Sunday, June 25, 2017

A Light in Dark Places...

Solemnity of St Paul the Apostle
Patron of the Pauline Family

Readings: Isaiah 49:3, 5-6; Galatians 1:11-20; Matthew 10:16-22

My dear friends, are you familiar with the Lord of the Rings movies? If you are, you may recall a scene in the first movie, The Fellowship of the Ring, in which the elf queen, Galadriel, presents Frodo, with a precious gift. Do you remember what it is? It’s a glass bottle containing the light of EƤrendil, the elves’ most beloved star. May it be a light for you, the queen tells Frodo, as she hands him his gift. May it be a light for you in dark places, when all other lights go out. Later in the story, this gift comes in handy when Frodo is captured by a giant flesh-eating spider, and trapped in the black cave where it lives. The starlight proves useful not just for finding an escape route, but also for warding off the spider’s deadly attacks.

A light in dark places, when all other lights go out. A light that can dispel the deepest darkness, and lead us out, from danger into safety. Isn’t this a gift that we would all dearly love to have? And isn’t this also something like what we find in our Mass readings on this solemn feast of St Paul the Apostle, Patron of the Pauline Family? But in order for us to appreciate the gift, we need first to see the reason why it is given. We need to realise that, in each of our readings today, there is actually a growing danger. An encroaching darkness that manifests itself in different forms.

In the second reading, this darkness threatens the Christians in Galatia. And it comes in the form of a certain teaching that some have been spreading. As you know, Paul writes this letter mainly to refute this teaching, which he considers to be false. It is a dark and distracting cloud that casts a shadow of doubt on the joyful message that the Galatians had received earlier. The gospel that was preached to them by Paul. What is this false teaching? It is the apparently pious yet dangerously insidious insistence that non-Jews must be circumcised in order to become Christian. An insistence that makes salvation depend more on human performance than on the grace of God. Doubt and distraction arising from false teaching. This is the darkness we find in the second reading.

In the first reading, the darkness is even less obvious, mainly because a verse is missing. As you may have noticed, the reading is taken from verses three, five and six of Isaiah forty-nine. Verse four has been left out. Yet, it is in verse four that we find a helpful reminder of the darkness that the other verses are meant to dispel. Here, we find the prophet saying to himself, My toil has been futile, I have exhausted myself for nothing, to no purpose. In the midst of the considerable difficulties and setbacks he has had to face, in carrying out his God-given mission, the prophet has been feeling discouraged and disillusioned. What’s the point of all my hard work?! Nothing seems to change anyway… Discouragement and disillusionment arising from the trials of ministry. The apparent lack of effectiveness and success. This is the darkness we find in the second reading. A darkness that threatens to engulf not so much the people to whom he is sent, but the prophet of God himself.

And whereas the first two readings deal with darkness in the present, the gospel looks to the future. As Jesus gathers his apostles, and prepares to send them out on mission, he warns them of the terrible trials that are to come. The challenges that they can expect to face. And not only the challenges, but also the worry and anxiety that is likely to result from them. Worry about how to speak and what to say when they are dragged before their persecutors. Anxiety over the sight of brother betraying brother, and a father his child… Worry and anxiety for the future. This is the darkness that we find in the gospel.

Doubt and distraction caused by a false teaching focusing only on human performance. Discouragement and disillusionment resulting from a lack of success. Worry and anxiety at one’s own weakness and inadequacy before the considerable challenges that lie in the future. These are the forms that darkness takes in our readings today. Forms that we ourselves may experience from time to time. But if this is the darkness that threatens, then what is the light that dispels it? What is the precious gift that is being offered to us anew?

Don’t you find it striking, my dear friends, that although the forms of darkness may be different, in our readings, the gift given to dispel it is actually essentially the same? In the second reading, Paul counters the darkness of false teaching not just by presenting the light of true teaching. At least not in a purely academic or intellectual way. Instead, Paul takes care to share with the Galatians his own personal experience of meeting and being called and transformed by the Crucified and Risen Christ. God set me apart, Paul insists, from the time when I was in my mother's womb, called me through his grace and chose to reveal his Son in me.

In the first reading too, in his discouragement, the prophet finds new strength and purpose by a renewal of his own God-given calling. And now the Lord has spoken, who formed me in the womb to be his servant… I shall make you a light to the nations so that my salvation may reach the remotest parts of earth. And what do we find in the gospel, if not a description of Jesus calling and sending his apostles. Inviting them not so much to be effective, but to persevere, to stand firm, in living out their call. You will be universally hated on account of my name; but anyone who stands firm to the end will be saved.

And isn’t this an important reminder for us as we celebrate this solemn feast of the patron of the Pauline family? A family that seeks, especially through its use of communications media, to dispel darkness in all its various forms? The darkness of conflict and division, of selfishness and greed, of discouragement and despair, of rumour-mongering and fake news. And perhaps what is most insidious of all, the darkness that springs from the false belief that the salvation of our world depends only on us. On our own performance. On our own strength. On our own success. In the midst of all these forms of darkness, our readings remind us of the truth expressed in those famous words of St Mother Theresa: God has not called me to be successful. He has called me to be faithful.

My dear sisters and brothers of the Pauline family, truly, a precious gift has been given to us. The same gift that Paul and the apostles received. The gift of our call to be faithful disciples and joyful witnesses of Christ. Which is for us a light in dark places, when all other lights go out. What must we do to keep cherishing and sharing this undying light today?

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Ways to the Heart

Solemnity of the Most Holy Body & Blood of Christ (A)

Picture: cc laszy

My dear friends, can you complete this sentence for me? The way to a man’s heart is… There is, as you know, a variety of possible answers. The usual and most well-known one is, of course, his stomach. The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. But other responses are possible too. For example, I recently watched a TED talk, in which the speaker argues that the way to a man’s heart is actually through his brain.

There are also those who will be quick to point out that all this can just as easily be said about women. The way to a woman’s heart is through her stomach… or her brain… Although some terribly wicked people maintain that the way to a woman’s heart is actually through her sole. Spelt S-O-L-E. As in the soles of her expensive Prada shoes.

Whatever it may be. Whether the stomach, or the brain, or something else entirely. The fact remains that these things are not the true focus of the discussion. Important though they may be, they are not the final destination. As far as the saying goes, the stomach and the brain are important only as ways to reach another location. Efforts are made to fill the stomach, or to entertain the brain, only as a means finally to connect with the heart. Heartfelt connection. Authentic relationship. This is what we seek. This is what makes life worth living.

And it’s helpful to keep this in mind especially today, when we celebrate Corpus Christi. The solemn feast of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ. What exactly is this feast about? What are we really celebrating? At first glance, it may seem that it is only a matter of stomachs being filled. For, in the gospel, Jesus scandalises his listeners by referring to himself in terms of food. I am the living bread, he says, which has come down from heaven…. the bread that I shall give is my flesh, for the life of the world… 

And yet, we would be greatly mistaken, if we were to think that the Lord’s main concern here is only to fill up empty stomachs. Important though it may be to provide food for the hungry, in this particular passage, the stomach is important only as a way to the heart. That is how we draw life from the Lord. By allowing him to establish a connection with our heart.

But how do we eat and drink in such a way that our hearts are touched? Indeed, how often does this actually happen to us? Aren’t the vast majority of our meals not simply a matter of routine? To the extent that we don’t even pay much attention to what we might be stuffing into our mouths? Let alone where it came from or the hands that prepared it? Occupied as we often are with all that happens on the screens of our smartphones? How does one eat in such a way that the stomach truly becomes a way to the heart?

We find an answer in the first reading. Where, after forty long years of wandering in the wilderness, the people of Israel are finally preparing to cross the river Jordan, to enter and occupy the Promised Land. Before they set out, Moses gathers them for a final pep talk. He encourages them to do one crucially important thing. Not so much to fill their stomachs with food, as to occupy their minds with memories. Remember, he says. Remember how the Lord your God led you for forty years in the wilderness, to humble you, to test you and know your inmost heart… Remember how God freed you from slavery. Guided you through the wilderness. Fed you with manna. Brought you water from the rock. Do not become proud of heart. Do not forget the Lord your God… Remember… Remember… Remember…

In the first reading, Moses urges the people to exercise their brains. To occupy their minds. To remember all that God has done and continues to do for them. Why? So that the food that God has provided them, with which they have filled their stomachs, might not only nourish their bodies, and then be quickly forgotten. But that it may serve also to touch their hearts. So that, even as they now enter a fertile land, where they can grow their own food, they may not forget all the blessings they have received. So that they may take care always to remain connected to God. To allow God to connect with them. To keep them connected to one another. For this is the true meaning of life. Man does not live on bread alone but… on everything that comes from the mouth of the Lord.

Food for the stomach. Accompanied by memories for the mind. Leading to connections of the heart. This is also what we find in the second reading. In which St. Paul explains the true meaning of what we do every time we gather, as we are gathered now, to celebrate the Holy Eucharist. The blessing-cup that we bless is a communion, a connection, with the blood of Christ. The bread that we break is a communion, a connection, with the body of Christ. This is what we are meant to experience, whenever we participate fully and actively and consciously at Mass. Food for the stomach. Accompanied by memories for the mind. Leading to connections of the heart. This is what it means to celebrate the Eucharist. And, by extension, to engage in the practice of Eucharistic Adoration.

This is also what it means to live Eucharistic lives. To allow not just what passes into our stomachs, but also everything that we experience in daily life–the bad as much as the good, the desolations as much as the consolations–to allow all our experiences to be continually coloured by our memories of God’s super-abundant love for us in Christ. Memories that we have in common. But also memories that are quite personal to each of us. Memories of our blessings. Memories that allow us always to remain connected deep within our hearts. Connected to God. Connected to one another. Connected also especially to those who may continue to have to struggle to fill their stomachs with good food. Struggle to occupy their minds with pleasing memories. Struggle to warm their hearts with loving connections.

Heartfelt connection. Authentic life-giving relationship. This is what Corpus Christi is all about. In a world where life often seems to revolve only around the more superficial things, like food and entertainment and footwear, we Christians are called to bear witness to the deeper more important concern of establishing and maintaining heartfelt connections.

My dear sisters and brothers, if it is indeed true that the way to someone’s heart is through the stomach, then how is God connecting with your heart today?

Sunday, June 11, 2017

From No-Man’s-Land to Path of Life

Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity (A)

My dear sisters and brothers, have you watched the new Wonder Woman movie? The one that’s showing in local cinemas now? Those who have will know that there is a particular scene, somewhere in the middle of the movie, where Wonder Woman crosses a battlefield. Well, it’s actually more of a no-man’s-land. A strip of disputed territory separating two warring armies that have been deadlocked for more than a month. A place of great violence and terrible danger. Where no one has been able to make it across alive.

Which may not be a problem, except that there is a small village trapped within this fearsome place. Its food has run out. And the violence is preventing fresh supplies from getting in. The way things are going, these poor people will probably not survive much longer. Into the scene steps our hero, Wonder Woman. Without a second thought, she propels herself into the danger. She braves heavy machine gun fire, in a daring attempt to cross the deadly stretch of ground. To blaze a life-giving pathway for supplies to get through. To save the suffering people. Does she make it to the other side? I guess I should leave you to find that out for yourself…

To cross a no-man’s-land, transforming it into a path of life. This is what Wonder Woman tries to do in the movie. And this is also what we find God doing in our readings today.

It may not be so obvious, sisters and brothers, but that place that is mentioned in the first reading, the mountain of Sinai, should really be a no-man’s-land. For this is not the first time that Moses is going up this mountain. He has done it before. And, as you know, it was while he was up on this mountain, receiving the Ten Commandments from God for the first time, that the people of Israel, who remained below, effectively declared war on God. By manufacturing and worshipping a golden calf. So that, at this point in the story, Sinai should really be a scary place separating two parties in conflict.

And yet, what should be a dangerous boundary between enemies, becomes instead a meeting place between friends. Sinai is where God warmly welcomes Moses. How does this happen? It happens only because of the kind of God we have. Not a God of vengeance and retribution. But rather a God of tenderness and compassion, slow to anger, rich in kindness and faithfulness. A God who chooses to descend from the highest heavens to save a defiant and undeserving people. A people marked for death by their own sins. Whom God still sees fit to adopt as His very own.

Nor is Sinai the only piece of no-man’s-land. The whole world should be the same as well. Wherever there are those who defy God. Who disobey God’s commands. Who turn to the worship of idols. Wherever sin reigns in human hearts, we should find a dangerous no-man’s-land, impossible to cross.

But, the gospel tells us that God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son. Sent Him to cross over into our world of sin and selfishness, of conflict and division, of danger and death. Sent him not to condemn the world, but so that through him the world might be saved. So that everyone who believes in him, everyone who follows him, may have eternal life. In other words, God sent his Son into the world to do what Wonder Woman seeks to do in the movie. To transform what should be a no-man’s-land into a pathway to life.

And it’s important for us to remember how this happens. How Mary comes to conceive and to bear her Son. It is not through the seed of any ordinary man, but through the overshadowing of the Spirit of God. The same Spirit who descends upon the Lord when he is baptised by John in the Jordan. The same Spirit who then drives Him into the desert to be prepared for public ministry by being tempted by the devil. The same Spirit whom Jesus then breathes onto the world from the Cross, and again after He has risen from the dead.

This is how God crosses into a dangerous world in order to save a sinful humanity. This is how God transforms what should be a desolate boundary separating enemies into a fruitful meeting place joining friends. A path that leads to the fullness of life. A way that we are all called to walk. That the second reading calls us to walk, when it tells us to try to grow perfect… To help one another… To be united… To live in peace… So that the God of love and peace might be with us. This is the way that Christ himself walked, in the power of the Spirit. The path that leads through the passion of the Cross, into the loving arms of the heavenly Father.

This, my dear friends, is the meaning of the solemn feast we celebrate today. A celebration not just of any ordinary holy man or holy woman. Not even of a Wonder Woman. But a celebration of nothing less than an all-powerful yet ever-merciful God. A Trinity in Unity of Father, Son, and Spirit. Who continually crosses barren wastelands to gather lost children to Himself. And who calls us to walk His way. To follow His steps. To enjoy His life. A God who keeps transforming the no-man’s-land of our divided world into a precious pathway to life.

And what a consoling thing it is for us to have a God like this. Especially when we see around us, in our world today, so many examples of people being separated by ever-widening divides. By ever-hardening borders. By boundaries between right and left… between conservative and liberal… between religious and secular… Where general elections intended to unite a nation, end up dividing it all the more. And, while this is happening, people continue to suffer as a result. Not unlike those villagers in the movie. Innocent civilians trapped by war and conflict. Fleeing refugees pitifully searching for safety. Hopeful migrants anxiously seeking a better life. Retrenched workers desperately trying to make a living. Struggling families heroically coping with the ordinary stresses of daily living…

Isn’t it an encouraging thought that, across each of these many and different stretches of dangerous ground, our loving God continues to dash? Braving the dangers. Seeking to rescue those who feel  helpless and alone. And challenging us to do the same. To follow in the footsteps of the Son. In the power of the Spirit. Into the warmth of the Father’s embrace.

Sisters and brothers, how is our merciful and compassionate God transforming no-man’s-lands into pathways-to-life for you and through you today?

Saturday, June 03, 2017

Gathered, Scattered, United

Pentecost Vigil

Picture: cc Inbal & Nir

My dear friends, I’ve been doing some travelling in the past few months. And, as a result, I’ve come to realise that however far you go, no matter how remote your destination, you can always find one thing. Do you know what it is? Some of you may be able to guess... It’s a McDonald’s.

I recently visited a small island, for example, where there are no cars, because the island doesn’t have proper roads. But what do you see the moment you step off the ferry? You guessed it. Right in front of the ferry terminal, the unmistakable golden arches of a McDonald’s restaurant.

But that’s not all. Not only can you find a McDonald’s anywhere you go, but even though all these restaurants are scattered, it seems, in every nook and cranny of the known world, separated from one another by great distances, they all still appear to be united in some way, don’t they? They all bear the same name. They share the same brand. They belong to the same franchise. They speak the same language. The language of fast food and even faster profits.

It is possible, in other words, to be scattered across great distances, and still be united in some way. This is a truth that perhaps McDonald’s can teach us. And, strange as it may seem, it is in some ways similar to the truth that our readings are inviting us to ponder today.

We see this especially in our first reading, which ends with people being scattered. But the scattering is not the real problem. For scholars tell us that it was actually God’s intention, God’s explicit instruction to the people, to multiply and to scatter themselves across the face of the earth. To go to the respective places to which God had assigned them. To fill the earth and to subdue it. This was God’s plan for them. But the people defy God. They disobey. Instead of scattering about, they choose to settle down. Instead of serving God’s will, they focus on their own selfish interests. Let us build ourselves a town, they say. Let us make a name for ourselves, so that we may not be scattered about the whole earth

But, much as the people want to gather together in one place, their narrow concern for their own selfish interests causes their company to disintegrate. They begin to speak different languages. And, like married couples, who gradually stop communicating, they eventually find themselves splitting up. They experience the very thing they had been resisting at first. They are scattered across the face of the earth. Except that there is one important difference between the scattering at the end of the reading and what God had in mind for them at the beginning. Do you know what this difference is?

What God had in mind for them was a scattering-in-unity. A dispersal of people belonging to the same God-given franchise, as it were. Working on the same God-given project. Speaking the same God-given language. Not the language of fast food and faster profits. But the language of selfless love. The language of a love so strong that it is willing even to lay down its own life to benefit others. To sacrifice itself for the salvation of the world.

This is what God intended. But what the people end up experiencing is instead a dispersal not in unity but in division. The disintegration of those who care only for themselves. A scattering of selfish competitors, instead of the spreading out of loving friends. So that what is lost in the first reading is actually connection. Unity. That true connection that is able to survive even when people are scattered. That authentic unity that comes from God alone.

And isn’t this the same thing for which the second reading tells us the whole of creation is groaning? And not just creation, but we ourselves are groaning for it. We ourselves desire this unity. This connection. Something we would realise, if only we took the time to pay closer attention to our own hearts. We are all yearning for this unity that has been lost. This harmony, born of love, that is God’s gift to us. God’s plan for us. This deep bond that gives those who experience it the ability to maintain long-distance relationships. To be out of sight and yet not out of mind. To be separated even by death, and still feel bound by the unbreakable bonds of love. 

This is what Jesus offers in the gospel, when he calls all those who are thirsty to come to him and drink. This is the living water that he promises to all who respond to his call. All those who truly come to him. Truly follow him. Truly surrender their hearts and their lives to him. This is what the Spirit brings to those whose hearts are open enough to receive it. To those who recognise their own deep longing for connection. For unity. For peace and harmony. This is what we celebrate at Pentecost. The power to remain united, even when we may be separated by time and space… By trial and tribulation… By suffering and death…

And isn’t this a power that our world needs so very much today? Torn as it is by conflict and division. By violence and strife. Where everyone seems so very close on social media, and yet so very far in real life. Where a McDonald’s can be found everywhere, but tolerance and understanding, mercy and compassion, seem to be in such short supply. A world where the only language people seem to care to speak is that of speed. And of greed. Of fast food and faster profits. A false language that ends up splitting people up. Whereas a true language should really gather us in.

Isn’t this why we celebrate Pentecost? The feast of the coming of the Spirit. God’s Gift of unity and harmony. Of love and joy and peace. A Gift that we need first to receive for ourselves, as we gather here at this Mass. Allowing the Spirit to express our plea in a way that could never be put into words. And, having received this Gift, to then allow ourselves to be sent out. To be scattered about. To speak this language of love to a waiting world.

My dear friends, thankfully McDonald’s is not the only thing that can be found everywhere we go. The Spirit can be found too. The question is, of course, which of them are we really seeking? On which of them are we really feeding today?

Sunday, May 28, 2017

From Security Blankets to the Upper Room

7th Sunday of Easter (A)

Pictures: cc Tom SimpsonCaren Pilgrim

My dear friends, do you know who Linus van Pelt is? Does the name ring a bell for you at all? Some of us may remember that Linus is a character from the comic strip Peanuts. He’s the kid who’s usually seen holding a blanket to his cheek, while sucking his thumb. Do you know why Linus does this? Why he relies so much on his blanket and on his thumb?

I’m not sure. But I imagine it’s probably the same reason why parents place pacifiers in their babies’ mouths. Or a pillow by their side. Or, these days, if the child is a little older, a smartphone in its hands. Parents do this usually when the child is crying for attention, and the parents are too busy to see to it immediately. The thumb and the blanket, the pacifier, the pillow, and the phone, are all handy substitutes for what the child really wants: parental attention and affection. Linus and his blanket gives us a convenient image of our usual approach to coping with absence. How do I usually react when something I want is missing? Well, I simply try to substitute it with something else.

But what happens if what I really want, what I’m actually looking for, what I absolutely cannot live without, is God? God’s attention and affection, God’s presence and action, in my life. And what if, for some reason, I cannot seem to find it?  Or do not know how? Perhaps I’m not aware of ever having experienced it before. Or, having experienced it before, I now seem to have lost it. What to do? How to react when God’s absence leaves a huge hole in my heart. A deep hunger and a burning thirst that cries out for satisfaction. How do I cope with God’s apparent absence in my life?

The usual reaction is, of course, that of Linus. I try to replace God with someone else. Or something else. Like a friend or a spouse. A car or a handbag. A career or even a ministry. I spend my life seeking wealth and success, luxury and comfort, popularity and affirmation… All of which, of course, doesn’t get me very far. For one thing, this kind of attempt at substitution also goes by another name. It’s called idolatry. The sin of worshipping false gods. And not only is idolatry a sin, we also believe that it is always doomed to fail. For, as St. Augustine puts it so well, you have made us for yourself, O God, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you…

So, if substitution doesn’t work, what else can I do? How else can I cope with the apparent absence of God in my life? When I’m feeling lonely and depressed, restless and confused, lost and abandoned. This, my dear friends, is the question that our prayers and readings help us to ponder, on this second last Sunday of the Easter Season. This is probably what the friends and family of Jesus, including Mary his mother, are grappling with in the first reading. For, at this point in the story, Jesus has just been taken up into heaven. He is no longer present to his disciples in the same way that he was before. So what do they do? How do they cope with his absence?

Rather than trying to replace the Lord with something or someone else. Instead of immediately rushing off to distract themselves with some other form of anxious activity. We’re told that they first engage in a particular process. They come together in the upper room, and they join in continuous prayer. Now we’re not told exactly how they pray. What words they utter. What songs they sing. But we can perhaps imagine what sentiments they must be expressing.

For isn’t it likely that their prayer is very similar to what we ourselves offered earlier in our Collect or opening prayer? We begged God to allow us to experience… until the end of the world, the Saviour’s abiding presence among us… Isn’t it likely that this was their prayer too? A prayer to experience the Lord’s abiding presence, even in the face of his apparent absence? A prayer offered not just to fulfil an empty obligation. But one that springs from the same deep hunger and burning thirst expressed so beautifully in the responsorial psalm. There is one thing I ask of the Lord, for this I long, to live in the house of the Lord, all the days of my life…

And we know, of course, the result of this prayer in the first reading. It results in the feast we will celebrate next Sunday: Pentecost. The heartfelt prayer is answered. The Holy Spirit descends, like a mighty wind and a great ball of fire, upon those privileged people gathered in the upper room. Giving them all a renewed experience of God’s powerful presence.

And yet, my dear friends, I’m not sure about you, but there is something about that spectacular scene that sometimes makes me feel a little discouraged. For how often can I claim to experience God in such a dramatic, earth-shattering way? Thankfully, our other readings show us a broader view. In the second reading, we’re told that God’s presence is felt not just by those who experience spectacular success. But also by those who encounter painful failure. Especially by those who suffer for being a Christian. As our brothers and sisters of the Coptic Church in Egypt are currently suffering. For it is a blessing for you when they insult you–or throw bombs and spray bullets at you–for bearing the name of Christ, because it means that you have the Spirit of glory, the Spirit of God resting on you. You are experiencing the presence of God.

The same presence that Jesus talks about in his prayer to his Father in the gospel. The same glory that, in John’s gospel, is most clearly seen when Jesus hangs dead on the Cross. To be able to recognise God’s glorious presence even and especially in the sufferings that one may have to endure for being a Christian. To accept ridicule, for example, for refusing to run the rat race. Or for insisting on treating others kindly, even when we know they will take advantage of our kindness. For Jesus, this is nothing less than eternal life. To know the one true God, and Jesus Christ whom God has sent.

This, my dear friends, is how we Christians are to respond when God seems absent. Instead of anxiously looking for substitutes, we are to immerse ourselves together in prayer. As we are doing here at this Mass. Prayer that leads eventually to recognition. A renewed sense of God’s powerful presence. This is the truly Christian way of responding to the trials of life.

My dear sisters and brothers, how are you being called to move from clinging anxiously to security blankets to praying together in the upper room today?

Sunday, May 21, 2017

The Games We Play

6th Sunday of Easter (A)

Picture: cc Lubomir Simek

My dear friends, do you play any games? What games do you play? Perhaps some of us may play sporting games, like soccer, or tennis, or golf. Some others may play computer games. Either on our own or with others. Online or off. Or how about games of chance? Like poker or blackjack. Bingo or mahjong? But then again, especially here in Singapore, I’m sure there are also many of us, myself included, who will say, Aiyah, so busy! Where got time to play games?!

When we say this, we are, of course, thinking of games as nothing more than pastimes. Something we engage in only when we have nothing else better to do. And yet, isn’t it true that it is possible to play games not just as pastimes, but with great passion? Aren’t there games that can actually take over a person’s whole life? For better or for worse?

I’m reminded of that news report on BBC Travel a few days ago, which tells the story of Marottichal, a remote jungle village in northern Kerala state, in India. Where the game of chess has become hugely popular. Out of a population of 6,000, it is said that no less than 4,000 people in Marottichal play chess everyday. Indeed, the report paints a warm inviting picture of groups of people gathered all over town to play chess. Or to watch it being played. They gather in the teashop and at the bus stop. At home and in school. How exactly did this passion for chess begin?

Apparently, about 50 years ago, a man named Unnikrishnan introduced the game to the village. Where it spread, with very positive effects. For, before the arrival of chess, people were playing games of a different, much darker, sort. The village was rife with alcoholism and illicit gambling. Chess changed all that. The report says that miraculously the game’s popularity flourished while drinking and gambling declined. Asked to account for the game’s popularity, Unnikrishnan credits its close connection with life. Chess helps us overcome difficulties and sufferings, he says. On a chess board you are fighting, as we are also fighting the hardships in our daily life.

The experience of this Indian village of Marottichal is not unlike what we find in that unnamed Samaritan town in the first reading. Just as Unnikrishnan introduced a new game of chess, so too does Philip proclaim the new message of the gospel. And the Samaritans respond in much the same way that the villagers of Marottichal did. And with similar effects. We’re told that they united in welcoming the message Philip preached. As a result, miracles begin to happen. Darker, more sinister, games are given up. Their bad effects overcome. Unclean spirits are driven out. Paralytics and cripples find healing. This is what happens when a good game is adopted with wholehearted passion. When it is allowed to become more than just a pastime. When the gospel is generously received, it changes lives. Bringing with it great rejoicing.

Isn’t this also what the second reading encourages us to do? To view the message of the gospel not just as a meaningless pastime. An irritating distraction from the more serious business of daily life. Something we grudgingly engage in only one or two hours a week. Instead, we are told to reverence the Lord Christ in our hearts. To welcome the Crucified and Risen One, much  like how the villagers of Marottichal embraced the game of chess. With open heart and unrestrained passion. Allowing Christ to gradually take over every aspect of our lives. Filling even our sufferings with meaning. For if it is the will of God that you should suffer, it is better to suffer for doing right than for doing wrong.

And, when we do this, when we generously receive the Lord with passion, we experience something truly miraculous. The same thing that Jesus promises his disciples in the gospel. The experience of the ongoing presence and power of Christ himself. And of his Spirit. A presence and a power that remains with us even and especially in times of darkness. When we may feel like how the disciples must have felt when Jesus was taken away from them. Like orphans. Abandoned and alone. Left to face life’s challenges on our own. But we are not alone. The presence and power of Christ, in the Spirit, remains. Assuring us that, even in our darkest moments, we continue to be held in the warmth of God’s gentle embrace.

But this experience is promised to those who do their best to remain in the love of the Lord. By wholeheartedly keeping his commandments. That is, by passionately playing the gracious game that Jesus came to teach us all. The same serious yet joyful game that we gather to play at every Mass. The powerful miracle-working game of the Lord’s Dying and Rising. We experience God’s presence in our lives when we play this game with at least the same passion with which those villagers of Marottichal play chess. When we allow its principles to rule our hearts. The same principles that the Lord embodied when he laid down his life so that we might live. We need to let these same principles, this same Lord, permeate our lives. Order our priorities. Enrich our relationships. Heal our hurts. So that we can reach out and share that same joyful healing, that same powerful presence, with others around us.

Of course, there will very likely be those of us who may be tempted to say, Aiyah, so busy! Where got time to play games?! And yet, isn’t it true that even those of us who may feel this way are actually playing games of a certain sort? Even if we may not think of them as games? All the different things that keep us so very busy at every moment of every day. Apparently serious things that supposedly have to do with real life. By busying ourselves in this way, aren’t we playing by the rules of certain unacknowledged games? Games that may have to do with buying and selling, for example. Or popularity and pride. Or insecurity and anxiety. Envy and greed. Games that may suck out of us the very joy of life. Leaving us feeling empty and broken. Without quite understanding why.

Could it be that it is especially for people like this that Christ died and rose again? Could it be that this is why we celebrate Easter? To allow ourselves to re-learn the game of Christ and of his Cross. To re-experience the great rejoicing that comes to those who play it with passion. To re-commit ourselves to sharing its powerful miraculous effects with those around us.

My dear friends, on this 6th Sunday of Easter, what games are you playing today?

Sunday, May 07, 2017

Between Registration & Recognition

4th Sunday of Easter (A) (Good Shepherd Sunday)

My dear friends, do you use email or social media? I expect that many of us do. And we know how easy it is to get an email or social media account. All you have to do is to register. Go to a website, or download an app, and submit some personal information. That’s all it takes. So simple! But isn’t it also true that, increasingly, something else is required of us? Do you know what it is?

Have you ever received an email claiming to be from someone you know, who’s facing a travel emergency, and needs you to send money overseas immediately? Or how about messages that appear to be from Google, or Facebook, or your bank, asking you to provide the password to your account? As you know, such messages are scams. Brazen attempts to steal our money, or personal information, or both.

Those of us who’ve ever received such messages, and even more so, those who’ve actually fallen victim to them, will know very well that using email and social media requires more than just a one-time registration. It also requires ongoing recognition. The ability to tell the difference between the true and the false. The authentic message and the cunning scam.

We find something like that in our faith as well. What does it take to become a Christian? In the first reading, Peter tells his listeners that they have to repent, to be baptised, and to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. Of course, these days, people are asked to first go through the RCIA. But is that all it takes to become a Christian? Just to go through a kind of registration process? The answer, as you might expect, is no. As important as it is to be baptised, something more is required. Something that Jesus highlights in the gospel.

The Lord says that he is the shepherd of the flock, and that, one by one he calls his own sheep and leads them out. And then he goes ahead of them. And the sheep follow because they know his voice. They never follow a stranger but run away from him: they do not recognise the voice of strangers. For Jesus, the defining characteristic of his sheep is the ability to distinguish between the voice of the Shepherd and that of the stranger. To follow the one and to run away from the other.

So that, as with email or social media, to be a Christian involves more than just registration. More than just being baptised. It also requires recognition. For isn’t it true that, in our daily living, we are bombarded by many different voices, moving us to feel and to do many different things? Some of these voices come from outside us. They are the voices of our family, asking for care and concern… The voices of advertising, seducing us to spend our money… The voices of capitalist society, telling us we need to be more successful, to keep climbing the corporate ladder… The voices of the poor, the sick, the refugees, the polluted earth, crying to us to spare them a thought and a prayer, if not a dollar or two…

Some other voices come from within us. Perhaps as a reaction to what we hear from without. These interior voices also move us to feel and to do various things. They may tell us we are not good, or smart, or rich, or popular enough… Or they may remind us of how much we have been blessed, how grateful we ought to be… Or they may convict us of the wrongs we have committed, the ways in which we have hurt or neglected others, and even ourselves. Of how, in our frantic attention to practical things, we have forgotten to consider their deeper meaning. And so pay the price in boredom and anxiety, in restlessness and endless worry…

To be a Christian is to be aware of how these various voices affect us. How they move us. To be able to recognise, from among them all, the gentle yet insistent voice of the Shepherd, calling us out from the desert lands of selfishness to the green pastures of love. Where a banquet is prepared for us. The same banquet made present here in this Eucharist we celebrate. The banquet catered by the Cross of Christ. In which we are fed with his Body and Blood. Filled and enlightened by his Word. Moved to spend our lives in loving praise and worship and service of God and neighbour.

Here at this banquet we find the criteria by which to recognise the voice of the Shepherd. Here we know the truth of what is written in the second reading. That, even though he was persecuted and crucified, Jesus did and spoke no wrong. Nor did he retaliate. Instead, he patiently placed his trust in God. Lovingly laying down his life for our healing. Mercifully gathering to himself all his scattered sheep. This is how we distinguish the Shepherd from the stranger. By his Love.

And it is when we pay close attention to this Love, and all its implications, that we then experience within ourselves the intimate interior promptings of the Shepherd’s call. We begin to recognise what the voice of the Shepherd really sounds like, when he speaks from deep within us. Which is what the people in the first reading experienced too. After hearing Peter’s homily, something happened to them interiorly. We’re told that they were cut to the heart. And not only does this experience move them to repent and to receive baptism, it also becomes for them a touchstone by which to recognise and to follow the Shepherd’s voice in their daily living.

All of which we do well to remember especially today, when we traditionally promote and pray for more vocations to the priestly and religious life. Typically, we promote vocations not unlike how others might market a product. By generating publicity. Distributing pamphlets and taking out advertisements in the Catholic News.  In this way, we hope to make our voice heard above the noise of the marketplace. But could it be that what we need to do even more is to help our young people to recognise the voice of the Shepherd, already speaking to them so persuasively from without and from within? To distinguish this voice from the many others that scream out at them from all sides? And could it be that we can only do this by first learning and practising it ourselves? Could it be that we promote vocations more effectively by first finding and living our own respective callings with ever greater generosity and authenticity? As the old Latin saying goes, nemo dat quod non habet. No one gives what one does not have.

My dear friends, strangely enough, like social media, the Christian life requires not just registration, but also recognition. What must we do to better recognise and follow Christ our Crucified and Risen Lord today?

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