Sunday, June 16, 2024

Contact Points for Spiritual Strength

11th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Ezekiel 17:22-24; Psalm 91 (92):2-3, 13-16; 2 Corinthians 5:6-10; Mark 4:26-34

Picture: By Call Me Fred on Unsplash

My dear friends, how do we charge our electrical devices? Typically, we use a plug to connect the device to a socket. The three pins in the plug fit neatly into the corresponding spaces in the socket and, through these three contact points, electricity flows. We usually take it for granted that the plug will fit into the socket. Unless we’re in a foreign country, with sockets different from our own. Then we need an adaptor… But what about our spiritual batteries? Do we have a similar process for charging them too? This is the question our Mass texts help us to ponder today. In the prayer we offered earlier, we called God the strength of those who hope in God, and we confessed that, without God, our mortal frailty can do nothing. Without God, we are like devices without electricity. Good to look at, but unable to function properly. What to do? The scriptures offer us something like the connection between the spaces in a socket and the pins in a plug. Three contact points, through which power flows from God to us.

The first space in the socket is the crucial reminder of the importance of God’s initiative. Through the repeated use of the word I, the first reading emphasises that it is God who will preserve and renew the exiled people. I will take a shoot… I will plant it… I… have spoken, and I will do it. Similarly, in the gospel, Jesus likens the kingdom of God to the growth of a seed, which happens mysteriously, of its own accord. Above all, it is God alone, who makes things grow. The farmer’s part is simply to cooperate, to respond appropriately and generously to God’s initiative. Sometimes to sow or to reap. At other times to rest and to wait.

And if God’s initiative is the first space in the socket, then the pin that fits into it is named by a word that appears twice in the second reading. We are always full of confidence. Or, in another translation (RSV), we are always of good courage. Confidence or courage, not in our own efforts, but in God’s prior initiative, and tireless work. This is the first contact point through which we draw energy from God. But this connection is not easy to maintain. It’s not easy to remain confident, especially when growth appears slow, or even non-existent. Which is why we need a second contact point.

We find this in the next parable that Jesus tells in the gospel. Like a mustard seed, which is tiny at the time of planting, the kingdom of God has very humble beginnings. Which may discourage those of us who are conditioned to look only for instant flashy results, and easily measured key performance indicators. Forgetting that, not only did the Saviour of the world himself start out as a tiny helpless baby, lying in a smelly basin used for feeding animals, he was also cruelly put to death on a cross. Which is why, the pin that fits into this second space is the ability to walk or proceed by faith and not by sight. To see and evaluate everything with the merciful heart of Christ, instead of the prideful ambitions of this world.

The third space in the socket is a feature shared by the cedar tree in the first reading, and the mustard plant in the gospel. Once fully grown, they both provide abundant room for every kind of bird to find safe shelter, to rest in the shade of their branches. In contrast to the injustice and oppression found in this passing world, God’s kingdom offers a profound restfulness to all. Especially those who are weary and… carrying heavy burdens (Mt 11:28). Those in any kind of distress. And the pin that fits into this inclusive space is our striving to do not our own will but God’s. Our willingness to imitate St Paul, who is always intent on pleasing God.

So God’s initiative, and our confidence; the humble beginnings of God’s kingdom, and our ability to see and evaluate everything with the eyes of faith; the profound restfulness of God’s kingdom, and our striving to please God in all things. In the scriptures, these are the three points of contact through which spiritual strength flows from God to us. And isn’t this a particularly important message for all of us, who live in this pressure-cooker called Singapore? According to a news article published in April, although we enjoy some of the highest living standards in Asia, (ours) is also one of the most stressed-out societies. And as reported just three days ago, a recent survey has found a growing risk of burnout among workers and a need for greater mental health support. If this is true not just of Singaporeans at large, but also of us Christians, then perhaps it cannot be taken for granted that the plugs we use actually fit the socket that God provides. Perhaps we need something like a spiritual adaptor, such as the ones we use when visiting a foreign country. So that we Christians might not only learn to charge our own batteries, but also reach out to help others do the same.

Sisters and brothers, what can we do to better allow God to strengthen us on life’s journey today?

Sunday, June 09, 2024

Something Wrong With the Water?

10th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Genesis 3: 9-15; Psalm 129 (130); 2 Corinthians 4: 13-5: 1; Mark 3: 20-35

Picture: By on Jason Leung Unsplash

My dear friends, given a choice, which would you prefer? To feel at home or not at home? To be like a fish swimming happily in water, or struggling desperately out of water? At first glance, the answer seems obvious, doesn’t it? Surely the preference must be to feel at home. Who in their right mind wants to be a fish out of water? And yet, if we were to give it a little more thought, doesn’t our answer have to depend also on the quality of the water? If the water is pure and clean and wholesome, then it’s natural for a fish to feel at home in it. But what if it’s a boiling hot pot of soup? What kind of fish will actually feel at home in that, except a dead one?

People feeling like fish out of water… This is what we find in our scriptures today. In the first reading, there are clear signs that the man and the woman no longer feel at ease in the garden of Eden, that safe and beautiful place, which God had given them to care for, and to call home (Gn 2:8, 15). They are so ashamed of their own nakedness, that they hide themselves from God. They also point accusing fingers at others, and even at God, for their own wrongdoing. It was the woman you put with me; she gave me the fruit, and I ate it… So that even before God actually drives them out of Eden (Gn 3:23-24), the man and the woman are already interiorly exiled from it. They no longer feel at home in their God-given home. Similarly, after telling us that Jesus went home with his disciples, the gospel goes on to describe how the cosy little kampong where the Lord grew up has become for him a very uncomfortable and unsafe place. Not only do his friends and relatives want to take charge of him, because they think he’s crazy, the scribes visiting from Jerusalem accuse him of being possessed and manipulated by the prince of devils. So that, like Adam and Eve in Eden, Jesus too feels like a stranger in his own earthly home.

But even if both our first parents and Jesus share the same feeling of being like fish out of water, there is a sharp contrast in the quality of the water. Unlike Adam and Eve, who feel out of place in the idyllic garden specially created for them by God, the water in which Jesus finds himself is very different. Speaking in parables, Jesus refers to it as a kingdom, and a household, ruled by Satan, the strong man. A place that is plainly unsuited for dignified human living. Like how boiling hot soup is unsuited for fish to live in. And there’s a difference not just in where they are, but also in why they feel the way they do. Whereas Adam and Eve are exiled from Eden, as a result of their disobedience, Jesus enters Satan’s domain in obedience to his heavenly Father. And he does this in order to tie up the strong man, and burgle his house. Adam and Eve have committed a selfish act of rebellion. But Jesus is engaged in a merciful mission of rescue. He plunges into the dangerous waters of our troubled world, to seek out and save the lost. To gather and lead us back into the wholesome life-giving waters of the Father’s will. Helping us to reclaim our God-given dignity, and even to become members of the Lord’s own family. Anyone who does the will of God, that person is my brother and sister and mother…

All of which might lead us to reflect on our own lives in this passing world. Which, despite its impressive advances in science and technology, still shows clear signs of Satan’s insidious influence. Not just in painful conflicts between nations, but also in petty rivalries among individuals. Not just in the terrible damage we inflict on our planet, but also in the unreasonable burdens we place on our families. Not just in the obvious suffering of migrants and refugees, but also in the often hidden distress of those saddled with addictions and afflictions of various kinds. Side-effects of the struggle to cope with the demands of life in our hyper-modern world.

Faced with such an environment, what are we to do? Could it be that beyond just continually driving ourselves and our children to do our utmost to swim more happily through it, we also need to entertain the possibility that there might be something wrong with the water? So that together we might find ways to change it for the better. To do what we asked God to help us do, in the prayer we offered earlier: At God’s prompting, to discern what is right, and with God’s guidance, to do it. Learning to test the waters of our world against the values of the gospel. And even to share in the Lord’s experience of being homeless here. So that we might make our home in God. For as the second reading reminds us, when this tent we live in on earth is folded up, there is a house built by God for us, an everlasting home not made by human hands, in the heavens.

Sisters and brothers, perhaps it’s not always a bad thing to feel like fish out of water. Depending on the water, it may even be a sign we’re still alive. What can we do to continue testing the water, so as to truly make our home in God today?

Support For The Suddenly Shaken

Funeral Mass for Simon Teo

Readings: Wisdom 4: 7-15; Psalm 22; 1 Corinthians 15: 51-57; John 11: 17-27

Picture: By Ina Carolino on Unsplash

My dear friends, have you ever found yourself in a moving vehicle–say a bus, or a train, or even a car–which happens to jerk or brake very suddenly? We know what that feels like, don’t we? It’s as though, not just our body, but even our heart is violently shaken out of place. And our natural reaction is to reach out and try to hold onto to something for support. Similarly, as we move through the routine of daily life, we sometimes encounter situations that throw us off-balance. Not just physically, but also mentally, emotionally, even spiritually. And something inside us spontaneously reaches out for support. Perhaps this is also how we’re feeling, as we face the shock of our brother Simon’s sudden passing. Even if we may not realise it–possibly because we are preoccupied with the many important practical details associated with a funeral–our hearts still yearn for something that can steady us. Something to help us keep our balance, even as we grieve and mourn. This is what the scriptures offer us today.

The first reading aptly speaks of someone who dies before his time. Which some may see as a sign of God’s displeasure. For if a long life is a blessing, then shouldn’t a short life be considered a punishment? But the reading suggests a different view. By calling to their heavenly home those still relatively young, God is removing them from the evils and temptations of this passing world. For grace and mercy await the chosen of the Lord, and protection his holy ones. God’s desire is not to punish, but to preserve and to protect.

The second reading offers us further spiritual support by reminding us that, for us Christians, death is more like a comma than a full-stop. A full-stop brings a sentence to an abrupt end. But a comma marks a pause. It may even bring about a transformation, a radical change of direction. For we Christians believe that we are not all going to die, but we shall all be changed… because our present perishable nature must put on imperishabilityDeath is swallowed up in victory. The full-stop becomes a comma. And this happens not because of our own holiness, important as that may be, but through our faith in the Lord Jesus.

Isn’t this why, amid Martha’s confusion and grief, Jesus takes the time to tenderly engage her in conversation? What is the Lord doing for his beloved friend, if not helping her to keep her balance. Gently drawing out of her the faith that lies hidden in her heart. That God-given ability to hold onto the Lord. The One who, through his own Dying and Rising, has the power to console us and steady us, amid the many unpredictable ups and downs of our earthly existence. I am the resurrection and the life. If anyone believes in me, even though he dies he shall live… Do you believe this?

Do you believe this? This is the Lord’s response to all who who mourn. Do you believe this? A question that can steady us, when we are shaken out of place. Do you believe this? Sisters and brothers, even as we move through the process of grieving, how might we also help one another to keep pondering this powerful question in the days ahead?

Sunday, June 02, 2024

Preparing For The Food That Tenderises

Solemnity Of The Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ

Readings: Exodus 24:3-8; Psalm 115 (116): 12-13, 15-18; Hebrews 9: 11-15; Mark 14: 12-16, 22-26

Picture: By Sara Cervera on Unsplash

My dear friends, do you like kiwifruit? I recently watched a documentary that taught me something about kiwifruit that I didn’t know before. Not only can it be eaten as food, it can also be used as a tenderiser. In the documentary, some kiwifruit was mashed into a paste, and then spread onto a thin slice of meat. After just a few minutes of coming in contact with the fruit, the meat could be pulled apart very easily. Along with this amazing tenderising power, there were two other things in this experiment that I found striking. The first is the way the kiwifruit took effect. It’s possible to tenderise meat by pounding it violently with a mallet. But the kiwifruit worked in a much more quiet, hidden way. On the surface, nothing seemed to be happening. It was only later, when the meat was examined, that it became clear how tender it had become. The second is how some preparatory steps had to be taken, for the experiment to work. The meat had to be sliced, the fruit mashed, and then left on the meat for some time… Tenderising power, hidden effects, and preparatory steps. Today, our scriptures tell us that the Body and Blood of Christ has these same three characteristics.

In the first reading, the ritual actions performed by Moses at Mount Sinai have a clear tenderising effect. Together, the teaching of the commands of the Lord, and the sprinkling of the blood of sacrificed animals–first on the altar, and then on the people–result in a softening of the people’s hearts. Causing them to agree to observe all that the Lord has decreed. Making them more acceptable in God’s sight. Drawing them into a tighter communion with and in the Lord. And this tenderising process takes place in a quiet, hidden way, in the hearts and lives of the people. Also, to facilitate this process, preparatory steps had to be taken earlier, which include the washing of their clothes (Ex 20:14ff). All so that the people might be led more fully by God, out of the slavery of Egypt, and into the freedom of the Promised Land.

Tenderising power, hidden effects, and preparatory steps. We find these same three characteristics in the actions of Jesus in the gospel. By sharing a ritual meal with his disciples, on the evening before he suffers, Jesus gives them, and us, something to remember him by. A way to recall, and make present again, his deep love and selfless sacrifice for us. So that, amid the often troubling, traumatic, soul-hardening experiences of life, our hearts might still remain tender enough for us to continue submitting ourselves to God. As the second reading tells us, the blood of Christ… can purify our inner self from dead actions so that we do our service to the living God. The Eucharist has the power to keep us from being enslaved by various obsessions and compulsions–such as with work and money, status and luxury–and to enable us to live in the freedom of the love of God.

And this tenderising power of the Eucharist often takes effect in a quiet, hidden way. For example, in Luke’s gospel, how do the two disciples on the Road to Emmaus come to recognise the Crucified and Risen Christ, when he breaks bread with them? Could it be it was because their earlier experience of the Last Supper had tenderised their hearts in a hidden way? So that after suffering the trauma of the Lord’s Crucifixion, they were better able to experience the comfort of his Resurrected Presence. Motivating them to reverse the initial direction of their journey. Away from the darkness of despair, and back into the light of hope (24:30-33). Isn’t this also what we believe can happen to us, when we gather for the Eucharist? Through the repetitive, seemingly boring, actions we perform every week, we believe hidden changes take place within and among us. Gradual transformations that may become clear only later, perhaps in moments of crisis.

But for this to happen, important preparatory steps need to be taken. Like what the two disciples in the gospel were sent to do. As well as all the work that goes into our own celebration of Mass every Sunday. From the greetings we exchange, to the songs we sing. From the clothes we wear, to the items we use. From the postures we adopt, to the procedures we follow. From the prayers we boldly offer, to the Word we reverently receive and proclaim… And whether we serve in the sanctuary, or participate from the pews, don’t we all need to do our part to carefully dispose our hearts and minds and bodies for worship? Such as by prayerfully reading in advance the scriptures assigned for that Mass. For just as the kiwifruit has to be mashed, and the meat sliced thin, so too do steps need to be taken to make the Divine Presence more accessible to us, and our hearts more receptive to God.

Sisters and brothers, if the Body and Blood of Christ is truly offered to us both as nutritious food, and an effective tenderiser, then what can we do to better prepare ourselves to experience its benefits more fully at every Mass?

Sunday, May 26, 2024

The Embrace

Solemnity of The Most Holy Trinity

(Caritas Social Mission Conference)

Readings: Deuteronomy 4: 32-34, 39-40; Psalm 32 (33): 4-6, 9, 18-20, 22; Romans 8: 14-17; Matthew 28: 16-20

Picture: By Jordan Whitt on Unsplash

My dear friends, this may sound like a strange question to ask, but how does a child come to know its parent has two arms? I’m not sure, but I wonder if it involves a process like this… Imagine a little toddler, crying. We’re not sure why. Perhaps it’s hungry or lonely, lost or afraid… Very quickly, its parent rushes over, gathers the child into the parent’s arms, and comforts it. Gradually, the wailing subsides into sniffles, which turn into smiles, and even escalate into giggles. Soon the child feels secure enough to ask to be let down, so that it can explore the world. Except that it’s not just the world the child is exploring, but also the true extent and endurance of its parent’s embrace. The child is discovering how far it can go, while still feeling the warmth of its parent’s arms around its body. And, provided it continues to sense this loving presence and unconditional acceptance, the child might feel secure enough to share, in its own way, something of that warmth with others. Bringing them amusement and joy. Becoming an extension of its parent’s embrace… Could it be that it is by repeatedly undergoing such a process, of entering, exploring and extending an embrace, that a child comes to know its parent has two arms?

Which brings us to a question this feast invites us to ponder today. How do we come to know that the God we worship is both one and three? A Trinity of Father, Son, and Spirit? In the opening prayer we offered just now, we were reminded that it is by sending into the world the Word of truth and the Spirit of Sanctification that God the Father made known to the human race God’s wondrous mystery. Like a parent using both arms to gather a troubled child into a loving embrace, so too does the Father gather us to God’s self, through the Word, and in the Spirit. Isn’t this also what we find in the scriptures?

In the first reading, Moses reminds the people of Israel that, when they were helpless and in distress, it was God who gathered them, with mighty hand and outstretched arm, into the safety of God’s own embrace. Addressing them with God’s majestic word. Speaking to them in God’s powerful voice. Bringing them out of Egypt, through the wilderness, and now to the doorstep of the Promised Land. So powerful is this experience of being embraced by God that, many generations later, the psalmist is moved to sing of how, not just Israel, but the whole of creation itself is embraced by God: The Lord loves justice and right and fills the earth with his love. By his word the heavens were made, by the breath of his mouth all the stars By a comforting word, and with a caressing breath God continually embraces creation into existence.

And yet, down through the ages, God’s people repeatedly fails to remain in God’s embrace. They keep straying. Causing, and suffering, great distress as a result. So God does something most remarkable. In the power of the Spirit, God’s Word becomes flesh. And by the Word’s Living, Dying, and Rising, the Father draws all of creation even more tightly into God’s embrace. Giving all those who submit to the embrace, the power to call God by the intimate name, Abba!, Daddy! Making them – making us – adopted children of God, and heirs to God’s glory. People who are able, not just to enter the safety of God’s embrace, but also to keep exploring the richness of its blessings, and to extend this same embrace to others. Particularly those most vulnerable, those in greater distress, including the whole of creation itself.

Isn’t this the deeper significance of the evangelising mission entrusted by the Crucified and Risen Jesus to the Eleven in the gospel? Isn’t this what it means to baptise and to teach all the nations? Beyond just performing a religious ritual, important as that may be, it is to usher others ever more securely into the safety of God’s embrace. Helping everyone, even creation itself, to know that our God is a loving Father, who has two arms. By which he keeps gathering everyone to God’s self. Through the Son. And in the Spirit.

And isn’t this also why we are gathered here at this conference? Not just because we are interested in a so-called social mission. As though it were possible to divide God’s embrace into two, one spiritual and another social. Rather, isn’t it more accurate to say, as Pope Francis takes care to point out, in The Joy of the Gospel, that ours is a single evangelising mission, which has an indispensable social dimension (EG, Ch 4)? So that, even if we may decide, for convenience, to set up different organisations. Making some responsible for the spiritual, and others for the social. It’s important that we heed Pope Francis’ warning, and avoid the constant risk of distorting the authentic and integral meaning of the mission of evangelisation (EG, 139). For if evangelisation has an indispensable social dimension, then we cannot truly bear witness to Christ without also paying attention and responding to prevailing social realities and needs.

Conversely, our efforts at addressing social needs will be truly Christian, only to the extent that they are somehow motivated and informed by the values and processes of the gospel. Only to the extent that we and those we assist are somehow helped to enter, explore and extend the embrace of God. Otherwise, our organisations will be no different from NGOs. Which is not to say that we must always speak explicitly about Christ. It’s not always opportune, or even appropriate, to do so. Nor is it the case that everyone must first have entered God’s embrace, before they can engage in Christian social action. For isn’t it true that, when we reach out to those in need, even when we ourselves may be feeling lost, that very encounter can become a privileged occasion for us to be gathered again, even more closely, into God’s embrace?

And yet, it remains important for us to intentionally cultivate organisational cultures and processes that facilitate evangelisation. Ways of proceeding that help us and others experience God’s embrace. Developing our own capacity to discern together the promptings of the Spirit. Allowing us to grow into an ever more synodal church.

Sisters and brothers, even now, through the Son, and in the Spirit, God our loving Father is gathering creation to God’s very self. What can we do, in the days ahead, to keep entering, exploring and extending this tender embrace?