Sunday, April 13, 2014

Pacing Between The Palms & The Passion (Rerun)

Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord (A)

Picture: cc bradhoc

Sisters and brothers, which do you consider yourself to be? A pessimist? Or an optimist? Someone who sees the glass as half empty? Or half full? You’ve probably heard the story of the artist who painted a big black spot on a white canvas, and then showed it to some friends. Asking them to tell her what they saw. As might be expected, everyone said they saw a big black spot. To which the artist replied: But what about the white background? Don’t you see that too?

As you know, this story is often told to remind us to look on the bright side of life. To not be a pessimist. Forever obsessing over dark spots. But to be an optimist. Focusing instead on the light. Sounds like good advice. Especially since too much pessimism can lead to depression. And, in extreme cases, even to suicide. And yet, haven’t we also met people who are too optimistic? Who focus so much on the bright side that they simply ignore the darkness around them? We may imagine, for example, a family that refuses to acknowledge the fact that one of its members may be having a problem with alcohol or drugs or gambling. So the addict does not receive the help and care that is needed. And the whole family suffers. Extreme optimism can be just as destructive as excessive pessimism.

But if neither pure optimism nor pure pessimism is the way to go, then what are we to do? As Christians, how are we to react when a dark spot smears itself over the white canvas of our lives? Strange as it may seem, I think the answer can be found in our liturgy today. Here, we discover the proper Christian response to tragedy. A response that is actually a process. With a beginning, a middle, and an end. We will consider the beginning and the end first, before looking at the middle.

The first step in this process has to do with how we see. As you know, today we stand at the doorway of the holiest week of the year. Today, we accompany Jesus as he enters Jerusalem. Traditionally, we know this day by two names. The first name–Palm Sunday–draws our attention to how this week begins. It reminds us of that bright and joyful scene of the Lord’s glorious entry into the Holy City. We remember how the people gave Jesus a king’s welcome. With great enthusiasm, they waved branches and threw their coats on the road as he passed.

In contrast, the second name for our celebration today, reminds us of how this week will end. Passion Sunday. By the time we reach Thursday evening this week, the joyful acclamations will be replaced by angry insults. Instead of coats and branches strewn on the ground as signs of welcome, Jesus’ body will be stretched out on a cross in an extreme expression of rejection and scorn. By the end of this week, a big black spot will have smeared itself on the white canvas of the Lord’s life.

In such a situation, while an optimist might focus only on the palms, and a pessimist only on the Passion, our liturgy today reminds us that the two are inseparable. For together they show us that ours is a king who rides a lowly donkey. Whose crown will be a cruel wreath of thorns. Indeed, our prayer books refer to this day as Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord. What we find here, sisters and brothers, is a particular way of looking at the world. Not quite the pessimism that remains blind to the light. Nor the optimism that ignores the darkness. Instead, what we have here might perhaps be called a true Christian realism. A way of looking at the world that is willing to see clearly both the palms and the Passion. Both the darkness and the light.

And this is precisely what Jesus did. As we know from the many stories in the gospels, Jesus was not afraid to open his eyes to both the good and the bad. To both the darkness and the light. In his ministry, Jesus was willing to recognize not only the remorse of the repentant sinner, but also the hypocrisy of the scribe and the Pharisee. But that is not all. Especially when we follow Jesus closely this week, we will see that the courage that allows him to see the world realistically leads him also to act compassionately. Such that he will be willing even to take the final step of laying down his life for us. As St. Paul tells us in the second reading, His state was divine, yet Christ Jesus did not cling to his equality with God but emptied himself… even to accepting… death on a cross.

In the life of Christ, what begins with the ability to see realistically leads eventually to the end of loving self-sacrifice. But the distance between these two steps–between the beginning and the end–is very great. To move from one to the other–from realistic seeing to self-emptying love–a third step is needed. A middle step.

In our reading of the Passion today, we find the Lord taking this middle step in the garden of Gethsemane. Here, Jesus sees clearly the darkness that surrounds him. He knows what his Father wishes. But it is not easy to take the final step. He struggles. My soul is sorrowful, he tells his friends, to the point of death. The distance between the beginning and the end is too great even for the Lord.

What does he do? He falls to the ground and prays. Before his Heavenly Father, with heartbreaking honesty, he lays bare his soul. If it is possible, let this cup pass me by. Nevertheless, let it be as you, not I, would have it. And out of this intimate and trusting conversation, Jesus receives the strength to do what is required. So that the words spoken by Isaiah, in the first reading, may easily be spoken by Jesus as well: The Lord has opened my ear. For my part, I made no resistance, neither did I turn away…. I did not cover my face against insult and spittle....

Seeing realistically, praying honestly, and acting compassionately. These are the three steps that make up the Christian response to pain and suffering. To trial and tribulation. These are the same three steps that mark the road that Jesus is taking this week. A road that, as followers of Christ, we too are called to walk in our own lives. Not just in this holiest of weeks. But at every moment of every day. A road that stretches between the palms and the Passion.

Sisters and brothers, faced with the black spots of sin and suffering that smear the white canvas of our lives and our world, how will you react? What will you allow yourself to see, today?

Sunday, April 06, 2014

Raising the Undead (Rerun)

5th Sunday in Lent (A)

Sisters and brothers, do you like zombies? I know that there are people who like to watch movies about zombies. Just as there are those who like to play zombie computer games. As you know, there are different kinds of zombies. But the kind that you typically find in Hollywood movies have several unmistakable characteristics. For one thing, zombies are usually very ugly. This is because they’re actually already dead. So their flesh is rotting away. You can imagine what that looks like. Ugly and scary.

But that’s not all. although already dead, for some reason, zombies are still able to walk around. They’re not completely dead. But neither are they fully alive. Which is why they’re called the living dead, or the undead. Unlike normal human beings, the undead have only one reason for remaining in this world: To satisfy their desperate craving for human flesh. They’re always looking for something, or someone, to eat. Theirs is a totally self-centred, wholly flesh-driven, existence.

Ugly, undead, and driven by an insatiable hunger for human flesh. Quite a miserable way to live, don’t you think? And what makes it even more pitiful is the fact that the undead cannot die. At least not in the way that a human being can. They’re forever condemned to a self-centred existence between death and life. Is there any hope for them? How, if ever, can a zombie become truly human again?

As bizarre as it may sound, sisters and brothers, I think that this is the very question that our readings are inviting us to consider today. How, if ever, is it possible for a zombie to become human again? But to appreciate this, we must first find the zombie in our readings. And we do this by considering something that all our readings have in common. In each of them, we find people, who are already dead in some way, being raised to life.

In the gospel, Lazarus is dead in the literal sense of the word. Having died from an illness, he had been buried in a cave that was later sealed with a stone. Then, wonder of wonders, Jesus comes along, and calls Lazarus out from his tomb. Jesus raises Lazarus from his grave and returns him to the land of the living.

In the first reading, although physically alive, the people of Israel have suffered a political death. Their country has been conquered, and they’ve been sent into exile. Like Lazarus, they too have been buried. Not physically, but politically. Not in a cave, but in the faraway land of Babylon. Then, through the prophet Ezekiel, God comes along and calls them from their foreign tomb. God promises to raise them from their graves, and lead them back to the soil of Israel.

But what, we may wonder, do Lazarus and the Israelites have to do with us? Why should we bother about them? We are not dead. At least not yet. Neither physically nor politically. Not only are we still very much alive and kicking, we also live in a country that can perhaps be counted among some of the richest in the world. Why bother about Lazarus and the Israelites?

The reason is that the physical and political death that we find in these readings point us to yet another form of death. In the second reading, Paul speaks to the Romans about those who suffer from spiritual death. Although such people may continue to walk around as though they were alive, they are not. Indeed, Paul writes about such people in a way that reminds us of zombies. People who are interested only in unspiritual things, Paul writes, can never be pleasing to God. Another translation of the same verse renders it like this: those who are in the flesh cannot please God. Those who are in the flesh. Those who live zombie-like lives. Lives driven only by their own self-centred and fleshly interests. Such people are cut off from God. Although physically alive, they are spiritually dead.

And can we deny, sisters and brothers, that there is a fleshly, zombie-like quality to this modern society in which we live? Our whole global economy is built upon the production and consumption of goods at ever faster and cheaper rates. And a crucial part of this process is the exploitation of human labor. Cheap human labor. The cheaper the better. For example, I may not think much about it, but the new shoes or clothes or accessories that I buy at the store may actually cost far more than just the price stated on the tag. It may also carry the blood and sweat and tears of people working under very difficult conditions in some other corner of the world. Shouldn’t my own constant hunger for comfort and for consumer goods produced at the cost of the suffering of others remind me of a zombie’s ceaseless craving for human flesh? Could it be that our modern consumeristic existence is no different from–no less miserable than–that of a zombie’s? Isn’t this what Paul means by a life lived in the flesh?

And yet, according to Paul, we Christians should no longer be living like this. Through our baptism, we who once were zombies, have been brought back to life. And filled with the spirit of Christ. A spirit that gives us the power to do something that zombies cannot. When Jesus travels to Bethany in the gospel, he accomplishes two things at once. Not only does he raise his friend Lazarus, but he also makes the religious authorities so angry with him that they decide to kill him. By raising his friend from the dead, Jesus sets in motion a process that eventually leads to him being lifted up on a cross. And Jesus does both these things–the raising of his friend and the angering of the authorities–for the same reason. He does them out of love. At Bethany, Jesus does the very thing that zombies cannot. He shows his great love by laying down his life for his friends.

And that’s not all. Sisters and brothers, we too are numbered among the friends Christ. We too have been raised by him from the realm of the undead. And, as his followers, we too have been given the power to lay down our lives for others. Indeed, this is the answer to our question. How, if ever, can zombies become truly human again? By receiving and living in the spirit of Christ that we have all received at our baptism. The same spirit for which we prayed in our opening prayer just now, when we asked the Lord our God to enable us to walk eagerly in that same charity with which, out of love for the world, Christ handed himself over to death.

Sisters and brothers, in our own lives and in our own world, what will it take to continue raising the zombie in us to fullness of life today?

Saturday, April 05, 2014

Putting the Horse before the Cart

Wedding Mass of Benjamin & Cheryl

Readings: Genesis 2:18-24; Psalm 103; 1 Corinthians 12:31-13:8; Matthew 5:13-16
Picture: cc Emilio Labrador

Ben and Cheryl, my dear sisters and brothers, I’m sure you’re familiar with the phrase putting the cart before the horse. You know what it means. To put the cart before horse is to have things in the wrong order. To confuse our priorities. And it’s not difficult to see why. People don’t usually load a cart just for the fun of it. They do it for a specific purpose. To transport their stuff from one place to another. They have a particular destination in mind. But the cart cannot get to this place on its own. It needs the energy, provided by the horse, to pull it to where it’s supposed to go. And the horse can only do this if it’s placed first. In front of the cart. Not the other way round.

Putting the cart before the horse will, of course, result in the cart remaining stationary. You may load it with as many things as you like. You may even decorate it so that it looks beautifully attractive. But, without the horse in front to pull it, it will never move. It’ll never get to its intended destination. Which defeats the whole purpose of loading the cart in the first place.

All this is common sense. It’s easily understood in theory. And yet so easily forgotten in practice. Easily forgotten even when the cart that is being loaded is something as important as a marriage. Or a family. The common life that a man and a woman commit themselves to sharing by professing their vows. By saying I do. Which is why I think that you, Ben and Cheryl, have really chosen your Mass readings very wisely and carefully today. For the readings help to remind us what a marriage should look like, when the horse is placed in front of the cart.

First of all, Ben and Cheryl, you remind us that the marriage vows you will soon be professing, do have a very specific purpose. They are meant to transport you to a particular place. An intended destination. The gospel that you’ve chosen for us today helps to remind us just what this destination is. You are the salt of the earth… You are the light of the world…

The life of love that you will soon commit yourselves to share, for the rest of your earthly lives, is not meant to be a static state. But a dynamic, an exciting, journey. A holy pilgrimage. And your goal, your destination, on this pilgrimage is to somehow give flavour to an often tasteless world. To somehow bring light to those who remain in darkness.  The opening prayer that we prayed just now makes this even clearer for us. There, we said that God the Father has made the bond of marriage… a symbol of Christ’s love for his church. And we asked that your married life together always bear witness to the reality of that love. In other words, we were praying that your love will always illuminate the darkness of selfishness. That it will always give flavour to an environment marked by the blandness of self-absorption.

Bearing witness to love. This is your intended destination. This is where the cart of your marriage is meant to go. And the other readings help us to see what this love looks like. The specific route your marriage is meant to take. The beautiful second reading does this by describing some characteristics of love. Love is patient, love is kind. It is not jealous… And what the second reading describes, the first reading portrays in a story. The story of Adam and Eve. The story of how God creates the relationship of love between the first man and the first woman. Between two human persons equal in dignity. Suitable helpmates for each other.

The process involves three things. The first is sleep. The man is tranquilized. His ego–his tendency to selfishness–is put to sleep. The second is self-donation. A rib–a part of himself–is taken from him. And given to the other. And the third is the action of God. It is God who helps the man quiet his ego. It is God who enables the man to give of himself. It is God who fashions a new being out of what the man donates. It is God who creates a new bond of love. This at last is bone of my bones and flesh from my flesh!

But that’s not all. Thus far, we know our destination. And we know the route. We know that the cart of marriage we are loading today is meant to bear witness to love. That it is meant to embark on a pilgrimage of love. But how do we get this cart to move? Where is the horse that might supply the energy to propel and to keep us on our way? Again, the readings that you, Ben and Cheryl, have chosen, point us in the right direction.

The moving hymn that we sang for our responsorial psalm connects us with the power of love. Not so much our love for one another. Or even our love for God. But God’s love for us. Loving and forgiving are you, O Lord! Slow to anger, rich in kindness, loving and forgiving are you… When we truly allow these words to turn our thoughts to the love that God has for us. To our experiences of God’s love in the past. Then we also begin to see the rest of our readings in a new light. The story of Adam and Eve becomes more than just a story of God creating love out of nothing. It is also a story of how God rescues love from danger. For what happens to the first Adam at the beginning of creation is also the experience of Jesus, the second Adam, at the dawn of our salvation.

On the Cross, Jesus suffers the sleep of death. His side is pierced. And out flows the blood and water into which we are baptised. The love out of which the church is born. Refashioned in the image and likeness of God. In Christ, then, we see the same three elements found in Adam. Sleep, self-donation, and God’s powerful action. In Christ we see, in concrete, what St. Paul describes in the abstract. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. In Christ, we find the power that propels us to our intended destination. The energy we need to receive love. To give love. To bear witness to love.

And it is this power, it is this love of Christ, that we will need in the days ahead. Especially in those days when the heady emotions of the honeymoon are past. When the mundane details of daily living set in. When we continue to face the challenge of love, and bearing witness to love, even though we may no longer feel the euphoria that marks love’s beginnings. Especially in those days, we will need to remain in touch with the love of Christ. Especially at those times, we will need to tap into the love and forgiveness of God. To put God first in everything.

Isn’t this also why we are gathered here today? Not just to witness you, Ben and Cheryl, committing themselves to each other. But also for the rest of us to commit ourselves to you. To supporting you in your mission of bearing witness to love. To helping you to continue putting God first. And we can do this only to the extent that we ourselves remain in touch with the power of love. Only to the degree in which we ourselves continue to put God first.

Ben and Cheryl, my dear friends, the cart of a happy and fruitful marriage has an intended destination. As well as a designated propulsion system. What must we do to continue putting the horse before the cart in the days ahead?

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Appointment With God

4th Sunday in Lent (A)

Picture: cc Ron Wiecki

Sisters and brothers, when was the last time you arranged to meet someone for an outing of some sort? What was it like? What did you have to do? I expect that you probably didn’t think twice about it. It just came naturally to you. But, to be honest, I can’t say the same for myself. I still sometimes find the whole process rather challenging. The reason is that I’m still struggling to adapt to a change in how we do such things. In how we make and keep appointments.

In the past, when people arranged to meet someone, they would typically agree in advance on a specific time and place. The more specific the better. Say, for example, 10:30 AM at Farrer Road MRT Station Control. Very specific. So as to avoid waiting at the wrong place at the wrong time. But habits have changed, haven’t they? These days, when many of us arrange to meet up, we usually tend to keep the details very vague. We might say, for example, ION Mall around 6ish. Now that’s vague. We all know how huge the ION is. And, depending on whom you’re meeting, 6ish can mean anything from 5:01 to 6:59. And not only are we less specific about the details. We also have no qualms about changing what we’ve agreed upon. Even at the last minute.

There is, of course, a very good reason why we feel free to do this. It’s because, these days, everyone carries a phone. So we don’t have to decide ahead of time, exactly where in ION Mall to meet. Or exactly what time to be there. All this can be worked out later. Since we expect to be in continual contact with the person we are meeting anyway. Some of us feel free even to cancel the appointment at the last minute. Or to show up really late. Without feeling too bad about it. Just as long as we call or text or WhatsApp the person to let them know.

I’m sure many of us here find all this very ordinary. Perhaps we haven’t even noticed a change in our habits at all. But–and I’m embarrassed to admit this–I still find it a challenge. I struggle not just to accept the vagueness and the uncertainty. But also to remain in constant contact with the person I’m meeting. You see, I often forget to carry my phone with me. So this is the twofold challenge that I have to face these days. If I want to continue meeting people socially, I have to learn to accept the vagueness. And I also have to remember to keep in constant contact with whomever it is I’m meeting.

Accepting vagueness and keeping in constant contact. This twofold challenge needs to be faced every time we arrange to meet someone. And this is true not just when we meet any ordinary person. It’s true also when we wish to meet God. Notice how, in the second reading today, we are given a very clear instruction. A very particular task. Try to discover what the Lord wants of you. In other words, try to be wherever God wants you to be. Try to arrange to meet God. To do God’s will... To succeed in doing this is to remain in the light. To be able to see God. To fail is to fall into darkness. To remain blind to God’s continual presence and action in our lives and in our world.

But what does it look like when people succeed in meeting God? And what does it look like when they fail? The rest of our readings provide us with very concrete examples. In the first reading, the prophet Samuel has an appointment with God’s will. God sends him on a particular mission. To anoint a king. But notice how vague God’s initial instructions are. All that Samuel is told to do at first is to go and anoint one of Jesse’s sons. Jesse, as we find out later, has eight sons. But Samuel isn’t told exactly which one he’s supposed to anoint. At least not at the start. Even so, the prophet accepts this initial vagueness and goes anyway. He sets out on his rendezvous with God.

And what allows him to succeed in meeting God is that Samuel remains in constant contact with God. As Jesse presents each of his sons in turn, Samuel is continually open to God’s voice. He keeps consulting God. Even allowing God to correct his own initial inclinations. Right until Samuel finally meets the exact person he’s supposed to anoint. Doesn’t this look a lot like how two people might keep talking on their phones until they finally manage to locate each other in a huge and crowded shopping mall? The ability to accept vagueness. And the willingness to keep in constant contact. These are the things that enable the prophet Samuel to do what God wants. To keep his appointment with God’s will. And, in the process, Samuel learns to see with new eyes. With God’s eyes. For God does not see as we see: we look at appearances but the Lord looks at the heart.

In the same way, in the gospel, the man born blind also learns to see with new eyes. I’m referring, of course, not to so much to the healing of the eyes in his head. But more to the opening of the eyes of his heart. The eyes of faith. The eyes that enable this unnamed man to recognise and to acknowledge who Jesus really is. As it was for Samuel, so too for this man. The process is a gradual one. It requires the ability to tolerate vagueness. And a willingness to keep in constant contact with God. At first, when questioned by his neighbours, the man refers to the One who healed him simply as the man called Jesus. A little later, however, he tells the Pharisees that Jesus is a prophet. Then, shortly after that, upon meeting and conversing with Jesus a second time, the man finally comes to see and to accept the Truth. He calls Jesus his Lord. And he worships him.

How does all this come about? We may imagine that this man must have been carrying on an interior conversation with God in his heart. As it was for Samuel, so too with the man born blind. There is an ability to accept vagueness. And a willingness to keep in constant contact. As a result, the man comes to true faith. He manages to keep his appointment with God’s will. He successfully meets God in the person of Jesus the Lord.

In contrast, the Pharisees fail to do the same. And they fail because they cling to the apparent clarity of their preconceived ideas of how God acts. They hear that, in healing the blind man, Jesus had made a paste. This, for them, is equivalent to doing work. Which is forbidden on the Sabbath. Jesus appears to violate the Sabbath. So he must be a sinner. He can’t have been sent by God. There’s just no other possibility. No need to listen to what Jesus might have to say for himself. No need to keep in touch with him. Yet, in rejecting any meaningful conversation with Jesus, in refusing to tolerate even the slightest possibility of uncertainty or vagueness, the Pharisees remain blind to the presence and action of God in their midst. They miss their appointment with God. They fail to do what God wants.

All of which should lead us to reflect upon ourselves. Lent is a time for turning toward God. A time when we prepare ourselves to see more clearly God’s presence and action in our lives. The better to do whatever it is God wants of us. But, in order for us to do this, we must face the same twofold challenge that I find so difficult. We must be willing to tolerate vagueness and to keep in constant contact with God.

Sisters and brothers, we actually do all this quite willingly, without a second thought, every time we arrange to meet our friends (or even our enemies for that matter). We accept vagueness. And we keep in constant contact. How willing are we to do the same for God today?

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Brought Back on Track

3rd Sunday in Lent (A)

Picture: cc atomicjeep

Sisters and brothers, I think you’re familiar with the words distract and detract. You know that, literally, to distract or to detract is to draw something away from its intended path. What is your experience of distraction and detraction? Some time ago, a young family of three was at a food court. The two parents and a little girl. The daddy had just left the table. I presume to get some food. And the little girl started crying very loudly, wanting to follow her dad. At which point, the mom nonchalantly reached into her handbag, pulled out her cellphone, and handed it to the girl. Immediately, the crying stopped. And, very quickly, the girl became completely engrossed with the phone. Without even realising it, she had been successfully detracted. Distracted. Drawn away from her original intention of following her dad.

We find something very similar in our readings today. In the first reading, the Israelites are tormented by a terrible thirst for water. And, as a result, not only do they complain loudly against Moses, the reading says that they also put the Lord to the test, by saying ‘Is the Lord with us or not?’ Now it may not be so obvious to us. But the people are actually allowing themselves to be distracted. They are allowing themselves to be drawn away from their original path. For this thirst that is tormenting them–this thirst of the lips and the mouth and the throat–is causing them to forget a deeper thirst. A thirst of the heart.

As you know, it wasn’t so long ago that the Israelites had been suffering terribly under the oppression of the Egyptians. Treated as slaves, they had cried out to God for help. And, mercifully, God had heard their cry. Had brought them out of Egypt with mighty hand and outstretched arm. This is why the Israelites are in the wilderness in the first place. God is quenching their thirst for freedom. God is leading them to the Promised Land. But they  forget all this as soon as they encounter difficulties in finding water. The thirst of the lips distracts them from the thirst of the heart. And, all too quickly, they turn against the very God who is trying to set them free. They are distracted.

The gospel too paints us a picture of distraction. Like the Israelites in the first reading, the Samaritan woman is thirsty for water. Which is why she goes to the well. But this thirst of the lips is not the only thirst that she has. Again like the Israelites, this woman is also experiencing a deeper thirst. A thirst of the heart. For we’re told that she goes to the well at the sixth hour. Twelve noon. The hottest part of the day. When there would normally be no one else there. People usually draw water earlier in the morning. Or later in the evening. When it’s cooler.

And there’s a reason for the woman’s apparent shyness. Jesus reveals later that she has had five husbands, and the one she is with is not her husband. So hers is an irregular marital situation. A scandalous situation. One likely to attract gossip. No wonder she avoids people. And yet, isn’t it likely that, precisely because of this separation from others, she is experiencing a thirst of the heart? A deep yearning for human connection? But the woman seems oblivious to this. For when Jesus offers to quench her thirst of the heart with living water, the woman keeps bringing the conversation back to the thirst of the lips. Back to the water from the well. Quite clearly, like the Israelites, the Samaritan woman is distracted.

But that’s not all. Our readings are not just about distraction. They are also about how God brings distracted people back on track. In the first reading, God chooses to do this by giving the Israelites what they want. God instructs Moses to strike the rock with his staff. And out flows water for the people to drink. In the gospel, Jesus masterfully converses with the woman until she becomes willing to entertain the possibility that Jesus might be the person she is thirsting for without realising it. Such that she puts down her water jar and leaves the well. She abandons her distraction. And runs back to town. To the very people she has been avoiding. In order to tell them all about this fascinating person she has met. I wonder, she tells them, if he is the Christ.

Distracted people being brought back on track. This is what our readings are about today. And this should be no surprise to us. For we continue to make our way through our Lenten pilgrimage. And what is Lent if not a time for getting back on track? A time to become more conscious of the different ways in which we might have allowed ourselves to be distracted. Allowed our various more superficial appetites and desires to draw us away from our deeper thirst for God. Distractions like burdensome trials and tribulations. Or worldly dreams and aspirations. The thirst for things. And the hunger for recognition.

During Lent, we allow God to redirect our heart. To bring us back on track. And, in our readings today, God does this in two ways. By showing us a person. And by bringing us to a place. The person is, of course, Jesus. He is the one who shows us what it looks like to always remain on track. In the gospel, the disciples urge Jesus to eat something. To satisfy his hunger for food. His need to fill his stomach. But Jesus’ reply shows us that his focus is on a deeper hunger. On a deeper need. My food, he tells them, is to do the will of the one who sent me, and to complete his work. Jesus is so focused on doing the Father’s will, that he allows nothing to distract him from it.

But God brings us back on track not just by showing us the person of Jesus. God also directs our minds to a very particular place. In the first reading, the Israelites are brought back on track at the Rock of Horeb. In the gospel, the Samaritan woman is brought back on track at Jacob’s Well. But what about us? Where are we to go? Where is our Rock? Where is our Well?

St. Paul provides us with a hint of an answer in the second reading when he writes, what proves that God loves us is that Christ died for us while we were still sinners. This verse should transport us to that moving scene, described so vividly in John’s gospel (19:34). As Jesus hangs dead on the cross, one of the soldiers pierces his side with a lance: and immediately there comes out blood and water. This, my dear sisters and brothers, is our Rock. Here is our Well. This is the privileged location where we are all brought back on track. For it is in this blood and in this water that we are baptised. It is here that the love of God is made powerfully present to us in Christ Jesus our Lord. And it is also this same place that we allow ourselves to revisit at this and at every Mass.

Sisters and brothers, amid the many things and situations that distract and detract us, that draw us away from our focus on God, how is the crucified and risen Christ continuing to bring us back on track today?

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Revolution in Revelation

2nd Sunday in Lent (A)

Picture: cc Andrew Currie

Sisters and brothers, I don’t know exactly when it happened, but some time ago I began to notice a quiet revolution taking place right before my eyes. Right here in tranquil Singapore. Some of you may have noticed it as well. Don’t worry. I’m not talking about a military coup or a violent uprising. The revolution I’m referring to has to do, not with the raising of weapons, but with the buying and selling of durians.

Some of you may still remember how, in the old days, the durian-seller would pry open the fruit just wide enough for you to catch a glimpse of what was inside. If you were lucky, he might also let you stick a finger into the fruit and have a taste. But, as long as that little opening did not reveal any rotten or worm-infested bits, you were expected to pay for the fruit he had opened. Which made buying durians a risky business. Especially if you weren’t very experienced. For there was nothing to prevent a dishonest fruit-seller from hiding the rotten portions, and showing you only the good parts. All the while promising you the very best.

In recent times, however, things have changed. These days, for some reason, fruit-sellers have taken to opening up their durians completely. And packing the little yellow nuggets in transparent plastic wrap. So that now you know exactly what you’re buying. No more painful surprises when you get home. What you see is what you get. The only thing that hasn’t changed is that there is still, of course, a price to be paid. But now you pay it more willingly. With greater confidence.
What do you think, sisters and brothers? Isn’t this a revolution in how durians are bought and sold? A radical shift has taken place. From concealment to revelation. From anxiety to confidence. From having to rely only on the promises of the seller to being able to see for yourself what it is you’re paying for.

I bring this up not because I want to make your mouths water. But because I think a similar revolution is taking place in our Mass readings today. Not a durian revolution. But a spiritual one. Notice how, both in the first reading and in the gospel, God invites certain people to do something difficult. To pay a price of some sort. In the first reading, God asks Abram to leave your country, your family and your father’s house. Which is difficult enough to do. What makes it even more difficult is that God doesn’t actually tell him where to go. Abram is asked simply to move. And God will show him where to go later.

In the gospel too, God asks the disciples to do something very difficult. Referring to Jesus, God says, This is my Son, the Beloved... Listen to him. Which may, at first seem easy enough. Except that, at this point in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus is actually on a journey. He is making his way to Jerusalem. Where he will be tortured. And put to death on a cross. And then raised up on the third day. Not only that, but a few verses before the ones we heard read, Jesus had given his disciples this instruction: If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross and follow me. This is what the disciples are being asked to do. This is what it means to listen to Jesus. It is to renounce oneself. To take up one’s cross. And to follow him.

Clearly, both in the first reading and in the gospel, God is asking people to do something difficult. But God doesn’t do this only to see people suffer. The discomfort that God is inviting people to endure is actually a price that has to be paid in exchange for something good. Something beautiful. Something sweet and tasty. Much like how people have to pay a price to enjoy delicious durians. And it is here, between the first reading and the gospel, that we find a revolution taking place.

In the first reading, God deals with Abram in much the same way that durian-sellers used to deal with their customers. Abram has to pay a price. He has to uproot himself and set out on the journey. But without actually seeing what he can expect in return. All he has to rely on is God’s spoken promise. I will make you a great nation...

In the gospel, on the other hand, something has changed. Like Abram, the disciples are asked to pay a price. They have to follow Jesus to the cross. But, unlike Abram, the disciples are given something more to rely on than God’s spoken promise. The disciples are given an experience of what Jesus will look like after he is raised from the dead. In the gospel, what used to be hidden in Abram’s day, is now brought fully to light. On the Mountain of Transfiguration, like a durian having its contents openly displayed in a transparent box, Jesus the Son of God, the Word Made Flesh, God’s Promise Fulfilled, is revealed in all his glory. The disciples are shown exactly what it is they are paying for. Exactly what they can expect. If only they listen to Jesus. If only they renounce themselves. And take up their cross. And follow him. Like him, they too will be transfigured.

Between the first reading and the gospel, then, a revolution has taken place. Something hidden has been brought to light. And it is this same revolution, that Paul writes about in the second reading. This radical change from concealment to revelation. From relying only on spoken promises to being shown exactly what to expect. Here, as in the other readings, there is something difficult to be done. A price to be paid. With me, Paul writes, bear the hardships for the sake of the Good News. But do it not on your own strength. Do it by relying on the power of God. On the strength that God provides. The grace that had already been granted to us, in Christ Jesus, before the beginning of time. Granted to us in a hidden way already in Abram’s day. But has now been revealed by the Appearing of our saviour Christ Jesus.

As with durians, so too with Christ. Something that was hidden has now been revealed. Something that was present only in spoken promises is now shown to us in the flesh. And it is shown to us for a specific reason. So that we will receive the confidence and strength to endure hardship. To take up our cross. To pay the price. In the sure hope that what we are buying is truly worth far more than the price we’re paying for it.

All of which should help us to deepen our appreciation of what we are doing in this great season of Lent. Through our spiritual discipline, as we recall the life, death, and rising of Christ, we are joining the disciples on the Mountain of Transfiguration. Feasting our eyes on the glory of Christ. Remembering what awaits us. So that we can have the confidence and the strength to bear the crosses that life places in our path. Crosses not of our own choosing. Crosses we cannot change. Crosses in the form of difficult people. Or challenging situations. Crosses that can crush us in despair. Or harden us in anger and resentment. But only if we let them. For these same crosses can also lead us to glory. If we but bear them in love. As Christ did before us.

Sisters and brothers, I think those fruit-sellers did a very shrewd thing in bringing about the durian revolution. By showing people exactly what to expect, they gave them confidence in paying the price for good fruit. How is the experience of Christ’s glory giving you the confidence to pay the price for good spiritual fruit? How are you being given the strength to carry your cross today?

Sunday, March 09, 2014

Transformation of Place Through Renovation of Heart

1st Sunday in Lent (A)

Picture: cc US Army Africa

Dear sisters and brothers, have you ever witnessed a place being transformed? For better or for worse? We all know, for example, how a house can be made to look nicer, simply by renovating it. By rearranging the things in it. By repainting the walls. By replacing the furniture. On the other hand, we also know how dirty a room can become if we stop cleaning it. Or if we allow a bunch of rowdy kids to run riot in it. To mess it up.

But places can be transformed not just in how they look. Not just by changing the things found in them. Places can also be transformed in the way they feel. In their atmosphere. And this can happen not so much by the changing of things, as much as by the choices of people. Imagine, for example, a large extended family, gathered for a party in an expensive restaurant. Maybe it’s someone’s birthday. It’s a joyous feast. In a fancy place. Everybody is dressed up. Everyone’s having a great time. And yet, we know how easily the mood can change. All it takes is for two people to choose to pick a fight with each other. To dig up an old grudge. To recall a past hurt. And then the whole place begins to feel different. The atmosphere changes. Joy turns to anger. Harmony to conflict. The party into a battlefield.

In contrast, haven’t we also experienced how even certain harsh and cruel places, certain painful and difficult situations, can sometimes be transformed for the better? Consider, for example, a platoon of National Servicemen in the middle of a long and difficult route march. Carrying heavy loads under the searing heat of the scorching sun. The way is hard. The conditions are difficult. Everyone seems wrapped up in his own suffering. Struggling to bear his own burden. And yet, all it takes is for one soldier to share a story. Or to crack a joke. Or to start a song. And then, soon enough, the mood changes. Struggle turns to play. Separation to connection. The rough road into a happy trail.

Places can be transformed not just through the renovation of objects. But also through the choices that people make. Isn’t this also what we find in our Mass readings for today? Both in the first reading and in the gospel, we find places being transformed. One for the worse. And the other for the better.

In the first reading, the action begins in a beautiful garden. A wondrous place that God has filled with every kind of tree, enticing to look at and good to eat. Different plants to satisfy the human hunger, not just for food, but also for beauty. It is in such a marvellous location that God places the first man and the first woman. Adam and Eve. It’s a place of freedom and fulfillment. Of closeness and companionship. Of harmony and peace. But something happens to this place. Such that, by the end of the reading, Adam and Eve no longer feel at ease in it. Even though they remain thrown together in the same spot, they want to hide from each other. To distance themselves from one another. They are ashamed of their nakedness. For them, the garden of ease is transformed into a prison of shame. How does this happen?

The reading describes the process quite clearly. The exterior transformation of place happens through a change in interior disposition. Through a movement of human desire. We’re told that, prompted by the serpent, the woman saw that the tree was good to eat and pleasing to the eye, and that it was desirable for the knowledge that it could give. She sees something attractive and grabs it for herself. She makes a choice. She chooses to give priority to one desire over another. To the desire for power, over the desire to obey. To the desire to take, over the desire to receive. To the desire to satisfy her own appetites, to fill herself up, over the desire to empty herself, so that God can fill her. And, in that moment of choice, in that change of heart, in that shifting of loyalties, the place is transformed. From luxurious Eden to shameful exile.

The gospel, on the other hand, presents us with a change in the opposite direction. Here, we begin in the wilderness. A desolate, lonely, uninviting place. Characterized by the apparent absence of God and the presence of evil. And yet, by the end of the reading, this terrible place has undergone a radical transformation. At least for Jesus. We’re told that the devil left him, and angels appeared and looked after him. Loneliness and desolation are turned into comfort and consolation. How does this happen?

Again, as with the first reading, the transformation of place results from a movement of heart. From a choice between conflicting desires. Desires with which the devil tempts Jesus. Much like how advertisements tempt us. The desire to fill his stomach by changing stones to bread. The desire to inflate his ego by performing in public. The desire to stuff his pockets with material wealth and power by worshipping the devil. Fortunately for us, unlike Adam and Eve, Jesus resists the temptation. He chooses not to fill, but to empty himself. Isn’t this why he fasts? Jesus chooses to allow his desire for God to take priority above every other earthly appetite. And, by doing this, by remaining well disposed in his heart, Jesus effects a change in his surroundings. The lonely desert becomes an oasis of comfort.

All of which should help us to understand, sisters and brothers, what we trying to do in this great season of Lent. A time when we enter into the desert of self-denial and self-emptying. A time of prayer and fasting and almsgiving. We do all this not because we want to suffer. Much less because we want to take pride in our own spiritual achievements. To feel good about ourselves. No. In undertaking the discipline of Lent, we are making a choice. The same choice that St. Paul talks about in the second reading. A choice of obedience over disobedience. A choice of Jesus over Adam and Eve. A choice for grace instead of sin. By undertaking the discipline of Lent, we are allowing God to do for us, what the psalmist asks God to do for him: A pure heart create for me, O God, put a steadfast spirit within me.

But that’s not all. We do all this not just so that our hearts will be changed. But also so that our world will be transformed. Our world, which continues to be so disfigured by the harmful effects of pollution. Of course, it is true that we are fortunate to be living in a place that is also known as the Garden City. Where our surroundings are relatively clean and green. Even if we may have to endure the haze from time to time.

And yet, isn’t it also true that, even in this Garden City of ours, many people continue to live lives of quiet desperation? Lives of loneliness and pain. Of meaninglessness and suffering. Lives marked by the effects of sickness and addiction. Of poverty and alienation. Through our discipline of Lent, as we allow our hearts to be changed, perhaps we need also to find some way to reach out and to change the lives of others. To help them seek and  find the joy that we ourselves are privileged to experience. The joy that we are gathered around this altar to celebrate. The joy of Christ. The joy of obedience. The joy that comes from allowing God to take priority over everything else in our lives.

Sisters and brothers, on this first Sunday of Lent, how can we begin to transform our world by first renovating our hearts today?

Sunday, March 02, 2014

Who's Your Boss?

8th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Picture: cc SeƱor Hans

Sisters and brothers, imagine for a moment, that you’re a working adult. And, for some reason, you’re arriving very late to work today. How do you feel? Are you anxious? Worried that you’ll get into trouble? … Or, imagine that you’ve been given a very important project to complete at work. And you’ve carelessly made a very serious mistake. So serious that there’s no way to recover. No way to prevent the project from ending in total failure. How do you react? Do you panic?

Especially in crisis situations like these, how we feel and how we react will, of course, depend a great deal on at least one thing. It will depend on whom it is we’re working for. On what our boss is like. If the boss is very demanding. Someone who always expects a hundred and ten percent. Someone whose nickname is slavedriver. Someone who doesn’t suffer fools. Someone who won’t think twice about firing people. Then we’ll probably feel really anxious if we arrive late at the office. We’ll probably be extremely panicky if we make a costly mistake. In contrast, if our boss were patient and understanding and kind. Perhaps we won’t feel so threatened.

How we react to a crisis at work is often a good indication of the kind of boss for whom we work. And this is true, isn’t it, even if we may be working for ourselves? Even someone who is self-employed can still feel anxious and panicky at work. And, when this happens, it may indicate one of two things. Either that person is very demanding even towards himself. Or he isn’t really his own boss. Whether he realises it or not, he’s actually working for someone, or something, else. Like a domineering wife perhaps. Or a demanding parent. Or an unforgiving global economy. Nor is it a matter only of our reactions in a crisis. It’s also our usual disposition at work. Are we typically calm and collected? Or are we more frequently anxious and agitated. Our habitual feelings at work can give us a good indication of who it is we are actually working for. Of what our true boss is really like.

There is a close connection, then, between our feelings and reactions at work and the kind of boss we may have. And this is true in the spiritual life as well. In today’s gospel, Jesus presents us with a very clear instruction. It is a command to feel and react in a certain way. Do not worry, Jesus says. Do not worry about your life and what you are to eat, nor about your body and how you are to clothe it. Now, I think many of us will agree that this is much easier said than done. Especially if we may be living in situations of crisis and stress. When, for example, I have a young family to raise and mortgages to pay. When I am the sole breadwinner. And I’ve just lost my job. How am I not to worry?

Thankfully, in the gospel, Jesus doesn’t just tell us what to do. He also tells us how to do it. How not to worry. Even in times of difficulty. And Jesus does this by helping us to make a very important connection. A connection that is indicated by the first three words of the second paragraph. That is why, Jesus says. That is why I am telling you not to worry. That is why… These three words are very important, because they invite us to make a crucial link between the second paragraph and the first.

You remember what Jesus says in the first paragraph: No one can be the slave of two masters. You cannot be the slave both of God and of money. In other words, in the spiritual life, you cannot have two bosses. You have to choose between one and the other. And not only do you have to choose, but, as we observed earlier, the kind of boss you choose will determine what your life feels like. How you react to crisis.

For example, who are the people who worry over what to eat and drink and wear? According to Jesus, it is the pagans who set their hearts on all these things. It is the people who do not know the one true God. The people who do not acknowledge God as their Boss. The people who worship other gods. Who work for other bosses. It is these people who worry. And the reason is clear. As we said earlier, how you react to difficulties is a good indication of who you work for. Of who your boss really is. Presumably, the pagans work for bosses who stress them out. Bosses who continually make them feel worried and insecure.

In contrast, Jesus wants us to believe that, if we worship the one true God. If we choose God as our Master. If we follow the example of the psalmist who says, in God alone is my soul at rest. Then our reactions will be very different. We will not worry about the things the pagans worry about. And the reason is simple. It is because, unlike the gods of the pagans, unlike the god whose name is Money, our God is not a demanding, unreasonable, slavedriver of a boss. On the contrary, our God is caring and compassionate. Merciful and understanding. Gentle and loving. A God who cares even for the birds in the sky and the flowers growing in the fields. A God who finds it impossible to forget his people. As the first reading tells us, even if a woman were to forget her baby at the breast, God will still not forget us.

But that’s not all. The first reading ends at verse 15. Which is rather unfortunate. For verse 16 is very moving. Here God tells the people of Israel exactly why they will never be forgotten. I have branded you, God tells them, on the palms of my hands. For the people in the prophet Isaiah’s day, this claim was, of course, only a metaphor. God had no hands then. But, for us who are Christian, this prophecy has actually come true quite literally. For we believe in a God who has become flesh. A God who has loved us to the point of submitting his own body to crucifixion. A God whose hands and feet have been nailed to a cruel cross. A God who, even though he has been raised from the dead, continues to bear the scars that the nails made. It is impossible for this crucified and risen and scarred God to forget us, because, in the marks of his Passion, we have, quite literally, been carved into the palms of his hands.

This, my dear sisters and brothers, is the kind of God we have. This is the God we gather here this morning to meet and to celebrate. A God who inspires not anxiety and insecurity. But gratitude and trust. A God whose people do not worry. Not because they’re afraid they will be punished if they do. But simply because they know how much their God cares for them. Simply because they know that not even death can tear them away from his loving nail-scarred hands.

If all this is true, then the answer to our question is clear. How can we stop worrying? Even when everything may seem to be going wrong? Simply by doing our best to worship the one true God. To rest in him alone. To set our hearts on his kingdom first, and on his righteousness. To become what St. Paul tells us we are meant to be. Christ’s servants. Stewards entrusted with the mysteries of God. People who, in everything they think and say and do, work for no other master than the One who gave his life to set them free.

Sisters and brothers, whether or not we worry depends very much on the god we choose to worship. On the master we choose to serve. On the boss for whom we choose to work. Sisters and brothers, for whom do you work? Who exactly is your boss today?

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Between The Artist & The Fool

7th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Picture: Luna Park NYC

Sisters and brothers, when you were in school, did you have a least favourite subject? Do you still remember what it was? Or, for those who happen to still be in school, what it is? I’m a little embarrassed to say this, but one of my least favourite subjects in school was art. And the reason is simple. I wasn’t very good at it. Or, to use the more technical, and also more honest, term: I sucked. I used to dread it when the art teacher would come into class and give each of us an assignment to create something beautiful. Commissioning us, as it were, to produce a work of art.

The most difficult thing for me was when we were told to draw or paint something from scratch. On the basis of nothing more than our own imagination. I just didn’t know where to begin. But even when we were given something concrete to reproduce, like an apple or a flower, I still found it a great challenge. Somehow, as hard as I tried, my copy just never did look very much like the real thing. I just wasn’t able to create something beautiful. It was as though I was born without an artistic bone in my body. Which is why I never did like art class very much. What I disliked most was the pressure I felt. The pressure to produce something I just wasn’t able to produce. A thing of beauty.

Which probably explains why my first reaction to our Mass readings today is one of anxiety and discomfort. For what is God doing in our readings if not commissioning a work of art? A thing of beauty? In the first reading, God tells Moses to speak to the whole community of the sons of Israel and say to them: ‘Be holy...’ And, what God expects from the whole of Israel in the first reading, Jesus asks of each of his disciples in the gospel: You must be perfect. And the same demand is, of course, also addressed to us: Be a holy community! Be perfect individuals! In other words, be a thing of beauty! What does this sound like, sisters and brothers, if not a commission? It would seem that God is inviting us to become artists. To make of ourselves a glorious work of art.

It is no wonder then that I should feel anxious. I feel like I’m being asked to do something I’m not good at. To produce a thing of beauty. To create a work of art. And it doesn’t comfort me very much that God gives very detailed specifications for what this artwork should look like. For these requirements seem too burdensome for me to fulfill. In the first reading, we’re told to love your neighbour as yourself. And this love is to be expressed in not ever bearing grudges against another. But, rather, in openly telling the other of his or her offence. In the gospel, Jesus makes even more stringent demands. We’re expected to love not just our neighbour, but even our enemy. To return good for evil.

And what is perhaps most intimidating is the model that is presented to us to imitate. We’re asked not just to be holy and perfect. But to be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy. To be perfect just as your heavenly Father is perfect. Sisters and brothers, it seems that what our readings are commissioning us to produce in our own lives is not just any ordinary work of art. But nothing less than an image of God himself!

Now I’m not sure how you feel about all this, sisters and brothers. But when I listen to these words, it feels a little like I’m being transported back in time. Back to when I was in school. Back to that dreaded art class. I feel as though I’m again being pressured to produce something beautiful. Something that I don’t have the ability to produce. Is it any wonder that my first reaction is anxiety and discomfort? And, following this first reaction, there is also a second and a third.

My second reaction is to try to find some loopholes in God’s commission. Some possible exceptions to the general rule. Sure, God is asking me not to hate, but to love my enemies. This may be true in general. But maybe this doesn’t quite apply to some specific people. Like the noisy person who lives next door. Or the busybody who shares my office. Or the fellow motorist who just cut into my lane. Or the foreigner who has just stolen my job... Surely these are not my enemies. And, of course, surely I don’t really hate them. Hate is, after all, such a strong word. I just prefer not to have anything to do with them. That’s all.

My third reaction is simply to ignore what is being asked of me. To try not to think about it too much. Just like how I used to procrastinate whenever I received an assignment in school that I didn’t really like. I just used to push it out of my mind for as long as possible. Hoping that it will go away. That the teacher may forget about it. Or change her mind, and cancel the assignment. Which, of course, never happened.

Anxiety and discomfort. Compromise and procrastination. These are among my reactions to the pressure that I feel our readings are putting on me today. The pressure to be an artist. The pressure to produce, in my life and in my world, a thing of beauty. A work of art. And yet, sisters and brothers, is it possible that I may be mistaken? That I am looking at our readings in a wrong way? Could it be that there is another more helpful way to look at them? And, if so, what might this be?

I think we find more than a hint of an answer in our second reading. Here, St. Paul uses two words to describe God’s people. Didn’t you realise, he says, that you were God’s temple. And if anyone thinks of himself as wise… he must learn to be a fool… A temple and a fool. Do these things have anything in common? I’m not sure, but I think they do. The scripture scholars tell us that the word in Greek that is translated as temple actually refers not to the whole temple, but only to the Holy of Holies. The most sacred part. The place reserved for the Presence of God. And we know that, at least in Jesus’ day, this portion was left empty. Also, the Latin root for the word fool actually means a windbag. And, like the Holy of holies, a windbag is essentially empty. It contains nothing but air.

All of which may indicate what our readings are asking of us. It is true that God is commissioning a work of art. That God wishes us to be beautiful. But nowhere in our readings are we pressured to produce this artwork ourselves. Nowhere in our readings are we asked to become artists. Instead, what we are asked to do is to become empty. Like the Holy of Holies. Filled with nothing but the Presence of God. Or like a windbag. Filled with nothing but the powerful wind of the Spirit of God. We are asked to allow God to be our Artist. To allow God to shape and mould us into a thing of beauty. Into a work of art.

And isn’t this why we are here this evening? Not so much to make ourselves beautiful. Like someone applying cosmetics. Much less to show off our own beauty. What we are here to do is to submit ourselves to the hands of the Divine Artist. To bring the many things that fill our hearts and our lives, and to lay them down before God. Joining them to the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross. So that God can continue to fill us with His presence. To transform us from within. To make of us a work of art.

Sisters and brothers, God is asking us not so much to be artists, as to be fools. Not so much to produce, as to submit. What must we do to respond ever more generously to this invitation today?

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Beyond Masak-Masak

6th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Picture: cc Lan Rasso

Sisters and brothers, have you ever heard of the term masak-masak? Do you know what it means? The Singaporeans among us will probably be familiar with it. As you know, masak-masak refers to the games of make-believe that little children like to play. For example, a child may use toy cooking utensils to pretend to prepare food. And even to pretend to serve it to others. It’s no coincidence that, in Malay, the word masak actually means to cook. So masak-masak can refer to a little child pretending to cook. The child only goes through the motions of cooking and serving. But, of course, nobody actually expects to be fed.

And that’s fine. It’s appropriate for a little child to engage in masak-masak. It’s even quite amusing for adults to watch them. But what’s appropriate for children is, of course, not so appropriate for adults. Especially if the adult in question actually has the responsibility for feeding others. Can you imagine, for example, inviting your friends to a restaurant, for a dinner party, and then finding out that it serves only make-believe food? Or returning home from a tiring day at work, expecting a hot meal, and discovering that your domestic helper or spouse has spent the day doing nothing but playing masak-masak? And what would happen if all that we ever did was to play masak-masak? We would all either have to survive on raw food, or starve to death! Masak-masak may be fine for children. But, to keep from starving, at least some of us adults need to learn how to cook for real. Even if it’s just to boil an egg and some instant noodles.

I mention all this because I think it can help us to understand a little better why Jesus says the things he does in the gospel today. If your virtue goes no deeper, Jesus says, than that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never get into the kingdom of heaven. But why? What is wrong with the virtue of the scribes and Pharisees? And why is it insufficient to get us into heaven?

As you know, in the gospels, although the scribes and Pharisees follow the Jewish Law very very strictly, they seem to think that keeping the Law is only a matter of external ritual observance. Of going through the motions of prayer, at certain prescribed times and in certain prescribed ways. Or of fasting. Or giving alms. Or offering sacrifices. But this is insufficient for entering the kingdom of heaven, because the kingdom is not just about what we do externally, with our hands. But, just as importantly, also about what we have within us, in our hearts. Which is why, in the gospel, Jesus encourages us to deepen our observance of the Law, by watching, not just what we do, but also how we think and feel. By, for example, going beyond refraining from killing, to not being driven by anger. Beyond just keeping away from adulterous relationships, to resisting lustful thoughts. Beyond just fulfilling our promises, to being honest at all times.

But that’s not all. The virtue of the scribes and Pharisees is insufficient not just because it remains with the external. But also because it relies only on human strength. The scribes and Pharisees prescribe many rules for people to follow, without actually helping them to find the power and energy they need to keep those rules. Theirs is a very burdensome, very strenuous regime. A spirituality of purely human effort and self-exertion. Without any possibility of finding nourishment. Like children playing masak-masak, the scribes and Pharisees only go through the motions of cooking, without actually feeding anyone.

In contrast, the virtue that our readings are proposing to us is quite different. Although Jesus invites us to deepen our observance of the Law, we are not left to our own devices. The deeper we go, the more we realise our own weakness. Our own inability to live up to what is demanded of us. And, in our weakness, we are led to turn to God for help. Isn’t this why we prayed the way we did in our opening prayer just now, when we asked that we may be so fashioned by God’s grace as to become a dwelling pleasing to God. To be fashioned by God. Rather than to build ourselves up. In other words, we asked God to make us holy by filling us, by feeding us, with God’s very Self. With God’s life-giving and energy-replenishing Presence. And the first reading reassures us that God does hear and answer our prayer. That God does give us the strength that we need to do what is right. If you wish, we are told, you can keep the commandments, to behave faithfully is within your power.

And what is this power? From where do we find this nourishment? The answer is clearly spelt out for us in the second reading. Where St. Paul speaks of having a wisdom to offer those who have reached maturity. Not the virtue of the scribes and Pharisees. Not just the masak-masak that is meant only for children. The games of make-believe that may amuse some, but actually feed no one. Paul is speaking instead of the hidden wisdom of God. The wisdom that God has revealed to us through the Spirit. The same wisdom that we are gathered here this morning to celebrate and to partake. The wisdom that is found in the crucified and risen Christ.

But to gain access to this wisdom, it is not enough for us just to drag ourselves to this holy place once a week. Not enough for us just to go through the motions of standing and sitting and kneeling. Not even enough for us just to come up to the altar to receive the Eucharistic bread. As important as all these actions may be, they remain on the level of external ritual observance. They remain only masak-masak. As long as we do not open the doors of our hearts to the Lord. As long as we do not bring along with us our joys and our sorrows. Our triumphs and our defeats. As long as we do not allow ourselves to enter into an intimate personal relationship with the One who has loved us enough to lay down his life for us on the Cross.

It is only when we do this. When we actually get to know Jesus in the same way that we may come to know a close personal friend. That we gain access to the strength and energy we need to live the virtues of the kingdom. It is only in this way that we find true nourishment. It is only in this way that are we fed. And not just us. In being fed, we too are then moved to reach out to help others find nourishment. Whether it be in the form of material help. Or spiritual guidance. We ourselves become people who feed others with the wisdom that we have first received from God. The wisdom that is Christ.

Sisters and brothers, it’s quite understandable, and even amusing, for little children to engage in games of make-believe. But there comes a time when children are all called to grow up. To mature in their faith. To enter into an intimate personal relationship with the One whom we call our Lord and Saviour. For it is only in doing this that the world will find true nourishment.

Sisters and brothers, in our lives of faith, how is the Lord inviting us to continue to outgrow masak-masak today?
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