Sunday, January 06, 2019

Both In Name & In Fact


Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord
Picture: cc Choo Yut Sing

My dear friends, if you were to walk past a house with the image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus proudly displayed above the front door, what will you think? If you’re like me, you’ll probably conclude that the family living there is Catholic. And, very likely, you’ll be right. But what if you then have the opportunity to spend some time in that house? To get to know its occupants? And you discover, to your surprise, that they all hate one another. Can’t stand the sight of each other. What will you think then? Perhaps much as you’ll try your best not to judge, you may wonder sadly to yourself why this family is Catholic only in name, but not in fact? For, as we all know, being Catholic requires more of us than simply putting up the right decorations above our front door. To be truly Catholic, both in name and in fact, we need also to live the way Christ lived. Or at least to try our best to do so.

But if this is true of being Catholic, then what about celebrating Christmas? As you know, the Christmas decorations along Orchard Road this year were criticised for being too secular. For focusing too much on Disney characters, and neglecting the birth of Christ. And perhaps this is true. I must confess that I didn’t get a chance to see those decorations for myself. So I can’t judge. But doesn’t this critique invite us then to ask an important question? If the decorations along Orchard Road reflect a secular Christmas, then what does a sacred Christmas look like? Is it only a matter of displaying a different set of decorations?

I believe our Mass readings help us to ponder this question, and so to deepen our celebration of the coming of Christ. To see this, we need to first consider who King Herod is. To remember that he actually holds a title. The title of King of the Jews. King of the Chosen People of God. And, as the gospel demonstrates, as king, Herod has access to considerable religious knowledge. He is able to consult the experts of the Jewish religion, in order to find out where the Christ-child is likely to be found. So that, if Christmas has to do only with having the right name, holding the right title, or putting up the right decorations, then surely King Herod can be expected to have a sacred Christmas.

And yet, this is not what we find in our readings. For they show us that Herod’s response to the coming of the Light is perhaps far more secular than sacred. We see this when we contrast his response to that of others. In the first reading, the city of Jerusalem is encouraged to arise, and to shine out. For not only is the glory of the Lord shining upon her, but all the foreign nations will stream to that light. And Jerusalem is expected to respond in a particular way. She is told that at this sight, you will grow radiant, your heart throbbing and full. In other words, she will be filled with joy and delight. This is what a sacred Christmas looks like. People delighting to welcome strangers among them.

In contrast, Herod’s reaction to the coming of the wise men from a foreign land is the exact opposite. He is feels threatened by them and the news they bring of the birth of a new King of the Jews. And his heart is filled with dread. Dread instead of delight. For Herod, this is what a secular Christmas looks and feels like.

And this dread that Herod feels leads him to respond in what might perhaps be seen as another secular way. In contrast to the wise men, who are willing to travel a long distance, and even to humbly seek the advice of foreign experts, in order to find and to pay homage to the newborn king, Herod wants only to locate the baby in order to kill it. This is a second contrast that we find in our readings. The wise men want to pay homage. To offer humble worship. Herod wishes to commit homicide.

Which brings us to a third helpful contrast. This time between Herod and St Paul. In the second reading, Paul tells the Ephesians that he has received a grace from God: The mystery of God’s love revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord. And this precious grace, this great mystery, is meant not just for Paul, but for everyone. Even foreigners. For pagans now share the same inheritance… they are parts of the same body… the same promise has been made to them, in Jesus Christ… Here we find a third characteristic of a sacred Christmas. Not only is Christmas about being filled with delight, not only should it lead us to pay homage to Christ ourselves, it should also make us willing to share God’s gifts with others. As Paul does. As the wise men do. And as Jerusalem is expected to do too. In sharp contrast, because of his dread, which makes him willing to kill, in order to protect his own privileged status, Herod’s aim is not to share God’s light with others, but to smother it.

Delight versus dread. Homage versus homicide. Sharing versus smothering. This is what a truly sacred Christmas is supposed to look like. And if all this is true, then it becomes clear that it’s not enough for us simply to put up the right decorations at Christmas. We need also to engage in the right practices. The better to welcome the newborn King into our hearts, into our lives, and into our world. For by this everyone will know that we are his disciples, if we have love for one another (cf John 13:35).

Sisters and brothers, what are you doing to celebrate a sacred Christmas, not just in name, but also in fact, today?

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Want to BTO?


The Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, & Joseph (C)
Picture: cc Choo Yut Shing

My dear friends, do you know what it means when a young man suddenly turns to his girlfriend one day and says, Want to BTO? This is, of course, the common Singaporean version of a marriage proposal. B-T-O, as you know, stands for build-to-order, the name of a system used by the Housing Development Board, or HDB, to allocate its apartments. To BTO is simply to apply for a HDB flat together. A flat that is built only when enough orders have been placed. B-T-O. Build-to-order. For many couples in Singapore, this is the first step towards starting a new family.

Now I’m sure we can all agree that this very pragmatic approach to proposing marriage is also highly unromantic. And yet, which of us would be so ignorant as to frown upon those who choose it? No. Most of us can understand the practical necessity that justifies this approach to starting a family. We know that, in most cases, the matrimonial home is a family’s single most valuable material possession. So it’s quite natural, even highly commendable, that great care should be taken to secure it first. To ensure that the family has a place to call home.

But if this is true of a family’s material wellbeing, can we not say the same about its spiritual health? Its holiness? Is it not just as important, if not even more so, that a family should also have a good spiritual home to call its own? But what does such a place look like? And how does a family come to occupy it? These are the questions that our prayers and readings help us to ponder, as we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Family.

Actually, the words of the opening prayer that we offered earlier, already give us an indication of where a holy family should find its spiritual home. As you will recall, we asked God to grant that we may, in the joy of your house, delight one day in eternal rewards. In other words, we asked to live in God’s house. And in our readings too, as you’ve probably already noticed, we find repeated references to God’s house. They are happy who dwell in your house, O Lord. This is what we sang in response to the psalm. But what does it mean? Where exactly is God’s house?

For Hannah, in the first reading, the answer is clear. God’s house is the place where God lives among God’s people. A place that has a very specific physical location. It is found in the Temple at Shiloh. Where Hannah’s family goes on an annual pilgrimage, to offer sacrifice to God. Which is why, even though she loves her Samuel very much, Hannah is willing to leave her only son at the Temple, soon after he has been weaned, to live there for the rest of his life. In addition to expressing her gratitude to God, Hannah probably also wants her son to, quite literally, live in God’s house, all the days of his life. And so to become holy.

There is an obvious parallel between the experience of Samuel and Hannah in the first reading, and that of the boy Jesus and his parents in the gospel. Here too, the action centres around the Temple, the house of God. Now no longer located at Shiloh, but in Jerusalem. And, here too, we see a child remaining in the Temple. Although, this time, the initiative comes from the child himself. Did you not know, Jesus asks his poor parents, that I must be busy with my Father’s affairs? Or, in another translation, Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?

Clearly then, according to our Mass texts, for a family to be holy, it needs to make its home in God’s house. But where exactly is God’s house to be found today? If we were to stop our reflection at this point, it would seem that God’s house is limited only to specific physical locations. Such as the Temple at Shiloh and in Jerusalem. Or perhaps even this church. Aren’t churches like ours also sometimes referred to as God’s house? But if that were the case, wouldn’t it mean that all our families will have to move into the church if we want to be holy?

Thankfully, that is not the case. For although Jesus loses himself in the Temple for some days, unlike Samuel, he doesn’t remain there for the rest of his life. The gospel tells us that he eventually returns to Nazareth with his parents, and lives under their authority… And yet, even though Jesus, Mary, and Joseph do not live in the Temple, we are still expected to believe that they remain in God’s presence. They make God’s house their spiritual home. This is what makes them a Holy Family. But how do they do this? And how do we imitate them?

The second reading gives us the answer, when it tells us that  those who keep the Lord’s commandments live in God and God lives in them. And God’s commandments are these: that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and that we love one another as he told us to. To believe in Jesus, and to love one another. This is how families can be expected to remain in God’s presence. This is how we live in God’s house. This is how we become holy.

Which is actually very simple to understand and to preach. But not so easy to do. For isn’t our life, our family life, often filled with many shiny things that tempt and distract us? As well as with many shadowy things that burden and break us? Ambitions and worries that often move us away from the peace and joy of our spiritual home in God, towards locations of chaos and conflict. What can we do when this happens? How to remain in God’s presence? In God’s house?

We find a helpful answer in the opening sentence of the second reading. Think of the love that the Father has lavished on us, by letting us be called God’s children; and that is what we are… In times of temptation and of trial… And also in times of relative calm… Perhaps even as a daily discipline… Think of God’s love… Think of the coming of Christ at Christmas… Think of the Lord’s Dying and Rising… As we are doing now at this Mass… Think of how, through the mystery of his loving sacrifice on the Cross, we have all become children of God… Members of the Father’s holy household…

Isn’t this a concrete way for us to locate the holy presence of God in our daily lives? To make God’s house our spiritual home? When we do this, as individuals and also as families, are we not, in a sense, building God’s house among us? Building it according to God’s order? The better for us to live securely in the love, joy and peace of God’s presence?

I’m reminded of these words from a well-known hymn: ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est. Where charity and love are, there God is…

Sisters and brothers, as we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, what must we do to build God’s house among us, and so to become truly holy? What must we do to BTO today?

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

From Speed to Presence (Rerun)


Nativity of the Lord (Mass During the Day)
Video: Posted on YouTube by julingen

My dear friends, have you ever heard it said that our world is shrinking? You know what it means, right? It’s not that the world is actually getting smaller in size. The way a piece of clothing might shrink after washing. No. When people say the world is shrinking, they’re not talking about size but about speed. What they mean is that we can now travel long distances in a much shorter time than before. This is the gift of technology. You hop onto a plane today, and you can find yourself halfway round the world tomorrow. Or, if you don’t want to travel, you can use Skype or WhatsApp, Facetime or Facebook, to speak with a faraway friend instantaneously. Face-to-face.

Speed. This is how technology enables us to shrink our world. To bridge long distances. By increasing the speed of our movement and our communication. And who can deny that this is a good thing? A great gift? By increasing our speed, technology helps us connect with more people, in a much shorter time.

And yet, we also cannnot deny the adverse side-effects to this increase in speed. Do you know what they are? I can think of two: Stress and shallowness. Whether we care to admit it or not, the constant acceleration puts a strain on us. Physically, emotionally, relationally. For example, don’t many of us continue to feel lonely and disconnected, despite having so many names on our list of contacts? Don’t we sometimes feel as though there’s no one there for us? No one who really understands what we’re going through? And when we do get together with others for a meal, don’t we often spend more time fiddling with our phones than interacting with them at table?

Paradoxically, our constant connection often results in deeper disconnection. We’re in touch with many people, but in ever shallower ways. We have the capacity to find out more about distant cultures, but prefer to keep them distant. We have access to the latest news, but lose our ability to distinguish the truth from the lies. And perhaps even the desire to do so. Driven to remain ever in motion, we no longer know how to linger. To ponder. To connect with our deeper selves. Let alone with others.

But what alternative do we have? How else can we bridge the distances between us? To shrink our world? I’m not sure, my dear friends, but I thought I found the answer when a visiting priest once said to me, Your church is getting smaller. I knew what he meant. He had concelebrated our Christmas Midnight Mass. And, as expected, the church was packed to capacity. So that, to this visitor, whose last visit was a while ago, our church appeared to be shrinking. Not because of any change in its actual size. But because more people seemed to be present in it.

Could this be another way of bridging distances? Of shrinking our world? A way that depends not on speed, but on presence? Actually, isn’t this what Christmas is all about? At Christmas, we celebrate the bridging of the tremendous distance that separates us from God. How does God do this? Not by moving faster. But by drawing nearer. By deepening God’s presence among us and within us. Isn’t this what we find in our readings today?

How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of the one who brings good news… Why is God’s message described as beautiful? Not because of its speed. But because it is full of the consoling presence of God. Your watchmen raise their voices, they shout for joy together, for they see the Lord face to face... God shrinks the distance between us. Not by moving more quickly. But by entering more intimately into our lives. Allowing us, quite incredibly, to even see God face to face.

We find a similar message in the second reading. At various times in the past… God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets; but in our own time… he has spoken to us through his Son. God progresses from communicating through prophets, to speaking through the Son. And we must not mistake this change for a mere substitution of one messenger for another. For the reading makes it clear that the Son is far more than just another messenger. No. He is the radiant light of God’s glory and the perfect copy of his nature... The Son is the very presence of God himself. In and through the Son, God bridges the distance between us by deepening God’s presence among us.

The gospel puts it even more poetically. In the beginning was the Word: the Word was with God and the Word was God.... The Word was made flesh, he lived among us, and we saw his glory,... In and through Jesus, the Word of God comes among us as a living breathing human being. Immersing himself in our pains and struggles. Sharing our hopes and dreams. Forever connected to us in a bond that can never be broken. In and through Christ, God enters the world, and shrinks it. Not by an increase in speed, but by the deepening of Presence.

What does this mean for us, my dear friends? We who often do not know how to connect with others except by moving faster. We who try so desperately to cover more ground in the shortest possible time. But who then discover distances opening up that we seem unable to bridge. Distances reflected as much in the loneliness and disconnection that we experience within ourselves, as the conflicts and divisions that we see around us.

Perhaps what makes Christmas such tremendous good news for us, is that it reveals a gentler and more effective way of shrinking our world. Not through stressful and superficial speed. But by courageous and consoling presence. The presence of a poor defenceless baby, whom we believe to be the Word-of-God-Made-Flesh for us. For you and for me. A Word that’s not content to speak only from afar. But Who mercifully enters the messiness of our lives. To comfort and encourage us with his Presence.

As we gather to adore this baby. As we allow his presence to fill our minds, our hearts, and our lives. Perhaps we can also allow him to teach us, to nudge us, to deepen our own presence as well. Our presence to ourselves, and to our families… Our presence to our Church, and to our world…

I’m reminded of that moving scene from the movie The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, in which the elf-queen Galadriel asks the wizard Gandalf why he chooses to depend on the little hobbit Bilbo Baggins. This is Gandalf’s answer:

I do not know. Saruman believes that it is only great power that can hold evil in check. But that is not what I’ve found. I’ve found it is the small things, everyday deeds of ordinary folk, that keeps the darkness at bay. Simple acts of kindness and love. Why Bilbo Baggins? Perhaps it’s because I’m afraid. And he gives me courage.

To which the queen responds:

Do not be afraid… You are not alone. Should you ever need my help, I will come.

My dear friends, what will you do to allow the little Babe-in-the-Manger to shrink your world this Christmas?


Sunday, December 23, 2018

A Place for the Power-Hungry


4th Sunday of Advent (C)
Picture: cc Terry Johnston

My dear friends, do you know what it feels like to be hungry for power? Have you ever seen a power-hungry person before? Do you know where such people can be found? It may surprise you to hear this, but perhaps the one place where I most often encounter power-hungry people is at a cafe. Especially one that is frequented by students studying for their exams.

I’m not sure if you’ve ever had the same experience, but on more occasions than I care to count, when I have visited such a cafe, I have seen students prowling around the premises with what I have come to recognise as a hungry look on their faces. They are quite obviously searching for something. Sometimes with some degree of desperation. Do you know what they are looking for? I’m sure at least some of you can guess. What they are seeking is a socket at which to charge their computers. They are hungry for electrical power. And it’s helpful to notice how this hunger of theirs is satisfied. As I said, they do it by finding a particular place. By locating a specific spot in the cafe. A privileged source from which power flows freely for them.

Of course, electrical power is not the only kind we need. We can think also, for example, of political and economic power. Or the power of knowledge and of persuasion. And it’s possible too, isn’t it, for someone to be extremely rich in one form of power, and yet be very poor in another? I may, for example, find myself at the pinnacle of power at work, and still find myself powerless to heal the broken relationships within my own family.

I mention all this because, as you may already have noticed, the need and the gift of power is also what we find in our prayers and readings for this 4th Sunday in Advent. Consider, for example, that opening prayer that we offered earlier… Pour forth, O Lord, we beseech you, your grace into our hearts… What is this, sisters and brothers, if not a prayer to experience the mighty presence of God? An expression of our need for spiritual power.

And isn’t the first reading an answer to prayers such as this? Prayers offered by a desperately power-hungry people. Who have been scattered far and wide. Some living for long years in foreign exile. Others remaining, abandoned and alone, in a conquered and broken land. A people who, whether living far or near, have been cruelly separated from their God by their own sinfulness. So that the power that they need, the power for which they yearn, is really that of return and reunion. The power of reconciliation, with one another and with God.

It is this same power that is promised to them in the reading. The promise of a coming king who will wield the awesome power of the Lord. The power not so much to conquer mighty armies, as to melt hardened hearts. The power to heal broken relationships, and to unite sinners with their God. The power to transform conflict into peace. For he himself will be peace.

This moving promise in the first reading finds its fulfilment in the gospel. For although the scene is set in a remote village, far from the centres of political power, what is experienced here are the effects of the One whose mighty coming was promised earlier. Here we find the subtle yet powerful workings of the Holy Spirit. Causing an unborn child to suddenly leap for joy. And bestowing on his elderly but saintly mother, the grace to recognise the presence of God. Even when this presence arrives in the shocking and potentially scandalising form of a young female relative, pregnant before she ought to be. Of all women you are the most blessed, and blessed is the fruit of your womb…

The divine power to transform brokenness and conflict into reconciliation and peace, ignorance and sorrow into recognition and joy. This is the precious gift that is offered to us in our readings today. This is what we have been diligently preparing ourselves to receive over these past weeks of Advent. By each trying to identify for ourselves, in our own hearts, our God-given hunger for power. As well as our sinful tendencies to rely on sources of power other than God. Isn’t this why we celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation? So that we might turn from false promises of power, in order to rely on power’s only true Source. So that like that empty manger in our Christmas crib, we too may reserve a vacant space in our hearts and our lives to receive the coming king.

But if, my dear friends, like those students studying in a cafe, we too are looking for a socket from which to draw the power that we need, then where is this divine power source more likely to be found? Our readings provide us with three characteristics that help us identify this place.

The first characteristic is found in the first sentence of the first reading. But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, the least of the clans of Judah out of you will be born for me the one who is to rule over Israel. According to the prophet Micah, the most powerful king will come from the smallest tribe. And that’s not all. For we also believe that the one who conceives and gives him birth will be a virgin. For nothing will be impossible with God (Lk 1:37). So that the first characteristic of the place where God’s power is dispensed is the condition of our own human weakness and powerlessness. It is at those places where we may find ourselves at our wits end, with no one to turn to but God alone, that God’s power is more likely to be felt. Do you know any places like that in your own life?

The second characteristic is the attitude described in the second reading. The attitude that God prefers over the offering of ritual sacrifice. The attitude expressed in the words, Here I am! I am coming to obey your will… The attitude of total availability for whatever God wishes me to do. An attitude that Mary herself demonstrates at her Annunciation, when she says to angel, let it be with me according to your word… An attitude that then leads Mary to do what we see her doing in the gospel. She rushes to assist Elizabeth in her time of need. She engages in the practice of selfless service.

The condition of human powerlessness, the attitude of total availability to God, and the practice of selfless service of our neighbour. These are the three characteristics by which we can identify that privileged location where God’s power flows most freely for the benefit of God’s people. This is how we find the place where Christ is waiting to be born.

My dear sisters and brothers, power-hungry students are really quite skilful in finding electricity when they need to. As we continue to prepare for the Lord’s coming at Christmas, what must we do to better locate the sources of God’s power in our own lives today?

Saturday, December 15, 2018

C-P-R


3rd Sunday of Advent (C) (Gaudete Sunday)
Video: YouTube D M

Wherever you go, wherever you may wander in your life,
Surely you know, I always wanna be there.
Holding your hand, and standing by to catch you when you fall.
Seeing you through, in everything you do.

Let me be there in your morning. Let me be there in your night.
Let me change whatever's wrong and make it right.
Let me take you through that wonderland
that only two can share.
All I ask you is let me be there.

My dear friends, do any of you still recognise these words? Perhaps some may recall that they are taken from an old song, first recorded by Olivia Newton John, back in 1973. To be honest, I probably wouldn’t be mentioning this song, if this were the 8:15 am Family Mass, or the 12:15 pm Youth Mass. But since this is the Saturday Sunset Mass, I thought these words might have a better chance of being recognised… I may be wrong.

As you know, in the song, someone professes a fervent desire to be with the person he or she loves. To always be there for the beloved. In good times and in bad. In the radiance of the morning, as well as in the darkness of night. And the singer believes that his or her presence has the power to make a difference in the beloved’s life. The power to change whatever’s wrong and make it right. The power to soothe the worried mind, and to console the broken heart. The power to put a skip in one’s step, and a smile on one’s face. The power, in other words, to bring joy and meaning back into one’s life. All the beloved has to do, to receive this gift, is to let the singer in. All I ask you is let me be there… Let me be there…

Of course, the song doesn’t actually tell us how this is done. It assumes that the beloved knows how to let the singer in. The better to enjoy the benefits of the singer’s presence. And yet, isn’t it true that we don’t always know how to do this? How to let others into our lives? Especially if our lives are already so full of many other things… Many other activities and people… Thoughts and feelings… Dreams and ambitions… Frustrations and resentments… Worries and preoccupations… And if I find it so difficult to let another person into my life, how much more difficult it is, when the One asking to be let in is God!

Which is why our prayers and Mass readings for this 3rd Sunday in Advent are so helpful. For, like that old song, our Mass texts also invite us to allow God to be there in our lives. The better to experience the joy that God’s presence brings. Isn’t this the grace we prayed for in the opening prayer just now. We asked God to enable us… to attain the joys of so great a salvation and to celebrate them always…

But how exactly do I do this? How do I let God into my life? Our readings offer us three suggestions. The first reading is addressed to a people living under threat of foreign invasion. A threat probably far more fearsome than the recent incursions on our territorial waters. Serious though they may be. And yet, quite incredibly, these very worried and fearful people are asked to rejoice. To shout for joy. To exult with all your heart… Why? For the Lord is in your midst…  you have no more evil to fear… But isn’t this far easier said than done? How can people be expected to rejoice when their hearts are filled to the brim with fear?

The reading shows them how. By giving the people a very moving image to contemplate. To imagine. It is the astonishing portrait of a God, who not only comes close to his people by fighting on their behalf, but even goes so far as to dance for joy over them. The Lord your God is in your midst, a victorious warrior. He will exult for joy over you… he will dance with shouts of joy for you as on a day of festival. Contemplation of a God joyfully dancing over his people. This is how the 1st reading teaches us to rejoice even in the face of fear.

The 2nd reading offers us another suggestion. Here too there is a call to rejoice. I want you to be happy, St Paul tells the Philippians, always happy in the Lord. But how to do this? How to be continually happy, especially when you are burdened by the many anxieties of life? What is Paul’s approach? There is no need to worry, he says, but if there is anything you need, pray for it, asking God for it with prayer and thanksgiving. Engaging in the prayer of petition. This is the 2nd reading’s recipe for joy.

But, lest we be mistaken, it’s important to note that Paul doesn’t quite say that God will give us exactly what we pray for. Instead, he promises us something else. He assures us that, if only we pray for what we need, in a spirit of gratitude for what we have already received, then that peace of God, which is so much greater than we can understand, will guard your hearts and your thoughts, in Christ Jesus. Whether or not we get what we pray for, persistent petition, accompanied by grateful recollection of gifts already received, always gains us a peace that the world cannot give. A peace that then makes possible joy.

Finally, in the gospel, John the Baptist offers us a third suggestion. While the first reading calls us to contemplation, and the second to petition, the gospel teaches us the way of replacement. Replacement of what? First the replacement of selfishness with charity: If anyone has two tunics he must share with the man who has none… Then the replacement of greed with contentment: No intimidation! No extortion! Be content with your pay! And, lastly, the replacement of shortsightedness and misrecognition with patience and hope. I baptise you with water, but someone is coming, someone who is more powerful than I am… and he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and with fire…

Contemplation, petition and replacement. Or, in short, C-P-R. This is the way that our readings offer us for resuscitating our joy. For however full our lives may be with all that might distract us from the true Source of happiness, our loving and merciful God continues to desire to enter into our lives. To be there for us. The better to change our fear and anxiety, our selfishness and sin, into joyful trust in the Lord, the God of our salvation.

Let me be there in your morning. Let me be there in your night.
Let me change whatever's wrong and make it right.
Let me take you through that wonderland
that only two can share.
All I ask you is let me be there.

Brothers and sisters, the Lord’s fervent wish is to enter ever more fully into our lives this Christmas to bless us. Both as individuals and as a worshipping community, what must we do to let him be there for us today?

Saturday, December 08, 2018

Gazing At the Arrival Gate


2nd Sunday of Advent (C)

Picture: cc Philip McMaster

My dear friends, have you ever gone to fetch someone from the airport before? Do you know what it’s like? What it involves? First of all, you need, of course, to make sure that you go to the correct terminal. And then you proceed to the arrival hall. But that’s not all. After you’ve gotten there, you have to be sure to turn your eyes in the right direction. You need to resist the temptation to go window shopping. Otherwise you may miss the person when s/he arrives. Also, it helps to recall what the person you’re waiting for looks like. So that you can recognise the person when s/he walks through the gate.

Turning our eyes in the right direction, and learning to recognise the correct face. This is how we welcome people at the airport. And these are also the steps that our Mass readings invite us to take, in order to prepare ourselves to welcome Christ the Lord. And to rejoice at his arrival.

We see this most clearly in the first reading. Where the city of Jerusalem is asked to prepare for the return of her children from exile, by looking in the right direction. She is told to arise… stand on the heights and turn your eyes to the east... In the gospel too, our attention is drawn to a particular place. For we’re told that the word of God came to John the Baptist in the wilderness. And it is in the wilderness that John cries out: Prepare a way for the Lord, make his paths straight… But what does this mean for us, sisters and brothers? Does it mean that we need to keep staring in the direction of the rising sun? Or do we need to take a hike into the jungle around MacRitchie Reservoir? What does it mean to look to the east, and to enter the wilderness? Where is the east, and where is the wilderness, for us?

We find some helpful clues in the second reading. Which begins with Paul taking a trip down memory lane. Every time I pray for all of you, I pray with joy, remembering how you have helped to spread the Good News… Paul takes the trouble to recall how he has seen the power of God at work in the Philippians in the past. And then, filled with joy at this memory, he is able to look forward in hope to the coming of the Lord in the future. I am quite certain that the One who began this good work in you will see that it is finished when the Day of Christ comes… In other words, in order to prepare for the coming of the Lord in the future, Paul begins by recalling the good things that he has seen God doing in the past. To sing with the psalmist: what marvels the Lord worked for us! Indeed we were glad. Isn’t this something that we can do too? To remember the blessings we have received in our own lives, and so to learn again to recognise the face of the Lord?

Of course, when we look into our past, it is possible that we will encounter not just good and happy memories, but also sad and angry ones. Memories that may make us feel like we have entered a scary jungle. And yet, it is also here that the Lord wishes to come and meet us. To calm our worried minds. And to heal our broken hearts. What we need to do is to learn to recognise him when he appears. By doing what Paul asks the Philippians to do in the second reading. My prayer, Paul writes, is that your love for each other may increase more and more and never stop improving your knowledge and deepening your perception so that you can always recognise what is best… To increase our love by improving our knowledge and deepening our perception of Christ the Lord. Isn’t this what we do whenever we gather to celebrate the Holy Eucharist?

Here we learn to recognise Christ when he comes in the wilderness of our lives, by remembering how he has been present to us in the past. How he has shown his love for us by being born for us… How he died and was raised again to life for us… How he continues to feed us from the table of the Word, and the altar of his Body and Blood… How he remains with us, even after we leave this church. Both in good times and in bad. Both on days brightened by happiness and laughter, as well as over nights clouded by anger and anxiety. We recall how the Lord warmly embraces us in his love, gently inviting us to share that same love with the people we meet, wherever we may go…

All this sounds simple enough. But it’s not always easy to do. It’s not easy, because our lives often look very much like a busy airport. Filled with sights and sounds that so easily capture our attention. Tempting us to turn away from the direction in which we should be looking. Which is why we all need this beautiful season of Advent. A time when we help one another to turn away from our many distractions, in order to focus our attention on the Lord. To turn to the east. And to enter the wilderness. The better to welcome the Lord, and to rejoice at his coming.

I’m reminded of these words from an old worship song:

Turn your eyes upon Jesus. Look full on His wonderful face.
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim,
in the light of His glory and grace.
Turn your thoughts upon Jesus. Drink deep of his comforting love.
And the thoughts of self, and of sin and strife,
will be lost in the rapture above.

My dear friends, the Lord is already at the arrival gate. What must we do to welcome him joyfully today?

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Ready for Take-Off


33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)
World Day of the Poor


Picture: cc abdallahh

My dear friends, does the name Anthonius Gunawan Agung ring a bell for you? It belongs to the 21-year-old air traffic controller, who was on duty at the airport in Palu city, Central Sulawesi, on that fateful evening of Friday, the 28th of September. The day when the earthquake struck. At the moment the quake started, Agung was clearing a plane for take-off. According to eyewitnesses, the young man insisted on remaining at his post, even as others fled the control tower, which had started to crumble. Only after the plane had departed safely, did Agung attempt to leave by jumping from the fourth floor. Sadly, he was seriously injured, and did not survive. His last recorded words to the pilot were clear for take-off.

I’m sure many of us will agree that, at a time of danger and great distress, Agung’s brave act of self-sacrifice is like a beacon of light shining brightly in the darkness. How did he do it? How was he able to respond so calmly and so courageously in such a chaotic time? What kind of training did he undergo? What kind of preparation? … My dear friends, I do not have the answers to these exact questions. But I believe it is questions like these that our Mass readings and prayers are inviting us to ponder today.

As we approach the end of the Church’s liturgical year, our readings speak to us about the end of time. Which, we believe, will coincide with the Second Coming of Christ. Both the first reading and the gospel describe this as a time of great distress. Perhaps it will be similar to what it was like for the people of Palu when the earthquake struck. The readings tell us that, although many will perish, certain people will be spared. Instead of being engulfed by the darkness, they will shine as brightly as the vault of heaven. Who are these people? These brightly shining lights? And how are they able to escape destruction?

The first reading calls them the learned, and those who have instructed many in virtue. The gospel speaks of them as those chosen by the Son of Man, whom he will send the angels to gather… from the four winds… Again, my dear friends, who exactly are these people? And, more important, how do we, how do I, join their ranks? What must I do to shine out in the darkness like they do? My dear friends, don’t you think that these are important questions for us to consider?

We find the beginnings of an answer in the psalm. Which reminds us that, in times of danger, our safety depends not on our own courage and heroism, but rather on the compassion and love of God. Isn’t this why we pray: Preserve me, God, I take refuge in you? I take refuge in the Lord by letting God become my portion and cup. My prize. By keeping the Lord ever in my sight. Trusting that God will show me the path of life, and the fullness of joy in God’s presence. In other words, according to the psalm, if I want to shine out in the darkness, to survive the destruction, the first thing I need to do is to learn to place all my trust in the Lord. To find my rest, my refuge, in God alone.

How do I do this? Well, I can begin by honestly examining my own heart. And I don’t mean consulting a cardiologist. But simply to reflect regularly on what I value most in my life. What or whom do I consider my portion and cup? My prize? My deepest desire, and highest priority? Where does my heart seek and find its rest? In success and achievement? In money and popularity? In friends and family? Or in the love of God alone?

Then, in addition to examining my heart, I need also to regularly recall my blessings. The many gifts I have received from God. Gifts which I so easily and so often take for granted. Preoccupied as I sometimes am with the many petty frustrations in my life. To remember and to give thanks for God’s gifts. And to allow my gratitude to lead me to realise how worthy our generous God is to receive my trust.

Of course, when I recall my blessings in this way, it’s likely that I will be led to remember God’s most precious gift of all. The gift that we are gathered here to celebrate. The one that the second reading speaks about when it reminds us that Christ has offered one single sacrifice for sins. And so achieved the eternal perfection of all whom he is sanctifying. Like, that courageous air traffic controller, Christ has laid down his life in time, so that all those who trust in him may be cleared for take-off into eternity. If I want to survive the trials at the end of time, then I need to draw ever closer to Christ in the here and now. To learn to think his thoughts. To imitate his actions. To gradually become like him.

But to become like Christ, I must first be able to find him. Where can Christ be found? Perhaps we all know the answer to this question. We believe that there are two inseparable places where Christ is found. Christ is found in prayer (especially prayer informed by the scriptures). And Christ is found in the poor. Yes, to draw near to Christ, it’s not enough for me to communicate with him in prayer. I also need to do what Pope Francis encourages us all to do in his message for this 2nd World Day of the Poor. To listen carefully, and to respond generously to the cry of the poor. Also to share in some way in God’s efforts to set them free from the distressing effects of injustice and oppression.

Gratitude and trust. Prayer and poor. These are the steps by which we are trained to shine out in the darkness at the end of time. But, of course, for some of us, all this may seem like too much work. Too heavy a burden. Too costly a sacrifice. Aren’t we busy and stressed out enough as it is? Who has the time to do all this? And yet, it may be good for us to ask ourselves what we are busy and stressed out about? What are we looking? Are we not looking for the same thing that is repeatedly mentioned in our prayers for today’s Mass. Surprisingly, perhaps, the word that keeps recurring in our prayers today is not burden or obligation or even sacrifice, but happiness. For example, in the opening prayer just now, we prayed for the constant gladness of being devoted to God. For it is full and lasting happiness to serve with constancy the author of all that is good.

Not just any passing pleasure. But constant gladness. Full and lasting happiness. This is what we expect to receive when we draw close to Christ. When we seek and find him both in prayer and in the poor. This is the precious gift that is meant not just for us to enjoy by ourselves. But also for us to share with a world that so often finds itself lost and stranded on the runway of life.

My dear friends, as Anthonius Gunawan Agung did so courageously at Palu, Christ has laid down his life to clear a path for us to eternal happiness and safety. What must we do to walk this path, to claim this gift, for ourselves and for others, today?


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