Tuesday, September 16, 2014

What Makes the White House

Monday, 15th September, 2014
Day 6 of Church of Our Lady Star of the Sea Novena
Theme: The Dignity of the Human Person

Readings: Deuteronomy 10:12-13, 16-20; Psalm 144(145):1-2, 8-11; Ephesians 2:19-22; Luke 7:36-50
Picture: cc Shubert Ciencia

Sisters and brothers, have you heard of a place called the White House? Silly question, right? Of course, you have! It’s probably no exaggeration to say that it’s one of the most famous buildings in the world. And also one of the most important. But what makes it so famous and so important? Is it only because it’s painted white? Or because everyday many people take a tour to see it? If not at the location itself then at least on its website? Or maybe because of the beautiful decorations and works of art that can be found there? Or the fact that it’s guarded by the United States Secret Service? What do you think, sisters and brothers? What is it that really makes the White House the White House?

I think we all know the answer to that question, right? What makes the White House so famous and so important is, of course, the person who lives and works there. The President of the United States of America. He is what makes it the White House. If not for him and those who came before him, the place would be no different from any other big house covered with a coat of white paint. Nothing really special.

If this is true, then what is needed to keep the White House famous and important is to make sure that there is always a space in it reserved specially for the President. A space conducive enough for him to do his work. Comfortable and cosy enough for him to rest. To feel welcome and safe and at home. All the other things about the White House. The guests who visit it. The furnishings that decorate it. The guards who protect it. The paint that covers it. All these other things are important only to the extent that they help provide the President with a conducive and comfortable space in which to live and to do his work. For it is the President that makes the place famous. He is the one who gives the White House its dignity.

So much for the White House. What about the human person? What is it that gives the human person its dignity? What gives us our dignity? And how do we go about keeping it? As you know, the world offers various answers to these questions. We’re told, for example, that a person gets her dignity from the money she has. Or the house she owns. Or the car she drives. Or the clothes she wears. Or the company she keeps. Or the things she knows. Or the work she does or doesn’t do… But, sisters and brothers, whether we care to admit it or not, we all know that these answers are wrong. And they can cause serious problems. If a person’s dignity comes from the money she owns, then what happens when the money is gone? Have the poor no dignity? And if it comes from the work that she does, then what happens when she cannot work? Do the bedridden have no dignity? Or the mentally ill? Or the unborn children?

But if a person’s dignity does not derive from all these external things, then from where does it come? What does our Catholic Faith teach us? In the second reading, we are told something very important. We’re told that, not unlike the White House, the Christian community is supposed to be a special building. A holy temple. A dwelling-place of God. And, as you know, what the letter to the Ephesians says about the Christian community as a whole, the first letter to the Corinthians also says about each individual Christian. Your body, St. Paul writes, is the temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you since you received him from God (1 Corinthians 6:19).

This, my dear friends, is what we Christians believe. That every human being is created for the special purpose of being a dwelling-place of God in this world. A space in which and from which God lives and works and blesses the world. And just as the White House derives its dignity from the President who occupies it. So too does the dignity of each human being derive not from what the person owns or wears or can or cannot do. But from God. The God who creates us in the image of himself (Genesis 1:27). And who chooses to live in and among us. For it is in him that we live and move and exist (Acts 17:28).

But if this is true. If our dignity does indeed derive from the fact that each of us is the temple of God. Then what must we do to maintain this dignity? The answer is really quite simple. We must do whatever we can to ensure that there is always a welcome space in our hearts and in our lives for God.

Which is why the gospel is so helpful. It presents us with a contrast between two forms of welcome. Jesus criticises one and praises the other. On the surface, it seems that Simon the Pharisee is very welcoming. He has invited the Lord to a meal in his home. But Simon’s actions show that he really has no space in his heart for Jesus. For he fails to offer the Lord the most basic expressions of hospitality. No water for the feet. No kiss for the cheek. No oil for the head. And yet, sisters and brothers, to be honest, I find myself a little shy and embarrassed to criticise Simon. For I know what it’s like to offer the Lord a half-hearted hospitality. To come to Mass, for example, or to say my prayers, but only reluctantly. To be here in body, but not in spirit. To fill my heart with so many other concerns that I leave no room for the Lord.

In contrast, even though she hasn’t invited Jesus to her home, through her actions, the woman shows how much she really loves him. How big a space she has made for him in her heart. For she must know that people will gossip about her. And yet, she dares to gatecrash the party. All for the sake of expressing, in a very public fashion, her love for the Lord. Why does she do this? From where does she find the courage? Jesus tells us. It comes from gratitude. From realising her own sinfulness. And experiencing the Lord’s mercy. Experiencing how God has made space for her. Her sins, as many as they are, have been forgiven her… Isn’t this also the way by which space is made in my heart as well? When I allow myself to ponder the mercy that God has shown me in my own life? The mercy shown to me in the Dying and Rising of Christ? The mercy we celebrate at this Mass?

By doing what she did at the banquet, the woman shows us what the first reading means when it tells us to circumcise our hearts. It is to make a space reserved specially for the Lord. To show him our gratitude and our love. Not just by coming to church. Or going to the adoration room. But also by doing what the first reading tells us God himself does. By reaching out to the poor and the lonely. Those most in need of our help. For the Lord is the one who sees justice done for the orphan and the widow, who loves the stranger and gives him food and clothing. When we do the same, we make a space for the Lord. Not just in our hearts and in our lives. But also in our world. When we reach out to the needy, we show the world the dignity of the human person.

Sisters and brothers, just as the White House derives its importance from the President, so too do we derive our dignity from God. What will you do to continue making a space for God in our hearts, in our lives, and in our world today?

Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Elevation of Objects & The Emptying of God

Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross

Readings: Numbers 21:4-9; Psalm 77:1-2,34-38; Philippians 2:6-11; John 3:13-17

Sisters and brothers, there is an advertisement for a watch, which is sometimes screened in local movie theatres. Perhaps some of you have seen it before. It tells the moving story of a pair of lovers, who share a special favourite place. A forest. It is in this forest that he once presented her with the gift of a watch. Hidden, for her to find, in the knot of a tree. It is in this forest that he proposed. Here also was where they came for the last time, as a couple, when she was stricken by terminal illness. And then, after she had gone, it was back to this same forest that he returned alone. To the same tree. To deposit the watch he had given her.

Years later, a fire burns down the forest. Frantically, he returns once more. Desperately searching for what he had left behind. The tree is burnt. But, amazingly, not only does the watch remain, it still works. And, as he gazes upon that precious object, he remembers what she had told him when they were here last. He had been carrying her in his arms. You’re tired. She had said. Please put me down. It is then that he realises that she would be happy only if he allowed himself to be happy. Only if he was willing, finally, to let her go. Finally to begin living his life anew.

Sisters and brothers, I mention this advertisement, not because I want to sell you a watch. (I’ll leave that to Apple.) But because I think that it helps us to understand how an ordinary object is changed into something extraordinary. How it comes to be elevated. Filled with meaning and power. The power to change us. To transform our losses into hope. Our burdens into motivations. Our endings into beginnings. Our dyings into new life. Of course, in itself, however carefully it is made, and whoever its maker, a watch is... still a watch. It’s function is to tell time. But what elevates this watch is the story it recalls. The memory of the love between two people. A love stronger than sorrow. A love willing to forget itself. Willing even to die. Just so that the beloved might live anew.

Isn’t this, my dear friends, something like what we are celebrating today? On this Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, we celebrate the elevation of an object beyond the particular purpose for which it was made. Not a watch. But a cross. An instrument of torture and punishment. Of suffering and death. Something that should strike fear into the hearts of all who know the purpose for which it was made. And yet, we who call ourselves Christian dare to claim that we see this thing in a way different from how others see it. Our boast is that, for us, this terrible thing has been exalted. Elevated. Lifted up. Transformed into its opposite. How does this happen?

The first reading provides us with a clue. For here too we find an object being elevated. Not a watch. Or a cross. But the image of a fiery serpent. A statue of something whose bite brings certain death. But, when lifted up, it becomes a channel of life. What should be an object of fear is transformed into a symbol of hope. Deadly poison is changed into its own antidote. How does such a marvellous transformation come about? How does it happen that a simple look at a bronze serpent can have such saving effects? The reading doesn’t give us the details. All we are told is that Moses interceded for the people, and the Lord answered him. To deepen our reflection, we have to turn to the other readings.

In the gospel, Jesus tells Nicodemus the secret to why God answered Moses. The reason is none other than love. The love that God has for us. The same love that brought us Jesus. Yes, God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son... And God chose to give us his Son in a very particular way. The Son of Man must be lifted up, Jesus says, as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert. As you know, sisters and brothers, the words lifted up have more than one meaning. Literally, they mean to be physically raised up. But, figuratively, they also mean to be exalted. To be given glory and honour and praise. And this is also what we believe happens to Jesus on the Cross.

This is precisely what St. Paul is describing in the second reading. Jesus was God. His state was divine. Yet he emptied himself. He chose to forget his own divine dignity. Lowering himself to become a human being like us. Humbling himself even to the extent of accepting death, death on a cross. So that, quite paradoxically, when Jesus is lifted up on the Cross, he is at his lowest point. And it is from this point that God exalts him. Raises him high. Gives him a name above every other name. Isn’t this how the Cross comes to be exalted? Elevated? Transformed? Only because Christ Jesus chose to lower himself. To sacrifice himself. To empty himself. To humble himself. To forget himself. And for our sakes. So that through him the world might live. So that we might live. You and I.

And this exaltation of the Cross is not just something for us to talk about in theory. It is a living power that can move and transform us. The way that watch in the advertisement transformed the one who gazed upon it. The Cross has this power, because when we look at it in faith, we are reminded of the story it represents. We are drawn into the memory that it recalls. The Mystery of Faith that we celebrate at this Mass. When we eat this Bread and Drink this cup, we proclaim your Death, O Lord, until you come again. When we gaze upon the Cross, we are reminded of a timeless Love. That is willing to lose itself for us. So that we might find new life.

But, in order for us to tap into this transforming power, we first need to do what that man in the advertisement did. We need to return to the burnt-out forests of our lives. To the places where we may be saddened and searching. Lost and confused. Anxious and afraid. Disappointed and disillusioned. Resentful and rebellious. Burdened and stressed out... Wherever it is we may be suffering. And there, from these places, to fix our gaze firmly upon the Cross of Christ. The Cross on which was hung the salvation of the world. For when we do this, perhaps we too will hear words of comfort and encouragement. Not put me down. Or let me go. But come to me. Come to me, all you who labour and are overburdened, and I will give you rest (Mt 11:28).

Sisters and brothers, whether it is a watch, or a statue, or a cross, an object is exalted, lifted up, when it calls to mind the memory of a lover who empties herself. Loses herself. So that the beloved might find new life. How willing are we to be reminded of this story of our salvation. To come to Christ, our Beloved. And to find new life, by losing ourselves in Him today?

Sunday, September 07, 2014

Heart Acquisition Act (Rerun)

23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Picture: cc  Jack Kennard

Sisters and brothers, imagine for a moment that I’ve just paid up the mortgage on my house. After years of hard work, I’ve finally submitted the last instalment. Imagine that this is a piece of freehold property. And now it’s all mine. Now no one else can contest my claim. Now I’m free to enjoy it without any interference. ... Or can I? Is my ownership of the property really absolute? Does no one else have any claim on it whatsoever?

What if this property of mine is located along Amber Road? What if it’s one of the six houses along the path of the proposed Thomson-East Coast MRT Line? In such a situation, even if I were truly the legal owner of the property, the government can still acquire it in exchange for fair compensation. I can’t refuse. The government has a valid claim on the land, even though I’m the legal owner. As you know, there’s a law in our statute books that gives the government this right. It’s called the Land Acquisition Act. It allows the government to acquire privately-owned land for the purposes of national development.

Many of us have heard of this recently amended law. We know about this constraint on our rights as property owners. What we perhaps do not realise is that this is not the only constraint. For example, it has been the constant teaching of the Catholic Church that, not just the government, but also the poor have a claim on our property. Indeed, in the 4th century, St. Basil the Great, went so far as to insist that the bread in your cupboard belongs to the hungry person; the coat hanging unused in your closet belongs to the person who needs it; the shoes rotting in your closet belong to the person with no shoes; the money which you put in the bank belongs to the poor. You do wrong to everyone you could help, but fail to help.

Sisters and brothers, whether we realise it or not, for us Catholics, in addition to the Land Acquisition Act–which gives the government a legal right over our property–we are also bound by an unwritten law, which gives the poor a moral right to our belongings. Whether we like it or not, the poor have a moral claim on us. We are somehow responsible for their wellbeing. And it’s important that we keep this in mind as we begin our reflection today, because our Mass readings extend this claim of the poor on us in at least two directions.

The first direction is inward. Our readings seek to deepen the claim that other people have on each of us. Consider what we heard in the second reading, where St. Paul speaks of something that he calls the debt of mutual love. We know of course that a financial debt can be paid with material things–either in money or in kind. But not a debt of love. For love has to do not just with things but with people. Not just with what we possess. But also with what or whom we allow to possess us. The poor have a claim not just on our belongings. They also have a right of way through our very hearts. Isn’t this why our psalm response is so appropriately chosen? O that today you would listen to his voice! ‘Harden not your hearts.’ O that today you would listen to the Lord’s voice, crying out to you on behalf of the voiceless. The homeless and the hungry. The sad and the sick. The forgotten and the forlorn. Harden not your hearts!

More than just a Land Acquisition Act, our readings remind us that we Catholics are bound also by something like a Heart Acquisition Act. The former lays on us a legal obligation, which we can satisfy simply by allowing the government to acquire our land. We don’t have to like it or agree with it. We can even comply with it while, at the same time, cursing the ones who impose it on us. But we cannot satisfy our moral obligation to the poor in the same way. We are required not only to share our money with them. Not just to write them a cheque once a year in Charities Week. We also have to allow ourselves to be moved by their plight. We are called to love them as sisters and brothers. To love them as Christ first loved us. When he laid down his life for us on the Cross.

And that’s not all. Not only do our readings deepen the poor’s claim on us. From the external world of our possessions to the inner recesses of our hearts. They also widen the scope of our duty. Our readings remind us that our responsibility for others extends beyond those who are materially deprived to those who are morally impoverished. Consider what God tells Ezekiel in the first reading. Having appointed him to be a prophet, a sentry, for the people, God reminds him that he is responsible not just for the righteous but also for the wicked. The wayward. Those who are poor in virtue. Such that if a wicked person loses his life because Ezekiel has failed in his duty to warn him, then God will hold the prophet responsible for the wicked person’s death.

This same responsibility, which God places on the shoulders of the prophet in the first reading, Jesus places on the shoulders of his disciples in the gospel. On you and on me. The scenario that Jesus paints is one in which a Christian sees a brother or sister doing wrong. No other details are given. In such a situation–where those of us who dislike confrontation, those who, like me, would simply choose to remain quiet and do nothing–Jesus proposes a whole series of steps for helping the person who has gone astray. First you speak to her in private. Then with witnesses. Then in public. Finally, when all else fails, you treat her as an outsider.

It all sounds very troublesome. Who among us will bother to do all this? And yet, even if we may not follow the Lord’s process in all its details, it’s important that we see the motivation behind it. This is not just a method for conflict resolution. Its aim is not so much to seek compensation for those who have been wronged. Or to give the wrongdoer a piece of our mind. The aim is rather to win back your brother or sister. To help the wrongdoer to repent and to turn back to the Lord. Why else is such care taken to help the wrongdoer to change without losing face? As Mary Poppins would say, a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down...

Clearly, then, it is not just the people in financial need who have a legitimate claim on us. Those who are short on virtue do too. Those who might still be ignorant of the ways of God. Those who have yet to experience God’s love. Those who might still be fooled into thinking that happiness has to do only with the enjoyment of worldly pleasures. Those who are stressed out by the rat race, but can’t quite find a way to stop running...

Sisters and brothers, isn’t it true that, even in a place like Singapore, there is no shortage of either type of poor people? Neither the materially poor nor the morally challenged? They are all around us. Just beside us. Perhaps even within us. And they all have a claim on us. They all cry out for our attention. We who are spiritually rich because Christ became poor for our sakes.

Sisters and brothers, when the government acquires our land for the country we cannot but comply. The Lord seeks to acquire our hearts for the poor. How shall we respond today?

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Of Accuracy & Alignment

22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Picture: Peter Kay

Sisters and brothers, do you still remember the dunking machine? That immensely popular contraption that we enjoyed so much at our parish Food and Fun Fair last month? Do you remember how it works? As you know, it’s really quite simple. The player throws a ball at a small target. And, if the ball hits the target, the person in the machine falls into a big tank of water. If the ball misses, the person remains safe. High and dry.

But have you considered what is required to hit the target? Imagine, for example, that you know for sure that the we will again have a dunking machine next year. And you’re very determined, for one reason or another, to dunk a particular person. Perhaps a friend of yours. Or maybe the parish priest. What kind of training would you undergo? What could you do to make sure that you’re able to dunk your friend every time you throw the ball. And not just whenever you happen to get lucky?

I may be wrong. But I think consistent success at the dunking machine really depends a lot on proper alignment. Alignment between your shoulder and your arm. Between your wrist and the ball. Between your eye and the target. And the ability to achieve this alignment consistently. Such that whenever you throw the ball, it always hits the target. Your friend always gets dunked. And this is where rigorous training can help. Regular practice. So that every time you pick up the ball, you habitually position your body in the right way. For proper alignment means hitting the target. And mis-alignment means missing it.

All this is true not just at the dunking machine. As our Mass readings show us, it’s true in the spiritual life as well. Today’s gospel reading continues from where we left off last week. Then, as you will recall, Peter had given the right answer to Jesus’ question who do you say I am?. You are the Christ, Peter had said, the Son of the living God. With these words Peter had hit the bull’s eye. He had been right on target. And Jesus praised him for it. But then, curiously enough, the reading also ended with Jesus giving his disciples strict orders not to tell anyone that he was the Christ. Today, we discover the likely reason why. In today’s reading we see that it is possible to hit the target with one’s words, but still to miss it with one’s actions.

Isn’t this Peter’s experience? He calls Jesus the Christ. But when this same Christ predicts his own Passion, Death and Resurrection, Peter protests. He dissuades Jesus from doing what he needs to do. He discourages the Lord from walking the Way of the Cross. And Jesus rebukes him for it. So that even though, last week, Peter was called the rock on which Jesus would build his Church. This week, he becomes an obstacle in the Lord’s path. Last week, Peter had hit the target with his words. But this week, through his actions, he misses by a mile.

How does this happen? What causes Peter to miss the mark so badly? Jesus gives us the answer when he tells Peter, the way you think is not God’s way but man’s. Peter’s actions are off-target, because his thoughts are aligned not to God but to the world. He thinks the way everyone else thinks. And, according to this way of thinking, the Christ should be an earthly king. Someone who seizes political power. Someone who wields military might. Someone who will drive out the Roman invaders. According to this way of thinking, the Christ cannot be dunked in the waters of death. He must remain high and dry. Kept safe. In contrast, God’s way is not that of anxious self-preservation. But of loving self-sacrifice. Not that of security. But of immersion.

Improper actions flow from mis-aligned attitudes. This is the lesson that Jesus teaches Peter today. And isn’t it a lesson that we all need to learn? For don’t we each have our own crooked attitudes? Priorities and patterns of thought that are conformed more to the conventions of secular society than to the will of God in Christ? Why else do we tend to shy away from involvement in any activity that doesn’t benefit us in some tangible way? Why else do we spend so many of our waking moments either working or worrying about work? Why else do we drive our children so hard? Sometimes to breaking point? Is it really only for their own good? Why else do we buy so many things we don’t really need? When many other people in the world have trouble feeding themselves. Why else do we remain entangled in petty quarrels? Trapped in bitter resentments? Disconnected from one another, and from our own deeper selves? Isn’t it because our attitudes are crooked?

If this is true, what can we do to straighten them? To re-align ourselves with God? To change our actions by changing our attitudes? This is the question that the second reading helps us to answer. Let your behaviour change, St. Paul writes, modelled by your new mind. And how does one acquire this new mind? By taking care to think of God’s mercy. Especially God’s mercy shown to us in Christ Jesus our Lord. The mercy that we celebrate at this Eucharist. The mercy by which Christ submitted himself to the dunking machine of our humanity. Allowing himself to be immersed in our sinfulness. To share in our suffering. So as to lead us to the joyful freedom of the Resurrection.

But that’s not all. Our readings today seek to re-align more than just our actions and our attitudes. They go deeper. They show us that right actions depend not just on right attitudes. But also, and ultimately, on right affections. Isn’t this what the prophet Jeremiah is talking about in the first reading? The prophet is suffering terribly. He is rejected by his own people. They make fun of him. Persecute him. And Jeremiah suffers all this simply because he is obedient to God. He acts as God tells him to act. He preaches what God tells him to preach. But what motivates him to keep doing this? Even when he is sorely tempted to stop?

There seemed to be a fire burning in my heart, he says, imprisoned in my bones. The effort to restrain it wearied me. In spite of himself, the prophet is moved to continue doing what God wants him to do because, at some deep level, this is also his own desire. More than anything else. More even than the wish to escape his sufferings. Jeremiah desires to be with God. In the words of the psalm, for you my soul is thirsting, O Lord my God. And it is by remaining in touch with this profound thirst, this deep desire for God, that the prophet finds strength to continue doing what God wants him to do. To continue hitting the target. To continue aligning himself to the will of God.

Aligning our actions, our attitudes, and our affections to the will of God. Instead of to the conventions of the world. This is not an easy thing to do. It requires rigorous training. Regular practice. Isn’t this why we take the time to pray? Why we make the effort to gather for the Eucharist? We turn our eyes upon Jesus. We turn our thoughts upon Jesus. So as to become more and more like him. With every passing day.

Sisters and brothers, the Lord wishes to continue aligning us to himself. What must you do to keep hitting the target today?

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Enter Passcode

21st Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)
(Lay Apostolate Sunday)
Picture: cc Pieter Ouwerkerk

Sisters and brothers, when you pick up a smartphone to use it, what do you usually have to do first? Typically, most people have to unlock the phone. They tap a passcode onto a keypad. Or, in newer phones, they trace a prearranged pattern on the screen. Which is easy to do. Since we usually use our phones frequently enough for us to remember the code. But what if, for some reason, the device you are using is not your own? What if you’re borrowing or answering someone else’s phone. What then? How do you gain access to it? Well, quite apart from taking extraordinary measures to hack into it, what you need is, of course, to get the owner to reveal the security code to you. Only then can you gain access to the phone. Only then can you enjoy the wonders of modern communication.

I mention this, not because I want to sell you a phone. But because our Mass readings today are really all about gaining access. Gaining access not just to a smartphone. Not just to any ordinary means of communication. But to something far more important. Something on which our happiness, indeed our very life, depends. The same thing that St. Paul is writing about in the second reading. How rich are the depths of God… and how impossible to penetrate his motives or understand his methods! Gaining access to the depths of God. Penetrating God’s motives and methods. Tapping into the very life and mystery of God. Finding and using the one all-important passcode that unlocks for us the secret to true happiness in life. This is what our Mass readings are offering us today. Are you interested?

If you are, then consider carefully what is happening in the other readings. Notice how, in both the first reading and the gospel, God chooses privileged people to whom a secret passcode is entrusted. In the first reading, this person is Eliakim. The newly appointed master of the palace. The one through whom everyone else gains access to the king. In the gospel, this privileged person is Peter. He is the new master of the palace. The holder of the keys to the kingdom of God. The one entrusted with the passcode that gains us access to the depths of God. Access to true happiness in life.

And notice the process by which this appointment is made in the gospel. It involves three steps. The first step is highlighted by Jesus, when he says that Peter is a happy man, because Peter has received a revelation from the Father in heaven. Just as we cannot use someone else’s phone without that person revealing the passcode to us. So too we gain access to God only by receiving God’s revelation. But what is it exactly that God reveals? What does God’s passcode look like? Well, it looks like the answer to the crucial question that Jesus poses to his disciples in the gospel today. Who do you say I am?
Who do you say I am? In the gospel, it is Peter who gives the right answer. It is Peter who enters the correct passcode. You are the Christ, the Son of the living God. This is the revelation Peter has received. The realisation that this very ordinary-looking man, standing before him here and now, is actually the very presence of the eternal God. The One who is beyond space and time. The same God who created the whole universe out of nothing. And who cares for his creatures as a loving Father cares for his beloved children.

And, in answering Jesus’ question, Peter also takes the next step. First revelation. Then recognition. And a truly marvellous, even miraculous, recognition. A recognition of the Divine in the human. The Eternal in the temporal. The Extraordinary in the ordinary. And then, beyond recognition, there is a third step. There is a call to respond. Having answered Jesus’ question correctly, Peter is invited to continue committing his life to the Lord. To continue following the One he has recognised wherever He may go. And we know, of course, exactly where Jesus is going in the gospel today. He is making his way to Jerusalem. Where He will lay down his life so that all might be saved. In the gospel, Peter is called to receive, to recognise, and to respond to, the revelation of God in the humanity of Jesus. Not just the Jesus who speaks powerful words and works amazing miracles. But also the Jesus who will be arrested and tortured. Killed and buried. Resurrected and exalted.

Revelation, recognition and response. Receiving the revelation of God in Christ. Recognising the presence of God in Christ. Responding to the call of God in Christ. These are the three steps that characterise the appointment of Peter as the holder of the keys to the palace. The rock on which the Church is built. The screen on which the passcode is entered. The one through whom access to the kingdom is granted. Whatever you bind on earth shall be considered bound in heaven; whatever you loose on earth shall be considered loosed in heaven.

But that’s not all, sisters and brothers. Our readings today are not just about Peter. For what is true of Peter, the representative of Christ, is also true of us, members of the Church, the Body of Christ. Just as Peter is called to recognise and to respond to the Lord. So too are we called to do the same. To look at the ordinary, even difficult, situations of our lives. The daily routines of work and worship. The interior struggles with desires and fears. The external interactions with the strange and the familiar. To look at all these, and to recognise in them the face of Christ. The Cross of Christ. The Joy of Christ. In particular, to hear the cries of the many suffering people in our world. And to recognise in them the call of Christ. Who continues to pose to each and to all of us the same question posed to the disciples in the gospel today. Who do you say I am? A question capable of penetrating the hardness of our hearts. If only we let it. Begging us to make a generous response.

And isn’t this also what we celebrate today? On this Lay Apostolate Sunday? Today we remember who we are. What we are called to do. For, as Peter is for us, so too are we for the rest of the world. We are the keepers of the keys to kingdom of God. We are the witnesses to the Mystery of the Dying and Rising of Christ. We are the bearers of the passcode that gains access to the fullness of Life in God. And we live up to this our awesome calling only to the extent that we continue to do as Peter was called to do. In the ordinary circumstances of our lives, to continue receiving the revelation of God. To continue learning to recognise the face and the voice of Christ. To continue responding to the promptings of the Spirit. Urging us to share with others the joy that we are gathered here, in this Eucharist, to celebrate. This, my dear sisters and brothers, is what it means to be a lay apostle. One appointed and sent by God into the world. To share Jesus with the world. So that the world might live.

Sisters and brothers, how are you being called to do this? To help others gain access to the joys of the kingdom of God today?

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Security in Mercy

20th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Picture: cc Mark Robinson

Sisters and brothers, if I were to ask you to imagine a safe place, a secure location, what image would come to your mind? What does a secure place look like to you? I’m not sure. But my guess is that at least some of us might think of a place surrounded by high walls and locked doors. Perhaps even protected by security alarms and armed guards. To some of us, a safe place is a well-defended one. And yet, if we think a little more deeply, won’t we agree that it is precisely such places that are unsafe? Insecure? Isn’t that why they need to be so fiercely defended?

In contrast, I’m reminded of another image. One that I’ve heard older citizens describe. People who used to live in the kampongs, or rural neighbourhoods, of days past. They speak of a place where there was little if any concern for security. Doors were left wide open. Neighbours walked freely in and out of one another’s houses. And yet, things were seldom stolen. Children did not feel threatened. A sense of safety prevailed. Wouldn’t you agree, sisters and brothers, that this is the more secure location? Safe in its openness? Secure in its lack of defensiveness?

And what is true of places is also true of people. Consider, for example, the difference between a teenager and a mature adult. Typically, adolescents are still finding themselves. Still growing into in their own identity. And, in the relative insecurity of their age, teenagers can sometimes be very difficult to live with. Very defensive. Pushing people away. Especially those who love them most. Don’t we all go through this stage of life? In contrast, a more mature and secure person doesn’t need to be defensive. Is able to be more open to others. Even and especially to those who may look and speak and think and live very differently. Sisters and brothers, as with places, so too with people. The more secure, the more open. The more safe, the less defensive.

And it may surprise some of us. But it would seem that something similar can also be said about God. In the first reading, we’re told that God wants to manifest God’s integrity, God’s sense of self, to the world. How does God do this? Not by being defensive. Not by pushing people away. But by welcoming, by being open to, everyone. By showing hospitality even to foreigners. Through the prophet, God proclaims a time when even foreigners will be brought to God’s holy mountain. A time when God’s house will be a house of prayer, not just for the people of Israel, but for all the peoples of the world. What we find in the first reading is a God who is secure and open enough to include everyone in God’s kingdom.

Of course, the more observant among us may raise an objection. We may notice that God’s welcome is not really extended to all foreigners indiscriminately. But only to those who follow God’s ways. Those who are obedient to God. This may be true. But notice also how God leads the disobedient into obedience. Again, not by being defensive. Not by exerting force. Not by resorting to violence. But by reaching out a gentle hand of mercy. Isn’t this what St. Paul writes about in the second reading? Paul says that he has been sent by God specifically to the pagans, the foreigners, as their apostle. And Paul’s is a mission not of condemnation, but of mercy. A mercy that will eventually reconcile, bring together, both Jews and Gentiles. Both believers and pagans. Both locals and foreigners. For God has imprisoned all in their own disobedience only to show mercy to all.

But what, we may ask, does mercy look like in the concrete? How do you recognise mercy when you see it? This is the question that the gospel reading helps us to answer. For Jesus himself is the highest expression of the mercy of God. And, in his encounter with the Canaanite woman, Jesus shows us something of what mercy looks like. Notice how, at the start of the reading, Jesus seems very sure of himself. He is very clear about the exact scope of his mission. About the boundaries of his concern. I was sent only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel. And yet, in the course of his conversation with the woman, Jesus seems to allow himself to change his mind. He is open enough to be impressed by the woman’s responses. To be moved by the faith of a foreigner.

So that, as in the second reading, it would seem that mercy is connected with conversion. With being willing to change one’s mind and heart about something or someone. Even to go beyond the boundaries of one’s concern. And isn’t this also an expression of security? So secure is Jesus in his mission to the Jews, that he is able and willing to reach beyond its boundaries. To entertain the urgent cries of a non-Jew. To heal the daughter of a foreigner. In the second reading too, so secure is Paul in his mission the Gentiles, that he is able to express concern even for  those who lie beyond the scope of his calling. Those who belong to his own Jewish race.

A security that is willing to cross the boundaries of its immediate concerns. Even to change its mind. A mercy and a gentleness that brings about reconciliation. The bringing together of what was once kept apart. An integrity and a sense of self that is expressed not in hostility and anxious self-assertion. But rather in hospitality and an openness even to those who are different from ourselves. This, my dear friends, is the approach to security that our Mass readings present to us today.

And it is an approach that our world needs so very much to learn. For everywhere around us, we find people anxious to safeguard their own security only through defensiveness and violence. Instead of gentleness and mercy. Isn’t this what we are witnessing in northern Iraq? In order to securely establish a so-called Islamic State, a well-armed militia is willing to perpetrate all manner of atrocities on those it perceives to be different. Even against the innocent and defenseless. The sick and the elderly. Women and children.

And here, in apparently peaceful Singapore, don’t we find increasingly disturbing expressions of fear and hatred? Locals against foreigners. White against pink. Liberal against conservative. What are these rumblings, sisters and brothers, if not attempts to win security through the building of walls and the use of force. Attempts which demonstrate, quite ironically, the deep insecurity suffered by those who engage in them.

Faced with situations such as these, my dear friends, are we Christians not called to bear witness to a security that comes via a different route? Not violence but gentleness. Not hostility but hospitality. Not harshness but mercy. And we can do this only to the extent that we first allow ourselves to remain immersed in the mercy of God. The mercy that we celebrate at this Eucharist. The mercy expressed in the Body and Blood of Christ. Broken and poured out for us. And for the whole of creation.

Sisters and brothers, what can we do to deepen our experience of this merciful security of God? And to share it with others today?

Sunday, August 03, 2014

Through Which Ear?

18th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Picture: Puff Pieces

Sisters and brothers, I recently saw a drawing of a woman who looked very devilish. Her body was draped in a slinky fire red gown. There were horns growing out of her head. And the words on the drawing explained how she had ended up like this. I have an angel on one shoulder, and a devil on the other. She said. I’m also deaf in one ear. No prizes for guessing to whom she had been turning the deaf ear. It wasn’t the devil.

This is, of course, a familiar image of the spiritual life: A devil whispering temptations into one ear. And an angel offering good advice in the other. How we end up depends on the one to whom we choose to listen. The ear through which we decide to hear. Few of us will deny this. That the spiritual life is indeed an ongoing struggle between good and evil. A constant tussle between two voices. One luring us to destruction. The other leading us into life. Two different sets of voices. Two different ears into which they speak. Two contrasting ways of listening. The devilish and the angelic. The destructive and the life-giving.

This is also the contrast that our readings propose for our consideration today. In the first reading, the Lord God speaks to his people in a voice full of love and compassion. Whispering into their ear, as it were. Assuring them that God desires nothing else but their survival and happiness. Their well-being and satisfaction. There is only one thing the people need to do to enjoy this generous offer. Listen, the Lord says, listen to me. Pay attention, come to me; listen and your soul will live. And listening to God means turning a deaf ear to that other voice. The one that entices them to move in the opposite direction. To spend money on what is not bread. Their wages on what fails to satisfy.

We find a similar contrast in the gospel. A contrast between two different sets of voices. Two conflicting ways of listening. This becomes clearer when we consider the reading in its wider context in the bible. Today’s passage, from Matthew’s gospel, begins at verse 13 of chapter 14. Earlier, in verses 1 to 12, we find the tragic tale of the arrest, imprisonment, and execution of John the Baptist. We know the story well. We know that it was king Herod who had John killed. But how did this come about?

The process has much to do with the act of listening. John the Baptist, as you will recall, had scolded Herod for entering into an unlawful marriage with Herod’s sister-in-law, Herodias. And when Herodias complained, Herod chose to listen to her. He had John arrested. Then, during his birthday party, Herod again chose to listen to this Herodias. When she instigated her daughter to ask for John’s head to be handed to her on a plate, the king chose to accede to the girl’s request. He had John killed in prison.

But Herod’s actions were not just prompted by the people to whom he listened. They were also the result of the way in which he chose to listen. Both Herod and Herodias chose to listen and to react to John’s words of warning not with sorrow and regret. Not with humility and obedience. Which might have led to repentance and newness of life. Instead, they reacted with arrogance and anger. With stubbornness and pride. Which resulted not only in the killing of an innocent man. But also in the spiritual death of Herod and Herodias themselves. And, quite ironically, this self-destruction happens precisely at a time when the king was supposed to be celebrating his own birth. This is what happens when people choose to listen to devilish voices. And to turn a deaf ear to God. What should be a joyful celebration is transformed into a fatal festival. A poisonous party.

In stark contrast, the gospel reading presents us with a different form of listening. Not devilish, but angelic. Not destructive, but life-giving. Here the spotlight falls on Jesus. Notice how he listens. Consider how he responds. The gospel gives us three examples. First, upon hearing the news of John’s death, Jesus responds by withdrawing. Perhaps to mourn the loss. To pray for the dead. And to consider what this development might mean for his own ministry. A more headstrong, more self-centred, person might have decided simply to push on. To act as though nothing had happened. But Jesus is different. He chooses to pause. To listen. To take stock. A sign that his ministry is not self-driven. But God-centred. Not a work of pride. But an exercise in humility.

Second, when Jesus is confronted with a large crowd, he very quickly sets aside his original plans. And the reading tells us why. Seeing the people before him, Jesus took pity on them. He listened to their cries. He was moved by their need. Again showing us that his ministry is centred not on himself, but on his heavenly Father. Who, as the responsorial psalm tells us, is compassionate to all his creatures. It is because Jesus listens with compassion that he decides to change his plans. Instead of withdrawing, he sets about healing the sick.

It is also this same compassion that prompts Jesus to do what at first looks quite illogical. Knowing full well that five loaves and two fish is all the food they have, Jesus still insists on feeding the huge crowd of hungry people. His disciples tell him to send them away. But Jesus decides otherwise. Showing that he listens not just to worried disciples. Not only to needy people. But also, and above all, to his merciful Father.

And it is this humble and trusting obedience that effects a change in the opposite direction to what we saw in the story of Herod. There a birthday celebration was changed into a fatal festival. Here a barren wilderness is transformed into a bountiful banquet. The hungry are satisfied. The sick are healed. The dying find new life. Not only does everyone have enough to eat. But they even have scraps left over. Twelve baskets full. The words of the second reading are proven true. Nothing can come between us and the love of Christ. If only we are willing to listen.

To choose to listen like Jesus. Instead of like Herod. This is the challenge our readings present to us today. And it is a difficult challenge. For our society conditions us to listen in a very particular way. We call it advertising. Everywhere we go. In every direction we turn. Voices call out to us. Telling us what to buy. Showing us the things we must have. The services we cannot do without. And the more we buy, the hungrier we get. Having an iPhone 5 generates a craving for an iPhone 6. Is this not spending money on what fails to satisfy? And while we do this. While we listen to the devilish voice of advertising. We end up turning a deaf ear to other voices. Voices of the poor and needy. Not just strangers who need material help. But also friends and relatives. Fellow parishioners. And even our own selves. Hungry for attention and affection. Crying out for compassion and care. The same compassion and care that God continues to offer us. Especially at this Mass.

Sisters and brothers, whether we choose to admit it or not, we each have an angel on one shoulder. And a devil on the other. To which one are you choosing to listen today?

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Of Headless Chickens & Restful Hearts

Solemnity of St. Ignatius of Loyola (Parish Feast)

Readings: Deuteronomy 30:15-20;  Psalm 1:1-6; 1 Corinthians 10:31-11:1; Matthew 8:18-27

Sisters and brothers, have you ever noticed that we live in a society of headless chickens? Of restless people? Have you noticed how so many of us seem to be constantly on the move? Forever busy with many different things? Always working? Always multi-tasking? Always frantically rushing around like headless chickens? And, because we are so used to moving at this pace, many of us find it really hard to sit still. To take a break from everything. To do nothing. But simply to rest and relax. Or even to slow down. To focus on only one thing at any one time.

There is, of course, a price to be paid for this hyperactivity. It’s called stress. The sense of being burdened by something that we can’t quite identify. Of constantly having the weight of the world upon our shoulders. The feeling that, even though our lives may be filled with heated activity, our hearts are often left cold and empty. We lose touch with ourselves. We don’t know what we really want. What our deepest desires are. So we just keep on moving. From activity to activity. From event to event. From person to person. Without ever being able to settle on a single thing, once and for all. Isn’t this why commitments become so difficult for us to make and to keep? Why so many marriages break down? And vocations to the priesthood and religious life are so hard to come by?

Sisters and brothers, in a restless world like ours, settling down becomes a very difficult thing to do. For many busy and preoccupied people, simply falling sleep for the night is a great challenge. What more choosing a spouse, or a vocation, for the rest of one’s life? And yet, in the midst of all this restlessness, our hearts continue to cry out for rest. What can we do to heed this cry? To satisfy this yearning? How can we find rest in the midst of restlessness? What can the headless chicken do to stop running around? How can its head be reattached?

This, my dear sisters and brothers, is the question of the hour. It is also the question that our Mass readings help us to address. But to appreciate the answer they offer us, we need to ponder them very carefully. For, at first glance, it seems that, in the gospel, Jesus is only making the problem worse. Only adding to our restlessness. Notice how the gospel begins with Jesus giving orders to his disciples to move. To cross from one side of the lake to the other. And then, in response to those who say they want to follow him, Jesus seems to describe himself as someone who is always busy. Always on the move. The Son of Man, he says, has nowhere to rest his head.

And yet, contrary to appearances, Jesus is not calling his disciples to a life of perpetual restlessness. Of chronic busyness. His is not the life of a headless chicken. For notice how Jesus conducts himself while on the move. While crossing from one side of the lake to the other. Notice how, even in the midst of a storm so violent that the boat was being swamped by waves, Jesus is still somehow able to rest. His terrified disciples even have to wake him from sleep. And then, once awake, the Lord seems surprised at their panic. Their restlessness. Why are you terrified?, he asks them. Why are you unable to find rest?

But how is it that Jesus himself is able to rest? When surrounded precisely by such great restlessness. How does he manage to remain calm in the midst of such a terrible storm? Even in the face of certain death? What is his secret? The answer is really quite simple. Not easy. But simple. Jesus can find rest because he is able to do the same thing that Moses is asking the people of Israel to do in the first reading. Here, after having wandered in the wilderness for forty long years, the people have finally arrived at their destination. They are preparing to cross the Jordan into the Promised Land. And Moses teaches them what they must do to settle down safely in this new place. How they can finally be at rest. Again, the secret is quite simple. It has to do with making a choice. A choice to be faithful. To commit their lives to God. And God alone. Once and for all.

And to do this is not the same thing as simply adding God to a long list of things we need to do. For God is not just one thing among other things. Rather, to choose God is to make God the centre of everything else in our lives. Much like how the sun is the centre around which the planets revolve. And, according to Moses, we do this by loving God. By heeding his voice. By holding fast to him. Or, in the words of the second reading, by making sure that in whatever we do, we do it for the glory of God. This is the only way by which the restless can find rest. By choosing to love God above all else. By deciding to surrender our hearts to God.

Isn’t this also how Jesus remains so calm even in a storm-tossed boat? He is able to lay down his head to sleep, because his heart is resting securely in the will of his Father. His whole existence revolves around the love of God. And this too is a basic principle in the spirituality of St. Ignatius. Whose feast we celebrate today. As you know, Ignatius referred to himself as the pilgrim. Someone perpetually on the move. Always travelling towards God. And yet, he could also say that should the Society of Jesus–which he worked so long and hard to establish–were to be dissolved, he would need only fifteen minutes of prayer to be at peace. He could find calm in such a terrible storm–the destruction of his life’s work–because, like Jesus before him, his heart was at rest in the will of God. His one preoccupation was the glory of God. His heart was set on loving God. Who, in the dying and rising of Christ, had loved him first.

This, my dear sisters and brothers, is the Good News that our readings are offering to us today. In a restless world like ours, we find true rest only by returning love for love. This is how the chicken gets its head reattached. By surrendering its heart to the One who allowed his own heart to be pierced for our sins.

I’m reminded of these words from that old love song sung by the late Nat King Cole:

When I fall in love, it will be forever.
Or I'll never fall in love.
In a restless world like this is, love is ended before it's begun.
And too many moonlight kisses
seem to cool in the warmth of the sun.
When I give my heart, it will be completely.
Or I'll never give my heart.
And the moment I can feel that you feel that way too,
is when I fall in love with you.

Sisters and brothers, in this restless world of ours, this society of headless chickens, how can we continue to surrender our hearts to God, and so to rest in his love today?

Sunday, July 13, 2014

The Truth In Troubleshooting

15th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)
Bible Sunday

Picture: cc Blake Facey

Sisters and brothers, have you ever experienced an electrical malfunction? Say you switch on the TV set in your home. And find that nothing happens. No picture on the screen. No sound. What do you do? If you’re like me, you’ll probably wonder if there’s something wrong with the power supply. Is there a blackout? A short-circuit? Is the TV plugged in? Is the main switch on? If everything looks fine, then there must be something wrong with the TV itself. Maybe a fuse has blown.

Sisters and brothers, as you know, we call this troubleshooting. The steps we take, the questions we ask, to uncover the cause of a malfunction. But have you noticed that there is one thing we never check? One question we don’t ask? Something that we always take for granted? We never question the power of electricity itself. We always assume that electricity will make the TV work. And if it doesn’t work, then the problem must lie with the TV. Or with its connections. Never do we think to put electricity into question. Much less do we ever decide to give up using electricity altogether.

When troubleshooting electrical malfunctions, we never question the effectiveness of electricity. But what about when we have to troubleshoot malfunctions in the spiritual life? As you know, all our religious practices are meant to have a positive effect on us. When we gather for Mass every Sunday, for example. To be nourished by the Word of God and the Bread of Life. We expect to be changed for the better. And the same can be said of our other spiritual activities. When we maintain a habit of personal prayer and scripture reading. When we frequent the sacrament of reconciliation. We expect all these activities to make us more joyful and more loving. More peaceful and more caring.

But what if this doesn’t happen? What if, when we come to  Mass, we consistently feel bored out of minds? What if, just two seconds into the homily, we feel like reaching for our cellphones to check our messages? Or to send a tweet? What if we leave this worship space, after lifting our hearts in fervent prayer to God, only to find ourselves raising our voices in angry protest against the poor traffic assistants in the carpark? Or a fellow motorist on the road? What if our reading of the scriptures leaves us cold and uninspired? What if, even after saying many prayers, we remain wrapped up only in our own petty concerns? Instead of reaching out to care for those in need? In other words, sisters and brothers, what if we experience a spiritual malfunction? How do we troubleshoot the problem? What questions do we ask?

Our Mass readings help us by first indicating to us the one question we need not ask. Something that we can simply take for granted. And that something is the power of the Word of God. As God reminds us in the first reading, the word that goes from my mouth does not return to me empty, without carrying out my will and succeeding in what it was sent to do. Much like electricity, the power of God’s Word is such that it is always capable of producing a good effect. So, if there is a malfunction, the problem must lie somewhere else. And it is this somewhere else that Jesus helps us to pinpoint in the gospel.

Here, Jesus compares God’s Word to the seed that always carries within it the power to effect growth. If growth doesn’t occur, the problem lies not with the seed, but with the soil into which it is sown. With the people to whom the Word is proclaimed. And the parable highlights what some of these problems might be: Hearing without understanding. Or understanding too superficially. Or being too distracted by other concerns. By the pleasures and the worries of daily life.

But that’s not all. If we are honest with ourselves, we must also admit that problems may lie not only with the soil. But also with the sower. Not only with the ones who receive the Word. But also with those who, like me, bear the responsibility for proclaiming it. Isn’t this why Pope Francis devotes such a large part of his recent apostolic exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel, to the preparation of the homily? For just as a perfectly functioning TV set would not work very well if the connections to the power supply were loose. So too will poorly prepared proclamations of the Word be less fruitful. Even when received by well-disposed listeners like yourselves.

And this insight is important not just for priests like me. It is significant also for lay people like you. For we mustn’t forget that, like me, you too are called not just to receive, but also to proclaim the Word of God. In your own particular state of life. How fruitful are your proclamations of the Word? How well prepared are the homilies that you preach through the lives that you lead? At home... At work... In school...

Which is why, my dear friends, you and I–called as we are to be both listeners and proclaimers of the Word–need to pay careful attention to our scriptures today. In particular, we need to ponder what we find in the second reading. Where St. Paul reminds us that, along with the whole of creation, each of us is groaning inwardly. Yearning to be set free from our slavery to decadence. Hungry for the nourishment provided by the Word of God. Especially as we celebrate this Eucharist.

We need to allow ourselves continually to remain in touch with this inner yearning. Constantly to stay connected to this interior groaning. For this is the only location at which the Word of God is truly received. And from which it can be passionately proclaimed. It is only here, in this sacred interior space, that the power of God’s Word always finds a fertile resting place. Bearing fruit. Now thirty, now sixty, now a hundredfold...

My dear sisters and brothers, how are we, you and I, being challenged to do some spiritual troubleshooting of our own today?

Sunday, July 06, 2014

The Joy of Open Hands

14th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Picture: cc Riccardo Cuppini

Sisters and brothers, if I may, l’d like to invite you all to do something with me right now. At the count of 3, could you all please clench your fists as tightly as you can? And then try to pay attention to how you feel. Notice what clenched fists feel like. Can you do that? Good. Ready? 1-2-3, clench! And hold... Notice how you feel... Now, again at the count of 3, slowly unclench your fists. Open up your hands. And pay attention to how you feel. Ready? 1-2-3, slowly... open... How do you feel?...

So what was it like, sisters and brothers? What does it feel like to have your fists clenched? What does it feel like to open up your hands? Any difference? Of course there is, right? It’s the difference between tension and relaxation. Between stress and calm. Between exertion and rest. Between grabbing something and letting something go…

It’s helpful to keep this contrast in mind, because it can help us appreciate something that our liturgy is inviting us to consider today. Have you noticed what it is? Recall what we heard in the opening prayer just now. Remember what we prayed for. We asked God to fill us with holy joy. For, through the sacrifice of Christ, God has bestowed on us eternal gladness. And, remember also, how the first reading begins. Rejoice heart and soul, daughter of Zion! Shout with gladness, daughter of Jerusalem!… Sisters and brothers, if there is one thing that our liturgy is bringing to our attention today, it is joy.

And I think we can all agree that joy is something that everyone desires. Something we all seek. Except that we have different ways of going about it. Different approaches to finding joy. Do you know what your own approach is? I’m not sure, but I think that, for many of us, the way we seek to be happy is the way taught to us by the world. By the society in which we live. And often this is the way of constant effort. Of repeated self-exertion. The way of stress and strain. Of the clenched fist and the gritted teeth. We push ourselves hard in order to be able to grab as many of life’s pleasures as possible. In the belief that the harder we work, the more things we grab, the happier we will feel.

For many of us, joy is something we win for ourselves. Through sheer force of will. Through steely strength of determination. No one makes us happy. We earn it for ourselves. This is what we learn in society. And, more often than not, we assume that this must be true in our spiritual lives as well. Whether we realise it or not, we think that happiness in the spiritual life is also only about effort. How to be more joyful? Well, spend more time in prayer. Give more money to the church. Get involved in more ministries in the parish... More time. More money. More effort. Must mean more joy. Right? I’m not sure. Perhaps for some this approach does work. But, then again, isn’t it true that, it can also have the opposite effect? Very often, the demand for more only serves to make us more discouraged. More stressed out. More unhappy. Or, what’s worse, it can also make us more prideful. More arrogant. More self-righteous. More pharisaical.

Which is why it’s important for us to pay attention to the different approach to joy that our readings are offering us today. Notice the reason why Zion is asked to rejoice in the first reading. It’s not because of anything that she herself has done. Rather, Zion is invited to rejoice in the victory won for her by her king. Her joy is less something she earns than something she simply receives.

Not only that. Notice also the very curious way in which her king is described. He rides not on a war-horse. But a baby donkey. His is an image not of power and might. But of humility and gentleness. Indeed, some of us may remember that this is the very passage of scripture used by the gospel writers to describe Jesus. As he rides into Jerusalem on Passion Sunday. Quite clearly, the approach to joy being taught to us here is very different from the way of the world. It is less the way of exertion and grabbing. Than of resting and receiving. It is less the way of the clenched fist. Than that of the open hand.

And this is also the same approach that Jesus teaches in the gospel. Notice first how Jesus begins by speaking not of our joy, but of the joy experienced by God. Yes, Father, for this is what it pleased you to do... God rejoices in revealing Himself to mere children. And isn’t this the only true Source of our own joy? If we are able to rejoice, it is only by sharing in the joy of God. By humbly receiving God’s self-communication to us. Especially in the Mystery that we celebrate at this Eucharist. The Mystery of the Life, Death, and Resurrection of Christ. And isn’t this why the learned and the clever fall short? Not so much because God doesn’t reveal himself to them. For the responsorial psalm tells us that the Lord is good to all, compassionate to all his creatures. If the learned and clever fail to rejoice, it is only because they are too focused on themselves. Too full of their own expertise. Too wrapped up in their own efforts. Too busy clenching their fists.

In contrast, Jesus issues a moving invitation to those who labour and are overburdened. Those of us who find ourselves desperately struggling to meet the demands of the clenched fist. And perhaps often failing. Jesus invites us to come to Him. To approach Him. The victorious yet humble King. The King who is victorious precisely because he is humble. Humble enough even to let Himself be nailed to a cruel cross. To set His people free. We are invited to come to Him with open hands. To receive the joy that He has already won for us through His sacrifice. The joy of realising how much God loves us. How much God cherishes us. Takes pleasure in us. Wants to give us joy. Without our having to do anything to earn it.

And, quite paradoxically, it is when we do this. It is when we open our hearts and our hands to receive God’s love. Especially in this very Eucharist. That we find the energy to do what needs to be done. No longer out of an oppressive sense of obligation. But, instead, out of a deep and enduring gratitude. As the psalmist says, all your creatures shall thank you, O Lord, and your friends shall repeat their blessing. Isn’t this also what St. Paul is writing about in the second reading? When we open ourselves to receive the love of God in Christ, our interests begin to change. We turn away from the unspiritual toward the spiritual. Away from the ungodly toward the godly. Allowing the Spirit of God to make his home in us. Giving us the strength gradually to put an end to the misdeeds of the body. To pray more devoutly. To give more wholeheartedly. To serve more selflessly. To experience, even here on earth, something of the joys of heaven.

Sisters and brothers, if I might just invite you now to, once more, quickly clench your fists... And then to slowly open them up again... How do you feel?... Two different postures. Two contrasting approaches to joy. One grabbing. The other receiving. One anxious. The other trusting...

Which one do you choose today?
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