Saturday, January 24, 2015

Attending to the Alarm

3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

Picture: cc Jean L.

Sisters and brothers, do you use an alarm clock? I think many of us do. And we know what we use it for. We know why we need it. We need it because we all have a tendency to lose track of time. And the alarm clock helps to remind us what time it is. When we are sleeping, for example, the alarm clock tells us when it is time to wake up. So that we won’t be late for work. Or school. But the alarm is only be effective if we obey it. If we ignore it. Or switch it off and go back to sleep. As sometimes happens to me. Then it will do us no good. We will oversleep. And have to pay the price for it.

But clocks are not the only kind of alarm. There are others. On an MRT train, for example, the announcements also act as a type of alarm. They remind us when it is time to get off. Also, someone recently gave me a small potted plant. Whenever I forget to water it, the leaves of the plant will start to droop. And that is a kind of alarm for me too. Reminding me that the poor plant is thirsty. That it is time to water it. Otherwise it will die.

And it’s not just plants that give off alarms. People do too, don’t they? When a baby cries, for example. It’s a reminder to the parents that it’s time to feed it. Or change it. Or let it go to sleep. And not just babies. Even adults give off alarms too. What does it mean, for example, when a wife starts nagging her husband even more than usual? Or when a husband starts spending more and more time away from home? Or when children suddenly start getting into trouble at school. All these things can be alarms as well. Signs to us that it is time to do something. Or to change whatever it is we have been doing. But, like the alarm clock, these signs will only be effective if we pay attention to them. If we do not ignore them. Otherwise we will continue to lose track of time. And have to pay the price for it.

I mention all this because, in each of our Mass readings today, we also find alarms ringing. In the first reading, God first sounds an alarm in the ear of the prophet Jonah. Telling him that it is time for him to go to the great city of Nineveh to proclaim the word of God. After some resistance, Jonah obeys. He goes to Nineveh and proclaims a message that is itself also an alarm. An urgent reminder to the Ninevites of what time it is. Only forty days more and Nineveh is going to be destroyed. The Ninevites’ own evil behaviour is like a train carrying them to destruction. Jonah reminds them that it is now time for them to get off this train. To turn back to God. Otherwise they will miss the chance to experience God’s mercy. Thankfully, the Ninevites are willing to obey God’s call. They pay close attention to the alarm. They repent. And the city is saved from destruction.

In the gospel, too, we find alarms sounding. John the Baptist gets arrested. And Jesus treats John’s arrest as an alarm. A sign that it is now time for Jesus to begin his public ministry. To start proclaiming the word of God in Galilee. And Jesus obeys. Like Jonah before him, Jesus himself also sounds an alarm. The time has come, he says, and the kingdom of God is close at hand. Repent, and believe the Good News.

But Jesus’ alarm is not just a call to repentance. Not just a reminder to turn away from everything that displeases God. It is also a call to discipleship. An invitation to the people to turn towards Jesus himself. To follow him. To live in the same way that he lives. To value the same things that he values. To put God at the centre of their hearts. To give God the highest priority in their lives. And when they do this, then the people will become fishers of people. Like Jesus, they themselves will become alarms ringing in the ears of others. Proclaiming to them the good news that the time has come for everyone to experience the mercy of God. For everyone to live in the joy of the Lord.

We find the same thing happening in the second reading. We all know the story of St. Paul. We know how, on the road to Damascus, like Jonah, Paul heard God’s alarm. How he repented. Turned his life around. Became not just a follower of Jesus, but also a fisher of people. How he himself became an alarm, reminding everyone what time it is. And this is exactly what Paul is doing in the second reading.

He sounds the alarm for the Corinthians. He reminds them that our time is growing short. That the world as we know it is passing away. The world that revolves around the hunger for fame and fortune. And the thirst for power and pleasure. The world that busies itself with buying and selling. With eating and shopping. With fighting and competing. The time is coming when this world will be no more. What to do then?

For Paul, the answer is simple. What we have to do is to live as though we were already part of another world. A different world. A world that revolves not around ourselves and our own cravings. But around God and God’s priorities. Around God’s love and God’s mercy. A world that is built not on the pleasures that pass too quickly away. Pleasures that we cannot bring along with us when we die. But a world that is built on the joy that will never end. The joy that comes from knowing the love of God shown to us in Christ Jesus our Lord. The same love that we are gathered here, around this altar, to experience and to celebrate.

Sisters and brothers, the alarms that we find in our readings do not ring only for the people who lived a very long time ago. These alarms continue to ring out loudly for us today. For like the Ninevites of Jonah’s day. Like the Galileans of Jesus’ day. And like the Corinthians of Paul’s day. We too live in a world that revolves around things that will very quickly pass away. Things that may make us feel good for a while. But are unable to bring us lasting joy. Things that separate us from God and from one another. Things that we fight each other for. Sometimes even kill one another for. But how many of us are able to remember this? How many of us are able to resist the temptation to live as though this is the only world that we have?

If we do find ourselves in such a situation of forgetfulness. Of losing track of time. Then our readings can help us. They act as an important alarm for us. Reminding us that there is another better way to live. Another better world to live for. A world that Jesus came to proclaim. Through his Life, and Death, and Resurrection. The same world for which he taught us to pray. In the Our Father. Whenever we say, thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

Sisters and brothers, the time has already come. This is what we believe. The time has already come, for us to live no longer according to the values of this world. But according to the values of another world. A new world. God’s world. A world of love and mercy. A world of justice and peace. The time has already come. The alarm is already sounding. Loudly and clearly. What must we do, you and I, to obey its call today?

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Meeting Halfway

Feast Of The Baptism Of The Lord

Video: Youtube Link

Ooh ooh, I can't go any further than this.
Ooh ooh, I want you so badly, it's my biggest wish...
Can you meet me halfway, right at the borderline?
That's where I'm gonna wait for you.
I'll be looking out night and day.
Took my heart to the limit, and this is where I stay…
Let's walk the bridge to the other side, just you and I.
I will fly, fly the skies for you and I
I will try until I die for you and I...

Sisters and brothers, I’m not sure if any of you are familiar with these words. They are taken from the song Meet Me Halfway. Released in 2009, by the hip-hop group, The Black-Eyed Peas. The song is sung by a pair of lovers, who have somehow gotten separated. And now they are pining for each other. Yearning to be reunited. I want you so badly, it’s my biggest wish… But there’s a problem. Neither seems able to make it all the way to where the other is. So each one promises to go as far as s/he possibly can. Hoping that they will meet somewhere along the way. Can you meet me halfway, right at the borderline?… I’ll be looking out night and day. Took my heart to the limit, and this is where I stay… Not quite the full distance. But only halfway. At the borderline.

Sisters and brothers, have you ever had a similar experience? Of wanting something or someone so very badly. And yet, finding yourself falling short? Not having what it takes to go all the way? Wishing that the distance could somehow be shortened for you? That someone would meet you halfway? And what a relief it is. What a great comfort and consolation. When that happens.

Well, sisters and brothers, believe it or not, this is what we celebrate today. In the first reading, God invites the people to come to the water. To seek the Lord. To turn to God, from whom alone they will receive everything they need for their happiness and survival. The satisfaction of their deepest desires. Buy corn without money, and eat, and, at no cost, wine and milk. The gracious invitation could not be any clearer. The promised rewards no more enticing. All you have to do is come. Come to the water. And God will provide everything you need.

But there is a catch. To turn to the Lord, the people have to stop feeding themselves on other foods. To stop clinging to things less than God. Things that may look attractive. But don’t fill the soul. Why spend your money on what is not bread, your wages on what fails to satisfy? And, of course, there are those who will fall short. Those who, try as hard as they might, will not be able to do this. Those who will find it difficult to travel all the way to the water of God’s presence.

So what to do if I find myself among people such as this? How to meet and be nourished by God, if I have not the strength to go the full distance? If I keep getting trapped in my own sinfulness. Imprisoned in my own blindness. Lost in my own addictions. My petty resentments. And worldly preoccupations. The gospel provides the answer. Since the people are unable to go the full distance. God allows them to come only halfway. If not to the brilliant glory of God’s holy presence. Then at least to the murky depths of the river Jordan. To the waters of repentance. Here, by being baptized by John, the people express their determination to turn away from idols. Their desire to turn back to God. And, even if they may not have what it takes to go all the way. Even though they may not be strong enough to live out their commitment to the full. Something marvellous happens. God actually comes to the water and meets them halfway. Jesus comes to the Jordan to be baptised along with them.

Of course, being the Son of God, Jesus himself needs no repentance. He has no sins to be washed away. He plunges into the Jordan not to be cleansed. But rather to make its waters holy. In Jesus, God comes to meet us halfway. Through the baptism of  Christ, the Jordan river becomes a borderline. Filled with the powerful presence of God. Father, Son, and Spirit. So that all the weak and hungry people. All the tired and thirsty people. All the hesitant and fearful people. People who can’t make it all the way. People like me. Can at least stumble to the river of repentance. Can fall headlong into its forgiving waters. And find life.

Nor do we actually have to travel to the Middle East to immerse ourselves in the Jordan. The second reading reminds us that Christ himself is the River of Life. Christ himself is the borderline where God comes to meet us. Who can overcome the world? Only the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God. The ones who immerse themselves in the river of blood and water flowing from the side of Christ. As he hangs on the Cross. The ones who are baptised in the Blood of the Lamb. The ones who share in the One Bread and the One Cup. The Broken Body and Precious Blood of Christ. The ones who draw strength from this River. To do what they would otherwise not be able to do by themselves. Overcome the world. This is the victory over the world–our faith. Our faith in Christ, by whose Dying and Rising, God comes to meet us halfway. At the borderline between sin and grace.

Sisters and brothers, this is what we celebrate today. The merciful love of a God who, knowing well our weakness, our inability to go the full distance, travels tirelessly to seek us out. Even to the extent of taking up and laying down his life for us. Meeting us at the limits of our endurance. So that, weak though we may be, we may yet find our way home. May yet enjoy not just food and drink. But life to the full. At the table of our Lord. At the altar of our God. As we do here at this very Eucharist.

And that’s not all. God calls us not just for ourselves. In the first reading, the people are told that God has made of them a witness to the peoples, a leader and a master of the nations. You will summon a nation you never knew… Not only are we called to meet God and to find life for ourselves. We, in our turn, are sent to bear witness to what we has been done for us. To call others to the life-giving waters of God’s love and mercy. And we do this by meeting them halfway. By offering others, who are weak and needy, what we ourselves have received in Christ. A helping hand. A listening ear. A forgiving heart. A life laid down in mercy and compassion. And isn’t this what this painfully divided and disconnected world of ours needs most of all today? People able to meet halfway. People willing even to lay their lives on the borderline. Not in violence and revenge. But in mercy and compassion. The same mercy and compassion shown to us by the God who first laid down his life for us.

Sisters and brothers, as for The Black-Eyed Peas, so too for us. Separated lovers can hope for reunion only by meeting one another halfway. At the borderline of God's undying love. How willing are we to go at least this far, to meet and be reconciled with God and with one another today?

Sunday, January 04, 2015

You Don't Have to Be a Star

Solemnity of the Epiphany

Don't think your star has to shine, for me to find
out where you're coming from.
What is a beauty queen, if it don't mean
I'm your number one.
And I don't need no superstar, ‘cos I'll accept you as you are.
You won't be denied, ‘cos I'm satisfied
With the love that you inspire.
You don't have to be a star, baby, to be in my show.

Sisters and brothers, I’m not sure if any of you still remember these words. They’re taken from a song, from the nineteen seventies, entitled You Don’t Have to Be a Star. Performed by the husband and wife duo of Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis, Jr. The song is addressed, presumably, to someone who’s working very hard to make a name for herself. Someone preoccupied with becoming a big-time celebrity of some kind. But, in the process, has neglected her lover. Has taken their relationship for granted. So, in the song, the lover reminds the beloved that she really doesn’t have to be rich and famous to enjoy the lover’s love. To be part of the lover’s life. The song is the lover’s way of presenting the beloved with an invitation. A call. To stop chasing after the passing glitter of stardom. And, instead, to simply step into the enduring light of the lover’s love. You don’t have to be a star, baby, to be in my show...

I’m reminded of this song today, because I believe our Mass readings present us with a similar call. A similar invitation. In the first reading, Jerusalem is encouraged to arise, to shine out. In such a way that, attracted to her light, all her children, who have been scattered in foreign lands, will come streaming back to her. And not just her children, but all the nations as well. At the sight of all these people flocking to her, Jerusalem herself will shine out all the more. Will become even more radiant. Her heart throbbing and full...

All of this is obvious enough to us. But there is one more very important point that we cannot afford to overlook. The light in which Jerusalem is being called to shine is not really her own. The reading is clear about this. The glory of the Lord is rising on you… Above you the Lord now rises... above you his glory appears… Although Jerusalem is asked to arise and shine out. She is not called to become the star of the show. She shines in the light and the glory of Someone Else. The Lord is the real Superstar. The One to whom all the nations will be attracted. So the invitation to Jerusalem is clear. To step into, and to shine out with, the light of her divine Lover. She doesn’t have to be a star, to be in God’s show…

This prophecy in the first reading finds its final fulfilment in the gospel. In the newborn baby Jesus, God’s glory shines upon the people. Attracting and calling everyone to step into its light. To bask in its brilliance. And to reflect this light to others. So that all may enjoy its life-giving effects. In the gospel, although there is a star shining brightly in the sky, it is not the centre of attention. The star’s role is only to guide people to Christ. He is the true Light. He is the real Superstar. The One who calls everybody to arise and to shine out in His radiance.

But that’s not all. The gospel also describes for us two very different reactions to this call. On the one hand, there are the wise men. Foreigners, who hear and heed the Lord’s call. Who accept His invitation. They travel a great distance in search of the Light. And when they finally find Him, we’re told that they’re filled with delight. On the other hand, however, and in stark contrast to the wise men, we have a wicked king, Herod. He too hears the Lord’s call. But instead of delight, what he experiences is disturbance. He is perturbed. And, in his perturbation, Herod refuses to step into the Light. Instead, he tries to smother it. To snuff it out. He pretends to be interested in worshipping Jesus. But he wants to find the child only so that he can kill him.

So what accounts for this difference in response? This contrast between the wise and the wicked? Between the delighted and the perturbed? The answer is simple. Herod refuses to step into the Lord’s Light for one reason. He has a desperate need to be, at all times, the centre of attention. The star of the show. His whole existence is built upon self-interest. Self-glorification. Self-assertion. Ego-inflation. He wants everyone to come to him. Instead of to the Lord. He cannot tolerate anyone else sharing the spotlight with him. In contrast, the wise men’s lives are centred not in themselves. But in something else. They desire and search for the light of Truth. And they are willing to go to great lengths to seek and to find it. Unlike Herod, they know and accept that they don’t have to be the star, to be in God’s show...

And this is the same admirable quality that we find in St. Paul. In the second reading, Paul speaks of having been entrusted by God with the grace he meant for you. For Paul’s readers. Like the wise men, Paul knows, and is willing to accept, that he is only a steward of grace. Only a witness to the Light. Only a servant of the Lord. His concern is not to become the centre of attention. But only to continue stepping into, and shining out with, the light of Christ. So that more people may be drawn to the Lord. May find life in His name. Like the wise men, Paul accepts that he doesn’t have to be a star, to be in the Lord’s show...

All of which should lead us to reflect upon ourselves. We who profess to be followers of Christ. Like the wise men and St. Paul, we too are called to continue stepping into, and shining out with, the Light of Christ. So that, through us, more people may come to know Christ. May find life in His name. And we are only really able to do this to the extent that we are willing to keep resisting the temptation to constantly be the centre of attention. The need to be the stars of our own individual self-glorifying performances.

And this is a great challenge for us. A great challenge for me. Especially because we live in a culture that encourages, even pressurises, us to do just that. To keep striving to become stars in our own right. To keep performing for others to see. To keep working to outdo the competition. In order to glorify ourselves. And, as Herod’s example teaches us, it’s possible to do this even with apparently religious activities. Even while claiming to worship God. While professing to work for God’s greater glory. Except that it’s not really God we’re glorifying. But ourselves. Whether we realise it or not, we’re not really shining out with the Light of Christ. But seeking only to snuff it out.

Pope Francis has a name for this. He calls it spiritual worldliness. And to succumb to spiritual worldliness is to forget, even to reject, the good news we are celebrating today. That, in Christ, the Star of God’s love is already shining in our world. Calling everyone to step into, and to shine out with, its brilliant light.

Sisters and brothers, it’s such a consoling message. If only we are open enough to receive it. You don’t have to be a star, to be in God’s show. How willing are we to accept this truth more fully? What must we do to heed God’s call more generously today?

Thursday, January 01, 2015

Sight, Sound & Spirit

Solemnity of Mary, the Holy Mother of God
(Octave Day of Christmas)
Picture: cc  Lori Greig

Sisters and brothers, have you ever been moved to tears while watching a movie or a show on TV? Do you ever find a lump rising in your throat when you listen to someone sing a song or deliver a speech? Do certain sights and sounds touch a chord within you and make you cry? Without you knowing exactly why? And when you remain with those feelings, sit with those tears, you may discover something about yourself. About the world. And even about God. It’s as if, through your tears, something new was being born within you. And, through you, into the world.

For some of us, this kind of experience happens quite frequently. But, for others, only rarely. Maybe never. What do you think accounts for this difference? Why are some of us so easily moved by what we see and hear? While others seem so unaffected? So impervious? Perhaps it has something to do with our psychological make-up. Some of us are just more emotional than others. Or perhaps it’s got to do with the sights and sounds themselves. Maybe we just haven’t been exposed to the right ones. Those powerful enough to move us deeply. Strong enough to bring something new to birth within us. Or perhaps the reason lies elsewhere. Maybe what is required are not just sights and sounds, but something else as well. Something that makes us more attentive, more open, to significant situations. Allowing them to move us deeply. To bring something new to birth within us. And, through us, into the world.

Something that makes us more open to significant sights and sounds. Something that makes us give birth to new things. This, my dear friends, is also what our Mass readings speak about today. In the first reading, God teaches Moses how to bless the people. And the blessing has everything to do with sights and sounds. Moses is taught the words to use, the sounds to make, that will enable the people to see the sight of God uncovering God’s face to them. To recognise and appreciate the brilliance of God’s smile. Shining upon them. Illuminating the darkness of their hearts and their lives. Giving birth to true and lasting peace.

The responsorial psalm widens the scope of this blessing. Not just the people of Israel, but all the nations will enjoy its benefits. Will feel its effects. The psalmist asks God to let your face shed its light upon us. So will your ways be known upon earth and all nations learn your saving help. The psalmist prays that God’s justice and fairness may be born again, not just for the good of Israel, but for all the nations on earth.

This prayer for God’s blessing finds its final answer in the gospel. In the birth of Jesus, God literally uncovers God’s face to us. This is what the shepherds experience on that first Christmas night. The sights and sounds of angels announcing the Saviour’s birth. Of Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in the manger. And, like people deeply moved by a movie or a song, those shepherds went back glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen. And not just the shepherds. Mary and Joseph too are so moved by the sights and sounds of that first Christmas night that they name their child Jesus. A name with means God-Saves. Even though they had to endure so much hardship to bring their baby to birth, they recognise in him the face of God shining upon them. And, through them, upon the whole world.

But we know that not everyone was moved by the sights and sounds of that first Christmas. Most of those in Bethlehem were oblivious to what was happening. Engrossed in celebrations or worries of their own. And we can probably understand their indifference. After all, what’s so significant about an unknown baby being born in a filthy stable? Isn’t that more of a tragedy than a reason for joy? And yet, some were deeply moved. So what accounts for the difference? Was it simply due to psychological reasons? Or because the sights and sounds were just not powerful enough? Or does the reason lie elsewhere?

For us to be moved by God’s blessing, for us to recognise God’s face, something more is required. And the second reading tells us just what this is. God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts: the Spirit that cries, “Abba, Father.” Sisters and brothers, it is not just through sights and sounds, but through the power of the Spirit, that we are able to recognise the signs of God’s blessing. To see the light of God’s face. To feel the warmth of God’s smile. And so to do what the people in the gospel are doing. Rejoicing in the saving power of God. Singing the praise and glory of God. Even partnering with God in giving birth to something new in our world.

And this is an important lesson for us on this last day in the octave of Christmas. When we celebrate the Motherhood of Mary. We remember not just the sights and sounds of that first Christmas night. But also, and above all, the powerful presence of the Spirit. Moving people to recognise, in apparently ordinary, even tragic, situations, the extraordinary blessing of God. Bringing something new to birth. In their hearts. In their lives. And in our world.

What we celebrate today, sisters and brothers, is not just the Motherhood of Mary, as an event in the past. But also the Motherhood of the Church, as an ongoing process. A process by which we attend to the sights and sounds of our lives, with eyes and ears made sensitive by the Spirit. So that we can partner God in bringing peace and justice to birth in our world.

And this is especially meaningful for us today. For even as we celebrate the joys of a New Year, we cannot ignore the tragic sights and sounds around us. We cannot remain unmoved by the plight of hundreds of relatives mourning the loss of loved ones to a plane crash in Indonesia. Or of tens of thousands of refugees displaced by flood waters in Malaysia. Perhaps some of us may think it inappropriate to speak of such sad situations on New Year’s Day. But is it really? Is it not rather our responsibility, as God’s holy people, to continue gazing upon these sad sights. To continue listening intently to these heartbreaking sounds. And to remain open to God’s All-Powerful Spirit. To be like Mary, who pondered the sights and sounds of her son’s birth in her heart. So that we may learn to recognise the light of God’s face, already shining out in the darkness. So that we may learn to sing the song of God’s justice and peace, already coming to birth in us. And, through us, into the waiting world.

Sisters and brothers, today God continues to bestow upon us a blessing that is also a responsibility. The blessing and responsibility of being the Mother of God. The blessing and responsibility of attending carefully to ordinary sights and sounds, with hearts open to the powerful movements of the Spirit. So that Christ might once again be brought to birth in us. And, through us, into our waiting world.

Sisters and brothers, what must we do to allow ourselves to continue being moved by the Spirit today and throughout this New Year?

Sunday, December 28, 2014

The How and The Why

Feast of the Holy Family

Picture: cc Jeremy Jenum

Sisters and brothers, the story is told of a man who enjoyed his wife’s cooking so much that he decided to ask her to teach him how to cook his favourite dish. Her delicious pot roast. The recipe was simple enough to learn. But, as he was learning it, he discovered a rather curious thing. He noticed that his wife always cut off both ends of the meat before putting it into the oven. When he asked her the reason why, she simply said that that was the way her mother taught her to do it. Not satisfied with her answer, the man decided to phone his mother-in-law to ask her. But her answer was the same. That was the way my mother taught me to do it. Thankfully, the wife’s grandmother was still alive. So the man went to ask her. When she heard the question, the grandmother laughed. We only had one roasting pan at the time, she said. And it was too small to fit the whole piece of meat. So I cut off both ends. That’s the only reason why…

One lesson I think we can learn from this story, sisters and brothers, is that sometimes knowing why we do something is at least as important as knowing how to do it. The why can motivate us. Energise us. It can even free us to make changes to the how, if necessary. To improve it. Without, of course, changing the quality of the outcome. The goodness of the pot roast.

I mention this because I think this lesson about the importance of the question why can help us to enter more deeply into the feast we are celebrating today. The Feast of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Today, as our opening prayer reminds us, not only are we celebrating the holiness of Jesus’ immediate earthly family, we are also asking God for the grace to imitate them. To learn and to follow their recipe for holiness. And our readings help us to do this by telling us how.

The recipe is actually simple enough. Simple enough to understand. If not to put into practice. It has to do with how we treat one another. So, in the first reading, children are encouraged to treat their parents with respect and honour. Even, and especially, when parents may have grown frail with age. Even if a father’s mind should fail, a son should continue to support him. Should not despise him. And, the second reading goes on to remind wives to give way to your husbands. Husbands to love your wives and treat them with gentleness. Children to obey your parents. And parents to never drive your children to resentment. The reading even broadens this recipe for holiness to include not just immediate family, but also the whole Christian community. Which includes, of course, our own parish family. You are God’s chosen race, his saints…. Bear with one another; forgive each other as soon as a quarrel begins…

Sisters and brothers, all of this is should actually come as no surprise to us. We all know what we have to do to imitate the Holy Family. We all know the recipe. The problem is that we often find it too difficult to follow. Too difficult to find the necessary motivation, the needed strength, to put it into practice. Which is why it is helpful to see that the question how is not the only question that our readings help us to answer. Just as important, our readings also invite us to consider the question why. Why should we imitate the Holy Family? Why should we treat one another with love and respect? With gentleness and compassion? If it’s really so difficult, why even bother?

The responsorial psalm answers this question quite simply. O blessed are those who fear the Lord and walk in his ways! If we treat one another well, as God wants us to, then we will enjoy God’s blessing. And the first reading describes this blessing in terms of specific earthly benefits. For example, whoever respects his father will be happy with children of his own.

The second reading, however, helps to broaden our understanding of God’s blessing. Why should we continue to try to treat one another lovingly? Even when it may be difficult? The answer is simply that when we do this, the peace of Christ will reign in our hearts. And the message of Christ, in all its richness, will find a home in us. This is the reason why we are called to holiness. Why we are called to love. And what an awesome reason it is. When we strive for holiness, by loving one another, we actually make a space for God. A place where God can be at home. In our hearts. In our lives. And in our world.

Isn’t this also the whole reason for the Holy Family’s existence? Isn’t this why it is so fitting that we should be celebrating the Feast of the Holy Family within the octave of Christmas? The holiness of the Holy Family has a very particular purpose. It enables God to make a home among us. Isn’t this what we find happening in the gospel? The reading begins with the Holy Family paying a visit to the Temple in Jerusalem. Which was where the Jews believed that God lived on earth. It was God’s home among God’s people. And when the baby Jesus is brought to the Temple, he immediately finds himself at home there. For in the Temple the baby is quickly recognised for who he really is. And what is home if not the place where we are recognised for who we really are? First Simeon, and then Anna, recognise Jesus as the Christ of the Lord. The fulfilment of God’s promise of salvation. In the helpless baby, the holy man and the holy woman recognise the powerful arm of God. Stretching out to save God’s people.

But that’s not all. We’re told that, after Jesus is consecrated in the Temple in Jerusalem, his parents bring him back to Nazareth in Galilee. And there, the Son of God finds yet another home. For we are told that, in Nazareth, under the watchful care of Mary and Joseph, Jesus grew to maturity, and he was filled with wisdom; and God’s favour was with him. Through the efforts of his holy mother, and his holy father, the little child grows into the holy person he is meant to become. A blessing to the whole world. Reconciling the whole of Creation with its Creator.

Here, sisters and brothers, we find the reason why the Holy Family is called to holiness. It is so that God will be able to bless them by making a home among them. And, through them, to bless the world. And isn’t this also why we too are all called to be holy? To love one another? Not just our immediate family members, but also our extended family? The family of the Church? Even the whole human family? We imitate the Holy Family, so that God will continue to find and to make a home in us. So that Christ will continue to grow to maturity in our midst. So that God’s presence will be seen and felt among us. A presence that brings justice and peace. Reconciliation and healing. Courage and joy. Not just to us. But also, through us, to the rest of the waiting world.

Sisters and brothers, someone once said that he who has a why to live for, can bear almost any how. On this Feast of the Holy Family, our readings give us both the how and the why. Both a recipe for holiness and a reason for putting it into practice. What will we do to follow this recipe more closely today?

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Starting At The Very Beginning


Wedding of Eugene & Lynette

Readings: Genesis 2:18-24; Psalm 32:12, 18, 20-22. R.v.5; John 15:9-12

Eugene and Lynette, my dear friends, I’m not sure if any of you still remember that old musical film from the nineteen sixties entitled The Sound of Music. If you do, perhaps you’ll also remember one of the songs from the film. The song is called Do-Re-Mi. And this is how it begins: Let’s start at the very beginning. It’s a very good place to start. When you read you beginning with A-B-C. When you sing you begin with Do-Re-Mi…

Let’s start at the very beginning… I’m not sure, my dear friends. But I’d like to think that you, Eugene and Lynette, perhaps had these words in mind when you chose the scripture readings for our celebration today. As you know, a wedding marks the beginning of a couple’s married life together. And married life is built on love. But how do we learn to love? Where do we start? Well, from your selection of readings, it seems quite clear that you have chosen to start at the very beginning.

For the first reading you have chosen is a passage from the book of Genesis. Which, as some of us may know, is the book that begins the whole Bible. It is also the book that talks about the beginning of the whole universe. The whole of Creation. And the passage that you have chosen speaks in particular of the beginning of love between man and woman. When you read you begin with A-B-C. When you sing you begin with Do-Re-Mi. But what about love? How does love begin? What are the A-B-Cs and the Do-Re-Mis of true love?

The first reading tells us three things about the beginnings of love. The first is that love is not something we can acquire by our own efforts. It is not something that we can manufacture, or buy, or even steal, for ourselves. In the reading, the man is at first all alone. And he can do nothing to change that. He cannot produce love for himself. God has to intervene. It is not good that the man should be alone, God says. I will make him a helpmate. A companion. And so, God creates a woman. Who, unlike all the other animals, is equal to the man. So that she can be a true partner to him. And he a partner to her. Only in this way can the man and the woman enjoy a loving relationship with each other. And this is the first thing we learn about the beginnings of love. We cannot make or buy love for ourselves. Love is a gift from God. A gift freely given and freely received.

But notice also how this gift comes about. Notice how the man is first made to fall into a deep sleep. What is this sleep? It is the silencing of that part of us that tends to get in the way of love. The part that cares only about my own comfort, for example. The part that always wants things to go my own way. The part that refuses to compromise with others. Refuses even to consider the possibility that there may be another way of looking at things and at people. In other words, my dear friends, for true love to be born, the ego has to be silenced. Put to sleep.

But that’s not all. After the man is put to sleep, something else happens. A rib is taken from him and given to the woman. What this tells us is that love begins through a special form of giving. The man gives away not just an object that he has, but a part of his very self. His own rib. This is how love begins. It begins with the donation of self. It begins with self-sacrifice.

These, then, my dear friends, are the A-B-Cs and the Do-Re-Mis of love. This is what you, Eugene and Lynette, have chosen to remind us about. First, that love is received as a gift from God. Second, that love requires the silencing of the ego. And, third, that love is born of self-donation.

All this is, of course, much easier said than done. Those of us here who have already been married for some time will probably be able to testify that it’s not always easy to remember these A-B-Cs. Much less to live them out. Perhaps it’s a bit easier in the first few months of the honeymoon period. When the initial excitement and euphoria of the wedding are still strong. But not so easy when all of that subsides. And the normal stresses and strains of daily life come knocking on our door. When the demands of work increase, for example. Or when a baby arrives. Or when all those characteristics in our partner that we used to consider so adorable, suddenly begin to seem more than a little irritating. When all this happens, how are we to remain in touch with the beginnings of love? How to remember to look to God, the Giver of Love? To silence our ego? And to continue giving of ourselves to the other? The answer, my dear friends, is found in the gospel reading that you, Eugene and Lynette, have chosen.

Here we find the Lord Jesus telling us the secret to remaining in touch with the beginnings of love. As the Father has loved me, he tells us, so I have loved you. Remain in my love. What does it mean to remain in his love? It is first to remember how Jesus first loved us. How his life is a testimony to the A-B-Cs of love. How, by coming among us as a human person, he let himself become God’s Gift of love to us. How he allowed his own ego to be silenced. Especially in the Garden of Gethsemane, when he could have chosen to run away. But, instead, he willingly sacrificed himself on the Cross. So that we might be saved.

It is by constantly remembering and living out of this love that the Lord Jesus has for us all, that we in our turn find the strength and the courage to love one another. Even and especially when the going gets tough. And this is true not just for you, Eugene and Lynette. It is true also for the rest of us, who are gathered here to express our commitment to supporting you in your marriage. Especially those of us who call ourselves followers of Christ. We too are called to remain in touch with the A-B-Cs and Do-Re-Mis of love. By continuing to develop and to nurture our own relationship with Christ. By receiving love as a gift. By silencing our egos. By giving of ourselves to one another. And we are happy to do this. Happy to make this commitment. Because we believe what Jesus tells us in the gospel. That when we remain in his love for us by loving one another, his own joy will be in us, and our joy will be complete.

My dear friends, Eugene and Lynette, when you read you begin with A-B-C. When you sing you begin with Do-Re-Mi. What must we do to keep starting from the very beginning of love today?

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Put A Ring On It

Solemnity Of The Nativity Of The Lord
(Mass During The Day)

Readings: Isaiah 52:7-10; Psalm 97:1-6; Hebrews 1:1-6; John 1:1-18

I need no permission. Did I mention?
Don't pay him any attention.
‘Cos you had your turn. And now you’re gonna learn.
What it really feels like to miss me.
‘Cos if you liked it, then you shoulda put a ring on it.
If you liked it, then you shoulda put a ring on it...

Sisters and brothers, I think at least some of you are familiar with these words. They come from a song, by Beyoncé, entitled Single Ladies. The song, as you may recall, is sung by a recently single lady. A woman who has just broken up with her boyfriend. And she broke up with him because, even though they had been together for three years, he still hadn’t proposed to her. Hadn’t put a ring on her finger. Perhaps he had shown her a good time. Bought her expensive gifts. Even whispered sweet nothings in her ear. But, after three years, all of that just wasn’t enough. ‘Cos, if you liked it, then you shoulda put a ring on it. If he really loved her, he should have proposed to her by now.

The song can perhaps be summarised in three words: Talk is cheap. Talk is cheap, if it’s not translated into appropriate action. Into visible effects. Words of love should eventually lead to a marriage proposal. A ring on the finger. A visible expression of the lover’s commitment to spending his whole life with the beloved. Otherwise they’re just mere words. Empty talk. Hollow sounds that can be heard. But the effects of which cannot be seen. And talk like that doesn’t have much value. Empty talk is cheap. If you liked it, then you shoulda put a ring on it…

I mention this song not because I want to scandalise you. But  because I think it provides a helpful contrast to what we are celebrating today. Christmas is the exact opposite of empty talk. In direct contrast to worthless words, what we celebrate today is a Word-Beyond-Price. A Word of great Power and Beauty. A Word that has visible effects in our lives and in our world. A Word that can not only be heard. But also seen and felt.

In the first reading, for seventy long years, the people of Judah have been suffering in exile in Babylon. And now, God finally speaks to them a reassuring Word. A promise of salvation. And, unlike many of our human words, God’s Word is not empty but full. God’s Word is grounded in a serious commitment on the part of God. Commitment to the people’s well-being. Commitment that is expressed in effective action. Not only is the Lord consoling his people. The Lord is actually already redeeming them. Setting them free from exile. Returning them to their own land. The Lord bares his holy arm in the sight of the nations, and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God. Unlike empty talk, which only rings in our ears, God’s Word has effects that can be seen with our eyes. It is a Word-of-Great-Beauty. A Word-Beyond-Price.

But that’s still not quite the full extent of what we celebrate at Christmas. For what is seen in the first reading are only the effects of God’s Word spoken through the prophets. Through human messengers. At Christmas, something even more wonderful happens. Not just the effects. But God’s Word Himself becomes visible. Speaking to us no longer only through the borrowed voices of human messengers. But in His own Voice. As the second reading reminds us, at various times in the past... God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets; but in our own time... he has spoken to us through his Son.

And the gospel tells us just how this remarkable communication comes about. The Word was made flesh, he lived among us, and we saw his glory. This is what Christmas is about. This is what we celebrate. The Word of God, the Second Person of the Trinity, becomes a human being. Takes on human flesh. So as to speak to us, in a human voice that is His very own. To bear with us the burdens and temptations of human existence, in a body that is his very own. To lay down, and then to take up again, a human life that is his very own. And all of this to prove to us just how committed God is to us. How much in love God is with us. How willing God is to pay any price, to bear any sacrifice, for us.

Sisters and brothers, this is the wondrous Mystery we are celebrating today. The Mystery of a God who is not satisfied with just whispering sweet nothings in our ears. Or simply showing us a good time. Today, we celebrate a God who does what that boyfriend in Beyoncé’s song was unwilling to do. In the coming of Christ at Christmas, God makes an unbreakable commitment to us. God offers us an irrevocable proposal of marriage. God gives to us a ring to be placed on our finger. A visible sign of a Love-Beyond-All-Telling. Spoken in a Word-of-Great-Beauty. A Word-That-Was-Made-Flesh. A Word-Beyond-Price.

And what a joy this is for us. This commitment of God. For us who live in a society that enjoys such a great abundance of options. But that so often finds itself unable to choose among them. Unwilling to commit to any one of them. For to say yes to one, is also often to so no to the others. Something that many of us can’t quite bring ourselves to do. Are afraid to do. And, even when we do manage to commit, we frequently find ourselves unable to live out the implications of that commitment. Isn’t this why so many marriages break down? And within a few years of the wedding.

And yet, even though we may seem so allergic to commitment, there remains a part of us that can’t live without it. In a society that often seems to know nothing else than empty talk, there remains a place deep within our hearts where we still yearn to hear and to see the Word-Beyond-Price. To experience God committing Himself to us in an irrevocable proposal of marriage.

But let us be honest, sisters and brothers. A marriage proposal is still only a proposal. For a marriage to result, something else is needed. The proposal must be accepted. Accepted not just with empty talk. But with true commitment. Commitment made visible in lives that are lived the way John the Baptist lived his life. As a witness to speak for the light, so that everyone might believe through him. This, too, my dear friends, is what we celebrate at Christmas. Not just God’s commitment to us. But also our acceptance of that commitment. And our making of a return-commitment to God. In our Baptism. In our Confirmation. In the Eucharist. In our daily lives...

Sisters and brothers, empty talk is cheap. If you liked it, then you shoulda put a ring on it. In the coming of Christ at Christmas, our Divine Boyfriend has already placed a ring on our finger. Has already committed Himself to us in a Word that cannot be taken back. A Word-of-Great-Beauty. A Word-Made-Flesh. A Word-Beyond-Price. How shall we respond? What kind of word shall we speak? What commitment shall we make? How might we place a ring on the Lord’s finger today?

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Proof of the Pudding

4th Sunday in Advent (B)

Picture: cc Nickster 2000

The proof of the pudding is in the eating. Sisters and brothers, I’m sure you’re familiar with this old English saying. You know what it means. It refers to how the true value of something is judged, not so much by looking at it, but by experiencing it. By putting it to use. So a house, for example, may look very elegant and impressive on the outside. But you still wouldn’t consider it a good house, if things start to fall apart soon after you move in. If the floor tiles start popping up, for example. Or the water pipes start leaking. Or the paint begins to peel. In that case, you could probably use another saying to describe the house. A Chinese one this time. You could say that the house was ho kua bo ho jiak (好看不好吃). Nice to look at, but not good to eat.

And it is, of course, wise to recall these proverbs not just after you’ve moved into the house. That would be too late. Better to be mindful of them while the house is still being built. So that you’ll take care to ensure that the house is properly constructed. Built to be lived in. And not just to be looked at. So that you’ll remember to make certain that, in constructing your house, the contractor uses durable materials. And good workmanship.

But why talk about building houses in Advent? As you know, Advent is a time for making space for the God-Who-Comes. In a sense, in Advent, we make an effort to build a spiritual house for the Christ-child. So that there will be a place fit for him to live in–in our hearts and in our homes, in our church and in our world–when he comes to us at Christmas. But what kind of building must we do to ensure that Jesus finds a fitting welcome? A house that’s not just nice to look at. But also good to eat. Fit for the Lord to live in. This is the crucial question that our Mass readings help us to answer, on this 4th and final Sunday of Advent.

The first reading presents us with a rather curious situation. King David wants to build a House, a Temple, for God. But God refuses to let him do so. Why? Why not let David go ahead with his plans? I’m not sure, sisters and brothers. But perhaps it has something to do with how God wants God’s House to be built. At this point in the story, King David has just succeeded in defeating all his enemies. After a string of victorious battles, the Lord has finally given him rest. But David doesn’t seem to want to rest. He prefers to quickly get busy again. To undertake a huge building project to add to the list of his achievements on the battle-field.

God, however, seems mindful of the dangers that come with this kind of building. Building on one’s own achievements. Building from a interior place of busyness and restlessness. Very likely God knows that this kind of building too easily leads to the inflation of one’s own ego. We end up building a house not for God but for ourselves. A house that might be nice to look at, but not good to eat. So God stops David. And, instead, reminds the king that all the achievements he has accumulated so far, have been attained only through the help of God. They are blessings. So that, rather than presume to build a House for God, David should first take time to rest in, and to be grateful for, the house that God is building for him. And his people.

In this way, God teaches David (and the rest of us) the proper way to build a House for God. A space fit for God to live in. And not just nice to look at. Such a holy place must be built not on one’s own achievements. But on the blessings received from God. Not from an anxious need to remain constantly busy. But from a place of tranquility and rest. Rest that God alone can provide. Rest in the delight that our loving God takes in each and all of us. Without our having, or being able, to do anything to earn it. This is how we build for the sake of God. And not just to feed our own hungry egos. It is only in this way that we can do what the second reading encourages us to do. To give glory to him through Jesus Christ for ever and ever. Amen.

But, even if all this theory is true, how does it translate into practice? What does it look like when someone finds the courage to build in this way. To build on blessings rather than achievements. To build from a place of rest rather than anxiety. To build to glorify God rather than to feed one’s own ego. The answer is found in the gospel. Here, it is Mary who shows us how to build a House fit for God. It is Mary who demonstrates to us how to make a space for God to enter into our hearts, into our lives, and into our world.

Notice how the building is done only at God’s initiative. Only on the foundation of God’s blessing. That is why the angel calls Mary highly favoured. Full of grace. Her part is only to obey. To yield to God’s call. To accept God’s gift. Which, in itself, is not an easy thing to do. For, to do this, Mary has to adjust the plans that have already been made for her and Joseph, her betrothed. She has to consent to being the mother of a child whose father is not her husband. A very dangerous prospect at the time. It is no wonder then, that Mary is, at first, deeply disturbed.

And yet, she courageously brings her unrest before the Lord. She bravely questions the angel. Who tells her what she needs to hear, in order for her to once again find rest. So that, by the end of their conversation, Mary is able to give to the angel her generous consent. To say yes to making a space for God in her heart and in her womb. And, in the process, God finds a home on earth. A Temple made not of stone, but of human flesh. Built not on human achievements, but on divine grace. Constructed not to feed egos, but to glorify God.

All of which should help us to reflect on our own ongoing efforts at preparing for Christ’s coming at Christmas. Very likely, we are buying gifts and organising parties. We have put up cribs and decorated Christmas trees. We have gathered with others to share our prayers and to confess our sins. All these activities are good and necessary. Important ways by which we prepare to welcome the Lord. And yet, it also remains crucial for us to remember the lesson that our Mass readings are teaching us today. That all these efforts of ours at building a spiritual house for God will only bear good fruit to the extent that we are truly building for God and not just for ourselves. Truly building on our blessings and not just on our achievements. Truly building from an interior place of rest and not restlessness. And to do this means that, more than frantic activity, what we need is patient courage. Courage that Mary had. Courage to count our blessings. To rest in God’s love. And to give praise and glory to the Lord of our Salvation.

Sisters and brothers, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. How good is your pudding today?

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Naked Unto Joy

3rd Sunday in Advent (B)

Picture: asiaone

Sisters and brothers, if the news reports are to be believed, there were at least 100 very happy people on Orchard Road last Thursday morning. Perhaps some of you know what I’m talking about. You know the reason for the joy. You know that, on Thursday morning, a certain clothing store on Orchard Road launched its annual winter promotion by offering free clothes to its first 100 shoppers. Of course, that in itself is no big deal. After all, distributing freebies is a common sales gimmick. What made the event stand out was the fact that, in order to get the free clothes, the first 100 customers had to show up at the store half-naked! That’s right. It was a Semi-Naked Sale. Come in swimwear, and we’ve got you covered. That was the slogan.

And what do you think was the response? Well, pretty good, apparently. The first two people in line started queueing from as early as 11pm the night before! And, by 8am on Thursday morning, there were already close to 70 people outside the store. All eagerly waiting to experience the joy of being clothed for free. So eager that they were willing to shed their dignity. To strip off their garments. To bare their bodies. If only partially.

Sisters and brothers, before you rush off to report me to the Archbishop, please let me assure you that I am in no way expressing support for or approval of this Semi-Naked Sales Promotion. Much less am I suggesting that we do the same here in church. I mention this only because, strange as it may sound, I think it bears more than a passing resemblance to what we find in our readings on this 3rd Sunday of Advent.

As you know, traditionally, the 3rd Sunday of Advent is also known as Gaudete Sunday. From the Latin word that means rejoice! And indeed our readings today are full of joy. Filled with encouragement to rejoice. It’s as though our liturgy were carrying out a winter promotion of its own. A pre-Christmas campaign of joy. And, like that sales event on Orchard Road, the first reading describes this joy in terms of someone getting clothes for free. I exult for joy in the Lord, the prophet exclaims. My soul rejoices in my God, for he has clothed me in the garments of salvation, he has wrapped me in the cloak of integrity...

But what does this mean for us? What are these garments of salvation? What is this cloak of integrity? And how does this person come to be clothed? The first reading compares these clothes to the finery worn by a bride and her groom. Except that, as we all know, it’s not really the clothes and accessories themselves that bring joy at a wedding. These things symbolise something much deeper. At a wedding, the bride and groom dress themselves up not just in specially tailored fabrics. And finely crafted jewellery. When they get married, the couple are actually clothing themselves in one another. In the love that they have for each other. This is the deeper reason for their joy.

Similarly, the joy that the prophet speaks about in the first reading does not come from being clothed in any ordinary outfit. Not even something made by the most famous of fashion designers. What the prophet rejoices in, the thing that he is being clothed with, is nothing less than God Himself. The spirit of the Lord has been given to me, for the Lord has anointed me… This is the cause of joy. Not just being clothed in garments of gold. But being anointed by the Spirit of God. Being wrapped in the power and presence of God.

And this is also the reason why, in the second reading, St. Paul wants the Thessalonians to be happy at all times. Not so much because all their problems have been solved. Or because they have nothing anymore to be sad about. But because, in Baptism, they have all been clothed in Christ Jesus. Wrapped in the Spirit. Who keeps them safe and blameless. Even in the midst of their struggles. Helping them to remain faithful to God. Even as they continue to do what we ourselves are doing in this beautiful Season of Advent. Await the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.

But that’s not all. Joy and clothing are not the only things that our liturgy has in common with that sales event on Orchard Road Thursday morning. There is something else. The joy that God provides in our readings is offered to a particular group of people. In the first reading, the prophet is sent to comfort a people in Exile. To bring good news to the poor, to bind up hearts that are broken. In the responsorial psalm, the Blessed Virgin Mary sings of how God looks on his servant in her nothingness. How he fills the starving with good things. And sends the rich away empty. The people that God chooses to clothe in garments of joy are people who are in need. People who are, in a sense, naked. And not just naked. But unable to clothe themselves. And not just unable to clothe themselves. But ready and willing to acknowledge and to accept their inability. To embrace their vulnerability. To own up to their weakness. To their need for God.

This too is what we find in John the Baptist. In the gospel, the Baptist has no illusions about who he is and what he can and cannot do. He accepts that he is not the light. Only a witness to speak for the light. He freely admits that he is not the Christ. Not the Saviour of the world. Indeed he considers himself unfit even to undo the sandal-strap of the One who is coming after him.

What we find in John the Baptist, sisters and brothers, is a refreshing humility. A paradoxical modesty. That is unafraid to stand naked before God. And it is precisely into the hearts and lives of people such as this that Christ the Lord chooses to come. People willing to be stripped of all the things that others may use to cover up their human weakness. People willing to come before God in their nakedness. It is precisely such people that God chooses to clothe in garments of joy.

All of which should prompt us to reflect upon ourselves. We who continue to prepare ourselves to welcome the Lord when he comes at Christmas. We who make it a habit to buy and to wear  new clothes in the festive season. Which, in itself, is not a bad thing. As long as we do not forget that what’s more important is to allow ourselves to be anointed, enwrapped, by the Spirit of God. To be clothed in the precious Body and Blood of Christ. And this is something that we cannot do for ourselves. It is a gift from God. Freely given to those of us who are willing to lay bare those areas in our lives that we prefer to keep under wraps. Areas where we are weak and vulnerable. Helpless and needy. Places where our consciences may have been pricked. Our egos deflated. Our hearts broken and torn...

Sisters and brothers, there seems to be no shortage of people willing to bare their bodies before others. Just to receive clothes that will last for a few years. How willing are we to bare our souls before God. So as to receive garments that will endure for all eternity? On this 3rd Sunday in Advent, how ready are you to stand naked before God today?

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Called From Coma To Consciousness

1st Sunday in Advent (B)

Picture: cc BK

Sisters and brothers, I once heard a story about someone who fell into a coma after a serious car accident. And the doctors were unable to revive her. In desperation, the family sought the help of a folk healer. Who said that the trauma of the accident had somehow caused the person’s soul to become separated from her body. And, since the body had been moved, the soul was now unable to find its way back to it. Hence the coma. To help the person, the healer went back to the scene of the accident and performed some rituals to recall the soul. And to lead it back to where the body lay, unconscious, in hospital. Well, believe it or not, soon after that, the comatose patient actually regained full consciousness. Much to the family’s relief.

To be called from coma to consciousness. Wouldn’t that be a precious gift? But perhaps we may be unimpressed. After all, how often does a person fall into a coma? And is it even possible for a soul to be separated and then reunited with the body? Surely this is only a fairy tale.

And yet, haven’t we met people who live more or less habitually in a coma-like condition? People who seem less than fully conscious. People who are there, but not quite there. People who, for example, may have been traumatised by some event in the past. And, as a result, are only half alive, because they can’t get over the hurt. Or can’t forgive the one who hurt them.

And what about people who are not so much caught up in the past as obsessed with something in the present? Something like money. Or success. Or good looks. Or gambling. Or gaming... Don’t obsessions like these also cause people to be somehow less than conscious? To live as though their souls were separated from their bodies?

Nor are trauma and obsession the only things that can cause such a condition. Technology too can result in a loss of consciousness. Don’t we often see people walking down the street, for example, with their eyes glued to their phones? Or driving a car while texting? Or even listening to a homily while tweeting? Like the person in a coma, they too are there, but not quite there. They walk without really walking. Drive without really driving. Listen without really listening. In fact, it’s probably no exaggeration to say that many of us live much of our lives precisely in such a coma-like condition. With our souls separated, to a greater or lesser extent, from our bodies.

And, of course, our modern society encourages such a condition. We call it multi-tasking. A skill that we cannot do without if we wish to survive and thrive in this fast-paced world of ours. And yet, it doesn’t take much reflection on our part to see that multi-tasking comes at a cost. Just as the accident victim’s coma caused her and her family to suffer. So too does our habitual lack of consciousness hurt others and ourselves as well. Not only do we fail to attend adequately to those around us. We lose sight even of our own legitimate needs. Not only do we tend to neglect our family and friends. Our colleagues and classmates. We may forget even to eat when we ourselves are hungry. To rest when we are tired. To relax when we are stressed. To socialise when we are lonely. To pray when we are burdened… Our coma causes suffering. In ourselves as much as in others.

But if this is true, then what can be done for us? How can we be brought back to consciousness? Sisters and brothers, could it be that what we need is something like what that folk healer was able to provide for the comatose patient? We need someone to call our souls back into our bodies. And isn’t this what our Mass readings do for us on this first Sunday in Advent?

In the gospel, Jesus issues an urgent call to consciousness. In the space of five short verses, the Lord repeats the same instruction no less than four times. Stay awake… because you never know when the time will come… Stay awake… because you do not know when the master of the house is coming… Stay awake! Be attentive to the signs of the master’s coming. Stay awake! But how do we do this? How do we stay awake and remain watchful for God’s coming? We who habitually live in a semi, if not fully, comatose condition. We who are often oblivious even to our own legitimate desires. Let alone the needs of others. How can we become conscious enough to welcome the Lord when he chooses to come to meet us?

Our readings help by awakening in us three important dispositions. The first is something central to the season of Advent. Something expressed very beautifully in both the first reading and the responsorial psalm. Oh, that you would tear the heavens and come down, the prophet Isaiah exclaims. A moving cry of longing matched by the words of the psalmist: God of hosts, bring us back; let your face shine on us and we shall be saved. What these words can do for us, sisters and brothers–if only we pay careful attention to them–is awaken in us that deep longing that each of us has. A longing for full consciousness. A longing  for true happiness. A longing to experience God’s boundless love. A longing that leaves us feeling restless, even when busy with many things. Or frustrated, even when our materials needs have been met. Or lonely, even amidst many people. A longing that motivates us to remain alert for signs of the Lord’s coming.

The second thing that our readings awaken in us is contrition. In the first reading, after begging God to come, the prophet confesses his people’s sinfulness. We had long been rebels against you… And yet, in the midst of this consciousness of sin, the prophet continues to trust in the abiding mercy of God. He remembers who God is and what God has done for the people. You, Lord, yourself are our Father. Our Redeemer...We the clay, you the potter, we are the work of your hand.

Which brings us to the third thing that our readings awaken in us. As we remember all that God has done and continues to do for us. As we remember who God has been and continues to be for to us. What is awakened in us is gratitude. The same gratitude that we find St. Paul expressing in the second reading. I never stop thanking God, he writes to the Corinthians, for all the graces you have received through Jesus Christ… because God, by calling you has joined you to his Son, Jesus Christ…

Longing, contrition and gratitude. Three things that our readings awaken in us. If only we listen carefully to the call that they address to us. A call to greater wakefulness. A call to deeper consciousness. A call to closer attention to the different and exciting ways in which God chooses to come to meet us in our daily lives.

Sisters and brothers, as we begin this beautiful season of Advent, our loving God is calling out to each of us. Calling our wandering souls to return to our bodies. Calling us to wake from our comas into fuller consciousness. What will you do to respond to this call today?

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