Sunday, August 02, 2015

Between Tourism & Migration


18th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)


Sisters and brothers, do you like to travel? What comes to your mind, and how do you feel, when you hear the word travel? I’m not sure, but I think many of us would probably associate it with pleasure. With relaxation. With a vacation. With tourism. And that’s fine. These are valid reasons to travel. We visit new and exotic places. But only for a short time. And while we’re there, we bring with us as many of the comforts of home as we can. We make our trip as pleasurable and as trouble-free as possible.

And yet the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary tells us that the English word travel comes from a Latin root (trepalium) that, in the Middle Ages, was actually the name for an instrument of torture. And this association of travel with suffering and torment shouldn’t surprise us. For, in the Middle Ages, travel of any kind was a very difficult and exhausting affair.

And not just in the Middle Ages. Even today, travel can and does involve suffering. We may think, for example, of all those people who leave their homes to find work. Or in search of a better life. Not just those who are forced to do so. Those driven by war, or disaster, or oppression. But also those who choose, of their own free will, to leave home for good. Those who decide to migrate. For all such people, travel is often a struggle. More than just visiting another place for a short period of time, migration involves uprooting yourself. Making a new home in strange and uncomfortable surroundings. Surviving on new food. Enduring a different climate. Adapting to unfamiliar people. And being changed by the experience. It’s hard. Even painful.

This then is the difference between tourism and migration. Tourism is about pleasure. Migration often involves pain. Tourism is temporary. Migration permanent. The tourist leaves, only to return home at a later time. The migrant leaves, to make a new home elsewhere. One travels for leisure. The other for life. I mention, and perhaps exaggerate, this contrast between tourism and migration, because I believe it can help us to better appreciate what is going on in our Mass readings. Where we find people being challenged by God to change the way they travel. To stop being mere tourists. And to become true migrants instead.

In the first reading, God has brought the people of Israel out of Egypt. And they are now travelling in the wilderness. On the way to a new life in the Promised Land. God has called them to leave their former home in Egypt. To make a new home for themselves. Not just in the Promised Land. But in God. To entrust their lives into God’s hands. God has called them to undertake a mass migration. And, as with all migrations, this involves struggle and suffering.

But the Israelites don’t realise this. On their journey, they keep thinking and acting more like fussy tourists than determined migrants. At the first sign of discomfort, they complain. Although Egypt was a place of slavery, they continue to think of it as their home. They long for the food that they enjoyed there. We were able to sit down to pans of meat and could eat bread to our heart’s content. Their complaints show that the Israelites are not prepared for migration. It’s too difficult. To help them to keep going, God sends them quails and manna to sustain them on their way. To help them let go of their obsession with Egypt. So that they might embrace a fuller and deeper life in God.

In the gospel too, we find people being challenged to change the way they travel. Having earlier witnessed Jesus feeding five thousand with just five loaves and two fish, the people in the gospel travel across the Sea of Galilee in search of him. But when they find him, Jesus scolds them. Why? Jesus is unhappy. Not because they travelled in search of him. But because of their reasons for doing so. You are not looking for me because you have seen the signs but because you had all the bread you wanted to eat. The people travel in search of the familiar and the comfortable. Food that fills their stomachs. They travel only the way tourists do. Merely for pleasure. And not for new life.

Jesus calls them to change the way they travel. No longer as tourists. But as migrants. To be nourished by new food. Food that fills not just their stomachs but their hearts. Food that lasts not just a few days. But for all eternity. Food that doesn’t just nourish bodies. But brings fullness of life. Jesus invites them to find in him their permanent home. He offers them himself. Not just as a provider of free earthly food. But as the true bread that comes down from heaven. To come to Jesus. To believe in him. To feed on him. To make his concerns their own. All this requires travel. Not the travel of tourists craving temporary pleasure. But the travel of migrants seeking a new life. People willing to endure the discomfort and struggle of leaving the familiar behind. Of uprooting themselves. Of making a new home in Jesus as Lord.

To move from tourism to migration. From a temporary change of location for pleasure. To permanent relocation for new life. This is also what the second reading calls us to do. To stop living the aimless kind of life that pagans live. This is what our faith is about. Not just going on an occasional tour. Perhaps one hour a week in church on a Sunday. But committing ourselves to constant migration. To ongoing spiritual revolution. Continually putting aside the old self. The anxious, greedy, self-absorbed self. The self concerned with comfort and pleasure. And putting on a new self. The joyful, peaceful, loving, trusting, self-sacrificing self. The self willing to endure suffering. In order to settle in a new home. The self willing to bear the pains of migration. In order to find new life. This is what our faith is about. Travel as migration. Travel as Christ travelled. When he came down among us from heaven. And was raised up for us on a cross.

This is the call that is being addressed to us today. To stop thinking of our faith merely as something that comforts us and gives us pleasure. It does that too, of course. But only when we are willing to endure the struggle of relocation. When we are willing to expect hardship. And even to accept it as necessary for our growth in faith. An indispensable part of the process of letting God become more and more the centre of our lives.

Which is why I find myself wondering whether it is a good thing when the news tells us that more young people in China are turning to religion. What do you think? Whether or not it is a good thing depends very much on the reasons for their interest. On the kind of religion they are embracing. Is it only a matter of comfort and pleasure and self-satisfaction? Or is there also a willingness to turn one’s life around for the common good? This is the crux of the issue, isn’t it? And not just for the Chinese. But also for us. True Christianity involves travel of a very particular kind. The kind that is willing to accept struggle and suffering. For the sake of new life. This is what it means to believe in Christ.

Sisters and brothers, how are you being called to be less of a tourist, and more of a migrant, today?

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Place For Your Passport


Solemn Feast of St. Ignatius of Loyola (Anticipated)

Readings: Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Psalm 1:1-6; 1 Corinthians 10:31-33; Matthew 8:18-27
Picture: cc Bill Couch

Sisters and brothers, when you travel, what is probably the single most important item, apart from yourself of course, that you need to safeguard? I know someone who recently received a painful reminder of the answer to this question. This person had flown into Changi Airport to catch another flight to a foreign destination. Unfortunately, he carelessly left his passport behind on the first plane. And ended up being stranded at the airport, because the authorities wouldn’t let him board the connecting flight without a valid travel document. Thankfully, the airline was able to very quickly locate and return his passport to him. Which allowed him to catch a later flight. So all he lost were some hours of travelling time. Imagine how much more inconvenience he would have suffered if someone had stolen his passport…

This person found out the hard way what all travellers have to learn at one point or another. Whenever you’re travelling, you have to make sure that you keep your passport in a safe place at all times. And there’s a similar lesson to be learnt in the spiritual life as well. A lesson that our Mass readings help to teach us. A lesson that is central to the spirituality of St. Ignatius. The patron of our parish. Whose solemn feast we celebrate today.

As you know, the spiritual life is commonly imagined as an ongoing journey. A continual pilgrimage. Out of selfishness and into love. Away from the narrow and anxious concerns of our ego. And towards God and God’s concerns. This image of constant travel is also something we find in our readings today.

In the first reading, after wandering in the wilderness for 40 long years, the people of Israel have finally arrived at their destination. They are preparing to cross the Jordan River to enter and to take possession of the Promised Land. But before they make the crossing, Moses gives them an important pep-talk. A pre-flight safety briefing, if you like. And it’s important to pay close attention to what Moses is saying. On the surface, it seems as though his only concern is that the Israelites keep the Law. If you obey the commandments of the LORD, your God, Moses tells them, you will live and grow numerous, and the LORD, your God, will bless you in the land you are entering to occupy. But the keeping of the Law is not really an end in itself. It’s only a means to an end. A way to achieve a deeper purpose.

We realise what this deeper purpose is when we carefully consider what Moses says next. If you turn away your hearts… and serve other gods... you will perish. Moses’ concern is not so much that the Israelites follow all the rules, as much as that they keep their hearts in the right place. Just as those who travel the world need to constantly protect their passports, so too do those who travel in spirit need to place their hearts in the safekeeping of God’s loving embrace. And they do this by keeping the Law.

For the Israelites, to keep the Law is to deposit their hearts with God for safekeeping. And it’s important that we not forget this deeper reason. This higher purpose for the Law. Otherwise, we can too easily reduce our faith simply to the following of a list of dos and don’ts. We can end up placing our hearts in the cold lifeless hands of the Law. Rather than in the warm and loving embrace of God. And this can lead to undesirable results.

We may, for example, become so burdened by the constant struggle to keep the letter of the Law that we lose the joy and delight experienced by those who appreciate and live its spirit. Those who keep growing in the realisation of how much they are loved and cherished by God. As a result, some of us may end up becoming so exhausted that we give up on God altogether. And others may turn ourselves into modern day Pharisees. Becoming rigidly legalistic. Even hypocritical and judgmental. Both of others and of ourselves as well.

Either way, we end up losing that life-giving connection about which the psalmist sings so beautifully. The nourishing bond enjoyed by the tree that is planted near running water. That yields its fruit in due season. And whose leaves never fade… The deep connection experienced by those whose hearts are ever kept in the right place. Secure in the loving embrace of God.

In the gospel, we find a striking image of what it looks like when someone is able to maintain just such a connection. Someone whose heart is always kept in the right place. As in the first reading, so too in the gospel, we find travellers preparing for a crossing. Not the River Jordan this time. But the Sea of Galilee. We’re told that when Jesus saw a crowd around him, he gave orders to cross to the other shore. To travel from Jewish to Gentile lands. And, as Moses did before him, Jesus gives his fellow travellers a pre-flight safety briefing. He offers them two instructions.

The first is a reminder of what we said earlier. That the spiritual life involves constant travel. An experience of homelessness even. Foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head. Yet this homelessness is not for sightseeing or vacationing. Much less is it because one is unable to commit to settling down in a particular place. The Lord submits to homelessness in the kingdom of this world, only  to fulfil his mission of proclaiming the coming of the Kingdom of God. And to help everyone to find their proper place in it.

We do this by making Jesus our first priority. By entrusting our hearts to him for safekeeping. By finding our rest in the Lord. Follow me, and let the dead bury their dead. Jesus demonstrates just what this mysterious restfulness in the midst of continual homelessness looks like. On the crossing, when his boat encounters a violent storm, we’re told that Jesus was asleep. The Lord experiences a deep calm even when surrounded by chaos. A powerful image of how he is able to endure not having a fixed place to lay his head, because his heart remains always securely deposited in the embrace of his Father’s will.

And this is also the twofold lesson taught by St. Ignatius. First, that to be a disciple of Christ is to be constantly travelling in the spirit. Continually on mission. Proclaiming–sometimes with our words, and always with our lives–the good news of God’s love for us in Christ. And, second, that we can travel safely, even on stormy seas, when we place our hearts in the hands of God. The second reading tells us that this has to do with our motivations. Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God. Not for turning a profit. Or for making a name for yourself. Or to take pride in your own accomplishments. But for the glory of God. As St. Ignatius would say, en todo amar y servir. In all things, to love and to serve (God).

Sisters and brothers, all seasoned travellers know well the importance of safeguarding their passport. On the road of discipleship, where are you choosing to place your heart for safekeeping today?

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Letting Go



Novena for Feast of St. Anne (Day 6)
You Are Called... To Trust In God

Readings: Isaiah 49:14-15; Psalm 61; 1 Peter 2:4-9; John 14:1-12

Sisters and brothers, I’m sure that at least some of you still remember that story about the atheist who fell off a cliff. He managed to cling onto a branch, and was left hanging from it, between heaven and earth. Knowing that he was in a desperate situation, the man decided that he should try to pray. Since, even though he didn’t believe in God, he had nothing to lose anyway. So he looked up at the sky and shouted: Is there anyone up there? To his great surprise, he heard a voice say to him: Yes, I’m here. What can I do for you? Save me! the man shouted back. Of course! Came the reply. Let go! Taken aback, the man kept quiet and thought for a while. Then he looked up again and shouted: Is there anyone else up there?

Funny though it may be, I think the story illustrates very well the message that we are being invited to ponder on this 6th Day of the Novena in preparation for your Parish Feast. You are called... to trust in God. What does this mean? Well, as the story shows us, to trust in God means to be willing to let go. And to let go not just of anything or in just any situation. But to let go even in a desperate situation. To be willing to place our very lives into the hands of God. That is what it means to trust. That is what we are called as Christians to do. And it's not easy.

I’m reminded of the news report that I saw on the BBC website earlier today. It comes from Sierra Leone in West Africa. As you know, this country was severely affected by the outbreak of the Ebola virus last year. The good news is that the number of new cases has dropped drastically. But the bad news is that there are now more than 8,000 children in Sierra Leone, who have lost one or both parents to the disease. Many of these children are now having difficulty finding a home.

According to the report, people are scared of them... They just don't trust that these children are okay now and they can touch them and go near them, so they push [the children] far away from them. And who can blame them. It is a matter of life and death. To accept these Ebola survivors is to run the risk of being infected yourself. Whether they realise it or not, the people are being called to let go. To let go of their fears and suspicions. To believe that, whatever happens, it is still better to accept the children than to reject them. And this is not an easy thing to do. But this is precisely what we Christians are called to do. To trust even and especially in desperate situations. Even and especially when it means letting go of our fears. And laying down our lives.

Desperate situations are also precisely what we find in each of our Mass readings today. Situations of life and death. In the first reading the city of Jerusalem, or Zion, has been conquered. And many of the people sent into exile. It is a desperate time. A time of hardship and heartbreak. But God tells the people not to give up. To continue to believe that even if a woman were to forget her own child–such as when that child might be infected by Ebola, for example–God will never forget them. God has their best interests at heart. What the people of Zion are being called to do is to let go of their doubts and their despair. To bravely endure their current difficulties. To lay their lives on the line.

This is also what Jesus is calling his disciples to do in the gospel. As you know, the passage is taken from John’s account of the Last Supper. It is Holy Thursday evening. Jesus has just washed his disciples’ feet. He is now about to walk the Way of the Cross. It is a desperate time. Their Master will soon be cruelly tortured and killed. Yet Jesus tells the disciples not to let their hearts be troubled. Trust in God still, and trust in me. And to trust in God is to walk the way that Jesus himself walked. To live the Way that Jesus himself is. I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. To keep doing the will of the One who sent him (Jn 6:38). To lay down one’s life for one’s friends (Jn 15:13).

The second reading tells us that it is this ability and willingness to trust, to let go, and to lay down one’s life, that sets apart the true believer from everyone else. Scripture scholars tell us that the Christian community to whom the second reading is addressed is undergoing some form of persecution. Probably not official State persecution. But more subtle forms of prejudice and rejection by their non-Christian neighbours. Perhaps they are being made to pay more for their food at the market. Or perhaps the vendors are refusing to serve them. Whatever it is, times are hard for all those who call themselves Christian.

And yet, faced with such difficulties, the second reading reminds Christians to continue to build their lives on Christ. The One who was persecuted and rejected before them. And for their sakes. The Lord is the living stone, rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to him. To continue to trust in Jesus, even in the face of persecution, is to allow the Lord to become the cornerstone, the firm foundation, of their lives. In contrast, to reject him, as the unbelievers do, is to turn him into an obstacle. A stone that trips them up and makes them fall down. Trusting in God is what makes the difference between the Christian and the pagan. The true believer and the agnostic or the atheist.

But let us be honest. It is not easy to trust in this way. To be willing to lay down one’s life. Difficult enough just to live according to the values of the gospel on a daily basis. To insist on treating others well, for example, even when they may stab us in the back. Just to get ahead. To make time to reach out to those in need. Even when we ourselves may be stressed out and struggling with the demands of daily life. To do all this is not easy. It requires trust. The willingness to let go. The courage to believe what our readings are inviting us to believe. That the God who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us (Rm 8:32), will never forget us.

And perhaps that is the key to belief. To remember the God who never forgets us. To remember how this God has blessed and protected and provided for us in the past. And continues to do so in the present. Isn’t this what the Mass is all about? A mysterious memory of God’s powerful providence. Of God’s undying love. For all God’s people. And, in remembering, we find the strength to believe. To trust. To let go. And to lay our lives in God's hands.

Sisters and brothers, there’s actually something else in that BBC report from Sierra Leone. Something I failed to mention. The report wasn’t just about the difficulties of the children. It was also about the heroic life of an Ebola worker named Augustine Baker. While working tirelessly to help Ebola orphans, both Augustine and his wife Margaret died of the disease. And now their own three children, the youngest of whom is only one year old, have become orphans too. And are being cared for by their grandmother.

Sisters and brothers, isn’t this what trust looks like? Isn’t this what it means to let go? What we Christians are called to do? The very thing that God has done for us. How are we being invited to trust, to let go, and to lay down our lives today?

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Flexible Fingers



16th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

Picture: cc Veronica Foale

Sisters and brothers, do you know what is meant when a Cantonese-speaking person tells you that someone has fingers that bend outwards and not in? The expression is used to describe (and criticise) the tendency to favour outsiders over one’s own people. Just as our fingers naturally tend to bend inwards, so too are we expected to side with our own family and friends. Our own countrymen and women. So someone whose fingers bend outwards and not in may be considered unnatural. Even dangerous. For we all know what happens when fingers are bent too far outwards. They get dislocated. In extreme cases, even disconnected from the hand.

And this is a danger that we face not just as individuals, but also as a nation. As you know, in a recent public lecture, the Prime Minister of Singapore listed identity as one of three key challenges that Singapore faces in the next 50 years. The worry is that the experience of globalisation will make Singaporeans feel so comfortable in the world that they will no longer see Singapore as their home. The fingers will bend so far outward that they will be dislocated. Even disconnected from the hand. The worry is that the nation of Singapore may disintegrate.

Which is precisely what has happened to the people of Judah in the first reading. As a nation, they have disintegrated. They have been conquered by the Babylonians. Sent into exile. And this political disintegration is the result of a deeper spiritual dislocation. Judah had turned away from the One True God to worship foreign gods. And God lays the blame for this idolatry squarely on the shoulders of the leaders. The shepherds that God had appointed to care for the people. You have let my flock be scattered and go wandering and have not taken care of them. The leaders have let the fingers bend so far outward that they have become dislocated. Disconnected from God.

Thankfully, all is not lost. For God promises to replace the bad shepherds with a good one. The lazy leaders with a caring king. I will raise a virtuous Branch for David, who will reign as true king and be wise, practising honesty and integrity in the land. Wise and virtuous leadership. This is God’s solution to the problem of disintegration. But we need to consider carefully just what this kind of leadership looks like. For it is tempting for us to think that the way to address the problem of dislocation and disintegration lies in a simple reversal of direction. If dislocation is caused by fingers bending outwards, then just focus on bending them back inwards instead.

And yet, it doesn’t take much reflection to see that such a solution gives rise to serious problems of its own. For when fingers are turned inward to the extreme, what they form is a hardened tightly clenched fist. Something that inflicts violence on others. Causes hurt to outsiders. And isn’t this the underlying cause of much of the conflict and division we see in our world today? People trying to build up their own identity at the expense of others. By inflicting pain and suffering on those different from themselves. Isn’t this what radical groups like ISIS are doing, for example?

In contrast, the leadership that we find in our readings is very different. As Christians we believe that the promise made by God in the first reading finds its fulfilment in the person of Jesus in the gospel. Jesus is the promised good shepherd. He is the virtuous king. The one who gathers together the scattered and disintegrated people of God. But notice how this king operates. On the one hand, it is clear that Jesus cares deeply for his apostles. The insiders. Upon their return from a mission, the Lord quickly invites them to come away to some lonely place to rest for a while. To replenish their strength. To reconnect with themselves. And with their God.

But notice also that this care and concern for the insiders doesn’t come at the expense of compassion for outsiders. For even when his vacation plans are interrupted by a large crowd, the Lord doesn’t turn these people away. Instead, we’re told that he took pity on them because they were like sheep without a shepherd, and he set himself to teach them at some length. The leadership exercised by Jesus is not an exclusive turning inward. But an inclusive embrace of all who find themselves dislocated and disconnected. All who are lost and searching for direction.

As the second reading tells us, this is a leadership that unites rather than divides. A kingship that tears down the dividing wall between Jew and Gentile. Between insider and outsider. Transforming hostility into hospitality. Suspicion into friendship. Enmity into reconciliation. And the reading spells out just how this transformation comes about. By the blood of Christ and through the cross. Jesus reverses our dislocation and disintegration not by anxiously turning us inward toward ourselves. But by humbly bending downward toward all who are in need. By courageously letting his own body be lifted upward on the Cross. By generously allowing his own blood to be poured outward for the salvation of the world.

Bent down. Lifted up. And poured out. This is what the leadership of Christ looks like. This is how God reverses the dislocation and disconnection that results from selfishness and sin. Not by clenching fingers together to form a violent fist. But by spreading them out onto the wood of a cross. So that all might be led into the fullness of life.

And this is also the kind of leadership that we are all called, by virtue of our baptism, to exercise in our world today. This is the kind of shepherding we are called to do. In our families and communities. In church and in society. This is what our world most urgently requires of us. To share with it the only way to lasting joy and peace. A joy and a peace that the world cannot give.

Sisters and brothers, in a society where identity is becoming so much of a challenge. At a time when many are resorting to the violence of clenched fists. God continues to call us to reach out especially to those most in need. To those who may be different from us. To bear witness to a leadership of sacrifice and of service. In this lies our true identity. This is what it means to follow Christ. This is what it means to be truly Christian.

Sisters and brothers, in what direction will you be bending your fingers today?

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Supports For The Upright (Rerun)


15th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

Picture: Neila Ray

Sisters and brothers, do you remember that series of images that’s supposed to depict human evolution? The first is a picture of what looks like a monkey walking on all fours. Then there are a few figures that remain bent over, but are already walking on two legs. And finally there is a human being. Standing fully erect and holding a spear in its hand. Seen from left to right, these pictures portray profiles that progress upward. They seem to highlight, in striking fashion, the feature that supposedly sets humans apart: The ability to stand up straight and tall.

Some time ago, I came across a similar set of pictures that some cheeky fellow had modified by adding more images to the right of the originals. Perhaps you’ve seen them too. After the erect human figure with the spear, there is one that’s a little bent, carrying a rake. The next one’s even more stooped. Burdened by the weight of a large pneumatic drill in it’s hand. And, finally, the series ends with someone completely bent over a computer screen. In striking contrast to the figures on the left, the profiles on the right move ever downward. They reverse the earlier process. Not evolution, but deformation. And there’s even a caption that reads: something, somewhere went terribly wrong.

Don’t worry, sisters and brothers. I don’t propose to talk about evolution today. Better to leave that to the scientists. I don’t even know for sure that the ability to stand up straight is a typically human characteristic. But I do know that we usually refer to good people as being upright. The Chinese describe such persons as being ding tian li di (顶天立地). Someone whose head reaches the heavens and whose feet are firmly planted on the earth. In the Bible too, not only are the upright often praised, but no less than God is described as being upright. Good and upright is the Lord, who shows sinners the way (Ps 25:8). We may say that to be human is to somehow share in the uprightness of God. And perhaps this is what the second reading means, when it says that before the world was made,  God chose us in Christ, to be holy and spotless. God chose us in Christ to be upright. To be loved and to love the way Christ did.

And yet, probably most, if not all of us, will agree that it’s no easy task to remain upright. Especially not in this crooked world in which we live. There are so many temptations that distract us. So many burdens that drag us down. Including the ordinary anxieties of daily living. As well as the constant cravings of our hungry hearts. And even though we see shocking reports of how an apparently normal 23-year-old can suddenly transform into a bloodthirsty gunman. Slaughtering 38 perfect strangers in cold blood on a beach in Tunisia. We know that, like evolution, deformation is usually a gradual process. One begins by cutting little corners. Making minor compromises. Stooping ever lower and lower. Until, without realising it, one ends up so bent over as to be no longer recognisably human.

Which is why it is helpful for us to pay close attention to our readings today. For here we find the reassuring news that God does not leave us defenceless. God offers us various gifts to help us remain upright. As we are told in the second reading, God has blessed us with all the spiritual blessings of heaven in Christ. What are some of these blessings? How do they help us? How might we make better use of them?

In the gospel, even before he gives them authority over unclean spirits, Jesus offers the apostles something no less valuable. We’re told that he sent them out in pairs. Not one by one but two by two. The better to support and care for each other. To help each other remain upright. Isn’t this also why we take the time to gather here every week? Even though we could probably pray at home on our own? Isn’t this why many of us invest even more of our time in some form of communal religious activity? Whether  serving as a greeter or a lector? Or singing in the choir? Or studying the bible? Or gathering as a family to pray together? We do all this not just because it’s fun. But also because we realise that we are called and sent not just as individuals but also as a community. We know that each of us is a gift of the Lord to all the others. We help one another remain upright.

But that’s not all. If it were, the church would be nothing more than a club. A group of people who come together only to pursue a shared interest for their own recreation. Jesus’ second gift to the apostles helps us to guard against such potentially selfish and exclusive tendencies. Jesus advises them to wear sandals. Neither bare feet nor shoes, but sandals. Bare feet are okay for staying home. Sandals are needed for going out. Sandals also have an advantage over shoes. If you get sand in them, as you’re likely to when walking in the desert, they allow you to do precisely what Jesus asks the apostles to do when they are rejected: shake off the dust from under your feet and move on.

Isn’t this a precious help to us in our struggle to be good human beings and faithful Christians? What better way to remain upright than to keep moving? To remain engaged in the Lord’s mission of preaching repentance and healing to others. To be focused not so much on ourselves. Not so much on the challenges that we may face. Or the wounds we may suffer. Or the difficult people we may encounter. Or even the weakness that might continue to plague us. But rather on the mission that has been entrusted to us to reach out to those in need.

Even so, we are still likely to encounter circumstances where these two gifts are insufficient. There may be times when our companions will fail us. When they will misunderstand and even hinder us in what are called to do. There may be times when the sands of rejection will accumulate so quickly as to make it too painful to soldier on. Isn’t this the experience of the prophet Amos in the first reading? Sent by God to preach an unwelcome message of repentance to a stubborn nation, Amos finds himself in a minority of one. Even Amaziah the local priest rejects him. In such a situation, Amos has but one source of support.

In the face of rejection, Amos reminds himself of his own prophetic call. I was a shepherd, and looked after sycamores: but it was the Lord who took me from herding the flock, and the Lord who said, “Go, prophesy to my people Israel.” By recalling the beginnings of his own vocation, Amos finds the strength to continue performing the ministry entrusted to him by God. The memory of his own God-given identity and calling as a prophet becomes something like the one thing that Jesus allows the apostles to carry with them in the gospel. A staff. A sturdy walking stick that gives sure support. Enabling the prophet to continue walking straight and tall, even when the going is tough.

Sisters and brothers, to be a good Christian is a challenging thing. But God provides us with gifts to help us. Community, mission, vocation. How well do we use them? What must we do to keep standing upright? To remain truly human? To avoid becoming bent and deformed today?

Sunday, July 05, 2015

Celebrating Failure


14th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)
(Mass@Retreat for RGS)


Sisters and brothers, what are the things that usually make you happy? What do people usually celebrate? When you walk into someone’s office, for example. What do you usually find hanging on their walls? Well, apart from artwork and family photos, one other thing you might find are academic diplomas and other certificates of achievement. Some people may even display their graduation photographs.

These are the things that typically make us happy. Give us joy. We usually celebrate and take pride in our accomplishments and successes. Not in our failures. And this is as it should be. Nothing wrong with that. Yet this natural tendency of ours to rejoice in our successes can make it very difficult for us to understand the prayers and readings for our Mass today.

You will remember what we asked God for in our opening prayer just now. Fill your faithful with holy joy, we said. For on those you have rescued from slavery to sin you bestow eternal gladness. Joy and gladness. This is what we are praying for at Mass today. But I’m sure you have also noticed that our readings are not about the things that usually make us joyful. The things that usually make us glad. Our readings are not about success and accomplishment. But about failure and disappointment.

In the gospel, Jesus preaches in the synagogue in his hometown. But, even though he impresses the people with his wisdom and power, they reject him. And we’re told that he could work no miracle there. We find something similar in the first reading. Here God sends Ezekiel to bring God’s message to rebels who have turned against God. To people who will very likely refuse to listen to him. Both the first reading and the gospel speak not about success but about failure. Not about achievement but about disappointment.

The second reading goes even further. For not only does St. Paul write about his own failure. He even celebrates it! Takes pride in it! For some time, the apostle has been suffering from something he calls a thorn in the flesh. Scripture scholars are unsure what exactly Paul is talking about. It could be a physical illness of some sort. Or a temptation. Or perhaps some ongoing persecution that he’s been experiencing. Whatever it is, this weakness is something over which Paul has no control. He is helpless to overcome it.

And yet, after praying to God to take it away from him. And failing to receive a favourable response. Quite incredibly, Paul is still moved to write these astonishing words: I shall be very happy to make my weaknesses my special boast. It’s as though the apostle were choosing to display a certificate on the wall of his office, proudly announcing his thorn in the flesh to everyone. Unlike most of us, Paul celebrates and rejoices not just in strength, but also and especially in weakness. Not just in success, but also and especially in failure. Not just in achievement, but also and especially in disappointment.

I’m not sure about you, sisters and brothers. But this is something that I find very difficult to understand. Let alone to imitate. My usual reaction to failure and disappointment, to weakness and helplessness, is not one of joy and celebration. But of anger and embarrassment and discouragement. Instead of celebrating my failures, I usually choose to hide them. And not just from others. But even from myself. I try not to think about them. To avoid getting depressed.

All of which may indicate that perhaps the joy and gladness I usually experience is somehow different from what we are praying for today. What we are praying for is not just any kind of joy but holy joy. Not just any kind of gladness but eternal gladness. What’s so special about holy joy and eternal gladness? In what way is it different from the ordinary kind?

St. Paul gives us the answer in the second reading, when he tells us the reason why he is able to celebrate his weakness. It’s not because it feels good to be helpless. But because God’s power is at its best in (human) weakness. When all human efforts have failed, then it becomes clear that only God alone could be responsible for whatever success may come.

Ordinary joy comes when our own efforts meet with success. But holy joy comes even in failure, because we trust and hope that God will somehow bring success out of our failure. Even though we may not see or understand how and when this could happen. In ordinary joy, my attention is fixed on the results of my own efforts. On monitoring and measuring them. And congratulating myself for them. In holy joy, my attention is fixed not on my results. Much less on myself. But on God. And on what God wants me to do. And I continue to fix my eyes on God, even if my efforts seem to bear no visible fruit to speak of. No human achievement to boast about. As the psalmist says, our eyes are on the Lord till he shows us his mercy.

Our eyes are on the Lord. Not on ourselves. This is what sets apart holy joy from the ordinary kind. And this is an important lesson for us to keep in mind especially today. When it sometimes seems that the only kind of joy we know is the kind that comes from measuring and monitoring tangible results. Today, when the language of strategic planning and key performance indicators has made its way from corporate boardrooms into church circles. Today, when we sometimes find ourselves obsessively counting baptisms and anxiously projecting future Mass attendance. Nothing wrong with that, of course. We do have a duty to do our best. But we also need to carefully bear in mind these enlightening words from Pope Francis’ The Joy of the Gospel:
Sometimes it seems that our work is fruitless, but mission is not like a business transaction or investment, or even a humanitarian activity. It is not a show where we count how many people come as a result of our publicity; it is something much deeper, which escapes all measurement. It may be that the Lord uses our sacrifices to shower blessings in another part of the world which we will never visit. The Holy Spirit works as he wills, when he wills and where he wills; we entrust ourselves without pretending to see striking results. We know only that our commitment is necessary. Let us learn to rest in the tenderness of the arms of the Father amid our creative and generous commitment. Let us keep marching forward; let us give him everything, allowing him to make our efforts bear fruit in his good time (The Joy of the Gospel, 279).
Sisters and brothers, what we are praying for today is holy joy. The kind that comes from keeping our eyes fixed on the Lord. And not on ourselves. Where are your eyes fixed? What are the things that you choose to hang on the walls of your office today?

Saturday, June 27, 2015

The Meanings of Life


13th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

Picture: cc georgereyes

Sisters and brothers, if I were to ask you to imagine a bowl of rice, what image would come to your mind? Well, it depends, doesn’t it? When I think of rice, the image that I see is a bowl of fluffy white rice. Freshly cooked and recently scooped. With the steam still gently rising from it. Invitingly ready to eat. And I would be right. That is indeed what a bowl of rice looks like. But that is not the only possible image, right?

When asked to imagine rice, someone else might just as easily think of a bowl of uncooked rather than cooked rice. Or brown rice instead of white. Or rice porridge. Or even glutinous rice. The kind that’s used to make bak chang (meat dumplings). And that person would not be wrong. These are all correct ways of imagining a bowl of rice. For, in the English language, there’s really only one word that refers to all these different things. Rice.

In contrast, I’ve been told that Tagalog, the national language of the Philippines, has more than seven different words for rice. There’s one for white rice. One for unpolished rice. One for cooked rice. One for rice porridge. One for fried rice. Even one for burned rice. And one for left-over rice. These different words help Filipinos to speak more precisely. But, when speaking English, we have to be more careful. We have to remember that the same word can mean many different things. So that, if someone talks to us about rice, we really should ask them which kind they mean. Or risk being greatly mistaken.

And what is true of the word rice, is true of other English words as well. Another good example is the word that our Mass readings invite us to ponder today. Not the word rice. But the word life. As you may have noticed, our readings are all about life and death. In the first reading, we’re told that God takes no pleasure in the extinction of the living. God does not create human beings for death, but for life. Indeed, the reading goes so far as to say that God made human beings imperishable. Or indestructible. Immortal. And that it is the devil who brought death into the world. By successfully tempting us to sin.

The gospel focuses our attention on the same thing. Here Jesus brings back two people from death to life. One is a twelve-year-old girl who dies of a sudden illness. The other is a grown woman who, although still alive, is actually gradually losing her life. For she has been experiencing some sort of bleeding for twelve long years. And, as you know, the people of that time believed that a person’s life resided in the blood. So to keep bleeding in this way would be the same as to gradually be drained of one’s life. To be dragged, slowly but surely, into the jaws of death. Thankfully for these two people in the gospel, the touch of Jesus brings them both back from death to life.

But what does all this mean for us? At one level, the meaning seems quite obvious doesn’t it? God made us for life. We experience death only because of sin. Jesus comes to lead us out of sin and death, and into life. So, if we want to live forever, we have only to turn away from sin and believe in Jesus. That’s what our readings are telling us to do. Simple enough, right?

Well, if it really were all that simple, then why do we still celebrate Christian funerals? Why do even very devout and saintly Christians, people who have spent their lives following Christ, still suffer and die? Shouldn’t they live forever? Or are we to believe that they had some secret sin that we don’t know about? A sin serious enough for them to be condemned for it. Or was their faith simply not strong enough? Or, if they didn’t sin, and their faith was strong enough, then maybe the message in our readings is simply false? Belief in Jesus doesn’t really enable us to conquer death and to live forever. We’re being fooled.

Sisters and brothers, as you may have guessed, the problem doesn’t really lie with our readings. Nor does it lie with those who have died. The reason why we find it difficult to match what our readings are telling us with our own experiences of life, is because the life that our readings are talking about is not quite the same as what we often understand life to be.

When we hear the word life, we tend to think immediately of one, and only one, thing. Biological life. Physical life. Material life. Life that has to do with breathing in and breathing out. With eating and drinking. With buying and selling. But the scripture scholars tell us that the biblical understanding of life is quite different. They say that the New Testament talks about, not one, but three kinds of life. Each expressed by a different Greek word. The first kind is the one we are most familiar with. Biological or physical life (bīos). The second is psychological life (psychē). What we may consider the quality or meaningfulness of life. And, finally, the third and most important is divine or transcendent life (zoē). What the gospel of John calls eternal life. The life that God communicates to us. Not just after we are dead. But even now, while we are still physically and psychologically alive. The life that Jesus talks about when he tells us that he came to bring us life in abundance (John 10:10).

The reason why we find it difficult to match our readings with our experience is because we are thinking only of biological life. But our readings are really more concerned about eternal life. Transcendent life. Life in Christ. However saintly or sinful, however faithful or faithless we may be, our biological life will eventually come to an end. Death comes to us all. But if we cling to Christ. If we allow ourselves to be touched by Christ. If we live as Christ lived, then we are already living life in eternity. Life that does not end. Even if we may suffer a physical death.

But what does this third kind of life look like? And how do we know we are living it here and now? The second reading helps us to answer these questions by inviting us to think about how Christ lived his life on this earth. Remember how generous the Lord Jesus was: he was rich, but he became poor for your sake, to make you rich out of his poverty. Christ was rich in divinity. But out of love for us, he emptied himself to take on a physical and psychological life like our own. To become a human being like us. And then, having done that, he emptied himself even more. By laying down the same physical and psychological life he had taken up for us. By dying on the Cross. So that God raised him high. Gave him the name that is above all names. (Ph 2:6-11)

This is what eternal life looks like. Christ on the Cross. This is the image our readings are painting for us. This is God’s gift to us. A gift we receive by first remembering what Christ has done for us. As we are doing in this Mass. And then by being inspired and energised to do as Christ did. Laying down our lives for others. Especially by performing works of mercy for those most in need. And so to be raised up to life in its fullness.

Sisters and brothers, if I were to ask you to think of an image that best expresses your life right now? What would your image look like? What kind of life are you really living today?

Sunday, June 21, 2015

By The Stormy Sea


12th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

Picture: cc Lawrence OP

Sisters and brothers, do you remember the legend of St. Augustine and the boy by the sea? It is said that, while the saint was writing his book on the Holy Trinity, he found himself stuck. Unable to fully comprehend how God could be both one and three at the same time. So he took a break and went to the beach. Where he noticed a little boy doing a strange thing. He was running back and forth between the sand and the sea. Curious, the saint went to take a closer look. He saw that the boy had a seashell in one hand. Which he was filling with seawater. And then pouring the water into a hole he had dug in the sand.

What are you doing, little one? Augustine asked. Can’t you see? The boy replied. I’m emptying the ocean into this hole. At which the saint smiled, and said, But that’s impossible! The mighty ocean is far too large to be contained in this tiny hole. Yes, said the boy. But not more impossible than your own attempts at containing the greatness of God within the tiny confines of your puny mind. After saying this, the boy vanished.

The legend is obviously meant to teach us a lesson. But what exactly is this lesson? Some may think that it is this. That since we can never fully comprehend God, we should simply give up trying. If you can’t empty the ocean, then walk away from it. But, if this is true, then it would seem that Augustine never really learned his lesson. For, not only did he complete his book on the Trinity, he also became one of the greatest theologians in the history of the church. Whose many writings are still read and studied even today. Why bother to speak and to write so much about something that you can’t completely understand?

I’m not sure, sisters and brothers. But I think that the true lesson of the legend is something different. The proper human response to the Mighty Ocean of God’s Mystery is not to try to empty it into the tiny confines of our mind. Neither is it to walk away from it in frustration and despair. The proper human response to the Ocean of Mystery is to walk courageously into it. To allow ourselves to be carried along by its currents. Even if we do not fully understand where it will take us. Trusting that wherever it does take us is exactly where we are meant to be. Where we find true and lasting joy and peace.

I mention this because I think that, like Augustine, we too find ourselves standing before an Ocean of Mystery today. If not exactly the Mystery of the Trinity, then the mystery of human suffering. As you know it’s only about a fortnight ago that a sudden earthquake in Sabah took the lives of 18 people. Including 7 children from Singapore. Between the ages of 12 and 13. Then, just two days ago, we heard of yet another shooting in the United States. In Charleston, South Carolina, 9 people were killed in a church, where they had gathered to worship God. And these are only two tiny drops in a vast ocean of global suffering.

Sisters and brothers, how do these reports affect you? Perhaps a single all but irresistible question arises in at least some of our minds. The question why or how. Why did or how could God allow all this to happen? A question that is no easier to answer than the question how can God be both one and three at the same time? It is ultimately a Mystery. A vast ocean, impossible for our tiny minds to comprehend.

And, faced with this stormy sea, we may be tempted to do one of two things. Either to offer pat answers like: It’s God’s will. Or: God is punishing us for our evil ways. Or to give in to the temptation to despair. Unable to reconcile our belief in an all-powerful and all-loving God with the reality of suffering in our world, we may decide either to close our eyes to the suffering, or to deny the existence of God altogether. In either case, we choose to walk away from the Mystery.

But how can we avoid these two extremes? Neither trying to empty the ocean nor walking away from it. But, instead, immersing ourselves more deeply in it’s dark waters. And what does this even mean? What does it look like to wade into the Ocean of Mystery? These, my dear sisters and brothers, are the questions that our Mass readings help us to ponder today.

In both the first reading and the gospel, we find a stormy sea. In the gospel, the storm is a literal one. A very violent one. One that threatens to capsize the disciples’ boat. And to drown everyone on board. In the first reading, the storm is also a figurative one. As you know, although Job is an upright and God-fearing man, he experiences terrible suffering. In a string of disasters, he loses first his wealth, then his children, and even his health.

These external storms provoke great interior turmoil. Both in the disciples and in Job. Turmoil expressed in that poignant question that the disciples pose to Jesus with such urgency: Master, do you not care? Which is not much different from the question that we may find ourselves asking as well. Lord, why did you let this happen? People are suffering. Your people. Suffering for no apparent reason. In some cases, suffering precisely because they have chosen to follow you. Master, do you not care?

What is God’s response to this heartfelt plea? In the first reading, instead of providing an answer, God helps Job to reframe the question. From why? to who? Who pent up the sea...? Or who is this God whom you are presuming to question in this way? In the gospel too, we find a reframing of the question. After Jesus calms the storm at sea, the disciples are moved to ask, who can this be? Even the wind and the sea obey him. Quite strikingly, our Mass readings begin and end with the question who?

And the second reading follows up the question who? with the question what? Presuming that we all know who Jesus really is. The Son of God himself. The reading invites us to recall also what this same Jesus has done for us. For you and for me. We know the answer to this question. With great love, Christ has given his life for us on the Cross. And to remember the immense love of Christ, as we are doing at this Mass, is to be overwhelmed by it. To be encouraged and empowered by it. Given the strength not only to bear our own sufferings. But also to reach out in mercy to others who suffer. And even to those who cause suffering. Much like how the family members of the victims of the Charleston Shooting have taken the trouble to meet the shooter. And to tell him that they have forgiven him.

To live no longer for ourselves, but for him who died and was raised to life for us. To see the world no longer according to the standards of the flesh, but of the Spirit. To allow ourselves to become a new creation. No longer trying to contain or to deny God. But happy simply to follow Christ wherever he leads. And so to enter more fully into God’s love. For us and for the world.

Sisters and brothers, what must we do to immerse ourselves more deeply in the vast Ocean of God’s love today?

Saturday, June 20, 2015

The Allure of Need



Wedding Mass of Jonathan & Grace

Readings: Genesis 2:18-24; Psalm 33; Colossians 3:12-17; Matthew 5:1-12
Picture: cc leniners

Jonathan and Grace, my dear friends, what exactly is it that attracts you to someone? What are the things that might make you consider entering into a relationship with that person? Even to marry him or her? Perhaps some of us are attracted to a person’s strengths and achievements. The gifts that the person has to offer. Like musical talent, for example. Or the ability to make us laugh. But isn’t it true that there is something else that may attract us even more? Can you guess what this is?

I’m not sure, since I’m not an expert in such things. But I think that what’s perhaps even more attractive than a person’s strength is perhaps his/her weakness. Isn’t it true that many of us, whether we care to admit it or not, cannot help but be drawn to people who need us? People who are vulnerable in some way. And who are not afraid to show us that vulnerability. To open up a space for us in their lives.

I mention this, because this attractiveness, this allure of weakness, seems to be something that characterises the love story that we have gathered here to celebrate. As some of you already know, Jonathan and Grace first met at the 2011 Tri-Varsity Games. Where they happened to be teammates representing NTUCSA in the Ultimate Frisbee competition. (There may be a valuable lesson to be learned here.) But it wasn’t really their frisbee skills that got their relationship started. According to Jonathan, during the post games makan, his attention was drawn to (in his own words) a quiet, bespectacled, nerdy-looking girl who was using her phone. Quite interestingly, it was her shyness that drew Jonathan to Grace. So he struck up a conversation with her by pointing out that they both had phones of a similar make and model.

But that’s not all. For even though they didn’t exchange contacts during that first meeting, Grace somehow managed to get in touch with Jon some time later. And how did she signal her interest in him? How did she move the relationship along? You guessed it. By demonstrating her need for him. She asked him to help her increase the speed of her phone. After that, Jon was hooked. No turning back anymore…

Again, I’m not sure my dear friends, but I think that there is an important lesson here. Something that this lovely couple, Grace and Jon, are trying to share with us today. The lesson that good, strong and lasting relationships need to be built not just on strength. But also on weakness. Isn’t this also the message that we find in the readings that they have chosen for the occasion?

In the first reading, we find the account of how God creates the first relationship between humans. How does this come about? It begins with a need. A weakness. It is not good that the man should be alone, God says. The man needs a suitable companion. But he is unable to find one on his own. He needs God’s help. And God helps by first putting the man to sleep. By silencing his ego. So that the man can give away a part of himself. And, in the process, the first human relationship is born. Born as much out of human weakness as the power of God.

The second reading has a similar message. St. Paul reminds his readers that, as God’s chosen race, there is a certain uniform that they need to put on. Certain clothes that they need to wear. The virtues of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience and, ultimately, love. Which is another way of saying that they need to put on Christ himself. Let the message of Christ, in all its richness, find a home with you. But how are we to put on Christ, if not by first acknowledging our own nakedness. Recognising that the clothes we often wear, the clothes that the world gives us to wear, the garments of self absorption and anxious self assertion, are nothing more than rags. We are able to put on Christ only by acknowledging our need for him.

Which also helps us to understand what Jesus is teaching in the gospel. The beatitudes present us with a list of needy people, whom Jesus proclaims to be blessed. People who are blessed precisely in their weakness. For God delights in coming to satisfy their need for him. As the psalmist tells us: The Lord fills the earth with his love. All we need to do is make a space in our hearts and in our lives to receive the love that God has to offer us. And we do this by humbly recognising and acknowledging, perhaps even proclaiming, our need for God. Not unlike how Grace captured Jonathan’s heart by asking for his help to upgrade her phone.

Jonathan and Grace, I’m not sure, but I think that this is the invaluable lesson that you are sharing with us today. Even as we gather to celebrate your love for each other. The lesson that there is a charming, perhaps even irresistible attractiveness to weakness and vulnerability. And that it is often precisely in courageously acknowledging and even professing our need for one another and for God that true love is born. Again and again. Among us. And into our world.

My dear friends, even as we rejoice with Jonathan and Grace, even as we offer them our friendship and love, our prayers and good wishes, perhaps we need also to consider our own need for one another. Our own need for love. Our own need for God.

Sisters and brothers, do you perhaps have a phone that needs upgrading today?

Saturday, May 30, 2015

From Biodata To Birthday


Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity (B)

Picture: cc Manu Dreuil

Sisters and brothers, do you know the difference between biodata and a birthday? What do I mean? Well, imagine a family looking for a new domestic helper. A new maid. They go to an agency, where they are given several thick folders to browse. In these folders they find the biographical information of many people looking for work. Page after page of photographs, names and addresses, dates of birth, employment histories, and so on. The family has never met any of these people. But this is how they first get to know their new maid. Their initial impression of the kind of person she might be. By reviewing impersonal information found in a folder. By looking at biodata.

Now flash forward to five years later. The family’s chosen maid has been living and working with them for all this time. And it’s been a very good fit. The maid is hardworking and responsible. And she’s treated very well. Even as a member of the family. Today is the maid’s birthday. And everyone gathers for a celebration. Each family member gives thanks for the gift of the maid. For all that she is and does for them. As they did when they first visited the employment agency five years earlier, the family reviews their maid’s life. But they are doing it in a very different way. No longer only from a distance. No longer merely by browsing impersonal facts in a folder. But instead on the basis of a close personal relationship. Five years of living together has allowed the family and their maid to move from merely browsing through biodata to truly celebrating a birthday.

I mention this because I think we are called to experience a similar shift today. The solemn feast of the Holy Trinity is, of course, meant to be a celebration of God’s life. But it’s possible for us to treat it as we would a page of biodata. As though we were reviewing a collection of impersonal information about someone we’ve never met. Facts about one god who is supposed to be made up of three persons: Father, Son and Spirit. Of course, if we’re honest, we’ll admit that we don’t really understand exactly how God can be both one and three at the same time. But that’s not really a problem for us. Most of us have learned simply to accept it as a mystery. By which we mean something that we don’t need to bother ourselves too much about. Something that shouldn’t be allowed to hinder us from simply getting on with the rest of our lives. Until the next time Trinity Sunday comes around again.

But the approach in our readings is quite different. In the first reading, Moses addresses the people of Israel, just as they are about to enter the Promised Land. And what Moses invites Israel to do is not much different from what people might do when they celebrate a family birthday. He reminds them of all that God has done for them in the recent past. He encourages them to recall their own experience of the power of God’s word, especially in the Exodus. How, with mighty hand and outstretched arm, God freed them from slavery in Egypt. And gathered them to himself. Adopting them as God’s own family. Enabling them to cry out joyfully in the words of the psalmist: Happy the people the Lord has chosen as his own. Empowering them to live the way God wants them to live. In ways that befit the members of God’s own family. By keeping God’s laws and commandments.

The scene in the gospel is similar. Just as Moses gathers Israel, before sending them into the Promised Land. So too does Jesus gather his disciples, before sending them out into the world. Reminding them of all that God has done for them. Except that, in the gospel, Jesus is not just the new Moses. He is himself also the Word-of-God-Made-Flesh. It is through the Mystery of Jesus’ Dying and Rising, that God has brought about a new Exodus. Freeing a people from the slavery of sin and death. And not just the people of Israel. But all the nations of the earth. Including you and me. In Christ, God has adopted us as God’s very own family. This is what Jesus means when he says, all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. And it is the good news of this merciful act of adoption that all of us are sent into the world to proclaim. Go… and make disciples of all the nations…

Nor is this wonderful work of God only a thing of the past. Only something that Jesus did two thousand years ago. No. We continue to experience the power of this great Mystery today. For even though Jesus has ascended into heaven, he remains present to us just as he promised. Present in the Holy Spirit. Who, as the second reading reminds us, is a Spirit of adoption. A Spirit that bears witness to our new status as children of God, and co-heirs with Christ. How does the Spirit do this? By giving us the wisdom and courage to live as members of God’s family would live. In the same way that Jesus himself lived. As adopted daughters and sons of God. Sharing the Lord’s sufferings so as to share his glory.

My dear friends, isn’t this how Trinity Sunday is meant to be celebrated? Isn’t this why we locate this feast on the first weekend following the great season of Easter? Immediately after our celebration of the Death and Resurrection of Christ, and the coming of the Holy Spirit? For us, Trinity Sunday is not meant to be just a review of impersonal information about someone we have never met. It is, rather, more like a birthday celebration of the head of our household.

A time to remember all that God, our loving Father, has been and continues to be, has done and continues to do, for and in us. Through the Son. In the Holy Spirit. Recalling not just memories that we all share in common. But also memories that are unique to each one of us. Memories of the many and different times in which we have experienced God’s care and concern for us. The many and different ways in which God has protected and provided for us. Inspiring our hearts to think the right thoughts. Strengthening our hands to do the right things. Guiding our steps to walk the right paths. Writing straight with the often crooked lines of our lives.

And as we do this. As we remember and count our many blessings. Something mysterious happens to us. We experience anew the energy that comes to the children of God. The power that is our birthright. We find new inspiration, new wisdom, new strength. So that we can continue to be sent out into our Promised Land. Into this broken yet beautiful world in which we live. To proclaim to all, by the lives that we lead, the love and joy, the peace and justice, of the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit.

Sisters and brothers, on this solemn feast of the Holy Trinity, how are we being called to continue moving from merely reviewing biodata to truly celebrating a birthday today?
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