4th Sunday in Advent: Gospel – Lk 1:39-44

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Secular visits or Sacred encounters?"

Preached by Fr Philip Heng, SJ at Church of St Ignatius – Singapore
on 23rd December 2012

I was deeply touched and overjoyed, when our church was packed at our Penitential Service last Monday.  For the first time, even with 15 Confessors, we stretched from 8.00 pm to almost 10.30 pm; usually our Penitential Service for Advent ends around 9.30 pm.  Not only that; most stayed to the end and prayed for each other and spent time pondering and renewing their relationship with the Lord.  I told myself, “With this type of preparation in Advent, I am sure this Christmas will be the best Christmas in our parish!”

Last night, I was talking over the phone to a parishioner who is overseas on a business trip. He was not around during the Penitential service.  He said, “Father, are there still Confessions?  I said, “Yes, for this weekend, but not on Christmas Eve and Christmas day, as we already had our Penitential Service.”  He immediately replied, “Then, I will change my flight and get back in time for Confession.”

Another parent told me that her brother’s children are organising a family visit to some homes for the poor and needy in Singapore and each of the children, with great joy are looking forward to give all their whole year’s of piggy bank savings to the aged and sick, uncles and aunties of the homes.

Yet another parishioner sent me an email about our Parish Triduum contemplation.  He said, “I went to tonight’s Triduum contemplation, quite tired after a long day at work.  However, it was truly a simple, yet powerful session.  It helped me focus, gave me a time for solitude and peace; it was quiet refreshing.  I am new to the contemplative style of prayer, but it was very very encouraging.”  He cced his email to other members of his ministry saying, “if you can please drop by; there are two more days and I think it was quite enriching.”

 
NCC Carolling at St Joseph's home

On a parish-wide level, about a 120 people came for the Christmas Mass of the elderly and housebound on Tuesday 13th December; around 60-70 parishioners of our “Neighbourhood Christian Communities” (NCC) had Christmas carolling and pageant at Villa Francis Home for the Aged; another 30 plus went to St Joseph’s Hospice on a weekday afternoon; many other NCC volunteers too came to wrap gifts for these events.  Moreover, many of our Filipina parishioners took great pains in preparing for the “Simbang Gabi” – “Dawn Mass” and also prepared supper for about 1,200 people; still several others are going to be involved in the coming Christmas celebration for the poor, needy, elderly, and people of other faith especially the Muslims this coming Thursday 27th December.

This list can go on . . . and we can see that many of our parishioners have got the meaning of the preparation for Christmas right . . . What about those of us who were not involved in these activities?  Were we engaged in some wholesome and Christ-like activities or have we missed out on the deeper meaning of what preparation for Christmas is about?

Tomorrow is Christmas Eve and I am sure there are more than a few of us here who still need to rush down to Orchard Road to get our last minute shopping for Christmas done.  The turkey needs to be bought, the gifts need to be wrapped, the many phone calls that need to be made . . . It is true that preparing for Christmas is such a busy and hectic time . . . it is also a joyous excitement of meeting up with friends and family . . . and all these are good, needed and important.

           

But, ultimately, the reality of preparing for Christmas is more clearly sensed and deeply experienced for those of us who are able to make the needed sacrifices of time and energy for the good of others; to reach out to the aged, poor and needy; to connect more fully with God in prayer - of contemplating on the mystery of the incarnation; the renewing our relationship with the Lord in the Sacrament of Reconciliation and the many other different ways in which we are able to be more Christ-like and life-giving to others.

Thus, let us remember that the church is not against the giving of gifts and the gathering of family and friends.  The church is simply saying, by all means, continue to give your gifts and have your family and friends gathering, but we are all challenged to get more deeply in touch with the core meaning of Christmas and how we should prepare for it during Advent.

This core meaning is found in the stories of the Gospel that has to be told, remembered and renewed every year.  Today, we hear of how Mary visits her cousin Elizabeth in great haste and in obedience to the Father’s Will.  The moment Elizabeth saw Mary, her child leapt in her womb with great joy, and she was filled with the Holy Spirit. In this scene, we sense that Mary’s visit to her cousin Elizabeth was not just a social visit, but a sacred encounter.  It was the sacred encounter of John the Baptist in the womb of Elizabeth, with Jesus, the Messiah in the womb of Mary His Mother.

In this sacred encounter, Elizabeth, moved by the Holy Spirit proclaims of Mary, “Of all women you are the most blessed, and blessed is the fruit of your womb . . . Yes, blessed is she who believed that the promise made her by the Lord will be fulfilled.”

My brothers and sisters in Christ, there is the superficial and secular levels of living our lives and there is the deeper spiritual engagement of God too in our daily living.  In all that happens to us daily, we are each called to go beyond the secular and superficial realities of our lives.  We are each daily challenged to bring the sacred presence of God within all situations and in all our relationships to a greater level of consciousness.

           

The main difference between the celebration of Christmas at Orchard Road and in Churches is between what is commercial and what is spiritual.  The commercial world presents the glitter and glow that appeal to our superficial materialistic needs; full of Santa, but empty of Christ. Our churches and liturgy on the other hand remind us of the Coming of the Christ-Child into our world and lives, and how we are each meant to stand up and stand out amongst other people who do not yet know Christ, and be Christ to them.

All the earlier examples that I mentioned at the beginning of this homily are precisely the different ways of being Christ-like in our life-giving ways to others. Mary in today’s Gospel exemplifies this perfectly by bringing her Christ-Child to her cousin Elizabeth.

And so, the basic question that we could each ask ourselves today is, “How can we then be inspired by Mary’s perfect obedience to the Father’s Will and also, how can we bring the Christ-Child to others in our daily living?  This is the most powerful way to prepare for the Coming of Christ at Christmas.

Fr Philip Heng,S.J.

 

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