Sunday, August 18, 2019

Beyond Rats & Revolutionaries

20th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)
Picture: cc Benny Mazur

My dear friends, can any of you describe what it’s like to run in the rat race? You do remember what the rat race is, right? It’s a way of living my life that feels as though I’m a rat running on a wheel chasing after a piece of cheese that’s forever beyond my reach. And I’m not just running on my own, that would be bad enough, but what makes it worse is that I have to compete with others to get to the cheese first. Because more cheese for them means less for me. Or so I’m led to believe.

So, the rat race has its own process, which involves a constant obsession with getting more. More money, more possessions, more pleasure, more comfort, more followers on social media, more business contacts… more… And why more? Because there’s never enough. However much I already have, there’s always another piece of cheese waiting just beyond my grasp.

Of course, there are consequences to living my life in this way. There’s a price to be paid, measured not in money, but in brokenness. Brokenness of body, of mind and of relationships. Not only am I prone to stress and burnout – since I often fail to take good enough care of myself – but I also find it increasingly difficult to be patient and kind, not just to strangers, but even to family and friends, those whom I love.

All of which may make me wonder what drives me on. From where do I get the power to run this race? The answer is not too hard to find. The power to run this race comes from a deep hunger within me that keeps crying out to be filled. This hunger goes by different names, such as anxiety or envy or greed. Here in Singapore we also call it kiasuism.

And what is true of individuals like me, is true also of many countries the world over. These too are caught up in the rat race. These too are engaged in a process of constant cut-throat competition to consume more and more. These too have to pay the painful price in broken relationships, not just within themselves and with one another, but also with Mother Earth as well. These too are driven by the dubious power of anxiety and envy and greed.

But that’s not all. As you know, there are those in the world today, who think that the only way to stop living like rats is to choose to run the even deadlier race of violent revolution. Rather than continuing to engage in the process of constant consumption, these people substitute it with a process of cruel disruption. And yet, even if the process may be different, there is little actual change in the power that drives those who run this second race, and the price it exacts. For isn’t the hatred that drives the terrorist rooted also in anxiety and envy and greed? And what can we expect from violence if not even more brokenness?

So what then, my dear friends? If neither the rat race nor violent revolution is good for us, then what other alternative do we have? To be honest, I do not know the answer to this complex question. I cannot presume to understand its various social, political and economic implications. I can’t say for sure exactly what a viable alternative might look like in practical terms. But one thing I do know is that our Mass readings today point us in a helpful direction.

We see this most clearly in the second reading, which encourages us to run a race very different from the ones we have been discussing. A race run not by rats or revolutionaries, but by followers of Jesus, who leads us in our faith and brings it to perfection. A race that has its own distinct process and price and power.

In contrast to the processes of obsessive consumption on the one hand, and violent disruption on the other, the race of faith involves instead a process of trustful surrender, of letting go. Isn’t this what the prophet Jeremiah does in the first reading? At a time of national emergency, when the city of Jerusalem lies under the grave threat of a Babylonian invasion, obeying God’s instruction, Jeremiah tells the people not to resist but simply to submit, to allow themselves to be overrun. In response, to prevent the prophet from demoralising soldiers and civilians alike, the city’s leaders decide to kill him by throwing him into a well.

And yet, even in such dire straits, Jeremiah does not stop running the race of faith. He continues to entrust himself into the hands of God, even at the risk of paying the ultimate price. Thankfully, someone rescues him from what might have become for him a muddy tomb. Even so, doesn’t Jeremiah’s experience foreshadow that of Jesus, who obeyed his Father to the point of death, only to be raised to life on the third day?

And from where do Jesus and Jeremiah, and all the many witnesses who have run this race of faith before us, from where do they draw their power? What motivates them to submit to the process of self-surrender, such that they are willing even to pay the price with their very lives? Their power comes not from hatred or anxiety, envy or greed, but from the same thing that we prayed for earlier, when we asked God to fill our hearts… with the warmth of your love, so that, loving you in all things and above all things, we may attain your promises, which surpass every human desire…

To be filled with and empowered by that same fire of God’s love that Jesus wanted to bring to the earth with such great urgency. Isn’t this what sets Christians apart from rats and revolutionaries? And could this be the division that Jesus talks about in the gospel? For just as darkness is known by contrast to the light, so too are the divisions of our world uncovered by the fire of God’s love made manifest to us in Christ. The same love that we are gathered here this morning to celebrate. The same fire that impels us to keep running the race of faith, and to teach and encourage others to do the same.

Sisters and brothers, if it is true that a race can be identified by its own particular process and price and power, then what kind of race are you running today?

Saturday, August 10, 2019

Acronyms of Alertness

19th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

Picture: cc Choo Yut Shing

My dear friends, do you know what AERO stands for, A-E-R-O? How about PERT, P-E-R-T? Some of us may recall that these acronyms are the names of groups that have been formed to help the Catholic Church in Singapore prepare for emergencies. They are our contribution to SGSecure, our nation’s response to the threat of terror. AERO stands for Archdiocesan Emergency Response Operations, and PERT stands for Parish Emergency Response Team. 

Here at St Ignatius, for example, our own PERT has been conducting briefings, where key personnel are taught how to perform CPR, how to provide First Aid, how to use a fire extinguisher, and so on. I myself have participated in one of these sessions. Of course, providing and undergoing such training requires time and effort. It’s inconvenient. And yet, which of us would dare to say that it is not necessary? We know that it’s important to be prepared. So that when an emergency does arise, we are not caught napping. As has been rightly said, when it comes to a terror attack, it is not a question of if it will happen but when. Staying alert can make the difference between life and death.

AERO and PERT. I mention these acronyms of alertness, because they can help us appreciate the importance of what Jesus is saying to us in the gospel. You… must stand ready, because the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect… Like AERO and PERT, our Mass readings emphasise the importance of staying alert since, like a terror attack, the coming of the Son of Man is also not a question of if but when. Something for which we need diligently to prepare, even though it may be very inconvenient.

As inconvenient as staying awake late into the night, waiting for the return of the master of the household, who has been delayed. Or, for the Israelites mentioned in the first reading, as inconvenient as carrying out God’s instructions for celebrating the first Passover. Having to eat hurriedly a whole roasted lamb, after smearing its fresh blood on your doorposts, while dressed to leave forever the only home you’ve ever known, to embark on a long journey to an undisclosed location.

Or, for Abraham and Sarah in the second reading, as inconvenient as, not just moving to an unknown destination, but also, on reaching that place, having to refuse to allow yourselves to get too comfortable in it. Living there, instead, in tents while (looking) forward to a city founded, designed, and built by God. Recognising that you are only strangers and nomads on earth, longing for a better homeland in heaven.

My dear friends, like AERO and PERT, our Mass readings remind us of the importance of being willing to endure inconvenience, in order to stay alert, to be prepared for the coming of God’s kingdom. But what does this actually look like? What is the spiritual equivalent of learning how to perform CPR and how to use a fire extinguisher? To answer this question, it’s helpful to recognise an important point of contrast between AERO and PERT, on the one hand, and the alertness proposed to us by Christ, on the other.

A terror attack is, of course, a bad thing, an emergency, a serious threat to society. So that dealing with such an attack has largely to do with staving off its bad effects, and restoring society, as quickly as possible, to what it was before. The assumption being that the situation before the attack is a good thing. Something worth restoring.

Which is no doubt true. However, in contrast, the alertness in our readings has to do not so much with staving off something bad, as with welcoming something good, the coming of Christ and his kingdom. Indeed, if there is something bad in our readings today – something that needs changing – it’s the current situation. In the first reading, for example, the Israelites were oppressed and enslaved in Egypt. That was their situation. It was to set them free that God sent Moses.

In the gospel too, the Son of Man comes not to condemn but to save God’s people – to save us – from our current situation, from the bad effects of idolatry and oppression. So that to be alert is to realise our own need for the Lord, to learn to recognise the signs of his coming, by constantly cultivating and deepening our relationship with him, so as to be willing and ready to welcome him whenever he comes to rescue us.

Even so, perhaps we who live in Singapore – and particularly here in the parish of St Ignatius – perhaps we may be forgiven for wondering whether we need to be rescued in the first place. Isn’t our current situation already good enough? Isn’t it worth fighting to preserve? Yes, of course it is. And yet, can we deny that there are aspects of the status quo that may need challenging and changing? Are there not forms of idolatry and oppression from which we need to be set free?

For example, do you know what S-O-S stands for? Apart from being an international distress signal, S-O-S also stands for Samaritans of Singapore, an organisation dedicated to preventing suicides. According to statistics released by SOS two weeks ago, the number of suicides in Singapore rose 10 per cent last year. And, among boys aged between 10 and 19 years old, there were 19 suicides last year – the highest since records began in 1991 and almost triple the seven cases recorded in 2017. The situation looks grim enough for SOS senior assistant director Wong Lai Chun to be quoted as saying, “It is disconcerting to know that many of our young feel unsupported through their darkest periods and see suicide as the only choice to end their pain and struggles.”

My dear friends, I do not know the exact cause(s) of these alarming statistics. But I wonder if they are not an indication that, as important as it is for us to be prepared to face the future emergency of a terror attack, it’s at least as important for us to address the current emergency of so many of our teenaged children choosing to kill themselves. Could it be that, much as the status quo in Singapore is worth fighting to preserve, it also needs to be challenged by the Gospel of Christ? That liberating food, of which we Christians are the appointed stewards, the ones given the responsibility of feeding the master’s household at the proper time.

Sisters and brothers, there is at least one distress signal – one SOS – already sounding in our midst right now. What must we do to become alert enough to better respond to its call today?

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Captured for Eternity

15th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)
Picture: cc Giuseppe Milo

My dear friends, do you like to take photographs? I believe many of us do, right? At the slightest opportunity, we delight in taking selfies and we-fies. And isn’t it true that, in addition to bowing our heads in prayer, many of us these days can’t resist the urge to also whip out our phones to snap a photo of our food before we eat it. Especially if we’re trying a new recipe, or dining at a popular restaurant. And this may happen not just when we’re filling our stomachs, but even when we should be nourishing our souls. Not so long ago, didn’t the Pope scold some priests and bishops for taking pictures at papal Masses? The priest says, “lift up your hearts,” the Pope complained, not “lift up your phones” … 

But why, my dear friends? Have you ever wondered why we enjoy taking pictures so much? I’m not sure. But my guess is that, deep within every one of us, there is a burning desire to collect souvenirs. A profound yearning to preserve what might otherwise quickly pass away. To save the unique experience. To capture the fleeting moment. So as to savour it later, or share it with our friends, or store it away for posterity. And while, in the past, you needed to be a reasonably good artist to do this, these days, all you need to have is a reasonably good phone.

Please don’t be mistaken, my dear friends. I mention all this not to criticise, but only because I wonder if it is not also what the lawyer is asking Jesus in the gospel. What must I do to inherit eternal life? The lawyer’s concern is apparently to prolong life. To capture what would otherwise be only a fleeting experience. To preserve it, not just for today or tomorrow, but for eternity. Of course, the reading tells us that he said this to disconcert the Lord. But could he perhaps also have been secretly hoping for some enlightenment as well?

Whatever the lawyer’s true intentions, his question remains. How to inherit eternal life? How to preserve the passing, to capture the fleeting, to immortalise the merely mortal? What is the Lord’s response? To capture eternity, I must love God with every fibre of my being, and my neighbour as myself. And I must do this in a particular way. Go and do the same yourself… Go and do for others, what the Samaritan did for the one who was mugged and left for dead. Go and help all who are in need, without worrying about whether or not they share my beliefs, or my nationality, or my race, or my social status… Just go and help them in whatever way I can.

But that’s not all. By asking the lawyer to do what the Samaritan did, isn’t Jesus also asking him to become the same kind of person? To become a neighbour like the Samaritan? A person able to feel what the Samaritan felt, to be moved in the way the Samaritan was moved. A person capable not only of experiencing compassion for someone in dire straits, but also of being courageous enough to let that feeling impel me to act, whatever the cost may be to myself.

But what if I am not that kind of person? What if I am not the sort who is easily moved to compassion at the sight of suffering people? What if the constant bombardment of shocking images on the media, has already numbed me to the plight of those in need? Such that I may see, but no longer feel. Or I may feel, but have not the courage to act. What if the daily demands of life and work have so narrowed my attention, and hardened my heart, that there is little if any room left inside me, even for a pinch of patience to show to my family, let alone being kind to strangers in trouble?

In other words, what if I am not a good enough artist to capture the fleeting moment? Does it mean that all is lost for me? Does it mean that I can never satisfy my deep yearning for eternity? And yet, in the first reading, Moses promises the Israelites that the keeping of the Law is not beyond your strength or beyond your reach…. No, the Word is very near to you. It is in your mouth and in your heart for your observance.

What does this mean for me, and those like me, who do not find in ourselves the kinds of feelings and impulses that the Samaritan experienced? Perhaps we can take comfort in the second reading, which speaks of Someone else who did manage to become a good neighbour. Someone who captured eternity so completely, that the reading proclaims him the image of the unseen God and the first-born of all creation. Christ Jesus, who by his Life, Death, and Resurrection, compassionately reaches out to save me from my often apathetic and self-centred existence. Just as the Samaritan went out of his way to save the one left for dead.

Could it be that, even if I may not be a competent enough artist to capture eternity, Christ is that more than good enough camera, who delights in doing for me what I cannot do for myself? So that what I need is to continually allow myself to be captured by Christ. To keep reaching for him, the way I may feel drawn to reach for my phone, whenever I wish to take a picture. To reach for him, not just as an individual, but also as part of that community that prides itself in being his Body, the Church. The same way we are reaching out to him even now. Allowing him not just to gather us to celebrate this eucharistic memorial of his Dying and Rising. But also to scatter us once the celebration is complete. Sending us out into the world to go and announce the gospel of the Lord. To go in peace, glorifying the Lord by our lives.

Could this be how we can truly make our own those moving words of St Paul, in his letter to the Philippians? Not that I have become perfect yet: I have not yet won, but I am still running, trying to capture the prize for which Christ Jesus captured me (3:12).

Sisters and brothers, thankfully, these days, we don’t all have to be great artists to capture eternity. All we need is a good camera. What must we do to continue allowing ourselves to be captured by Christ today?

Sunday, June 30, 2019

Shooting Satellites into Space

13th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)
Picture: cc NASA Goddard

My dear friends, do you know what a satellite is? We rely on these objects orbiting around the earth to perform many different functions. There are, for example, weather satellites, communications satellites, observation satellites, military satellites, and so on. But how do all these heavy gadgets get up into space? It’s not easy, because, as you know, in order for them not to fall back to the earth, they must somehow escape its gravitational pull. And for that to happen, the satellite needs to be connected to a rocket that is strong enough to overcome gravity. So it’s the rocket that does all the work. What the satellite has to do is really just to maintain a strong connection to the rocket, so as to allow itself to be carried to its destination.

Getting into space by hanging on tightly to a rocket. It may sound strange, my dear friends, but isn’t this something like what we find in our readings today? Both Elijah, in the first reading, and Jesus, in the gospel, are actually on their way to the same destination. The first reading is taken from somewhere near the end of the first book of Kings. Later, early in the second book of Kings (2 Kg 2:1ff), we’re told that, after completing his mission on earth, Elijah is taken up into heaven. Similarly, in the gospel, we’re told that the time drew near for (Jesus) to be taken up to heaven.

Like rockets, both Elijah and Jesus are about to shoot straight up into the sky. How do they do this? Elijah, as you know, undergoes many trials and persecutions, in order to carry out the mission given to him by God. And, similarly for Jesus, the gospel says that he resolutely took the road for Jerusalem. He is determined to walk the lonely and painful Way of the Cross. In the readings, like powerful rockets, both Elijah and Jesus are able to blast their way up into the heavens, only by laying down their lives on the earth.

But, again like rockets, they don’t just depart this earth on their own. As they go, each of them takes the trouble to call disciples. To lead others to the place where they are going. To share with chosen companions the same glory and happiness that is their proper reward. In the words of the responsorial psalm, you will show me the path of life, the fullness of joy in your presence, at your right hand happiness for ever.

Could this be why both Elijah and Jesus appear to make such unreasonable demands on their disciples? Elijah doesn’t allow Elisha to kiss his parents goodbye. And, even worse, when the one Jesus calls asks for time to bury his father, the Lord tells him to leave the dead to bury their dead. Why so demanding? Why so unreasonable? Could it be because, just as the connection between a satellite and its rocket needs to be strong enough to survive the journey into the heavens, so too must the bond between the disciple and the master be stronger than any other attraction. Stronger even than one’s natural affection for, and filial duty towards, one’s parents. Important though these may be.

For just as a satellite needs to be tightly connected to its rocket, in order to escape the force of gravity, so too must we allow ourselves to be so closely bound to Christ in love, that we are enabled to finally escape the downward pull of selfishness and sin. Isn’t this what St Paul is writing about in the second reading, where he encourages the Galatians to exercise the freedom won for them by Christ, by serving one another in works of love? For it is only by being connected to Christ in this way, and by being guided by the Spirit, that they are able to escape the danger of yielding to self-indulgence.

All of which may help us to reflect on our own lives. We who so often struggle and fail to overcome our lower impulses. Our temptations to feed our egos, to nurse our resentments, and to stab our enemies both in the front and in the back. We who just as often struggle and fail to heed our higher calling. To feed the hungry, to welcome the stranger, and to lay down our lives for our friends.

What are we to do when, however hard we may struggle, we simply cannot seem to escape the gravitational pull of selfishness and sin? Perhaps the solution is not so much to burn ourselves out by applying ever more effort, as it is to deepen our relationship with the One who has already blazed a path for us from death into life. For just as satellites manage to reach their destination only by remaining connected to a rocket, so too are we able to enjoy the freedom of the children of God, only by clinging ever more tightly to God’s only begotten Son.

Sisters and brothers, what will you be doing to strengthen your bond with Christ our Rocket today?

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Of Cooking, Consuming & Corpus Christi

Solemnity of The Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ (C)
Photo: cc Katherine Lim

My dear friends, do you like to cook? Recently I was happy to hear someone speak very enthusiastically about how much he liked to prepare food for others to enjoy. But when he went on to ask me whether I did any cooking, I was too embarrassed to admit that I practised what you might call survival cooking. I cook only to stay alive. So I responded instead by telling him that we both would actually make a great team. Since he likes to cook, and I love to eat.

I was, of course, only joking. But, although I didn’t mean to at the time, I was also making a point, wasn’t I? The point being that I don’t have to know how to cook to know how to eat. In fact, I don’t even need to know where the food I eat comes from, let alone how it was prepared. For example, a survey done back in 2012 revealed that 36% of young adults in the UK between the ages of 16 and 23 did not know that bacon comes from pigs. While 11% of them didn’t know that eggs come from chickens. And yet, ignorant though they were of the origins of bacon and eggs, we can be sure that these same young people had no difficulty enjoying it for breakfast.

This is actually so obvious to us that we don’t need to be reminded of it. We all quite naturally assume that we don’t have to know how food is produced in order to consume it ourselves. And yet, it is precisely because of this assumption of ours that we need the solemn feast of Corpus Christi.

For isn’t it true that too many of us approach the Eucharist in the same way that I responded to my friend’s question? With the unspoken assumption that we can receive its benefits without being continually mindful of its origins? I can’t be completely sure, but I suspect many of us Catholics view the Eucharist the way our society teaches us to view all the other things in our lives. Merely as an object to be consumed and nothing more. And just as I can consume most things while remaining ignorant of how they are produced, so too with the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ. Or so I think.

Isn’t this why some of us find the Mass so boring? Although we may be commended for making the effort to come to church on Sunday, isn’t it true that some of us are so focused on receiving Holy Communion, that we don’t feel too bad if we miss some of the other stuff that happens before and after? Anything before the gospel perhaps. And definitely everything after the host has been safely deposited into our mouths.

And yet, isn’t this also why I may find it such a challenge to appreciate the significance of what happens at Mass on Sunday for everything else that goes on in my life the rest of the week? For if the Mass is nothing more than just another opportunity to consume something, then what additional value can it possibly have for me, who already spend the rest of my life continually consuming everything else anyway?

Could this be why it’s possible for me to even spend long periods in the adoration room, consuming the sacred host with my eyes, without necessarily experiencing any improvement in how I relate to the world outside? Without my becoming any less selfish and any more loving?

Could it be, my dear friends, that my tendency to separate the consumption of the Eucharist from its origins actually prevents me from receiving its benefits? For isn’t it striking that, in our Mass readings today, the consumption of spiritual food is intimately connected with its production?

In the second reading – which, as you know, is the same one we read on Holy Thursday – Jesus offers food to his disciples in a very particular way. First, the Lord performs several specific preparatory actions. The same actions that he performs in the gospel, and which the priest performs at Mass. The Lord takes and blesses (or gives thanks). He then breaks and gives. Second, the disciples are asked to do this as a memorial of me. To ensure that every time they prepare and consume the Eucharistic food, they bear firmly in their minds and hearts its true source. Its deeper origin, not just at the Table of the Last Supper on Holy Thursday, but also, ultimately, on the Wood of the Cross on Good Friday. For every time you eat this bread and drink this cup, you are proclaiming (the Lord’s) death.

It is only by doing this, by preparing food the way Christ prepares it – while simultaneously recalling the Lord’s loving sacrifice on the Cross – that we, who call ourselves his followers, are able to do what Jesus tells his disciples to do in the gospel. Give them something to eat yourselves. Not to remain focused only on consuming what is offered to us. But to also be mindful of the need to feed the crowds of people who still experience a hunger the world cannot satisfy.

At the Eucharistic Table, my dear friends, those who are fed are also motivated and empowered to feed others as well. Those who truly receive the Gift of Christ’s Life, are prompted to make a return gift of their own lives. Allowing themselves to be taken and blessed, broken and given. So that other lives might be nourished as well.

In this way, all of us who claim to follow Christ truly become his Body. Through him, with him, and in him, we too become priests like Melchizedek of old. A people whose lives are a blessing to God and to others. And, in this way too, the prayer that we offered at the beginning of Mass finds its answer. This is the proper way for us so to revere the sacred mysteries of (the Lord’s) Body and Blood, that we may always experience in ourselves the fruit of (His) redemption. For, contrary to the assumption I had when responding to my friend’s question, we can only be nourished by the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ by participating fully and actively in its production. At the Table of the Lord, I can only eat by also learning how to cook.

Sisters and brothers, if all this is true – if our being fed by the Lord is intimately connected to the feeding of others as well – then what must we do, both as individuals and as a community, to become better chefs today?

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Remembering the King

Solemnity of The Most Holy Trinity (C)
Video: YouTube Iftadulsadab Kashif

My dear friends, do you remember the story of King Kong? As you may recall, King Kong is the title of a movie first produced in 1933, and later remade by Peter Jackson in 2005. In the remake, a film crew travels by boat to a remote island, populated by prehistoric creatures, including King Kong, a majestic 25-foot gorilla. Unexpectedly, this gigantic ape falls in love with Ann, the lead actress on the film crew, and takes it upon himself to protect her from all harm. In a spectacular sequence, Kong successfully fights off a pack of giant flesh-eating dinosaurs, while continually passing the tiny actress from the safety of one huge hairy hand to another.

Unfortunately for Kong, however, his love for Ann results in him being captured and brought to New York City, where he promptly escapes and continues to do what he had been doing on the island. He keeps fighting to protect Ann. Eventually, he carries her up the Empire State Building, where Kong is tragically shot and killed by war planes. But not before ensuring that Ann is safely deposited at the top of the building.

The story is, of course, a work of fiction. But it may be helpful for us to imagine what it’s like to be Ann. What it’s like to be loved in such an inexplicable, total and self-sacrificing way. What does it feel like to be held in those powerful yet protective hands, to gaze into those fiercely determined yet tender eyes, and to watch the life gradually fade from them, all for one’s own sake?

It may sound strange, my dear friends, but I believe it is by pondering questions like these that we begin to appreciate the deep Mystery we are celebrating today. It is by placing ourselves in the shoes of someone like Ann – by recalling what it feels like to be loved in a similarly inexplicable, total and self-sacrificing way – that we can hope to penetrate the significance of our belief that God is a Trinity of Persons united in a single divine Substance.

For the doctrine of the Trinity can only be appreciated from a very particular location. The same spiritual place that St Paul describes in the second reading, when he says that it is by faith and through Jesus that we have entered this state of grace… What is this state of grace? Isn’t it that place of safety where we have been deposited by the love of God? The same inexplicable, total and self-sacrificing love expressed so eloquently and majestically in the Life, Death and Resurrection of Christ? Not unlike how King Kong leaves Ann safe at the top of the Empire State Building, even as he himself slowly slips away to his death?

Except that, we believe God does not simply slip away and abandon us. For, in the gospel, before going to his Passion, Jesus speaks to his disciples about the coming of the Spirit of truth, who will lead them to the complete truth. So that, if we were to think of Jesus and the Spirit as two hands that the loving Father stretches out, to hold us and to protect us, then it is as though the Father were passing us from the safety of one hand to another. Much like how King Kong passes his beloved Ann from one hand to another, even as he fights to protect her from the monsters that seek to devour her.

What does it feel like, my dear friends, to be at a spiritual location such as this? To find myself in this state of grace? What happens to me, when I begin to appreciate in some measure the inexplicable, total and self-sacrificing love that has been and continues to be showered upon me by God? The love that we have been pondering throughout the beautiful season of Easter, which ended last week with the feast of Pentecost?

Perhaps, when I do arrive at this place, I may be moved to ask the same question posed in the psalm: what is man that you should keep him in mind, mortal man that you care for him? Or, in other words, who am I, Lord, that you, who are so majestic and mighty, should l lay down your life for me in Christ? That you should commit yourself to remaining forever present to me in the Spirit? Who am I that you should keep protecting me from every evil that threatens to devour my life? Who am I that you should even delight to be with me, as the first reading assures me you do. I who sometimes can’t even abide my own company. Who am I that you, who are so full of life, should empty yourself so completely for me through Christ and in the Holy Spirit? Who am I, Lord, that you should love me in such an inexplicable, total and self-sacrificing way?

And what might happen to me, my dear friends, when I do indeed ask myself questions such as these? Perhaps then there will be ignited within me a tiny spark of that divine Love that blazes so intensely for me. And as I begin to burn with this same love, perhaps I will also learn to do what Paul asks the Romans to do in the second reading. To take pride in my sufferings, instead of constantly complaining about them, or trying to run away from them. For, when borne with love, these sufferings lead me closer to Christ.

Perhaps I will also learn to delight in the beauty of God’s creation. To delight even in the often messy circumstances of my own life, and of the lives of the people among whom I live and work every day. Perhaps I will also learn to reach out my hands, to protect those around me who are most at risk, even as God continues to reach out God’s hands to protect me.

My dear friends, at the end of the movie King Kong, as the great ape lies dead, a puzzled reporter asks, why did he do that…? To which someone else replies It was beauty killed the beast. Meaning, presumably, that it was because of the beauty of the actress that Kong died. But even if this may be true of the great ape, it is not quite what we believe about God. For we believe that God loves us not because of any merit or beauty of ours, but simply because God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them (1 John 4:16).

Sisters and brothers, as we celebrate the marvellous love that is the Most Holy Trinity, perhaps it is fitting that we should also ask ourselves where exactly are we choosing to abide today?

Sunday, June 09, 2019

Learning the Language of Love

Solemnity of Pentecost (C)
Video: YouTube uCatholic

My dear friends, do you know why we have two ears and only one mouth? According to a well-known saying, it’s so that we can listen twice as much as we speak. Which makes a lot of sense, when we stop to think about it. Seeing as how our ability to speak is so dependent upon our ability to hear, that those who are born deaf often have difficulties learning to talk.

This close connection between speaking and listening is something that we might do well to bear in mind today, as we celebrate this solemn feast of Pentecost. For perhaps one of the most striking effects of the coming of the Holy Spirit – at least as it is described in the first reading – is how the Spirit endows the disciples with the gift of speech. The power to speak foreign languages. To preach, in the respective native tongues of their listeners, about the marvels of God.

I’m not sure about you, my dear friends, but I find my attention easily captured by this apparently miraculous gift of tongues. On occasion, I even wonder to myself why I don’t seem to have this same useful power. Why it isn’t easier for me to learn a foreign tongue. To be honest, I find it a challenge just to hear confessions in a second language, let alone to preach in a third or a fourth

And yet, engrossed as I often am by this power to speak in different tongues, it’s easy for me to forget that speaking is not the only gift that the Spirit brings at Pentecost. A closer look at the first reading uncovers another blessing, as important as the first. Do you know what it is? No prizes for guessing, since it’s really quite obvious, if only we take the time to look.

While the first paragraph of the reading describes the effects of the Spirit’s coming upon the disciples, the second paragraph shifts our attention to their listeners. It tells us of the amazement and astonishment of these foreigners from every nation under heaven. Surely, they say to themselves, all these men speaking are Galileans? How does it happen that each of us hears them in his own native language?

The obvious answer to their question is, of course, the one provided in the first paragraph. They are able to understand the preaching, because the Holy Spirit has given the disciples the gift of speech. But isn’t it also reasonable to suppose that, along with the power of expression bestowed upon the disciples, the Spirit has also given to their listeners a corresponding power of receptivity?  That the gift of speech comes with an accompanying gift of hearing. How else to explain their openness to the Good News, if the Spirit were not simultaneously at work, as much in the listeners as in the speakers? Perhaps it is no accident, then, that the first reading calls these listeners devout.

Nor is it just the foreigners in the first reading who have been given the gift of hearing, the power of receptivity. Haven’t the disciples themselves received this same gift? Haven’t they been taught first to hear, in order that they might speak? Isn’t this the promise Jesus makes them in the gospel? The Advocate… will teach you everything and remind you of all I have said to you. In other words, even before the Spirit bestows the gift of speech, it helps the disciples to listen again to everything that Jesus has said to them in the past. Isn’t this what we ourselves have been doing the whole of Easter?

Just as any child learns to talk only by first learning to hear, so too do the disciples learn to proclaim the Good News by first being taught to hear it and to receive it, to recognise it in their own experience, and be renewed by it. This is how they learn to listen and speak in a very specific yet universally understood language. Do you know what this language is?

It is the same one through which Jesus expressed himself when he walked among us on this earth, and especially when he allowed himself to suffer, to die, and to be raised up on the Cross for us. It is also of this same language that he speaks in the gospel, when he tells his disciples, If anyone loves me he will keep my word and my Father will love him, and we shall come to him and make our home with him. This language of God’s love is also what Paul writes about in the second reading, when he encourages the Roman Christians to live spiritual lives. Lives that cry out, in the intimate family dialect of God’s love, Abba, Father! In contrast, those who speak only the unspiritual worldly lingo of selfishness are doomed to die.

All of which may help me to answer the question I asked myself at the start. Why don’t I seem to have the same gift of speech the disciples were given at Pentecost? For two possible reasons. First, it may be that I’m too focused on speaking foreign languages with my tongue, when I should really be more concerned about learning to communicate Christ’s love with my whole life. And, second, just as a child learns to talk by hearing, so too do I need to beg the Spirit for the ability first to better recognise and relish God’s loving presence in my own life. Only then can I hope to point it out to others in ways they can easily understand.

My dear sisters and brothers, in our Mass readings today, although there is a striking description of the gift of speech, we actually find even more references to the gift of hearing. A gift bestowed both upon the disciples and their listeners. So that the old saying still holds true. We are given two ears and one mouth, so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.

I’m reminded of these words from the late Fr John Veltri, SJ:

Teach me to listen, O God, to those nearest me,
my family, my friends, my co-workers.
Help me to be aware that no matter what words I hear,
the message is, “Accept the person I am. Listen to me.”
Teach me to listen, my caring God, to those far from me –
the whisper of the hopeless, the plea of the forgotten,
the cry of the anguished.
Teach me to listen, O God my Mother, to myself.
Help me to be less afraid to trust the voice inside —
in the deepest part of me.
Teach me to listen, Holy Spirit, for your voice —
in busyness and in boredom, in certainty and doubt,
in noise and in silence.
Teach me, Lord, to listen.

Sisters and brothers, as we bring the beautiful Season of Easter to a close, what must we do to keep allowing the Spirit to teach us to listen twice as much as we speak today?

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