Saturday, October 6, 2007

Life in Christ

27th Sunday in Ordinary Time
7 October 2007, Annual Family Day
St. Benedict’s R.C. Church
La Romaine, Trinidad

“See how he flags, he whose soul is not at rights, but the upright man will live by his faithfulness.” So we heard from the prophet Habakkuk in the First Reading.

No doubt about it, at least as far as I can see there are lots of hardworking people in this world who have every right to be tired or even exhausted sometimes. But there are also lots of people out there lamenting for no good reason. They are the ones the prophet Habakkuk is describing or quoting in the First Reading: “How long, Lord, am I to cry for help while you will not listen; … (W)hy do you look on where there is tyranny? Outrage and violence, this is all I see, all is contention, and discord flourishes.”

This may be true. The world may sometimes look that way, but I am sure the prophet would simply like to tell his fellow Israelites to get over it. You see, there are those folks who lament for no good reason, in the sense that their outcry is unrealistic. They expect too much from life here on this earth. They want success in their career life, in their personal life, sometimes even without trying. They try to be clever and get ahead using all sorts of shortcuts. As young people, they find it more than frustrating in school when fellow classmates and their teachers don’t seem to notice them and so they cry. At some point when they are older, that significant other person in their lives has to be there and make everything right or even better for them, and if things don’t work out, they cry. Many people pretend too much from the here and now, whether they just sit there waiting for the goods of this world to fall into their laps or they exhaust themselves in their search for fame and fortune. Miss T&T this and Mr. Handsome that are often to be seen in the newspapers. Are they truly happy? Maybe for today, yes, but I doubt if they can live from such an experience for a lifetime. Most sports stars end up retiring about half way through their life expectancy. We call it a tragedy if they fail to find a new project in life and just sort of settle back at age 40 to live from their memories. I am not saying that we shouldn’t achieve or that our achievements in life don’t have their importance. Life must be lived to the full. We cannot or should not simply resign ourselves to accepting our lot – to languishing or wasting away. But there’s more to it than that and we cannot fail to remind ourselves that what we refer to as retirement or old age is not the last chapter of the book, a time to draw conclusions. The sunset years, as they are called, are another part of an ongoing saga that finds its continuance in Heaven. Life is open-ended. What I am saying is that true joy is elsewhere. Life goes on beyond the grave. God made us for Himself and for eternity.

Certainly, life is tough sometimes and there is room for tears. In fact, in the Salve Regina (the Hail Holy Queen), that prayer many of us learned as children and which in most parts of the world is the concluding prayer of the rosary, we describe the world as it is. Life on earth is a “valley of tears”, we say, from birth to natural death. True happiness, equal to who we are as created and loved by God, is not to be found here on earth, cannot really be found in stockpiling goods, material or interpersonal. The investment has to be elsewhere. It has to be with God Himself. If one remains faithful to the Lord, everything will make sense, even death, otherwise not. For the man or woman whose soul is at rights, for the person who is faithful, God in Jesus Christ is present as Savior. Every tear will be wiped away later, in Heaven, in Glory, but even here on earth, in uprightness we will move from strength to strength. We will be fearless, strong in adversity, tireless in fulfilling our calling in life.

There must be an investment, a response on our part however. No one has it made without getting involved, without effort. This is true for one and all: bishops, priests and faithful. St. Paul encourages the young bishop Timothy with these words in today’s Second Reading: “… fan into a flame the gift that God gave you when I laid my hands on you. God’s gift was not a spirit of timidity, but the Spirit of power, and love, and self-control.” I could say to each and every one of you today, as individuals, young or old, as families, functional or dysfunctional, “Do the same! Fan the flame of that candle which was lit for you on the day of your Baptism and which we light again each Easter! The priest said to your parents and to you, ‘Keep the flame of faith alive in your heart!’” Invest in your baptismal grace; let your light shine forth for all to see!

In a sense this is what Jesus asked of the apostles in the Gospel scene today. “Increase our faith!” they said to Jesus. And Jesus comes right back at them: “Were your faith the size of a mustard seed you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you”. Truth to be told, today’s Gospel isn’t the easiest one to explain to folks. Jesus is coming down hard; he’s confronting his listeners and saying, “Get with it! You haven’t the foggiest idea as yet of what is possible in your life once you let me in”. What really is the message of this Sunday? Let Jesus in! Let Him into your life!

When Habakkuk talks about the “upright man” he’s describing someone certainly who is morally decent, but not only that. Uprightness is connectedness with God (which implies holiness of life and much more). Connectedness with God comes through being prayerful and fully inserted in the sacramental life of the Church. I used the word “lament” to describe a certain kind of calling upon the Lord in prayer. In a sense that is just high-flown language for crying and complaining. “How long, Lord, am I to cry for help while you will not listen; … (W)hy do you look on where there is tyranny? Outrage and violence, this is all I see, all is contention, and discord flourishes.”

What is it that is unsatisfactory about praying to God that way, if that is how we feel? OK, in a sense there is nothing wrong with it and that sort of prayer can certainly be a part of our lives. I repeat: a part of our lives! What is wrong with the lament which meets Habakkuk’s disapproval in our First Reading is that it ends up as a way of approaching life and God. Granted, in crying this way I suppose we are on speaking terms with God, but there has to be more to life and relationships than our crying. Not all speaking terms are good (the nagging wife, the subdued, forever complaining or ungrateful husband, the whimpering child). In our case the prophet Habakkuk judges such lamenting as negative and less than promising. Even in human terms or relationships the complainer, especially the chronic complainer, is at best a burden. It’s not just a matter of pulling our fair share or of being constructive in our relationship with God, but rather God wants us to open our hearts to Him and not hold Him at arm’s length with our crying and dissatisfaction, as the children of Israel did in the desert, as they did during their exile even after God, through the Persian Kings Cyrus and Darius, had brought them back to the Promised Land and had given them help with the task of rebuilding the Temple.

What is the message for this Sunday, for this family day in St. Benedict’s La Romaine, for the harvest festival? Well, in a very brief word, it’s that true happiness here and now and forever rests in living uprightly before God. Uprightness is engagement, is contact; it is connectedness with God. The verse from Psalm 94 for today’s Mass is: “If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.” The message would be, “don’t harden your heart, but rather open your heart to the voice of God”. Psalm 94 can be used every day to open the Divine Office by those of us who have the duty to pray the Liturgy of Hours, “O that today you would listen to his voice! ‘Harden not your hearts as at Meribah, as on that day at Massah in the desert when your fathers put me to the test; when they tried me, though they saw my work.’” Not all of us are brilliant. Not everybody can be classed a genius or an Einstein. All of us, however, can be attentive to others, can be alert to the needs of family, schoolmates, friends and neighbors, of fellow workers, doing so motivated by love of God’s law and eagerness for Him to be at the center or heart of all we say and do.

The Gospel today also talks about our duty. They tell me there was a time when living your faith, practicing your faith, praying in the morning, praying before meals, praying at bed time and examining our conscience each day were things folks just did. That is how a Catholic lived. They tell me there was a time when folks had no doubt that Mass on a Sunday morning, every Sunday, was where they belonged, that sin was real and a person needed to go to confession. That was (and might I add still is and always will be) what it means to be Catholic. A priest says those things now and people thank him after Mass and say, “O, Father, it’s been so long since we’ve heard that!” Really? Or are our hearts maybe becoming hard? Have we stopped our ears so as not to hear the voice of God? Why do we chase after the fleeting fancies of this world? “Increase our faith!” the apostles say to Jesus in today’s Gospel. And Jesus comes right back at them: “Were your faith the size of a mustard seed you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you”.

We certainly need to pray for an increase in the virtues of faith, hope and love. The apostles had that much right. We also need to confess that maybe we’ve been turning our backs on God; maybe we’ve been keeping Him at arm’s length for some reason. Maybe we’ve been lamenting (to use the fancy word) instead of getting on with life, loving God and all those people He has given us to share life with.

The message for all of you here in St. Benedict’s La Romaine this Sunday is a positive one. It’s a pat on the back for all those couples, those parents who live their faith because they recognize that God first loved them and chose them for Himself. They live their faith for themselves and for the sake of their spouses and children. The message of this Sunday is an encouragement for all of you who are connected with God: you are on the right path. Uprightness is not a preachy thing; it is a way of being, of being connected with God, as absolutely essential as eating, breathing and sleeping is for our lives. This Sunday’s message is also a positive nudge to get you going if you are lukewarm in your faith. If God in Jesus ends up taking a back bench to almost everything you consider more fun or more urgent in your life, well, you’re lost.

“See how he flags, he whose soul is not at rights, but the upright man will live by his faithfulness.” So we heard from the prophet Habakkuk in the First Reading.