Sunday, May 21, 2017

The Games We Play


6th Sunday of Easter (A)

Picture: cc Lubomir Simek

My dear friends, do you play any games? What games do you play? Perhaps some of us may play sporting games, like soccer, or tennis, or golf. Some others may play computer games. Either on our own or with others. Online or off. Or how about games of chance? Like poker or blackjack. Bingo or mahjong? But then again, especially here in Singapore, I’m sure there are also many of us, myself included, who will say, Aiyah, so busy! Where got time to play games?!

When we say this, we are, of course, thinking of games as nothing more than pastimes. Something we engage in only when we have nothing else better to do. And yet, isn’t it true that it is possible to play games not just as pastimes, but with great passion? Aren’t there games that can actually take over a person’s whole life? For better or for worse?

I’m reminded of that news report on BBC Travel a few days ago, which tells the story of Marottichal, a remote jungle village in northern Kerala state, in India. Where the game of chess has become hugely popular. Out of a population of 6,000, it is said that no less than 4,000 people in Marottichal play chess everyday. Indeed, the report paints a warm inviting picture of groups of people gathered all over town to play chess. Or to watch it being played. They gather in the teashop and at the bus stop. At home and in school. How exactly did this passion for chess begin?

Apparently, about 50 years ago, a man named Unnikrishnan introduced the game to the village. Where it spread, with very positive effects. For, before the arrival of chess, people were playing games of a different, much darker, sort. The village was rife with alcoholism and illicit gambling. Chess changed all that. The report says that miraculously the game’s popularity flourished while drinking and gambling declined. Asked to account for the game’s popularity, Unnikrishnan credits its close connection with life. Chess helps us overcome difficulties and sufferings, he says. On a chess board you are fighting, as we are also fighting the hardships in our daily life.

The experience of this Indian village of Marottichal is not unlike what we find in that unnamed Samaritan town in the first reading. Just as Unnikrishnan introduced a new game of chess, so too does Philip proclaim the new message of the gospel. And the Samaritans respond in much the same way that the villagers of Marottichal did. And with similar effects. We’re told that they united in welcoming the message Philip preached. As a result, miracles begin to happen. Darker, more sinister, games are given up. Their bad effects overcome. Unclean spirits are driven out. Paralytics and cripples find healing. This is what happens when a good game is adopted with wholehearted passion. When it is allowed to become more than just a pastime. When the gospel is generously received, it changes lives. Bringing with it great rejoicing.

Isn’t this also what the second reading encourages us to do? To view the message of the gospel not just as a meaningless pastime. An irritating distraction from the more serious business of daily life. Something we grudgingly engage in only one or two hours a week. Instead, we are told to reverence the Lord Christ in our hearts. To welcome the Crucified and Risen One, much  like how the villagers of Marottichal embraced the game of chess. With open heart and unrestrained passion. Allowing Christ to gradually take over every aspect of our lives. Filling even our sufferings with meaning. For if it is the will of God that you should suffer, it is better to suffer for doing right than for doing wrong.

And, when we do this, when we generously receive the Lord with passion, we experience something truly miraculous. The same thing that Jesus promises his disciples in the gospel. The experience of the ongoing presence and power of Christ himself. And of his Spirit. A presence and a power that remains with us even and especially in times of darkness. When we may feel like how the disciples must have felt when Jesus was taken away from them. Like orphans. Abandoned and alone. Left to face life’s challenges on our own. But we are not alone. The presence and power of Christ, in the Spirit, remains. Assuring us that, even in our darkest moments, we continue to be held in the warmth of God’s gentle embrace.

But this experience is promised to those who do their best to remain in the love of the Lord. By wholeheartedly keeping his commandments. That is, by passionately playing the gracious game that Jesus came to teach us all. The same serious yet joyful game that we gather to play at every Mass. The powerful miracle-working game of the Lord’s Dying and Rising. We experience God’s presence in our lives when we play this game with at least the same passion with which those villagers of Marottichal play chess. When we allow its principles to rule our hearts. The same principles that the Lord embodied when he laid down his life so that we might live. We need to let these same principles, this same Lord, permeate our lives. Order our priorities. Enrich our relationships. Heal our hurts. So that we can reach out and share that same joyful healing, that same powerful presence, with others around us.

Of course, there will very likely be those of us who may be tempted to say, Aiyah, so busy! Where got time to play games?! And yet, isn’t it true that even those of us who may feel this way are actually playing games of a certain sort? Even if we may not think of them as games? All the different things that keep us so very busy at every moment of every day. Apparently serious things that supposedly have to do with real life. By busying ourselves in this way, aren’t we playing by the rules of certain unacknowledged games? Games that may have to do with buying and selling, for example. Or popularity and pride. Or insecurity and anxiety. Envy and greed. Games that may suck out of us the very joy of life. Leaving us feeling empty and broken. Without quite understanding why.

Could it be that it is especially for people like this that Christ died and rose again? Could it be that this is why we celebrate Easter? To allow ourselves to re-learn the game of Christ and of his Cross. To re-experience the great rejoicing that comes to those who play it with passion. To re-commit ourselves to sharing its powerful miraculous effects with those around us.

My dear friends, on this 6th Sunday of Easter, what games are you playing today?

Sunday, May 07, 2017

Between Registration & Recognition


4th Sunday of Easter (A) (Good Shepherd Sunday)



My dear friends, do you use email or social media? I expect that many of us do. And we know how easy it is to get an email or social media account. All you have to do is to register. Go to a website, or download an app, and submit some personal information. That’s all it takes. So simple! But isn’t it also true that, increasingly, something else is required of us? Do you know what it is?

Have you ever received an email claiming to be from someone you know, who’s facing a travel emergency, and needs you to send money overseas immediately? Or how about messages that appear to be from Google, or Facebook, or your bank, asking you to provide the password to your account? As you know, such messages are scams. Brazen attempts to steal our money, or personal information, or both.

Those of us who’ve ever received such messages, and even more so, those who’ve actually fallen victim to them, will know very well that using email and social media requires more than just a one-time registration. It also requires ongoing recognition. The ability to tell the difference between the true and the false. The authentic message and the cunning scam.

We find something like that in our faith as well. What does it take to become a Christian? In the first reading, Peter tells his listeners that they have to repent, to be baptised, and to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. Of course, these days, people are asked to first go through the RCIA. But is that all it takes to become a Christian? Just to go through a kind of registration process? The answer, as you might expect, is no. As important as it is to be baptised, something more is required. Something that Jesus highlights in the gospel.

The Lord says that he is the shepherd of the flock, and that, one by one he calls his own sheep and leads them out. And then he goes ahead of them. And the sheep follow because they know his voice. They never follow a stranger but run away from him: they do not recognise the voice of strangers. For Jesus, the defining characteristic of his sheep is the ability to distinguish between the voice of the Shepherd and that of the stranger. To follow the one and to run away from the other.

So that, as with email or social media, to be a Christian involves more than just registration. More than just being baptised. It also requires recognition. For isn’t it true that, in our daily living, we are bombarded by many different voices, moving us to feel and to do many different things? Some of these voices come from outside us. They are the voices of our family, asking for care and concern… The voices of advertising, seducing us to spend our money… The voices of capitalist society, telling us we need to be more successful, to keep climbing the corporate ladder… The voices of the poor, the sick, the refugees, the polluted earth, crying to us to spare them a thought and a prayer, if not a dollar or two…

Some other voices come from within us. Perhaps as a reaction to what we hear from without. These interior voices also move us to feel and to do various things. They may tell us we are not good, or smart, or rich, or popular enough… Or they may remind us of how much we have been blessed, how grateful we ought to be… Or they may convict us of the wrongs we have committed, the ways in which we have hurt or neglected others, and even ourselves. Of how, in our frantic attention to practical things, we have forgotten to consider their deeper meaning. And so pay the price in boredom and anxiety, in restlessness and endless worry…

To be a Christian is to be aware of how these various voices affect us. How they move us. To be able to recognise, from among them all, the gentle yet insistent voice of the Shepherd, calling us out from the desert lands of selfishness to the green pastures of love. Where a banquet is prepared for us. The same banquet made present here in this Eucharist we celebrate. The banquet catered by the Cross of Christ. In which we are fed with his Body and Blood. Filled and enlightened by his Word. Moved to spend our lives in loving praise and worship and service of God and neighbour.

Here at this banquet we find the criteria by which to recognise the voice of the Shepherd. Here we know the truth of what is written in the second reading. That, even though he was persecuted and crucified, Jesus did and spoke no wrong. Nor did he retaliate. Instead, he patiently placed his trust in God. Lovingly laying down his life for our healing. Mercifully gathering to himself all his scattered sheep. This is how we distinguish the Shepherd from the stranger. By his Love.

And it is when we pay close attention to this Love, and all its implications, that we then experience within ourselves the intimate interior promptings of the Shepherd’s call. We begin to recognise what the voice of the Shepherd really sounds like, when he speaks from deep within us. Which is what the people in the first reading experienced too. After hearing Peter’s homily, something happened to them interiorly. We’re told that they were cut to the heart. And not only does this experience move them to repent and to receive baptism, it also becomes for them a touchstone by which to recognise and to follow the Shepherd’s voice in their daily living.

All of which we do well to remember especially today, when we traditionally promote and pray for more vocations to the priestly and religious life. Typically, we promote vocations not unlike how others might market a product. By generating publicity. Distributing pamphlets and taking out advertisements in the Catholic News.  In this way, we hope to make our voice heard above the noise of the marketplace. But could it be that what we need to do even more is to help our young people to recognise the voice of the Shepherd, already speaking to them so persuasively from without and from within? To distinguish this voice from the many others that scream out at them from all sides? And could it be that we can only do this by first learning and practising it ourselves? Could it be that we promote vocations more effectively by first finding and living our own respective callings with ever greater generosity and authenticity? As the old Latin saying goes, nemo dat quod non habet. No one gives what one does not have.

My dear friends, strangely enough, like social media, the Christian life requires not just registration, but also recognition. What must we do to better recognise and follow Christ our Crucified and Risen Lord today?

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Claiming the Promise


3rd Sunday of Easter (A)

Readings: Acts 2:14, 22-33; Psalm 16:1-2, 5, 7-8, 9-10, 11; 1 Peter 1:17-21; Luke 24:13-35
When you're down and troubled,
And you need some lovin’ care.
And nothing, nothing is going right.
Just close your eyes and think of me,
And soon I will be there
To brighten up even your darkest night.
You just call out my name,
And you know wherever I am,
I'll come running, to see you again.
Winter, spring, summer or fall,
All you've got to do is call.
And I'll be there. You’ve got a friend.
My dear friends, I think some of you may recognise these words. They are taken from a song from the 1970s. Do you remember what the song is about? It’s meaning can perhaps be summed up in four words. All beginning with the letter “P”. The first word is promise. The song is a promise made by someone to someone else.

And this promise has to do with a kind of power. The power to transform sadness to joy. Darkness to light. Loneliness to companionship. The one who is down and troubled, the one who needs some lovin’ care, is promised the power to brighten up even the darkest night. How does this happen? It happens through the third “P” word: presence. Not just any presence. But the presence of someone who cares. Someone who will come running in times of trouble.

But in order for this presence and power to be felt, the promise needs to be claimed. The person going through a hard time has to do something. To engage in certain practices. The fourth “P” word. Close your eyes and think of me… just call out my name… Winter, spring, summer or fall, all you've got to do is call. And I'll be there. You’ve got a friend…

A moving promise of power flowing from presence and practice. Promise and power. Presence and practice. This is what the song is about. And this is also what we find in our readings on this third Sunday of Easter. As we ponder more deeply what the Resurrection of Christ means for us. 

In the responsorial psalm, we find someone in trouble. What does the person do? He engages in certain practices. He cries out to God. Preserve me God, I take refuge in you. He takes shelter in God. And he experiences the fulfilment of God’s promise. He feels the powerful presence of God. Changing sadness to joy. Darkness to light. You will show me the path of life, the fullness of joy in your presence, at your right hand happiness for ever.

In the first reading, Peter interprets the words of this psalm as applying to Christ the Lord. Jesus is the one who faced the darkness of the Cross. And, in his suffering, the Lord engaged in the practice of crying out to his Father. Who came running to his side. Allowing him to experience God’s powerful presence, transforming death into life. You killed him, but God raised him up.

But Jesus is not the only one in our readings who experiences the fulfilment of this wonderful promise. His disciples do too. At the beginning of the gospel reading, Cleopas and his unnamed companion are in a very dark place. Their Master and Lord has been crucified. Their hopes have been dashed. And they are walking away from Jerusalem. The place of their dreams. Yet, in their darkness, something happens to them. They somehow receive power.

At the end of the reading, we find them changing directions. Even though night has already fallen, they run excitedly back to the place from which they had been trying to escape. How does this come about? This power comes to them when they are brought into the presence of the Crucified and Risen Lord. A presence that they experience by engaging in certain practices. As they walk together on the road, they share their disappointments with one another. And this openness somehow attracts the Lord to them. He helps them to let the scriptures shed light on their pain. Was it not ordained that the Christ should suffer and so enter into his glory? And gradually, they are transformed. Their broken hearts burn once again with faith and hope.

But that’s not all, after they’ve reached Emmaus, the two disciples engage in further practices. They invite Jesus to break bread with them. And as they are gathered around the table with the Lord, their once unseeing eyes finally recognise the gentle yet powerful presence of a friend.

Power and presence. Coming to those who engage in certain practices. This is how God’s promise is fulfilled. The same promise that is fulfilled in the Death and Resurrection of Christ. The promise that darkness will be changed to Light. Death transformed into Life. This same promise is addressed to us as well. To you and to me. And to all who may find ourselves facing difficult times.

But in order for this promise to be fulfilled, we need to claim it for ourselves. By engaging in the right practices. As the second reading tells us, we must be scrupulously careful to remember that the ransom paid to free us was not paid in silver nor gold, but in the precious blood of a lamb without spot or stain…

We need to call out to Christ, by remembering the price he paid to set us free. Isn’t this what we do here at Mass? As we allow ourselves to be gathered by the Lord, around this ambo and that altar, we bring with us our broken hearts. Hearts broken not just by events in our personal lives. But also by what we see happening in the world around us. We bring the places in our hearts that have been touched by darkness and death. And we cry out to the Lord. We allow him to explain the scriptures to us. To show us how it relates to our lives and our world. We watch as he breaks the bread of his Body. The Real Presence of Christ that becomes food for our souls. Mending our broken hearts. Setting them on fire with the power to go out and to do the same for others.

Winter, spring, summer or fall, all you've got to do is call. And He'll be there. You’ve got a friend…

My dear sisters and brothers, how shall we continue calling upon Jesus, our Crucified and Risen Friend, today?

Saturday, April 15, 2017

From Place to Place


Easter Vigil (A)


Heal the world. Make it a better place,
for you and for me, and the entire human race…

My dear friends, do any of you still remember these words? They are taken, of course, from the chorus of an old Michael Jackson song from the 1990s. Do you remember what the song is about? It calls everyone to do something important. Something urgent. To heal the world. To make it a better place. And it’s not difficult to see why. It’s because the world is broken. There are people dying. From starvation and disease. From war and conflict. From loneliness and neglect. People are dying. So heal the world. Make it a better place…

And how do we do this? Where do we start? The song tells us in its opening verse…

There's a place in your heart, and I know that it is love. And this place could be much brighter than tomorrow. And if you really try, you’ll find there's no need to cry.
In this place you will feel there's no hurt or sorrow…

According to the song, we heal the broken exterior place that is our world by first finding a safe interior place. A location within our hearts that the song calls love. Apparently, if we really try to find this place inside ourselves, we will also discover the energy we need to reach out and to heal the world. So goes the song.

To move from inner place to outer place. To first find love here in our hearts. In order to then move out and heal the world out there. Sounds like a plan. Except that it’s easier said than done. For isn’t brokenness to be found not just in the big bad and pitiful world out there, but also in our own hearts as well? Don’t we often struggle to find and to sustain the love that we need to care for our own family and friends on a daily basis? Let alone to repair the whole wide world? Don’t our best efforts at reaching out sometimes result in more harm than good? We exploit instead of repair. Oppress rather than heal.

If the healing of the world truly depends on love, then surely we need to find a more reliable and consistent source. A better place than our own poor broken hearts. A place where love flows without pause or limit or hidden agenda. Where brokenness finds true healing… Where exactly is this place? What does it look like? How can it be found? These are the questions that our readings help us to ponder on this joyous Easter night.

Notice how, in all our readings tonight, reference is made to various places. Places that God provides. Places in which human beings can live and flourish. In the first reading this place is called the earth. God goes to great lengths to make it fit for human life. But to live in this place is not just a physical project. It is also a spiritual one. It requires obedience to God’s command. Be fruitful and multiply. Fill the earth and conquer it. Care for this place as a God-given responsibility. Instead of selfishly exploiting it as a mere resource.

In the second reading, God invites Abraham to go to a particular place. A certain mountain in the land of Moriah. Again, this is not just a geographic location, but a spiritual place. The place of trust and obedience. Of worship and sacrifice. Abraham is able to find and to remain in this place, because he trusts God enough to obey God’s command. He holds nothing back. Not even his only and much beloved son, Isaac. As a result, Abraham experiences God’s generous providence. On the mountain, the Lord provides

In the third reading too, we find God providing people with safe places. Pursued by the Egyptian army, the Israelites are led into the waters of the Red Sea. But instead of drowning, they find safe passage. God creates a road for them. A way from danger to safety. From certain death to new life. Eventually leading them to the Promised Land.

But, again, it’s important to see that the Promised Land is not just a physical place. It is, above all, a spiritual one. To live there is to remain faithful to God. But the people fail. They worship false gods. And end up in exile. Not just exile from their homeland. But exile from God. In the four readings from the prophets, God promises to bring the people back. But notice how this is described in terms of relationship. I did forsake you for a brief moment, God says, but with great love I will take you back… My love for you will never leave you… Pay attention, come to me…  listen, and your soul will live… Had you walked in the way of God, you would have lived in peace for ever… God promises to gather the people back to God himself. Enfolding them in God’s embrace.

And God promises to do this by cleansing them. By pouring clean water over them. By giving them a new heart. By putting a new spirit in them. For us Christians, this promise finds its fulfilment in baptism. Which for us is much more than just getting our heads and clothes wet. As St. Paul reminds us, when we were baptised we went into the tomb with Christ. We joined him in death. We died to our old selfish ways of life. So that as Christ was raised from the dead… we too might live a new life. A life of love. A life with Christ in God.

To be baptised–as you, our beloved elect will be, later tonight–to be baptised, is to be transported to a location in Mystery. To be brought to live in a special spiritual Place. A Place that is also a Person. The Crucified and Risen Christ. From whose pierced side flows the constant stream of God’s undying love. Here we finally arrive at that place that Michael Jackson was looking for in human hearts. That truly reliable and consistent source of love that alone is capable of healing our world. Except that this place is more than just an interior space.

Notice how, when the two Mary’s visit the tomb of Jesus in the gospel, they are told by an angel to go to a another location. To go to Galilee. Again, this is a spiritual place. Galilee is where Jesus carried out his public ministry. And, after his Dying and Rising, this ministry now extends to the whole world. To go to Galilee is to do what Jesus did. The same thing that Michael Jackson wanted everyone to do. To heal the world. Except that now, this work of healing doesn’t have to be something draining. No. Through the Dying and Rising of Christ, the work of healing has become instead something that energises. For the angel promises that, even out there in Galilee, we will see him. There, in the work of healing the world, we find Christ the Lord himself. Continually filling us with his power. Faithfully energising us to share his merciful love with a broken world.

Heal the world. Make it a better place, for you and for me, and the entire human race… To do this is to allow ourselves to be brought to that other Place who is Christ. Christ Crucified and Risen. Whom we joyously celebrate on this most holy night.

My dear sister and brothers, what must we do to continue seeking and remaining in this marvellous and mysterious Place, today and every day, for the rest of our lives?

Sunday, April 09, 2017

The Delicacy Beyond Disgust


Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord (A)

Picture: cc momovieman

[Brief Homily at Solemn Entrance: The Importance of the Donkey

My dear children, brothers and sisters. We have with us today a VVIA. A very very important animal. Do you know what it is? Yes, it’s a little donkey. And do you know why this donkey is important. Not all donkeys are important. But this particular donkey is important, because it has been chosen by the King. Chosen to carry the King.

And this is a very unusual choice. Because kings usually ride big horses. Not little donkeys. The choice of the little donkey shows us the kind of king we have. The kind of king described in the gospel reading. A king who is not proud and haughty. But lowly and humble. Not bossy and arrogant. But loving and kind. A king who comes not be served but to serve. And to give his life to set us free.

My friends, this is why this little donkey is important. It reminds us of the kind of king we have. And it invites us to follow this king more closely. To be loving and kind to one another. To love and to serve others. Together, let us now follow this donkey. Especially as we begin Holy Week. Let us follow this donkey. As it leads us nearer to our king. And draws us closer to one another…]

********************

My dear friends, do you like durians? Even if you do, don’t you sometimes marvel at the different reactions that they evoke? On the one hand, because of their strong smell, many people actually feel disgusted by them. Find them repulsive. But then, on the other hand, there are also many who love them. Think they are delicious. For some reason, these people are able to overcome their repulsion. They manage to enjoy the delicacy buried beneath that disgusting smell. How do they do it?

To find and to savour the delicacy in what at first may look like an object of disgust. I’m not sure if you will agree with me, sisters and brothers. But I believe that this is also the challenge that Holy Week presents to us. For, over the next seven days, what our liturgy invites us to do is to listen to a marvellous story. To watch an inspiring drama. The story and the drama of Jesus’ final hours on this earth. The Passion, Death and Resurrection of Christ.

And isn’t it true that, not unlike the smell of durians, this story, this drama, is something that some of us may actually find repulsive? For what can be more difficult to stomach than the sight of a lively intelligent young man, being cruelly cut down in the prime of his life? Tortured and killed by his enemies. After having been betrayed and abandoned by his friends.

Nor is this the only reason why we may find it difficult to listen to this story. To watch this drama. For isn’t it true that, beyond the tragedy of torture and the pain of betrayal, what some of us may find even more off-putting is simply the fact that we know this story so very well. Or at least we think we do. Having heard it told again and again, so many times before. As they say, familiarity breeds contempt. So that the moment we hear the story’s beginning, our eyes quickly glaze over with boredom. Our minds drift into daydreams and distraction.

Nor does it help that the reading of the Lord’s Passion is so very long. So much longer than what we are used to on an ordinary Sunday. And what’s even worse is that, in Holy Week, we are made to listen to this same old story being recounted, exactly as we find it in the gospels, not just once, but twice. In two different versions. Matthew’s version today. And John’s on Good Friday. How can we reasonably be expected to endure such torture? Let alone find meaning in what we hear. Or be touched by the earth-shattering events that are being retold? How can we go beyond our disgust? In order to truly enjoy the delicacy buried beneath?

Perhaps what we need is what the prophet says God has given him, in the first reading. Each morning (the Lord) wakes me to hear, to listen like a disciple. The Lord has opened my ear…. For my part I made no resistance….  Open and unresisting ears allowing him to listen like a disciple. This is what the prophet receives from God. And, especially in Holy Week, this is also what we need most of all. What we need to pray for most earnestly. To beg God to open the eyes and ears of our hearts. So that we can listen more closely. Can see more deeply. So that we may truly be moved by the story of Christ’s Dying and Rising. May truly enjoy the delicacy hidden beneath what may at first appear to be nothing more than a cause for boredom. An object of disgust.

To see and to hear, to savour and even to enjoy the profound mystery that is described so powerfully in the second reading. The mystery of the selfless sacrifice of Christ. The story of how the One whose state was divine did not cling to his equality with God but emptied himself to assume the condition of a slave. Laying down his life for me. So that I might live.

To be able to appreciate this wondrous mystery in the liturgy is truly a great blessing. For when my senses are opened in this way, not only will I be able to find Christ in the readings and prayers recited in church. More importantly, I will also be able to find and to meet the Lord, as he continues dying and rising in the ordinary situations of my daily life. And, in meeting him, I will be better able to find meaning in even the most routine of days. The most challenging of circumstances.

My dear friends, although some may be disgusted by durians, others find in them a delicacy. In this most holy of weeks, what must we do, you and I, to find and to enjoy the delicacy who is Christ? The One who dies and rises to set his people free?

Sunday, April 02, 2017

When Someone Weeps...


5th Sunday in Lent (A) (3rd Scrutiny)

Picture: cc Phil Warren

My dear friends, have you ever come across a grown person weeping? Perhaps a spouse or a sibling. A friend or a colleague. How do you react? What do you do? How do you feel? I’m not sure about you, but I have to confess that my typical first reaction is to do one of two things. The first is to avoid the person. I may tell myself that he/she needs to be left alone. Given space to let it all out, without feeling embarrassed. 

But, if avoidance is not possible, the second typical reaction is to try to figure out and to solve the problem. Whatever it is that’s making the person cry. Of course, this isn’t always possible. For example, the person may be crying because a loved one is stricken with terminal cancer. No way for me to solve that. What to do? Well, the next best thing, it seems, is to give advice. I may tell the person to seek a second medical opinion. Or look on the bright side. Or pray. Pray to God. Pray to Mary. Pray to St. Jude, the patron saint of desperate cases. Go for a healing service…

Of course, in my quieter moments, I realise why I react like this. Why I choose either to avoid or to solve the problem. Both reactions are born of the same thing: my own discomfort. For some reason tears make me uncomfortable. Avoidance and problem-solving or advice-giving are just my ways of dealing with the discomfort. And, by doing this, by acting only out of my own discomfort, I fail to pay proper attention to the one weeping.

To actually pay attention to the one who is weeping. To simply be present to the person as he/she weeps. To allow the person to choose to be silent or to speak. To be open enough even to feel whatever it is the person may be feeling. In other words to first be willing to accompany and to be affected by the person. That’s the challenge I face whenever I encounter someone weeping. The challenge first to listen and to feel. To accompany and to be affected. Before deciding what other actions to take.

This seems also to be the challenge posed to us by our Mass readings today. For here too, we find people weeping. In particular, we find Jesus himself weeping. What is our reaction to this? How do we feel? What do we do? Again, perhaps the temptation for me is to allow my discomfort to get the better of me. Causing me to avoid the weeping. Or to problem-solve. To simply ignore the tears. Or to try to distract myself from them. But what happens when I actually pay attention? What happens when I allow myself to be affected by the tears? These are the questions that help me reflect more deeply on our readings. To penetrate the profound mystery that they contain.

What happens when we remain with Jesus, the Word-Made-Flesh and Splendour-of-the-Father, the Son-of-God and Son-of-Mary, as he weeps at the tomb of his friend Lazarus? Very likely, we will each have different initial reactions. Mine is strangely one of puzzlement. There is something I don’t understand. Something I want to ask the One weeping. The question is why? Why are you weeping, Lord? The gospel tells us that you experience great distress, when you see the tears of Mary and her companions. And that this distress moves you to shed tears at the tomb. And yet, don’t you know already that you are about to raise your friend to life? In fact, didn’t you deliberately delay your arrival at Bethany by two days? Presumably to allow Lazarus to die, so that you might raise him up again? Why then do you weep? What is the true cause of your grief?

I can’t be sure, sisters and brothers, but when I address this question to the Lord, he seems to invite me to find the answer in the rest of our readings. Through the first reading, he reminds me that it is not just individual persons who die. That there is a kind of death that afflicts whole peoples as well. The kind that afflicted the people to whom the prophet Ezekiel was sent. A people in exile. Far from God. A people who seem to be alive. But whom God considers dead. As dead as a bunch of bones, strewn out in the open, and dried by the scorching sun. It is to these dry bones, this dead people, that God’s promise in the first reading is addressed: I am going to raise you from your graves, my people…. I shall put my spirit in you, and you will live… 

But what exactly does this kind of death look and feel like? Does it afflict only the people of long ago? Or does it not also afflict us as well. We the people of this modern day? We who seem so very much alive. More alive than any of our ancestors ever were. We who enjoy the benefits of science and technology. Which enable us to live longer and healthier than ever before.

And yet, the second reading reminds us that to truly be alive is not just a matter of carrying out the biological functions of breath and digestion, of movement and thought. But to be able somehow to please God. And we’re told that people who are interested in unspiritual things can never be pleasing to God. People whose attention is focused only on the mechanics of daily living. However important these may be. People whose every waking moment is occupied by thoughts of eating and drinking. Of buying and selling. Of work and entertainment. People whose lives have become so painfully empty and so desperately dry. Without them even realising it. People whose self-centredness have gradually made them lose the capacity to feel, to truly feel, the pain of others. To be moved, as Jesus was moved, to accompany those who suffer. To be affected by the sorrows of another.

Could it be that it is also for all these spiritually dead people, among whom I may include myself? Could it be that it is also for them, for me, that Jesus weeps? Could it be that it is my suffering that causes the Lord to be moved to the very depths of his being. Causing him to experience deep distress. And to sigh. And to cry. And not just to cry. But also, soon after, to climb up that lonely hill called Calvary. And there to lay down his life on a cruel Cross, that I may live. May truly live, to the full, the life he calls me to live. The life in God’s Spirit. The life of love and joy and peace in the sight of God and of God’s people.

And while Jesus may have been confident that Lazarus would respond when he called to him. Perhaps the Lord is as yet unsure of how the rest of us will respond. Of how I will respond when he calls me out. Perhaps he knows quite well that there will be some who will refuse to come forth. Those who, having become so accustomed to the darkness, will actually be reluctant to walk into the light. Will choose to cling to selfish concerns, instead of coming to the Lord, and reaching out to those in need.

Isn’t this why we continue with our Lenten discipline? Which is fast coming to a close. Isn’t this why you, the Elect, are celebrating your 3rd and final scrutiny today? We prepare our hearts to respond ever more courageously and generously to the Lord, as he calls us from darkness to light. From death to life.

My dear friends, there is Someone among us who stands before us weeping. He weeps not just for Lazarus. But also for us. For you and for me. How will you respond to his call today?

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Mistaking the Mother for the Maid


4th Sunday in Lent (A) (2nd Scrutiny)


My dear friends, have you ever failed to recognise someone? Or have you ever mistaken someone for somebody else? Do you know what it feels like? How it happens? Often it has to do with having certain mistaken assumptions or expectations. Take for example, that video that recently went viral. You may have seen it. Professor Robert Kelly, an expert on East Asian politics, is being interviewed live on BBC World. He’s answering questions from what appears to be a room in his own home.

In the middle of the interview, his 4-year-old daughter happily wanders in, and tries to get her daddy’s attention. She is followed closely by her baby brother. Stumbling in on a walker. Then, moments later, an obviously panic-stricken Asian woman dashes into the room and proceeds to hurriedly herd the children out. While trying valiantly to crouch down as close to the ground as possible. In a vain attempt at avoiding being caught on camera.

The video raised quite a few laughs online. Many found it highly amusing. Which it is. But what’s also interesting is that a good number of those who posted comments on the video somehow assumed that the Asian woman in it is the children’s nanny. She’s not. Her name is Kim Jung-a. And she’s their mother.

Now, just to be clear, I bring this up not to point fingers at those who mistook the mother for the maid. To be honest, I could very easily have made the same mistake. It just seems to me that these reactions illustrate how easy it is to mistake someone for somebody else. How difficult it can be to recognise someone for who s/he really is. Often, this results from certain mistaken assumptions that I hold. Such as thinking that an Asian woman staying with a caucasian family must be the maid. We might say that assumptions like these keep me in the dark. Blind me to a person’s true identity.

This is not unlike the darkness and blindness that we find in our Mass readings on this 4th Sunday of Lent. When you, our elect, are celebrating your 2nd Scrutiny. We find a clear reference to this in the second reading. Which describes Christians as children of the light. And encourages them–encourages us–to try to discover what the Lord wants of us, having nothing to do with the futile works of darkness but exposing them by contrast

To keep moving from darkness to light. This is also what we find the prophet Samuel doing in the first reading. God sends him to anoint a new king from the sons of Jesse. But Jesse has eight sons. And Samuel has no idea which of them God wants. So he falls back on his own assumptions. Thinking, at first, that perhaps the oldest boy might be the one. Since he’s tall and handsome. But God has other plans. Samuel is told that God does not see as man sees: man looks at appearances but the Lord looks at the heart. Gradually, God leads Samuel from the darkness of his own mistaken assumptions to the joyful light of true recognition. Following God’s guidance, Samuel finally acknowledges and anoints David as king. And the people receive a great blessing.

This movement from darkness to light is also what the gospel invites us to ponder. The reading begins with the healing of a man who was born blind. Someone who has never seen the light of day. After washing his eyes, he is given new sight. But this physical healing, which takes place instantly, points us to a deeper spiritual healing. One that happens only gradually.

We see this especially in how the man born blind is gradually led to recognise Jesus as Lord. At first, when questioned by his neighbours, he refers to Jesus simply as the man. A little later, in response to the Pharisees, he calls Jesus a prophet. Then, when pressured by the religious authorities, he argues that Jesus must be from God. And, eventually, when he meets Jesus a second time, the man finally calls him Lord. He declares his belief in Jesus. And he worships him.

Like Samuel in the first reading, the man in the gospel is led to recognise and to acclaim the chosen one of God. Gradually, he is guided out of darkness and into light. Joyfully, he receives the gift of true spiritual sight. And the good news, my dear friends, is that this gift is something that we Christians believe we too have received. When we were washed in the waters of our baptism. The gift of recognising Jesus for who he really is. The Chosen One of God. Sent to lead us into the fullness of life. This is the same gift that we are preparing ourselves to receive anew. When we renew our baptismal promises at Easter. And this is also the gift that you, our beloved elect, are preparing yourselves to receive, when you too are washed, in the waters of baptism, at the Easter Vigil.

This preparation to receive the gift of recognising the Lord is something that we all need very much. Baptised and unbaptised alike. For, whether we care to admit it or not, there are certain forces that hinder us from making the crucial shift from darkness to light. From blindness to sight. Things that keep us from letting go of our mistaken assumptions. Isn’t this what we find in the gospel reading? Consider, for example, the parents of the man born blind. They know for a fact that he has somehow been cured of his blindness. And yet, they are reluctant to acknowledge in public the One responsible for his healing. We are told that that his parents spoke like this out of fear of being expelled from the synagogue.

And what about the authorities themselves? They too refuse to recognise Jesus. Even though the evidence is laid out before them. In the words of the man born blind: if this man were not from God, he couldn’t do a thing. And yet, the religious authorities still reject Jesus. Considering him a sinner for healing on a sabbath day. They stubbornly insist on remaining in the darkness of their own mistaken assumptions. Which is as ridiculous as if I were to continue to insist that Kim Jung-a, that Asian woman in the viral video, is a maid. Even after being told that she is actually the children’s mother.

Fear and stubborn pride. These are the obstacles that keep the people in the gospel from acknowledging Jesus. Fear and pride. These are among the things that I need to resist even today. For I too have mistaken assumptions that I need to let go of. Things that keep me from recognising Christ in my daily life. Such as the thought that God can be present only when things go smoothly. Only in times of success. Only when money flows freely. Only when praise is showered upon me. These assumptions seem so very reasonable. But are also so very mistaken. They keep me from recognising the Christ who willingly walks the Way of the Cross. Lovingly climbs the slopes of Calvary. Before triumphantly rising from the shadows of the Tomb.

To be brought out of the darkness of mistaken assumptions and into the light of true recognition. This is the joyful gift that is being offered to us. My dear sisters and brothers, baptised and elect alike. What must we do to truly receive this gift? To stop mistaking the mother for the maid today?

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