Sunday, December 04, 2016


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?

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Of Mirrors & Windows

Wedding Mass of Hans & Pauline

Readings: Job 37:1-14; Psalm 97; Ephesians 3:14-21; John 17:20-26
Picture: cc jase

Pauline & Hans, my dear friends, do you know the difference between a mirror and a clear glass window? I’m sure you do. A mirror is opaque. When I look at it, not only does it obstruct my vision. It also reflects my gaze back at me. So that all I see is myself. My own reflection. On the other hand, a clear glass window is transparent. It allows my gaze to penetrate its surface. I can look through a window. And see the things that lie beyond.

A mirror reflects. And a window directs. Two very different objects having contrasting effects on my vision. And yet, my dear friends, isn’t it true that mirrors and windows are not just different kinds of objects? Don’t they also represent two different ways of looking at things? Two different ways of looking at life? Let’s say, for example, that I’m caught in a sudden thunderstorm, while on my way to an important meeting. I’m delayed. Perhaps even soaked to the skin. How do you think feel? How do I view the storm?

I’m not sure about you. But I would probably look at it as I would a mirror. Seeing only a reflection of my own annoyance and frustration. And yet, it doesn’t have to be that way. Someone else might react quite differently. Might recall, for example, news reports of the alarmingly low water levels at certain reservoirs in nearby Johor. And, with this fact in mind, this person might look past personal annoyance, and see the storm more as a blessing than as a curse. So that the storm functions less as a mirror than as a window. Something that directs the gaze beyond the self and its immediate concerns to things that are beyond.

A mirror reflects. A window directs. These are not just two different kinds of objects. But also two contrasting ways of looking at life. If this is true, then perhaps the next question we might ask is whether and how mirrors can be turned into windows. Whether and how we can change our way of looking at life from one to the other. Indeed, I believe this is precisely the question that you, Hans and Pauline, are helping us to ponder. Even as we gather to rejoice with you on this happy day.

We find a first indication of this intention of yours in the note that you have penned on the opening page of your wedding booklet. Here, you write about how God speaks to us in nature. And of your desire to share with all of us the feeling of awe for the beauty of life. Quite obviously, you have gazed upon the different faces of nature. Upon the rain-drenched forest, the euphoric mountain-top, and the hardy drain-dwelling flower. You have looked at all these apparently ordinary things, and glimpsed the glory of God. And now, you wish to share with us this same experience. Helping us to look at nature not just as a mirror reflecting our own narrow concerns. But also as a window directing our minds and hearts to God, the Creator.

Isn’t this why you have made the highly unusual choice of a passage from the book of Job as your first reading? For what we find here is a hymn to the awe-inspiring beauty of nature. An invitation addressed to Job, in the midst of his trials, to consider the changing faces of the seasons. To listen to the voice of God, who speaks to us in the flashing of lightning and the clashing of thunder. In the caress of snow and the patter of rain. In the blowing of wind and the hardening of ice. To reflect on these ordinary things and to see the marvellous works of God.

But that’s not all. It’s not just in nature as a whole that you, Hans and Pauline, have encountered the Divine. More particularly, you have both also experienced God in each of your own lives. As well as in your interactions with each other. This is evident in the write-ups that you have shared with me. For example, you, Pauline, speak about having experienced in your own life a series of changes in direction where, in retrospect, you can see clearly God’s hand at work. You also write about how Hans anchors you to God. Of how the generosity and love that he invests in the people around him inspires you to do the same. Of how he reminds you of the meaning of life and the dignity of work when the going gets tough.

And Hans, on your part, you write about how, through her courage to dream, Pauline has taught you that it is okay to dream wildly too. Of how her love and support for you helps you to experience what God’s unconditional love feels like. Of how, reflecting on your own experiences, you see that God has turned your life around since a fateful retreat in 2007. Of how you have no doubt that marrying Pauline is one of the masterstrokes in God’s unfolding plan for you. And how you are excited to see what he holds in store for you both in the days ahead.

To look at the ups and downs of one’s own life, and the life of one’s beloved, and see the hand of God. Isn’t this what it means to look at life as if gazing through a window? And yet, Hans and Pauline, you both admit that it didn’t start out this way. Regarding your first meeting with Hans, you, Pauline, will only share this cryptic little line: Thankfully, it wasn’t love at first sight. However, you, Hans, are a little more forthcoming… I will never forget that my first impression was that she was slightly irritating!

From seeing another as an irritation, to recognising the hand of God at work. And then joyfully committing the rest of your lives to one another. This is indeed quite a journey. A journey, above all, of interior transformation. A journey in which we allow the way we look at the people and events of our lives to be changed. No longer as if they were mirrors, reflecting back to us our own narrow concerns. But more as if they were windows, directing our gaze ever onward, toward a marvellous vision of God.

This is precisely the kind of transformation that we find in the other two readings that you, Hans and Pauline have chosen. In the second reading, the writer prays that God the Father might enable your inner self to grow strong. So that rooted and established in love, you might have the strength to grasp… the love of Christ. And so be filled with the utter fullness of God. In the gospel, Jesus prays that his disciples might be so united to one another that the world might look at them and be drawn to recognise the love of God in Christ. He also prays that, by remaining united to Him, they may always see the glory of God.

To be able to look at everything and everyone in one’s life as a window directing one’s gaze into the fullness of God. Isn’t this a precious gift? A gift that comes to us when we receive Christ into our hearts. When we remain in the embrace of his love. A gift that God delights in offering us. If only we remember to ask. Which is why it is fitting that all our three Mass readings are, in fact, prayers. A hymn of praise and two petitions for love. Prayers that the rest of us offer especially for you, Hans and Pauline, as you begin your new life as husband and wife. But also for ourselves, as we continue on the pilgrimage of life.

Mirrors reflect. And windows direct. Hans & Pauline, my dear friends, what must we do to keep gazing through the window that directs us into the heart of God today?

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Resisting the Mood

33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

Picture: cc anthrospective

My dear friends, are you familiar with the Singlish expression ORD mood? Do you know what it means? I suspect that many of you do. But it’s okay if you don’t. It’s an expression used mainly by those who have done or are currently doing full-time National Service. O-R-D stands for Operationally Ready Date. Which is the date that marks the end of a Singaporean male’s full-time National Service liability. As such, the ORD is, as you may well imagine, a very happy day. A day that many soldiers look forward to with great anticipation.

Knowing what ORD stands for, it’s not too difficult for us to guess what it means to be in an ORD mood. This is a condition that afflicts many of those whose ORD is fast approaching. Let’s say in a few months, for instance. Realising that the end is near, many of these fortunate full-time soldiers begin to feel much less motivated to work. And having been in the service for some time, they know all too well how to get away with doing less. So that if another soldier were to suggest that some piece of work should be given to one of these privileged individuals, someone else might be moved to declare: Aiyah, don’t bother to ask him to do, lah. He’s already in ORD mood!

Of course, someone in an ORD mood hasn’t actually reached his ORD. He hasn’t quite completed his full-time service. He should really still be working hard. But he doesn’t. Simply because he anticipates the end. He acts as though the end is here even before it arrives. That’s essentially what this mood involves. Acting as though the end is here even before it arrives. To stop working before one’s work is actually done. And, by the way, there are also those notorious individuals who seem to get into an ORD mood right from the day of their enlistment.

To act as though the end is here even before it arrives. This is the kind of condition that Jesus is trying to help his disciples to resist in today’s gospel. Except that the end in question is not the ORD, but the end of time. And the reason why they have to resist this temptation is because of a certain traumatic event that will soon come to pass. The siege and destruction of Jerusalem by Roman forces in the year 70. A time of great suffering and tribulation for the Jewish people. A time that might lead some of them to think that the end of the world has arrived. But Jesus is quick to warn his disciples. Take care not to be deceived, he says. Refuse to join those who claim that the time is near at hand. And do not be frightened. For the end is not so soon.

Jesus’ purpose in telling his disciples these things is not just to protect them from anxiety and despair. It is also to encourage them to keep on working. To remind them not to slacken their efforts. Not to allow themselves to get drawn into a kind of end-of-the-world mood. Acting as though the end were here even before it actually arrives. Allowing fear and anxiety to distract them from the task at hand. And what is the task at hand? It is the duty that they are expected to perform not just in good times. When circumstances are in their favour. But also, and especially in bad times. When the tides turn against them. And they have to swim with all their might just to keep from being swept away.

Men will seize you and persecute you, the Lord says. They will hand you over to… imprisonment, and bring you before kings and governors because of my name–and that will be your opportunity to bear witness. To bear witness to the name of the Lord. To live in his love and according to his values. To speak on his behalf and in the power of his Spirit. This is the important task that the Lord sets before his disciples. This is what they are supposed to do, even when they see the Holy City overrun. And their beloved Temple destroyed. Torn apart brick by brick and stone from stone. Still their courage must hold. And their work must continue. For the end is not yet. Their task is not complete.

What is more, the Lord promises them that if only they persevere, they will eventually be saved, when the end does finally arrive. Your endurance will win you your lives. For, as the first reading reminds us, at the coming of the Day of the Lord, at the rising of the Sun of Righteousness, only those who fear the Lord’s name, will find healing in its rays. Those who keep bearing witness right to the very end. On the other hand, the arrogant and the evil-doers, those who grow complacent, those who slacken their efforts, will find themselves completely burnt up.

To persevere in doing the work assigned to us. Even when it may seem inconvenient and unnecessary to continue doing so. Especially when it appears as though the end is fast approaching. And our work will make no difference one way or the other. To keep on working even when it’s so very tempting to remain idle. This is also the kind of advice that St. Paul offers the Thessalonians in the second reading. Except that here he refers to work of a more mundane sort. We hear, he says, that there are some of you who are living in idleness.… In the Lord Jesus Christ, we order and call on people of this kind to go on quietly working and earning the food that they eat.

If it’s so important for Paul that we should keep working to earn a living in a world that will soon pass away. How much more important it must be to labour to secure a place in the kingdom of God, which will endure for all eternity? Isn’t this something that we too need to bear firmly in our minds? We who continue to live in between the destruction of the Temple and the second coming of Christ at the end of time? Like those first disciples to whom Jesus is speaking in the gospel. Like those Thessalonians to whom the second reading is addressed. We too are expected to keep on working. To continue diligently bearing witness to the Lord. Whether or not it suits us to do so. And not to allow ourselves to be distracted by other voices.

Voices that so often succeed in luring us either into a false confidence or a despairing anxiety. Either by telling us how terribly important it is first to accumulate wealth and status on this earth. Why worry about the end of the world? We can’t predict its coming anyway. Or by making us worry that the end is very near. Doesn’t global terrorism continue to endanger everyone’s safety? Haven’t the Brits already voted for Brexit? And the Americans for the Donald?

Complacency or despair. In either case, we find ourselves distracted from the crucial task at hand. Announcing the gospel of the Lord. Sharing the awesome all-important message of God’s self-emptying love for us, shown especially on the Cross of Christ. The same love that we are gathered here to remember. To celebrate. And to allow to reinvigorate us. So that we can go forth from this place with new energy to continue announcing the gospel to a world that needs so badly to hear it.

My dear sisters and brothers, whether it is the ORD or the end of the world, what is to come will come. Whether we want it to or not. The important thing is that we persevere in doing what is expected of us right till the very end.

My dear friends, even if the end is near, it hasn’t quite arrived yet. What must we do to keep resisting the ORD mood today?


Wedding Mass of Benjamin & Sophia

Readings: Genesis 2:18-24; Ps 148:1-4.9-14 R/v.12; Colossians 3:12-17; John 15:9-12
Picture: LTA

Ben and Ika, my dear friends. Have you ever felt incomplete? And do you know what it takes to become complete? As you know, not far from this church, there is an MRT Station named Tan Kah Kee Station. People who live in this area will tell you that this station took a very long time to complete. This was because, half-way through the project, the main contractor went bankrupt. And the development stalled. Whatever the reason, for a very long time the poor Tan Kah Kee Station looked like nothing more than an abandoned construction site. In fact, the project took so long to complete that people began calling it the Tan Ku Ku Station. (In Hokkien, Tan Ku Ku = wait long long.)

Evidently, it takes hard work and quite a bit of luck to complete an MRT station. And, as we all know, even after the station is complete, it still requires ongoing maintenance to remain fully operational. To remain truly complete. But what about human beings? What does it take to become a complete human being? What do we have to do? Believe it or not, my dear friends, this is the question that you, Ben and Ika, are inviting us to ponder today. Especially through the readings that you have chosen for this joyous occasion. For each of the readings that you have picked actually speak to us about the process of completion.

Notice, for example, how the first reading begins. God has already created the first man. But God is somehow still not fully satisfied. The man remains incomplete. It is not good that the man should be alone, God says. So God sets out to create the first woman. And not just the first woman, but the first human relationship. And it’s important to pay attention to how this happens. First the man is put to sleep. His ego is tranquilized. Then he donates a part of himself. And it’s only then that the man and the woman both find completion. In their relationship with each other. This at last is bone from my bones. and flesh from my flesh! A relationship between true equals. A relationship born of self-denial and self-donation. This is how the creative power of God makes true human relationships arise and grow. This is how we become complete.

The second reading too speaks to us about completeness. Not just how to become a complete human being. But also how to become complete as a people. For you are God's chosen race, his saints; he loves you. God chooses us and loves us and wants us to become complete. Complete not just as individuals. Complete not just as couples. But complete as a whole people chosen by God. How? By putting on the right clothes. Not designer fashion. Like Calvin Klein or Giorgio Armani. But Christian virtues. Like compassion and kindness. Patience and gentleness. And to complete all of these, we need to clothe ourselves especially with love. Not just any kind of love. But the love that we receive from Christ. Who laid down his life for us on the Cross. To constantly be reminded of his incredible love. As we are doing in this Mass. To allow the message of Christ to find a home in us. So that we can be moved to love one another. This is how we become complete as a people.

But that’s not all. To be a complete human being is not just to be related to another human being. Nor is it just to be related to the whole People of God. It is also, first and above all, to be related to God himself. Isn’t this what Jesus is talking about in the gospel? The Lord teaches us how to become complete by remaining in a loving relationship with God. As the Father has loved me, he says, so I have loved you. Remain in my love. How to remain in his love? By keeping his commandments. And why remain in his love? To become complete. I have told you this so that my own joy may be in you and your joy be complete.

This is what our readings tell us. That we become complete by entering into loving relationships with other people, with the chosen people, and, above all, with the God of all peoples. And this message is, of course, especially appropriate for a wedding ceremony like this. For isn’t this what marriage is all about? Don’t we find the same three relationships here? First, the coming together of a man and a woman–of you, Ben and Ika–in a special married relationship. So that you become, no longer two separate people, but one body. Sharing a common life together. And you do this not just on your own. But also in the presence of all the rest of us. Members of the Church. As well as in the sight of God. Three relationships: between spouses, withing the Church, and with God. This is how marriages become complete.

And yet, we must be careful not to be mistaken. While it is true that after today’s wedding Mass, both of you, Ben and Ika, will be married for the rest of your lives. We must not think that your marriage is complete simply because you have pronounced your vows. As I’m sure, all the married people among us will remind us, the completion of marriage is not just accomplished in a single moment. Here and now. Once and for all. But it is also a continual task. Which we have to keep taking steps to  accomplish moment by moment. Day by week by month by year.

Putting in continual effort. First to remain in touch with the love of Christ. Who fell asleep and poured out his life for us on the Cross. So that we too might find the strength to keep putting our own egos to sleep. In order to give of ourselves in love to others. To our spouse first of all, of course. But also to others around us. Especially those most in need. And to do this is not easy. We need support. Not just of the friends and relatives gathered here. But also of the rest of the Body of Christ. The rest of the People of God. We need to remain connected to the Church in some way, if we are to keep working at becoming complete.

Just as an MRT station requires ongoing maintenance. So too does a marriage require constant effort to bring it to completion. But this is something that I think you, Ben and Ika, already know every well. I think, for example, of all the time and effort that went into bringing you both together as a couple. I think of how, initial attempts by your respective relatives to get you to meet each other didn’t quite work out. Because you, Ika, were still in another relationship. And you, Ben, simply refused to be match-made. It took nothing less than a funeral and a sudden thunder storm to bring you both together. And to eventually gather the rest of us here to share your joy on this happy day.

And yet, this is not something to be ashamed of. For we are all familiar with the popular saying that a wedding may be for a day, but a marriage is for a lifetime. This is true. A marriage is for life. And it will take a whole lifetime of joyful effort to bring it to completion. Joyful effort not just from you, Ben and Ika, but also from the rest of us, as we give you our care and support. And even though it may seem like we have to wait a long time. Even though it may feel like we have to to tan ku ku. Still, we are happy to do it. For even more than MRT stations, marriages and loving relationships are truly worth waiting and working for.

Ben and Ika, my dear friends, as we joyously give thanks to God for bringing us together today, what do we need to do to continually bring this marriage to completion in the days ahead?

Sunday, November 06, 2016

Of Sprints & Marathons

32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

Picture: cc MIKI Yoshihito

My dear friends, do you know the difference between a century sprint and a marathon run? They are both foot races, of course. But with one very importance difference: the distance. A century sprint, as you know, is run over 100 metres. And it usually lasts no more than 10-20 seconds. But a marathon spans over 42 kilometres. And it typically goes on for hours. A vast difference in the distance covered, as well as the time taken.

But that’s not all. This difference in distance means that runners must approach each of these races in a very different way. As you know, sprinters need to give it all they’ve got right from the very beginning. Anything less and they lose the race. Marathoners, on the other hand, have to be careful to pace themselves. To conserve their energy. Otherwise they won’t be able to complete the distance. Let alone win the race. Which makes it very important for a runner to know what kind of race he or she is running. For the distance to be covered determines the way in which a race is run. Imagine how disastrous it would be for someone to run a marathon as though it were a century sprint. The runner would be tired out in no time at all.

But if this is true of foot races, can we not say the same about the spiritual life as well? Could the way in which we run the race also depend very much upon the distance we need to cover? If so, then it’s important for us to determine what kind of race we are entering. And this is precisely the question that our Mass readings present for our reflection today. This is the deeper significance of the apparently abstract problem that the Sadducees pose to Jesus in the gospel.

The question is whether or not there is life after death. Whether the race we are running ends at the point of our departure from this earth. Or whether it somehow continues even beyond. The Sadducees try to show the absurdity of the resurrection by a rather far-fetched example of a woman who marries several brothers, one after the other. If there is indeed life after death, they argue, then won’t she become a polygamist in the next life? To which Jesus responds by saying that the next life is different from the current one. Those who are judged worthy of a place in the resurrection from the dead do not marry because they can no longer die, for they are the same as the angels…

This argument is actually not too difficult for us to understand. And yet, it is possible to follow the Lord’s argument and still lose sight of its deeper significance. For, if there is such a thing as a resurrection from the dead. If the race that is human life actually continues even beyond death. Then surely this should somehow affect the way we live. Could it be that just as a marathon needs to be run differently from a sprint, so too does eternal life need to be lived differently from a merely temporal existence? So that whether or not we believe in the resurrection of the dead has important consequences for our daily living.

We see these consequences strikingly illustrated in the first reading. Here a Greek king forces a family of Jews to break the the Jewish Law, by tasting pig’s flesh. Eat pork or suffer cruel torture and agonising death. This is the terrible choice presented to each of the seven brothers and their poor mother. Quite amazingly, one after the other, they somehow find the courage to defy the king. They insist on keeping the Law even at the cost of their lives. And what helps them to do this is their unshakeable confidence in the resurrection. Their belief that, provided they remain faithful, even if they have to lose their earthly lives, God will preserve them for eternal life. Ours is the better choice, declares the fourth brother. To meet death at men’s hands, yet relying on God’s promise that we shall be raised up by him.

Although life on this earth may often seem to many like nothing more than a brief sprint. Over and done with in a few relatively short moments. For these brothers, life in God lasts for all eternity. It is more like a marathon than a sprint. And, as such, it needs to be run differently. Except that, in the spiritual life, the approach is the exact opposite of ordinary races. As we said, in foot races, sprinters typically go all out right from the start. They expend all their energy in order to win the race. In contrast, many of those who think that human life is nothing more than a sprint, that it ends at death, often go to great lengths not to spend themselves but to preserve their lives at all cost. And even to feed their many and varied appetites. Their constant craving for money and comfort. For success and popularity and power. Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die (1 Cor 15:32).

On the other hand, while marathoners usually take care to pace themselves. To conserve their energy. Christians who believe in the resurrection are called to act in the opposite way. To live life as though it were a long distance race, continuing far beyond life on this earth, is to do what those brothers in the first reading did. To go all out and spend oneself in the service of God and of neighbour. To be willing even to lay down one’s earthly life in the cause of justice and right.

But surely this approach makes no sense at all, does it? How can someone reasonably be expected to run a marathon as though it were a sprint? By going all out right from the beginning? By expending all of one’s energy from start to finish?

The answer lies in the second reading. Where we find another important difference between the spiritual life and an ordinary foot race. A foot race, as we all know, involves great expense of energy. Even though a marathoner may have the opportunity to take some nourishment along the way, this energy is very quickly burned off as the race progresses. But the spiritual life is quite different. Here the energy being expended does not come from the runner. It comes instead from another Source. The same divine Source to whom St. Paul addresses his prayer in the second reading. May our Lord Jesus Christ himself, and God our Father who has given us his love and… such inexhaustible comfort and such sure hope, comfort you and strengthen you in everything good that you do or say.

To believe in the resurrection, to run the race of the spiritual life as though it were a marathon, and not a sprint, is not simply to exert ourselves to the point of burn-out. It is rather to choose to continually tap into the inexhaustible energy of God’s infinite love for us all. And this is precisely the choice that you our new Catechumens are making today. This is the deeper significance of the ritual that we celebrated just now. The signing of your whole body with the Cross of Christ. The sign of our belief in the resurrection. The sign of our commitment to live life as though it were truly a marathon powered by the love and mercy of God. A race in which we are called to continually spend ourselves in the cause of justice and right. For the greater glory of God and the common good.

My dear sisters and brothers, Catechumens and baptised Christians alike, what must we do, you and I, to continue running this race in the way it is meant to be run today?
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