Sunday, October 04, 2015

From Death To Completion (Rerun)

Sisters and brothers, have you ever heard that popular saying about marriage? It goes like this: A man is not complete until he gets married. And then he is finished! I think many of us laugh when we hear it for the first time. I did. We find it funny, because the word finished has a double meaning. The first meaning is the obvious romantic one. The one that people typically use at the beginning of intimate relationships. It’s what Tom Cruise meant in the feel-good movie Jerry Maguire. In a memorable scene, after Jerry tells Dorothy that he loves her, he goes on to immortalise in movie history those marvellously mushy (some would say cheesy), yet amazingly effective words: You complete me, he says. You complete me. In other words, you finish me.

The other meaning of the word finish is the opposite of the first. If the first is used at the birth of relationships, then the second is heard when they die. It’s the meaning that Meryl Streep had in mind, in that scene from the old movie about divorce. Kramer vs Kramer. Streep’s character, Joanna, is in the process of divorcing Ted. Her workaholic husband. Ted tries desperately to persuade Joanna to go back with him into their apartment. But she responds by pleading with him in these words: Please don’t make me go in there… If you do, I swear, one day, next week, maybe next year, I don’t know, I’ll go right out the window... I will go right out the window. In other words, if I go back to our marriage, I’ll commit suicide. I’ll die. I’ll be finished.

Finished. One simple word. Two very different meanings. And it is the context that tells us which one is intended. Jerry Maguire or Kramer vs Kramer. Romance or divorce. Completion or death.

No one is complete until they get married. And then they are finished!

More than just a (hopefully) stylish way to begin a homily, this line also happens to highlight a connection that we find in our readings today, if we look hard enough. It is a connection between two questions. The question concerning the death of a marriage. And the question about how to become a complete human being. I say if we look hard enough because, at first glance, our readings don’t seem to say much to us, beyond telling us that divorce is wrong. What God has united, man must not divide. It is true that, in the gospel, Jesus criticises the Jewish law which allowed a man to divorce his wife for the most trivial of reasons. And Jesus does this because this same law could result in the oppression and exploitation of women. But Jesus also takes the discussion of marriage and divorce to a whole new level. From death to completion

Like the Kramers in the movie, and many others undergoing a painful divorce, the Pharisees in the gospel are concerned about the law. Is it against the law for a man to divorce his wife? They want to know how a marriage can be ended. Legally finished. In many circumstances this is, of course, a legitimate concern. For instance, although we Catholics frown on divorce, Canon Law does admit certain narrow exceptions. There may also be certain situations where a civil divorce might actually be a prudent course of action. Even for a Catholic. Such as when s/he may be trapped in an abusive marriage. Provided, of course, that s/he does not remarry. Especially in cases like these, it is important to know what the law says. How to finish a marriage. How to bring it to an end.

But if we remain only at the level of the law. If we consider only one meaning of the word finish. Then we would have too narrow a view of what our scripture readings are saying to us today. For Jesus’ concern is not just with the ending of marriages. But also, and more importantly, with the beginning of creation. Jesus wants us to consider what the book of Genesis says. Not only about how marriages may or may not die. But also, beyond that, about how a person becomes a complete human being.

For Jesus, marriage is much more than a simple contractual alliance. More than just a joint bank account. Or a shared double bed. Marriage is a profound union, in which two people become one body. They are no longer two but one. A new creation. Sharing a common origin. And, as in the movie Jerry Maguire, this union is also somehow a process of completion. To see this, we need to pay close attention to the first reading.

Notice how, at the beginning of the reading, even though the man has already been created, he is still somehow incomplete. God says: It is not good for the man to be alone. And notice too, how the completion of the man is brought about. The process is not quite what Tom Cruise might have had in mind. It is not a filling of some inner emptiness in the man by some external creature. The attempt to do this with other animals fails. They are found to be unsuitable. They do not have enough in common with the man. He can only exert mastery over them. But no real partnership can be formed. No true intimacy is experienced. The man remains lonely. It is only when he falls into a deep sleep, and gives away something of himself, that success is achieved. Quite paradoxically, completion comes only with self-donation. And, with completion, comes true communion. He gives up a rib. And they become one body.

It is at this point that we finally arrive at the heart of what our readings are saying to us today. As you know, the early Fathers of the Church delighted in drawing parallels between the creation of the first couple, and the crucifixion of Christ. Just as the first man fell into a deep sleep. And the first woman was formed from his rib. So too did Christ fall asleep on the Cross. And the Church was born from the blood and water flowing from his side. And just as the first man was completed and came to share a common origin with the first woman, only by giving something of himself. So too was Christ made perfect, through suffering. Only by laying down his life for our sake. So that the one who sanctifies (Christ himself), and the ones who are sanctified (you and me) are of the same stock. Share a common origin.

It becomes clear then, sisters and brothers, that our readings have something very important to say to us today. Regardless of whether or not we have ever been married or divorced. Whether we are women or men. Young or old. For, as baptised Christians, we are all members of the Church of Christ. The same Church that was created when the Lord gave his life for us on the Cross. The same Church that Christ is destined to claim as his bride. To take to himself in marriage. When he comes again at the end of time. And, as members of this Church, the Bride of Christ, we are all called to become like him. To imitate him in giving of ourselves to others. For it is only in doing this that we become fully what we were meant to be. Completion comes through loving self-donation. The kind of self-giving out of which happy marriages are made.

No one is complete until they get married. And then they are finished...

Sisters and brothers, both as individual Christians, and as Church, what must we do to allow the Lord to do for us what Dorothy did for Jerry Maguire? To draw us further towards completion today?

Saturday, October 03, 2015

Happiness Is...

Wedding of Aylwin & Michelle

Readings: Ecclesiasticus 26:1-4.13-16; Psalm 33:2-9; 1 Corinthians 12:31-13:8; Matthew 5:1-12
Picture: cc Pietro Zanarini

Aylwin and Michelle, my dear friends. Do you want to be happy? Silly question, isn’t it? Everybody wants to be happy. But how do we become happy? And what does being happy even mean? If I were to ask you to complete this sentence: Happiness is… What would you say? How would you fill in the blank?

I ask you these questions about happiness, not just because this is the natural thing to do at a wedding service. When a young man and a young woman look forward excitedly to a brand new life together. Of course they aspire to happiness. And rightly so. But that’s not the only reason why I ask about happiness. I do it because this is precisely the thing that you, Aylwin and Michelle invite us to ponder today. Through your choice of readings for this wedding service. I’m sure at least some of us here have noticed that each of the readings for today have something to do with happiness. And as we listen to them, they stir us to recall our own deep desires and dreams for happiness. They move us to examine what exactly we are doing to pursue these desires. To fulfil these dreams.

The first reading begins with the word happy. Happy the husband of a really good wife… What does the reading say about happiness? Well, taken at face value, it seems to tell us that happiness depends upon the quality of the spouse you marry. If your wife is good and perfect. Graceful and charming. Modest and chaste. Well-trained in character and, most of all, silent. Then you are a happy man. I’m not sure how Michelle feels about all this. But this isn’t actually the full picture that the reading paints for us.

Of course, the reading does not mean that any husband with a good wife will be happy. No matter how he treats her. Or how he lives his own life. Surely, a lazy, abusive, good-for-nothing husband should not aspire to true happiness. However capable his wife may be. And the reading itself is quite clear about this. Especially when it tells us that a good wife is the best of portions, reserved for those who fear the Lord. A good wife is a blessing that God grants to those who walk in God’s ways. Happiness is not about the kind of spouse you marry. Important though this may be. Happiness, rather, is about living a righteous life. Walking in the Wisdom of God. As the psalmist says, taste and see that the Lord is good. He is happy who seeks refuge in him.

So it’s not so much what kind of spouse we have. But rather what kind of life we live. The second reading helps to deepen our understanding even more. According to the reading, it’s not just the things we do that determine what kind of life we lead. Or how happy we are. We can do amazing things that impress a great many people. And inflate our own egos. But still not be happy. As the reading tells us, if I even let them take my body to burn it, but am without love, it will do me no good whatever. And we shouldn’t be surprised at this. For we hear of people like that, even today, don’t we? Isn’t this what terrorists do? Give their bodies to be burnt. Killing many other people in the process. Who among us would dare say that such people are truly happy?

No. Happiness is not so much about what we do. But more about how much love we put into the doing. I can, for example, get my secretary to remember my wife’s birthday every year. And to get an expensive present for her. But if I myself don’t take the trouble to show up. To celebrate with her. To express my love for her. And to do this not just on her birthday. But the rest of the year as well. Then what good would that annual present do? However costly it may be?

Thankfully, I have been told that both Aylwin and Michelle are quite aware of all this. Both of them understand very well that happiness is about love. And that love is about giving priority to the other. Higher priority than even the things that we may value most of all. Like work. And even the Liverpool Football Club.

And yet, those among us who have been married for a while, will probably be able to tell us that this kind of love is easier to live at the beginning. When the flames of passion are strong. When faults are willingly overlooked. And perhaps even considered adorable. But not so easy with the passing of time. When what may have seemed so endearing at first, gradually transforms into sources of endless irritation. How then to keep loving? How to be patient and kind? And not rude or selfish? When it seems like our love engine is running on empty? How then to be happy?

The answer is found in that all important gospel reading from the Sermon on the Mount. How happy are the poor in spirit; theirs is the kingdom of heaven. How happy are those who realise their own poverty. Who recognise that they really do not have what it takes to love the way others need to be loved. Who humbly acknowledge that love is not something they can manufacture for themselves. But rather that they must first receive it constantly from God. From the Father. Who has loved us so irreversibly in the dying and rising of his Son. And who has given us the power to share that same love with others in the Spirit.

This, Michelle and Aylwin, is the happiness that you are proposing to us for our meditation today. This is the happiness to which you aspire. A happiness rooted in the love that you have for each other. A love that originates not from you. But in the love of almighty God. Who has seen fit, at this opportune time, to bring you both together as husband and wife. Not without help, of course, from various human agents. Especially from someone named Kim. Whose efforts at brokering free legal advice has contributed to sealing this happy union we are witnessing today. Is Kim here with us? We owe you a debt of gratitude. Thank you for helping God to light the flame of love between Michelle and Aylwin. The love that brings true happiness.

I’m reminded of a song that I learnt as a boy. A song about happiness. Some of you may know it. The first verse goes like this:
Happiness is to know the Saviour,
Living a life within his favour,
Having a change in my behaviour,
Happiness is the Lord.
Happiness is the Lord. My dear friends, even as we gather to witness this joyous union of Michelle and Aylwin today. Even as we extend to them our heartfelt wishes for their future happiness. Even as we commit ourselves to accompanying them on the road of marital bliss. How might we, each and everyone of us gathered here, how might we continue to live in the happiness of the Lord today?

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Of Potatoes & Possessiveness

26th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Numbers 11:25-29; Psalm 18:8,10,12-14; James 5:1-6; Mark 9:38-43,45,47-48
Picture: cc Jimmie

Sisters and brothers, when I was about 13 years old, I was taught a lesson that has remained with me till this day. In school that year, we were introduced to potato printing. It was quite simple. You cut a potato in half. Carve some designs on the flat surface. Coat it with different coloured paint. And then use the potato as a seal to print designs on paper. The result was quite beautiful. And, for once, I did slightly better than my usual borderline passing grade in art class. Proud of my achievement, I decided not to throw my potatoes away. I carefully wrapped them in a clean plastic bag. And tucked them away in a drawer. Thinking that they might be useful when we again had to do potato printing in class.

You can probably guess what happened next. Some time later, when I took out my prized possessions to admire them, what I saw shocked and traumatised me. The potatoes were swimming in a disgusting looking fluid. Which smelled really bad. And, on closer inspection, I noticed that little white worms were crawling all over them. The sight gave me goose-bumps. And not in a good way. My precious potato printing set had turned into a mouldy maggot-infested mess. And this is the lesson I was taught that day. Not the technique of potato printing. But the truth that, however precious they may be, some things just can’t be hoarded. Trying to do so will only leave you with a drawer-full of decomposition and decay. A bag with a very bad smell.

Some things just can’t be hoarded. Our Mass readings teach us a similar lesson. In the second reading, the rich are given a dire warning. Your wealth is all rotting… All your gold and silver are corroding away… But we all know that silver and gold do not corrode. So what does the reading mean? Well, for one thing, we also know that although gold may not actually corrode, it’s financial value can rise or fall depending on supply and demand. The same can be said for the spiritual value of material riches. It too can rise and fall depending on how we use it. If we use our wealth to benefit others, then we gain spiritually from it as well. But when we anxiously cling to our possessions. Allowing them to possess us. When we seek to hoard them for our own selfish purposes. Keeping much more than we actually need. And depriving others of what they require to survive. Then our wealth turns into a burning fire. It consumes us. Destroys us. Decomposes us. Gives us a really bad spiritual smell.

And what is true of material wealth is true also of spiritual blessings. In the first reading, God decides to widen the circle of those who enjoy the gift of God’s spirit. A gift that enables people to speak and to act in the power of God. Whereas, before, Moses was the only one who enjoyed such a blessing. Now, seventy elders are allowed to share in this happy privilege. Not only that, but two other men, who had not been present at the original spirit-distribution ceremony, also find themselves moving in the spirit. They too begin to prophesy. To speak in the power of God. And Joshua, Moses’ assistant, wants to stop them. Probably because they haven’t been officially authorised. They have no public entertainment license from the police. But Moses sets Joshua straight. Like material wealth, the spirit of God is not meant to be hoarded. It cannot be monopolised. If only the whole people of the Lord were prophets, and the Lord gave his Spirit to them all!

This same lesson, which Moses teaches Joshua in the first reading, Jesus teaches John in the gospel. Like Joshua, John too wants his Master to stop someone from doing God’s work without a license. But Jesus declines. You must not stop him… Anyone who is not against us is for us. Jesus then points out the great danger faced by the one who tries to monopolise and to hoard spiritual gifts. This tendency becomes a millstone round his neck. Dragging him into the depths of destruction.

Which is why it is better not hoard. Not to be possessive. Neither of material wealth. Nor of spiritual gifts. Possessiveness causes harm. Not just to others. But also to ourselves. Better for us to cut off our possessive tendencies. And so enter into life. Rather than to cling to them. And be thrown into hell where their worm does not die nor their fire go out. It’s not just potatoes that cannot be hoarded. The same can be said of anything of true value. Whatever is truly valuable only remains valuable when we stop clinging to it. When we refrain from hoarding it. From monopolising it. From controlling it. When we are able to let it go. This is true of material possessions. And also of spiritual gifts. Of inanimate objects. And even of people.

We know this. So why then do we still insist on clinging? Why is it so difficult for us to not be possessive? I’m not sure, sisters and brothers. Perhaps the reasons are many and varied. Sometimes it has to do with pride and attachment. As it was with me and my potatoes. I took pride in them. They reminded me of a past achievement. And so I clung stubbornly to them. Refusing to let them go. At other times, we hoard because we are anxious and insecure. The future seems uncertain and frightening. Who knows if I’ll be able to repeat my performance in class? Better to keep these tried and tested potatoes now. Just in case. My hoarding is a foolish attempt to control an uncertain future.

And yet, when we do this. When we store up and monopolise our treasures. We end up doing harm. Harm, first of all, to others. Such as when the accumulation of great riches by a very small percentage of people, actually deprives the vast majority from enjoying a decent life.  You may recall that, according to a recent Oxfam report, by 2016 (just a few short months away), the richest 1% of the world’s population will own more than half of the world’s wealth. The hoarding of material riches leads to inequality and suffering. Violence and conflict.

We harm others also when we try to control them. To stop them from doing God’s work. Simply because they do not seem aligned to our own agenda. Our own plans for the future. Of course, it is necessary to organise and plan and order all our efforts at doing the work of God. But we also need to be careful that, in the process, we don’t stifle the often unpredictable workings of the Spirit. For to do so is to oppress others. And not just others. Our possessive tendencies also eventually harm ourselves. They make us less sensitive to the subtle workings of grace. We see only what we want to see. And we focus only on the gifts of God. Rather than the God who is the Giver of all good gifts.

I’m reminded of a story that’s told of someone who once visited a village in Southern Africa, and got the children there to play a game. He placed a huge pile of sweets under a tree. And told the children that, when he gave the signal, they were to run as fast as they could to the tree. The child who got there first would get to keep all the sweets for himself or herself. To his surprise, at the signal, the children held hands and ran together. Reached the tree together. And proceeded to enjoy the sweets together. When asked why they did this, the children replied with a question of their own. How can one of us be happy, they said, if the rest of us are sad?

How can one of us be happy, if the rest of us are sad?

Sisters and brothers, are there perhaps some potatoes in your life that you need to let go of today?

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Celebrating What Makes Us Tick

Wake Mass For Fr. Antoni Ponnudurai SJ
Memorial of St. Pius of Pietrelcina

Readings: Ezra 9:5-9; Tobit 13:2,4,6-8; Luke 9:1-6
Picture: cc r. nial bradshaw

Sisters and brothers, do you ever wonder what it is that makes something tick? For example, many of us own a smartphone. A powerful modern device that enables us to do many amazing things. Such as communicate instantly with many people. Even if they happen to be many miles away. Take beautiful photographs. And share them with those same faraway friends. Instantly. Amuse ourselves when we’re bored. By playing games. Or watching videos. Or reading an e-book. Figure out where exactly we are when we’re lost. Where we need to go. And how exactly to get there. Still, all this is only a fraction of the many things that a smartphone can do. We know this. Many of us experience it everyday. We know what a phone can do. But how many of us know, or even bother to ask, how the phone is able to do the wonderful things that it does? What exactly it is that makes it tick.

I’m not sure, but I think, very often, when we do pay attention to something, we focus more on what it does. Not so much on how it is able to do it. What makes it tick. And if this is true of gadgets, perhaps it’s even more true of the people around us. When we do take the trouble to notice them. When we don’t take them for granted. We often focus more on what they do. On their performance. But not so much on what makes them tick.

And this can happen even when we gather to remember someone who has died. We say we come together to celebrate the person’s life. To remember who the person was. And we usually do this by recalling the different things the person did. Especially the more memorable, the more remarkable, things. All this is good. And true. And, of course, very important. 

For example, as we gather here tonight, it is right and good for us to remember all that Fr. Ponnudurai means to us. All the things that he did for us. In each of our lives. And some of these are truly remarkable things. Personally, I remember him for four things. Which can be summed up in four words. Generosity and guts. Gentleness and glue.

I first got to know Fr. Ponnudurai when I was still an undergraduate in a local university. One year, as a member of the Legion of Mary, I was tasked to organise an RCIA process on campus. The first challenge was to find someone willing and able to facilitate. Everyone else was busy. But Fr. Ponnudurai obliged. Every week, for as long as the RCIA lasted, he came to the university to help lead people into the faith. In the years after I entered the Society of Jesus, I would have occasion to witness many more examples of Father’s generosity. He was always ready to help. Always ready to do what the disciples are asked to do in the gospel today. To go from village to village proclaiming the Good News and healing everywhere.

The second thing I remember about Father is his guts. His steely determination. Which sometimes could come across as stubbornness. Those who know him even a little, will know what I’m talking about. Once Father set his mind on something, little could deflect him from his purpose. Perhaps one good example of this was how he used to insist on making his daily hospital visits. Often by limping on his bad leg all the way down from Kingsmead Hall to the bus-stop along Farrer Road.

And yet, for all his toughness and firmness of resolve, Father also had a gentleness about him. A softer side that was experienced especially by those who were on the receiving end of his ministry. I myself experienced this tenderness of Father’s first hand. Especially when I used to ask him to hear my confession. And also from witnessing how he encouraged and consoled my parents, when my father was stricken with terminal cancer.

The last quality is something that I noticed only in the last few days. As Father lay in his hospital bed at NUH. I must apologise to Father’s family if my observations are wrong or inappropriate. But it seems to me that Father acted as a kind of glue that held his family together. I saw this from the way everyone rallied around him. It was a moving and an amazing sight.

Truly, sisters and brothers, Fr. Ponnudurai lived a remarkable life. I’ve only talked about a very few things that impressed me. Others will no doubt have their own stories and impressions to share. But all these are only some of the things that Fr. Ponnudurai did. And although it’s important that we remember them, and celebrate them, we don’t really have to be Christians to do this. Even atheists do the same, don’t they? Even people with no religion gather to celebrate the deeds of their loved ones.

What sets apart a Christian gathering like this is the concern to focus not just on the things that our dearly departed has done. As remarkable as they may be. But even more on what it was that made him or her tick. For, as Christians, we believe that what makes our beloved dead tick is nothing less than the grace of God. The powerful yet gentle presence of the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit.

And, quite coincidentally, our Mass readings help us to do just that. In the first reading, we find the scribe Ezra praying. And, in his prayer, Ezra talks about two things that give him the motivation to do what he is doing. Two things that make him tick. The first of these is a healthy dose of guilt. Of sorrow for sin. Not just his own personal sin. But the sin of the whole people. My God, I am ashamed, I blush to lift my face to you, my God. For our crimes have increased. Ezra knows that the people deserve to be punished for their sins. And yet, what amazes him is that God chooses not to punish, but to show mercy. To set them free from Exile. We are slaves; but God has not forgotten us in our slavery. And so Ezra is moved with gratitude. Guilt and gratitude. Two sides of a single grace. The same grace that St. Ignatius of Loyola invites retreatants to beg God for in the First Week of the Long Retreat.

It is on this foundational grace–this combination of guilt and gratitude–that a second grace is built. The same grace that Jesus offers to his disciples in the gospel. Here we’re told that Jesus calls his disciples to him. Gives them authority to preach and to heal. And then he sends them out. To do the very things that Jesus himself was sent to do. This is what motivates them. The experience of being called and empowered, and sent out to follow in the footsteps of Christ. Again, this too is a grace from the Long Retreat. Something that the retreatant prays for in the Second Week.

Guilt and Gratitude. Call and Mission. These are the things that motivate Christians to do what they do. These are the things that we gather to celebrate. The power of grace at work in each and in all of us. Moving us to continue doing remarkable things. Loving things. Merciful things. Healing things. Selflessly benefitting others. For the Father. Through the Son. In the Holy Spirit.

My dear friends, above all, what we gather to celebrate is the grace of God at work in the life of our beloved Father Ponnudurai. This is what moved him to do the things he did. This is what made him tick. But what about us? What remarkable things are we being moved to do? What is it that makes us tick today?

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Between Somebodies & Nobodies

25th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

Readings: Wisdom 2:12,17-20; Psalm 53:3-6,8; James 3:16-4:3; Mark 9:30-37

Sisters and brothers, do you still remember that Steven Spielberg movie from 2002, entitled Catch Me If You Can? Starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks? It’s based on the life of a career criminal by the name of Frank Abagnale, Jr.. Whose life of crime begins when Frank is only a teenager. The movie portrays Frank as someone having a desperate need to be somebody. Which isn’t a bad thing in itself. Except that Frank’s way of becoming somebody is simply to impersonate that person. He begins by passing himself off as an airline pilot. And with great success. To support himself, he forges payroll cheques. Managing to steal millions of dollars in the process.

Later, Frank proceeds to take on the identities of a doctor and then a lawyer. But the sad thing about all this is that, even though his disguises keep changing, Frank’s deeper identity doesn’t. At root, he always remains the same person. A young lonely con-artist. Forging cheques for a living. And continually on the run from the law. It’s only after he’s arrested and imprisoned that Frank’s life takes a turn for the better. Recognising the value of his expertise, the FBI strikes a deal with him. Allowing him to serve out the rest of his prison sentence as an adviser. Helping the FBI to catch other fraudsters like himself. So that it’s only after being caught that Frank’s deeper identity truly begins to change. The cheque forger becomes a consultant. The criminal, a crime fighter. The nobody, a somebody.

I’m reminded of this movie today because, in our Mass readings, we also find people desperately looking to be somebodies. People jealously defending the identities that they have painstakingly built up for themselves. In the first reading, a group of people, described as godless, feel that their way of life is being threatened. They react by defending themselves with violence. Even with murder. All of which serves only to uncover for us their true identity. Whatever they may think of themselves. Whoever they may want to be. These people are really nothing more than bullies. Intimidating and victimising others to get their own way. To push their own agenda. To inflate and to protect their own fragile egos.

The second reading helps us to trace these violent and oppressive tendencies to their roots in the human heart. Where do these wars and battles between yourselves first start? The reading asks. Isn’t it precisely in the desires fighting inside your own selves? In the anxious need we each have to be somebody? And to defend our carefully cultivated identities at all costs? Even if it means causing harm to others. You have an ambition that you cannot satisfy; so you fight to get your way by force. The tragedy of it all is, of course, that, unknown to themselves, those who do this never really succeed in changing their identities. Just as the criminal, Frank Abagnale, never really succeeded in changing his. Sure, the disguises may change. But, at root, the identity remains the same. Always jealous and ambitious. Interiorly torn and divided. Constantly anxious and insecure.

Nor is this condition restricted only to those who are obviously sinful. Or materialistic. Or secular. It can afflict even those of us who may appear outwardly spiritual and religious. People who say their prayers. Who come to church. Who serve in ministries. Who even preside and preach at Masses. People like myself, for example. Isn’t this what the gospel is helping us to recognise?

The reading begins by telling us that Jesus and his disciples are making their way through Galilee. They are on a journey together. And, on the way, Jesus tells them, for the second time, that he will soon be captured, killed, and then raised from the dead. But notice the disciples’ reaction. They don’t understand what they hear. And they demonstrate their lack of understanding by arguing among themselves. Discussing which of them was the greatest. Their Master and friend has just shared with them the terrible news of his impending doom. And all they can think about is getting ahead! Becoming somebody! Quite clearly, even though they may appear to be travelling on the same road as Jesus, the disciples are really moving in the opposite direction. Their Master is on his way to lay down his life for his friends. But, like the people in the first two readings, the disciples’ only concern is to inflate their egos at others’ expense.

Still, we shouldn’t be too quick to point fingers at them for being like that, should we? For, two thousand years down the road, society hasn’t changed all that much, has it? At least not in this respect. Today, we still find ourselves jealous and ambitious. Torn and divided. Anxious and insecure. Struggling to be somebodies. Fighting to get ahead. No matter the costs. Why else are there so many refugees, forced to flee their homelands? Enduring terrible danger, just to find a safer place to live? Why else do our offices and our homes, perhaps even our parishes, sometimes feel as though they too were war zones? Populated by people fighting to get ahead? Struggling to be somebodies. At the expense of everybody. And why else does a single national examination, taken by a bunch of 12-year olds, have the power to strike such fear in the hearts of grown men and women? Fear that can often be highly contagious. Spreading from adults to children. And back again. And sometimes even to unsuspecting priests like me.

And yet, however hard we try to be somebody, how many of us actually succeed in finding true contentment? Instead, don’t many of us find ourselves constantly having to change from one disguise to another? Expending much energy, undergoing incredible stress, just to keep up appearances? But, at root, always remaining very much the same. Jealous and ambitious. Torn and divided. Anxious and insecure. Sisters and brothers, is there a way out?

Well, the good news is that there is. The way out is found in the wisdom that Jesus offers us in the gospel. Anyone who welcomes one of these little children in my name, welcomes me; and anyone who welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me. Scholars tell us that what the Lord is highlighting is not so much the child’s innocence. As her lack of social standing. Especially in the society of Jesus’ day, the child is essentially a nobody. And it is only in embracing the life of a nobody. In being willing to become last of all and servant of all. That one actually manages to finally become somebody. Isn’t this what we see in Jesus’ own life? Isn’t this what we celebrate at this and at every Mass? That the way to fullness of life necessarily passes through the valley of self-emptying love and compassion. And isn’t this fundamental truth something that our world continues to need so desperately to learn? Something that we, who profess to be Christian, have the responsibility to impart? But only after having first learned it ourselves?

Sisters and brothers, in the movie Catch Me If You Can, it is only after he is caught and imprisoned, when all his disguises have fallen from his face, that Frank Abagnale finally succeeds in truly becoming somebody. How is our Crucified and Risen Lord inviting us, you and me, to allow ourselves to be captured by him? To surrender our disguises to him? To become nobodies. So that he can teach us to truly become somebodies in the Kingdom of His love and mercy today?

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Too Cheap To Be Real

24th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

Readings: Isaiah 50:5-9; Psalm 114:1-6,8-9; James 2:14-18; Mark 8:27-35
Picture: cc Kathy

Sisters and brothers, do you remember this news report from a few years ago? It can still be found on the Time Magazine website. A woman goes to a vegetable market in Central China, where she sees someone selling eggs from a van. The price is 6 cents cheaper than the market rate. Thinking that the bargain is too good to pass up, she buys 2.5 kg worth. Only to find, after getting home, that those are not real eggs that she bought. But fake ones. Made out of a mixture of resin and starch and pigments. The report goes on to offer some advice given by an expert. Telling readers how to spot these fake eggs. One of the more helpful suggestions tells the buyer to beware of eggs that are too perfectly shaped and smooth. In other words, especially when grocery shopping in China, be careful of eggs that look too good to be true. Too cheap to be real.

This advice is useful not only for the vegetable market. But also in the spiritual life as well. You may have noticed that, like that news report from China, our Mass readings also warn us to be careful of fakes. Not fake eggs. But fake faith. Counterfeit religion. Less than authentic discipleship. The second reading, for example, presents us with a striking contrast between two different kinds of faith. Living faith and dead faith. True faith and false faith. The faith that saves. And the kind that destroys. How do we tell the difference? The reading highlights one way. It has to do with our reaction to the poor. To those who need our help.

People who practice true faith naturally find themselves moved with compassion by the plight of the poor. Without having to be asked, they will spontaneously offer practical assistance to lighten their burden. To ease their suffering. In contrast, those who practice fake religion will not bother. The reading speaks of someone who has never done a single good act but claims that he has faith. Such people may talk. But they won’t act. Or they may make a show of doing charity. But only for their own self-serving purposes. This kind of religion may look attractive to some, because it makes few if any demands on those who practice it. But, like fake eggs, it’s too cheap to be real. Too good to be true. This false faith doesn’t benefit anyone. For true faith is like that: if good works do not go with it, it is quite dead.

The other readings point us to yet another way of distinguishing true from fake religion. Authentic from counterfeit discipleship. And it has to do with our reaction to persecution. To the reality of having to suffer for the sake of the good news. In the first reading, an unnamed servant of God is facing some kind of abuse. People are targeting him. Not because he is criminal. But because of his fidelity to God. They gossip about him. Insult him. Make his life a living hell. What is his reaction to this injustice? For my part, he says, I made no resistance, neither did I turn away… I set my face like flint… Bravely he accepts the suffering. Relying only on the power of God for support. The Lord comes to my help, he says, so that I am untouched by the insults. Courage and determination in the face of suffering and persecution. This too is what living faith, authentic discipleship, looks like.

We find this same courage and determination in the gospel. Here, the place called Caesarea Philippi marks a significant milestone in Jesus’ public ministry. For some time now, the Lord has enjoyed a certain popularity among the people. They have been amazed by the authority of his spoken word. Awestruck by the power at work in his miracles. Huge crowds have gathered around him... Perhaps not unlike some of the election rallies we’ve seen in recent days.

But, along with the people’s admiration, the Lord’s public ministry has also been provoking a growing resistance, even animosity, from the religious authorities of his day. Their jealousy will soon move them to take drastic steps against Jesus. And it is this impending persecution that Jesus is preparing himself to endure. Like the person in the first reading, he too will make no resistance. He too will set his face like flint. For Jesus is the new and definitive Suffering Servant. In him we see what true faith really looks like. That it’s not just fun and games all the time. But that it involves walking the Way of the Cross. Being buried in the Tomb. And, only after all that, finally being raised up by God on the Third Day. 

It is this same precious and authentic faith that Jesus is offering to his disciples at Caesarea Philippi. Till now, they have remained blissfully unaware of the danger quickly closing in on their Master. They have been content simply to bask in the warm glow of his celebrity and fame. Jesus, however, isn’t satisfied with this state of affairs. He wants his disciples to go deeper. He invites them to enter into a more intimate relationship with him. To walk the same difficult Way that he walks. So as to enjoy the same glorious triumph that he himself will enjoy. He invites them to share not only his popularity. But also in the painful rejection that will soon befall him. For anyone who wants to save his life will lose it; but anyone who loses his life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.

But his disciples find it difficult to appreciate what Jesus is doing. We see this especially in Peter’s reaction to the Lord’s prediction of the trials that are to come. Why does Peter protest? Is he concerned for the Lord’s well-being? Anxious for his Master’s welfare? Perhaps. But there’s also a deeper reason. Peter calls Jesus the Christ. But he won’t allow him to go to the Cross. Why? For the simple reason that Peter cannot imagine a Christ that is destined to suffer. For Peter, someone favoured by God can be nothing but successful and triumphant. At all times. There is no room for the reality of righteous suffering. But Jesus tells him that this way of looking at things is not God’s way but man’s. It is an inauthentic discipleship. A false religion. Like those fake Chinese eggs, it’s too cheap to be real. Too good to be true. 

True faith versus fake discipleship. Concern for the poor versus indifference and lip-service. Courage and determination in the face of suffering versus the stubborn insistence on living a trouble-free life. These are the contrasts that our readings present to us today. And I have to confess, sisters and brothers, that all too often, I find myself tending toward the wrong side of these contrasts. Happy to remain in my cozy little comfort zone. Reluctant to reach out to the poor. Protesting bitterly when difficulties come knocking on my door.

Thankfully our readings present me not just with a challenge. But also with marvellous good news. For quite unlike fake eggs, inauthentic faith can be transformed into the real deal. All it takes is for me to be willing to travel with Jesus to Caesarea Philippi. To those spiritual places, in my heart and in my life, where I can hear the Lord ask me this life-changing question: who do you say I am? A question that we may allow ourselves to hear, even as we gather for this Eucharistic celebration. Recalling all the Lord has done. All that he has suffered. All that he has endured. For our sakes. Who do you say I am?

Sisters and brothers, there are indeed some things in life that are too good to be true. Too cheap to be real. What kind of eggs are you buying today?

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Evangelisation As Childbearing

Our Lady of Lourdes Church Feast Day Novena Day 3
Go & Make Disciples: What is the New Evangelisation?

Readings: 1 Timothy 1:1-2,12-14; Psalm 15:1-2,5,7-8,11; Luke 6:39-42
Picture: cc Sabda Renjana

Sisters and brothers, do any of you have children of your own? Your own flesh and blood? How did you get them? I’m sure we all know the answer, right? Even those of us who don’t have children of our own. People like me, for example. We all know where babies come from. We know that they are not like durians. They don’t grow on trees. Nor does a bird deliver them to our homes in the middle of the night. We know that there is a certain process that people have to undergo to bear children of their own.

This process usually involves three steps. The first step is encounter and conception. A girl meets a boy. They fall in love. They unite as husband and wife. And, if the conditions are right, a baby is conceived. After that, the next step is pregnancy and birth. The baby is carried in the mother’s womb for nine months. Before being born into the world. And that’s not the end of the story. In the animal kingdom, there are some creatures that just leave their freshly laid eggs or newborn babies to fend for themselves. But human parents are different. For us, after birth, there is usually a long period of many years, where parents shower on their children plenty of care and support. To feed and clothe them. Educate and nurture them. Teach them how to survive and to contribute to society.

So encounter and conception. Pregnancy and birth. Care and support. Three important steps that need to be taken if we want to have children of our own. There are also three other things about the childbearing process that are worth noting. The first is that the process can be repeated. And the way to repeat it is for parents to keep paying attention not just to their children. But also to one another. To keep deepening their love for each other. To continue encountering one another everyday. The second thing is that the process of childbearing is always new. Even if a couple has given birth to several children already. Every time they have another baby, it’s never exactly the same as before. It’s always a new experience. The third thing is that the process usually brings happiness. It’s normally an experience of joy.

I mention all this, my dear friends, not because I think that you need a refresher course in sex education. Even if you did, I wouldn’t be the right person to give it. I mention all this because I think it can help us to answer the question that we have posed for ourselves on this 3rd day of our Feast Day Novena. What is the New Evangelisation?

I think most of us know that to evangelise is to proclaim the gospel in some way. Through our words, our actions, the lives that we lead. But what actually happens when we do this? What does evangelisation look and feel like? And what exactly is new about the new evangelisation? Isn’t the gospel we are proclaiming today the same one that Jesus proclaimed more than two thousand years ago? How then are we supposed to make it new? Is it simply a matter of using new methods? Like going on Twitter? Or Facebook? Or WhatsApp?

Strange as it may sound, I think one helpful way to answer these questions is for us to think of evangelisation as a process of childbearing. And, in case you think me crazy for suggesting this, consider what St. Paul writes in the first reading today. The reading is taken from the beginning of Paul’s first letter to Timothy. Notice how Paul addresses Timothy. He calls him a true child of mine in the faith. Paul considers Timothy his child, because it was Paul who proclaimed the gospel to him. It was Paul who evangelised Timothy. And sent him to continue the mission of proclaiming the good news to others.

By calling Timothy his child, Paul is saying that Paul had, in a sense, become pregnant and given birth to the gospel in Timothy. Pregnancy and birth. The second step in the childbearing process that we talked about earlier. How was Paul able to do this? How did he get the power to evangelise in this way? Well, one thing is clear. Paul did not do it on his own. Not through his own strength. That would have been impossible. Just as it’s impossible for me to produce a child on my own. If Paul had tried to do this, then he would have been like the people that Jesus scolds in the gospel today. People who try to correct and convert others without having first undergone correction and conversion themselves. Hypocrite! Take the plank out of your own eye first, and then you will see clearly enough to take out the splinter that is in your brother’s eye.

No, as with any normal process of childbearing, Paul’s spiritual pregnancy and childbirth is the result of an earlier experience of encounter and conception. Of correction and conversion. Not an encounter with a woman. But an encounter with Christ. Paul describes this encounter as an experience of mercy. I used to be a blasphemer, he writes, and did all I could to injure and discredit the faith. Mercy, however, was shown me… Not only did the crucified and risen Lord, whom Paul had been persecuting, forgive him his sins. The Lord also judged Paul faithful enough to call him into his service.

It is out of this experience of mercy, this deep personal encounter with Christ, that the joy of the gospel was conceived in Paul’s heart. Radically changing the direction of his life. Giving him a new purpose. A new calling. Filling Paul with faith and the love that is in Christ Jesus. Such that Paul could so easily make his own these words from our responsorial psalm. You will show me the path of life, the fullness of joy in your presence, at your right hand happiness for ever. By filling Paul with the joy of the gospel, Christ gave him power to give birth to that same joy in people like Timothy. 

But that’s not all. Not only did Paul give birth to Timothy spiritually in the past. He also continues to offer him care and support in the present. Such as by writing him this very letter. A message filled with good advice and encouragement. A document that Paul begins by wishing Timothy grace, mercy and peace from God the Father and from Christ Jesus our Lord. And Paul will continue to do this, repeatedly, in other letters as well. Written not just for Timothy. But for many of his other spiritual children. Even whole communities. Sharing with them, again and again, the joy of the gospel. A joy that continues to be born even today, thousands of years later, in people like us. When we read Paul’s letters we too experience this same joy in ever new and exciting ways. And Paul is able to do this. To give birth repeatedly to joy. All over the world. And all through time. Only because he remains in constant contact, in intimate relationship, with Christ Jesus the Lord.

Encounter and conception. Pregnancy and birth. Care and support. Repetition. Relationship. And joy. These are the ingredients that make up the childbearing process. They are also the same ingredients that make up the new evangelisation. This is the process that each of us is called to undergo everyday. Each in our own way. Depending on the different circumstances of our daily lives. Sometimes the new evangelisation will mean giving a grumpy colleague the gift of a smile. Even when we don’t feel like smiling. At other times, it may mean having the courage to invite a neighbour to church. Even if we may be afraid that she will decline. At still other times, it may mean explaining to a curious friend or relative how it is that we are able to remain calm and peaceful even when our life may be filled with all kinds of problems and difficulties.

Sisters and brothers, according to Pope Francis, the joy of the gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus…. (For with) Christ joy is constantly born anew (EG#1). What is the Pope writing about, if not the new evangelisation? A gospel joy that keeps being born anew every time people allow themselves to encounter Christ. To conceive Christ. To give birth to Christ. And to care for Christ, especially in those most in need.

Sisters and brothers, if the new evangelisation is indeed like bearing a child, then what are we doing, you and I, to continue bearing Christ in our world today?

Sunday, September 06, 2015

Deeper Disabilities

23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

Readings: Isaiah 35:4-7; Psalm 145:6-10; James 2:1-5; Mark 7:31-37
Picture: cc Rachel Groves

Sisters and brothers, do you know what it feels like to have a disability of some kind? Or can you tell if someone else is disabled in some way? How do you do that? Well, it depends on the nature of the disability, right? Some are very obvious. For example, a person with no arms. Or no legs. But what about less obvious disabilities? What about something like depression, for example. Or other psychological conditions. These are more difficult to discover, aren’t they? And not just in others. But even in ourselves. I may, for example, often feel very anxious, without even realising that I am feeling anxious. And that my anxiety adversely affects how I relate to people. And how I react to situations. In order for me to seek and find help to cope with my condition, and perhaps even to be healed from it, I need first to recognise it. To acknowledge my disability.

I mention this because, as you’ve probably already noticed, our Mass readings are filled with people with disabilities of one kind or another. Indeed, it is to disabled people that the Good News is addressed. So that we really won’t be able to receive this good news, if we don’t first recognise and acknowledge our own impairment.

In the gospel, Jesus heals someone with a physical disability. Or perhaps two physical disabilities. A deaf man who had an impediment in his speech. As you know, it’s not uncommon for deaf people to also be mute. Since we normally learn to speak by listening to the speech of others. Someone born deaf naturally finds it a great challenge to learn to talk. More help is required. More effort needs to be made. But what has all this to do with me? Assuming that I’m not disabled in this way. That I’m neither deaf nor mute. What significance does Jesus’ healing of such a person have for me? For us? To see the connection, we need to pay closer attention to the other readings.

In the first reading, it is not just a single person who suffers from a disability. But a whole nation. And here the disability is not just physical, but political. The once-proud nation of Judah is now no more. It no longer exists. Its territory has been overrun by the Babylonian army. Its Temple, the holy place where it’s God was believed to live among them, has been desecrated and destroyed. Many of its people, including the king, have been sent into exile in Babylon. Once they were God’s chosen race. Now they are no people anymore. They’ve been swallowed up by foreign invaders.

But, again, what has this to do with us? With you and me? Assuming that we are all still citizens of our own respective countries. Singaporeans, of Singapore. Which, by the way, will soon be electing a new government. Malaysians, of Malaysia. Indians, of India. Filipinos, of the Philippines. And so on. Surely, we do not share the political disability of the people of Judah. Is the good news then not addressed to us as well?

To begin to see the connection, we need to deepen our understanding of what is being said in the first reading. For the prophet Isaiah, the political disaster that befalls the people of Judah is actually a symptom of a deeper disability. A spiritual sickness, arising from their idolatry. Their worship of false gods. Which prevents them from communicating with the One True God. From seeing God’s mighty works. From hearing God’s reassuring words. From proclaiming God’s steadfast love. To use the words uttered by Jesus, in Matthew 13:15, this people’s heart has grown dull, and their ears are hard of hearing, and they have shut their eyes. As a result, long before they were sent into exile by the Babylonians, the people of Judah had already exiled themselves, far away from God.

It is to these spiritually disabled people that the good news in the first reading is addressed. God promises to rescue them from their suffering. Not just to bring them back from Babylon. And to restore them politically. But also to open the eyes of the blind. So that they may see the works of God. To unseal the ears of the deaf. The better to hear the words of God. To bring forth, in the desert of their misery, springs of water, the water of God’s grace, to quench their parched and lonely hearts. More than their superficial political disability, God promises to heal their deeper spiritual sickness. For it is only when the people are able, once again, to communicate with God. When their hearts are opened to receive God’s love. That they will find joy and peace. And finally be able to give praise to the Lord in their lives.

This marvellous promise, made in the first reading, finds its fulfilment in the person and ministry of Jesus in the gospel. The healing of physical disability is only a sign of a deeper spiritual restoration. Jesus’ command to the deaf-mute to be opened is addressed also to all those of us who may find ourselves spiritually deaf. Unable to hear the consoling and challenging words of God. Unable to appreciate the connection between the scriptures that we read, and the lives that we lead. To those of us who, because of our deafness, may also be spiritually mute. Unable to sing the praises of God. Perhaps also because we’re preoccupied with many worldly concerns. Bogged down by the stressfulness of life. Distracted by the faults, that we see in others, as well as in ourselves. 

The powerful word, ephphatha, is addressed to those dry and desolate places in our lives where we continue to struggle to find meaning in what we do everyday. Those areas of our hearts where we may feel as though even our religion is nothing more than a heavy burden. A series of obligations unreasonably added on to the already heavy weight of the long list of things that society expects of us. To this barren spiritual wilderness, Jesus says, Ephphata! Be opened! Be opened to receive God’s communication. Be opened to see God’s face. To hear God’s voice. To do God’s work. To sing God’s praise. To rejoice in God’s love. To be enfolded in the warmth of God’s embrace.

And there’s more. The healing of our spiritual disabilities is not just for us. It is meant to benefit others as well. In the second reading, we find people whose spiritual sickness disables them socially. Their blindness to God’s presence in the world, renders them unable to appreciate the beauty of the poor. The only thing that they find attractive is the artificial glitter of material wealth. So they apply double standards. They become unjust judges. Discriminating for the rich against the poor. To people such as these, God also promises healing in Christ. But only if they are willing to acknowledge their disability. To humbly confess their own poverty in the sight of God. Who chose those who are poor according to the world to be rich in faith and to be the heirs to the kingdom.

Sisters and brothers, we may not be disabled physically. Or even politically. And yet, is it possible that there may still be areas of our hearts and our lives that require the Lord’s healing? Places where we need to hear the powerful word, Ephphata! Opening us to the presence of God. So that we may reach out to those who most need our help.

Sisters and brothers, which of our disabilities, yours and mine, does the Lord wish to heal today?

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Of Artificial Animals & Powerless Practice

22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

Readings: Deuteronomy 4:1-2,6-8; Psalm 14:2-5; James 1:17-18,21-22,27; Mark 7:1-8,14-15,21-23
Picture: cc Steven Straiton

Sisters and brothers, I recently came across a story about a famous zoo, which had a star attraction. A gigantic male mountain gorilla. Unfortunately, this celebrity animal died suddenly. And, afraid that its patrons would stop visiting the zoo if a replacement was not found immediately, the management decided on a desperate measure. They dressed up one of their zookeepers in a gorilla suit. And convinced the poor man to sit in the dead animal’s enclosure during opening hours. With the promise that he would be given a big raise.

The man agreed. And the trick worked. Visitors didn’t seem to notice that their favourite gorilla had been replaced by a man in disguise. They continued to get excited by what they saw. And even tried, as they had done in the past, to persuade the gorilla to move by shouting and throwing things at it. Finally, the zookeeper decided that there was no harm in obliging his fans. So he stood up and started swinging from the bars of his enclosure. Which made the visitors even more excited. Encouraged by the positive response, the zookeeper swung even more enthusiastically. Unexpectedly, however, he lost his grip, and somehow landed in the enclosure next door. Which happened to be occupied by a lion.

Seeing the big cat, the zookeeper was paralysed with fear. The lion gave the fake gorilla a penetrating stare, and then started walking towards him. At which the poor zookeeper panicked. He threw up his arms and screamed at the top of his lungs. Help! Get me out of here! I’m a man, not a gorilla! But this only made the lion walk even faster. When it finally reached the zookeeper, the lion opened its mouth, full of sharp teeth, and made as if to take a bite. Then the zookeeper heard a voice coming from inside the lion. It said to him, Shut up, you fool! Or you’ll get us both fired!

The story is, of course, only a joke. Meant to make people laugh. But isn’t there also something sad and even tragic about it? Sad that a place that’s supposed to be filled with wonderfully wild animals should be reduced to exhibiting human impostors. Artificial beasts who only look dangerous and fierce on the outside. But, on the inside, are actually quite weak and powerless. And tragic that the people visiting such a place can’t even tell the difference.

There is also something sad and tragic in our Mass readings today. A similar reduction and distortion of something precious. Not a zoo this time. But a religion. Not wild animals. But religious practices. In the first reading, Moses presents the people of Israel with a set of laws and customs handed to him by God. A code of religious practice that is filled with power. For if the people observe them closely, these practices bring them life. Give them the power they need to enter and take possession of the land.

Even more than that, when carefully kept, these practices actually enable the people to experience the very presence of God in their midst. What great nation is there, Moses tells them, that has its gods so near as the Lord our God is to us whenever we call to him. Or, in the words of the responsorial psalm, the just–those who keep God’s law–will live in the presence of the Lord. The second reading adds one more aspect to this picture of what true religion looks like. And it has to do with how the poor are treated. Pure, unspoilt religion, in the eyes of God our Father is this: coming to the help of orphans and widows when they need it… 

This is what authentic religion is meant to do for all those who practice it. First, it gives them power to take possession of the land. To keep themselves uncontaminated by the world. Second, it helps them to experience the presence of God. Third, it moves them to reach out and to care for the poor. For those most in need. Power, presence and poverty. Three striking characteristics of true religion. Three remarkable features that give authentic religious practice a certain wild, awe-inspiring, even dangerous, quality. Such as a majestic mountain gorilla, or a ferocious fully-grown lion, might have.

But here’s the tragedy. In the hands of the scribes and the Pharisees in the gospel, this originally awesome religion is reduced to a pale shadow of its former self. Distorted by legalistic interpretations, the law becomes nothing more than the strict observance of a set of meaningless human prescriptions. Practices that contain no power. Mediate no God-experience. Inspire no care for the poor. Which is why Jesus reserves such harsh words for the scribes and Pharisees. Calling them hypocrites. And applying to them the sharp accusation of the prophet Isaiah. This people honours me only with lip-service, while their hearts are far from me…

Much like those zoo animals in our story, the religion practiced by the scribes and the Pharisees looks good only on the outside. But, on the inside, it is actually very different. Useless. And what about us? What about our religious practice? Our experience, for example, of worship, when we come to church every Sunday. To what extent does our participation at Mass give us power to take possession of the world around us? Rather than to allow it to possess us. To what degree does our presence at this liturgy help us to uncover and to enjoy the presence of God when we leave this holy place? And how effectively does our weekly gathering for prayer move us to care for the many needy people around us?

I’m not sure how you feel about this, sisters and brothers. I know that many of us do take the liturgy seriously. Finding in it consolation and strength for our journey. Allowing it also to challenge us to go beyond our comfort zones for the sake of others. And yet, it remains true that some of us still think of our time here as the fulfilling an obligation. Something we wouldn’t do if we didn’t have to. And there are also those of us who still feel the need to offer others constant reminders to treat this place with the reverence and respect that is its due. To maintain a prayerful silence before Mass, for example. To dress appropriately. To switch off mobile devices. To try our best to participate fully and actively... What does all this tell us, sisters and brothers? If not that we still have some way to go as a parish to practice our religion the way it is meant to be practiced?

This challenge is something that can only be met if all of us do our part. Priests like me. As well as lay people like you. We all have a part to play, to help bring our experience of worship closer to the ideal that our readings present to us. It is not easy. We need God’s help. Which is why I find the words of our opening prayer so useful. God of might, giver of every good gift, put into our hearts the love of your name, so that by deepening our sense of reverence, you may nurture in us what is good…

Sisters and brothers, the true religion that is God’s gift to us in Christ is indeed something precious and awe-inspiring. It fills us with power. Draws us to poverty. And enables us to experience the presence of God. What must we do, you and I, as individuals and as a parish, to avoid reducing God’s religion to nothing more than a pitiful man in a ridiculous gorilla suit today?
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