Bible Reflection (22 Jan 2023)

3rd Sunday Year A

Isaiah 8:23-9:4
1 Corinthians 1:10-13,17
Matthew 4:12-23

Lunar New Year and the power of the cross.

Many parts of the world celebrate the Lunar New Year this Sunday. Like its Gregorian counterpart, the Lunar New Year ushers in a new beginning, a new start. In addition, in many traditions, the Lunar New Year is also a time when family members from faraway gather together; as they reunite and celebrate their love for each other. In the Chinese culture, the exchange of red packets is a visible sign of this exchange of goodwill. In traditional agricultural societies, coinciding with the season of Spring, the Lunar New Year is also associated with the imagery of a rich harvest. Indeed, harvesting time is a time of great joy. It is a time where families are rewarded for a season of hard work. For this reason, the Lunar New Year is also called the Spring Festival.

Coinciding with the Lunar New Year festival, the Scripture Readings this week centres on the theme of new beginning. The First Reading spoke of a prophesy: “But there will be no gloom for those who were in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder.” (verse 9:1-2) As in Lunar New Year, the joy of a new beginning in Biblical time was also symbolised by the joy of harvest time: “You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder.” (verse 9:3) Isaiah’s promise of a new beginning came to fruition with the arrival of Jesus Christ. With the arrival of Jesus, the Gospel this week recalled Isaiah’s prophesy and proclaimed its fulfillment: “He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: ‘Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles – the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.'” (verse 13-16) Indeed, the coming of Jesus is a fulfilment of a prophesy that marks a new chapter in salvation history. In fact, it was only a few weeks ago we commemorate this in a special way with our celebration of Christmas.

Indeed, cultural festivals like the Lunar New Year and religious festivals like Christmas are often rich in symbolism. But there is a danger to symbolism. For symbolism is empty if it does not signify the reality and deep yearning of the human heart. When that is the case, symbolism can become a pacifier or even a facade. Hence this week, especially for those of us who celebrate the Lunar New Year, we ask: Beneath the superficial cordiality and symbolism of the festival, what is the truth in my heart? Is my life going well? Am I truly joyful? Do I truly love and care for the members of my immediate and extended families who gather at this time? These days, with our busy lives, we seldom get together with these family members, except during weddings, funerals and festivals. But busy lives aside, there are often other reasons we do not get together. For beneath the superficial cordiality, there are divisions – division brought forth by past betrayal, past hurt, and the ensuing anger and unforgiveness. Hence, while we may seem joyous and cordial, for some of us, it is but a facade. In truth, we are not truly joyful, loving and caring. But this is not the Christian way. It is not the kind of life God wants for us.

In truth, divisions are just not restricted to our families. They are in fact everywhere. In our society, different social groups are at odds with each other: for example, the umemployed against the employed; the people against the Government; Christians against the LGBTI lobby groups, etc. At our workplaces, various groups with vested interests gossip and work against each other. Even in our churches, ministry groups compete and even undermine each other for a greater share of recognition, influence and prominence. What is the cause of these divisions? It is sin. Driven by pride, ego, envy, selfishness, insensitivity and greed, we forgot the mission of our organisation. Most importantly, we forgot to love. This was precisely what was happening in the Christian community at Corinth. In the Second Reading, St Paul laments at the divisions erupting in the Christian community in Corinth. He wrote, “What I mean is that each of you says, ‘I belong to Paul,’ or ‘I belong to Apollos,’ or ‘I belong to Cephas,’ or ‘I belong to Christ.'” (verse 12) Because of ego and pride, factions were formed in the Christian community. We generate bad blood; we lost sight of Jesus’ call for us to be salt of the earth and light of the world. (Mt 5:13,14). We compete rather than collaborate. Hence, reminding them of the common mission, St Paul counselled the Corinthian Christians, that “there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose” (verse 10).

But the most devastating outcome of division is not the sabotaging of our mission. It is this: we become counter-witnesses for those who are seeking God; we become counter-witnesses for Jesus. Think about it: Why would non-believers be attracted to Jesus when they see believers so divided and behaving so badly? As St Paul lamented in the Second Reading, “the cross of Christ” has been “emptied of its power” (verse 17). Jesus suffered and died to show the immensity of God’s mercy and love. To be salt of the earth and light of the world is to convey this message to the world by our words and examples. However, by our counter-witnessing, we do the opposite. So much so that seekers of God close their hearts to God’s message of mercy and love. This empties the cross of its power. When the cross of Christ is emptied of its power, it means that Jesus has died in vain. But that is not all. What is true of the Christian community is also true of our family. We ask ourselves: By my sins and festering of divisions in my family, have I disempowered Jesus in my home?

So, what is the solution? The solution is to interiorise the teaching of the Gospel in my heart. For it is from my heart that the message of the Gospel flows out to my family, my church communities and the society. In the words of St Paul this week, the secret to eradicating division is to “proclaim the gospel” (verse 17). To proclaim the gospel is to proclaim the love of God. And from love comes understanding, forgiveness, and self-sacrifice for the good the whole community. Jesus showed us how by His own great example. Driven by pride, ego and jealousy, the chief priest and elders falsely accused, unjustly convicted and crucified Jesus. But Jesus did not bear grudges and become resentful. On the contrary, as He hung on the cross, bleeding to death, His love for His accused was not dampened. He prayed for them on the cross saying, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” (Lk 23:34) By His meekness and love, Jesus shows the way to convert hardened hearts – through mercy and self-sacrifice. This is when see the power of cross at its greatest. My brothers and sisters, we too can empower the cross by following in Jesus’ footsteps, by showing love, forgiveness, meekness to those who wronged and hurt us.

Last week, the Catholic Church lost another of its giants – Australian Cardinal George Pell passed away unexpectedly in Rome on the evening of Tuesday 10 Jan 2023. In 2018, Cardinal Pell was wrongly convicted of child sexual abuse and spend 405 days in jail, mostly in solitary confinement. He was convicted in spite of the accusation being uncollaborated and illogical. For many years, in Australia as in other parts of the world, some priests have behaved badly. They abused the trust and power vested upon them, took advantage of the vulnerables, and most damagingly, serves as counter-witnesses and disempowered the cross. As formal Australian PM John Howard said, Cardinal Pell was convicted simply because of who he was. Cardinal Pell was the most senior cleric of the Australian Church, and was being punished for the grave sins of his follow priests. But it not only that. Cardinal Pell was also a courageous advocate against the woke culture of today. He was never afraid to call out the falsehood of radical ideology permeating Western Culture. He made many enemies among the advocates of the woke culture. He was wrongfully convicted and jailed for more than a year. His time is jail was not easy for Cardinal Pell. Yet, in meekness, Cardinal Pell accepted this great injustice. When he was exonerated by the Australian High Court by a vote of 7-0 in 2020, there is no attempt at paybacks against sections of the political and media establishments who relentlessly persecuted him. There was no PR publicity, no civil law suits – Cardinal Pell simply went back to work to serve the God, the Church and the people that he loves. In Cardinal Pell, we see a servant of the Church living his life in imitation of Jesus. My brothers and sisters, we would do well to adopt the same courage, tenacity and meekness in our own lives. For to do so is to imitate Jesus. And to imitate Jesus is to empower the cross. For only the cross can truly heal humanity of its pride, selfishness and egoism. Weighed down by our fallen nature, humanity cannot heal itself by its own strength.

In the Gospel this week, Jesus’ commanded His first disciples, Peter, Andrew, James and John: “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” (verse 19) The Lord’s command to the first disciples is also His command to every baptised men and women today. This is a continuation of last week message on how God has called us. In the Gospel, James and John were just mending their nets, minding their everyday business when Jesus called them. On hearing the Lord’s call, they responded immediately: “Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.” (verse 21-22) Earlier, we reflected on the imagery of harvest. Of how it is deeply ingrained in the celebration of the Lunar New Year as well as prophet Isaiah’s message in the First Reading (verse 3). Harvesting is a time of great rejoicing. But, my brothers and sisters, have we been harvesting souls – in our families, our workplaces, our churches and in the society? Do we have anything to rejoice over? Let this be our contemplation as we mark a new beginning.

Have a blessed and love-filled Lunar New Year.