Sunday, January 26, 2020

From Analgesic to Antidote

3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)
Picture: cc Basheer Tome

My dear friends, given a choice, which do you think a sick person would prefer to receive, an analgesic or an antidote? As you know, an analgesic, such as Panadol, relieves pain, while an antidote counteracts the effects of poison. The first helps only to treat a symptom. The second actually provides a cure. So which do you think a sick person would choose, an analgesic or an antidote?

You may have heard the story of the man who complains to his doctor saying, Doctor, doctor, every time I drink coffee, I experience a sharp pain in my eye. Please help me! In response, the wise doctor leads the patient to a pantry, where she asks him to make himself a cup of coffee and drink it. Sure enough, as soon as he does so, the patient again reports experiencing a sharp pain in his eye. The doctor then smiles at him reassuringly, and says, I know the cause of your ailment. The next time you make coffee, remember to do one thing before you drink it. What is it? Asks the patient. Be sure to first remove the spoon from the cup.

In this story, if we were to think of the spoon as the poison, then the doctor’s advice is the antidote. But what if the patient stubbornly refuses to follow the doctor’s advice? What if he asks for Panadol instead? Then we could say that the patient is choosing an analgesic over the antidote. Which may not be such an unreasonable thing to do, since it’s probably much easier to pop a couple of pills into one’s mouth than to change one’s habitual behaviour.

I’m not sure, my dear friends, but I believe we find something like this difference between an analgesic and an antidote in our Mass readings today. The gospel describes Jesus’ decision to settle in the town of Capernaum as the fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecy in the first reading. The people that lived in darkness has seen a great light… So if we were to think of darkness as a poison, then the light of Christ is the antidote. But what is this darkness? What is this poison? And in what way is Jesus the antidote?

At first glance, the answer seems clear enough. For at the end of the reading, we’re told that Jesus went round the whole of Galilee… curing all kinds of diseases and sickness among the people. So it would seem that disease is the darkness to which Jesus is the light. Sickness is the poison for which Christ is the antidote. Which is great news for us. For then, every time we are sick, we have only to bring our illnesses to Jesus in prayer, and we can expect to be made well again.

And yet, perhaps it’s important to notice that the curing of diseases is only one of several things that Jesus does in the gospel. Along with healing the sick, the Lord also proclaims good news. Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is close at hand. And, along with healing and preaching, Jesus also calls disciples. Follow me and I will make you fishers of men.

Of course, it’s possible for me to think of all these activities of Jesus – the preaching, the calling, and the healing – as having no connection with one another. Such that I can be cured of my sickness without hearing the Lord’s message of repentance, or heeding his call to discipleship. That may be possible. But what happens then? Could it be that, even if I were cured of my bodily ailments, even if I were in the pink of health, I could still remain very much in the dark? I could still suffer the effects of a different kind of poisoning?

We find a useful illustration of this in the second reading. As we will see further on in this letter, in St Paul’s day, the Corinthian community was blessed with many gifts and charisms, perhaps including even the power to heal. And yet, here at the beginning of the letter, Paul is quick to point out an area of darkness in which the Corinthians remain trapped. (I)t is clear, Paul writes, that there are serious differences among you… Abundantly gifted though they may be, the Corinthians are severely divided among themselves.

It is upon this darkness of conflict, that Paul shines the light of the gospel. Like that doctor in the story we shared earlier, Paul advises the Corinthians to remove the spoon of their divisive attitudes and behaviours, and to be united again in… belief and practice. But repenting of such habitual behaviour is, of course, much easier said than done. To help his patients to follow his advice, Paul reminds them of Christ’s crucifixion, into which they have all been baptised. Implicitly, Paul invites them to allow themselves to listen again to the voice of Jesus, who calls them to discipleship. So that, like Peter and Andrew, James and John, they too might leave everything and follow the Lord… To counteract the poison of division, Paul prescribes the Good News of Christ as the antidote.

What does this show us, my dear friends, if not that the Lord’s proclamation of the Good News, his calling of disciples, and his curing of the sick are all part of a single ministry of reconciliation, a single work of deeper healing, by which Christ offers himself – his own life and death and resurrection – as the only effective cure for my selfishness and sin.

But, to be honest, it’s not always easy for me to see this. It’s not easy to recognise the deeper connections between the Lord’s words and actions, as they are recorded in the scriptures, and the challenges of my daily life. And even when I do see the connections, it’s not always easy to put them into practice. To do so, I need to dedicate time and space to meditate on God’s Word. To allow the message I hear with my ears to penetrate more deeply into my mind and heart. So that it can eventually find its way to my hands.

Isn’t this one good reason why I need something like this newly instituted Sunday of the Word of God? For even though every Sunday is dedicated to the Word of God, it’s still helpful to have a special day on which to be reminded that, for us Christians, the Word we receive, is not just a dead letter to be read off a dusty page, but God’s only Begotten Son. The One who continues to live among us in the flesh. And who keeps calling me to embrace a fuller life, by leaving everything to follow him.

Sisters and brothers, isn’t it true that, even if a doctor’s advice may be effective for curing our illness, it’s still not always easy for us to follow it? Is there perhaps a spoon that you need to remove from your coffee-cup today?

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Moving To Be Still

2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)
Video: YouTube G5AppleMac

My dear friends, which do you think is more difficult to do, which takes more effort, more energy? To keep moving about, or to be still? To shift continually from one location to another, or to remain in the same place? What do you think?

At first glance, the answer seems obvious, doesn’t it? Surely moving about takes more energy than staying still. And yet, have you ever tried to remain in one spot, while standing up in a jerky bus or a speeding MRT train? Not so simple then, right? Easy enough to keep still when my surroundings are stationery. But far more difficult when everything around me is in rapid motion. For then, I need to know how to continually make just the right adjustments to my body, in order to stay in one place. Too much movement in one direction, or too little in another, and I end up losing my balance. I get dis-placed.

When everything around me is in motion, I too need to keep moving in order just to be still. This is a useful thing to remember, given what we find in the second reading, taken from the beginning of St Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. Here, Paul greets the Christians at Corinth in a very particular way. He tells them that they, together with Christians everywhere else, are called to be saints, called to be holy. The translation we are using, taken from the Jerusalem Bible, expresses this sentiment in an interesting turn of phrase. Paul says the Corinthians are called to take their place among all the saints. So the second reading presents holiness as a place, a location, at which we, the followers of Christ, are called to remain, to be still.

But what does this spiritual place look like? And how does one remain there? The other readings offer some indications. In the first reading, the Servant of God also receives a call to remain engaged in a mission. To be the light of the nations. What does this entail? How does one take and remain in this place, the place of a light?

John the Baptist gives us a helpful illustration in the gospel. For what is John doing, if not acting as a light to those around him? And notice that he does this by engaging in a series of significant actions. We may say that he remains in one place by making certain distinctive movements. Perhaps the most obvious of these movements is how John points others to the presence of Jesus among them. Look, he says, there is the lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world.

And even if the reading doesn’t mention it explicitly, we can sense the excitement in John’s words and actions. He points Jesus out not just in a mechanical, matter-of-fact kind of way. Not just how some of us may sometimes drag ourselves to work on a weekday, or to church on a Sunday. Not as a burdensome duty. But rather, in a way that plainly shows his own enthusiasm and joy. His gratitude at being given the privilege to serve in this way. So that we can easily imagine John uttering these words from the responsorial psalm: He put a new song in my mouth, praise of our God.

Pointing and praising. This is perhaps the most obvious movement that John makes as a light. But it is by no means the only one. For I can point someone out only to the extent that I am first able to recognise that person. This is also what happens to John. This is how the gospel passage begins. Seeing Jesus coming towards him, John said… Out of the crowds of people flocking to him, John is somehow able to identify Jesus as the lamb of God, as the Salvation that God is offering to the world. Before the pointing and praising, there is a perceiving and knowing.

But, even so, it’s important for us also to notice that John did not always recognise Jesus. Not just once but twice, John openly confesses that I did not know him myself. So how did John come to recognise the One whom he initially did not know. Again John himself makes it clear that he was able to do so only through a revelation from God. God taught him the distinguishing characteristic of the Lord’s coming. The one on whom you see the Spirit come down and rest is the one…

Which suggests to us that even before perceiving and knowing Jesus, John was already in constant communication with God. John was making the same movement that the psalmist claims to have been making in the opening verses of the responsorial psalm. I waited, I waited for the Lord and he stooped down to me; he heard my cry… Before the pointing and praising, before the perceiving and knowing, there is first a pleading and waiting. A yearning and a begging to see the Lord’s face, to hear the Lord’s voice, to discover God’s true location. The better to keep moving and remaining there.

My dear friends, could it be that, if we were to imagine holiness as a spiritual place we are all called to occupy, then we remain in this place only by moving in the same ways that John the Baptist does in the gospel? By pleading and waiting. By perceiving and knowing. By pointing and praising. Could it be that progress in the spiritual life actually requires constant movement, in order to remain in exactly the same place?

Which should not surprise us. We who live in such a fast-paced society, where things keep changing so rapidly that it’s often difficult to keep up. How do we cope? How do we strive for holiness? Perhaps the lesson in our readings today is that we need to avoid two opposite extremes. First, the tendency to allow ourselves to be swept along by the tide. To move simply because that’s what everyone else is doing. And, second, the contrary tendency to refuse to move. To cling stubbornly to familiar and comfortable ways for their own sake. Even when it may become clear that they are no longer helpful for keeping us close to God.

Instead, we are called to move, to adjust ourselves, but only as much as is necessary for us to remain where God wants us to be. I’m reminded of these words from a hymn that we sometimes sing…

Be still for the power of the Lord is moving in this place.
He comes to cleanse and heal, to minister His grace.
No work too hard for Him. In faith receive from Him.
Be still for the power of the Lord is moving in this place.

Sisters and brothers, if life is really like a speeding train, then what must we do to keep moving in order to be still today?

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Entering the Embrace

Feast of The Baptism Of The Lord (A)
(Catechetical Sunday)

Readings: Isaiah 42:1-4,6-7; Psalm 28(29):1-4,9-10; Acts 10:34-38; Matthew 3:13-17
Video: YouTube Chris Lee

My dear friends, do you ever feel like you are badly in need of a hug? Ever feel lost or lonely or depressed? Or perhaps discouraged by a significant failure? Or maybe anxious at starting something new? Whatever it is, you’d like nothing better than for someone who cares for you to give you a hug, a long, loving, reassuring embrace… Have you ever felt like that? Perhaps you’re feeling it even now…

A long, loving, reassuring embrace. That is what comes to mind when I ask myself the question that some of you may be asking too. Why do we celebrate the Baptism of the Lord so soon after Christmas Day? After gazing so intently, for the past two weeks, at a tiny helpless baby, isn’t it more than a little jarring to see him suddenly all grown up? Why shift so quickly from the newborn infant lying in the manger to the young adult emerging from the water? What do you think? …

This Christmas, I received two similar images of the Holy Family. Both of which I like very much. They are simple and yet beautiful. Beautiful in their simplicity. They each depict the child surrounded by his parents, in a way that makes the whole scene look like an embrace. With the baby Jesus at the centre. Can you imagine it? Perhaps you’ve seen something similar. Mary wraps Jesus in her arms, and Joseph enfolds both Mary and Jesus in his.

A long, loving, reassuring embrace. This is also something like what the gospel describes for us today. After Jesus is baptised by John, we’re told that the heavens opened, and the Lord is immediately enfolded, both by the Holy Spirit descending upon him like a dove, and by the voice of his heavenly Father saying, This is my Son, the Beloved, my favour rests on him.

Don’t you find it striking, my dear friends, that both at his birth, and again as he is about to begin his public ministry, Jesus allows himself to be enfolded in a long, loving, reassuring embrace? And notice that the Lord enters this embrace in a very particular way. In a way that may be fittingly described as an immersion. Not only does Jesus immerse himself into the waters of the river Jordan, he also immerses himself into the reality of our human condition. Humbly taking upon himself all our weakness and sinfulness, all our suffering and pain.

But that’s not all. In submitting himself as much to the embrace of God as to that of his earthly parents, Jesus also assumes the identity and mission of the servant, described in the first reading. The Lord comes to us as one whom God sends to bring true justice to the nations. To usher everyone into the peace and joy of right relationship. Right relationship with God. Right relationship with others. Right relationship with the whole of Creation.

So that not only does the Lord’s life and mission proceed from an embrace, he himself reaches out to embrace others. Indeed he himself is the Ultimate Embrace, offered by God to everyone. Jesus is the embodiment of that consoling message that Peter proclaims to Cornelius in the second reading… That God has no favourites, but that anybody of any nationality who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to him. Through Christ, with Christ, and in Christ, God reaches out to gather everyone into God’s long, loving, reassuring embrace.

And isn’t this what the Christian life is really all about? Isn’t this what it means to be baptised? Isn’t this what we celebrate specially at Christmas, but also every time we gather for the Eucharist? To be a Christian is nothing more or less than to enjoy and to enter more deeply into right relationship with God. And to do this by imitating Christ, by continually and courageously allowing ourselves to be immersed in the often challenging and painful reality of our world. Reaching out to help usher others – especially those most in need of a hug – into the loving arms of God.

And isn’t this also the work that our brave and generous catechists will soon be committing themselves to undertake in a few short moments? Their task is not so much to convey the doctrines of our faith in the same way someone might post various pieces of information on social media. No. By dedicating themselves to the work of catechesis, they are choosing to fulfil in a perhaps slightly more formal way the same awesome responsibility that we all share by virtue of our baptism. The responsibility to usher others into the same embrace in which we have all been enfolded by God in Christ.

I’m reminded of these words from an old hymn that we still sometimes sing…

O let the Son of God enfold you with his spirit and his love.
Let him fill your heart and satisfy your soul.
O let him have the things that hold you,
and his Spirit like a dove,
will descend upon your life and make you whole.

Sisters and brothers, as we bring our celebration of Christmas to an end, what will you do to continue allowing yourself to be enfolded in God’s long, loving, reassuring embrace today?

Sunday, December 29, 2019

This Little Light of Mine...

The Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph (A)
Video: YouTube TeachForIndia

My dear friends, do you use candles? As you know, they come in different shapes, sizes and colours. Some even have different smells. So how do you tell a good candle from a better one? Or if you were asked to describe an ideal candle, a model candle, what would you say? Is there even such a thing as a model candle? What do you think?

I’m sure not everyone will agree with this approach, but perhaps one way to do it is to first ask what a candle is for. And if we can agree that a candle’s primary purpose is to receive and bear a flame, then we might say that an ideal candle is one that does that best. So that even if a candle may not be as pretty or as large as another, or may not smell as nice, we could still say that it is a better candle, if it burns more brightly and more steadily, even when placed under conditions that are less than ideal.

Following this approach, we can also begin to discover what we need to do to care for a candle. For example, I’ve been told that the wick sometimes needs to be trimmed, so that it won’t smoke when it burns. The point is that we judge what is good for a candle by considering what will help it to better receive and bear a flame.

But why, you may be wondering, am I talking about candles on a day when we should really be talking about families instead? To answer this question, it’s helpful to remember that the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph is presented to us today as an ideal, as a model for us to imitate. In the words of the prayer we offered earlier, God has been pleased to give us the shining example of the Holy Family… And yet, my dear friends, in what way is the Holy Family meant to be an example, a model for us? What exactly about Jesus and Mary and Joseph are we supposed to imitate?

It may be useful for us first to remember that there are at least two important ways in which the Holy Family was less than ideal. First, it did not conform exactly to the usual shape of a conventional family. At least not according to the particular standards of its own time and place. For although Mary was married to Joseph, and Jesus was her son, Joseph was not the boy’s biological father. Isn’t this why Joseph originally intended to break his engagement to Mary?

Second, in addition to not conforming exactly to convention, the Holy Family also lived, at least initially, under conditions that were far from ideal. Not only was Jesus born in a smelly stable, and placed in an unsanitary box, used to hold food for farm animals, the gospel also reminds us of the challenging circumstances the Holy Family had to face, soon after Jesus was born. To escape the murderous intentions of King Herod, they had to flee by night into Egypt. And even after Herod had died, and they could finally return to Israel, they had to be careful not to settle in the lands ruled by Archelaus, one of Herod’s sons who was known for his cruelty.

But if conformity to convention and ideal conditions are not the things that make the Holy Family an example for us, then what exactly are we called to imitate? What is it that makes Jesus, Mary and Joseph a model family? The answer is actually not difficult to find. For we all know that God brought the Holy Family together for one main purpose. Namely, to become  that human candle capable of receiving and bearing the light of Christ into the darkness of our world. 

And this was by no means an easy thing to do. It required much courage and trust in God. Enough courage and trust to agree to become an unwed mother. Enough courage and trust to accept a wife pregnant with someone else’s child. Enough courage and trust to adopt the life of refugees, willing to leave the comforts of home for places yet unknown. And to do this not just once, but time and again.

How, we may wonder, was the Holy Family able to do these extraordinary things? The gospel gives us an important clue in its inspiring description of how, no less than three times, Joseph receives instructions from God in a dream, and then, upon waking, follows those instructions to the letter. I’m not sure about you, my dear friends, but I tend to think that Joseph and Mary must surely have had dreams of their own. Their version of the five Cs perhaps. But what makes them models for us, is their willingness to allow God’s dreams to replace their own, in order to better receive and bear the light of God’s love and reconciliation into the darkness of our world.

All of which gives us a wider context in which to understand the particular behaviours that both the first and second readings invite family members to adopt toward one another. To obey and to respect one’s parents, even when they grow old. Never to drive one’s children to resentment. To give way to one’s husband in the Lord. To love and to treat one’s wife with gentleness… Just as there are ways to care for a candle to keep it burning bright, perhaps we can see these behaviours as different ways by which families can cultivate that awesome capacity that the Holy Family had. The capacity to let the message of Christ find a home in us. To dream God’s dreams, even when they may be contrary to our own.

And that’s not all. There is an even wider context to all this. One which we recognise by noticing how the second reading begins by addressing not so much many different families of blood, but the one family of faith. You are God’s chosen race, his saints; he loves you… It is this one family, gathered by God in Christ, to whom is entrusted the responsibility of receiving and bearing Christ’s light in the world. So that, even if I happen to be single, without children of my own, or even if I may, for whatever reason, be estranged from my natural family, today’s feast is still significant for me. For we are all part of the one family of God. Called to receive and to bear Christ’s light into the darkness of our world.

In the words of that lovely song that we learnt as children…

This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.
This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.
This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.
Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine…

Sisters and brothers, what will you do to care for your candle, so that it may shine ever more brightly today and everyday?

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Beyond the Guilt of Celebration

Nativity of the Lord (Mass During the Day)
Video: YouTube Global News

My dear friends, do you ever feel guilty for enjoying yourself while others are suffering? As you know, this past Sunday, the Australian Prime Minister had to issue a public apology, after having been widely criticised for going on a family holiday in Hawaii, while his country frantically battles the catastrophic wildfires that continue to rage in three states. Abruptly cutting short his break, the embattled PM was reported as saying, When you make a promise to your kids you try and keep it, but as prime minister you have other responsibilities...

I’m not sure how you feel about this, my dear friends. Personally, I couldn’t help feeling sorry for the poor man. And it didn’t help that his apology appeared together with a moving story about the thousands of volunteer firefighters, who continue to plunge bravely into the very disaster that their own PM had been criticised for trying to escape.

My dear friends, I hope you don’t think I’m being a wet blanket by talking about such things on this joyous Christmas day. Why bring up bad news when our first reading speaks to us precisely about one who brings good news? I do it because this sharp contrast between a vacationing prime minister on the one hand, and volunteer firefighters on the other, helps me grapple with a troublesome question that I can’t help asking myself today: Should I feel guilty for celebrating Christmas while so many people around the world are suffering? What do you think, my dear friends? Does this question ever bother you? How do you address it?

It may help to begin by recalling what exactly is the good news we are gathered here to celebrate. In the first reading, the reason for rejoicing is provided by God, who comes to console a broken people. A people who have been living for long years in the darkness of exile, far away from home. To this suffering people, God promises the unimaginable joy of seeing God face to face. God promises to come to them in person, and to bring them back.

For us Christians, this inspiring promise, made in the first reading, finds its true fulfilment at Christmas. The other readings remind us that the helpless and homeless little baby, born among farm animals at Christmas, and laid by his mother in a manger, is none other than the only begotten Son of God. The Eternal Word, through whom God creates and sustains all things, and yet who humbly and heroically chooses to enter our world, by being made flesh, by assuming a human face.

Like a volunteer firefighter, plunging bravely into the frightening flames, Jesus dives into the darkness of suffering and sin, in order to draw us into the light of God’s tender Embrace. As the gospel tells us, here is a light that shines in the dark, a light that darkness could not overpower. And to all who accept him he gives power to become children of God.

I’m quite sure, my dear friends, that all this is by no means new to you. We all know it quite well. For we hear it every year. And yet, don’t we need to ponder more deeply the practical implications of this great Mystery? Especially its implications for how we ought to celebrate this feast?

For I believe there is a way of celebrating Christmas that actually distracts us from the Mystery. There is a way of celebrating Christmas that treats it as nothing more than a highly-anticipated holiday. A much-needed break from the struggles of human living. Even an escape from the many problems we may have to face on a daily basis. Which is perhaps not itself a bad thing. Given how stressful life in Singapore can be, surely we could all use a break. I know I can.

And yet, could it be that, by celebrating Christmas in this way, we are somehow shortchanging ourselves? For what happens to us after the holiday has come and gone, after all the feasting and gift exchange is over? Don’t we feel as though we have to drag ourselves back to face the difficult reality from which we have been taking a break? Doesn’t our joy often seem all too superficial and short-lived? Perhaps not unlike how I imagine the poor Australian PM might have felt after his own short-lived family holiday.

In contrast, if I were to take to heart the belief that at Christmas we welcome a light that shines in the dark, then perhaps I’ll aim to celebrate this solemn feast less as an escape, and more as a precious opportunity to encounter the One who comes to meet me precisely in the very darkness that I so often try so hard to avoid. Offering me the courage and strength I need to continue to grapple with the challenges of my own life. And even drawing me to enter in some way the darkness of others who suffer. Sharing with them the same consolation that I myself have first received from the Lord.

Perhaps this is why Christmas lasts for more than just one day. Perhaps this is also why the Pope encourages us to keep gazing intently upon the nativity scene that we have set up in the Place of Gathering. For perhaps it is only by doing this, especially over the next two weeks of the Christmas season, that I will receive the gift of encountering the light that insists on shining out in the midst of the darkness.

So should I feel guilty for celebrating Christmas while so many others are suffering? Even while the rest of our world may be burning? Only if I choose to celebrate like a vacationing prime minister. But certainly not if I do so like a volunteer firefighter.

Sisters and brothers, how will you choose to celebrate Christmas this year?

Saturday, November 30, 2019

From Snoozing to Running

1st Sunday of Advent (A)
Video: YouTube The Straits Times

My dear friends, are you familiar with the phrase to hit the ground running? As you know, it means to start doing something with great speed and enthusiasm, as soon as the opportunity presents itself. We find a striking image of this in today’s issue of The Straits Times, which carries a photograph of 29-year old Mr Jonathan Tan, dashing joyously into the Robinson’s store on Orchard Road, as soon as its doors opened at 7am yesterday morning. Mr Tan was the triumphant first customer at the store’s Black Friday Sale. We might say that, once the sale began, Mr Tan hit the ground running

And it was not by chance that he was able to do this. In order to be first, Mr Tan had taken the trouble to start queuing at the store’s entrance as early as 4am the previous day. No less than 27 hours before opening time! What kept him going?  What motivated him to endure the discomfort? According to The Straits Times, Mr Tan is getting married soon, and was looking for a new mattress and some home appliances. Still, we may wonder whether you really need to camp out overnight just for that.

I’m not sure, my dear friends, but perhaps another commonly used saying can help explain Mr Tan’s endurance and enthusiasm. You may have heard or used it before yourself. The saying is, you snooze, you… lose! It may be that, like any hot-blooded Singaporean, including me, Mr Tan was motivated not just by the hope for great bargains, but also by the desire not to snooze and lose.

Strenuously preparing to hit the ground running, so as to avoid snoozing and losing. Something like this is also what we find in our Mass readings today. The first reading speaks of a day in the future when all the nations will be dashing to the mountain of the Lord, seeking admission to the Temple of the God of Jacob. They go there not to shop for bargains, but to submit to God’s authority. To walk in the paths of the Lord.

And God encourages the House of Jacob to prepare for this day that is still to come, by making every effort to walk in the light of the Lord now. Like those eager shoppers camping outside Robinson’s, Jacob is asked to endure the discomfort of walking in God’s ways in the present, so that when the day of the Lord finally arrives, like Mr Jonathan Tan, Jacob too might be able to hit the ground running.

The other readings issue a similar call to the followers of Christ. To you and to me. As with the House of Jacob, we too are told that a day is coming when the darkness of sin and selfishness will be banished, and the light of God’s love will bathe the whole world in its brilliance. And it’s helpful for us to imagine, if only for a moment, what this day might be like… When pain and suffering are no more… When conflict and terror and war are ended… When hunger and homelessness, apathy and inequality are eradicated… And every tear wiped away… When God’s kingdom will come in all its fullness…

Like enthusiastic shoppers, ready to brave the elements for the sake of gaining their hearts’ desire, our readings warn us to prepare conscientiously for this day’s dawning. Not to allow ourselves to be caught napping. Not to snooze and lose. But what is the spiritual equivalent of roughing it out at the doorstep of Robinson’s, while everyone else sleeps comfortably in their beds?

The second reading offers an answer, by telling us to live in the darkness of our world, as though we were already in the light… Let us live decently as people do in the daytime: no drunken orgies, no promiscuity or licentiousness, and no wrangling or jealousy. Or, to put it another way, allow your desires to be rightly ordered, by centring them on God. Strive to make God your first priority, just as shoppers joyfully make the grabbing of bargains theirs.

And yet, to be fair, my dear friends, preparing for the coming of the Lord is, in some sense, even more demanding than queuing for a Black Friday Sale. For the shoppers waiting outside Robinson’s at least know exactly when the doors will open. Whereas, for us, Jesus says that the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect. So that, while shoppers need to be vigilant only when big sales come around. Perhaps no more than a few times a year. A Christian’s whole existence is one long preparation for the coming of the Lord. Ours is a life of constant vigilance. You snooze, you lose!

Thankfully, there is at least one crucially important point, where a Christian actually has it better than a bargain-hunter. Do you know what it is? For shoppers waiting outside a store, the fulfilment of all their hopes happens only when the sale actually begins. Only when those magical doors are finally thrown open. But things are quite different for us Christians. For we believe that our Prize is not just waiting for us behind some closed door that is yet to be opened. On the contrary, we believe that Christ has already come to us. Has already pitched his tent among us. Has already poured out his love and life for us on the Cross. Isn’t this why we gather every week to celebrate the Eucharist? As we give thanks for what we have already received, and continue to receive, in Christ, we help one another to do what the second reading encourages us to do. We prepare for the Lord’s coming again, by letting our armour be the Lord Jesus Christ.

Even so, it’s not easy to remain ever mindful of all these things. Especially not when we may find ourselves overwhelmed by the many cares of daily life. Or distracted by the various passing fancies, unceasingly paraded before our eyes by expert advertising. Which is why we very much need this season of Advent that we are now beginning. A precious time to help us continue preparing to receive the God who is coming, by staying close to the God who has already arrived.

Sisters and brothers, perhaps it’s not too much of a stretch to say that to be a Christian is really to move continually from snoozing and losing to preparing to hit the ground running. What must we do, you and I, to continue moving from one to the other this Advent?

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Do You Like Dogs?

Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe (C)

My dear friends, do you like dogs? Here in Singapore, if I were to say that I like dogs, I think you all would understand what I mean, right? I probably mean that, given a chance, I’ll be happy to have a dog as a pet. But, as you know, in certain other parts of the world, when people say that they like dogs, they may actually have something very different in mind. Do you know what it is? Yes, in some cultures, a dog is seen not primarily as a pet, on which to shower one’s affection, but more as a delicacy, with which to tingle one’s tastebuds.

This is just one example of something that we all know quite well. Different people, looking at exactly the same thing, often see something very different. What looks like an object of affection to some, might be seen by others as food… or a nuisance… or even a cause for fear. And I’m not sure if you’ll agree with me when I say this, but the reason for these differences is because we see things not just with our eyes, but also through our appetites or desires, shaped as these are by the particular culture or society to which we belong.

All of which may help us to ponder more deeply what we find in the gospel reading today. The scene is actually quite straightforward. A condemned criminal named Jesus is being put to death on a cross. But the writer takes pains to describe the different reactions of various groups to this same scene.

First, we’re told that there are people who just stayed there before the cross watching. We’re not told what they are thinking or feeling. All we know is they simply stand and look, without getting involved. Just as passers-by might gather around the scene of an accident today. Some even taking pictures, and posting them on social media. Perhaps, for these people, the scene serves only to feed their curiosity.

Next, we’re told that the religious leaders jeered at him. They make fun of Jesus, whose condemnation they themselves had a hand in orchestrating. For them, perhaps, the scene serves as much to gratify their lust for power, as to allay their fear of losing it. And the soldiers carrying out the execution join the religious leaders in mocking Jesus, by urging him to save himself. Perhaps these military men are so bored by their dull daily routine, that they hope to find, in the misery of a dying person, the possibility of some brief mindless diversion.

Then, our attention is drawn to the sharp contrast between the respective reactions of the two other condemned criminals crucified with Jesus. We’re told that the first of these abuses him. It’s as though he sees Jesus as a kind of punching bag on which to vent his anger and resentment. His disappointment and disillusionment with his own wasted life.

Finally, and most incredibly, the second criminal, looking at the exact same scene, sees something very different from all the others before him. In the gruesome and tragic sight of a crucified man, this criminal sees what the second reading calls the image of the unseen God and the firstborn of all creation. More than that, he even goes so far as to say to Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.

Looking on, as our Lord dies painfully and shamefully on the cross, this criminal is somehow able to see a king in the process of entering his kingdom. And he is moved to do on Calvary what the Israelites in the first reading did at Hebron. In his heart, he crowns Jesus as his king. And, in so doing, he is taken out of the power of darkness and brought into the kingdom of the Son. Whereas others may see nothing more than an object of curiosity or a threat to power, a distraction from boredom or an outlet for resentment, this criminal is able to see and to seize a precious opportunity to sneak into heaven by acknowledging Christ as king.

Incredible as it may seem, this marvellous ability, demonstrated by the second criminal in the gospel, is actually something that should characterise every Christian. For to be a follower of Christ is precisely to be able to recognise in every situation an opportunity to crown as king the One who made peace by his death on the cross. And isn’t this something that our world still needs so much today? For even though more than two thousand years have passed since that fateful afternoon on Calvary, when Jesus died on his cross, don’t we continue to encounter many similar scenes of suffering and conflict?

The situation in Hong Kong perhaps comes most readily to mind. As do the various examples of the international ecological crisis – wildfires and drought in Australia… severe storms and flooding all over the world… But so too do the recently released results of that important study done by NUS Assistant Professor Ng Kok Hoe. According to which there are now no less than 1,000 homeless people in Singapore.

And I’m sure each of us can match these more public scenes of suffering and conflict with other more personal ones we each encounter everyday. Scenes from work and home. Scenes involving clients and colleagues, friends and family alike. Scenes that offer precious opportunities for us to choose to imitate that second criminal in recognising and crowning Christ as king.

My dear friends, just as the future of dogs may well depend on human appetites, so too does the fate of our world depend on our willingness to centre our desires on Christ. As the second reading reminds us, God wanted all things to be reconciled in the Cross of Christ, everything in heaven and everything on earth…

Sisters and brothers, what must we do to allow God to keep shaping our appetites and desires, so that, in every situation we face, we may see Christ more clearly and crown him more wholeheartedly as king today?

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