Sunday, November 29, 2015

Betting on the Shell Game of Life

1st Sunday in Advent (C)

Picture: cc Cat

Sisters and brothers, have you ever heard of a shell game? Do you know what it is? It’s a kind of gambling game. Where three identical containers are overturned on a flat surface. And a small ball, or some other object, is placed under one of them. The containers are then moved around quickly. And the players are asked to bet a sum of money on where they think the ball is. Whoever gets it right is paid. The others lose their bets.

It’s a simple enough game to play. And it’s a gamble, because the players don’t really know for sure where exactly the ball is. They have to guess. And to be willing to stake good money on their guesses. But, as you know, such games are easily rigged. They are often used to cheat people of their hard-earned money. So it’s actually better not to play. To choose instead to walk away. Not to place your bet. 

And yet, when we look at it from a certain angle, isn’t life itself something like a shell game? In which we all have no choice but to play. To place our bets. On what are we betting? What is the uncertain outcome? Well, none of us can really be sure what is going to happen to us at the end of our lives. Will there be life after death? Heaven and hell? Purgatory? Reincarnation? Or nothing at all? And does the way in which I live my life now determine how happy I’ll be then? No one really knows for sure. I can only guess.

And not just guess. I also have to gamble. To bet. To choose how I wish to live my life now. Whether to be honest or dishonest. To be selfish or caring. To be righteous or unscrupulous. And when will I know for sure whether or not I have chosen wisely? Probably only when the game is over. When the containers are uncovered. When the ball is revealed. When I breathe my last. For now, I can only keep guessing. Keep gambling. And with nothing less than life itself.

I’m not sure about you, sisters and brothers. But thinking of life in this way makes it seem quite scary. For I have no assurance. No security. No real confidence that I’m making the right choice. And what can sometimes make it feel even more difficult is when my own choices seem to cause me or my loved ones to suffer. Even as other people, who make different choices, may seem to succeed. For example, when I see the selfish and unscrupulous apparently enjoying life, doesn’t it become that much more difficult for me to continue to choose to be righteous and caring?

Which is why it is helpful for us to pay close attention to our Mass readings for this 1st Sunday of Advent. At the very beginning of our church’s liturgical year, our readings invite us to consider the end. Not just the end of our lives. But the very end of time itself. The day when all the containers will be uncovered. And the hidden ball finally revealed. What will happen then?

From the first reading, we learn that in those days God will fulfil the promise made to God’s people. The promise that all who remain faithful to God will be saved. Will dwell in confidence. Will be given a place to live in peace. A place in God. For in those days, God is going to raise up a good and great king. A gentle yet mighty ruler. A virtuous Branch of the House of king David. A leader who will practise honesty and integrity in the land.

in the gospel, Jesus reinforces this message, by describing what it’ll be like when he comes again at the end of time. He himself will be the coming king. The virtuous Branch of the House of David. And when he comes to rule the earth, many people will experience great anxiety and insecurity. Nations will be in agony. Men will be dying of fear… for the powers of heaven will be shaken. But all those who have placed their trust in God, those who have bet their lives on Christ, will be receive their reward. They will be able to stand erect. To hold their heads high. For their liberation is near at hand.

This is what we Christians believe will happen at the end. When the closed containers are uncovered. When the hidden ball is revealed. But for now, we have to persevere in placing our bets. In staking our lives on Christ. In living the way that he has taught us to live. The way that St. Paul urges the Thessalonians to live. May the Lord be generous in increasing your love, Paul writes in the second reading, and make you love one another and the whole human race as much as we love you. Finally… we urge you and appeal to you in the Lord Jesus to make more and more progress in the kind of life you are meant to live…

To make progress in loving not just one another, but the whole human race as well. This is what it means to bet our lives on Christ. And this will probably look a little different for each of us. A little different for a single man than for a family woman. A little different for a religious sister in a convent than for a lay person out in the world. A little different for a teenage student than for a retired senior. Whatever our state or situation in life, each of us has to decide for ourselves, how we wish to live our lives now. So that we may be able to stand erect and hold our heads high when time itself comes to an end. Each of us has to choose to spend our lives walking the way that Jesus walked. So that we can face him with confidence when he comes to meet us again.

And it’s not easy. Not easy to see clearly the way we need to walk. And not easy to have the courage to walk it. To recognise the exact people we are called to love. Our family. Our colleagues. Those who need our help. Both near and far. Not easy to accept the concrete sacrifices we are invited to make on their behalf. Which is why it is helpful for us to pray the prayer that the psalmist prays in the responsorial psalm. Lord, make me know your ways. Lord, teach me your paths. Make me walk in your truth and teach me: for you are God my saviour.

Isn’t this, sisters and brothers, what Advent is really about? More than just preparing for yet another annual celebration of Christmas, it is really about reviewing and renewing our choices in life. Choosing, again and again, and yet again, to commit ourselves to Christ. To love as he loves. To live as he lives. To place our hope where he places his hope. In God. And God alone.

Sisters and brothers, if it is true that life can be likened to a shell game, then where exactly are you choosing to place your bets today?

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Taking The Third Side

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

Sisters and brothers, have you ever had to remind yourself that there’s always another side to the story? Imagine, for example, that you’re a parent. And one of your children comes running to you, complaining that a brother or sister has been bullying him or her. What would you do? Would you immediately go and scold that other child? Well, probably not, right? Not without first listening to what the accused has to say. Why? Because… there’s always another side to the story. Very sound advice.

But just how many sides are there to a story? What do you think? When I was growing up, I used to think that there were only two. A good side and a bad side. When I was watching a TV show, for example, without realising it, I would always be trying to separate the good guys from the bad guys. The Americans from the Germans. The Cowboys from the Indians. And no prizes for guessing which side I would support. The good guys, of course.

I have to confess that this tendency remains with me till this day. Even though I now know that reality is much more complex. I still sometimes tend to see things from the perspective of my childhood. Looking for good guys and bad guys. Seeing only two sides to a story. No more. No less.

I suspect that this is one reason why I’m so excited to hear that a new Star Wars movie will be released very soon. Excited because here’s a story in which the two sides are very clear. The Sith lords are the bad guys. The Jedi knights are the good. The Sith fight on the dark side. The Jedi on the side of light. And it’s usually quite easy to tell them apart because, like Cowboys and Indians, the different sides usually wear distinguishing uniforms.

Which is fine. After all, in the spiritual life too, there are really only two sides. The good and the bad. The righteous and the evil. But the trouble is that it’s not always easy to tell them apart. At least not as easy as separating Cowboys from Indians. Or Jedi from Sith. Reality is usually much more complex.  And very often the good are not all good. And the bad not all bad. Also, as the saying goes, there’s always another side to the story. A third side, if you wish.

Isn’t this what we find in our Mass readings for this last Sunday in our liturgical year? Are you the king of the Jews? Pilate asks Jesus in the gospel. Why is this such an important question for Pilate? It’s because the Roman governor is thinking in terms of two sides. The Jewish and the Roman. If Jesus declares himself to be the king of the Jews, then he is in rebellion against the Roman Emperor. He is on the wrong side. He needs to be sternly dealt with.

But Jesus isn’t really on the side of the Jews. And he’s not exactly on the side of the Romans either. At least not politically. Jesus is actually on a third side. The side of God. And God’s concern is to establish a kingdom that goes beyond these human distinctions. Mine is not a kingdom of this world, Jesus tells Pilate. My kingdom is not of this kind. Not the kind that Pilate and some of the Jews are fighting for and defending. Then what kind of kingdom is it?

The kind that is established not by the force of arms. But by the power of love. The kind that is rooted not in selfish ambition. But in selfless compassion. The kind that is ruled neither by the Jews, nor by the Romans, nor by any other single people. But by God alone. In the words of the Preface to the Eucharistic Prayer, which we will be praying shortly, it is a kingdom of truth and life… of holiness and grace… of justice, love and peace.

This is what Jesus is doing in the gospel. Inviting Pilate to look beyond the narrow view of two sides. Roman and Jew. Offering the governor a much broader and deeper vision of a third side. A far more wonderful kingdom. Where all peoples can live together in harmony and peace. Under the reign of God.

We find something similar in the first reading. Again, in the background, we find two opposing sides. The Jewish and the Babylonian. The prophet Daniel is a Jew who finds himself in Exile. His nation has been defeated in battle. His people deported to Babylon. But, as he gazes into the visions of the night, Daniel sees the establishment of a new kingdom. One that goes beyond Babylon and Israel. He sees a new king coming on the clouds of heaven. And men of all peoples, nations and languages will become his servants. His sovereignty is an eternal sovereignty which shall never pass away, nor will his empire ever be destroyed.

The second reading tells us the true identity of this new king. He belongs to neither of the two opposing sides exclusively. But to the whole human race. He is none other than Jesus Christ himself. The faithful witness, the First-born from the dead, the Ruler of the kings of the earth. He loves us and has washed away our sins with his blood. He is the one who is coming on the clouds. And by his selfless sacrifice, he establishes a different kind of kingdom. One that goes beyond Jew and Roman. Beyond Israel and Babylon. Beyond Jedi and Sith. Beyond Cowboy and Indian. One that includes all peoples. Embraces the whole of creation. Allowing all living creatures to live together in harmony and peace.

This, my dear friends, is the marvellous kingdom that we are celebrating today. The kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe. A kingdom that goes beyond any two opposing sides to a third. The side of God. The side of justice, love and peace.

And it’s important for us to remember this, especially today. When we are witnessing a terrible struggle, between what looks like two opposing sides. On one side, we have a group that insists on engaging in violent and deadly terrorist attacks. In order to realise its own vision of an Islamic State. As Christians, we are duty-bound to resist and to speak out against such deadly tactics. And to stand in solidarity with its victims.

But it’s important for us to also carefully recognise the problems and dangers that are to be found on the other side as well. The side of a global economic system, often identified with the West, that excludes and marginalises many other people in the world. To speak out against the terrorists does not mean that we should then blindly support the western civilisation to which they are opposed.

Instead, it is our vocation as Christians to see beyond these two sides to a third. The side of the Kingdom of God. The side of Jesus Christ, the Universal King. And to do this is to express outrage not just at the violence done occasionally by terrorists. But also at the suffering caused systematically by the global worship of money. And to share what we have with those who have not. For it is only when we do this that we prove ourselves to be truly on the right side. The third side. The side of God. The side of Christ. The side of truth. As the Lord says to Pilate before going to his death, all who are on the side of truth, listen to my voice.

My dear sisters and brothers, there is always another side to the story. As we come to the end of one liturgical year, and look forward to the next, which side will you be taking today?

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Just You Wait...

33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

Readings: Daniel 12:1-3; Psalm 15:5,8-11; Hebrews 10:11-14,18; Mark 13:24-32

Just you wait, Henry Higgins, just you wait.
You'll be sorry but your tears’ll be too late.
You'll be broke and I'll have money.
Will I help you? Don't be funny.
Just you wait, Henry Higgins, just you wait.

Sisters and brothers, I’m sure at least some of you still remember these words. They come from a song entitled Just You Wait. Sung by Eliza Doolittle. The lead character in the musical, My Fair Lady. Eliza sings this song at a time when she feels oppressed by Professor Henry Higgins. Who has been forcing her to recite her vowels. A, E, I, O, U… Again and again and again. Till she gets them right. Otherwise she is to be given no lunch, no dinner, and, more importantly, no chocolates. A, E, I, O, U… 

Poor, helpless, and tormented, Eliza dreams of a time in the future when the tables will be turned. A day when she will become rich. And the professor will be made poor. An hour when she will finally find favour, with no less than the King himself. Who will declare a public holiday in her name: Eliza Doolittle Day. And who will punish the heartless professor for his misdeeds. Right before her eyes.

So this is what the song is about. More than just wishful thinking, it is actually a form of non-violent resistance. An expression of hope in the face of suffering. Hope for a time of freedom. For a day of vindication. For an hour of triumph over the enemy. Hope that gives Eliza the strength to endure abuse and mistreatment. Just you wait, Henry Higgins! Just you wait! A, E, I, O, U…

Believe it or not, my dear friends, our Mass readings, on this second last Sunday of our liturgical year, are actually quite similar. Like Eliza’s song, they too are meant to offer hope and assurance to the poor and oppressed. Encouragement to persevere in the the face of persecution. There’s a special name for this kind of biblical writing. It’s called apocalyptic. And both the first reading and the gospel are prime examples of apocalyptic literature.

Scholars say that the first reading probably originated in the 2nd century before Christ. Composed by a Jewish community oppressed by a foreign king, Antiochus IV Epiphanes. Who not only occupied their land. But also forced the Jews to worship a foreign god. And even converted their holy Temple into a shrine to this god. The book of Daniel is the community’s song of non-violent resistance. Its way of expressing its confidence in God. Its hope that God will not forsake them. And that, at some time in the future, God will send a heavenly warrior to save them. At that time Michael will stand up, the great prince who mounts guard over your people…

Also, at that time, the tables will be turned. The powerful will be rendered powerless. The oppressed will be set free. The oppressor made to regret his actions. The important thing is for the community to keep clinging to its hope in God. To keep resisting the enemy. To keep singing, in their hearts, just you wait! Just you wait! Even as they are forced to recite their vowels. A, E, I, O, U…

Similarly, the gospel too is addressed to people undergoing persecution. Not so much Jews this time. But Christians. Believers being pressured to renounce their faith. To worship foreign gods. These people are reminded of Jesus’ prediction that, some time in the future, the tables will be turned. In those days, the Lord says, they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds with great power and glory… The One to whom they are struggling to remain faithful. And at great cost to themselves. This same Lord is coming to save them. To rescue them. To vindicate them. To gather them from the ends of the world to the ends of heaven.

But the Christians have even greater reason to be confident. To be hopeful. To keep resisting. For they believe that, through his Dying and Rising, Christ has already come. Already won the victory for us. Once and for all. As the second reading tells us, Christ… has offered one single sacrifice for sins…. has achieved the eternal perfection of all whom he is sanctifying… The important thing is to keep doing what the Jews were encouraged to do. To keep clinging to the one true God. To keep resisting the enemy. To keep singing, just you wait! Just you wait! Even as they may be forced to recite their vowels. A, E, I, O, U…

But what has all this to do with us, sisters and brothers? Although we may have heard of Christians in other parts of the world being persecuted for their faith. Surely we ourselves are in a very different position, aren’t we? We enjoy the freedom to worship our God. To profess and to practice our faith. Nobody is forcing us to do things that we don’t want to do. Why do we have to resist?

And yet, there are ways of manipulating and putting pressure on people beyond open persecution. Ways that are more devious, because they are far less obvious. Much more subtle. Such that we don’t even realise we are being manipulated. Oppressed. Persecuted. Made to worship a foreign god. Isn’t advertising a good example? Recently, for instance, I saw a newspaper report, telling me that fitness trackers will be very much in fashion in 2016. You know those things that you strap onto your wrist to record your heart-rate. And count the calories you burn. And the number of steps you walk? Before I saw that report, I didn’t know that I actually cannot live a healthy life without one of those things. But now, having seen the report, I just have to go out and buy one. How ridiculous!

But even more important than the things we buy, are the attitudes we develop. Attitudes toward ourselves. Toward others. Toward our world. Toward life. Such as the attitude by which I make the whole world revolve around myself. My wishes. My comfort… Or the belief that to be happy is to be successful in everything. So that even a single experience of failure means the end of everything. Leaving nothing else to live for. Such that I must push myself to succeed. At all costs. And not just myself. But also my children. My family. Succeed at all costs. Or die trying.

From where do these attitudes spring, sisters and brothers, if not the unseen conditioning, to which we are subjected everyday, in this modern society of ours? And many of us succumb to this conditioning without even realising it. Without questioning or resisting it. Obediently we recite our vowels. A, E, I, O, U… As though it is something that comes naturally to us. Something that we enjoy doing. Even without being asked. Daily we recite our vowels. Forgetting that we are created for something greater. A higher calling. A loftier dignity. To receive and to live out of God’s love. To make our lives a return of love. To God and to others. Especially those most in need of our help. As well as those we may consider our enemies.

Which is why, even if we may not suffer the same forms of persecution that other Christians do elsewhere in the world, our readings remain highly relevant to us. For they remind us of who we are meant to be. They give us hope and confidence in our God. And, most importantly, they impart to us courage and strength to persevere in resisting idolatry. In insisting on worshipping God alone.

Just you wait, Henry Higgins! Just you wait!

My dear sisters and brothers, how are you being invited to keep singing this song today?

Saturday, November 07, 2015

Anchoring The Tug-O-War

Funeral Mass for Mary Tong Yuet Eng

Readings: Romans 6:3-9; Psalm 27; John 11:17-27
Picture: cc Amy Claxton

Sisters and brothers, in a time of bereavement, such as this, we can often feel as though something precious has been taken away from us. Something that we love very much. Something with which we cannot bear to part. It’s as though we have been engaged in a terrible tug-of-war with Death. And lost. Our opponent has proven too strong for us. Although we have clung on very tightly. And pulled with all our might. It feels as though Death has torn the very rope out of our hands. What is this rope? It’s not just the one who has died. The one whom we love. Who is physically now no longer with us. But it’s also the bond of love between us. We grieve our loved one’s passing. Not only because she is no more. But also because we feel as though the bonds that joined us to her have somehow been broken by the terrible power of Death.

Which is why, my dear sisters and brothers, we gather for this funeral. Not just to mourn the passing of the one whom we love. Not just to celebrate the gift of her life. But also to allow ourselves to be reminded of what we believe as Christians. Something that is central to our Christian faith. Something that our Mass readings help to bring to our attention. The consoling Truth that, however heavy our hearts may be at this moment, however strongly we may be tempted to believe otherwise, the bonds of love are stronger even than Death itself.

Isn’t this what we find in the first reading from the letter to the Romans? Here, St. Paul reminds us of what we believe happens when we are baptised. For us, baptism is not just an empty ritual, where blessed water is poured over us. It is much more. Baptism has to do with the forging of an unbreakable bond. A union that is stronger even than Death. For when we were baptised we went into the tomb with Christ and joined him in death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the Father’s glory, we too might live a new life.

Through baptism, we commit ourselves to dying everyday to sin and self-centredness. So that we might live a new life of love and self-sacrifice. The same kind of life that Christ lived. And not just the same kind of life. But the very life of Christ itself. As St. Paul writes in the letter to the Galatians, it is no longer I, but Christ living in me (2:20). Through baptism, we live no longer with our own lives, but with the very life of Christ. Which is why the first reading is filled with words like join and union and with. Words that speak to us of relationship. The intimate bond between Christ and the baptised. And which the baptised enjoy with one another. Bonds that are so strong that not even Death can tear them apart. For Death has no power over Christ any more.

This is also the same belief that Jesus explains in the gospel. Shortly before he raises his beloved friend, Lazarus, from the dead, the Lord consoles Lazarus’ sister, Martha. He tells her, I am the resurrection and the life. If anyone believes in me, even though he dies he will live, and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. What is the Lord saying, if not that the bonds of love between him and those who believe in him are too strong to ever be broken? Too strong even for the painful experience of Death and Bereavement to tear apart. Such is the power of our baptism. Such is the power of our Belief.

It’s as though, in our tug-of-war with Death, the rope of relationship has been tied forever to a huge solid tree. A steady anchor. An immovable foundation. Such is the power of our Faith. Our belief in Christ. A belief that is professed not just in word and worship. But also, especially in the way in which we live our lives.

Which is why Jesus consoles Martha not just by telling her that everything will be all right. But, above all, by asking her a crucial question. Do you believe this? Do you believe that Christ is the resurrection and the life? Do you believe that the bonds of love in Christ are stronger even than the pains of Death? And are you resolved to live out of this belief? Out of this bond of love? Instead of the fear of death? Do you believe this?

And this is also the same question that the Lord is asking us today. Even as he comforts and consoles us in the pain of our loss. Do you believe that love is stronger than death? Are you committed to living out of this belief every day of your life? For if we are, then we can be sure that the bond between us and our departed love ones will forever remain intact.

As you know, it is this same confidence in the power of love in Christ that led our dearly departed Mary to ask for baptism. Seeing that her own husband had been baptised shortly before his passing, she too asked to be baptised. Why? Perhaps because she realised that she would, in this way, remain forever connected to her beloved husband. Connected even after his passing. Connected in the love of Christ. Into which they would both be baptised.

And isn’t this the same confidence that is expressed in the responsorial psalm? There is one thing I ask of the Lord, for this I long, to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life…. I am sure I shall see the Lord’s goodness in the land of the living. Hope in him, hold firm and take heart. Hope in the Lord. Isn’t this the same confidence we are all being invited to claim for our own?

Sisters and brothers, even as we continue to experience the tug-of-war of bereavement, how are we being invited to tie the rope of our relationships securely to the Tree of Christ’s Love today?

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Visible Actions From Invisible Connections

Solemnity of All Saints

Sisters and brothers, we all wash our hands many times a day. Do you know why? The story is told of a conversation between two students from rival schools. The boy from Raffles Institution notices that his opponent from ACS has failed to wash his hands after visiting the restroom. So, in a voice dripping with sarcasm, he says: In my school, we are taught to wash our hands every time we finish using the restroom. Really? His rival replies. In our school, we are taught not to pee on our hands.

The story is, of course, not meant to be taken seriously. It’s only a joke. Used to poke fun at a rival school. We all know that, however careful we may be when using the restroom, we do still need to wash our hands afterwards. Even if they don’t look dirty. We wash them not because of what we can see. But more because of what we can’t see. We perform the visible action of washing our hands, because we recognise that there are invisible germs crawling around on them.

And it’s not just germs that are invisible, right? Have you noticed that human connections are too? We can’t really see them either. We can only guess that they are there. For example, when we meet people who look alike. We may guess that they are related. Or when we see a couple holding hands. We can infer that they are in a relationship. We don’t actually see the connection. But we can recognise it. And having recognised it, we then need to act accordingly. For example, when a bachelor meets an attractive woman who’s wearing a wedding ring, he should recognise her unseen connection to her husband. And refrain from pursuing her. Or flirting with her. Recognising the invisible connection, the man should be led to perform an appropriate visible action.

I mention all this because, although it may not be so obvious, our Mass readings for this solemn feast of All Saints are really all about connections. In the first reading, John sees a vision of heaven. And his vision is full of revealed connections. First, we’re told that he sees an angel. And what is an angel, if not a creature of connection? An angel’s sole purpose is to carry messages from God.  To connect God with others. What’s more, this particular angel carries a special seal. Meant to be used to mark the foreheads of the servants of God. Again, like angels, servants are also connected creatures. The purpose of a servant is to serve the Master.

The reading then goes on to describe John’s vision of countless people from every nation, race, tribe, and language. Very different individuals. And yet very obviously connected to one another. For they are all dressed in white robes. And the reason why their robes are white is because they have washed them in the blood of the Lamb. In other words they have made it to heaven only because of their purifying connection with the self-sacrificing love of Christ.

And, as a result of recognising all these connections, this multitude of saints come together and join their voices to sing the same song: Victory to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb! The recognition of their invisible connection to God and to the Lamb, moves the saints to perform a single visible action. Enthusiastically, they sing the praises of God.

In the second reading too, we find an invitation to undergo a similar process of recognition and action. Think of the love that the Father has lavished on us, by letting us be called God’s children. What is this, my dear friends, if not a call to remember our own intimate connection with God in Christ? And not just to remember the connection. But also to let our remembering lead us to engage in concrete visible actions. Surely everyone who entertains this hope must purify himself, must try to be as pure as Christ. To do what the saints in the first reading do. To allow our recognition of invisible connections lead us to perform concrete visible actions. To deepen our relationship with Christ. To sing the praises of God.

And what happens when we do this? According to the responsorial psalm, we will be blessed. We shall receive blessings from the Lord and reward from the God who saves us. For such are those who seek him, seek the face of the God of Jacob.

Recognition leading to action. Resulting in the enjoyment of blessings. This is also the process that Jesus describes in the gospel. Here the Beatitudes provide us with a list of people who share a common characteristic. They all recognise and act according to their connection to God and to others. And, as a result, they are all blessed. For example, who are the gentle and the poor in spirit, if not those who recognise their own deep need for God and their close connection to others? And who then allow this recognition to influence their actions. And who are the peacemakers and those who hunger and thirst for what is right? If not people who have a deep desire for everyone to be in right relationship with one another, with the rest of creation, and with God? It is people like that whom Jesus pronounces blessed. People who recognise their invisible connections to God and to others. And who then allow this recognition to move them to act appropriately. To sing the praises of God. Not just with the voices. But also with their lives.

This is the message that our readings present to us as we celebrate this solemn feast of All Saints. This is what it means to be a saint. Not just for me to strive for perfection as an individual. But, above all, first to recognise my many and often hidden connections. To God. To others. To the rest of creation. And to allow this recognition to move me to appropriate and concrete action. Singing the praises of God in thought and word and deed. So as to be truly blessed.

And isn’t this a timely reminder for all of us? Especially today? When we often experience the pressure to work as though we have no one else on whom to depend. Since no one owes us a living. And to live as though our actions do not have any impact on anyone else. Isn’t this the cause of the haze that has plagued us all these weeks? Today. When our individualistic tendencies often make us lose sight of our deep connections to one another. And to God. When, despite the many opportunities that technology gives us to connect with others, we still feel more disconnected and lonely than ever.

I’m reminded of these words from a song performed by the Christian band Tenth Avenue North. Words inspired by the seventeenth century poet John Donne:

No man is an island, we can be found.
No man is an island, let your guard down.
Please don’t try to fight me, I am for you.
We’re not meant to live this life alone.
Through trouble, rain, or fire, let’s reach out to something higher.
Ain’t no life outside each other.
We are not alone.
Through trouble, rain, or fire, let’s reach out to something higher.
Eyes open to one another.
We are not alone.

Sisters and brothers, we often wash our hands only because we recognise the presence of unseen realities. What will our recognition of invisible connections lead us to do today?

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Between the Hideous Hag and the Lovely Lady

30th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

Sisters and brothers, have you ever seen that picture that is actually two pictures in one? At first glance, what you see is something that looks like the face of an ugly old hag. With a large crooked nose. Not a pleasant sight. But if you resist the strong temptation to turn away from the ugliness. If you take the trouble to stare long enough at the hideous image. You might begin to see something else. You may see that the huge misshapen thing right in the middle of the picture is not just a nose. It’s also a delicate little chin belonging to a pretty young lady. Whose face is turned shyly away from your gaze. Exposing her neck. In a most attractive way. And when you see that, then the image is transformed for you. And you no longer feel the urge to turn away. In fact, some of us may actually find ourselves staring too long and too hard at it instead.

An optical illusion. That’s what it is. An image that has the power to transform itself. From ugliness to beauty. From repulsiveness to attraction. What it takes is the courage not to turn away. The willingness to stare longer than what feels comfortable.

I mention this, because our Mass readings present us with something very similar. To appreciate this, we must first recall what we have been hearing in the gospel readings of the past few Sundays. Today’s reading is taken from the end of chapter 10 of Mark’s gospel. Throughout chapters 8 to 10, two important things have been happening. On the one hand, Jesus and his disciples have been journeying to Jerusalem. In chapter 11, they will finally arrive there. On the other hand, all along the way, Jesus has been trying to teach his disciples a crucial but uncomfortable lesson. Three times, he has tried to tell them about what awaits him in the Holy City. That he will be handed over to cruel men. Be put to death. And then be raised up on the third day.

But Jesus’ message is too much for the disciples to bear. The image that he paints is just too ugly and repulsive for them to accept. You may recall that in last week’s reading, James and John react by asking Jesus for seats at his right and left. Prompting the other disciples to get upset with them. This reaction is really a turning away from the apparent ugliness of what Jesus had been telling them. And can we blame the disciples for turning away? Who among us would not feel the urge to turn away from such a terrible thing as the cruel torture and cold-blooded murder of an innocent man. And not just any innocent man. But the Messiah himself. Someone upon whom we have placed our hopes. Upon whom the fulfilment of all our dreams depend.

And yet, our readings invite us to resist the urge to turn away. To rest our eyes a little longer than what feels comfortable. And so to see a different image. An image not just of terror and despair. But of comfort and great rejoicing. Isn’t this the picture that the first reading paints for us? The Lord says this: Shout with joy for Jacob! Hail the chief of nations! Proclaim! Praise! Shout: ‘The Lord has saved his people, the remnant of Israel!’…. They had left in tears, I will comfort them as I lead them back…

Of course, these words apply first of all to the return of Israel from Exile. But they also apply to what we believe Jesus to be doing in the gospel. By journeying resolutely to Jerusalem. By submitting humbly to death. Jesus is actually fulfilling the promise proclaimed by Jeremiah. Jesus is gathering together again the scattered people of God. Freeing those held for long years in the bondage of sin and selfishness. Turning humiliated prisoners back into proud sons and daughters. Transforming tears into laughter. Sorrow into joy. Playing the role described in the second reading. The role of high priest. To act for men in their relations with God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. The gift and sacrifice of his own Body and Blood.

Terror and despair. Comfort and rejoicing. Two very different faces contained in the same image. Not unlike the optical illusion that we described earlier. But what does it take for us to see the beauty concealed in the ugliness? The hope hidden in the face of despair? We find the answers to this question in the experience of Bartimaeus. The one who was blind. And then was made to see again.

What was it that enabled Bartimaeus to experience the transformation of blindness into sight? How was he able to not turn away from Jesus? But instead to insist on shouting after the Lord. Even when other people were trying so hard to shut him up. The reading tells us two things that may have helped Bartimaeus.

The first is his blindness. He is unable to see. And so his mobility is restricted. The reading tells us that he was sitting at the side of the road. He has to keep still. Even as other people are busy rushing about. Including the Lord’s disciples and the large crowd. People apparently following Jesus. But not actually understanding where exactly it is the Lord is going. Geographically, they are walking the same road. But spiritually, they are moving in opposite directions. The Lord towards loving self-sacrifice. The others in the direction of greed and ambition. And anxious self-preservation.

In contrast, in his blindness, and in his stillness, Bartimaeus is blessed with a heightened sense of hearing. The reading says that he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth. Heard, not just with his ears, but also with his heart. Heard, and believed, so wholeheartedly, that he was willing to follow Jesus along the road. Not just the road to Jerusalem. But also the way of true discipleship. The Way of the Cross.

The second important thing we’re told about Bartimaeus is that he is a beggar. What does it mean to beg? It means first to acknowledge and accept one’s own helplessness. To recognise that no amount of effort and hard work will make a difference to one’s salvation. If God does not see fit to grant it. Isn’t this why Bartimaeus is not ashamed to keep shouting? He shouts loud. Because he recognises that his need is great. And, in shouting, he is heard. The Lord calls to him. And heals him. And accepts him as a true disciple. Someone blessed with the gift of seeing hope in despair. Joy in sorrow. And, having seen, is then given the courage to follow the Lord. To walk the Way to Calvary and Beyond.

And what about us, my dear sisters and brothers. Surely, we too have our share of ugly experiences. Situations from which we are sorely tempted to turn away. To reject and to deny. Troublesome feelings. Difficult people. Unpleasant circumstances. Things that we would rather not talk about. Let alone confront. And not just experiences in our own personal lives. But also situations of suffering and despair that we see all around the world today. Mistreated refugees and migrants. Victims of injustice and oppression. People who suffer simply because they were born in the wrong place and at the wrong time. Images that make us uncomfortable. Tempting us to turn our eyes away.

And yet, it is only when we insist on looking. On enduring the discomfort. That we receive the blessing that Bartimaeus received. The gift of seeing beauty in ugliness. Hope in the midst of despair. And, having seen, to receive the courage to walk the Way that Jesus walked. The Way of love and self-sacrifice for the sake of others. The only Way that leads to joy. And to the fullness of life.

Sisters and brothers, is there perhaps an optical illusion in your life that the Lord is inviting you to keep gazing upon today?

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Do You See The Gorilla? (Rerun)

29th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Isaiah 53:10-11; Psalm 32:4-5,18-20,22; Hebrews 4:14-16; Mark 10:35-45

Sisters and brothers, have you ever heard of the famous invisible gorilla experiment? Some years ago, two psychologists from Harvard University conducted an experiment. They gathered a group of people, and made them watch a video clip. The video showed six people moving around passing basketballs to one another. Three of the people wore white tops. And the other three black. The test subjects were asked to count the number of times the basketballs were passed between the people in white. After watching the video, they each gave their answer. But the psychologists then went on to ask them a further question. Did you see the gorilla? To which only half said they did. The other half didn’t know what the psychologists were talking about. So they played the video again. And, true enough, in the middle of the video, someone in a gorilla suit walks to the centre of the screen, thumps his chest, and then walks out again. Yet, half of the test subjects were so focused on the passing of the balls that they failed to notice the gorilla.

It may seem strange, but doesn’t this experiment mirror what we see happening in the gospel today? To recognise the similarity we need to first situate today’s passage in the wider context of Mark’s gospel. We need to consider what has gone before and what will come after. For some time now, Jesus and his disciples have been on a journey. Moving ever closer to Jerusalem. In the very next chapter they will finally enter the Holy City. And, all along the way, in addition to ministering to the crowds with his wise words and his healing touch, Jesus has also been trying very hard to tell his companions about what awaits him in Jerusalem.

In fact, today’s gospel passage follows immediately after the Lord’s third prediction of his own Passion, Death and Resurrection. Jesus tells his closest companions that the Son of man is about to be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the gentiles, who will mock him and spit at him and scourge him and put him to death; and after three days he will rise again (10:33f.). And, in the gospel proclaimed just now, we heard the response of Jesus' friends to this bone-chilling revelation. Their beloved Master has just told them, for the third time no less, that he will soon die a horrible death. And James and John respond by asking him to let them sit one at your right hand and the other at your left in your glory. Not only that, we are also told that the other ten began to feel indignant with James and John. They are upset not because of the insensitivity. But because the brothers were trying to get ahead at their expense.

In other words, even though, all along their journey to Jerusalem, the reality of Jesus’ impending suffering and death had actually taken center stage in their conversations with the Lord, the disciples had missed it. Not unlike the people who missed the gorilla. Even though it walked by, right in front of them. Like those test subjects, the disciples’ were more interested in something else. They were concentrating on the popularity that Jesus was enjoying in his public ministry. Seeing earthly praise already being received, they wanted also to share in the heavenly glory that was still to come. Obsessed with their dream of a glorious Messiah in the distant future, they missed the heartbreaking sight of the Suffering Servant closer at hand. Concentrating only on their own ambitions for glory, they missed the opportunity to do what friends might do in such situations. If not to help, then at least to try to empathise with the one who is suffering.

It’s not surprising then that when the Lord’s predictions eventually come to pass. When he is finally arrested in Gethsemane. The gospel tells us that they all deserted him and ran away (14:50). They ran because they hadn’t heard what Jesus had been trying to tell them. Focused as they were only on the passing on to them of the ball of the Lord’s glory, they had missed the intruding gorilla of His Passion and Death on the Cross.

And perhaps this insensitivity of the first disciples is something we may find in ourselves as well. We too are often so focused on our own pressing concerns that we have no time to think of anything else. According to a report on the front page of today’s Straits Times, for example, the number of women in Singapore who remain childless is almost three times what it was twenty years ago. And one reason for the jump is that many are too focused on establishing their careers to start a family.

Sisters and brothers, without meaning to judge anyone, we cannot deny that our obsession with our own comfort and wellbeing, often blinds us to the needs and sufferings of others. Those who may live in our own country. Who occupy the same pews in church. Who eat at the same table. Who even sleep on the same bed. We fail to notice the suffering of those closest to us. What more those who are far away. Like the first disciples in the gospel, we concentrate so much on the ball of comfort and glory, that we fail to notice the gorilla of suffering.

And perhaps this would be all right, if not for the fact that there is a crucial difference between our situation and the gorilla experiment. A difference that our readings highlight for us quite strikingly. In the experiment, although the gorilla takes center stage at some point, it doesn’t have any real connection to the passing of the ball. Indeed, the gorilla is more of a distraction than anything else. The situation in our readings, however, is quite the opposite. Here, we find an intimate relationship between ball and gorilla. Glory and suffering.

In the first reading we’re told that it is by undergoing affliction for the sake of his people, that the Suffering Servant comes to see the light and be content. And the second reading reminds us that Christ has gone through the highest heaven. But only by sharing in our sufferings. By being tempted in every way that we are. And just as the Lord’s passing into glory depends on his endurance of suffering. So too does his passing on of glory to us also depend upon our willingness to share in the sufferings of others. As Jesus tells his disciples in the gospel, anyone who wants to become great among you must be your servant, and anyone who wants to be first among you must be slave to all. The message is clear. For us Christians, the way to glory passes through the service of others. Especially those who suffer. One must face the gorilla to get to the ball.

And truly there are many among us who suffer. And in so many different ways. There are those who suffer because they do not have enough to live on. And then there are also many others who suffer because they do not have enough to live for. It is to such as these that we are sent. Just as Christ was sent among us. To love and to serve the suffering. To be Christ to them. Sharing with them the Way to Life. This is who we are as Christians. This is our mission.

I’m reminded of these words from an old song popularised in the nineteen sixties by the rock group Jefferson Airplane: When the truth is found to be lies, and all the joy within you dies… you better find somebody to love… Especially when the going gets tough. Particularly when we might be sorely tempted to focus only on our own worries and ambitions. Our own comfort and wellbeing. We need to find somebody to love

Sisters and brothers, even as we continue to juggle the balls of our various activities and aspirations in life. How can we keep from ignoring the gorilla of suffering walking among us? Today, what must we do to keep finding somebody to love?

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Cheating Death

Funeral Mass of Lucy Chia Klemm

Readings: Romans 6:3-9; Psalm 22; Matthew 5:1-12
Picture: cc John C Bullas

Sisters and brothers, what would you say about someone who was involved in a serious car accident, but somehow managed to escape without a scratch? Or suffered only minor injuries. Perhaps the car was a total wreck. But the person survived. There’s a phrase that we use for such people, right? We say that they cheated death. Death reached out to grab them. But they managed to slip through its clutches and to go free. And this is something to celebrate. For even though the car might was lost. A life was saved.

Cheating death. This is also what we believe happens when Christians die. Our faith helps us to cheat death. To escape its terrifying clutches. And to go free. But what does this mean? And how does it happen? This is what our Mass readings help us to understand.

But first, we need to recognise something about death that we often tend to forget. Or to ignore. It has to do with when and how death happens. I’m not sure. But I think many of us see death as something that begins to happen only at the end of our life. Or only when we may fall critically ill. That’s when we start to think of dying. But isn’t it true that death is really a process that begins already from the time of our birth? Or even from conception? Right from our mother’s womb, we are already setting out on a journey that will end in our death. A one-way trip from which there is no return. Death begins right at the start of life. Whether we choose to recognise it or not, each one of us here is already dying.

For some of us, the destination of this journey will look like a terrible car accident. Nothing more than a dead-end. A total loss. Of all that we cherish and hold dear. All that we have spent our lives building and accumulating. But that’s not the only possibility. For others, death will be more like a new beginning. An open doorway. Leading to a fuller, freer, more joyful existence. For even though their bodies may be wrecked. The lives of such people will be saved. They will somehow manage to cheat death. How do they do it? What is it that helps them to escape the car-wreck? And to live a fuller life? This is the question that our Mass readings are helping us to answer today.

The first reading does this by reminding us of what we believe happens at baptism. We’re told that when we were baptised in Christ Jesus we were baptised in his death… so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the Father’s glory, we too might live a new life. We Christians see baptism not just as an empty ritual that happens once in a Christian’s life. Rather, it is an expression of the Christian’s commitment to living in the same way that Jesus lived. The Way of the Cross. The Way of laying down one’s life in loving self-sacrifice. For God and for neighbour. The Way of constantly dying to selfish desires. So as to live for the good of others.

Isn’t this also the message that we find in the gospel? Isn’t this what the Beatitudes are all about? What does it mean to be poor in spirit? If not to die to our need to be self-sufficient? To let go of the desire to not have to depend on anyone else. And yet, it is when we die in this way. When we humbly acknowledge our need for God. That we inherit the kingdom of heaven. What does it mean to be gentle? If not to die to our need to be in complete control our own destiny? To let go of our desire to dominate and manipulate others for our own benefit? And yet, it is when we die in this way that we are given the earth for our heritage

This is what we Christians believe. That, by our baptism, we are given the power to transform death. To change it. From a fearful termination, a terrifying car-wreck. To an entrance into the fullness of life and love. Which is why a Christian funeral is never an occasion only for mourning and grief. Yes, we do, of course, feel sad because the one we love has left us. But we also celebrate, because we believe that our dearly departed leaves us for a better place. A place where we ourselves are headed. A place where we can one day be reunited.

And this is true especially as we gather to celebrate this funeral Mass for our beloved sister, Lucy. Who lived to a ripe old age of 91. In faith, we believe that, throughout these 91 years, Lucy has been in fact been dying. Not just physically. But also spiritually. Dying to sin and selfishness. So that she might live in love for God and for others. And I’m sure that those of us who knew her will be able to recall experiences of Lucy’s dying and rising. Very likely we ourselves have benefitted from her self-denial. And this remembering gives us confidence. Confidence that, even as Lucy departs this earth, she yet remains firmly in the gentle embrace of God.

But that’s not all, my dear friends. The rebirth that we gather here to celebrate is not just Lucy’s. It is also our own. For what a tragedy it would be for us if, having celebrated Lucy’s entry into new life, we ourselves should fail to make it to the same destination. No. Today, we gather not just to celebrate Lucy. But also to commit ourselves to continue walking the same Way that she walked. To continue dying to sin and selfishness. So that we might rise to new life in God.

For the same gift that Lucy enjoys is offered also to us. The gift of escape from the clutches of death. So as to rejoice in the embrace of God.

My dear friends, as we bid farewell to Lucy, what must we ourselves do to continue cheating death today?

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