Can trust you with a secret? I have a confession to make. I love watching the TV programs called ‘Undercover Boss’, and ‘The Secret Millionaire’. I am always captivated by the idea of a boss or a millionaire going out of their own comfort zones and go undercover. They would work as one of the workers in their company or go as a volunteer to a certain organization in order to see first hand what it is like to be in the workplace, what it is like to be in someone’s shoes. I really like these projects because deep inside of me, I also have this inner desire to go undercover (not as a ‘boss’ or a ‘millionaire) because I don’t own a big company first of all, and secondly I don’t have millions of money with me. I just like these programs because of the certain and genuine experience of happiness, of surprise, of awe, of regrets sometimes, or rejoicing at the end of it, when the boss or the millionaire would reveal their real selves and reward or do something to the people concerned.
Friends, a week from now, we are going to celebrate Christmas once again. If you like, we may think that this time is a time when God has gone undercover. However, he did something more than just an undercover. He not only blows up his cover by coming to us in person, or ‘in the flesh’, the favourite term of St John the evangelist, but he really decides to live with us forever, to be our ‘friend’ for life, and most of all to really become human like us. But unlike the boss or the millionaire who would go back to their position in the society or in the company after their work as undercover, our God, the real master of everything and the source of all riches, stayed with us, and identified with us. This indeed is the reason for rejoicing. In fact this is the message of Christmas.
This is why the first word of the angel to Mary in our gospel for this fourth Sunday of Advent, is to ‘rejoice.’ As a Church, we are invited to continue rejoicing. But why should we rejoice? The answer is why not?
The Book of Samuel in our first Reading today would give us the first answer. Because God cares. Here we have David seriously thinking of building a house or a temple for God to dwell in. But God realizes the plan not for himself but for David. In effect, God was saying to David, ‘No you are not making a house for me. Instead I am making a house out of you, a dynasty that will be established forever.’ And we hear this promise being realized in Jesus Christ himself.
And what does it say to us now? That God cares for us. That God looks after us. That God has reserved a reward for us if we take him as the centre of our life. But we may say, ‘Oh, God doesn’t care about me. He didn’t answer my prayers. He turned off his hearing aid for my prayers.’ Yes, we may complain at times of our unanswered prayers, but have we asked how many times have we taken for granted for all those blessings God has given us, even us without asking, even us without praying for them? Friends one reason why we could not be happy is because we take many things for granted. And we take many things for granted because we tend to look for more appealing, more trendy, more updated, or more beautiful things. This means of course, more hours of work to get more money to buy more, to the extent of killing our own selves softly. There is a saying that goes: a person would spend all his or her health to acquire wealth, but when sick, he or she would spend all his/her wealth to restore his/her health. And who would be happy in the end? The hospital, or the doctor or the chemist. Happiness according to a Chinese proverb…is not having what you want but wanting what you have.
The Second reason for rejoicing is found in our Second Reading today. St Paul calls it a secret that is revealed to us in and through Jesus Christ. And what is this secret? The secret is that in Jesus Christ, God does not only reveal himself to us, but his motive of doing it is to invite us all, no matter who we are, what we do, wherever we are, to share in his divine life. This is an open invitation though. Over the centuries many people have responded well to his invitation. Meanwhile there are also people who have delayed or postponed their response. While there are who would just refuse the invitation outrightly. We can always refuse because of our freedom. But everyday, God is always there inviting us to come to him and to listen to his call, in the details of our daily living, in the smile of our neighbours, in the welcoming personality of the lady in the supermarket, etc.
The third reason for rejoicing today is found in the Gospel. An innocent, poor lady has made a big decision that changes her life forever. She decided to go for a ‘yes’ to God’s will for her and that alters the course of our salvation history. Because of her total ‘yes’ to God, Mary the closed door of heaven was opened up again for us. Because of her decision to let God use her as a living tabernacle, the bearer of the Son of God, she becomes our model of faith. She let God rule her life because she believes that God would keep her secure despite all odds she may have to face.
In a way Mary’s prayer then would have been like this: ‘Lord use me.’ Instead of Lord help me.’ This is also the way of the saints. And we are called to pass through this way. With this we can be assured of real and eternal happiness. Mary’s humility and sincerity enable her to utter the most beautiful word the master can hear from any servant: ‘I am a servant of the Lord, let it be done unto according to your word.’ Because of that she rejoices and sings: ‘Let my spirit rejoice, sing how great is the Lord.’ Looking at Mary then, we realize that true rejoicing is not accomplishing something great, but on what others have become because of us.
We therefore are to rejoice with Mary because of the many good things God has done for us. He didn’t come as a stalker or just a mere undercover, but really to understand fully our human situation by becoming one like us in order to bring us back to our original friendship with him. So let’s go on rejoicing then with this awareness as we come to celebrate the coming birthday of Christ Jesus our Saviour. Amen.
I have always been nicknamed as ‘Junior’, ‘Junjun’, ‘Jun’ by many people who know me. However when I came to Australia in 2007, the then Bishop of Sandhurst, the late Bishop Joseph ‘Joe’ Grech asked me what name should I prefer to be called. I said, ‘Junjun’ of course. But then the Bishop said, ‘It (junjun) sounds like a toy to me, and it doesn’t mean anything. Can I call you John instead?’ Reluctantly I said, ‘Well, you can my Lord.’ I remember quite well the date when Bishop Joe unofficially ‘baptised’ me as ‘John’. That was June 24, 2007, the birth of John the Baptist. From then on he called me ‘John’. Out of obedience, I also began to introduce myself as ‘John’ to people I met.
But something happened. I don’t know if it is providence or what. On my 30th birthday, 28th of December 2010, Bishop Joe died. And with that, I silently made a resolution that ‘John’ would now have to be buried with bishop Joe. And I did. I reverted back to my beloved nickname ‘Junjun’. I reintroduced myself again as ‘Junjun’. When people asked me ‘What happened to ‘John?’ I’d answer, ‘He’s dead and buried with Bishop Joe.
However, this Second Sunday of Advent as well as our gospel today requires that I would ‘dig John up again from the grave.’ Not that I would talk about MYSELF, but because today we hear the great figure of our Christian faith telling us to pave the way for the coming of the Lord- called John, the Baptist. He is such a great figure in our faith that this second candle we lit today, is called ‘John the Baptist candle,’ to remind us the significance of our personal and communal preparation and readiness for the arrival of our saviour Jesus Christ.
He is foretold by the prophet Isaiah in our first Reading today, as the voice who cries out in the wilderness to prepare a way for the Lord…to make his paths straight. St Mark in our gospel today tells us that John proclaimed a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Yet, he did something more that’s worthy of our imitation…and in fact it is our basic Christian calling. Of course it is not living on ‘locusts’ and ‘ wild honey’ or wearing a ‘camel-skin’ and all that sort of thing. We ought to imitate the way of John in the sense that he is aware of who he is and he is conscious of the mission that God has entrusted to him.
If we fully know who we are, we don’t have to pretend to be someone we are not. John the Baptist knew who he is. He is God’s herald, a pre-cursor, a messenger. He knew all that and he remained faithful to who he really is. Yes, he could easily pretend to be ‘the messiah’ whom the people are waiting for a long time. We heard in the gospel ‘All Judaea and all the people of Jerusalem made their way to him…’He must have been very popular. If he were in our time, he must have won the ‘X-Factor. But no, he didn’t take advantage of his popularity, or of his instantaneous fame. Instead, with great humility he said, ‘Someone is following me, someone who is more powerful than I am, and I am not fit to kneel down and undo the strap of his sandals…’ It is important to understand that in those times of John the Baptist, it is the servant’s job to undo the strap of his master’s sandals. But here, John considers himself even lesser than a slave.
This is also our call today: that like John the Baptist, ONE: we would point to others the way to God. As Christians, we are all called to lead others to not leading others away from Jesus. And TWO: John is showing us that the way to Jesus or the way to God is humility. Humility means that we acknowledge who we are before God and present ourselves as to who we really are before others. This is quite a tricky call because there are times in our lives that we tend to believe we are the sole owner of our lives; that we can do anything with it. There are also times that when we achieve something better, greater or noble, we would take the credit to ourselves, but when we met misfortunes, we put the blame on God or on other people.
God forbid that we forget who we are and what we are sent here for. God gives each one of us a mission to do in life. And he wishes that we would all carry out our individual, unique and personal mission responsibly, with humility, and love. St Peter in our Second Reading today would add that we can do this by living a saintly and a holy life…that is by putting God always before us, in whatever we do, and wherever we are.
So as we go on with the season of Advent, let’s examine ourselves:
Who are we before God and before others?
Like John the Baptist, are we paving the way for others to find God through humility or
Are we hindrances for others to see God instead through pride?
A few months ago, I watched a reality show program in a Philippine television which aims to grant people’s wishes. This particular episode was about a high school student who is left alone in this world. Her mother, the last of her relations died and she was left literally on her own. She was left to no one and with nothing. Later on, she had to move house because she couldn’t pay the rent anymore. In the process she had to sleep in the garage of her ‘friend’s house. Her friend offered a room for her in their house but she doesn’t want to be a burden in the family. She doesn’t want them to worry about her. She continued with her studies though. And she did everything to live on. She sold snacks to her classmates in school to earn money for food and for her allowance. Out of her own effort and determination, she finished her high school. Her friend wrote a letter to this specific TV program, asking if they can help this determined poor lady to live in a decent house and to continue her studies in the Uni, which they did. They gave her a scholarship grant for any four year course she likes, a small house to live in and a small business to live on.
Friends the story moved me so much because I saw in this lady that HOPE is indeed a very real thing. Because she hopes that something better and greater is reserved for her, she worked on it and she worked for it. She was determined to achieve it despite all odds and unlikely circumstances where she was in. And because, her hope is so real, people can see it as well. Thus, people are trying their best to help her realize her dreams.
Friends, today is the first Sunday of Advent. Jesus in our Gospel today urges us to ‘stay awake’ for his second coming. In other words let’s keep up, renew and make our hope real, our hope that Jesus is coming again. This is the message of advent. Yes, this season is also a celebration for the birth of Christ our Saviour, which is indeed worth rejoicing. But there is more. This season of advent also calls us to celebrate the hope that we have, to continue waiting in hope and to prepare ourselves for the day of our Lord Jesus Christ as St Paul tells us in our Second Reading.
How to celebrate the hope that we have? St Paul would remind us: To thank God for all the graces we have received through Jesus Christ. This is very important because there is always great temptation to forget who we are and to whom we are sent for as we live our lives now. It is not an uncommon attitude that when we achieve something greater, better or noble we take the credit to ourselves. But when we suffer misfortunes and the like, we blame it to others or to God. Celebrating in hope is to thank God for everything and for who we are.
How to continue waiting in hope? It means an active waiting. It means we have to do something. We can’t just sit down and look on the NEWS about the chaos happening in the different parts of the world today. If we are people of hope, we must have realized that this is not what the world is supposed to be. But what we can do here and now? We can think of many. Because we can really do many things. But we should not underestimate the power of our prayers. “Prayer”, as Bishop Joe Grech would say, “is not everything, but it is the first thing.” Have we prayed for this people and situations? If we did, are we praying seriously enough?
How to prepare ourselves for the coming of our saviour? It means establishing or renewing our friendship with God and friendship with people around us. What does it mean? Two things: First, Love. Love is the only thing that cements our relationships with God and with others. Love is what prophet Isaiah tells us of God in our First Reading today. Isaiah tells us that despite all our weakness, our sinfulness, even we complain against God, he remains to be our ‘Father’. Such is his unconditional love.
Second, Faith. Faith is the assurance of the things we hope for, according to the epistles. In a more simplistic way, faith is like an umbrella. An umbrella cannot stop the rain, but it helps us to stand in the rain. So also with faith, it cannot stop the events happening in Syria and Libya, as we want it to be, but it enables us to stand firm even if our shivering in the cold or even if our knees are trembling in fear or insecurity.
So as we start the season of advent and as we continue to wait for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, let’s pray and ask God that He’ll make our hope more real in us and that we will grow more in faith and in love. Amen.