Saturday, February 18, 2017

Where Do You Keep Your Valuables?


Saturday in  the 6th Week of Ordinary Time (I)
Profession of Final Vows by Fr. Christopher Wee, SJ
Maranatha Retreat House, Bentong, Pahang, Malaysia


Picture: cc Brook Ward

My dear friends, I hope you don’t mind me asking, but where do you keep your valuables? I mean things like your money, your jewellery, and important documents like the title deeds to your house. Where do you keep all these things? Do you hide them under your mattress? Or in your pillowcase? Or behind the walls of your house? I’m not sure, sisters and brothers, but I suspect that few people actually keep their valuables in their own homes anymore. They prefer instead to surrender them to a bank. They open bank accounts and maintain safe deposit boxes. Why? For the simple reason that they trust the bank to keep their valuables more securely than they themselves can. And how do they know that they can trust the bank? Usually from experience. They have trusted the bank before. And the bank has proven itself trustworthy in the past. (Although, of course, we have to admit that some banks are more trustworthy than others.)

We surrender our valuables to the bank, because we trust it. And we trust it, because our we’ve had positive experiences with it in the past. Experience, trust and surrender… These are the steps by which we safeguard our valuables. And, strange as it may sound, this is also what our Mass readings are speaking to us about today. Except that the readings call it by another name. They call it FAITH.

As you know, at daily Mass this past week, we have been reading from the beginning of the book of Genesis. We have listened to the stories of Adam and Eve. Of Abel and Cain. And of Noah and the Tower of Babel. Today, the first reading from the Letter to the Hebrews reminds us that these are not just random tales of long dead people. No. All these are stories of faith. They show us what faith looks like.

For example, Noah’s faith is seen especially in his obedience to God. Not only does he build an ark exactly according to God’s instructions. He’s willing also to move into the ark together with his entire family. And a whole multitude of animals besides. And he does all this while there is not even a cloud in the sky. No obvious sign of rain. Let alone a great flood. He does all this even when others laugh at him. And call him names. He obeys. He surrenders himself and his whole family to God. Why? Because he believes what God has told him. He trusts that God knows best. That his valuables are most secure when they are surrendered into God’s loving hands. And how does he know this? From prior experience. From his encounters with God in the past. Experience, trust, and surrender. These are the ingredients of faith. This is what faith looks like.

Faith as experience, and trust, and surrender. This is also what we find in the gospel. This is the deeper significance of the Transfiguration. I’m sure none of us will deny that the Transfiguration is a remarkable experience. Jesus brings his three closest friends up a high mountain, where he shows them what he really looks like. He gives Peter, James, and John an awesome vision of his glory as the Only-Begotten-Son-of-God.

But it’s important for us to realise that, on its own, this experience falls short of faith. Seen in isolation, the Transfiguration is nothing more than a feel-good pick-me-up. Not unlike the buzz we may get from a strong cup of coffee. Which quickly passes. Leaving us sleepier than we were before. Or the spiritual high we sometimes feel after an intense retreat. Which eventually fizzles out. Leaving us wondering if the experience was real, or only in our imagination.

The experience of the Transfiguration becomes faith only when we recognise and respond to it for what it really is. First, and above all, an invitation… a call… A call to trust… and to surrender. This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him. Listen to him. Obey him. Follow him. And we listen and obey and follow him not by stubbornly seeking to remain on the Mountain of Transfiguration. But by courageously accompanying the Lord down into the Valley of Distress. Along the Way of the Cross. For it is only by enduring the Cross that we come to experience more deeply how truly trustworthy is our God. That even in the face of pain and suffering, of disappointment and discouragement, our God remains ever faithful to us. Bringing us from despair to hope. From darkness to light. From death to new life.

Isn’t this why Jesus warns the three disciples to tell no one what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead? We can only truly appreciate the significance of what happens on the Mount of Transfiguration, let alone to share it with others, when we have first accompanied the Lord down into the depths of the Valley of Distress. When we have first trusted him enough to surrender to him all our joys and sorrows. All our dreams and disappointments. Everything that we hold dear. To entrust our very lives into the warm security of his loving embrace.

All of which may help us to better appreciate what Fr. Chris Wee is about to do later in this celebration. He is about to profess his final vows in the Society of Jesus. As you know, he has actually already made a first profession way back in 1987. And, according to Jesuit practice, that first profession was already a perpetual profession. In making it, he had already bound himself forever. What then is the difference, we may wonder, between that first profession and the one he is about to make today?

I believe there is more than one answer to this question. The first answer is legal. As the Jesuits among us should know quite well, according to Jesuit law, the first profession was binding only on Fr. Chris himself. Then, in a sense, he had freely offered himself to the Society of Jesus. Today, by allowing him to make his final profession, the Society of Jesus, in its turn, binds itself to him. Accepts him completely as one of its own.

However, in addition to this legal difference, I believe there is also a deeper spiritual one. A difference that comes from Fr. Chris having, since the time of his first profession, accompanied Jesus a little further along the Way of the Cross. Descended with our Lord a little lower into the Valley of Distress. And so experienced a little more intimately the trustworthiness of our God. Bringing him joy in sorrow. Assurance in anxiety. New hope in disillusionment. In other words, the difference between the two professions can also be measured in the depth of Fr. Chris’ faith. A faith the implications of which he will soon commit himself again to live for the rest of his life. Continuing the cycle of experience, and trust, and surrender.

So we thank you, Fr. Chris, for giving us the opportunity today to witness and to ponder the inner workings of God’s gift of faith. And we thank you, my dear friends, for being here to support us. And to join us in recognising with ever greater clarity, and responding with ever wider generosity to God’s call to faith. And, most of all, we thank our merciful God for the precious gift of vocation.

My dear sisters and brothers, where are you keeping your valuables today?

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Replacing Loose Connections


4th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Picture: cc Thomas Mathie

My dear friends, have you ever been troubled by a loose connection? Do you know how frustrating it can be? Some time ago, I had precisely this problem with my laptop computer. Unknown to me, there was a loose connection in the power cable. I would use it to connect the computer to the electrical supply as usual. And everything would be fine for a while. But then, later on, the connection would somehow be lost. Even though the cable was plugged in at both ends. And I would continue working on the computer, blissfully unaware that this had happened. For, as you know, the computer’s built-in battery allows it to continue running, even when disconnected from an external power source.

But the loose connection meant, of course, that the battery was not being charged. Which was very frustrating. Especially when I later needed to rely on battery power, but could not, because the battery had been depleted without me realising it. The problem became irritating enough that I finally decided to replace the faulty cable. To invest in a new one. One that I could truly rely on to power my computer. And to charge my battery.

The frustration caused by a loose connection. By a depleted battery. Sisters and brothers, have you ever experienced something like that before? If you have, you know first hand how important it is to be able to connect your machine to an appropriate power source. And just as computers need to be connected to an electrical power source. So too do we need to be connected to a spiritual power source. One that gives us the energy to live the way human beings are meant to live. In a way that brings true happiness. Not just to us. But to everyone around us as well. Enabling us to live happily and harmoniously with one another. To do this requires a certain type of power. The power to rise above our own often petty concerns and painful insecurities. So as to be able to live in love. To join with others in working for the common good. But from where do we draw this kind of power? What is the source?

The answer is found in those four words that keep getting repeated in the responsorial psalm today: It is the Lord… It is the Lord who keeps faith for ever… It is the Lord who gives sight to the blind… It is the Lord who loves the just… It is the Lord… It is the Lord who sets us free from our preoccupation with ourselves. Who enables us to reach out to those most in need of our attention and our help. It is the Lord who gives us the power to be patient and forgiving. Of others, and also of ourselves. To remain calm and at peace. Even when surrounded by trouble and conflict. Or when experiencing stress and strain. It is the Lord, who is our true spiritual Power Source. It is the Lord…

If this is true, then I am faced with a crucial question: How can I remain connected to the Lord? What do you think, sisters and brothers? How would you answer this question? Speaking for myself, my first response is often to focus on things that I need to do. Or things that I need to avoid doing. For example, I may think that I need to pray more… To complain less… To get more involved in church work… To shop less… To read the Bible more… To gossip less… Things that might be the stuff of resolutions for the new year. Even the lunar new year. 

Which is fine. All of these things are, of course, very important. But doesn’t the doing of these things itself require power too? Especially if I want to do them not just once in a blue moon. Not just for the first two or three months of every year. Or whenever I happen to feel like it. But regularly. Consistently. Perseveringly. To do this requires power. Power to remain faithful to prayer… Power to resist the temptations that so often get the better of me… Power to be patient as much with myself as with others… Power that I am unable to generate on my own. Power that I need to draw from God. My only true Power Source.

Which may make it seem like something of a vicious circle, doesn’t it, my dear friends? On the one hand, I can only live a happy and harmonious life by remaining connected to God. And yet, left on my own, I don’t even have the power to do that. To connect with God. In fact, it is precisely when I mistakenly think that I do. When I forget that it is the Lord alone who is my only reliable Power Source. It is then that I so often become disconnected. And without my even realising it. Disconnected from God by my own pride and presumption. Much like how a computer might suffer from a loose connection. My interior spiritual batteries get depleted. I become more easily irritable and judgmental… Less patient… More vulnerable to temptation… Less inclined to think of the needs of others…

What then can I do? Is there no way out for me? How do I remain connected to God, my One True Power Source? The short answer, my dear friends, is that I cannot. At least not on my own. Left to my own devices, I do not even have what it takes to plug into the Divine Power Supply. I suffer from a perpetual loose connection. And yet, it is precisely when I allow myself to realise this. To acknowledge and to accept my utter helplessness and powerlessness to save myself. It is precisely at that moment that I find the possibility of being saved. For in realising this truth, I am given a chance to replace my faulty power cable. Exchanging prideful reliance on self with humble reliance on God.

Isn’t this what our readings are really about today? Isn’t this what is meant when the first reading tells us to seek integrity? To seek humility? And isn’t this why, in the gospel, Jesus teaches that the poor in spirit are happy? Blessed? Along with all those who have to endure suffering of some kind or other? What is being proposed to us, to you and to me, is not so much a programme of action for us to undertake. But a particular disposition for us to cultivate. The disposition of humility. Of poverty of spirit. An attitude that springs from the deep realisation that I do not have the power to save myself. Let alone others. That, without God, I truly can do nothing. I can’t even connect with the Power Supply.

And yet, quite paradoxically, it is precisely when I allow myself to acknowledge and to accept this, that I am then able to access God’s power. My weakness becomes my new, more reliable, power cable. For the second reading tells us that our merciful God has chosen what is foolish and weak by human reckoningThose who are nothing at all, to show up those who are everything.

This then is the challenge that our readings place before us today: To remain connected to God, by remaining in touch with our own poverty and powerlessness. Which can be especially difficult for the rich and powerful among us. Those who are accustomed to telling people what to do. To having things go our way. It is difficult for these to rely on God. Yes, difficult… but not impossible. For even the rich and powerful are subject to weakness and powerlessness. We just have to insist on being more honest with ourselves. To dig deeper within. And to allow what we uncover to lead us, in all humility, to God.

My dear friends, loose connections can indeed be very frustrating and draining. For us, and for those around us. How are we being invited to change our faulty power cables today?

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Rehabilitating the Appendix


2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Picture: cc AJC1

My dear friends, have you ever felt like an appendix? You know, of course, what an appendix is, right? It’s that slender little tube located at the end of the large intestine. For a long time, it was thought that the appendix serves no useful purpose. That it makes no real contribution to the healthy functioning of the human body. That, in the process of human evolution, it was somehow left behind and forgotten. Indeed, it can even be considered a nuisance. Since it is so prone to getting inflamed. And then having to be surgically removed.

So, my dear friends, have you ever felt like an appendix? Like you serve no real purpose in this world. Like you were useless. A waste of space. I’m not sure. But I suspect that there are more than a few of us who may feel this way from time to time. Whether we may care to admit it or not. Feel as though our existence is pointless. Aimless. Meaningless. Sure, our lives may be filled with many things that we have to do. Some of which may even be very important. And yet, don’t we sometimes still feel strangely empty? Isn’t this why some of us work so hard? Or shop so much? Or check our phones so frequently? Or indulge in various bad habits? Aren’t we somehow trying to avoid the depressing thought that, if we suddenly dropped dead, the world will still go on without us? Sure, there will likely be a wake and a funeral in our honour. Some prayers will be offered for us. Our bosses may need to replace us. Our families and friends may miss us. But, after all is said and done, won’t life go on as it did before? Not unlike how the body goes on even after the appendix is removed? So what’s the point?

My dear friends, have you ever felt like an appendix? I imagine that it can be a terrible thing to feel this way. Perhaps it's what leads some people to think of suicide. After all, if an appendix can be removed without adverse effects, why not a human life? Why not my life? And yet, as some of you may know, more recently, researchers have been saying that the appendix may not be useless after all. It is thought that it could actually perform the important function of storing and preserving helpful bacteria in the body. Bacteria that is essential to the immune system. Bacteria that would otherwise be wiped out should the body suffer a sudden bout of food poisoning, for example. So that it is now believed that people who have had their appendices removed may take a longer time to recover from certain illnesses. In other words, the appendix is in the process of being rehabilitated. Rescued from uselessness.

And what modern researchers are doing for the appendix, our Mass readings can do for us. Especially those of us who sometimes can’t help feeling like an appendix ourselves. For if there is one thing that all our readings have in common, it is that they contain people with a very clear sense of their own function. Their own true purpose. Their own proper role in the greater scheme of things.

In the first reading, the prophet Isaiah reminds the people of Israel of their own high calling. Far from being useless, they are called to be God’s servant. Called to continue praising and glorifying God. By living and worshipping together as a united people in God’s sight. And that’s not all. God tells them that their function goes beyond themselves. It extends even to the far reaches of the world. I will make you the light of the nations so that my salvation may reach the ends of the earth.

We find a similar sense of purpose in the second reading, taken from the beginning of St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. In introducing himself, Paul leaves no doubt as to who he is and what he is called to do. I, Paul, appointed by God to be an apostle. As you know, the word apostle means one who is sent. And not only is Paul sure of his own identity and mission. He is sure also of the identity and mission of the people to whom he is writing. He sends greetings to the church of God in Corinth, to the holy people of Jesus Christ, who are called to take their place among all the saints everywhere…

And just as the second reading describes Paul’s conviction. So too does the gospel present to us with that of John the Baptist. Notice how convinced the Baptist is of Jesus’ identity and mission. Without hesitation, he proclaims Jesus the lamb of God and the Chosen One. And it is not just about Jesus’s purpose and mission that the Baptist is clear. He is clear, first of all, of his own proper role and function. I did not know him myself, he says, and yet it was to reveal him to Israel that I came baptising with water…. Yes, I have seen and I am the witness…

Servant of God and light to the nations… Appointed apostle and holy people… Baptising prophet and outspoken witness… Lamb of God and Chosen One. My dear friends, these descriptions leave no room for doubt that the people in our readings today have a clear sense of who they are and the roles they are meant to play. Isaiah. Paul. John the Baptist. These are people who do not live empty lives. Sure, they do have to face terrible struggles. They may be persecuted and even put to death for their beliefs. But whatever else they may have to suffer, they do not suffer from a sense of uselessness or meaninglessness.

Far from feeling painfully empty, their lives are instead joyfully full. And it is this fullness, this sense of purpose, that is being offered to us today. To you and to me. And the key word is offered. For the sense of purpose enjoyed by the people in our readings today is quite unlike the kind of fullness that our world may encourage us to pursue. The kind of fullness that comes only from our own determination and achievement. Our own desperate attempts to fill our lives with every manner of frantic activity. Yes, even apparently pious activity. The fullness experienced in our readings today is first, and above all, a gift. A gift generously offered. Asking to be humbly received.

Isn’t this why we find words like called and appointed, chosen and sent, appearing so frequently in our readings? Contrary to what we may have been led to believe, the secret to living a truly full and meaningful life comes to us not first of all as a project that we undertake for ourselves. But rather as a gift that we receive from God. The initiative is not ours. But God’s. The same God who called and appointed, chose and sent, first Isaiah, and then John the Baptist. First Jesus, and then Paul. This same God is also calling and choosing, appointing and sending us. You and me. Asking us to let our lives revolve first of all around God’s love for us. A love that has been, and continues to be, offered to us, in the very concrete circumstances of our daily lives. We are called first to experience this love for ourselves. And then to go and share it with the rest of our world. Isn’t this why we gather here at this Mass? To remember and to celebrate this great love. To experience it for ourselves. And then to be sent to proclaim it to others. Go and announce the gospel of the Lord!

My dear friends, a precious gift is even now being offered to us. What must we do to continue humbly receiving it? For ourselves and for those to whom we are sent? What must we do to allow God to continue rehabilitating the appendix of our lives today?

Sunday, January 08, 2017

Black Hole or Bright Moon


Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord


Picture: cc Rachel Kramer

My dear friends, do you know what a black hole is? I’m sure many of you know better than I do. To understand it better, my simple mind finds it helpful to compare a black hole with the moon. Which often appears to us as a brightly shining object. High up in the sky. This is even though, as we all know, the moon doesn’t actually produce any light or its own. It shines only by reflecting the rays of the sun. And the moon is able to do this because its own gravitational pull is weak. Weak enough to allow the light falling upon it to escape. So that others can see it.

In sharp contrast to the brightly shining moon, however, a black hole is always shrouded in darkness. It does not shine. This is because its gravity is so strong that any light falling upon it is instantly absorbed by it. Sucked into the black hole itself. Unable to escape. As a result, the black hole remains invisible.We know it’s there only by observing its effects on the objects around it.

The moon, because of its weakness, is able to reflect the sun’s light. But a black hole is simply too strong to shine. My dear friends, don’t you find this contrast striking? And more than just an interesting tidbit, I think that this difference between a black hole and a brightly shining moon can actually help us to better understand what is being asked of us, on this solemn feast of the Epiphany of the Lord. For, in each of our readings today, we find people being challenged to respond appropriately when God’s light shines upon them.

The context of the first reading is the end of the Exile. For many long years, the people of Jerusalem have been living in darkness. Far away from home. But now they have finally been allowed to return to the Holy City. Now they are being graced once more by God’s life-giving presence. Like the rising sun, the glory of God is shining warmly upon them. How are they to respond? What must they do? The people are told that, like the moon, they should arise and shine out! They should reflect the light of God that is falling upon them. Scripture scholars tell us that this invitation to shine is actually a call to the people to rebuild the Holy City. God’s dwelling place on earth. To rebuild it not just for themselves. But also so that others might be attracted to its radiance. Might come to Jerusalem. And call it home.

The crucial question, that the people in the first reading have to answer, is whether or not they will heed this call. Whether they will be submissive enough, weak enough, to respond positively to God’s plea. To rebuild God’s House. Or whether they will be too stubborn, too strong, to obey. Whether, having themselves already made it back to the safety of Jerusalem, they will now look only to their own comfort and concerns. Instead of working for the benefit of others as well. Those who still remain far away from home. The choice presented by the first reading is clear. Either to shine out. Or to sit back. Either to reflect God’s light like the moon. Or simply to suck it all up. Like a black hole.

We find a similar contrast in the gospel. Here God’s light shines upon the darkness of the world in a marvellously new way. God comes among us as an ordinary human baby. Radiant with God’s mighty power. Seen especially in the baby’s disarming helplessness. Shimmering with God’s immeasurable riches. Expressed eloquently in the baby’s startling poverty. Providing for all those who have been exiled by sin and selfishness, a true home, in the baby’s surprising homelessness…

After Jesus had been born at Bethlehem… This is how the gospel begins. After Jesus had been born… In other words, after the Light had already begun to shine… The gospel then goes on to describe contrasting responses to the Light. On the one hand, there is a group of foreigners from the east, who respond very positively to the coming of the light. And they do this by first  spotting its radiance. We saw his star as it rose. A sign that they must have been watching out for its coming. Then, having spotted the Light, they set out courageously, and with great humility and determination, to seek and to find it. And, after having found it, they surrender themselves completely to it. A surrender expressed as much by their falling on their knees in homage, as by the precious gifts that they offer: gold and frankincense and myrrh. A surrender that continues even after they have returned to the places from which they came. By sharing with others the good news of the Light’s coming.

Spotting the light when it shines. Setting out to seek and to find it. And then surrendering wholeheartedly to its radiance. These are the ways by which those wise men from the east demonstrate their wisdom. Ways by which they help to rebuild God’s dwelling place on earth. Ways by which they arise and shine out. Much like how the moon reflects the rays of the sun. And, in so doing, they brighten the way for others as well. Even for the chief priests and scribes of the people. Through their questions, the foreign seekers actually manage to lead the local experts to discover the treasure hidden in their own scriptures.

In contrast, King Herod responds to the light not in weakness and humility, but in stubbornness and insecurity. In deceit and violence. Feeling threatened by the coming of another king, he wants to seek out and to smother the Light. He fails to reflect its brilliance. Even though it is shining out from within his very own backyard. So that, if the wise men are like a brightly shining moon, then Herod must surely be a big black hole.

To shine rather than to smother. This is also the challenge in the second reading. I have been entrusted by God, Paul tells the Ephesians, with the grace he meant for you. In his ministry Paul sees himself as doing nothing more than reflecting the Light who is Christ. A Light meant to be shared with others.

But, my dear sisters and brothers, hasn’t this same Light been entrusted to us as well? Hasn’t it already begun to shine in our own backyards? Especially in the past two weeks of Christmas? And, as we enter Ordinary Time tomorrow, are we not being called to continue sharing this light with others? Especially with those who may remain living in the darkness of exile. Far away from home. Are we not being called, each in our own way, to arise and shine out? To rebuild God’s dwelling place on earth?

I’m reminded of the news feature that I stumbled upon last night, on the BBC channel. It’s about the Syrian National Orchestra for Arabic Music. Whose members have been dispersed by civil war. But many of whom have chosen to remain and continue making music in their war-torn country. As a musician I feel I have a responsibility, one of them said. We have to sing. We have to play… The sound of music is louder than the bombs. It has to be louder. To persevere in sharing the light of music. Even in the darkness of war. Isn’t this what we are being called to do?

My dear friends, a challenging choice is placed before us, as the Christmas season draws to a close today: Having already received the light of Christ, we can now choose either to shine out and to share it with others, or to sit back and smother it. The alternatives are clear: To be a brightly shining moon, or a big black hole. Which will you choose to be in the days ahead?

Sunday, January 01, 2017

Peekaboo!


Solemnity of Mary, the Holy Mother of God

Picture: cc Liana_Kyle

My dear friends, have you ever witnessed parents comforting a crying baby? Consoling an infant in distress? As you know, they sometimes do it by playing a game called peekaboo! Perhaps you have played it before. What you do is turn towards the baby and use both of your hands to cover your face. You then suddenly remove your hands from your face and say peekaboo! Actually, it doesn’t really matter what you say. The point is to allow the baby to see a familiar and friendly face quickly appearing and disappearing in front of it. For some reason, babies enjoy being teased in this way. Provided, of course, that the conditions are right. The experience makes them laugh. It fills them with joy and delight.

Don’t you find it remarkable? That a simple game like this should have such power to make a baby so happy. And what’s perhaps more amazing is that the baby’s happiness doesn’t come only from seeing the grownup’s face. Otherwise it would be enough just to keep staring at the baby to make it laugh. But doing that is probably just as likely to make it cry even more. No, the baby’s delight comes from experiencing mommy or daddy’s face first being hidden and then suddenly revealed. It’s the curious combination of hiddenness and revelation that brings joy.

Why? I’m not sure. Perhaps it’s because, even though mommy or daddy’s face may be briefly hidden from it, the baby is still somehow able to sense its parent’s loving presence. The face may be hidden, but the love can still be felt. And that unseen presence is confirmed every time the face is uncovered. Giving the baby an exquisite experience of joy and delight.

Peekaboo! A simple game with the power to bring joy and delight through the covering and uncovering of a loved one’s face. Now, it may sound strange, my dear friends, but don’t you think that this is very much like what we celebrate at Christmas? A power that we are invited to ponder particularly today, on the solemn feast of Mary, the Holy Mother of God?

The first reading gives us a helpful introduction, by telling us how God bestows a special power on the priestly family of Aaron. It is the power to call down God’s blessing on the people of Israel. A blessing that is described as the uncovering of God’s face. It’s as though, through the blessing of the priest, God promises to bring joy to the people by playing with them a game of peekaboo! By revealing God’s face to them. A face that so often remains hidden. Hidden perhaps by the trials that the people may face from time to time. And yet, even in the midst of these trials, the people are invited to keep trusting in God’s loving presence. And, with the help of the priest, to keep praying for God’s blessing. Then God promises to uncover God’s face to them again. To quickly come to their rescue when they are in danger. Speedily bringing them peace in time of trouble.

It is probably no accident that this reading is chosen for us today. For we Christians believe that God’s promise to uncover God’s face finds its ultimate fulfilment at Christmas. A time when we ponder more deeply the birth of Jesus, the only begotten Son of God. The visible image of the invisible God. The firstborn of all creation. And the power to call down this awesome blessing is bestowed first on Mary, the Holy Mother of God. By graciously accepting God’s invitation to conceive and to bear a child, Mary helps to uncover God’s face to us all.

Even so, the gospel reading for today draws our attention to something more profoundly mysterious. At this point in the story, the baby Jesus has actually already been born. And yet, God’s face continues to require uncovering. For, as we all know well, at the birth of Jesus, many people are not able to recognise him. They are too preoccupied with their daily routine. Too caught up in business as usual. Too engrossed in the cares and concerns of life. So that the Master of the Universe can find nowhere else to be born than in a place used for keeping farm animals. The King of Creation has to be laid on a bed of straw. The glory of the only begotten Son of God is at once graciously revealed and also painfully hidden from the eyes of an unsuspecting world.

So that, quite mysteriously, even though Jesus has already been born, the gospel speaks to us of how God’s face continues to require uncovering. And to whom is this power given? This power to reveal God’s face? This power to call down God’s blessing? It’s given not just to humble Mary. But also to lowly shepherds. Who, we’re told, when they saw the child, repeated what the angels had told them about him. And everyone who heard it was astonished at what they had to say. By faithfully believing and joyously repeating what the angels had told them, the shepherds help to uncover God’s face to their world. In their own unique way, they conceive and give birth to God’s Son anew. Bringing joy and delight to all who would believe their story.

And it’s important for us to realise that this awesome power of uncovering God’s face, of calling down God’s blessing, is bestowed not just on the shepherds. But also on us. On you and on me. Mary’s adopted children. Members of her Son’s Body. The same people of whom the second reading speaks, when it says that God sent his Son, born of a woman… to enable us to be adopted as sons… And how do we know this? How can we be sure that we are indeed adopted daughters and sons of God? We know it through an interior experience: The proof… is that God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts: the Spirit that cries, ‘Abba, Father’ .

The same Spirit who made Mary the Mother of God. Giving her the power to conceive and to give birth to Christ in the world. The power of this same Spirit is given also to us. To you and to me. The power to keep doing, in our own lives, what we find Mary and the shepherds doing in the gospel. Uncovering God’s face to a world in distress. And how do we exercise of this power? By following Mary’s example. In the midst of considerable hardship. Surrounded as she is not by the familiar comforts of home, but by the startling and unsanitary company of ox and ass. Quite remarkably, Mary is able to keep pondering the faithful love of God. Allowing it to fill her with joy and delight. And she does this not just for her own enjoyment. But also so that she can keep uncovering to others what often remains so painfully hidden from them. Hidden as much by their own sinfulness as by the trials that they have to face. The glorious divine presence. The faithful and friendly face of God.

It is this awesome power, this precious privilege, that we ponder and celebrate today. The power and the privilege to uncover God’s face to a world in distress. A world so desperately in need of experiencing the peace of God’s Presence… The light of God’s Truth… And the warmth of God’s Love…

Sisters and brothers, in this joyful season of Christmas. As we continue to allow the Baby in the Manger to help us ponder God’s presence among us. How are we being called to help God play peekaboo with the rest of our unsuspecting world today?

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Matchmaker Make Me A Match


Nativity of the Lord (Mass During the Day)


My dear friends, do you know how young people these days decide to get married? I recently met a happily engaged couple, who are excitedly looking forward to their wedding day next year. When I asked them how they met, I was a little surprised at their reply. They told me that a mutual friend had set them up. This good samaritan had guessed that the two might hit it off. And he was right. The couple discovered that they had actually been schoolmates years before. And that they had many other friends in common. Which led them to think that, if they could both get along with so many of the same people, there was a good chance they would also enjoy each other’s company as well. And they did. They agreed to meet… And now they find themselves eagerly looking forward to marriage.

So how do young people, in this day and age, come to meet and then decide to get married? Well, at least for this pair, what made all the difference was that kaypoh mutual friend of theirs. That self-appointed matchmaker. Having studied in the same school, it’s likely that the couple would probably have seen each other many times before. Yet they didn’t recognise one another as potential partners for life. Not till someone took it upon himself to arrange their first meeting. Helping each of them to recognise and accept the other as a candidate for marriage. And, by the way, this same couple is now looking to return the favour. I’m told that strenuous efforts are currently being made to set up that mutual friend of theirs. To matchmake the matchmaker. Who happens to still be single and available.

Who would have thought that, even in this modern day and age, where almost everyone is supposedly plugged in and connected to one another, a matchmaker could still help to transform mundane meetings into exciting engagements and joyful marriages? But what has all this got to do with Christmas? Well, it’s true that, in our Mass readings today, no mention is made of matchmakers. Much less of meetings leading to marriages. And yet, we do find a process that looks very similar. If not meetings resulting in marriages, then a seeing that leads to song.

In the first reading, we’re told that the watchmen of Jerusalem raise their voices, they shout for joy together. Why? For they see the Lord face to face. And the responsorial psalm tells us to sing a new song to the Lord. Why? For he has worked wonders. And all the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God. A profound seeing that leads to joyful song. This is what we find in our readings today. This is what all of us Christians are supposed to experience on a regular basis. Seeing our God coming to save us, we ought to find ourselves moved to raise our voices in joyful song. And not just our voices, but our whole lives should be lived as songs of praise offered to God. Not unlike how, having met each other for the first time, that young couple was moved to recognise one another as spousal material. And to eventually decide to joyfully commit themselves to each other in marriage.

A seeing that leads to joyful song. This is how the Christian life is supposed to be lived. And yet, my dear friends, how many of us actually experience this on a regular basis? In the ups and downs of daily living, how many of us can honestly say that we are able to see the Lord coming to save us? How many of us find ourselves moved to sing the praises of God? Are we not just as likely to relate to God in the same way that those two former schoolmates treated each other before they were formally introduced? Even if we may see, again and again, the saving presence of our God, we are often unable to recognise it as such. And with this failure of recognition comes the inability to rejoice. The reluctance to sing. Indeed, are we not more likely to raise our voices in complaint than in praise?

Yet we are not alone in feeling this way. The gospel tells us that this was also the experience of many people at the Lord’s first coming. He was in the world that had its being through him, and the world did not know him. He came to his own domain and his own people did not accept him. Like us, they too saw but could not sing. And can we blame them? For when the Word was made flesh and lived among us, for some mysterious reason, he chose to come as a helpless baby. One unable to find a better birthplace than in a manger surrounded by filthy farm animals. One who would, when he had grown up, challenge the religious authorities of his day. And then be executed as a convicted criminal. Only to be rumoured to have been raised to life on the third day. Someone who lived between obscurity and controversy. Is it any wonder that people refused to accept him?

Even so, there were those who did. Those who were able to see and recognise him as the One that the second reading calls the radiant light of God’s glory. The First-Born Son, whom all the angels of God worship. And the gospel tells us that to all these fortunate people, who were able to recognise and accept him, he gave power to become children of God. Power, in other words, to rejoice and to sing the praises of their heavenly Father. And not just with their voices. But in the way they lived their lives.

But how, we may ask, did these people succeed where so many others failed? How were they able to see in so profound a way as to be led to break out in joyful song? They didn’t do it on their own. They had help. The first reading speaks of a joyful messenger bringing news of peace. How beautiful on the mountains, are the feet of one who brings good news, who heralds peace, brings happiness, proclaims salvation… And the gospel points us more specifically to the person of John the Baptist. The one who comes as a witness. Helping others to recognise the Light when it shines upon them… Just as that happily engaged couple benefitted from the efforts of a matchmaker, so too did those who recognise Christ at his first coming benefit from the ministry of John the Baptist.

And what about us? Could this be the real reason why we celebrate Christmas? Why we need to celebrate Christmas? And celebrate not just today, but for all of the next two weeks of the Christmas Season? During this time, we will allow the liturgy to become our holy matchmaker. Helping us to see and to recognise Emmanuel. The God who regularly enters our lives to save us. To save us from our burdensome self-absorption. Our often soul-crushing routine. As we gaze upon the Christmas crib. As we ponder over the readings and prayers at Mass. We allow all of these to become our John the Baptist. To help us recognise how God comes to save us. Perhaps not in spectacular ways. But in ordinary yet mighty ways. Mighty in the way that a baby lying on a bed of straw can be mighty. Having the power to penetrate hearts so often hardened by the cares and distractions of life. To penetrate and to disarm them. To turn them from darkness to light. From self-centredness to compassion. From blindness to sight. From complaint to praise.

My dear friends, if it is indeed true that Christmas is about being led from meeting to marriage, from seeing to song. Then what must we do to pay closer attention to the matchmaker this Christmas?

Sunday, December 11, 2016

The Grace to Wag our Tails (Rerun)


3rd Sunday in Advent (A) (Gaudete Sunday)


Sisters and brothers, have you ever come across people leaving their dogs outside a store or a restaurant, while they go in to shop or eat? It’s not so common here in Singapore. But I once lived in a place where this happened quite frequently. And I remember being fascinated by the different reactions of those poor dogs. Some of them would just lie down on the ground, put their heads on their paws, and look really depressed at being left behind. Others did the exact opposite. They became very excited and distracted by everything around them. Sniffing at the trees, the dustbins, and the people passing by. You just knew that, if they weren’t on a leash, they’d probably run off without turning back. Then there were also the really impatient and demanding ones. Who wouldn’t stop barking loudly. Until their owners came out to get them.

But, every so often, if you were really lucky, you’d come across a dog who behaved quite differently from all the rest. This fellow neither barks nor makes a fuss. It doesn’t get impatient or distracted. Nor does it look depressed. On the contrary, even though it’s left outside, the dog remains calm. Its attention focused on one thing. Its body is positioned firmly in the direction of the doorway through which its owner entered. And, if there is a glass window, the dog keeps looking through it eagerly. Carefully scanning the interior. Watching for signs of its master.

What I find most impressive of all is that, very often, even while it watches and waits, this dog continues to express its happiness by wagging its tail. Imagine that. Left all alone outside on a sidewalk, while its owner is inside having fun. And this fellow not only keeps watching and waiting, it even continues to wag its tail when it catches sight of its owner through the window. I’m not sure about you, but I find that truly impressive. Not least because I myself am often unable to do the same. Difficult enough to remain patiently watchful in an uncomfortable situation. But to be joyful as well? I find that a tough act to follow.

And yet this is precisely the kind of grace we are praying for on this 3rd Sunday of Advent. As we said earlier, today is also called Gaudete Sunday. From the first word of the entrance antiphon, meaning Rejoice! Even as you watch and wait for the Lord’s coming, Rejoice! Even if you happen to find yourself in a difficult and uncomfortable situation right now, Rejoice!

That is the central message of our celebration today. And if, like me, you find this call more than a little difficult to answer, then we need to pay closer attention to what our readings tell us. For, as you’ve probably noticed, most of the people in our readings are also in really difficult situations. In the first reading, the people of Israel are living in exile, far away from home, in Babylon. The Christians, to whom the second reading is addressed, are undergoing persecution for their faith. And, in the gospel, not only is John the Baptist in prison for speaking against King Herod. But he will soon have his head chopped off.

Finding themselves stuck in bad situations. Not unlike those dogs left all alone on the sidewalk. It must be truly tempting for all these people either to give in to depression and despair, or to get distracted by everything that’s going on around them, and to give up their faith in God. But even as they continue to suffer, all of these people receive calls to persevere. Those in the first reading are told to strengthen all weary hands. To steady all trembling knees. And to say to all faint hearts, “Courage! Do not be afraid.” The people in the second reading are encouraged to be patient. And not to lose heart. And, in the gospel, Jesus promises John the Baptist that the one who doesn’t lose faith in the Lord is happy.

All of which is easier said than done. And yet, all these people are not left alone to do the impossible. A gift is being offered to them to help them. A secret for obtaining the grace to stand firm. The grace to rejoice even in the midst of their suffering. The grace to do what those impressive dogs we mentioned earlier seem to be able to do as if by instinct. When it feels as though we’ve been left behind by our Master. When we find ourselves in a difficult situation. How do we keep waiting patiently without giving up hope? How do we find joy in the midst of our distress? Well, much depends on where we choose to look.

If we simply put our heads on our paws, and stare only inward at our own difficult situations, we will naturally get depressed. And if, on the other hand, our focus is only outward. On the many things going on around us. The things that often keep us so very busy. Then we’ll just get distracted. But if we are able to imitate those impressive dogs, and keep eagerly looking forward. If we carefully keep watch for the signs of the Master’s coming. Then perhaps we will receive the incredible ability, the unbelievable courage, not just to remain calm. But even to wag our tails in joyful expectation.

In the first reading, for example, although the people may feel as though they are living in a barren and desolate place, the prophet calls them to look forward to a time when the wilderness and the dry-lands will exult. And the wasteland rejoice and bloom.  A day when the Lord will return them to their homes. When joy and gladness will go with them and sorrow and lament will be ended. In the second reading, although the people may feel that God has left them all alone on the sidewalk of persecution. They are reminded to continue looking for the Lord, who is already to be seen waiting at the gates. And, in the gospel, Jesus has a similar message for John. To the one who is suffering so much in prison, Jesus sends news of the many blessings already being showered on those outside: the blind see again… the lame walk… lepers are cleansed… the deaf hear… the dead are raised to life and the Good News is proclaimed to the poor…

Sisters and brothers, when we look closely at our lives. When we gaze deeply into our hearts. When we survey carefully the world around us. It is likely that we will find much to depress and distract us. But this doesn’t mean that we should just close our eyes and stop looking. We should, rather, insist on looking even more closely. Looking even more deeply. Looking even more carefully. To the Lord. To the One who has already come. And who will come again. The same Lord, by whose life, death and resurrection every tear is wiped away. And everything is made new. Especially in this third week of Advent, we need to keep looking for signs of his coming. In our hearts. In our lives. And in our world.

I’m reminded of these words from an old hymn written by Sr. Miriam Therese Winter: I saw Christ in wind and thunder. Joy is tried by storm. Christ asleep within my boat, whipped by wind, yet still afloat. Joy is tried by storm. I saw raindrops on a river. Joy is like the rain. Bit by bit the river grows, 'til all at once it overflows. Joy is like the rain.

Sisters and brothers, today is Gaudete Sunday. Today, whatever the trials we may be facing, we are all called to rejoice. For the Lord is close. What must we do to keep looking out for him, and to keep joyfully wagging our tails in welcome today?

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