Saturday, April 15, 2017

From Place to Place

Easter Vigil (A)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, April 09, 2017

The Delicacy Beyond Disgust

Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord (A)

Picture: cc momovieman

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, April 02, 2017

When Someone Weeps...

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

Picture: cc Phil Warren

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Mistaking the Mother for the Maid

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Supermarket or Carpark

Solemnity of the Annunciation of the Lord
(1st Profession of Religious Vows in the Society of Jesus)

Readings: Isaiah 7:10-14,8:10; Psalm 39(40):7-11; Hebrews 10:4-10; Luke 1:26-38
Picture: cc Simon ShekEthelRedThePetrolHead

My dear friends, can you tell me the difference between a supermarket and a carpark? Of course, the differences are many. But I am thinking of one in particular. I’m thinking of what we look for in each of these things. What do you look for when you visit a supermarket? And what do you look for when you drive into a carpark? Have you ever noticed the difference between the two?

Usually, when I go to a supermarket, what I hope to find are shelves filled with goods. Many different kinds of goods. The greater the variety the better. Imagine how surprising, even alarming, it would be if I entered a supermarket only to find all the shelves empty… In contrast, when I drive into a carpark, what I hope to find is quite the opposite. What I’m looking for is not more and more stuff. But space. Well, at least one empty space. A safe place where I can park my car.

At supermarkets I look for stuff. But at carparks space. Strange as it may sound, sisters and brothers, this difference is not unlike what we find in our Mass readings today. On this Solemn Feast of the Annunciation of the Lord, as might be expected, the readings are all about how Christ comes to be conceived and born into the world. How the eternal Word becomes flesh, and dwells among us. How the Most-High Almighty God comes close to God’s people. Truly becomes Emmanuel, God-with-us.

For some reason, God chooses to do this by seeking the cooperation of human beings. By looking for a particular kind of human response. What does this response look like? The kind that allows Christ to be conceived and to be born into the world? The readings help us to ponder this question by presenting us with a striking contrast between two different kinds of response.

Echoing the responsorial psalm, the second reading describes this contrast in these words: You took no pleasure in holocausts or sacrifices for sin; then I said… ‘God, here I am! I am coming to obey your will.’ The contrast is between holocausts and sacrifices on the one hand, and presence and obedience on the other. You do not ask for sacrifice and offerings but an open ear. You do not ask for holocaust and victim. Instead, here am I. Rather than plenty of stuff offered up in sacrifice, God prefers instead simply an empty space. An open ear. A heart docile enough to listen to God’s word. A person humble enough to carry out God’s will. What God is looking for is not a supermarket. But a carpark. Not plenty of stuff. But simply a receptive space.

And what the psalm and the second reading describe in the abstract, the first reading and the gospel portray for us in more concrete terms. The contrast is between King Ahaz in the first reading, and the Virgin Mary, in the gospel. Ahaz is the king of Judah. A kingdom that is in imminent danger of being attacked by its neighbours, Syria and Israel. In this time of grave peril, God invites Ahaz to put his trust in God. To pray for a sign of God’s protection. But Ahaz refuses. Not so much because the king doesn’t want to test God. But because he has actually already made other plans. He has already decided to ally himself with the Assyrians. The king’s heart is so full of fear, and so full of his own desperately concocted schemes, that he is unable to put his trust in God. He is unable to receive the gracious assistance that God is offering him and his people. It’s as though, when the Vehicle of the Divine Presence arrives at Ahaz’s heart, it finds there no empty space. The carpark is full. As we might expect a supermarket to be full.

In the gospel, when the angel Gabriel visits Mary, she too is deeply disturbed by the angel’s words. She too does not understand how God’s plan could possibly be carried out. As a virgin, how is she to conceive and bear a human child? Let alone the Son of God? And yet, disturbed and confused though she may be, Mary somehow receives the grace to converse with the angel. And eventually to say yes to God. I am the handmaid of the Lord, let what you have said be done to me. What God finds in Mary is precisely what is lacking in Ahaz. An empty space. An open heart. An obedient will. This is what makes all the difference. This is how Christ comes to be conceived and born into the world. What it takes is not so much plenty of stuff. But simply a receptive space. Not a supermarket. But a carpark.

All of which might serve as a providential reminder for us, who are gathered here for the first profession of religious vows of our brothers Joel and Leonard. What are they really doing today? What do they hope to achieve by professing these simple vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, in the Society of Jesus? I think you will all agree with me, my dear friends, when I say that both Joel and Leonard are very gifted and talented men. Both are university graduates. One even has a graduate degree. Another is a member of a well-respected profession. And we are most grateful to God for all these gifts of theirs. We are grateful also especially to their families, for allowing them to choose this life in the Society of Jesus.

And yet, Joel and Leonard, talented though you may be, what the Society is looking for from you, what we hope you are offering to God today, is not just all of your gifts and talents. All that, of course, goes without saying. But there is something far more important. Something without which–if you may permit me to be brutally honest–something without which all the talent and giftedness in the world, may actually be more of a hindrance than a help. What we are looking for is not so much more and more stuff. More and more talents and gifts. More and more plans and schemes. But rather, first of all, an open and receptive space. A humble and lowly heart. A person committed to living poor and chaste and obedient in the sight of God and of God’s Church, in the Society of Jesus.

For it is our conviction, that it is only to hearts such as these. Only to hearts committed to imitating the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Only to hearts dedicated to following the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus. It is only to hearts such as these, that God’s will can be more completely revealed. It is only through hearts such as these, that God’s plan can be more fully accomplished. So that Christ might continue to be conceived and to be born into our world today.

My dear sisters and brothers, Joel and Leonard, on this Solemn Feast of the Annunciation of the Lord. As we gather joyously for this first profession of religious vows in the Society of Jesus. Perhaps it is helpful for us, for all of us, to ponder together this question: 

In each of our own lives, whatever our chosen vocation may be, what are we really offering to God? A whole load of stuff, or a truly open space? A crowded supermarket, or a receptive carpark today?

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Denying Cookie Cravings to Satisfy Hungry Hearts

3rd Sunday of Lent (A) (1st Scrutiny)

Picture: cc amanda tipton

My dear friends, have you ever come across parents who stubbornly refuse to give their child a cookie? Even when the child cries very pitifully. Complaining that it’s really hungry. Why do you think parents do that? Why do they seem so cruel as to ignore their child’s hunger pangs? I’m sure the parents among us can answer this question quite easily, right? It may be that it’s almost dinnertime. And you don’t want to ruin your child’s appetite. Rather than tormenting the child. You are actually teaching it an important lesson. How to deny a little craving, in order to satisfy a bigger hunger. A deeper yearning.

This lesson is not unlike what God is teaching the people of Israel in the first reading. Like a hungry child craving a cookie, the people are tormented by thirst. And they grumble to Moses. They ask him a question that the poor man doesn’t seem to know how to answer. A question similar to the one we asked about those parents earlier. The question is Why? Why refuse your child a cookie? Why bring us out of Egypt? Why torment us with thirst?

Instead of telling the people the answer to their question, Moses prays to God. And God teaches him how to get water for the people to drink. So that, at first glance, it seems that God gives in to the people’s craving. But still, the question remains, doesn’t it? The question Why? Why bring the people into the wilderness to be tormented by thirst in the first place? Could it be that it’s because, like any good parent, God allows the people to experience a temporary thirst, in order to prepare them for a more substantial drink? Could it be that God is teaching them to endure the more obvious thirst of their throats, so that God can quench the deeper yearning of their hearts? The yearning not just for water, but for love. For God’s love.

And, of course, this is a yearning that is present not just in the Israelites. But also in all of us. In you and in me. It is the same yearning that the second reading says God has already taken steps to satisfy. For the love of God has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit which has been given to us. How did this happen? It happened when at his appointed moment… Christ died for us while we were still sinners. Proving, once and for all, how much God really loves us.

Which is why it’s not quite accurate to say that the people’s question in the first reading is left unanswered. Why bring us out of Egypt? Why torment us with thirst? Although Moses doesn’t seem to answer the question by his words, he does so through his actions. In the steps that he takes to provide water for the people to drink. The early Fathers of the Church saw in Moses’ actions in the wilderness a foreshadowing of what would happen to Christ on the Cross. Just as Moses struck the rock with his staff, causing water to flow for the people to drink. So too was Christ, the rock of our salvation, struck by a spear. And from his side flowed blood and water. Signs of God’s forgiving love. Symbols of God’s life-giving Spirit. Poured out so selflessly to satisfy all thirsty hearts. Why bring us out of Egypt? Why torment us with thirst? So that you may enjoy a more satisfying drink.

And it is this same drink, this living water of his own self-sacrificing love, that Jesus offers the Samaritan woman in the gospel. Like the Israelites in the wilderness, she too is thirsty. Isn’t this why she has come to the well to draw water? And yet, Jesus insists on chatting her up. On distracting her from her immediate concern. Which is to quench her thirst. And, once again, we might ask Why? Why torment the people of Israel? Why delay the woman at the well?  The answer becomes clear as the reading progresses. Jesus delays the woman’s efforts at quenching the thirst of her throat, because he wishes to help her satisfy the deeper yearning of her heart. The yearning for love. God’s love.

A yearning that she has tried so desperately and so unsuccessfully to satisfy on her own. In each of the five husbands she has had in the past. And in the man with whom she is living now. The one who is not her husband. Somehow, in the course of their conversation, Jesus manages to help the woman to recognise her own deep yearning for love. And, more importantly, to believe that he is the One who can satisfy it. Anyone who drinks the water that I shall give will never be thirsty again, the water that I shall give will turn into a spring inside, welling up to eternal life.

As they speak, the woman is gradually led from guarded suspicion to tentative interest, and then to joyful excitement. We’re told that she puts down her water jar. She forgets the thirst of her throat. And she hurries back to the town to tell the people. To share with them the deep stirrings of her own heart. This shift in the woman’s reaction is all the more striking because she had earlier gone to the well at the hottest part of the day. When there would be no one else there. Presumably to avoid her neighbours. Probably because her scandalous marital situation was a subject of local gossip. And yet, here she is now, rushing so eagerly to speak to the very people she had been so carefully avoiding earlier.

To leave our water jar. To forget the thirst of our throats. To deny our craving for cookies. This too is what we do in Lent. Through prayer and fasting and almsgiving. We do it not to torment ourselves. But to turn away from sin. To make space for God. To let go of our greed for material things, for example. Our thirst for revenge. To acknowledge that we have a deeper yearning that only God alone can satisfy. A yearning that God has already satisfied. Through the selfless sacrifice of Christ the Son.

And this is also what the Scrutinies are meant to do for you, the elect. You who are preparing for baptism. By celebrating these rites, we hope to distract you the way the Lord distracted the woman at the well. We invite you to leave your water jars. To forget the thirst of your throats. To deny your craving for cookies. And we do this not to torment you. But so that, especially in these days of more intense preparation, you may allow yourselves to be filled more completely with the love of God. To surrender yourselves more fully to the warmth of the Lord’s embrace. So that, like that Samaritan woman at the well, you too might eventually rush eagerly to tell others of the One who has awakened such joyful stirrings in your heart.

My dear sisters and brothers, this is something that we all know quite well: Parents sometimes refuse their child a cookie not to torment it, but to train it. Is there perhaps a cookie craving that God is inviting you to deny today?

Sunday, March 05, 2017

Of Poisoning & Purification

1st Sunday of Lent (A)

Picture : cc smif

My dear friends, have you ever heard of people who are mysteriously found dead in their cars, with the air conditioner on, and the engine running? Do you know how they are killed? In most cases, these people don’t actually set out to commit suicide. Very likely it all begins with a temptation. A temptation that, I must confess, I myself have felt. Perhaps they are tired. And the weather is hot. So rather than suffer in the heat, they decide to take a nap. While enjoying the cool breeze produced by the car’s AC. But, unfortunately for them, the exhaust fumes must have somehow leaked into the car while they slept. And suffocated them.

And we know how this suffocation takes place. By a colourless, odourless, and tasteless gas called carbon monoxide. As you know, healthy blood contains a protein called haemoglobin. Which allows the blood to carry oxygen throughout the body. Oxygen that the body needs to survive. But once carbon monoxide is inhaled, it poisons the blood by clinging to the haemoglobin. Preventing it from absorbing oxygen. It’s as though the carbon monoxide snatches the breath from the body. Suffocating it. And killing the person.

So this is more or less how those unfortunate people are killed. It involves three steps. First they are tempted by something good. Or apparently better than what nature offers. The cool breeze in the car. Instead of the hot and humid air outdoors. But then, unintentionally, they get poisoned by something else that the car produces: carbon monoxide. And, as a result, they are suffocated to death. Temptation, poisoning and death. Three steps by which they lose their life. Have their breath snatched away from them.

Now, there is, of course, no mention of cars or carbon monoxide in our our readings today. But there is a reference to something that kills people spiritually. Something that the second reading calls sin. Sin entered the world… and through sin death… And, strangely enough, the way in which sin kills people is quite similar to that of carbon monoxide. Isn’t this what we find in the first reading?

Notice how it all begins with a temptation. A temptation not with something bad, but with something apparently good. The woman saw that the tree was good to eat and pleasing to the eye… And not just good in itself. But better than the life that God had already provided for them. And then, once the woman and the man eat of the forbidden fruit. Once they decide to cling to something other than what has already been provided for them. They are poisoned. Outwardly, of course, it may seem as though they are still alive. But, in reality, their disobedience, their sin, suffocates them spiritually. Not unlike how carbon monoxide suffocates us. By clinging to them, and preventing them from enjoying the breath of life that God has already breathed into them. The same breath by which they become living beings.

Temptation, poisoning and death. This is how sin kills us spiritually. Stubbornly clinging to us. Preventing us from enjoying the true life that is God’s precious gift. Thankfully, for those of us who suffer in this way, there is a way out. An antidote. As you may know, the treatment for carbon monoxide poisoning is actually pure oxygen. Which purifies the blood of the poisonous carbon monoxide. Allowing the haemoglobin to recover its ability to carry life giving oxygen to the whole body. In other words, the body is given a new breath of life. Treatment, purification, and life. Three healing steps to reverse the effects of the poison.

But if pure oxygen is the treatment for carbon monoxide, then what is the antidote for sin? We find the answer to this question in the second reading. What reverses the effects of sin is the divine grace, coming through the one man, Jesus Christ. The grace that has come to us as an abundant free gift. And the gospel shows us what it looks like when this divine grace is at work. Specifically, in the example given by Jesus’ own response to temptation.

Notice again how all the temptations he experiences are temptations to apparently good things. He is hungry and needs to eat. Why not turn stones into bread to feed himself? He has come into the world to gather disciples. What could be more effective than a spectacular miracle involving being rescued by angels after plunging from a height? And why not worship the devil, if this can win him all the kingdoms of the world? Isn’t this also what he has come into the world to do? To build a kingdom?

Yet, in every case, Jesus sees through the devil's deception. He refuses to choose to produce something for himself. Contenting himself instead to receive what he needs from his heavenly Father. Insisting on clinging to the breath of life that is the Spirit living and moving in him. The same Spirit that has led him into the wilderness to be tempted. Giving him power to fulfil his mission even in the face of strong opposition. As a result, the devil is defeated, and angels appear and look after him.

In Jesus’ obedience in the face of temptation, we find an awe-inspiring demonstration of the power of the Breath of the Spirit. The Breath of Life. And the good news for us all is that Jesus has already breathed this same Spirit into the world. Especially when he gave his life for us on the Cross. When, after crying out with a loud voice, he breathed his last (Mt 27:50).

All of which might give us a better understanding of what we are doing in this holy season of Lent. Through our lenten discipline of prayer, and fasting, and almsgiving, we are not so much trying to produce something for ourselves. We are not trying to make ourselves holier. Or more pious. Or more spiritually impressive. What we are doing is making time and space for us to inhale more deeply the Breath of Christ. The Breath of the Spirit. The Breath of Life. The same Breath that is for us effective treatment against the poison of sin. Purification from all that clings to us and prevents us from experiencing the love, and joy and peace of God. The fullness of life that is God’s free gift to us and to our world.

My dear sisters and brothers, as we begin this holy season of Lent, how does the Lord wish to save us from carbon monoxide poisoning today?

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