Sunday, January 15, 2017

Rehabilitating the Appendix


2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Picture: cc AJC1

My dear friends, have you ever felt like an appendix? You know, of course, what an appendix is, right? It’s that slender little tube located at the end of the large intestine. For a long time, it was thought that the appendix serves no useful purpose. That it makes no real contribution to the healthy functioning of the human body. That, in the process of human evolution, it was somehow left behind and forgotten. Indeed, it can even be considered a nuisance. Since it is so prone to getting inflamed. And then having to be surgically removed.

So, my dear friends, have you ever felt like an appendix? Like you serve no real purpose in this world. Like you were useless. A waste of space. I’m not sure. But I suspect that there are more than a few of us who may feel this way from time to time. Whether we may care to admit it or not. Feel as though our existence is pointless. Aimless. Meaningless. Sure, our lives may be filled with many things that we have to do. Some of which may even be very important. And yet, don’t we sometimes still feel strangely empty? Isn’t this why some of us work so hard? Or shop so much? Or check our phones so frequently? Or indulge in various bad habits? Aren’t we somehow trying to avoid the depressing thought that, if we suddenly dropped dead, the world will still go on without us? Sure, there will likely be a wake and a funeral in our honour. Some prayers will be offered for us. Our bosses may need to replace us. Our families and friends may miss us. But, after all is said and done, won’t life go on as it did before? Not unlike how the body goes on even after the appendix is removed? So what’s the point?

My dear friends, have you ever felt like an appendix? I imagine that it can be a terrible thing to feel this way. Perhaps it's what leads some people to think of suicide. After all, if an appendix can be removed without adverse effects, why not a human life? Why not my life? And yet, as some of you may know, more recently, researchers have been saying that the appendix may not be useless after all. It is thought that it could actually perform the important function of storing and preserving helpful bacteria in the body. Bacteria that is essential to the immune system. Bacteria that would otherwise be wiped out should the body suffer a sudden bout of food poisoning, for example. So that it is now believed that people who have had their appendices removed may take a longer time to recover from certain illnesses. In other words, the appendix is in the process of being rehabilitated. Rescued from uselessness.

And what modern researchers are doing for the appendix, our Mass readings can do for us. Especially those of us who sometimes can’t help feeling like an appendix ourselves. For if there is one thing that all our readings have in common, it is that they contain people with a very clear sense of their own function. Their own true purpose. Their own proper role in the greater scheme of things.

In the first reading, the prophet Isaiah reminds the people of Israel of their own high calling. Far from being useless, they are called to be God’s servant. Called to continue praising and glorifying God. By living and worshipping together as a united people in God’s sight. And that’s not all. God tells them that their function goes beyond themselves. It extends even to the far reaches of the world. I will make you the light of the nations so that my salvation may reach the ends of the earth.

We find a similar sense of purpose in the second reading, taken from the beginning of St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. In introducing himself, Paul leaves no doubt as to who he is and what he is called to do. I, Paul, appointed by God to be an apostle. As you know, the word apostle means one who is sent. And not only is Paul sure of his own identity and mission. He is sure also of the identity and mission of the people to whom he is writing. He sends greetings to the church of God in Corinth, to the holy people of Jesus Christ, who are called to take their place among all the saints everywhere…

And just as the second reading describes Paul’s conviction. So too does the gospel present to us with that of John the Baptist. Notice how convinced the Baptist is of Jesus’ identity and mission. Without hesitation, he proclaims Jesus the lamb of God and the Chosen One. And it is not just about Jesus’s purpose and mission that the Baptist is clear. He is clear, first of all, of his own proper role and function. I did not know him myself, he says, and yet it was to reveal him to Israel that I came baptising with water…. Yes, I have seen and I am the witness…

Servant of God and light to the nations… Appointed apostle and holy people… Baptising prophet and outspoken witness… Lamb of God and Chosen One. My dear friends, these descriptions leave no room for doubt that the people in our readings today have a clear sense of who they are and the roles they are meant to play. Isaiah. Paul. John the Baptist. These are people who do not live empty lives. Sure, they do have to face terrible struggles. They may be persecuted and even put to death for their beliefs. But whatever else they may have to suffer, they do not suffer from a sense of uselessness or meaninglessness.

Far from feeling painfully empty, their lives are instead joyfully full. And it is this fullness, this sense of purpose, that is being offered to us today. To you and to me. And the key word is offered. For the sense of purpose enjoyed by the people in our readings today is quite unlike the kind of fullness that our world may encourage us to pursue. The kind of fullness that comes only from our own determination and achievement. Our own desperate attempts to fill our lives with every manner of frantic activity. Yes, even apparently pious activity. The fullness experienced in our readings today is first, and above all, a gift. A gift generously offered. Asking to be humbly received.

Isn’t this why we find words like called and appointed, chosen and sent, appearing so frequently in our readings? Contrary to what we may have been led to believe, the secret to living a truly full and meaningful life comes to us not first of all as a project that we undertake for ourselves. But rather as a gift that we receive from God. The initiative is not ours. But God’s. The same God who called and appointed, chose and sent, first Isaiah, and then John the Baptist. First Jesus, and then Paul. This same God is also calling and choosing, appointing and sending us. You and me. Asking us to let our lives revolve first of all around God’s love for us. A love that has been, and continues to be, offered to us, in the very concrete circumstances of our daily lives. We are called first to experience this love for ourselves. And then to go and share it with the rest of our world. Isn’t this why we gather here at this Mass? To remember and to celebrate this great love. To experience it for ourselves. And then to be sent to proclaim it to others. Go and announce the gospel of the Lord!

My dear friends, a precious gift is even now being offered to us. What must we do to continue humbly receiving it? For ourselves and for those to whom we are sent? What must we do to allow God to continue rehabilitating the appendix of our lives today?

Sunday, January 08, 2017

Black Hole or Bright Moon


Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord


Picture: cc Rachel Kramer

My dear friends, do you know what a black hole is? I’m sure many of you know better than I do. To understand it better, my simple mind finds it helpful to compare a black hole with the moon. Which often appears to us as a brightly shining object. High up in the sky. This is even though, as we all know, the moon doesn’t actually produce any light or its own. It shines only by reflecting the rays of the sun. And the moon is able to do this because its own gravitational pull is weak. Weak enough to allow the light falling upon it to escape. So that others can see it.

In sharp contrast to the brightly shining moon, however, a black hole is always shrouded in darkness. It does not shine. This is because its gravity is so strong that any light falling upon it is instantly absorbed by it. Sucked into the black hole itself. Unable to escape. As a result, the black hole remains invisible.We know it’s there only by observing its effects on the objects around it.

The moon, because of its weakness, is able to reflect the sun’s light. But a black hole is simply too strong to shine. My dear friends, don’t you find this contrast striking? And more than just an interesting tidbit, I think that this difference between a black hole and a brightly shining moon can actually help us to better understand what is being asked of us, on this solemn feast of the Epiphany of the Lord. For, in each of our readings today, we find people being challenged to respond appropriately when God’s light shines upon them.

The context of the first reading is the end of the Exile. For many long years, the people of Jerusalem have been living in darkness. Far away from home. But now they have finally been allowed to return to the Holy City. Now they are being graced once more by God’s life-giving presence. Like the rising sun, the glory of God is shining warmly upon them. How are they to respond? What must they do? The people are told that, like the moon, they should arise and shine out! They should reflect the light of God that is falling upon them. Scripture scholars tell us that this invitation to shine is actually a call to the people to rebuild the Holy City. God’s dwelling place on earth. To rebuild it not just for themselves. But also so that others might be attracted to its radiance. Might come to Jerusalem. And call it home.

The crucial question, that the people in the first reading have to answer, is whether or not they will heed this call. Whether they will be submissive enough, weak enough, to respond positively to God’s plea. To rebuild God’s House. Or whether they will be too stubborn, too strong, to obey. Whether, having themselves already made it back to the safety of Jerusalem, they will now look only to their own comfort and concerns. Instead of working for the benefit of others as well. Those who still remain far away from home. The choice presented by the first reading is clear. Either to shine out. Or to sit back. Either to reflect God’s light like the moon. Or simply to suck it all up. Like a black hole.

We find a similar contrast in the gospel. Here God’s light shines upon the darkness of the world in a marvellously new way. God comes among us as an ordinary human baby. Radiant with God’s mighty power. Seen especially in the baby’s disarming helplessness. Shimmering with God’s immeasurable riches. Expressed eloquently in the baby’s startling poverty. Providing for all those who have been exiled by sin and selfishness, a true home, in the baby’s surprising homelessness…

After Jesus had been born at Bethlehem… This is how the gospel begins. After Jesus had been born… In other words, after the Light had already begun to shine… The gospel then goes on to describe contrasting responses to the Light. On the one hand, there is a group of foreigners from the east, who respond very positively to the coming of the light. And they do this by first  spotting its radiance. We saw his star as it rose. A sign that they must have been watching out for its coming. Then, having spotted the Light, they set out courageously, and with great humility and determination, to seek and to find it. And, after having found it, they surrender themselves completely to it. A surrender expressed as much by their falling on their knees in homage, as by the precious gifts that they offer: gold and frankincense and myrrh. A surrender that continues even after they have returned to the places from which they came. By sharing with others the good news of the Light’s coming.

Spotting the light when it shines. Setting out to seek and to find it. And then surrendering wholeheartedly to its radiance. These are the ways by which those wise men from the east demonstrate their wisdom. Ways by which they help to rebuild God’s dwelling place on earth. Ways by which they arise and shine out. Much like how the moon reflects the rays of the sun. And, in so doing, they brighten the way for others as well. Even for the chief priests and scribes of the people. Through their questions, the foreign seekers actually manage to lead the local experts to discover the treasure hidden in their own scriptures.

In contrast, King Herod responds to the light not in weakness and humility, but in stubbornness and insecurity. In deceit and violence. Feeling threatened by the coming of another king, he wants to seek out and to smother the Light. He fails to reflect its brilliance. Even though it is shining out from within his very own backyard. So that, if the wise men are like a brightly shining moon, then Herod must surely be a big black hole.

To shine rather than to smother. This is also the challenge in the second reading. I have been entrusted by God, Paul tells the Ephesians, with the grace he meant for you. In his ministry Paul sees himself as doing nothing more than reflecting the Light who is Christ. A Light meant to be shared with others.

But, my dear sisters and brothers, hasn’t this same Light been entrusted to us as well? Hasn’t it already begun to shine in our own backyards? Especially in the past two weeks of Christmas? And, as we enter Ordinary Time tomorrow, are we not being called to continue sharing this light with others? Especially with those who may remain living in the darkness of exile. Far away from home. Are we not being called, each in our own way, to arise and shine out? To rebuild God’s dwelling place on earth?

I’m reminded of the news feature that I stumbled upon last night, on the BBC channel. It’s about the Syrian National Orchestra for Arabic Music. Whose members have been dispersed by civil war. But many of whom have chosen to remain and continue making music in their war-torn country. As a musician I feel I have a responsibility, one of them said. We have to sing. We have to play… The sound of music is louder than the bombs. It has to be louder. To persevere in sharing the light of music. Even in the darkness of war. Isn’t this what we are being called to do?

My dear friends, a challenging choice is placed before us, as the Christmas season draws to a close today: Having already received the light of Christ, we can now choose either to shine out and to share it with others, or to sit back and smother it. The alternatives are clear: To be a brightly shining moon, or a big black hole. Which will you choose to be in the days ahead?

Sunday, January 01, 2017

Peekaboo!


Solemnity of Mary, the Holy Mother of God

Picture: cc Liana_Kyle

My dear friends, have you ever witnessed parents comforting a crying baby? Consoling an infant in distress? As you know, they sometimes do it by playing a game called peekaboo! Perhaps you have played it before. What you do is turn towards the baby and use both of your hands to cover your face. You then suddenly remove your hands from your face and say peekaboo! Actually, it doesn’t really matter what you say. The point is to allow the baby to see a familiar and friendly face quickly appearing and disappearing in front of it. For some reason, babies enjoy being teased in this way. Provided, of course, that the conditions are right. The experience makes them laugh. It fills them with joy and delight.

Don’t you find it remarkable? That a simple game like this should have such power to make a baby so happy. And what’s perhaps more amazing is that the baby’s happiness doesn’t come only from seeing the grownup’s face. Otherwise it would be enough just to keep staring at the baby to make it laugh. But doing that is probably just as likely to make it cry even more. No, the baby’s delight comes from experiencing mommy or daddy’s face first being hidden and then suddenly revealed. It’s the curious combination of hiddenness and revelation that brings joy.

Why? I’m not sure. Perhaps it’s because, even though mommy or daddy’s face may be briefly hidden from it, the baby is still somehow able to sense its parent’s loving presence. The face may be hidden, but the love can still be felt. And that unseen presence is confirmed every time the face is uncovered. Giving the baby an exquisite experience of joy and delight.

Peekaboo! A simple game with the power to bring joy and delight through the covering and uncovering of a loved one’s face. Now, it may sound strange, my dear friends, but don’t you think that this is very much like what we celebrate at Christmas? A power that we are invited to ponder particularly today, on the solemn feast of Mary, the Holy Mother of God?

The first reading gives us a helpful introduction, by telling us how God bestows a special power on the priestly family of Aaron. It is the power to call down God’s blessing on the people of Israel. A blessing that is described as the uncovering of God’s face. It’s as though, through the blessing of the priest, God promises to bring joy to the people by playing with them a game of peekaboo! By revealing God’s face to them. A face that so often remains hidden. Hidden perhaps by the trials that the people may face from time to time. And yet, even in the midst of these trials, the people are invited to keep trusting in God’s loving presence. And, with the help of the priest, to keep praying for God’s blessing. Then God promises to uncover God’s face to them again. To quickly come to their rescue when they are in danger. Speedily bringing them peace in time of trouble.

It is probably no accident that this reading is chosen for us today. For we Christians believe that God’s promise to uncover God’s face finds its ultimate fulfilment at Christmas. A time when we ponder more deeply the birth of Jesus, the only begotten Son of God. The visible image of the invisible God. The firstborn of all creation. And the power to call down this awesome blessing is bestowed first on Mary, the Holy Mother of God. By graciously accepting God’s invitation to conceive and to bear a child, Mary helps to uncover God’s face to us all.

Even so, the gospel reading for today draws our attention to something more profoundly mysterious. At this point in the story, the baby Jesus has actually already been born. And yet, God’s face continues to require uncovering. For, as we all know well, at the birth of Jesus, many people are not able to recognise him. They are too preoccupied with their daily routine. Too caught up in business as usual. Too engrossed in the cares and concerns of life. So that the Master of the Universe can find nowhere else to be born than in a place used for keeping farm animals. The King of Creation has to be laid on a bed of straw. The glory of the only begotten Son of God is at once graciously revealed and also painfully hidden from the eyes of an unsuspecting world.

So that, quite mysteriously, even though Jesus has already been born, the gospel speaks to us of how God’s face continues to require uncovering. And to whom is this power given? This power to reveal God’s face? This power to call down God’s blessing? It’s given not just to humble Mary. But also to lowly shepherds. Who, we’re told, when they saw the child, repeated what the angels had told them about him. And everyone who heard it was astonished at what they had to say. By faithfully believing and joyously repeating what the angels had told them, the shepherds help to uncover God’s face to their world. In their own unique way, they conceive and give birth to God’s Son anew. Bringing joy and delight to all who would believe their story.

And it’s important for us to realise that this awesome power of uncovering God’s face, of calling down God’s blessing, is bestowed not just on the shepherds. But also on us. On you and on me. Mary’s adopted children. Members of her Son’s Body. The same people of whom the second reading speaks, when it says that God sent his Son, born of a woman… to enable us to be adopted as sons… And how do we know this? How can we be sure that we are indeed adopted daughters and sons of God? We know it through an interior experience: The proof… is that God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts: the Spirit that cries, ‘Abba, Father’ .

The same Spirit who made Mary the Mother of God. Giving her the power to conceive and to give birth to Christ in the world. The power of this same Spirit is given also to us. To you and to me. The power to keep doing, in our own lives, what we find Mary and the shepherds doing in the gospel. Uncovering God’s face to a world in distress. And how do we exercise of this power? By following Mary’s example. In the midst of considerable hardship. Surrounded as she is not by the familiar comforts of home, but by the startling and unsanitary company of ox and ass. Quite remarkably, Mary is able to keep pondering the faithful love of God. Allowing it to fill her with joy and delight. And she does this not just for her own enjoyment. But also so that she can keep uncovering to others what often remains so painfully hidden from them. Hidden as much by their own sinfulness as by the trials that they have to face. The glorious divine presence. The faithful and friendly face of God.

It is this awesome power, this precious privilege, that we ponder and celebrate today. The power and the privilege to uncover God’s face to a world in distress. A world so desperately in need of experiencing the peace of God’s Presence… The light of God’s Truth… And the warmth of God’s Love…

Sisters and brothers, in this joyful season of Christmas. As we continue to allow the Baby in the Manger to help us ponder God’s presence among us. How are we being called to help God play peekaboo with the rest of our unsuspecting world today?

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Matchmaker Make Me A Match


Nativity of the Lord (Mass During the Day)


My dear friends, do you know how young people these days decide to get married? I recently met a happily engaged couple, who are excitedly looking forward to their wedding day next year. When I asked them how they met, I was a little surprised at their reply. They told me that a mutual friend had set them up. This good samaritan had guessed that the two might hit it off. And he was right. The couple discovered that they had actually been schoolmates years before. And that they had many other friends in common. Which led them to think that, if they could both get along with so many of the same people, there was a good chance they would also enjoy each other’s company as well. And they did. They agreed to meet… And now they find themselves eagerly looking forward to marriage.

So how do young people, in this day and age, come to meet and then decide to get married? Well, at least for this pair, what made all the difference was that kaypoh mutual friend of theirs. That self-appointed matchmaker. Having studied in the same school, it’s likely that the couple would probably have seen each other many times before. Yet they didn’t recognise one another as potential partners for life. Not till someone took it upon himself to arrange their first meeting. Helping each of them to recognise and accept the other as a candidate for marriage. And, by the way, this same couple is now looking to return the favour. I’m told that strenuous efforts are currently being made to set up that mutual friend of theirs. To matchmake the matchmaker. Who happens to still be single and available.

Who would have thought that, even in this modern day and age, where almost everyone is supposedly plugged in and connected to one another, a matchmaker could still help to transform mundane meetings into exciting engagements and joyful marriages? But what has all this got to do with Christmas? Well, it’s true that, in our Mass readings today, no mention is made of matchmakers. Much less of meetings leading to marriages. And yet, we do find a process that looks very similar. If not meetings resulting in marriages, then a seeing that leads to song.

In the first reading, we’re told that the watchmen of Jerusalem raise their voices, they shout for joy together. Why? For they see the Lord face to face. And the responsorial psalm tells us to sing a new song to the Lord. Why? For he has worked wonders. And all the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God. A profound seeing that leads to joyful song. This is what we find in our readings today. This is what all of us Christians are supposed to experience on a regular basis. Seeing our God coming to save us, we ought to find ourselves moved to raise our voices in joyful song. And not just our voices, but our whole lives should be lived as songs of praise offered to God. Not unlike how, having met each other for the first time, that young couple was moved to recognise one another as spousal material. And to eventually decide to joyfully commit themselves to each other in marriage.

A seeing that leads to joyful song. This is how the Christian life is supposed to be lived. And yet, my dear friends, how many of us actually experience this on a regular basis? In the ups and downs of daily living, how many of us can honestly say that we are able to see the Lord coming to save us? How many of us find ourselves moved to sing the praises of God? Are we not just as likely to relate to God in the same way that those two former schoolmates treated each other before they were formally introduced? Even if we may see, again and again, the saving presence of our God, we are often unable to recognise it as such. And with this failure of recognition comes the inability to rejoice. The reluctance to sing. Indeed, are we not more likely to raise our voices in complaint than in praise?

Yet we are not alone in feeling this way. The gospel tells us that this was also the experience of many people at the Lord’s first coming. He was in the world that had its being through him, and the world did not know him. He came to his own domain and his own people did not accept him. Like us, they too saw but could not sing. And can we blame them? For when the Word was made flesh and lived among us, for some mysterious reason, he chose to come as a helpless baby. One unable to find a better birthplace than in a manger surrounded by filthy farm animals. One who would, when he had grown up, challenge the religious authorities of his day. And then be executed as a convicted criminal. Only to be rumoured to have been raised to life on the third day. Someone who lived between obscurity and controversy. Is it any wonder that people refused to accept him?

Even so, there were those who did. Those who were able to see and recognise him as the One that the second reading calls the radiant light of God’s glory. The First-Born Son, whom all the angels of God worship. And the gospel tells us that to all these fortunate people, who were able to recognise and accept him, he gave power to become children of God. Power, in other words, to rejoice and to sing the praises of their heavenly Father. And not just with their voices. But in the way they lived their lives.

But how, we may ask, did these people succeed where so many others failed? How were they able to see in so profound a way as to be led to break out in joyful song? They didn’t do it on their own. They had help. The first reading speaks of a joyful messenger bringing news of peace. How beautiful on the mountains, are the feet of one who brings good news, who heralds peace, brings happiness, proclaims salvation… And the gospel points us more specifically to the person of John the Baptist. The one who comes as a witness. Helping others to recognise the Light when it shines upon them… Just as that happily engaged couple benefitted from the efforts of a matchmaker, so too did those who recognise Christ at his first coming benefit from the ministry of John the Baptist.

And what about us? Could this be the real reason why we celebrate Christmas? Why we need to celebrate Christmas? And celebrate not just today, but for all of the next two weeks of the Christmas Season? During this time, we will allow the liturgy to become our holy matchmaker. Helping us to see and to recognise Emmanuel. The God who regularly enters our lives to save us. To save us from our burdensome self-absorption. Our often soul-crushing routine. As we gaze upon the Christmas crib. As we ponder over the readings and prayers at Mass. We allow all of these to become our John the Baptist. To help us recognise how God comes to save us. Perhaps not in spectacular ways. But in ordinary yet mighty ways. Mighty in the way that a baby lying on a bed of straw can be mighty. Having the power to penetrate hearts so often hardened by the cares and distractions of life. To penetrate and to disarm them. To turn them from darkness to light. From self-centredness to compassion. From blindness to sight. From complaint to praise.

My dear friends, if it is indeed true that Christmas is about being led from meeting to marriage, from seeing to song. Then what must we do to pay closer attention to the matchmaker this Christmas?

Sunday, December 11, 2016

The Grace to Wag our Tails (Rerun)


3rd Sunday in Advent (A) (Gaudete Sunday)


Sisters and brothers, have you ever come across people leaving their dogs outside a store or a restaurant, while they go in to shop or eat? It’s not so common here in Singapore. But I once lived in a place where this happened quite frequently. And I remember being fascinated by the different reactions of those poor dogs. Some of them would just lie down on the ground, put their heads on their paws, and look really depressed at being left behind. Others did the exact opposite. They became very excited and distracted by everything around them. Sniffing at the trees, the dustbins, and the people passing by. You just knew that, if they weren’t on a leash, they’d probably run off without turning back. Then there were also the really impatient and demanding ones. Who wouldn’t stop barking loudly. Until their owners came out to get them.

But, every so often, if you were really lucky, you’d come across a dog who behaved quite differently from all the rest. This fellow neither barks nor makes a fuss. It doesn’t get impatient or distracted. Nor does it look depressed. On the contrary, even though it’s left outside, the dog remains calm. Its attention focused on one thing. Its body is positioned firmly in the direction of the doorway through which its owner entered. And, if there is a glass window, the dog keeps looking through it eagerly. Carefully scanning the interior. Watching for signs of its master.

What I find most impressive of all is that, very often, even while it watches and waits, this dog continues to express its happiness by wagging its tail. Imagine that. Left all alone outside on a sidewalk, while its owner is inside having fun. And this fellow not only keeps watching and waiting, it even continues to wag its tail when it catches sight of its owner through the window. I’m not sure about you, but I find that truly impressive. Not least because I myself am often unable to do the same. Difficult enough to remain patiently watchful in an uncomfortable situation. But to be joyful as well? I find that a tough act to follow.

And yet this is precisely the kind of grace we are praying for on this 3rd Sunday of Advent. As we said earlier, today is also called Gaudete Sunday. From the first word of the entrance antiphon, meaning Rejoice! Even as you watch and wait for the Lord’s coming, Rejoice! Even if you happen to find yourself in a difficult and uncomfortable situation right now, Rejoice!

That is the central message of our celebration today. And if, like me, you find this call more than a little difficult to answer, then we need to pay closer attention to what our readings tell us. For, as you’ve probably noticed, most of the people in our readings are also in really difficult situations. In the first reading, the people of Israel are living in exile, far away from home, in Babylon. The Christians, to whom the second reading is addressed, are undergoing persecution for their faith. And, in the gospel, not only is John the Baptist in prison for speaking against King Herod. But he will soon have his head chopped off.

Finding themselves stuck in bad situations. Not unlike those dogs left all alone on the sidewalk. It must be truly tempting for all these people either to give in to depression and despair, or to get distracted by everything that’s going on around them, and to give up their faith in God. But even as they continue to suffer, all of these people receive calls to persevere. Those in the first reading are told to strengthen all weary hands. To steady all trembling knees. And to say to all faint hearts, “Courage! Do not be afraid.” The people in the second reading are encouraged to be patient. And not to lose heart. And, in the gospel, Jesus promises John the Baptist that the one who doesn’t lose faith in the Lord is happy.

All of which is easier said than done. And yet, all these people are not left alone to do the impossible. A gift is being offered to them to help them. A secret for obtaining the grace to stand firm. The grace to rejoice even in the midst of their suffering. The grace to do what those impressive dogs we mentioned earlier seem to be able to do as if by instinct. When it feels as though we’ve been left behind by our Master. When we find ourselves in a difficult situation. How do we keep waiting patiently without giving up hope? How do we find joy in the midst of our distress? Well, much depends on where we choose to look.

If we simply put our heads on our paws, and stare only inward at our own difficult situations, we will naturally get depressed. And if, on the other hand, our focus is only outward. On the many things going on around us. The things that often keep us so very busy. Then we’ll just get distracted. But if we are able to imitate those impressive dogs, and keep eagerly looking forward. If we carefully keep watch for the signs of the Master’s coming. Then perhaps we will receive the incredible ability, the unbelievable courage, not just to remain calm. But even to wag our tails in joyful expectation.

In the first reading, for example, although the people may feel as though they are living in a barren and desolate place, the prophet calls them to look forward to a time when the wilderness and the dry-lands will exult. And the wasteland rejoice and bloom.  A day when the Lord will return them to their homes. When joy and gladness will go with them and sorrow and lament will be ended. In the second reading, although the people may feel that God has left them all alone on the sidewalk of persecution. They are reminded to continue looking for the Lord, who is already to be seen waiting at the gates. And, in the gospel, Jesus has a similar message for John. To the one who is suffering so much in prison, Jesus sends news of the many blessings already being showered on those outside: the blind see again… the lame walk… lepers are cleansed… the deaf hear… the dead are raised to life and the Good News is proclaimed to the poor…

Sisters and brothers, when we look closely at our lives. When we gaze deeply into our hearts. When we survey carefully the world around us. It is likely that we will find much to depress and distract us. But this doesn’t mean that we should just close our eyes and stop looking. We should, rather, insist on looking even more closely. Looking even more deeply. Looking even more carefully. To the Lord. To the One who has already come. And who will come again. The same Lord, by whose life, death and resurrection every tear is wiped away. And everything is made new. Especially in this third week of Advent, we need to keep looking for signs of his coming. In our hearts. In our lives. And in our world.

I’m reminded of these words from an old hymn written by Sr. Miriam Therese Winter: I saw Christ in wind and thunder. Joy is tried by storm. Christ asleep within my boat, whipped by wind, yet still afloat. Joy is tried by storm. I saw raindrops on a river. Joy is like the rain. Bit by bit the river grows, 'til all at once it overflows. Joy is like the rain.

Sisters and brothers, today is Gaudete Sunday. Today, whatever the trials we may be facing, we are all called to rejoice. For the Lord is close. What must we do to keep looking out for him, and to keep joyfully wagging our tails in welcome today?

Sunday, December 04, 2016

Bat-Signal


2nd Sunday of Advent (A)

Picture: cc Mark Morgan

My dear friends, are you familiar with the Bat-Signal? Do you know what it is? It’s something found in the Batman comics. You know, of course, who the Batman is, right? That fictional crime-fighting superhero, who protects the people of Gotham City. Whenever there is a serious crime wave. A crisis that even the police cannot handle on their own. The Police Commissioner switches on a special searchlight. Which projects the shape of a bat high up into the night sky. This is the Bat-Signal. It is, first of all, a sign of distress. A cry for help. A call to the Batman to come and save a city engulfed in darkness.

And the citizens of Gotham know that they can rely on this signal. They know that, once the sign of the bat flashes in the sky, the Batman will come to save them. Which is why the signal is not just a call for help. Not just a cry of distress. It is also a sign of hope. A promise to the people that their suffering will soon be ended. That help is on its way. That justice will eventually be meted out. And peace restored once again.

Of course, for the criminals in the city, on the other hand, for those responsible in some way for the people’s suffering, the bat-signal sends a very different message. It serves as a warning to the bad guys. Giving them due notice that their days of oppressing the good citizens of Gotham are quickly coming to an end. That they themselves will be sternly dealt with. Provided they turn over a new leaf. Provided they stop ignoring the rights of the poor. Provided they take steps to reach out and to help the needy. To restore justice. To work for peace.

A single signal shining in the dark, communicating different things to different people: A cry for help. A message of hope. A call to repentance. This is what the Bat-Signal stands for. This is what we find in the comic books. But not just in the comic books. Believe it or not, my dear friends, we find something similar in our Mass readings on this second Sunday in Advent.

The first reading speaks of a shoot springing from the stock of Jesse. The rise of a descendant of the father of King David. Someone who becomes a meaningful signal for a defeated nation. A country overrun by its enemies. A people walking in the darkness of exile. Someone who becomes a sign of their deep distress. Expressing their fervent cries for help. A sign simultaneously promising them that their suffering will soon be ended. That judgment will eventually be given in their favour. That justice will be meted out. A verdict for the poor of the land. A rod that strikes the ruthless. Sentences that bring death to the wicked. Which is why this same signal is also a warning to their enemies. Calling them to change their ways. To cease preying on the weak. To stop feeding on the flesh of the poor. To become like the lion who learns to eat straw like the ox. So that both predator and prey can live together. Enjoying the justice and peace that come to those who fear the Lord.

A single signal shining in the dark, communicating different things to different people: A cry for help. A message of hope. A call to repentance. We find the same thing in the gospel. This time, the signal comes in the person of John the Baptist. He is the voice that cries in the wilderness. He is the signal shining out in the darkness of the people’s distress. For not only is their land occupied by the Roman army. More importantly, their hearts and their lives are oppressed by the tyranny of sin and selfishness. Of ignorance and self-righteousness.

To them John offers a message of hope. Hope in the coming of the Lord. Who dispels the night of sin with the bright light of love. And, like the Bat-Signal, John’s is not just a message of hope for the oppressed. It is also a call to repentance for their oppressors. An alarm meant to awaken those who are asleep. Those still trapped in their own complacency. Those who assume they have nothing to fear, simply because they are the children of Abraham. The chosen people God. (Or simply because they are baptised, and faithfully go to Mass every Sunday.) To these, John issues a dire warning: Even now, he says, the axe is laid to the roots of the trees, so that any tree which fails to produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown on the fire…

A single signal shining in the dark, communicating different things to different people: A cry for help. A message of hope. A call to repentance. This is what we find in each of our readings today. And this signal is meant not only for us, who are gathered here this evening. Not only for our parish. Not only for the rest of the Catholic Church. This signal is meant for the whole world. As the first reading tells us, the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples. It will be sought out by the nations. And the second reading reminds us that Christ became the servant of circumcised Jews not just to fulfil the promises made to the patriarchs. But also to get the pagans to give glory to God for his mercy. The signal that we find in our readings today is meant not just for us, but also for the rest of the world. A world that remains plunged in the darkness of war and conflict. Of ignorance and disbelief. Of greed and lust for power. Of selfishness and sin.

But how can we expect our world to see and to recognise this signal? Provided, of course, that we are able to see and to recognise it first for ourselves. To see and to recognise it not just as it is proclaimed here in this church. But also as it continues to shine out in our world. I’m reminded, for example, of that encouraging news report in today’s issue of the Straits Times. Which tells the story of Jaycie Tay and John Shu. Of how, in 2013,  29-year-old twice-divorced and twice-incarcerated mother of four, Jaycie, happens to meet 47-year-old married father of two, John, at a bus-stop in Yishun. Jaycie is nearing the end of an 18-month sentence for drug offences. And waiting for a bus to take her back to her half-way house. John has to take a bus that day, because his motorcycle is in the shop.

They strike up a conversation. And John learns of Jaycie’s difficulties, as well as her desire to pursue a diploma, to give her children a better future. The two become friends. A few months into their friendship, John, who earns just over $2,000 a month, gives Jaycie $6,000 to pay for her diploma and other expenses. Why should I calculate so much about helping others? He says. I see Jaycie as a family member, like my younger sister. On her part, Jaycie completes her diploma, and has recently embarked on a part-time programme towards a degree in Business Studies. I never thought a stranger (who became a friend) would help me so much, she says. I hope that by sharing my story, other former offenders can also feel there is hope in life.

A signal shining in the dark, communicating different things to different people: A cry for help. A message of hope. A call to repentance. Isn’t this also what the story of John and Jaycie can be for us? Are there not similar stories in our own lives? Similar cries for help. Similar messages of hope. Similar calls to repentance. To recognise these signs and to respond adequately to them. Isn’t this what it means to celebrate Advent?

My dear friends, even in the midst of the darkness of our world, the Bat-Signal is already shining clearly in the sky. How are we being called to respond to it today?

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Speak Friend & Enter

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

Readings: 2 Samuel 5:1-3; Psalm 121:1-5; Colossians 1:12-20; Luke 23:35-43

Sisters and brothers, have you ever forgotten your password? Do you know what it feels like? It can be quite frustrating. You stare at the screen of your device. And you keep trying different combinations of numbers and letters of the alphabet. But nothing seems to work. You remain locked out. Access is denied you. What to do? Should you keep trying? Or will you simply give up and ask for help?

I’m reminded of a scene from the first movie in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. The one entitled, The Fellowship of the Ring. A hastily formed fellowship–comprising a wizard, two humans, an elf, a dwarf, and several hobbits–has set out on a perilous journey to destroy a certain evil ring of power. In order to prevent a dark lord from using it to conquer the world. On the way, they are forced to pass through the underground kingdom of Moria. But when they get there, they find the doors sealed shut. Inscribed on the doors are the words, speak friend and enter.

So they start calling out different passwords. But nothing seems to work. They have found the right place of entry. But access is denied them. Until one of them realises that the answer is actually found in the inscription itself. Speak friend and enter. The password is the elvish word for friend. They speak the word. The doors swing open. They proceed inside. And not a moment too soon. For outside, a fearsome water creature begins attacking them. Threatening to pull them into the dark depths of a treacherous river. As it turns out, for the fellowship, gaining access to the kingdom of Moria is truly a matter of life and death.

In a time of danger, to be saved from certain death, by gaining access to a kingdom. And to do this by taking three steps. First, by finding the right place of entry. Second, by speaking the correct password. And, finally, by proceeding inside. Place, password & process. Strange as it may sound, my dear friends, I think we find these same three steps in our Mass readings for the solemn feast of Christ the King. But to appreciate this, we have to first allow the second reading to help us set the scene.

The reading speaks of how God has taken us out of the power of darkness and created a place for us in the kingdom of his Son. In a time of danger, we have been saved from darkness and death, by being given access to a kingdom of light and life. How is this done? As with the Lord of the Rings, the first step is to find the right place of entry. And the reading reveals to us what this place is, by telling us that in him, in Christ, we gain our freedom, the forgiveness of our sins. Christ is for us the place of entry. He himself is the doorway through which we have to pass. For he is the Beginning… the first to be born from the dead. All things are reconciled through him and for him, everything in heaven and everything on earth… But, as with the kingdom of Moria, finding the place of entry is only the first step. To open the doors, an important second step needs to be taken. Having arrived at the right place, we need now to speak the correct password. The key that gains us access.

The password to the kingdom of Moria is the elvish word for friend. But what is the password for the kingdom of God? We find the answer in the other two readings. Which both actually describe similar situations. The first reading takes place in the city of Hebron. Where all the tribes of Israel have gathered for one purpose. To proclaim, to anoint, and to enthrone David as their new king. On the other hand, at first glance, the gospel seems to describe a radically different scene. An execution. Jesus is being put to death by crucifixion. And all around him, bystanders watch in silence, while Jewish leaders and Roman soldiers mock and ridicule the Lord. Challenging him to save himself. Even one of his fellow prisoners joins in to mock him.

And yet, when we look more closely, what at first appears to be nothing more than a brutal execution, is actually very similar to what we find in the first reading: A crowning of a ruler. The enthronement of a king. For, despite the insults and scorn of those around him, the inscription on Jesus’ cross proclaims in no uncertain terms that this is the King of the Jews. And although everyone else fails to acknowledge him as such, there is at least one person who recognises him as king. One of the criminals crucified with the Lord receives the grace to say: Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.

What we find here, my dear friends, is something similar to what happens at the entrance to Moria. In a time of danger, someone successfully takes the three crucial steps needed for gaining access to a kingdom. First, the friendly criminal somehow arrives at the place of entry. He comes before the doorway that is Christ crucified. Christ hanging on his cross. And, having found the right place, the criminal manages to speak the correct password. The same word inscribed on the Cross. The word found also in the title of the feast that we ourselves celebrate today. The word is king. Except that this password needs to be spoken in a particular language. Not the elvish tongue of the Lord of the Rings. But, instead, the language of life. The dialect of decision. To speak the word that opens the doors to the kingdom, one must acknowledge Jesus as king, by the way one lives one’s life.

And this is precisely what the friendly criminal succeeds in doing. For even though he himself is suffering terribly, he is given the wisdom and the courage to speak in the Lord’s defence. Even more loudly than his words, through his actions, the friendly criminal proclaims Jesus as his king. As a result, the doors open for him. And he proceeds inside. He gains access. Indeed, I promise you, today you will be with me in paradise.

Place, password and paradise. These three steps, taken by the friendly criminal, gain him access to freedom and safety. And these are the same three steps that each of us is invited to take. This is what we celebrate today. The conviction that, in Christ, God has given us access to the Kingdom of Light and Life.

But to accept this offer, we must first seek out and make our way to wherever Christ continues to hang on his Cross. Wherever there is suffering. Whether it be ours, or that of others. Whether it be physical, or emotional, or spiritual. And, having arrived at the right place, we need then to fix our eyes on the Lord. As he hangs on his Cross. And to speak the correct password in the proper language. To proclaim, with our lives, through the choices that we make everyday, that we accept Jesus as our king. By choosing to love as he first loved us. By laying down our lives, for him and for others, as he first laid down his for us.

Place, password, and paradise. These are the steps that gain us access to the Kingdom of God. This is what it means to truly celebrate the solemn feast of Christ the King.

My dear friends, in a time of danger, God has already prepared for us a safe refuge in Christ. What must we do to keep on speaking the password that gains us access to paradise today?

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