Third Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 36:1.6-10; James 5:7-10; Matthew 11:2-11
The JOYS of Opening to the Truth

Preached by Msgr Philip Heng, SJ at Cathedral of the Good Shepherd - Singapore, on 11 December 2016

There are two ways of living our faith.  We could either do our very best to live in the ways that God wants of  us or we could live as though God must “obey” the way we live, otherwise we get upset with Him.  We all know that Adam and Eve disobeyed God’s Will, but Mary obeyed God’s Will and all the saints obeyed God’s Will.  We also know from our experiences that to obey God’s Will is never always easy and can be full of trials and challenges because our own will is the biggest obstacle to doing God’s Will.

Unlike most of us, if not all of us, one of John the Baptist’s greatest virtue is his gift of openness to accepting God’s Will and the Truth that God reveals to him.  When he saw Jesus at the river Jordan, he immediately acknowledged that Jesus is the Messiah and that he is truly unworthy to serve Jesus even as the lowest of all slaves; which is to undo the straps of His sandals.  And so, when he was in prison, his biggest challenge was to change his narrow Jewish perception of the Messiah from being a Punishing God, to being a God who is full of Compassion – a God who cured the blind and the lame; indeed, a God who cleansed lepers, raised the dead to life, and proclaimed the Good News of Salvation to the poor.  What about us?  Are our perceptions about God Spirit-filled /or conditioned by our self-centeredness?

There is a story of Julie who one day went for lunch with her husband and baby Erik to a restaurant.  She said, “I sat Erik in a high chair and noticed everyone was quietly seated and talking. Suddenly, Erik squealed with glee at someone who attracted his attention.  He pounded his fat baby hands on the high chair tray.  His eyes crinkled in laughter and his mouth was bared in a toothless grin as he wriggled and giggled with merriment.
I looked around and saw the source of his merriment.  A few tables from us was a man whose pants were baggy; whose toes poked out of what looked like shoes.  His shirt was dirty and his hair was uncombed and unwashed. His whiskers were too short to be called a beard, and his nose was so varicose that it looked like a road map.

He surely smelled.  He then waved at Erik.  My husband and I exchanged looks, "What do we do?"  Erik continued to chuckle and was very taken up by the stranger.  Everyone in the restaurant noticed and looked at us and then at the man.  By now, the old drunkard was creating a nuisance with my beautiful baby.  Our meal came and the man continued to amuse baby Erik from across the room.  He was obviously drunk.  My husband and I were embarrassed.

However, we finally got through the meal and headed for the door. My husband went to pay the bill and told me to meet him in the parking lot.  The old man sat poised between me and the door, and there was no other way to get out, except to pass by him.  As I got up to leave, I prayed, "Lord, just let me out of here without this bum embarrassing me any further.”  As I drew closer to the man, I turned my back towards him and tried to sidestep him and avoid any air he might be breathing.  As I did, Erik leaned over my arm and reached out to the old man with both arms in a baby's "pick-me-up" position.  

Before I could do anything, Erik had wriggled out of my arms and into the smelly old man’s arms.  Erik, in an act of total trust, love, and submission, laid his tiny head upon the man's ragged shoulder.  The man's eyes closed, and I saw tears flowing from his eyes.  His aged hands full of grime, pain, and hard labour, cradled my baby.  I stood there totally dumbfounded at what was happening.  The old man is now rocking and cradling my cute and adorable baby in his arms; his eyes then opened and looked straight into mine.  He then pried my dear baby Erik from his chest lovingly, and as though in pain, handed me Erik and said, "You take care of this baby, okay?"  I somehow I managed to say, "I will," from a throat that contained a stone.
I received my baby, and the man said, "God bless you, ma'am; you've given me my Christmas gift."  I said nothing more than a muttered thanks.  With Erik in my arms, I ran for the car. My husband was wondering why I was crying and holding Erik so tightly and why I was saying, "My God, my God, forgive me."  I had just witnessed Christ's love shown through the innocence of a tiny child who saw no sin, and who made no judgment.  The child saw the beauty of a soul, while his mother only saw a smelly drunkard stranger.  I was a Christian who was blind, but holding a child who could see the beauty beneath a dirty homeless old man.  I felt it was God asking, "Are you willing to share your son for a moment when I am willing to Share My Son for all eternity?  Julie finally added, “The ragged dirty looking old man, unwittingly, had now reminded me, ‘Unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.’" (Matt.18:3)

My brother and sisters in Christ, Julie in our story reminds us of our need to change and challenge ourselves to go beyond living within the narrow perceptions of our own wills so that we can strive towards becoming more like John the Baptist who had the great virtue of openness and acceptance of God’s Truth.  And so, it is important that we challenge ourselves today, by asking, “What about us?  Do we live our faith daily through our narrow perceptions of who God is or are we open to allowing God to surprise and challenge us as Jesus did to John the Baptist? 

As Christians, we all know that we are each called to live our lives in accordance to how Jesus has shown us and this is to live wholeheartedly and love unconditionally.  However, unfortunately, one of the most common presumption of living our faith, unlike John the Baptist, is to think that we know God very well and feel that we have been loving and serving Him in the way we live, when in fact, we have been taking “short cuts” in our faith and looking for the easy and painless ways of serving God’s Will.  We call this “cheap Christianity”. 

To illustrate this, let us ponder on the story of Martin who one day found a cocoon of a butterfly.  Being fascinated, Martin observed the cocoon closely until a small opening appeared.  He sat and watched the butterfly for several hours as it struggled to force its body through a little hole.  

Then, it seemed to stop making any progress.  It appeared as if it had gotten as far as it could and it could go no further.  So he decided to help the butterfly.  He took a pair of scissors and snipped off the remaining bit of the cocoon.  The butterfly then emerged easily, but to his surprise, it had a swollen body and small, shrivelled wings.

Martin continued to watch the butterfly because he expected that, at any moment, the wings would enlarge and expand to be able to support the body, which would then contract over time.  Unfortunately, neither happened!  In fact, it is clear to Martin that the butterfly would have to spend the rest of its life crawling around with a swollen body and shrivelled wings, and would never be able to fly, like other butterflies.

Martin then began to realise to his horror that in his haste to short-cut the growth of the butterfly, he did not understand that the restricting cocoon and the struggle required for the butterfly to get through the tiny opening were God's way of forcing fluid from the body of the butterfly into its wings so that it would be ready for the flight once it achieved its freedom from the cocoon.

And so, my sisters and brothers in Christ, as I conclude, let us remind ourselves that our trials and struggles in life are not necessarily negative or bad.  Sometimes struggles are exactly what we need in our lives to help us mature in our lives and deepen our relationship with God.  If God allowed us to go through our lives without any trials, we would not be as strong as what we could have been.  Upon reflecting more deeply on the reality of our relationship with God, Martin began to realise the truth of his life being as follows:

"I asked for strength, and God gave me difficulties to make me strong.
I asked for wisdom, and God gave me problems to solve.
I asked for prosperity, and God gave me a brain and brawn to work.
I asked for courage, and God gave me dangers to overcome.
I asked for love, and God gave me troubled people to help.
I asked for favours, and God gave me opportunities.
I received nothing I asked for, but I realised that I have everything I needed!  All from God’s Loving Hands."

And so, let us pray that like John the Baptist and like Julie, the mother of the child in our story, we will receive the special gifts of “JOY” of this third week in Advent, where we will once again have the humility, and childlike faith like baby Eric in our story, to open our hearts to God’s Truth that come to us in many ways and through different relationships in our daily living.  Let us also pray that we do not drift into allowing our narrow and many concerns in our life to lead us into making ourselves the centre of our lives instead of allowing God to be at the centre of our lives.  The JOY of Advent will truly be experienced when our hearts are united in love for Jesus and with Jesus in our daily living.

(Ref: Adapted from: www.varietyreading.carlsguides.com/christian-stories

Trusting God: “Baby’s hug,” Struggle of a Butterfly”)


Fr Philip Heng,S.J.

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