Danger and Opportunity
GUIDING LIGHT - Rev. Fr. Benjamin Sim sj (The Freeman) - December 16, 2018 - 12:00am

The Chinese word for “crisis” is made up of two characters side by side. The first is “danger” and the other is “opportunity.”

 

We all know that every crisis in our lives, be it in the family, in our business, in our nation or in the environment contains both these elements – the possibility of danger that might be totally destructive and an opportunity that might be redemptive and transforming.

We are sometimes guilty of being so caught up in the shopping and rushing around parties, the external tinsels that surrounds Christmas, and in the apparently unending demands of this season, that we fail to remember what we are supposed to be celebrating. 

In many of the recent surveys about modern life, Christmas is perceived by many to be a time of great stress.  It is an occasion when, as the poet W. H. Auden says, “Families try unsuccessfully to love one another once a year.”

The danger is that we get so caught up in the Festival of Conspicuous Consumption that we cannot recall the true meaning of all the celebration. Even our Christmas carols focus more and more on the nostalgic mood of the Season to be with the loved ones, and the gifts. 

We sing of “White Christmas,” “Jingle Bells,” and “Frosty, the Snowman” in a country, where most of our people have never even seen a snow flake! It is quite refreshing sometimes to hear the ever fewer traditional Christmas carols reminding us of the great exciting event of God loving us so much that He gave us what was most precious to Him, His only begotten Son.

Today, Christmas becomes just a season of fun, because many of us get out of focus. We have many parties, exchange gifts. We give alms, and participate in charitable projects. 

These are good in themselves. But often, Christmas becomes a “Festival of Conspicuous Consumption.” That is why the criminal elements have to work doubly hard to keep up with the expenses. 

When I reflect on the joy and celebration of Advent and Christmas, I see four different spiritual levels of sharing. For some people, it’s a time to clean up the cabinets and garage and get rid of the old stuffs. Give them to the poor, so that there will be room for the new things next year. 

Not bad in itself. The poor are happy. But the spirit of Christmas should lead us to a greater spirit of love and caring for the less fortunate.

The second group of people catches the spirit of Christmas by organizing gift-packages, and feeding programs for the indigent. It is a kind of social activity to feel good around Christmas time, that they are doing something for the poor. 

And there’s more where these goods came from. Again, it is a praiseworthy activity. But it is the poor that gives them their Christmas spirit.

The third group would be those who reach out to the poor as a personal response to God’s love.  They would, in the spirit of Advent sacrifice, give up a dinner in a restaurant, or a new dress, or a vacation, and give the money to a charitable project or to some poor families. Love involves self-sacrifice.

The last group would be those who deeply feel how much God has loved us in offering what is most precious to Him. And in response, they would offer something precious and valuable to Him, perhaps a favorite sweatshirt, a ball pen, an I-POD, or shoes, either for exchange gifts or for gifts to the poor.  It is a more meaningful gift of love. 

A priest told me that perhaps I could include here the giving up of a favorite grudge, or hatred, or to offer forgiveness for a hurt. Mind you, all these people are doing something praiseworthy. But there is a difference in their appreciation of Christmas.

The arrival of Jesus in our midst is both a danger and an opportunity, as John the Baptist vividly warns us. We are called by the imminent arrival of the One greater by far than John to re-examine our lives and priorities, and to ensure that what we are doing meets His approval. 

The message of John is one of judgment and therefore there is the danger of condemnation. 

It is also one of opportunity, because he sees the hope of positive changes and transformation at the heart of the message of Jesus.

John the Baptist is extremely important in the prelude to Christmas. We need to recall that for hundreds of years prior to John’s arrival on the scene, no voice of a prophet had been heard in Israel. The life of the average Israelite was filled with misery, yet God apparently was silent.

Into this period of silence came John as a single-minded individual whose will never wavered.  He was fearless, denouncing evil even in high places, when and where he found it. He made no attempt to mask his condemnation of the religious leaders obsessed with ritualistic formalism. 

He spoke out against ordinary people whose lives reflected no sense of God’s presence.  He denounced the unlawful marriage of the royal family.

What is clear is that Advent brings danger.  Judgment is inescapable.  It was their failures and our failures that bring us again to hear John the Baptist, to hear God’s word of forgiveness, to be changed from what we have been to what we should be.

John tells the pagan soldiers, “Do not practice extortion, and do not falsely accuse anyone.” He was telling them to do their ordinary jobs the way they should be done – with honesty and integrity. 

To men and women not used to doing their jobs, it meant taking a big step forward and approaching life in a spiritual way. To the tax collectors, who were Jews but living like pagans, Jews who were living by the world’s standards, not by God’s, John gave them much the same advice that he gave the soldiers: “Stop collecting more than what is prescribed.”

John was telling them to start living their lives in a way that was in harmony with who they were: God’s chosen people. 

For the people who were Jews in name only, this was a tall order. It meant taking a big step forward and becoming Jews in fact, not just in name.

To the Jews who were living fairly faithful lives, but who could be doing more, he challenges: “Whoever has two cloaks should share with the person who has none. And whoever has food should do likewise.” 

In other words, John was telling them to take a giant step forward in their relationship with God and one another. John’s response to each group follows a pattern. It comes down to this: Take the next step in the journey of becoming who God called you to be.

How does all of this apply to us? Or what would John say to each one of us if we ask, “What should we do during this Advent to prepare for the coming of Jesus?” He would probably say, “That depends on what group you belong to. Before I can tell you what you ought to do, I need to know where you are.” 

His answer could be summed up this way: Where are you in your Christian life? Where does God want you to be? Now take the next step in the direction that God wants you to go. 

This is what Advent is all about. It’s not doing something impossible or unreasonable. It’s doing something very possible and very reasonable. It’s simply taking the next step on the journey that leads to your Father’s home in heaven.

It’s not merely signalling that you intend to turn your life in the right direction. It’s taking the next step and doing it. It is to be generous, wise, loved and loving children of a God, whose mercy is always greater than our sin.

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