Sunday, August 08, 2021

Angels Against Anorexia

19th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

Readings: 1 Kings 19:4-8; Psalm 33(34):2-9; Ephesians 4:30-5:2; John 6:41-51

Picture: cc Ilya Kuzniatsou

My dear friends, do you know what it feels like to lose your appetite? When I lose my appetite, it doesn’t mean that I’m not hungry, or that I don’t need food. I do. It’s just that, at that moment, I somehow forget the natural connection between hunger and food. This may happen when I’m overwhelmed by some stronger feeling. Such as when I’m too excited or too tired. It's quite understandable then, once in a while, to forget to eat. But a prolonged loss of appetite can be dangerous. An example is the life-threatening condition known as anorexia.

I mention this, because a loss of appetite is what we find in our readings today. In the first reading, Elijah is on the run. Hunted by Queen Jezebel, who wants to kill him, the prophet is so overwhelmed by exhaustion that he loses even his appetite for life, let alone for food. Thankfully, God refuses to let Elijah give up. Repeatedly, an angel is sent to rouse him from sleep, to remind him to eat, and to refresh him, so that he is again able to experience God.

In the gospel, it’s clear that what has been lost is the appetite for spiritual food. And this condition has become chronic, particularly among the religious leaders. It’s as though they are suffering from a spiritual anorexia. Having lost their taste for spiritual food, they’re unable to recognise the bread of life, even when it stands in front of them. Instead of welcoming and partaking of it, they complain. They feel threatened by it. Perhaps they are overwhelmed by other hungers, anxious to satisfy other appetites.

But still Jesus refuses to give up. Relying on the power of God, he continues to invite people to eat. For just as God had sent an angel to feed Elijah, so too does the heavenly Father continue to draw people to Jesus, teaching them to follow the One whose Dying and Rising leads them into eternal life. Not just life beyond the grave, but that fullness of life that begins already here and now. The kind of life described in the second reading, which reminds us to be friends with one another, and kind, forgiving each other as readily as God forgave you in Christ. A life of love, lived in right relationship – with God, with others, and with all of Creation.

All of which presents us at once with a great consolation and a serious challenge. It’s a great consolation to know that even now, God keeps working tirelessly to draw starving people to Christ. For isn’t this what is so sorely needed even here, in our own apparently affluent and advanced country? Where a growing number of us – particularly our school-going children – seem to be losing their appetite for life? And much as we may blame this on the pandemic, hasn’t Covid-19 only exacerbated a pre-existing condition? And doesn’t this situation pose a serious challenge to us Christians? First to truly allow Christ to nourish us, to faithfully live that fullness of life he offers, and to generously share it with others.

Sisters and brothers, like Elijah in the first reading, there are many exhausted people around us, who desperately need a messenger from God to remind them to get up and eat. What must we do to become such angels against anorexia today?

Sunday, July 18, 2021

Submitting to the Shepherd's Stress

16th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

Readings: Jeremiah 23:1-6; Psalm 22(23); Ephesians 2:13-18; Mark 6:30-34

Picture: cc Matt Clark

My dear friends, are you tense? Do you ever have moments when you wish that all the tension in your life was removed forever? Perhaps we’ve all felt like that at one time or another. And especially so in these days of Covid-stress. Yet not all tensions are bad. Some may even be necessary. For example, isn’t the tension in the strings of a guitar what allows it to produce such beautiful sounds?

And music-making is not the only activity that involves tension. The same can be said about shepherding, which is what our readings talk about today. In the first reading, God accuses the leaders of Israel for being lazy shepherds. For failing to accept the tension that comes with caring for God’s people. For allowing the Lord’s flock to be scattered. God then promises to raise up a new line of kings, who will properly care for the sheep. A promise that finds its fulfilment in the gospel, where Jesus appears as the Good Shepherd.

But have you noticed how Jesus himself experiences tension while shepherding? The reading begins with the Lord inviting his disciples to retreat to a lonely place to rest for a while. By doing this, he shows his care for them. He shepherds them. But having arrived at their chosen vacation spot, they are confronted with a large crowd. The sight of which moves the Lord’s heart with pity, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. And he decides to postpone the vacation, and to teach them at some length.

Isn’t there a tension here between the Lord’s concern for his disciples and his pity for the people? And isn’t this but one example in a life lived in constant tension? Indeed, could we not say that the Lord’s very existence is one of tension? Tension between both the divine and human natures present in a single person. A merciful tension, embraced out of love and compassion for us. A courageous tension, culminating in Death, Resurrection, and Remembrance at the Eucharist. A reconciling tension that unites both Jews and Gentiles.

Which is not to say that we should embrace all tensions indiscriminately. No, some tensions are oppressive, and need to be challenged. Such as those that may result from the unjust working conditions that some employers may inflict on their employees. Or the unrealistic expectations that some families may place on their children.

What our readings invite us to recognise is that, as followers of Jesus, we need to learn to graciously acknowledge and accept the unavoidable tensions that come with caring for others. Whether at home, at work, or wherever there are people in need of our help. And we can only bear these tensions fruitfully, if we continually bring them to the Lord in prayer. Allowing him to revive our drooping spirits, and to guide us along the right path, the path of Christ’s peace.

Sisters and brothers, a guitar must be tuned before it is played. What must we do to let the Lord tune us, so that we too may produce sweet music to the glory of God today?

Sunday, July 11, 2021

Of Roots & Resilience

15th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

Readings: Amos 7:12-15; Psalm 84 (85):9-14; Ephesians 1:3-10; Mark 6:7-13

Picture: cc Paul Sullivan

My dear friends, do you remember that tragic case from 2017, where a 40-metre tall tembusu tree in the Botanic Gardens toppled over, and killed a passerby? Why did the tree fall? It had no visible signs of weakness. According to the Coroner, the answer lay in its roots. While strong winds and heavy rains in the days before the incident did play a part, the deeper cause could be traced to the tree’s distant past, when its roots were cut to make way for a path. This cutting started a process of decay, leading eventually to the tree’s demise.

But it’s not just trees that depend for their resilience upon healthy roots. The same can be said for prophets and missionaries too. Isn’t this what we find in our readings? In the first reading, when the prophet Amos is buffeted by the strong winds of rejection, he responds not by boasting about his own virtues or qualifications, but by recounting the origins, the spiritual roots, of his prophetic vocation. It was the Lord who took me from herding the flock, and the Lord who said, “Go, prophesy to my people Israel.”

Similarly, in the gospel, how does Jesus prepare the apostles for the rigours of the mission on which he is sending them? He strengthens their roots. By encouraging them to rely more on the providence of God than on any material resource. And by telling them how to respond to rejection. (T)ake nothing for the journey except a staff…. if any place does not welcome you and people refuse to listen to you, as you walk away shake off the dust from under your feet as a sign to them…

Of course, this is all fine and good for professional, full-time missionaries, like Amos and the Twelve. What about those of us who have far more down-to-earth occupations? Those of us who, especially in these Covid-times, find ourselves frantically juggling the multiple responsibilities of work and home, while being cooped up in a single physical location.

Thankfully, the second reading comes to our rescue, by telling us about the broader meaning of vocation or calling. Contrary to popular belief, God’s call is addressed not only to professionals. Nor does it involve only obviously religious or churchy activities. No. The reading tells us that even before the world was made… (God) chose us in Christ, to be holy and spotless, and to live through love in his presence… God’s call to us is, first of all, simply to be, to live in a certain way. To remain rooted in the goodness and love, the compassion and mercy of Christ that we celebrate at this Mass. This is the vocation that gives our lives their true meaning.

And isn’t meaning what so many in our society are yearning for today? According to a recent report, there were 452 suicides here last year, the highest since 2012. Sisters and brothers, it appears that, in our country, trees are not the only things being toppled over. People are too. And if this is true, then what can we do? We who believe ourselves to be chosen by God. What can we do to help one another become more resilient, by cultivating healthier and hardier spiritual roots today?

Sunday, June 27, 2021

Beyond the Foetal Position

13th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

Readings: Wisdom 1:13-15,2:23-24; Psalm 29(30):2,4-6,11-13; 2 Corinthians 8:7,9,13-15; Mark 5:21-43

Picture: cc dahveed76

My dear friends, are you familiar with the foetal position? It’s when the body is curled up into a ball, with the arms and legs pulled into the chest, and the head brought forward. According to Wikipedia, sometimes, when (people have) suffered extreme physical or psychological trauma… they will assume this position or a similar one. It’s an instinctive posture of withdrawal and self-preservation.

And this posture can be adopted not just physically, but also psychologically, emotionally, even spiritually. To be constantly in the mode of looking inward and fending for oneself or one’s own. Focused only on one’s security and survival. But even if it may be necessary to adopt this posture from time to time, this is surely no way to live a fully human life. So how to move out of the foetal position, when it’s time to do so? I believe this is a question that our readings help us to ponder today.

In the gospel of Mark, Jesus and his disciples cross from one bank of the Sea of Galilee to another, and back again. And wherever they go, they keep meeting people touched by trauma. People afflicted by diseases, and possessed by demons. People hungry for food, not just for their bellies, but also for their minds and hearts. People needing to be consoled and healed, guided and reconciled. People who might be forgiven for focusing only on their own wellbeing.

What do the crowds, who flock to Jesus in the gospel, need most, if not a way out of the foetal position? That anxious posture of withdrawal and self-preservation. And yet, isn’t it striking to note that, even though many are pressing all round him, these people don’t seem to find what they need. It’s only the bleeding woman’s touch that brings her healing. The touch of faith. But what is it about the woman’s touch that enables her to draw power from the Lord, when others could not? Perhaps it’s the courage to believe what is written in the first reading. That even though our world seems shrouded in suffering and death, God takes no pleasure in the extinction of the living, for God created all for life, and not destruction.

And how to find the courage to keep reaching out to the Lord in faith? Perhaps we need to allow the Lord to touch us first. In the same way that Jesus touches the dead girl in the gospel, when he takes her by the hand, and calls her to rise. The same touch that Paul describes so beautifully in the second reading, when he tells his readers to remember how generous the Lord Jesus was: he was rich, but he became poor for your sake, to make you rich out of his poverty. If we are able to reach out to the Lord in faith, it’s only because he has first reached out to us with the touch of mercy. Empowering us, in our turn, to show mercy to others as well.

Isn’t this life-giving movement from trauma to faith and mercy something that we need to experience especially now, as our world cautiously negotiates the path out of various degrees of lockdown? To learn to see beyond our own immediate needs to the sufferings of others? Sisters and brothers, what must we do to let the Lord lift us out of the foetal position today?

Sunday, June 13, 2021

A More Liveable Place

11th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

Readings: Ezekiel 17:22-24; Psalm 91(92):2-3,13-16; 2 Corinthians 5:6-10; Mark 4:26-34

Picture: cc Harshil Shah

My dear friends, given a choice, where would you like to live? A recent survey has named Auckland as the most liveable city in the world in 2021. This is because of its success in containing the Covid-19 pandemic, while keeping its society open. So, if given a choice, will you move to Auckland?

The reason I ask is because our readings describe a place for us all to live. This place was not included in the survey. Actually, it’s not a geographical place, but a spiritual one. The psalm refers to this place as the house of the Lord. And, in the gospel, Jesus calls it the kingdom of God. What is it like to live in this place? How does one come to live there?

Pondering the readings, we find three aspects, beginning with humility. Humility realised in two ways. We may call the first way the humility of gift. In contrast to countries like our own, where foreigners are admitted based on merit or money, access to the kingdom can only be received as a gift. We see this in the first reading, where God chooses a shoot, and plants it on the high mountain. The shoot itself does nothing to deserve God’s choice.

Also, along with the humility of gift, there is a humility of growth. The first reading tells us that God is the one who stunts tall trees and makes the low ones grow. And, in the gospel, God causes seed, sown in the soil, to grow in ways that farmers themselves cannot explain. Which is not to say that our efforts are not important. Of course they are! Yet, it’s even more important to realise that, however hard we may work, we cannot make things grow. It always remains God’s prerogative to grant growth according to God’s time. What we need to cultivate is the humble willingness to start small and weak and fragile, as well as the perseverance to work hard, and the patience to wait upon God’s good pleasure.

The humility of gift and growth leads to another aspect, which is hospitality. Both the tall cedar in the first reading, and the fully grown mustard plant in the gospel have in common a wonderful ability to offer shelter to every kind of bird and every winged creature. Similarly, in the kingdom of God, a warm welcome is extended to all who require shelter, all who are in need of a home, regardless of race or class or gender…

Home. This is also the third aspect. The kingdom is not just a place in which to live, but a place to call home. So the second reading encourages us, even while we are still living in the body, to seek to make our home with the Lord. How? By always being intent on pleasing him. As a result, like St Paul, we become full of confidence, no matter how difficult the challenges we may have to face. Humility, hospitality, and home. These are more than just features of God’s kingdom. They are also steps by which God draws us to help make our world a more liveable place for all.

Sisters and brothers, especially at a time when the temptation is great to act contrary to the humility and hospitality of the kingdom, what must we do to continue making our home with the Lord today?