that was good only for one hour on a Sunday morning, not a faith that glows only with tinsels and lights on Christmas day. It was not that kind of faith that theologians call mere fiduciary faith, a faith based on touchy-feely emotions and mere fellow-feeling, but a faith that is performative, a faith that is willing to “do as God commands.” For Paul, it meant being and becoming a “slave,” an “apostle,” “set apart,” not for honor and glory, but for service.

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