Sunday, August 30, 2015

Of Artificial Animals & Powerless Practice

22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

Readings: Deuteronomy 4:1-2,6-8; Psalm 14:2-5; James 1:17-18,21-22,27; Mark 7:1-8,14-15,21-23
Picture: cc Steven Straiton

Sisters and brothers, I recently came across a story about a famous zoo, which had a star attraction. A gigantic male mountain gorilla. Unfortunately, this celebrity animal died suddenly. And, afraid that its patrons would stop visiting the zoo if a replacement was not found immediately, the management decided on a desperate measure. They dressed up one of their zookeepers in a gorilla suit. And convinced the poor man to sit in the dead animal’s enclosure during opening hours. With the promise that he would be given a big raise.

The man agreed. And the trick worked. Visitors didn’t seem to notice that their favourite gorilla had been replaced by a man in disguise. They continued to get excited by what they saw. And even tried, as they had done in the past, to persuade the gorilla to move by shouting and throwing things at it. Finally, the zookeeper decided that there was no harm in obliging his fans. So he stood up and started swinging from the bars of his enclosure. Which made the visitors even more excited. Encouraged by the positive response, the zookeeper swung even more enthusiastically. Unexpectedly, however, he lost his grip, and somehow landed in the enclosure next door. Which happened to be occupied by a lion.

Seeing the big cat, the zookeeper was paralysed with fear. The lion gave the fake gorilla a penetrating stare, and then started walking towards him. At which the poor zookeeper panicked. He threw up his arms and screamed at the top of his lungs. Help! Get me out of here! I’m a man, not a gorilla! But this only made the lion walk even faster. When it finally reached the zookeeper, the lion opened its mouth, full of sharp teeth, and made as if to take a bite. Then the zookeeper heard a voice coming from inside the lion. It said to him, Shut up, you fool! Or you’ll get us both fired!

The story is, of course, only a joke. Meant to make people laugh. But isn’t there also something sad and even tragic about it? Sad that a place that’s supposed to be filled with wonderfully wild animals should be reduced to exhibiting human impostors. Artificial beasts who only look dangerous and fierce on the outside. But, on the inside, are actually quite weak and powerless. And tragic that the people visiting such a place can’t even tell the difference.

There is also something sad and tragic in our Mass readings today. A similar reduction and distortion of something precious. Not a zoo this time. But a religion. Not wild animals. But religious practices. In the first reading, Moses presents the people of Israel with a set of laws and customs handed to him by God. A code of religious practice that is filled with power. For if the people observe them closely, these practices bring them life. Give them the power they need to enter and take possession of the land.

Even more than that, when carefully kept, these practices actually enable the people to experience the very presence of God in their midst. What great nation is there, Moses tells them, that has its gods so near as the Lord our God is to us whenever we call to him. Or, in the words of the responsorial psalm, the just–those who keep God’s law–will live in the presence of the Lord. The second reading adds one more aspect to this picture of what true religion looks like. And it has to do with how the poor are treated. Pure, unspoilt religion, in the eyes of God our Father is this: coming to the help of orphans and widows when they need it… 

This is what authentic religion is meant to do for all those who practice it. First, it gives them power to take possession of the land. To keep themselves uncontaminated by the world. Second, it helps them to experience the presence of God. Third, it moves them to reach out and to care for the poor. For those most in need. Power, presence and poverty. Three striking characteristics of true religion. Three remarkable features that give authentic religious practice a certain wild, awe-inspiring, even dangerous, quality. Such as a majestic mountain gorilla, or a ferocious fully-grown lion, might have.

But here’s the tragedy. In the hands of the scribes and the Pharisees in the gospel, this originally awesome religion is reduced to a pale shadow of its former self. Distorted by legalistic interpretations, the law becomes nothing more than the strict observance of a set of meaningless human prescriptions. Practices that contain no power. Mediate no God-experience. Inspire no care for the poor. Which is why Jesus reserves such harsh words for the scribes and Pharisees. Calling them hypocrites. And applying to them the sharp accusation of the prophet Isaiah. This people honours me only with lip-service, while their hearts are far from me…

Much like those zoo animals in our story, the religion practiced by the scribes and the Pharisees looks good only on the outside. But, on the inside, it is actually very different. Useless. And what about us? What about our religious practice? Our experience, for example, of worship, when we come to church every Sunday. To what extent does our participation at Mass give us power to take possession of the world around us? Rather than to allow it to possess us. To what degree does our presence at this liturgy help us to uncover and to enjoy the presence of God when we leave this holy place? And how effectively does our weekly gathering for prayer move us to care for the many needy people around us?

I’m not sure how you feel about this, sisters and brothers. I know that many of us do take the liturgy seriously. Finding in it consolation and strength for our journey. Allowing it also to challenge us to go beyond our comfort zones for the sake of others. And yet, it remains true that some of us still think of our time here as the fulfilling an obligation. Something we wouldn’t do if we didn’t have to. And there are also those of us who still feel the need to offer others constant reminders to treat this place with the reverence and respect that is its due. To maintain a prayerful silence before Mass, for example. To dress appropriately. To switch off mobile devices. To try our best to participate fully and actively... What does all this tell us, sisters and brothers? If not that we still have some way to go as a parish to practice our religion the way it is meant to be practiced?

This challenge is something that can only be met if all of us do our part. Priests like me. As well as lay people like you. We all have a part to play, to help bring our experience of worship closer to the ideal that our readings present to us. It is not easy. We need God’s help. Which is why I find the words of our opening prayer so useful. God of might, giver of every good gift, put into our hearts the love of your name, so that by deepening our sense of reverence, you may nurture in us what is good…

Sisters and brothers, the true religion that is God’s gift to us in Christ is indeed something precious and awe-inspiring. It fills us with power. Draws us to poverty. And enables us to experience the presence of God. What must we do, you and I, as individuals and as a parish, to avoid reducing God’s religion to nothing more than a pitiful man in a ridiculous gorilla suit today?

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Between Eggs & Organs

21st Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

Readings: Joshua 24:1-2,15-18; Psalm 33:2-3,16-23; Ephesians 5:2,25-32; John 6:60-69
Picture: cc Matt Lucht

Sisters and brothers, do you know the difference between eggs in a basket and the organs in your body? I’m sure we’re all familiar with the English proverb that tells us never to put all our eggs into one basket. The reason is simple. If something happens to that basket, then everything is lost. For example, instead of investing all their money in a single stock, many people maintain a whole portfolio. A variety of financial baskets in which to place their monetary eggs. So that even if one or two stocks may go bust, the gain from the others might more than make up for the loss. For safety’s sake, our resources need to be diversified. Scattered about.

But the same can’t be said for the organs in our body. Unlike eggs, they are not resources to be exploited. Investments that can be diversified. Whether I like it or not, my eyes and ears, my heart and lungs, my kidneys and liver, all have to be located in a single body. Mine. There’s no question of scattering them. Even if my doctors may be able to keep my heart beating for a time outside of my body, this is only a temporary measure. And I would be crazy to even think of storing my stomach somewhere else for safekeeping. Just in case something might happen to the rest of me. I could, of course, donate my kidney. Or have my appendix removed. But they would then no longer be mine. One would become a part of someone else’s body. The other would simply be thrown away.

That’s the difference between eggs and organs, isn’t it, sisters and brothers? Eggs should be diversified. Scattered about in different baskets. But organs have to be gathered together. Located in a single body. Even if that body may fall sick sometimes. And die. But what about my hopes for happiness? My dreams of leading a fuller life? Are my hopes and dreams more like eggs or organs? Should they be scattered about? Or gathered together in one place? This, my dear friends, is the question that our readings invite us to ponder today.

Of course, at a certain level, it seems possible, even necessary, to diversify our hopes. As we would eggs in different baskets. We may, for example, place our hopes not just on our employer for a raise. But also on our spouse for greater understanding. And on our country’s government, as well as the global economy, for a more peaceful and just environment in which to live. And yet, our readings remind us that, at the deepest level, our hopes are really not meant to be like eggs. To be scattered about for safety’s sake. Rather, like the organs in our body, they need to be gathered together. Centralised in a single location. And this location needs to be the right one. If we are to be truly happy.

Isn’t this why, in the first reading, Joshua presents the people of Israel with only two options. Either to serve the Lord their God alone. Or to serve other gods. Why can’t the people serve both the Lord as well as other gods? Why not diversify? Wouldn’t that be the safer option? If one god fails you, another might succeed. Or why not split up the work? Pray to one god for good weather. Another for victory in war. Yet another for a good harvest. Far more efficient, right? Why not?

One reason could, of course, lie with God. God is jealous. Refusing to share honour and glory with others. But another reason could also lie with us. With the nature of our hopes and dreams. Unlike eggs, they can’t be scattered about. Like organs, they need instead to be gathered together. Centralised in a single location. And there is no other place more secure than God. To place our hopes in God alone. That is the secret to true happiness. The only way to lasting joy and peace.

But still, this centralisation of our hopes in a single Place is not always easy to do. It requires great trust and deep faith. The ability to keep believing and worshipping, even when we can’t see clearly where exactly it is we are going. To keep clinging to God, even when we don’t understand all the whys and whats and hows of life. Isn’t this the experience of Peter and his companions in the gospel today? Earlier in the story, Jesus had presented an incredible teaching. If you do not eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you will not have life in you. Sounds like cannibalism. Or vampirism. Crazy talk! Is it any wonder that even his followers could not understand? This is intolerable language, they exclaim. How could anyone accept it? As a result, many of his disciples left him and stopped going with him.

Just as it can be very uncomfortable for our organs to remain in our bodies should we fall sick. So too can it be very difficult to keep placing our hopes in God alone when we encounter trials and hardship. Experiences that pose to us questions that we just cannot answer. Plunging us into mysteries that we are simply unable to understand. Why, for example, does God allow evildoers to thrive? While many good people suffer? Why let cruel bombs kill so many? Even at places of prayer, such as the Erawan Shrine in Bangkok? And why do our own prayers often seem to go unanswered? Prayers for a more successful career. Or a more understanding spouse. Or a clearer direction in life. Even for world peace. Why? Why? Why?

At such times, it can be so tempting to give up on the Lord. To stop following him. To serve other gods instead. And we can do this even while continuing to come to Mass. And to receive communion. We may go through the external motions of worship. But deep within us, we know that we have actually already shifted our loyalty. Transferred our trust. Turned our hearts away from the Lord. And onto something else. Like money. Or popularity. Or technology. Or hard work...

And yet, what is remarkable about the gospel is Peter’s ability to continue clinging to Jesus. Even though he does not understand. Lord, who shall we go to? Peter asks. We believe; we know that you are the Holy One of God? From where does Peter get the courage to do this? Jesus provides the answer when he says that no one could come to me unless the Father allows him. Faith is, after all, a gift. Which is why we prayed the way we did in our opening prayer just now. We asked God to cause the minds of the faithful to unite in a single purposethat, amid the uncertainties of this world, our hearts may be fixed on that place where true gladness is found. Our prayer is for us to be like Peter. To be able to deposit all our hopes in a single Place. Christ Jesus the Lord.

But, in addition to praying for this grace, we need also to prepare our hearts to receive it. By doing what we sang in the psalm. Taste and see the goodness of the Lord. By recalling the blessings that God has showered upon us. As the Israelites do in the first reading. The wonderful things that God has done for us. First and most precious of which is what we celebrate at this Mass. How Christ loved the Church and sacrificed himself for her to make her holy. We find the courage to place our trust in Christ when we remember how he gave up his own physical body for us on the Cross. To make us parts of his one mystical body. The Church.

Sisters and brothers, eggs should be scattered about. But organs must be gathered together in one proper place. As we assemble to partake of the one Body of Christ, what must we do, you and I, to continue placing all our hope in Him alone today?

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Caring For Candy Wrappers As Well

Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Readings: Apocalypse 11:19,12:1-6,10; Psalm 44:10-12,16; 1 Corinthians 15:20-26; Luke 1:39-56
Picture: cc Liu Tao

Sisters and brothers, are you familiar with White Rabbit candy? It’s a brand of sweets that I used to enjoy as a child. Especially at Chinese New Year. Do you know what I liked so much about it? It wasn’t the taste. Which was sweet and creamy. As you might expect any milk candy to be. Nothing remarkable. No, what I liked most was actually not so much the candy itself but the wrapper. As some of you may recall, the candy is wrapped in a thin layer of rice paper. So that instead of throwing that wrapper away. As you would for other candies. You can actually eat it as well. I remember being so amazed by this as a child that I sometimes carefully removed the rice paper and ate it on its own. Again, not because it tasted good. It was actually quite bland. But simply because I was thrilled at the thought of being able to eat something that was usually discarded. To enjoy something usually considered good for nothing except to be thrown away.

Wrappers that are meant to be saved and enjoyed. Instead of simply being thrown away. Sisters and brothers, strange as it may sound, this is the image that comes to mind on this Solemn Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. As you know, this feast celebrates what we believe happened to our Blessed Mother at the end of her life on earth. Instead of suffering death and decay, as the rest of us do, we believe that she was assumed body and soul into heaven. Our Mass readings invite us to think of this experience of hers as a great victory. An experience of God’s power to save.

The first reading does this by describing a vision. A woman in labour is threatened by a great red dragon. But God saves both the woman and her newborn son from the dragon. The woman is hidden and cared for in the desert. The son taken to God and made king. The reading ends by singing the praises of God. Victory and power and empire for ever have been won by our God, and all authority for his Christ, now that the persecutor… has been brought down. God has won a great victory over the devil. And this victory is enjoyed not just by Mary. For the woman in the reading represents not just our Blessed Mother. But also all of us. You and me. Her vulnerable children. Members of the Church. The body of her firstborn son. God has saved us as well.

Using more direct language, the second reading speaks of this victory won by God for us as a triumph of life over death. Just as all die in Adam, so all will be brought to life in Christ…. and the last of the enemies to be destroyed is death, for everything is to be put under his feet. In Christ, God has saved all of us from death and destruction. From sin and selfishness. From all the things that make life miserable. Because of the dying and rising of Christ, death is no longer something for us to fear. No longer a terrifying dead end. But an inviting doorway. Ushering us into the gentle embrace of a loving and merciful God. Leading us into the glorious hallways of heaven.

It is in anticipation of this same victory that Mary sings the praises of God in the gospel. The Almighty has done great things for me. Holy is his name…. He has shown the power of his arm, he has routed the proud of heart…. He has come to the help of Israel his servant, mindful of his mercy… according to the promise he made… to Abraham and to his descendants for ever. Mary sings of God’s power to save. The same power that will later lead her to name her son Jesus. Which means God saves.

Sisters and brothers, this is what we celebrate today. Not just Mary’s salvation. But ours as well. Not just Mary’s entrance into heaven. But ours as well. Mary’s Assumption anticipates what we believe will happen to us at the end of time. When Christ comes again.

But that’s not all, sisters and brothers. At least not for me. For there is one very important aspect of the Assumption that I especially need to keep before my eyes. An important reminder. And I only begin to realise my need for this reminder when I ask myself questions such as these: When I think of Mary, or even of myself, being saved by God, and being led into the halls of heaven, what exactly do I think is saved? What do I think will end up in heaven? What will I find there? I’m not sure about you, sisters and brothers. But I tend to think only of immaterial, intangible, purely spiritual beings. Which is understandable. For when I die, my material body will be left behind. To be cremated or buried. And, God willing, my spirit or soul will be brought to heaven. Which leads me to think of my body as something not unlike a useless candy wrapper that God will simply discard. So as to enjoy the sweetness of my soul alone.

What I too easily forget is that this is but a temporary situation. For, as a Christian, I profess to believe in the resurrection of the body. I believe that Christ rose from the dead not just in the spirit. But also in the flesh. Even if in a glorified form. And Mary was assumed both soul and body into heaven. This is our belief. Such that, at the end of time, heaven will be filled not just with souls. But also with bodies. Glorified bodies. And not just human bodies. But also the rest of this material world of ours. For as St. Paul writes in the letter to the Romans: We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves… groan inwardly while we wait for... the redemption of our bodies (8:22-23).

This, my dear friends, is the important reminder, the crucial lesson, that the Assumption offers us today. That God wishes to save not just souls, but also bodies. Not just the purely spiritual. But also the material. Indeed, properly understood, the spiritual does not exclude the material. As Pope Francis has written in his most recent Encyclical, Laudato si’, the life of the spirit is not dissociated from the body or from nature or from worldly realities, but lived in and with them, in communion with all that surrounds us (LS216).

This reminder has implications. Not just for when I die. But also for how I live. For if God saves not just my soul, but also my body. Not just the intangible, but also the material. Then I have a responsibility to care for this very important dimension of life as well. To work hard. But also to rest. To pray fervently. But also to reach out to those most in need. To use the good things of our world. But also to protect and preserve them as best I can. For the benefit of future generations. To resist the temptation to treat things and even people like useless candy wrappers. To be exploited for my own selfish purposes. And then carelessly discarded. Thrown away. And forgotten.

In the gospel, Mary gives us an example of this care, not just for the intangible, but also for the material. When she hears that her elderly cousin is with child, she rushes to her side. Travelling through the hill country of Judah. Not just to bring her the interior joy of the Spirit. But also to help see to her external material needs. 

Sisters and brothers, perhaps the Feast of the Assumption is not unlike a piece of White Rabbit candy. It reminds us that sometimes even wrappers are meant to be saved and not discarded. To be treated with care and respect. And not simply exploited and then forgotten. How are you treating the candy wrappers in your life today?

Sunday, August 09, 2015

Beneath The Surface (Rerun)

19th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)
(Singapore National Day; Day 7 of RGS Retreat)

Readings: 1 Kings 19:4-8; Psalm 33:2-9; Ephesians 4:30-5:2; John 6:41-51

Sisters and brothers, are you familiar with synchronised swimming? The sport where pairs or groups of women perform dance routines in the water? Perhaps you may have watched it during the recent SEA Games. Or in the Olympics some years back. It’s quite amazing what those young women can do, isn’t it? They perform such amazing feats as appearing to walk on the surface of the water. And even leaping high up into the air. While keeping their movements synchronised at all times. And they make it all look so easy. So effortless. Truly sensational to watch!

But we wouldn’t be getting the full picture if we stopped there. What we have just described are only some of the things that happen on and above the water. As you know, what’s even more important is what goes on below the surface. It’s only if we look through underwater cameras that we begin to see more clearly. That we can begin to better appreciate the extent of the swimmers’ talent and mastery. When we look beneath the surface we can see, for example, that the person who may seem to be walking so effortlessly across the surface of the water is actually being supported by many others, strenuously treading water below. So that, although synchronised swimmers are awarded points based only on what happens on and above the water, it is still what they do beneath the surface that makes all the difference.

It’s what happens beneath the surface that makes all the difference. The same can be said for our Mass readings today. At first glance, they may seem very straightforward. They’re all about the benefits of eating. In the first reading, the prophet Elijah is tired. But he eats the food given by God, and is re-energised. In the gospel, Jesus tells his listeners that it’s not just any kind of bread that is worth eating. Not even the manna that their ancestors ate in the desert. For all of them have died. The food that is truly worth eating is Jesus himself. Whoever eats him will live forever.

Although this message may have been extremely shocking to Jesus’ listeners, we Catholics find it very ordinary. No surprises for us here. For we know that Jesus is not suggesting that we slice off a piece of flesh from his body, stuff it into our mouths, and chew on it, even as the blood drips down our chin. We know very well, or think we do, that Jesus is talking about the Eucharist. And this is precisely what we are here to do, aren’t we? We gather to eat the Bread of Life. So we’re already doing what Jesus wants us to do. In fact we do it every week. Some of us even every day. What more can our readings tell us that we don’t already know? That we aren’t already doing?

And yet, could it be that this is only what is happening on and above the water? Could there be something more? Could it be that we need to look deeper? To use underwater cameras to see what is going on beneath the surface?

We do this by paying closer attention to the actions of the prophet Elijah. At the start of the first reading, we find him running from Queen Jezebel, who wishes to kill him. He is exhausted. Worn out. He wants to abandon the mission that God had given him earlier. But still, even though he is totally burnt out, Elijah’s journey into the wilderness seems more than just an escape. For, in the wilderness, Elijah does something that a true escapee would probably not do. He prays to the same God from whom he seems to be escaping. I have had enough, he says, take my life. And it is in response to these very honest words of utter desperation, this prayer of deep disillusionment, that God sends an angel to encourage and to nourish him. So that, even though Elijah keeps falling asleep, the angel insists on rousing him. Strengthening him to persevere on his journey. Until he finally arrives at the mountain of God. Where he receives a new mission.

Here, already, we begin to see that eating the Bread of Life involves more than just routinely showing up in church, and lining up to receive a tiny communion wafer. Which we then proceed to pop into our mouths without a second thought. From Elijah’s experience, we learn that to eat the Bread of Life, to truly experience its energising effects in our own lives, we need first to be conscious of the mission that God has given us at our baptism. The mission to proclaim the Good News of God’s Kingdom. To bear witness to the Dying and Rising of Christ in the concrete situations of our daily lives.

And, out of this consciousness of our mission, we then need to find that place in our experience where we too may be feeling tired and discouraged. Where we too may be ready to say to God, Lord, I’ve had enough. That location in our hearts where we may be sorely tempted to stop walking. To lie down. And to fall asleep. Perhaps we may be close to giving up on a difficult person we’ve been trying to help. Or on a challenging community member we’ve been tolerating. Or on a demanding assignment we have received. Or perhaps we’re worn out by our efforts at speaking or fighting against injustice in our workplace or in society. Or grieving the loss of someone we love. Or struggling against a stubborn sin, of thought, word, or deed.

Whatever the actual situation, like Elijah, we need to enter the wilderness of our hearts. And, from there, to honestly address our prayer to God. For when we courageously lay bare our weakness and vulnerability in this way, God sends an angel to strengthen us. A heavenly messenger to feed and to nourish us. So that we too can continue our journey to the mountain of God.

But that’s not all. Elijah’s experience should also remind us of someone else. Someone who also received a mission from God. Someone who also found it difficult to go on. Someone who also cried out to God. And received new strength. Whom are we talking about if not the Lord Jesus himself? Jesus, who, in Gethsemane, cried out in anguish: Father take this cup away from me… Jesus, whose sweat fell like great drops of blood. Jesus, to whom the Father sent an angel to give him strength. Jesus, who rose from his prayer, even as his companions remained fast asleep. Jesus, who was given the strength to keep walking. Courageously. To Calvary. The mountain of God.

Isn’t this, sisters and brothers, a more complete picture of what eating the Bread of Life looks like? To be fed on this food, as Elijah was, is to participate in some way in the mission and sacrifice of Christ himself. It is to do the very thing that our second reading encourages us to do. Try, then, to imitate God as children of his that he loves and follow Christ loving as he loved you, giving himself up in our place as a fragrant offering and a sacrifice to God. This is what should be happening beneath the surface, whenever we gather for the Eucharist. In some way, we should all be imitating and following the Crucified and Risen One. Receiving strength to proclaim the Gospel. And walking courageously to the mountain of God.

Sisters and brothers, in a few moments, when all of us approach the altar, like synchronised swimmers, to receive communion, what will actually be going on beneath the surface today?

Sunday, August 02, 2015

Between Tourism & Migration

18th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

Sisters and brothers, do you like to travel? What comes to your mind, and how do you feel, when you hear the word travel? I’m not sure, but I think many of us would probably associate it with pleasure. With relaxation. With a vacation. With tourism. And that’s fine. These are valid reasons to travel. We visit new and exotic places. But only for a short time. And while we’re there, we bring with us as many of the comforts of home as we can. We make our trip as pleasurable and as trouble-free as possible.

And yet the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary tells us that the English word travel comes from a Latin root (trepalium) that, in the Middle Ages, was actually the name for an instrument of torture. And this association of travel with suffering and torment shouldn’t surprise us. For, in the Middle Ages, travel of any kind was a very difficult and exhausting affair.

And not just in the Middle Ages. Even today, travel can and does involve suffering. We may think, for example, of all those people who leave their homes to find work. Or in search of a better life. Not just those who are forced to do so. Those driven by war, or disaster, or oppression. But also those who choose, of their own free will, to leave home for good. Those who decide to migrate. For all such people, travel is often a struggle. More than just visiting another place for a short period of time, migration involves uprooting yourself. Making a new home in strange and uncomfortable surroundings. Surviving on new food. Enduring a different climate. Adapting to unfamiliar people. And being changed by the experience. It’s hard. Even painful.

This then is the difference between tourism and migration. Tourism is about pleasure. Migration often involves pain. Tourism is temporary. Migration permanent. The tourist leaves, only to return home at a later time. The migrant leaves, to make a new home elsewhere. One travels for leisure. The other for life. I mention, and perhaps exaggerate, this contrast between tourism and migration, because I believe it can help us to better appreciate what is going on in our Mass readings. Where we find people being challenged by God to change the way they travel. To stop being mere tourists. And to become true migrants instead.

In the first reading, God has brought the people of Israel out of Egypt. And they are now travelling in the wilderness. On the way to a new life in the Promised Land. God has called them to leave their former home in Egypt. To make a new home for themselves. Not just in the Promised Land. But in God. To entrust their lives into God’s hands. God has called them to undertake a mass migration. And, as with all migrations, this involves struggle and suffering.

But the Israelites don’t realise this. On their journey, they keep thinking and acting more like fussy tourists than determined migrants. At the first sign of discomfort, they complain. Although Egypt was a place of slavery, they continue to think of it as their home. They long for the food that they enjoyed there. We were able to sit down to pans of meat and could eat bread to our heart’s content. Their complaints show that the Israelites are not prepared for migration. It’s too difficult. To help them to keep going, God sends them quails and manna to sustain them on their way. To help them let go of their obsession with Egypt. So that they might embrace a fuller and deeper life in God.

In the gospel too, we find people being challenged to change the way they travel. Having earlier witnessed Jesus feeding five thousand with just five loaves and two fish, the people in the gospel travel across the Sea of Galilee in search of him. But when they find him, Jesus scolds them. Why? Jesus is unhappy. Not because they travelled in search of him. But because of their reasons for doing so. You are not looking for me because you have seen the signs but because you had all the bread you wanted to eat. The people travel in search of the familiar and the comfortable. Food that fills their stomachs. They travel only the way tourists do. Merely for pleasure. And not for new life.

Jesus calls them to change the way they travel. No longer as tourists. But as migrants. To be nourished by new food. Food that fills not just their stomachs but their hearts. Food that lasts not just a few days. But for all eternity. Food that doesn’t just nourish bodies. But brings fullness of life. Jesus invites them to find in him their permanent home. He offers them himself. Not just as a provider of free earthly food. But as the true bread that comes down from heaven. To come to Jesus. To believe in him. To feed on him. To make his concerns their own. All this requires travel. Not the travel of tourists craving temporary pleasure. But the travel of migrants seeking a new life. People willing to endure the discomfort and struggle of leaving the familiar behind. Of uprooting themselves. Of making a new home in Jesus as Lord.

To move from tourism to migration. From a temporary change of location for pleasure. To permanent relocation for new life. This is also what the second reading calls us to do. To stop living the aimless kind of life that pagans live. This is what our faith is about. Not just going on an occasional tour. Perhaps one hour a week in church on a Sunday. But committing ourselves to constant migration. To ongoing spiritual revolution. Continually putting aside the old self. The anxious, greedy, self-absorbed self. The self concerned with comfort and pleasure. And putting on a new self. The joyful, peaceful, loving, trusting, self-sacrificing self. The self willing to endure suffering. In order to settle in a new home. The self willing to bear the pains of migration. In order to find new life. This is what our faith is about. Travel as migration. Travel as Christ travelled. When he came down among us from heaven. And was raised up for us on a cross.

This is the call that is being addressed to us today. To stop thinking of our faith merely as something that comforts us and gives us pleasure. It does that too, of course. But only when we are willing to endure the struggle of relocation. When we are willing to expect hardship. And even to accept it as necessary for our growth in faith. An indispensable part of the process of letting God become more and more the centre of our lives.

Which is why I find myself wondering whether it is a good thing when the news tells us that more young people in China are turning to religion. What do you think? Whether or not it is a good thing depends very much on the reasons for their interest. On the kind of religion they are embracing. Is it only a matter of comfort and pleasure and self-satisfaction? Or is there also a willingness to turn one’s life around for the common good? This is the crux of the issue, isn’t it? And not just for the Chinese. But also for us. True Christianity involves travel of a very particular kind. The kind that is willing to accept struggle and suffering. For the sake of new life. This is what it means to believe in Christ.

Sisters and brothers, how are you being called to be less of a tourist, and more of a migrant, today?

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Place For Your Passport

Solemn Feast of St. Ignatius of Loyola (Anticipated)

Readings: Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Psalm 1:1-6; 1 Corinthians 10:31-33; Matthew 8:18-27
Picture: cc Bill Couch

Sisters and brothers, when you travel, what is probably the single most important item, apart from yourself of course, that you need to safeguard? I know someone who recently received a painful reminder of the answer to this question. This person had flown into Changi Airport to catch another flight to a foreign destination. Unfortunately, he carelessly left his passport behind on the first plane. And ended up being stranded at the airport, because the authorities wouldn’t let him board the connecting flight without a valid travel document. Thankfully, the airline was able to very quickly locate and return his passport to him. Which allowed him to catch a later flight. So all he lost were some hours of travelling time. Imagine how much more inconvenience he would have suffered if someone had stolen his passport…

This person found out the hard way what all travellers have to learn at one point or another. Whenever you’re travelling, you have to make sure that you keep your passport in a safe place at all times. And there’s a similar lesson to be learnt in the spiritual life as well. A lesson that our Mass readings help to teach us. A lesson that is central to the spirituality of St. Ignatius. The patron of our parish. Whose solemn feast we celebrate today.

As you know, the spiritual life is commonly imagined as an ongoing journey. A continual pilgrimage. Out of selfishness and into love. Away from the narrow and anxious concerns of our ego. And towards God and God’s concerns. This image of constant travel is also something we find in our readings today.

In the first reading, after wandering in the wilderness for 40 long years, the people of Israel have finally arrived at their destination. They are preparing to cross the Jordan River to enter and to take possession of the Promised Land. But before they make the crossing, Moses gives them an important pep-talk. A pre-flight safety briefing, if you like. And it’s important to pay close attention to what Moses is saying. On the surface, it seems as though his only concern is that the Israelites keep the Law. If you obey the commandments of the LORD, your God, Moses tells them, you will live and grow numerous, and the LORD, your God, will bless you in the land you are entering to occupy. But the keeping of the Law is not really an end in itself. It’s only a means to an end. A way to achieve a deeper purpose.

We realise what this deeper purpose is when we carefully consider what Moses says next. If you turn away your hearts… and serve other gods... you will perish. Moses’ concern is not so much that the Israelites follow all the rules, as much as that they keep their hearts in the right place. Just as those who travel the world need to constantly protect their passports, so too do those who travel in spirit need to place their hearts in the safekeeping of God’s loving embrace. And they do this by keeping the Law.

For the Israelites, to keep the Law is to deposit their hearts with God for safekeeping. And it’s important that we not forget this deeper reason. This higher purpose for the Law. Otherwise, we can too easily reduce our faith simply to the following of a list of dos and don’ts. We can end up placing our hearts in the cold lifeless hands of the Law. Rather than in the warm and loving embrace of God. And this can lead to undesirable results.

We may, for example, become so burdened by the constant struggle to keep the letter of the Law that we lose the joy and delight experienced by those who appreciate and live its spirit. Those who keep growing in the realisation of how much they are loved and cherished by God. As a result, some of us may end up becoming so exhausted that we give up on God altogether. And others may turn ourselves into modern day Pharisees. Becoming rigidly legalistic. Even hypocritical and judgmental. Both of others and of ourselves as well.

Either way, we end up losing that life-giving connection about which the psalmist sings so beautifully. The nourishing bond enjoyed by the tree that is planted near running water. That yields its fruit in due season. And whose leaves never fade… The deep connection experienced by those whose hearts are ever kept in the right place. Secure in the loving embrace of God.

In the gospel, we find a striking image of what it looks like when someone is able to maintain just such a connection. Someone whose heart is always kept in the right place. As in the first reading, so too in the gospel, we find travellers preparing for a crossing. Not the River Jordan this time. But the Sea of Galilee. We’re told that when Jesus saw a crowd around him, he gave orders to cross to the other shore. To travel from Jewish to Gentile lands. And, as Moses did before him, Jesus gives his fellow travellers a pre-flight safety briefing. He offers them two instructions.

The first is a reminder of what we said earlier. That the spiritual life involves constant travel. An experience of homelessness even. Foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head. Yet this homelessness is not for sightseeing or vacationing. Much less is it because one is unable to commit to settling down in a particular place. The Lord submits to homelessness in the kingdom of this world, only  to fulfil his mission of proclaiming the coming of the Kingdom of God. And to help everyone to find their proper place in it.

We do this by making Jesus our first priority. By entrusting our hearts to him for safekeeping. By finding our rest in the Lord. Follow me, and let the dead bury their dead. Jesus demonstrates just what this mysterious restfulness in the midst of continual homelessness looks like. On the crossing, when his boat encounters a violent storm, we’re told that Jesus was asleep. The Lord experiences a deep calm even when surrounded by chaos. A powerful image of how he is able to endure not having a fixed place to lay his head, because his heart remains always securely deposited in the embrace of his Father’s will.

And this is also the twofold lesson taught by St. Ignatius. First, that to be a disciple of Christ is to be constantly travelling in the spirit. Continually on mission. Proclaiming–sometimes with our words, and always with our lives–the good news of God’s love for us in Christ. And, second, that we can travel safely, even on stormy seas, when we place our hearts in the hands of God. The second reading tells us that this has to do with our motivations. Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God. Not for turning a profit. Or for making a name for yourself. Or to take pride in your own accomplishments. But for the glory of God. As St. Ignatius would say, en todo amar y servir. In all things, to love and to serve (God).

Sisters and brothers, all seasoned travellers know well the importance of safeguarding their passport. On the road of discipleship, where are you choosing to place your heart for safekeeping today?

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Letting Go

Novena for Feast of St. Anne (Day 6)
You Are Called... To Trust In God

Readings: Isaiah 49:14-15; Psalm 61; 1 Peter 2:4-9; John 14:1-12

Sisters and brothers, I’m sure that at least some of you still remember that story about the atheist who fell off a cliff. He managed to cling onto a branch, and was left hanging from it, between heaven and earth. Knowing that he was in a desperate situation, the man decided that he should try to pray. Since, even though he didn’t believe in God, he had nothing to lose anyway. So he looked up at the sky and shouted: Is there anyone up there? To his great surprise, he heard a voice say to him: Yes, I’m here. What can I do for you? Save me! the man shouted back. Of course! Came the reply. Let go! Taken aback, the man kept quiet and thought for a while. Then he looked up again and shouted: Is there anyone else up there?

Funny though it may be, I think the story illustrates very well the message that we are being invited to ponder on this 6th Day of the Novena in preparation for your Parish Feast. You are called... to trust in God. What does this mean? Well, as the story shows us, to trust in God means to be willing to let go. And to let go not just of anything or in just any situation. But to let go even in a desperate situation. To be willing to place our very lives into the hands of God. That is what it means to trust. That is what we are called as Christians to do. And it's not easy.

I’m reminded of the news report that I saw on the BBC website earlier today. It comes from Sierra Leone in West Africa. As you know, this country was severely affected by the outbreak of the Ebola virus last year. The good news is that the number of new cases has dropped drastically. But the bad news is that there are now more than 8,000 children in Sierra Leone, who have lost one or both parents to the disease. Many of these children are now having difficulty finding a home.

According to the report, people are scared of them... They just don't trust that these children are okay now and they can touch them and go near them, so they push [the children] far away from them. And who can blame them. It is a matter of life and death. To accept these Ebola survivors is to run the risk of being infected yourself. Whether they realise it or not, the people are being called to let go. To let go of their fears and suspicions. To believe that, whatever happens, it is still better to accept the children than to reject them. And this is not an easy thing to do. But this is precisely what we Christians are called to do. To trust even and especially in desperate situations. Even and especially when it means letting go of our fears. And laying down our lives.

Desperate situations are also precisely what we find in each of our Mass readings today. Situations of life and death. In the first reading the city of Jerusalem, or Zion, has been conquered. And many of the people sent into exile. It is a desperate time. A time of hardship and heartbreak. But God tells the people not to give up. To continue to believe that even if a woman were to forget her own child–such as when that child might be infected by Ebola, for example–God will never forget them. God has their best interests at heart. What the people of Zion are being called to do is to let go of their doubts and their despair. To bravely endure their current difficulties. To lay their lives on the line.

This is also what Jesus is calling his disciples to do in the gospel. As you know, the passage is taken from John’s account of the Last Supper. It is Holy Thursday evening. Jesus has just washed his disciples’ feet. He is now about to walk the Way of the Cross. It is a desperate time. Their Master will soon be cruelly tortured and killed. Yet Jesus tells the disciples not to let their hearts be troubled. Trust in God still, and trust in me. And to trust in God is to walk the way that Jesus himself walked. To live the Way that Jesus himself is. I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. To keep doing the will of the One who sent him (Jn 6:38). To lay down one’s life for one’s friends (Jn 15:13).

The second reading tells us that it is this ability and willingness to trust, to let go, and to lay down one’s life, that sets apart the true believer from everyone else. Scripture scholars tell us that the Christian community to whom the second reading is addressed is undergoing some form of persecution. Probably not official State persecution. But more subtle forms of prejudice and rejection by their non-Christian neighbours. Perhaps they are being made to pay more for their food at the market. Or perhaps the vendors are refusing to serve them. Whatever it is, times are hard for all those who call themselves Christian.

And yet, faced with such difficulties, the second reading reminds Christians to continue to build their lives on Christ. The One who was persecuted and rejected before them. And for their sakes. The Lord is the living stone, rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to him. To continue to trust in Jesus, even in the face of persecution, is to allow the Lord to become the cornerstone, the firm foundation, of their lives. In contrast, to reject him, as the unbelievers do, is to turn him into an obstacle. A stone that trips them up and makes them fall down. Trusting in God is what makes the difference between the Christian and the pagan. The true believer and the agnostic or the atheist.

But let us be honest. It is not easy to trust in this way. To be willing to lay down one’s life. Difficult enough just to live according to the values of the gospel on a daily basis. To insist on treating others well, for example, even when they may stab us in the back. Just to get ahead. To make time to reach out to those in need. Even when we ourselves may be stressed out and struggling with the demands of daily life. To do all this is not easy. It requires trust. The willingness to let go. The courage to believe what our readings are inviting us to believe. That the God who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us (Rm 8:32), will never forget us.

And perhaps that is the key to belief. To remember the God who never forgets us. To remember how this God has blessed and protected and provided for us in the past. And continues to do so in the present. Isn’t this what the Mass is all about? A mysterious memory of God’s powerful providence. Of God’s undying love. For all God’s people. And, in remembering, we find the strength to believe. To trust. To let go. And to lay our lives in God's hands.

Sisters and brothers, there’s actually something else in that BBC report from Sierra Leone. Something I failed to mention. The report wasn’t just about the difficulties of the children. It was also about the heroic life of an Ebola worker named Augustine Baker. While working tirelessly to help Ebola orphans, both Augustine and his wife Margaret died of the disease. And now their own three children, the youngest of whom is only one year old, have become orphans too. And are being cared for by their grandmother.

Sisters and brothers, isn’t this what trust looks like? Isn’t this what it means to let go? What we Christians are called to do? The very thing that God has done for us. How are we being invited to trust, to let go, and to lay down our lives today?

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Flexible Fingers

16th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

Picture: cc Veronica Foale

Sisters and brothers, do you know what is meant when a Cantonese-speaking person tells you that someone has fingers that bend outwards and not in? The expression is used to describe (and criticise) the tendency to favour outsiders over one’s own people. Just as our fingers naturally tend to bend inwards, so too are we expected to side with our own family and friends. Our own countrymen and women. So someone whose fingers bend outwards and not in may be considered unnatural. Even dangerous. For we all know what happens when fingers are bent too far outwards. They get dislocated. In extreme cases, even disconnected from the hand.

And this is a danger that we face not just as individuals, but also as a nation. As you know, in a recent public lecture, the Prime Minister of Singapore listed identity as one of three key challenges that Singapore faces in the next 50 years. The worry is that the experience of globalisation will make Singaporeans feel so comfortable in the world that they will no longer see Singapore as their home. The fingers will bend so far outward that they will be dislocated. Even disconnected from the hand. The worry is that the nation of Singapore may disintegrate.

Which is precisely what has happened to the people of Judah in the first reading. As a nation, they have disintegrated. They have been conquered by the Babylonians. Sent into exile. And this political disintegration is the result of a deeper spiritual dislocation. Judah had turned away from the One True God to worship foreign gods. And God lays the blame for this idolatry squarely on the shoulders of the leaders. The shepherds that God had appointed to care for the people. You have let my flock be scattered and go wandering and have not taken care of them. The leaders have let the fingers bend so far outward that they have become dislocated. Disconnected from God.

Thankfully, all is not lost. For God promises to replace the bad shepherds with a good one. The lazy leaders with a caring king. I will raise a virtuous Branch for David, who will reign as true king and be wise, practising honesty and integrity in the land. Wise and virtuous leadership. This is God’s solution to the problem of disintegration. But we need to consider carefully just what this kind of leadership looks like. For it is tempting for us to think that the way to address the problem of dislocation and disintegration lies in a simple reversal of direction. If dislocation is caused by fingers bending outwards, then just focus on bending them back inwards instead.

And yet, it doesn’t take much reflection to see that such a solution gives rise to serious problems of its own. For when fingers are turned inward to the extreme, what they form is a hardened tightly clenched fist. Something that inflicts violence on others. Causes hurt to outsiders. And isn’t this the underlying cause of much of the conflict and division we see in our world today? People trying to build up their own identity at the expense of others. By inflicting pain and suffering on those different from themselves. Isn’t this what radical groups like ISIS are doing, for example?

In contrast, the leadership that we find in our readings is very different. As Christians we believe that the promise made by God in the first reading finds its fulfilment in the person of Jesus in the gospel. Jesus is the promised good shepherd. He is the virtuous king. The one who gathers together the scattered and disintegrated people of God. But notice how this king operates. On the one hand, it is clear that Jesus cares deeply for his apostles. The insiders. Upon their return from a mission, the Lord quickly invites them to come away to some lonely place to rest for a while. To replenish their strength. To reconnect with themselves. And with their God.

But notice also that this care and concern for the insiders doesn’t come at the expense of compassion for outsiders. For even when his vacation plans are interrupted by a large crowd, the Lord doesn’t turn these people away. Instead, we’re told that he took pity on them because they were like sheep without a shepherd, and he set himself to teach them at some length. The leadership exercised by Jesus is not an exclusive turning inward. But an inclusive embrace of all who find themselves dislocated and disconnected. All who are lost and searching for direction.

As the second reading tells us, this is a leadership that unites rather than divides. A kingship that tears down the dividing wall between Jew and Gentile. Between insider and outsider. Transforming hostility into hospitality. Suspicion into friendship. Enmity into reconciliation. And the reading spells out just how this transformation comes about. By the blood of Christ and through the cross. Jesus reverses our dislocation and disintegration not by anxiously turning us inward toward ourselves. But by humbly bending downward toward all who are in need. By courageously letting his own body be lifted upward on the Cross. By generously allowing his own blood to be poured outward for the salvation of the world.

Bent down. Lifted up. And poured out. This is what the leadership of Christ looks like. This is how God reverses the dislocation and disconnection that results from selfishness and sin. Not by clenching fingers together to form a violent fist. But by spreading them out onto the wood of a cross. So that all might be led into the fullness of life.

And this is also the kind of leadership that we are all called, by virtue of our baptism, to exercise in our world today. This is the kind of shepherding we are called to do. In our families and communities. In church and in society. This is what our world most urgently requires of us. To share with it the only way to lasting joy and peace. A joy and a peace that the world cannot give.

Sisters and brothers, in a society where identity is becoming so much of a challenge. At a time when many are resorting to the violence of clenched fists. God continues to call us to reach out especially to those most in need. To those who may be different from us. To bear witness to a leadership of sacrifice and of service. In this lies our true identity. This is what it means to follow Christ. This is what it means to be truly Christian.

Sisters and brothers, in what direction will you be bending your fingers today?

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Supports For The Upright (Rerun)

15th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

Picture: Neila Ray

Sisters and brothers, do you remember that series of images that’s supposed to depict human evolution? The first is a picture of what looks like a monkey walking on all fours. Then there are a few figures that remain bent over, but are already walking on two legs. And finally there is a human being. Standing fully erect and holding a spear in its hand. Seen from left to right, these pictures portray profiles that progress upward. They seem to highlight, in striking fashion, the feature that supposedly sets humans apart: The ability to stand up straight and tall.

Some time ago, I came across a similar set of pictures that some cheeky fellow had modified by adding more images to the right of the originals. Perhaps you’ve seen them too. After the erect human figure with the spear, there is one that’s a little bent, carrying a rake. The next one’s even more stooped. Burdened by the weight of a large pneumatic drill in it’s hand. And, finally, the series ends with someone completely bent over a computer screen. In striking contrast to the figures on the left, the profiles on the right move ever downward. They reverse the earlier process. Not evolution, but deformation. And there’s even a caption that reads: something, somewhere went terribly wrong.

Don’t worry, sisters and brothers. I don’t propose to talk about evolution today. Better to leave that to the scientists. I don’t even know for sure that the ability to stand up straight is a typically human characteristic. But I do know that we usually refer to good people as being upright. The Chinese describe such persons as being ding tian li di (顶天立地). Someone whose head reaches the heavens and whose feet are firmly planted on the earth. In the Bible too, not only are the upright often praised, but no less than God is described as being upright. Good and upright is the Lord, who shows sinners the way (Ps 25:8). We may say that to be human is to somehow share in the uprightness of God. And perhaps this is what the second reading means, when it says that before the world was made,  God chose us in Christ, to be holy and spotless. God chose us in Christ to be upright. To be loved and to love the way Christ did.

And yet, probably most, if not all of us, will agree that it’s no easy task to remain upright. Especially not in this crooked world in which we live. There are so many temptations that distract us. So many burdens that drag us down. Including the ordinary anxieties of daily living. As well as the constant cravings of our hungry hearts. And even though we see shocking reports of how an apparently normal 23-year-old can suddenly transform into a bloodthirsty gunman. Slaughtering 38 perfect strangers in cold blood on a beach in Tunisia. We know that, like evolution, deformation is usually a gradual process. One begins by cutting little corners. Making minor compromises. Stooping ever lower and lower. Until, without realising it, one ends up so bent over as to be no longer recognisably human.

Which is why it is helpful for us to pay close attention to our readings today. For here we find the reassuring news that God does not leave us defenceless. God offers us various gifts to help us remain upright. As we are told in the second reading, God has blessed us with all the spiritual blessings of heaven in Christ. What are some of these blessings? How do they help us? How might we make better use of them?

In the gospel, even before he gives them authority over unclean spirits, Jesus offers the apostles something no less valuable. We’re told that he sent them out in pairs. Not one by one but two by two. The better to support and care for each other. To help each other remain upright. Isn’t this also why we take the time to gather here every week? Even though we could probably pray at home on our own? Isn’t this why many of us invest even more of our time in some form of communal religious activity? Whether  serving as a greeter or a lector? Or singing in the choir? Or studying the bible? Or gathering as a family to pray together? We do all this not just because it’s fun. But also because we realise that we are called and sent not just as individuals but also as a community. We know that each of us is a gift of the Lord to all the others. We help one another remain upright.

But that’s not all. If it were, the church would be nothing more than a club. A group of people who come together only to pursue a shared interest for their own recreation. Jesus’ second gift to the apostles helps us to guard against such potentially selfish and exclusive tendencies. Jesus advises them to wear sandals. Neither bare feet nor shoes, but sandals. Bare feet are okay for staying home. Sandals are needed for going out. Sandals also have an advantage over shoes. If you get sand in them, as you’re likely to when walking in the desert, they allow you to do precisely what Jesus asks the apostles to do when they are rejected: shake off the dust from under your feet and move on.

Isn’t this a precious help to us in our struggle to be good human beings and faithful Christians? What better way to remain upright than to keep moving? To remain engaged in the Lord’s mission of preaching repentance and healing to others. To be focused not so much on ourselves. Not so much on the challenges that we may face. Or the wounds we may suffer. Or the difficult people we may encounter. Or even the weakness that might continue to plague us. But rather on the mission that has been entrusted to us to reach out to those in need.

Even so, we are still likely to encounter circumstances where these two gifts are insufficient. There may be times when our companions will fail us. When they will misunderstand and even hinder us in what are called to do. There may be times when the sands of rejection will accumulate so quickly as to make it too painful to soldier on. Isn’t this the experience of the prophet Amos in the first reading? Sent by God to preach an unwelcome message of repentance to a stubborn nation, Amos finds himself in a minority of one. Even Amaziah the local priest rejects him. In such a situation, Amos has but one source of support.

In the face of rejection, Amos reminds himself of his own prophetic call. I was a shepherd, and looked after sycamores: but it was the Lord who took me from herding the flock, and the Lord who said, “Go, prophesy to my people Israel.” By recalling the beginnings of his own vocation, Amos finds the strength to continue performing the ministry entrusted to him by God. The memory of his own God-given identity and calling as a prophet becomes something like the one thing that Jesus allows the apostles to carry with them in the gospel. A staff. A sturdy walking stick that gives sure support. Enabling the prophet to continue walking straight and tall, even when the going is tough.

Sisters and brothers, to be a good Christian is a challenging thing. But God provides us with gifts to help us. Community, mission, vocation. How well do we use them? What must we do to keep standing upright? To remain truly human? To avoid becoming bent and deformed today?

Sunday, July 05, 2015

Celebrating Failure

14th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)
(Mass@Retreat for RGS)

Sisters and brothers, what are the things that usually make you happy? What do people usually celebrate? When you walk into someone’s office, for example. What do you usually find hanging on their walls? Well, apart from artwork and family photos, one other thing you might find are academic diplomas and other certificates of achievement. Some people may even display their graduation photographs.

These are the things that typically make us happy. Give us joy. We usually celebrate and take pride in our accomplishments and successes. Not in our failures. And this is as it should be. Nothing wrong with that. Yet this natural tendency of ours to rejoice in our successes can make it very difficult for us to understand the prayers and readings for our Mass today.

You will remember what we asked God for in our opening prayer just now. Fill your faithful with holy joy, we said. For on those you have rescued from slavery to sin you bestow eternal gladness. Joy and gladness. This is what we are praying for at Mass today. But I’m sure you have also noticed that our readings are not about the things that usually make us joyful. The things that usually make us glad. Our readings are not about success and accomplishment. But about failure and disappointment.

In the gospel, Jesus preaches in the synagogue in his hometown. But, even though he impresses the people with his wisdom and power, they reject him. And we’re told that he could work no miracle there. We find something similar in the first reading. Here God sends Ezekiel to bring God’s message to rebels who have turned against God. To people who will very likely refuse to listen to him. Both the first reading and the gospel speak not about success but about failure. Not about achievement but about disappointment.

The second reading goes even further. For not only does St. Paul write about his own failure. He even celebrates it! Takes pride in it! For some time, the apostle has been suffering from something he calls a thorn in the flesh. Scripture scholars are unsure what exactly Paul is talking about. It could be a physical illness of some sort. Or a temptation. Or perhaps some ongoing persecution that he’s been experiencing. Whatever it is, this weakness is something over which Paul has no control. He is helpless to overcome it.

And yet, after praying to God to take it away from him. And failing to receive a favourable response. Quite incredibly, Paul is still moved to write these astonishing words: I shall be very happy to make my weaknesses my special boast. It’s as though the apostle were choosing to display a certificate on the wall of his office, proudly announcing his thorn in the flesh to everyone. Unlike most of us, Paul celebrates and rejoices not just in strength, but also and especially in weakness. Not just in success, but also and especially in failure. Not just in achievement, but also and especially in disappointment.

I’m not sure about you, sisters and brothers. But this is something that I find very difficult to understand. Let alone to imitate. My usual reaction to failure and disappointment, to weakness and helplessness, is not one of joy and celebration. But of anger and embarrassment and discouragement. Instead of celebrating my failures, I usually choose to hide them. And not just from others. But even from myself. I try not to think about them. To avoid getting depressed.

All of which may indicate that perhaps the joy and gladness I usually experience is somehow different from what we are praying for today. What we are praying for is not just any kind of joy but holy joy. Not just any kind of gladness but eternal gladness. What’s so special about holy joy and eternal gladness? In what way is it different from the ordinary kind?

St. Paul gives us the answer in the second reading, when he tells us the reason why he is able to celebrate his weakness. It’s not because it feels good to be helpless. But because God’s power is at its best in (human) weakness. When all human efforts have failed, then it becomes clear that only God alone could be responsible for whatever success may come.

Ordinary joy comes when our own efforts meet with success. But holy joy comes even in failure, because we trust and hope that God will somehow bring success out of our failure. Even though we may not see or understand how and when this could happen. In ordinary joy, my attention is fixed on the results of my own efforts. On monitoring and measuring them. And congratulating myself for them. In holy joy, my attention is fixed not on my results. Much less on myself. But on God. And on what God wants me to do. And I continue to fix my eyes on God, even if my efforts seem to bear no visible fruit to speak of. No human achievement to boast about. As the psalmist says, our eyes are on the Lord till he shows us his mercy.

Our eyes are on the Lord. Not on ourselves. This is what sets apart holy joy from the ordinary kind. And this is an important lesson for us to keep in mind especially today. When it sometimes seems that the only kind of joy we know is the kind that comes from measuring and monitoring tangible results. Today, when the language of strategic planning and key performance indicators has made its way from corporate boardrooms into church circles. Today, when we sometimes find ourselves obsessively counting baptisms and anxiously projecting future Mass attendance. Nothing wrong with that, of course. We do have a duty to do our best. But we also need to carefully bear in mind these enlightening words from Pope Francis’ The Joy of the Gospel:
Sometimes it seems that our work is fruitless, but mission is not like a business transaction or investment, or even a humanitarian activity. It is not a show where we count how many people come as a result of our publicity; it is something much deeper, which escapes all measurement. It may be that the Lord uses our sacrifices to shower blessings in another part of the world which we will never visit. The Holy Spirit works as he wills, when he wills and where he wills; we entrust ourselves without pretending to see striking results. We know only that our commitment is necessary. Let us learn to rest in the tenderness of the arms of the Father amid our creative and generous commitment. Let us keep marching forward; let us give him everything, allowing him to make our efforts bear fruit in his good time (The Joy of the Gospel, 279).
Sisters and brothers, what we are praying for today is holy joy. The kind that comes from keeping our eyes fixed on the Lord. And not on ourselves. Where are your eyes fixed? What are the things that you choose to hang on the walls of your office today?
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