Saturday, August 27, 2016

Atas


Picture: cc Noel Cosgrave

My dear friends, do you know what a social climber is? I’m sure you do, right? It’s the kind of person who does whatever it takes to get ahead in life. I believe the Singlish word for it is atas. High class. Not that all high class people are social climbers. They’re not. But social climbers are people who try their very best to be and to look atas.

And one way to do this is, of course, by networking. Rubbing shoulders with the right crowd. All those people whom the climber believes can help him or her to climb higher and faster. Usually people already perceived as being atas. High class contacts that the climber carefully cultivates. For example, by visiting the places they visit. Dressing the way they dress. Behaving the way they behave.

But, as you know, this is done not necessarily because the climber really likes all these people. On the contrary, the climber may envy them. Even detest them. These contacts are cultivated not for their own sake. But only as means to an end. They are seen as so many rungs on a ladder. Stepping stones to help the climber reach the top. And that’s all that the climber really wants. To get to the top. That’s the ambition of the climber’s heart.

I mention this because I believe it is possible to misread our Mass readings for today. To see them as nothing more than an instruction manual for social climbers. For even though the readings are all about being humble, they do seem to encourage us to do so only in order to get ahead in life. So the first reading says be gentle in carrying out your business… The greater you are, the more you should behave humbly. But why? So that you will be popular. So that you will be better loved than a lavish giver. And so that you will find favour with the Lord.

In the gospel too, Jesus tells a parable advising guests at a wedding feast to take the lowest place. But why? So that your host may invite you higher. And so that everyone with you at the table will see you honoured. But then doesn’t all this look like nothing more than a sophisticated strategy for climbing the social ladder? I only pretend to take the lowest place. But my sights are really set much higher.

Even Jesus’ advice to his host can be misunderstood in a similar way. When we throw a party, why should we invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind? Is it because we really care about them? Well, it seems not. For the reason given is that repayment will be made to you when the virtuous rise again. So it may appear as if we invite the poor only so that we ourselves can be made rich. But then won’t we be using the poor the way social climbers may use the rich? Simply as rungs on a ladder? Stepping stones to reach the top? Is this what it means to be truly humble?

I think we can probably all agree that the answer is no. This is not what true humility looks like. True humility is not just about pretending to take the lowest place. Pretending to welcome the poor. Only so that we can ourselves be made rich. For when we do this, we continue to be driven by the same selfish ambition that motivates social climbers. Our concern is not really with the interests of the poor, much less with the will of God, but only with our own advancement. What is needed is a change of heart.

But this is something that is actually beyond our own strength. As the first reading tells us, there is no cure for the proud man’s malady, since an evil growth has taken root in him. We really do not have what it takes to make ourselves humble. Which is why we prayed the way we did in our opening prayer earlier. We asked the God of might, and the giver of every good gift, to put into our hearts the love of your name. We asked God to change our hearts. To replace our selfish ambition with a burning desire for God. This is the first step to true humility. A change of the contents of our hearts. A clearing out of selfish ambition. And a filling in with the love of God.

And the good news for us is that God has already answered our prayer. By sending us Jesus. Who emptied himself to become a human being like us. And who then humbled himself to accept a shameful death on the Cross. It is when we gaze upon the reality of the Lord’s painful sacrifice. It is when we gather to recall the mystery of his great love for us. That we allow God to change our hearts in the direction of true humility. Melting the hardness of our pride. And igniting in us the fire of God’s love.

But that’s not all. This change in the content of our hearts has an important practical effect on us. We begin to lose our anxious ambition for getting to the top. Why? Simply because we begin to feel at home in God. As we prayed in our responsorial psalm: In your goodness, O God, you prepared a home for the poor. By changing our hearts, God leads us home. God enables us to feel at home in whatever situation we might find ourselves. For our hearts remain always centred on God. As St. Augustine once wrote, You have made us for yourself, O God, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.

The change of heart leads to a corresponding change in spiritual location. From selfish ambition to love of God. From anxious striving to peaceful homecoming. The second reading describes for us what this new spiritual location looks and feels like. What you have come to is Mount Zion and the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem… You have come to God himself… and to Jesus, the mediator who brings a new covenant. More important, when we reach this spiritual home, we find a surprise waiting for us. For the reading tells us that in this new spiritual location, everyone is a ‘first-born son’. In other words, here, at home in God, everyone of us is an heir. We no longer need to climb. For we find ourselves already mysteriously at the very top.

A change of heart. A coming back home. A claiming our dignity as heir. Heart. Home. Heir. These are the real stepping stones to true humility. This is the authentic path. Not a climbing over others. But a laying down of one’s life for their sake. This is the path that the Lord himself walked. The path that leads to the heights of heaven. By first passing through the depths of the earth. This is the Christian approach to being truly atas.

Sisters and brothers, what must we do to continue walking along this path today?

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Between Obstacles & Opportunities


21st Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)


My dear friends, if I were to ask you what you think is the most memorable moment in this year’s Olympic Games, what would you say? I expect that, for many Singaporeans, the most memorable moment must have been when Joseph Schooling struck gold in the men’s 100m butterfly swimming event. And that’s to be expected. It is, after all, our nation’s first ever Olympic gold medal! But, even so, I wonder if there is not another even more memorable Olympic moment. Memorable not just for a single nation. But for the whole human race.

It happens midway into the second heat of the first round in the women’s 5000m race. Many runners are bunched up tightly. Jostling for position. Abbey D’Agostino, of the United States, accidentally clips the heels of the runner in front of her, New Zealander, Nikki Hamblin. And, very tragically, both women fall to the track. What happens next is nothing short of awe-inspiring. Instead of simply resuming her race, the American runner, who is quicker to regain her feet, pauses to help her still stunned Kiwi rival to stand. Saying, “Get up, get up, we have to finish this!”

As it turns out, however, the American is more seriously injured. She falls again. And this time it’s the turn of the runner from New Zealand to wait for her and help her up. Resuming the race only when she sees that the American can continue on her own. And then waiting for her at the finishing line. Where the two runners, who have never met before, embrace each other joyfully. Even though they both finish well behind all the others.

What do you think happened here, my dear friends? What makes this a memorable moment? I’m not sure, but I think it has to do with how an obstacle was transformed into an opportunity. Isn’t this what Abbey D’Agostino and Nikki Hamblin were able to do? Even though they both finished last. By helping each other after their fall, they turned a serious obstacle to sporting success into a priceless opportunity for demonstrating the true spirit of the Olympic games.

To turn obstacles into opportunities. This is also what our Mass readings encourage us to do today. In the second reading, the obstacle in question is suffering. When we suffer, it is quite natural to think that, for as long as the suffering lasts, we cannot be happy. That the only way to true happiness is to somehow remove the obstacle. To quit the stressful job. To cure the serious illness. To replace the indifferent spouse. To ease the painful loneliness… But the reading invites us to do something different. Not so much to remove the obstacle of suffering, as to somehow turn it into an opportunity for growth. How?

By remembering that suffering is often the way by which the Lord trains the ones that he loves. Those whom the Lord considers his children. Suffering is part of your training; God is treating you as his sons and daughters. Viewed in this light, suffering actually becomes a happy privilege. A confirmation that we are beloved children of God. So that instead of mourning and groaning. Instead of getting depressed and discouraged. When suffering causes us to stumble, we should instead hold up our limp arms and steady our trembling knees and smooth out the path we tread. Seeking to turn the obstacle into an opportunity. As those two fallen Olympic runners did.

But obstacles don’t just come in the form of suffering in general. They often also take the shape of particular people. Those whom we may consider to be our rivals. Competitors. Isn’t this one possible reason why that person in the gospel wants to know whether there will be only a few saved? Perhaps he wants to know how many vacancies there are in the kingdom. So that he can figure out how many people he needs to beat. How many obstacles he has to overcome. In order to secure for himself a place there. As usual, Jesus doesn’t give a direct answer. Instead he tells the questioner to try your best to enter by the narrow door. But what’s so difficult about entering by a narrow door? Why does Jesus say that many will try to enter and will not succeed? Is it because they are all too fat? Even if they are overweight, surely they could squeeze through by turning sideways? So what exactly is the problem?

I’m not sure, sisters and brothers. But I’m reminded of scenes from those old slapstick comedies, where two people try to enter through a doorway that can really fit only one person at a time? They would have no trouble going through if only one were willing to allow the other to go first. But neither of them wants to give way to the other. They keep trying to squeeze through at the same time. And, of course, they fail. And we, the viewers, have a good laugh at their expense.

Isn’t it possible that one of the main reasons why it’s so difficult to enter by the narrow door is that we tend to see one another only as rivals vying for limited spots in the kingdom? Just as Olympians might compete for a limited number of medals. But being saved is not quite the same as competing for Olympic honours. In fact, both the gospel and the first reading surprise us with descriptions of the incredible inclusiveness of God’s kingdom. In the first reading, God promises not only to save a chosen few, but to gather the nations of every language. Even gentile foreigners. Whom the Jews tended to think were excluded from God’s favour. God promises even to make some of these foreigners into priests and Levites.

We find the same inclusiveness in Jesus’ description of the kingdom. People from east and west, from north and south, will come to take their places at the feast in the kingdom of God. Why are they able to make it through the narrow doorway? Whereas others fail? Perhaps it’s because they are willing to give way to one another. To let the other go first. To see each other not so much as rivals to beat, as people to help. Perhaps it’s because they are able to do what Abbey D’Agostino and Nikki Hamblin did in such an inspiring way. To see one another no longer as obstacles to overcome, but instead as opportunities for showing kindness and mercy, hospitality and love. 

To see others no longer as threats, but instead as friends. Isn’t this a call that we need to heed especially today? When we continue to struggle with desperate tendencies to exclude others. For example, even as we celebrate something as positive as Joseph Schooling’s Olympic triumph, aren’t there still those of us who delight in using it as another excuse to continue highlighting distinctions between so-called true-blue Singaporeans and foreign talent? Sisters and brothers, why are we so afraid of one another? Should we not be more afraid of failing to make it through the narrow doorway? Of hearing those terrible words being addressed to us: I do not know where you come from. Away from me, all you wicked people!

Sisters and brothers, Abbey D’Agostino and Nikki Hamblin were able to make the Olympic games memorable, by turning an obstacle to success into an opportunity for friendship. How are we being called to do the same today?

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Highway Code


Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Picture: cc Fraser Mummery

My dear friends, do you remember that test that we need to pass before we can get a driving license? I’m not referring to the driving test itself. That’s of course a given. I’m talking about what comes before that. Something more basic. As you know, we won’t even be allowed to take the driving test, let alone to get a driving license, without first learning the Highway Code.

And we all understand why. The Highway Code contains crucially important information about how to behave on the road. It teaches us how to recognise road signs. To understand and to obey them. So that we know how to behave properly while driving. To keep the roads safe. Otherwise, even if we may know how to operate a vehicle, if we don’t follow the signs, we will end up only endangering ourselves and others. 

Learning to recognise, understand and obey road signs. This is what it means to pass the Highway Code. One of the first things we need to do to get a driving license. To be allowed to drive safely on the road. My dear friends, I wonder if something like this is also what we are trying to do today. As we celebrate the Solemn Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

As you know, this feast celebrates our belief that, when our Blessed Mother reached the end of her time on earth, she was assumed–taken up body and soul–into heaven. Now although it may sound incredible, this belief is actually not too difficult for us to grasp. It’s pretty straightforward. But our Mass readings remind us that there is something more going on here. More than just someone being beamed up into the sky. As they might on Star Trek. Our readings help us to see a deeper significance to the Assumption. And they do it in three steps. Not unlike the three steps of the Highway Code: recognition, understanding and obedience.

The first step is taken in the first reading. Here, we are told of two characters appearing in the heavens. A woman in the pangs of childbirth and a huge red dragon. But the reading doesn’t just describe what happens to these characters. It also teaches us to recognise them as signs. Thus prompting us to do the same with Mary’s Assumption. To consider it not just as a historical event. Something that happened to our Blessed Mother a very long time ago. But also to recognise it primarily as a sign. Not unlike the signs in the Highway Code. Signals with particular meanings. Calling us to behave in particular ways.

Having invited us to recognise the Assumption as a sign, the first reading then prompts us to take a second step. It helps us to understand its deeper meaning. We’re told that what happens to the woman and to the dragon in the reading constitutes a victory. And we’re thus invited to see the Assumption in the same way. As a sign of victory. Victory won by our God. Authority won for his Christ. But how exactly is this victory won? Against what enemies? And for whose benefit?

We find the answers to these questions in the second reading. Which tells us that the victory was won through the Dying and Rising of Christ. By which the Lord destroyed all his enemies. Especially sin and death. So that Mary’s Assumption points us to the same thing as the Cross of Christ. It is a sign of victory over everything that keeps us from experiencing the joy and peace of God’s kingdom. And this victory is meant to benefit not just Jesus and Mary. But everybody. Including you and me. For just as all die in Adam, so all will be brought to life in Christ.

A sign of a great victory over everything that makes us sad and fearful. Everything that causes us pain and suffering. Everything that oppresses and depresses us. A sign of tremendous and lasting joy. A joy to be shared by all who believe in Christ. By all who follow in his footsteps. This is the deeper meaning of the Assumption. But, as with the road signs in the Highway Code, this meaning is not just something theoretical. It is intended to be primarily practical. To truly recognise and understand this sign is to behave in a certain way. To obey what the sign is calling us to do. When we arrive at a STOP sign, for example, we obey it by stopping our vehicle. So what does it mean to obey the sign of the Assumption? How should we behave?

Quite obviously, since it is a sign of great victory shared by all of us, to obey it is simply to rejoice. And not just for a moment. The way many of us must have done yesterday morning. When we witnessed Joseph Schooling’s awe-inspiring triumph at the Olympics. The Assumption is an invitation not just to rejoice fleetingly, but for all eternity. To live consistently joyful and victorious lives. This is what it means to obey the sign. To do what the Assumption is calling us to do. This is the third step. From recognition to understanding to obedience. But what does this really look like? What does it look like when people actually recognise and understand the deeper meaning of this sign? When they truly obey the call to live joyously victorious lives? This is the question that the gospel helps us to answer.

The passage is a familiar one. It’s the story of the Visitation of Mary to her cousin Elizabeth. The story of the meeting between two pregnant women on a mission. One has been travelling as quickly as she could through hill country. The other is old, but already in the sixth month of her pregnancy. They must both be exhausted. And yet their encounter contains neither complaint nor irritation. Neither depression nor anxiety. There is only joy. A joy expressed in the willingness to endure great inconvenience, in order to render service to another. A joy demonstrated in the ability to celebrate another’s triumph. Without any trace of jealousy or envy or competition. A joy that culminates in song. A spontaneous hymn of praise and thanksgiving to God.

Joy expressed in service, celebration and praise. This is what it looks like when people recognise, understand and obey the signs of God. The sign of Mary’s Assumption. And yet, my dear friends, how many of us truly experience this kind of joy on a regular basis? I dare not say for sure. Not even for myself. But isn’t it just as likely that, for some of us, even those who may be materially rich, life often feels more like a crushing burden than a joyful celebration? Don’t some of us experience even our closest relationships as more of a suffocation than a support? Isn’t our regular emotional state often characterised more by anger and frustration, than by care and compassion?

It’s as though we have learned to drive through life without first learning how to recognise the road signs of God’s presence and action in our world. We may know how to operate the vehicle. But we don’t know how to obey the signs. As a result we end up posing a danger to ourselves and to others. Isn’t this why we need the Assumption? A celebration that helps us to familiarise ourselves once again with the signs of God. In order to experience the joy that they bring. And so to share it with others.

My dear friends, we have all somehow passed the driving test of life. We have all obtained our driving licenses. What must we do to deepen our knowledge of the Highway Code today?

Saturday, August 06, 2016

Suspension Bridges


19th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

Picture: cc Falk Lademann

My dear friends, have you ever seen one of those flimsy-looking bridges that stretch across deep ravines? Perhaps in an action movie. If not in real life. Do you know what they look like? The bridge is usually anchored at opposite ends. And suspended over the space to be crossed. Two anchored ends and a suspended middle. That’s what this kind of bridge looks like. It’s a simple suspension bridge.

And those who have ever tried to cross one will know that it’s not always easy. In fact it can be quite scary. Especially if you’re afraid of heights. And the bridge starts to sway as you cross. Or to sag in the middle. This may be enough to make you decide not to cross over at all. But instead to remain safely on your side of the bridge. And that’s when it becomes helpful to consider the things that make the bridge safe. Apart from the strength of the material from which it is constructed, a lot also depends on how firmly the bridge is fastened at either end. If the ends are securely anchored, then the middle can be safely crossed. With courage and confidence. Instead of fear and trembling.

I wonder if we might not say the same about life. Isn’t life a constant crossing over, from the past, through the present, and into the future? And don’t the confidence and courage that we need to cross the suspended middle that is the present depend very much on how securely anchored we are at either end? On how deeply rooted we are in the memories of our past? On how confidently hopeful we are in our dreams for the future?

And isn’t this also the image that we find in our readings today? The image of a flimsy-looking bridge precariously suspended over a deep ravine? The first reading speaks of how the ancient Israelites, like Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, were able to joyfully take courage in facing the challenges of their own present time. They could do so because they placed their trust in the promises of God. Promises made to them in the past. Promises of a secure future. Ensuring them that God would never forget them. That God would always watch over and protect them. Never allow them to be completely destroyed.

And God proved to the Israelites that their trust was not misplaced. For God rescued them from slavery in Egypt. Helped them to cross safely into the freedom of the Promised Land. This central experience of the Exodus–the night that had been foretold to their ancestors–becomes for the Israelites a consoling memory of God’s fidelity to them in the past. Giving them confidence in the present. And fresh hope for the future. In other words, the first reading describes for us how God called the people of Israel to be something like a simple suspension bridge. To face the challenges of the present with joyful courage. By remaining firmly anchored in their memory of God’s help in the past. As well as in their trust in God’s continued assistance in the future.

The second reading gives a name to this kind of suspended in-between existence. This uncomfortable experience of constant crossing over. From slavery to freedom. From death into life. The letter to the Hebrews calls it faith. Faith expressed in the humble obedience of Abraham to God’s call to uproot his family. To set out on an arduous journey. Without knowing where he was going… Faith that is seen in the surprising ability of Sarah to conceive Isaac. Even though she was well past the age of childbirth… Faith that is revealed in the astonishing readiness of Abraham to sacrifice his only son. The same son through whom God had promised to make him the father of many nations. Abraham’s faith is shown not just in his willingness to sacrifice Isaac. But also in his continued belief that God would somehow fulfil the promise to multiply his descendants. Even after Isaac was dead.

In Abraham and Sarah, we see the obedient willingness to keep crossing over. The marvellous ability to courageously allow oneself to be suspended and stretched across the deep ravines of life in the present. It’s not an easy thing to do. How did they manage it? Only by remaining firmly rooted in their memories of God’s fidelity to them in the past. As well as in their trust in God’s promises for the future. This is what faith looks like. This is how it operates. Very much like a suspension bridge.

And isn’t this also what Jesus is talking about in the gospel? When he tells his disciples to stay awake? To be dressed for action? To be ever ready to open the door? The Lord is calling them, and calling us, to always be willing to do what Abraham and Sarah, and all the other great figures of the Bible were called to do. To always be ready to allow ourselves to be stretched across the deep ravines of life in the present. To always be willing to cross over from out of our comfort zones into the unknown. To conquer our fear. And to live a life of faith. But what does this look like in the concrete? What does it mean for us to cross over, to be stretched out, in the present? The answer is probably different for each of us. And yet, when we look at our world today, don’t we see one very obvious way in which this call is being addressed to all?

It’s quite difficult to deny that our world is currently at war. Not a conventional war perhaps. But a war nonetheless. A war that is being fought not just far away. It has already arrived at our doorstep. As witnessed by the report on the front page of today’s issue of the Straits Times. Telling us of the capture of a group of terrorists in Batam, who were planning a rocket attack on Marina Bay. This is war. A war in which the casualties keep mounting with each passing day.

And yet it’s important for us to realise that these casualties are counted not just in human lives. Serious and disturbing though this may be. The casualties of this war are counted also and especially in the rise of fear and insecurity. Of mistrust and suspicion. Of hostility and prejudice directed against those perceived to be different from ourselves. Isn’t this the deep ravine that we Christians are being called to cross over today? To insist on proclaiming the Good News with our lives, by resisting the temptation to avoid and to demonise others. To persevere instead in welcoming the stranger. In praying for those who may persecute us. In reaching out to those who may seem different from us. Isn’t this what faith must look like today?

And yet we should also be realistic. In a global climate of fear and mistrust, this is not an easy thing to do. To adequately meet the challenge, we must keep ourselves rooted in our memory of our past. The same memory we are gathered here to celebrate. The powerful memory of the One who passed over from death into life. In order that we–sinners and enemies though we were–might be saved. We must also remain firmly anchored in our hope for the future. Our trust that the One who is coming at an hour we do not expect will eventually wipe away every tear. Heal every wound. Make all things new. For he comes to reconcile all things in himself.

My dear friends, it is indeed difficult to deny that a deep ravine lies before us. How is God calling us to help to bridge it today?

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Don't Try This At Home?


Solemnity of St. Ignatius of Loyola (Parish Feast)

Readings: Jeremiah 20:7-9; Psalm 34 (33):2-3, 4-5, 6-7. 8-9, 10-11; 1 Corinthians 10:31-11:1; Luke 14:25-33
Picture: cc C├ęsar Astudillo

My dear friends, have you ever come across TV shows or commercials that include a warning? Typically something that goes like this: The stunts shown here are performed by trained professionals. Please do not try this at home! Why do you think they do this? Why bother to warn people not to imitate what they see on the show? The answer is simple, right? The producers know that the stunts are impressive enough for people to want to copy them. But they are also dangerous enough that, if attempted without the proper training, these same exciting stunts are likely to cause serious injury. Even death. And the producers don’t want to get sued. So they post a warning: To safely pull off these stunts you need to be someone who does this for a living. Someone who has dedicated his or her whole life to perfecting the art. Professionals only. Amateurs risk certain death. Don’t try this at home!

It may sound strange,  sisters and brothers, but don’t we find something similar in our readings today? In the gospel, we’re told that large crowds flock to Jesus. Perhaps hoping to witness miracles. Spectacular stunts. And Jesus issues them a warning. In no uncertain terms, he tells them how incredibly difficult it is to follow him. To try to imitate the kind of life he leads. Not only must his disciples hate even the members of their immediate family. Meaning that they have to give Jesus and the preaching of the gospel the highest priority in their lives. Higher even than the closest of family ties. They are expected also to give up all their possessions. To recognise that their possessions don’t really belong to them, but to God. Entrusted to them for the common good. Then they have to carry the cross and follow him.

In the first reading, the prophet Jeremiah models for us what this teaching looks like. God has sent him to preach a very hard message. And he suffers rejection and persecution as a result. The word of the Lord has become for me a reproach and derision all day long. Not only do people ridicule and mock him. They even plot to have him killed. Such is the danger and difficulty of the prophet’s mission. It demands all of him. Not just all his possessions. But the whole of his life.

Not just some things some of the time. But all things all of the time. This is what it takes to be a disciple of the Lord. Isn’t this what St. Paul is saying too in the second reading? Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God. Not just some things. But everything. All for the glory of God. If this is true then, contrary to popular belief, there really is no such thing as a Sunday-Catholic. Someone who practices Catholicism for only one hour or less a week. People who carefully time their presence at Mass in such a way as to satisfy only the barest of minimum requirements.

To do this is not much different from amateurs trying to perform dangerous stunts without proper training. It’s highly dangerous. In a spiritual sense. It may even cost us our eternal salvation. Not least by lulling us into complacency. On the contrary, to be a true follower of Christ requires true professionalism. The dedication of our every action. Renunciation of all our possessions. Devotion of all of our time. To aspire to anything less is to fall far short of discipleship. To put it more bluntly, a Sunday-Christian is not a true Christian. Christianity is not for amateurs. Only professionals. Those willing to offer all. To expend everything. In the service of the Lord. For the glory of God.

But this is also where our readings depart from those warnings we see on TV. And in a surprising way. The warnings are meant to discourage people from imitating what they see on TV. Our readings, however, aim for the opposite effect. Not discouragement but encouragement. Be imitators of me, St. Paul writes in the second reading, as I am of Christ. It’s as though our readings turn the television warnings on their heads. Not this is difficult. It requires specialised and dedicated training. Don’t try it at home! But, instead, yes, discipleship is indeed difficult. It will take nothing less than your whole life. Very likely you won’t have what it takes. So… what are you waiting for? Come follow me!

This approach will, of course, make no sense to us. Especially not if we consider it only in light of secular marketing strategies. People don’t usually try to encourage others to do something by telling them how dangerous and difficult it’s going to be. Let alone that they will very likely lose their lives in the process. Except that there is another important aspect to our readings that we haven’t explored. Something all-important. In the first reading, after complaining very bitterly about all the terrible things he has had to suffer. And just when we might expect him to throw in the towel. The prophet Jeremiah makes a surprising declaration: Within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary of holding it in, and I cannot.

Why does the prophet not simply give up his mission? Difficult and dangerous as it is? The short answer is that he cannot. He finds himself impelled to do what he has been sent to do. Why? Is he being oppressed or blackmailed in some way? An internet scam perhaps? No. Jeremiah speaks not of oppression but enticement. Seduction. Not of blackmail but love. Quite simply, he has fallen head-over-heels in love with God. And, as anyone who has ever been in love might understand, he is unable to refuse his Beloved.

This then is what it takes to be a true follower of Christ. Not just professionalism. But also passion. Not just the willingness to dedicate one’s whole life. But also the experience of being set on fire with the love of the Lord. Professionalism and passion. Two indispensable characteristics of true discipleship. Both of which are closely connected to each other. The professionalism flows from the passion. The deep love is what energises the total dedication. All of which should help us to understand the kind of training we need to become true followers of Christ. Authentic imitators of his life.

We must somehow be guided not just to work ever harder. Not just to give more and more of ourselves. But also, and first of all, to be set on fire. To be moved by passion. To fall deeply in love with the Lord. So that, impelled by love, the same love we are gathered here to celebrate at this Mass, we can make a generous offering of ourselves.

And it is in this process of setting hearts on fire that our patron, Ignatius of Loyola, was an expert. He excelled in helping people to receive and to burn with the love of the Lord. To be overwhelmed with gratitude. So as to serve with generosity. Which is why the church recognises him as a master of spirituality and retreat ministry. This is the Ignatian charism that is our precious heritage. This is what we are supposed to be experiencing regularly, as members of this parish. This is also what we are supposed to be sharing consistently with others. Not just in church. Not just at home. But also, and most of all, out in the world. Wherever we may find ourselves. Wherever our Lord may see fit to send us. To help set others on fire. To enable them to burn with passion. So as to serve with professionalism.

To fall in love with Christ. And to dedicate our lives to the service of his mission. This is what it means to be a member of an Ignatian parish. This is who we are. What we are called to do. This is what we celebrate today.

Sisters and brothers, on this the feast day of our parish, our readings should really come with a warning: These things can only be performed by passionate disciples. Trained professionals…

As individuals and as a parish, what must we do to continue receiving the training that we need today?

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Adoption Process


17th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

Picture: cc Janah Hattingh

My dear friends, do you know what it takes to adopt a child as your own? Do you know what the adoption process is like? Perhaps some of you do. The story is told of a married couple who, out of the kindness of their hearts, decide to adopt an orphan boy from a foreign country. Just to give him a better life. As you might expect, there are considerable legal procedures to go through. Official documents to file. Governmental departments to satisfy. Both in the foreign country as well as in their own. But even after all the official hurdles have been crossed, the process isn’t complete. In fact, as the couple soon realise, it has only just begun.

For even after the law already recognises the boy as their son, the child himself needs more time to do the same. Having spent the early years of his life in an orphanage, the boy is used to having to fend for himself. He’s constantly on guard. Always wary of strangers. So when his new parents first take him into their home, he keeps to himself. Not only does he not speak, he also starts to steal. Nothing of great value really. But simple things. Like an apple. Or a slice of bread. A spoon. Or a mug. He quietly takes these things, and hides them away. Saving them for a rainy day.

Patiently, his adoptive parents help him to understand that he is now their son. A member of their family. That he belongs in their home. And that they are responsible for caring for him. That they want only what’s best for him. So that whatever he needs, he has only to ask them for it. He doesn’t have to steal. It takes him a while. But gradually the boy begins to come around. He stops stealing and learns to ask for the things he needs.

Of course, like any good parents, the couple don’t always give him what he wants. Sometimes they refuse. For his own good. But just by learning to ask for what he needs, the boy receives something far more precious than the things for which he asks. Something that children of good parents often take for granted. He learns what it feels like to belong to a family. To have a home. To be able to entrust his life to people who love him. In learning to ask his parents for what he needs, the boy receives the one thing that he needs perhaps most of all. He learns what it means to truly be a son.

My dear friends, I tell this story because it helps me understand something in our Mass readings that may at first seem rather puzzling. As you’ve probably already noticed, the readings are about prayer. Especially petitionary prayer. The kind of prayer where we ask God for what we need. For ourselves and for others. The readings tell us not only that we should ask, but also how to ask.

In the gospel, Jesus says ask, and it will be given to you search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened to you… And the Lord also says that, if we ask and search and knock persistently, without giving up, we will receive. For the one who asks always receives; the one who searches always finds; the one who knocks will always have the door opened to him. Don’t you find it striking, sisters and brothers? How the word always is repeated? Again and again. And yet, isn’t this precisely what makes the reading difficult to understand?

For Jesus seems to be saying that we have only to keep asking God for what we want, and God will always give it to us. But is this true? Is this what we experience in our own lives? If I were to ask God for a million dollars, will I really receive it? If so, then why do we even bother to do any fund-raising? As we will be doing at our parish carnival next week. And if I don’t always get what I ask for, then is Jesus mistaken? Or, worse, could he be misleading us? Even lying to us? What do you think, sisters and brothers?

I’m not sure, but I think the problem here is that I misunderstand what Jesus is saying in the gospel. Jesus is not saying that I will get whatever I ask God for. What he is saying is that I will receive if I ask. But receive what? Not necessarily the exact thing for which I ask. Just as that adopted child in the story doesn’t always get what he asks for from his parents. In the gospel, Jesus says that the heavenly Father will give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him. And it’s important for us to understand the role and function of the Holy Spirit.

You may recall that, at the beginning of Luke’s gospel, it is by the power of the Holy Spirit that the virgin Mary conceives Jesus in her womb. This is what the Spirit does. It enables Mary to bear Christ, the only-begotten Son of God. But that’s not all. The same Spirit who produces in Mary the life of God’s Son, also reproduces the very same life of Christ in each one of us who have been baptised. So that, in Christ, we all become adopted sons and daughters of the Father.

Isn’t this what the second reading is telling us? You have been buried with Christ, when you were baptised; and by baptism, too, you have been raised up with him…. He has overridden the Law, and cancelled every record of the debt that we had to pay… In other words, by his Dying and Rising, Christ has satisfied all the legal requirements for our adoption as children of God. But that’s not the end of it. It’s only the beginning. For, like the boy in our story, we ourselves need time to learn what the Law already recognises. And this is why we need the Holy Spirit. It is by the Spirit, that we learn what it means to be adopted children of our heavenly Father.

Isn’t this why St. Paul can write, in the letter to the Romans, that we have all received the Spirit of adoption, enabling us to cry out, 'Abba, Father!’ (8:15)? For by giving us the Holy Spirit, our heavenly Father helps us to realise our own identity, our dignity, as His adopted children. And, like that adopted boy in our story, we receive this precious gift by learning how to ask our Father for what we need. The more we ask, the more we open ourselves to receive the Spirit. And the more we become children of God.

Which helps us to understand what is really going on in the first reading. Here Abraham begs God to show mercy to the people of Sodom. And yet, although God gives in to all of Abraham’s demands, Abraham doesn’t actually receive what he wants. For he wants God to spare the city. But, unfortunately, not even ten just people can be found there So Sodom is destroyed. Does this mean then that, for all his persistence in asking, Abraham receives nothing from God? No. By interceding so fervently for the people of Sodom, sinful though they are, Abraham shows himself to be a true son of God. He demonstrates that he is merciful, as his heavenly adopted Father is merciful. By asking God for what he wants, Abraham becomes more and more an adopted child of God.

All of which should help us to understand the true and deeper significance of petitionary prayer. We engage in it not to manipulate God into giving us what we want. But more to allow ourselves to learn what it means to be adopted sons and daughters of a merciful and loving God. We pray not in order to change God’s mind. But to allow God to change our hearts. Remaking us more and more into the image of God. Reproducing in us more and more the life of Christ, the only-begotten Son of God.

My dear friends, if it is indeed true that prayer is not so much a tactic for manipulation as a process of adoption. Then what must we do to allow ourselves to be transformed, more and more, from mere orphans into true sons and daughters of God, our loving and merciful Father today?

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