Saturday, March 14, 2015

Between Achievement and Art

4th Sunday in Lent (B)

Sisters and brothers, do you ever think about the things that make you happy? What are they? When do you experience joy? I’m not sure, sisters and brothers. But I tend to think that, especially here in Singapore, many of us associate joy with success. With personal achievement. So I feel happy when I get a promotion, for example. Or receive a pay-rise. Or do well in an examination. Or succeed in getting the person I like to go out with me. In all these situations, I feel happy because I can take pride in my own achievement.

And I experience this kind of joy even when the achievement is not properly mine. I may take pride in the success of my children and grandchildren, for example. Or rejoice when my favourite soccer team wins the championship. Or when my old school has the most number of straight-A students. These are actually the successes of other people. But I’m happy all the same, because I somehow claim the achievements as my own.

All this is fine and good for those of us who happen to be super-achievers. High fliers. Those for whom everything we touch turns to gold. But what if our efforts keep meeting with failure? What if we keep encountering disappointment? One after another? Is it impossible then for us to be happy? When we have nothing to boast about? Are we doomed to be forever depressed?

The answer, of course, is no. No, we are not doomed to depression, just because we encounter failure. Yes, it is still possible to be happy, even in the face of disappointment. And that’s because the joy of achievement is not the only kind of joy. Not even the purest kind. There are other joys. There is, for example, the joy we experience when we see a beautiful sunset. Or when someone does something nice for us. Something that we don’t even deserve. Or the joy that comes from knowing that we are loved and accepted as we are. Even though we fail.

Sisters and brothers, the joy of achievement is not the only kind of joy. And it’s important for us to remember this especially today. As you know, sisters and brothers, the 4th Sunday of Lent is also called Laetare Sunday. From the Latin word that means rejoice! I’m not sure about you, sisters and brothers, but I sometimes find it very puzzling that here, in the middle of Lent, we are invited to rejoice. Halfway through a season in which we do penance for our sins and shortcomings, when we struggle to turn away from our failures and infidelities, what do we really have to be happy about? Nothing really. At least not if we are looking for the happiness that comes from our own successes. But the joy of Lent is not the joy of achievement. The joy of Laetare Sunday is of a different kind. It comes from a source other than ourselves.

Our readings help us to better understand, and to enter more deeply into, this joy. To begin with, the first reading tells the story of the people of Judah, around the time of their Exile in Babylon. It begins as a very tragic tale. A sad sad story of failure and disappointment. Repeatedly the people sinned against God. Kept worshipping false gods. Added infidelity to infidelity. And yet, God remained ever faithful. God never forgot them. Refused to abandon them. Continued to keep them in mind. Even while they were in exile in Babylon. Eventually, God raised up Cyrus king of Persia, who defeated the Babylonians. And allowed the people to finally return to their home. To their own land. To rebuild the Temple. This is the joy that the first reading invites the people to experience. Not the joy that comes from their own achievements. For they have none to boast about. But the joy that comes from the unwavering love and mercy of God.

And what the first reading does for the people of Judah, the second reading and the gospel do for us. For the history of our relationship with God is not much different. Like the people of Judah, we too have sinned and broken faith with God. We too worship false gods. Like money and success. Or popularity and prestige. Or even anger and resentment. Yet God never forgets us. Refuses to abandon us. Just as Cyrus is raised up in the first reading. So too, in the gospel, we are told that the Son of Man must be lifted up. Raised up high upon the Cross. Where he lays down his life for us. Setting us free from our exile in sin.

This, my dear friends, is the true reason for our joy. Not our own achievements. For we have none worth talking about. But the love and mercy shown to us by God in Christ Jesus. As the second reading reminds us, it is by grace that you have been saved, through faith; not by anything of your own, but by a gift from God; not by anything that you have done, so that nobody can claim the credit. We are God’s work of art, created in Christ Jesus to live the good life as from the beginning he had meant us to live it.

Sisters and brothers, the joy that our readings are inviting us to experience is not the joy of achievement. At least not our own achievement. It is, rather, the joy in God’s achievement. The joy of knowing that something marvellous has been done for us. And to us. Without our deserving it. It is the joy of being chosen by God to be God’s special work of art. The joy of being moulded by the hands of God into something beautiful and precious. Beautiful and precious not because we achieve great things. But simply because we are loved by God. Loved even to the extent that Christ would lay down his life for us.

And yet, sisters and brothers, we have to be honest with ourselves. It is not an easy thing for us to enter into this joy. This joy of being God’s artwork. Even though it is offered freely to us. With no strings attached. It is not easy because, more often than not, we keep clinging to our craving for success. We keep focusing only on ourselves. And on our achievements. Just like someone, who fails to rejoice in the beauty of a brilliant sunset, because s/he is too busy fiddling with the cellphone. Or too preoccupied with the business of daily living. We fail to rejoice in God’s love, because we are too busy trying to earn it.

Isn’t this why we continue to require the discipline of the season of Lent? Through prayer, fasting and almsgiving, we allow God to refocus our attention. To help us to let go of our craving for success. Our need to take pride in our achievements. So that we can rejoice in what God has done and continues to do for us. And so that, by entering this joy, we can also begin to usher others into it as well.

Sisters and brothers, today is Laetare Sunday. Today we are invited to rejoice. What must we do, you and I, to deepen our experience of the joy of the Lord, and to share it with others, today?

Sunday, March 01, 2015

Trust Walk

2nd Sunday in Lent (B)
Picture: cc Melody Joy Kramer

Sisters and brothers, have you ever heard of something called a trust walk? Perhaps some of you have done it. It’s a kind of team-building exercise. A group of people is divided into pairs. One person in each pair is then blindfolded. And the other person has to lead the blindfolded person around an obstacle course. After the first person has completed the course, the roles are reversed. What do you think, sisters and brothers? Have you tried this before? Is it something that you’d be willing to do? Would you find it easy? Or difficult? Well it depends, right?

It depends on how much you trust your partner. That’s why it’s called a trust walk. The activity helps to test and to build up trust in the members of the group. So that they can work more effectively together. And, of course, the more dangerous the obstacles, the greater the trust required. If, for example, you knew that you only had to walk around an empty courtyard, then perhaps it wouldn’t matter who was leading you. But if I were to blindfold you and ask you to choose someone to lead you across that dangerous road in front of the church. Who would you choose? You’ll probably choose someone you know very well. Someone you trust. Maybe a relative or a close friend. Someone you know, from experience, to be trustworthy. You wouldn’t choose a stranger. Or, worse still, an enemy. The more dangerous the obstacle, the greater the trust required.

I mention all this because, in each of our Mass readings today, we find people being invited to go on something like a trust walk. In the first reading, God puts Abraham to the test. It’s as though Abraham is asked to enter a dangerous obstacle course blindfolded. But, to see the danger and the blindfold, we must first recall that, earlier in the story, God had promised to make Abraham the father of many nations. And this promise can be fulfilled only through Isaac. Since he is the only son of Abraham and his wife Sarah. But then, in the first reading, God does something that is very difficult to understand. Something that sounds crazy. God tells Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. To kill the one person through whom God’s promise might be fulfilled.

To sacrifice Isaac is to put God’s promise in danger. Without a legitimate son to succeed him, how is Abraham to become the father of many nations? Abraham has no way of knowing the answer to this question. So the call to sacrifice Isaac is really an invitation to step out into the dark. To go on a trust walk. To allow God to lead him through a dangerous obstacle blindfolded. And this is a very difficult thing to do. Yet Abraham obeys. He proves himself willing to do whatever God asks of him. He lets himself be blindfolded. He braves the danger. He crosses the obstacle. He passes the test. How is Abraham able to do this?

The reason is because he already has a very close relationship with God. He knows, from experience, that God can be trusted. And so he is able to put his trust in God even when he is sorely afflicted. Even when he has to pass through great danger. Even when he has to sacrifice something most precious. Without knowing why. And without knowing how God’s promise to him will be fulfilled. In response, God rewards Abraham. God transforms the sacrifice into salvation. God turns the danger into a blessing. I will make your descendants as many as the stars of heaven and the grains of sand on the seashore… All the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by your descendants... Not only will God bless Abraham, God promises also to make him a blessing for others.

In the gospel too, we find people preparing for a trust walk. The reading is taken from the 9th chapter of Mark’s gospel. Earlier, in chapter 8, Jesus had already told his disciples that he would soon have to suffer and die on the cross. And then rise again after three days. At this point in the gospel, Jesus has already started travelling in the direction of great danger. He is walking to Calvary. And he invites his disciples to renounce themselves, to take up their own crosses, and to follow him.

This is, of course, not an easy thing to do. It requires great courage. And deep trust. The disciples need to know that Jesus is actually worthy of their trust. Which is why, in the gospel, Jesus lets three of them experience his Transfiguration. By showing Peter, and James, and John, who he really is. By revealing to them his hidden identity as the glorious Son of God. Jesus is helping them to trust him enough to follow him into the danger of Calvary. He is showing them that he can be relied upon to lead them safely through the obstacle of the Cross.

Which is why, at the end of the experience, God the Father gives them this invitation: This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him. The Father calls them to trust in Jesus. To follow him into the darkness of the Cross. This is the true meaning of the Transfiguration. It is meant not just to give the three disciples a good time. But to strengthen their trust. So that they can find the courage to do what Abraham does in the first reading. To continue following Jesus. To continue trusting in God. Even when they are blindfolded. Even when they have to pass through a dangerous obstacle. Without knowing why.

And it’s not just Abraham and Peter. It’s not just James and John. Who are called to do this. Isn’t life itself also very much like a trust walk? Every so often, after a time of relative peace and quiet, we may find our lives turned upside down by one challenging situation or another. Maybe it’s a major illness. Or a death in the family. Or a broken relationship. Or a setback in our career. Or a crisis of faith. An experience that worries our mind. And breaks our heart. Something that leads us to ask the question why? Why me? Why now? Why this? And, all too often, when faced with these experiences, the temptation is for us to think that God has forsaken us. So we too should forsake God.

And yet, our readings remind us that there is another way to look at such situations. That the trials we face may actually be a way in which God is testing us. Strengthening our faith. Building up our trust. Reminding us of what the second reading tells us. That with God on our side who can be against us? That Jesus has not only died for us – he has already risen from the dead, and there at God’s right hand he stands and pleads for us. This is our Transfiguration experience. The same experience that we are celebrating at this Mass. And that we are preparing to celebrate at Easter. By putting ourselves through the discipline of Lent. The glorious feast by which God changes death into new life. Transforms great danger into bountiful blessing. Lent is a time when we allow God to test us. To help us to grow in our knowledge of who God is. So that we can trust God enough to take up our crosses everyday. And to follow him on the road that leads through danger, to true happiness and lasting peace. Not just for us. But also through us, for the rest of our world.

Sisters and brothers, how is God inviting you to take a trust walk with him today?

Saturday, February 21, 2015

From Threat to Transport

1st Sunday in Lent (B)

Picture: cc Jason Jones

Sisters and brothers, do you know how to transform something dangerous into something useful? Have you ever tried, for example, to cross the road in front of this church? What’s it like? It’s dangerous, right? Dangerous, because the road is very wide. And the traffic moves pretty fast. And there’s also a bend in the road. So the drivers can’t always see you. That road is a dangerous place. But what if you were in a car? Or a van? Well, then the situation changes. In that case, the road becomes more than just a dangerous obstacle. More than just a threat to your safety. With the right vehicle, the road is changed into a means of transport. A way to get you to wherever you need to go.

And the same would be true if the road was replaced by a fast-flowing river. The waters of the river are a dangerous obstacle. A threat to our safety. To swim across the river, we would risk being swept away by the waters. Or attacked by the animals that live in them. But if we were in a boat. Or on a raft. Then the river is transformed. From a place of danger to a means of transport. A way that takes us to our destination.

Sisters and brothers, when we are in the right vehicle, dangerous obstacles become precious means of transport. This is the lesson that our readings teach us on this first Sunday in Lent. In the first reading, Noah has just passed through dangerous waters. Not the waters of a river. But a terrible flood. A flood so severe that it has wiped out every living thing from the face of the earth. Everything, except Noah and those with him. They alone have survived, because they took refuge in the right vehicle. They entered the ark. Not only did the ark protect them. It transformed the dangerous floodwaters into a means of transport. Bringing them safely into the presence of God.

But it wasn’t just the ark that kept Noah safe. It was really the love and mercy of God. The love and mercy that moved God to teach Noah to build the ark. The same love and mercy that now leads God to make a Covenant with Noah and the whole of Creation. Promising that there shall be no flood to destroy the earth again. This Covenant now becomes a new vehicle for Noah, and all that come after him. A vehicle that transforms dangerous obstacles into precious means of transport. All that is needed is for people to remain true to the Covenant. To continue living in the love of God.

In the gospel too, we find someone in a dangerous place. After Jesus had been baptised by John in the Jordan, the Spirit drove him out into the wilderness. Where he was tempted by Satan. But, somehow, Jesus manages to survive the danger. And not only does he survive. We’re told that he was with the wild beasts, and the angels looked after him. The wilderness actually drew Jesus closer to God. And to the creatures of God. How did this happen? Was it not because, like Noah before him, Jesus continued to live in the love of God? Which became a vehicle for him. Transforming the wilderness from a place of danger to a means of transport.

And the wilderness is not the only dangerous place that Jesus enters. There is another. A place called Galilee. We know that Galilee is a dangerous place, because that’s where John the Baptist was arrested. And where he would be put to death. But Galilee is not just a physical location. It is also a spiritual place. The place where Jesus carries out the mission received from his Father. To preach the good news of God’s love for us all. And this is a dangerous thing to do. In carrying out this mission, Jesus will eventually find himself nailed to the wood of a cross.

And yet, for Jesus, Galilee is more than just a dangerous place. It also becomes a precious means of transport. A way to draw closer to God. And this happens because Jesus keeps travelling in the right vehicle. In all that he does, Jesus remains faithful to the love of his Father. And this love transforms the danger and destruction of Good Friday into the glory and resurrection of Easter Sunday. But that’s not all. The good news is that this transformation is not just something that happened to Jesus in the past. It continues to happen to each of us even today.

I’m not sure if you agree with me, sisters and brothers. But our world is a very dangerous place. And I’m not just thinking of those faraway places, like the Middle East and Ukraine, where deadly wars are still being fought. Even here, in relatively peaceful Singapore, the world can be a dangerous place. And not just because it’s possible to get knocked down by a car while crossing the road. Or to suffer a heart-attack while watching TV. Or to crash suddenly into the sea while flying from Surabaya to Singapore.

Our world is dangerous for us, in the same way that the wilderness was dangerous for Jesus. It is a place where we are constantly being tempted. Tempted to stray away from God. Tempted to set our hearts on things less than God. Not just obviously sinful things. But even apparently good things. Beautiful things. Things like a comfortable life and a successful career. There is nothing wrong with such things in themselves, of course. But it is possible to lose ourselves in them. To be so obsessed with working hard to get them. That we lose sight of God. And get swept away by the stresses and strains of daily living. What is more, the world is also dangerous for us the way Galilee was dangerous for Jesus. If we choose to remain true to the mission of Christ. To keep proclaiming the love of God wherever we go. Then it is likely that we will suffer. The world will reject us. We will have to walk the way that Jesus walked. The way of the Cross.

So what are we to do? Should we try to escape from the world? To escape from the wilderness? To escape from Galilee? No. That is not God’s way. That is not Jesus’ way. And that is not our way. The Christian approach to danger is not to avoid it. But to enter into it. Just as God called Noah to enter the waters of the flood. Just as the Spirit drove Jesus out into the wilderness. And then into Galilee. By our baptism, we too are called by God to brave the dangers of our world. So that we can transform it. From a threat to our safety to a means of transport. A way that leads to God. And we can do this only when we travel in the right vehicle. The vehicle of God’s love shown to us in Christ Jesus. The same love that we celebrate at this Mass. The love of the one who has entered heaven and is at God’s right hand. For it is only through him, and with him, and in him, that all our Good Fridays are transformed into Easter Sundays.

And isn’t this why we observe Lent? We enter the wilderness of prayer and fasting and almsgiving. Not to make ourselves suffer. Or to prove ourselves strong. But to take refuge in the vehicle of Christ’s love. Leading us into the presence of God.

Sisters and brothers, even now, God continues to change the dangers of our lives into a means of transport. What must we do to continue taking refuge in God today?

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Beyond Backseat Driving

Chinese New Year

Readings: Numbers 6:22-27; Psalm 89(90) 2-6, 12-14, 26, R: 17(b); James 4:13-15; Matthew 6:31-34
Picture: cc janeyhenning

Sisters and brothers, have you ever been in a car with a backseat driver? You know what a backseat driver is, right? It’s a passenger who insists on telling the actual driver how to drive. Which route to use. How fast to go. Whether or not to overtake… And if the one who is actually driving the car fails to follow the instructions, or is slow to do so, this passenger is likely to scold the poor fellow. See lah! I told you already not to go by this way. But you wouldn’t listen. See, now caught in traffic jam. Next time better let me drive…

And, of course, it’s not just in cars and on the roads that we find backseat drivers. We can find them almost anywhere. In the office or in school. At home or on vacation. Even here in church. We find people who seem to delight in telling other people what to do. People who seem to have a desperate need to arrange every little detail. Not just in their own lives. But also in the lives of everyone else. We have another name for such people, don’t we? We call them control freaks. Actually, sisters and brothers, before you think that I am pointing fingers at others, I must confess that I sometimes find similar tendencies in myself as well. At some level, I too am a backseat driver. I too am a control freak. Which leads me to ask the question why? Why do some of us do this? Why do we feel the need to control everything?

I’m not sure. But I think backseat drivers like me are under a couple of illusions. First, the illusion that we are the ones actually in control of the car. Not the driver. That it is our responsibility to tell the driver what to do. And this first illusion arises from a second, more deeply-rooted, one. The illusion that we must be in control of the car for the journey to go smoothly. Otherwise everything will go haywire. I’m not sure, sisters and brothers. But I sometimes think that we backseat drivers and control freaks act the way we do, because we are deeply insecure. And we compensate for our insecurity by trying to control everything. By acting as though it were possible for us to control everything.

Which is why I think our Mass readings on this first day of the Lunar New Year are very appropriate. As we look forward to the uncertainties that lie ahead. It is tempting for us to fool ourselves into thinking that we are in control. To act as though we have to be in control. But our readings remind us otherwise. First, they tell us who we are. What it really means to be a human being. Notice the images that are used. In the psalm, we are told the same thing that we were reminded of yesterday. Ash Wednesday. That we are dust. And that the time will come when God will turn all of us back into dust. That we are like a dream. Which dissipates as soon as the sleeper awakes. Or like grass which springs up in the morning. But by evening it withers and fades. The second reading even compares us to the mist that is here for a little while and then disappears. Together, these images remind us not just how short our lives are on this earth. But also that we are not in control. No more than the dust and the dream, or the grass and the mist, are in control.

No, sisters and brothers, we are not in control. And we need to avoid acting as though we are. We need to resist two temptations that spring from the illusion of control. The first is arrogance. The tendency to think and to act as though, just because things are going well for me now, they will continue to do so. As long as I remain in control. In control of my career. Or of my family. Or even of my relationship with God. Pope Francis calls this practical relativism. Acting as if God did not exist, making decisions as if the poor did not exist, setting goals as if others did not exist, working as if people who have not received the Gospel did not exist (EG, 80). And yet, as the second reading reminds us, you never know what will happen tomorrow. The second temptation is anxiety. The tendency to worry about what is to come. Perhaps because our experiences of the past have shown us just how uncertain, just how fragile, the future is. And yet no amount of worrying on our part can actually make us more secure.

What are we to do then? If we are neither to be anxious nor arrogant? If we have to stop trying to take control? What we have to do is first to accept that our lives are in the hands of God. That it is God who is in the driver’s seat. That it is God’s love and care for us that keeps us in existence. And to trust that God will continue to care for us. Will never abandon us. Which is not to say that we should not work hard. Of course we should. We should work hard with our hands. But we should also keep our hearts fixed, not on ourselves, but on God. Set your hearts on God’s kingdom first, and on his righteousness, and all these other things will be given to you as well.

And it is precisely with our hearts set on God’s kingdom that we then beg for God’s blessing. Not just so that everything will go smoothly for us materially. Of course, we pray that it will. But, even more important, we also pray that, whatever may happen–in good times or in bad, in sickness or in health, in success or in failure, in poverty or in wealth, in life or in death–whatever may happen, God’s kingdom will come. God’s will may be done. In our lives. And in our world. Isn’t this what we mean–what we should mean–when we wish one another a Happy New Year?

Sisters and brothers, in this Year of the Goat, how shall we allow God to take firmer control of our lives? What must we do to stop being backseat drivers today?

Sunday, February 15, 2015

From Self-Preservation to Mercy

6th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

Sisters and brothers, just imagine for a moment that there is a sudden outbreak of a deadly highly contagious disease. A disease that we are still unable to cure. What do you think we should do? How to prevent the disease from spreading? The answer is quite simple, isn’t it? A single word. Quarantine. We quarantine all those who have been infected. We separate them from the rest of us. We isolate them. During the recent Ebola outbreak in west Africa, for example, hundreds of people at a time were quarantined. Cut off from the rest of society. Even as frantic efforts were made to find a cure.

Although it’s a terrible and painful thing to have to leave the infected ones to suffer and die, yet we know that we have little choice. Even if our own relatives and friends are among those infected, we know that we still need to isolate them. And we do this for two main reasons. The first is self-preservation. We have to quarantine the sick to protect the healthy from infection. Of course, we wouldn’t have to do it if we were able to cure the illness. So the second reason is really our own powerlessness. We are forced to quarantine the sick, because we are unable to heal them. Preservation and powerlessness. These are the two main reasons why we isolate the sick.

And these are also the same reasons for what we find in the first reading today. The reading contains advice for dealing with certain infectious skin diseases. Diseases for which the people have no cure. What to do? How to prevent the diseases from spreading? One solution. Quarantine the infected. Isolate them. Separate them from the rest of society. Not only must they live outside the camp. They must constantly warn people to stay away. We can only imagine how terribly painful it must have been to live like that. To suffer not just the physical effects of the illness. But also the emotional and psychological strain of being cut off from family and friends. Of being treated as an outcaste. It must have been a horribly lonely life. But we know the reasons for it. As we said earlier. Preservation and powerlessness. The healthy are powerless against the illness. So, to preserve themselves, they isolate the sick.

Quarantine. This is the usual human response. The response of the powerless. The response of those who wish to preserve themselves. All of which should help us to better appreciate what we find in the gospel. Something very surprising. Something beyond the usual human response. Something that goes against all the precautions prescribed in the first reading. Instead of keeping his distance, a leper dares to kneel before Jesus to beg him for healing. If you want to you can cure me. And, instead of protesting, or scolding the leper, Jesus does the unthinkable. He reaches out and touches him. Of course I want to! Be cured! Why does Jesus do this? What gives him the courage to break the leper’s quarantine? The reasons are exactly the opposite of those for putting the quarantine in place.

In contrast to the people’s helplessness, Jesus demonstrates his power. At his command, the man is cured instantly. In contrast to the people’s desire for self-preservation, Jesus demonstrates his great mercy. Not only does he feel sorry for the suffering leper. Not only does he reach out and touch the man. The gospel also tells us that, as a result of the healing, Jesus could no longer go openly into any town, but had to stay outside in places where nobody lived. In other words, Jesus traded places with the leper. To help the outcaste rejoin society, Jesus himself becomes an outcaste. And all because his concern is not to preserve himself but to show mercy. Like Paul, in the second reading, Jesus is not anxious for his own advantage but for the advantage of everybody else, so that they may be saved.

And it’s important for us to remember that what Jesus does for the leper, Jesus has also done for all of us. For, like the leper, we too are stricken with a disease that we are powerless to cure. The spiritual sickness of sin. Which cuts us off not just from one another. But also, ultimately, from God. From the Author of Life itself. Yet, God chooses not to isolate us. Not to quarantine us. Not to cut us off. But, instead, to show us mercy. By sending Jesus among us, God stretches out his hand of compassion to touch us. To become one like us. To bring us healing.

And as if this were not enough. Not only does Jesus touch us. He also takes the effects of our sins upon himself. He suffers and dies on a cruel cross. On an isolated little hill. Outside the city of Jerusalem. So that we might be saved. By becoming powerless in this way, Jesus actually demonstrates the wonder-working power of God. The healing power of the love and mercy of God. Which cures every incurable illness. Which breaks every painful quarantine. Which reconciles all outcastes to God.

Sisters and brothers, isn’t this the good news we celebrate? That we, who once were spiritual lepers, have now been healed by God? That we, who once were spiritual outcastes, have now been reconciled? And, having received such a great gift, we in our turn are called to do the same for others. Through our Baptism, we receive the mission of Christ. To do for others what has been done for us. To bring back the outcastes from their isolation. To free them from their quarantine.

But who are the lepers of our society today? Who are the people whom we quarantine? Whom we isolate? Whom we separate from ourselves? You may remember, sisters and brothers, what happened during the Pope’s recent visit to the Philippines. The Philippine government moved hundreds of homeless people from the streets of Manila to temporary housing at a luxury resort. Apparently to keep them out of sight. To isolate them. And Manila is not the first to do such a thing. Cities hosting the Olympic games have done it before. Moved the poor away from Olympic venues. So they won’t be seen. Why do we do this? Perhaps for the same reasons that lepers are quarantined. Powerlessness and preservation. Because we believe ourselves powerless to address the illness of poverty. Because we wish to preserve the status quo. To preserve our wealth. To preserve the economic system, in which, according to a recent Oxfam report, the richest 1% will soon own more than half of the world’s wealth.

Sisters and brothers, these days we don’t just quarantine the physically sick. These days, we isolate especially the economically ill. The poor and the homeless. But God calls us to make a different response. A response born not of the concern for self-preservation, but of the desire to show mercy. A response that focuses not on our own powerlessness. But that relies rather upon the power of God’s love for the poor and the sick, the suffering and the sinful. A power that we have experienced for ourselves. A power that we receive at this Eucharist. A power that we are called to exercise for the benefit of the outcastes among us.

Sisters and brothers, what are we doing to reach out to the poor? To break through their cruel quarantine today?

Sunday, February 08, 2015

Healing the Broken

5th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

Picture: cc Phil & Pam Gradwell

Sisters and brothers, are you interested in healing? I think many of us are. If I were to organise a talk, for example. Or a seminar. Or a Mass to celebrate a special occasion. What do you think I could do to get more people to come? From experience, one good way is simply to publicise the Mass as a healing Mass. Or to say that the talk or seminar is about healing of some kind. Healing of memories, maybe. Or inner healing… If I were to do that, then many more people will show up. Everyone is interested in healing. Perhaps it’s because we know that we are all sick in some way. We all need to be healed. Not just in body, but also in mind, and in spirit.

And yet, sometimes I can’t help wondering whether we really know what it means to be healed. And what it means to be sick. Haven’t we met people who are sick, but who do not know it? And, on the other hand, don’t we also know of people who think they are physically ill, when they’re actually perfectly fine? What does it really mean to be sick? And what does it mean to be well? What does a truly healthy person look and feel like?

Sisters and brothers, these are some of the important questions that our Mass readings help us to answer today. In the gospel, we’re told that Jesus cured many who were suffering from diseases of one kind or another. He healed them. But in what way were they sick? And in what way did Jesus heal them? Sisters and brothers, when a car stops running the way it’s supposed to, we say that it is broken-down. It needs to be repaired. In the same way, a human body can also break down. Isn’t this what happens to Simon's mother-in-law?

The gospel tells us that she had gone to bed with fever. Her body was broken-down. She couldn’t function as usual. She had to rest. Then we’re told that Jesus took her by the hand and helped her up. And the fever left her. But that’s not all. We’re also told that, after the fever left her, the mother-in-law immediately began to wait on them. She started serving the people around her. Isn’t this the difference between a healthy person and sick one? Not just the absence of fever. But the presence of the ability and willingness to serve others. A working car can run on the road. A broken-down one cannot. Similarly, a healthy person is one who serves. A sick person does not.

But there is more. A human being is more than a car. It can break down not just physically. But also spiritually. So, in the gospel, we’re told that Jesus cast out many devils. He didn’t just heal broken bodies. He mended broken hearts. Broken spirits. But what does it mean to be possessed by a devil? What does it look and feel like to have a broken spirit? The first reading gives us a good example. A helpful illustration.

We are probably all familiar with the story of Job. We know he was a good and righteous person. And yet, God allowed terrible tragedy to befall him. In a very short time, he lost his property, his family, and even his health as well. So that, when we meet him in the first reading, we find him terribly depressed. Possessed, as it were, by a spirit of sadness and despair. His heart is broken. He is unable to find meaning in life. Unable to be happy. Unable to serve others with a joyful heart. For him, life is nothing more than slavery. We are forced to work. For no other reason than to earn money. And we are constantly restless. Never really happy with our current situation. At night, we look forward to sunrise. In the day, we long for evening. Even if we go through the motions of serving others, we find no joy in doing so. Job’s example reminds us that sickness is not just about diseased bodies. It is also about broken spirits. Which prevent us from finding meaning in life. From experiencing joy in service.

In contrast, consider what we find in the second reading. Notice how St. Paul describes his ministry of preaching the gospel. Even though he says that he didn’t choose this work for himself. Even though he calls it a duty and a responsibility that has been placed upon him. Even though he says that he has made himself the slave of everyone. Yet Paul is filled not with a spirit of depression, but of enthusiasm. He speaks of his work as a reward. A sharing in the blessings of the gospel. He is happy to do it. He finds deep meaning in it. It gives him great joy. Isn’t this the difference between the healthy and the sick? Not just the ability to serve others. But also the capacity to find meaning in it. To derive joy from it. Even to be energised by it.

But, if all this is true, then how do we come to be healed in this way? Especially if, like Job, we ourselves have experienced disaster and disappointment. Failure and disillusionment. When people have let us down. Even betrayed us. Or when we ourselves have fallen short of expectation. Or when we find it difficult to find meaning in life. When our faith feels like nothing more than a burdensome struggle. How to mend our broken spirits? How to recover our enthusiasm? How to find healing?

What we need to do is, of course, to turn to Jesus. In the gospel, when Simon and the other disciples went looking for Jesus, they were doing so for the wrong reasons. Impressed by the large number of people flocking to see the Lord, they wanted to convince him to remain where he was. To build up his popularity even more. But that was precisely the wrong reason to stay. The wrong reason to serve. By thinking in this way, the disciples were only setting themselves up for failure and disappointment. They were already showing symptoms of illness. And they did not even know it.

How does Jesus respond? Let us go elsewhere, he tells them, to the neighbouring country towns, so that I can preach there too, because that is why I came. Just when he was beginning to become popular, Jesus decides to leave. And he leaves because that is what he was sent to do. Not to build his own reputation. But to proclaim the Kingdom of God. That is the mission entrusted to him by his Father. And it is by sharing this same mission with his disciples that Jesus begins to heal them of their illness. By driving out their worldly ambitions. So that they might be possessed only by the Spirit of God. The Spirit of Love and Joy. The Spirit of Peace and Patience. The Spirit of Gentleness and Self-Control. The Spirit that empowers and energises us to lay down our lives for others. As Jesus laid down his life for us.

Isn’t this what true healing looks like? Isn’t this is what it means to be a healthy human being?

Sisters and brothers, today the Lord wishes to continue to heal us. You and me. Today, he wishes to continue mending our broken spirits, by sharing his mission with us. How willing are we to receive it? What response shall we make to the Lord today?

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Dealing With Distractions

4th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

Sisters and brothers, have you ever tried talking to someone who is distracted? Someone whose attention is drawn to something else? Someone playing a game on her phone, for example. Or watching TV. Or reading a book. What is it like? It can be quite frustrating, right? Frustrating because you can tell that the person is not really listening to you. And what if you have something important to say? What to do? How to get the person to give you her undivided attention?

One way is to say or to do something that the person finds even more attractive than the distraction. So, if you know that the person likes to eat durians, for example. You can buy her some. And, hopefully, the person’s love for durians will be strong enough to make her stop whatever it is she is doing. In other words, one way to capture a distracted person’s attention is to overpower the distraction. To drive it out with something stronger.

But that is not the only way. There is another. We see it happen often enough. When a girl likes a boy, for example. What can she do to get his attention? Without appearing too desperate. Well, I don’t know for sure. But I’ve been told that one thing she can do is to get involved in whatever the boy likes. So if he is interested in soccer, she can learn more about the game. Find out all about the team he likes. His favourite player. The position he plays in. And so on. So that the girl now has something in common with the boy. Can capture the boy’s attention. Not by overpowering his distraction. But by entering into it. By transforming the distraction into an opportunity for connection.

Driving out a distraction. And entering into it. These are two ways we can make a distracted person give us her undivided attention. We find something similar in our Mass readings today. In the gospel, Jesus teaches in a synagogue, where he encounters a man who is very badly distracted. And not just with any ordinary distraction. This man is unable to listen to Jesus, unable to receive the good news that Jesus proclaims, because the man is possessed by something else. An unclean spirit. Which has captured his attention so completely, that his heart is hardened to everything else. Everything good. Everything Godly. What does Jesus do? How does he deal with this terrible distraction? He uses the first method. Speaking with the authority, the attractive force of almighty God, Jesus overpowers the unclean spirit. He drives it out. Freeing the man to finally receive the word of God, and so to enter into the fullness of life.

Sisters and brothers, it is helpful for us to remember this story. For even if we may not be possessed by an unclean spirit in exactly the same way as the man in the synagogue, don’t we sometimes allow ourselves to become very badly distracted? And I don’t mean when we daydream or doze off at Mass. Or during the homily. There are even worse distractions than these. Such as when we are unable to let go of our petty jealousies. Or when we hold onto a grudge against someone for something that the person did or said twenty years ago. Or when we are trapped in troublesome obsessions and addictions. Not just sex and pornography. But also money and success. Or the desperate need to look and to feel good all the time. These things can possess us. Harden our hearts. Prevent us from receiving the good news of God’s love for us in Christ Jesus.

And just as the man in the gospel was able to enter the synagogue even while possessed by an unclean spirit. So too is it possible for us to come regularly to church, and still remain badly distracted by serious sin. What to do? We must allow the Lord to do for us what he did for that man in the gospel. We must allow the Lord to overpower our sin. To drive it out. By confessing our sin. And by praying daily. We must allow the Lord to turn our attention back to him alone. To let him become the main attraction in our life. Leading us into Eternal Life.

But it’s not just sinful and unclean things that distract us. Even good and wholesome things can too. Like the things that St. Paul is writing about in the second reading. Paul wants the Corinthians to give their undivided attention to the Lord. But he worries that they are distracted by the worries and burdens of daily life. By the normal stresses and strains of having to care for a spouse, and of bringing up children. So how does Paul deal with these distractions? Like Jesus in the gospel, he adopts the first method. He tries to overcome them. To drive them out. He suggests that the Corinthians who are unmarried should remain single. So that they can avoid being distracted by the affairs of the world. So that they can focus only on the affairs of the Lord.

Now this is a very drastic solution. If we were to accept it, then all the single people among us will never have the chance to marry and have children! Not an inviting thought. But it’s important to remember that Paul makes this suggestion only because he believes that the end of the world is coming very soon. So there is no point in starting a family, when the time is so short. But if we don’t follow Paul’s suggestion, how are we to deal with the distractions of daily life?

Thankfully, there is another way. A second method. In the first reading, the people of Israel have been finding it difficult to listen to God. God is too holy for them. And their hearts are too distracted by worldly affairs for them to give God their undivided attention. They are torn between God and the world. So they beg Moses not to let them hear again the voice of the Lord, or they shall die. In response, God promises to help them. But not by driving out or overpowering their distractions. Instead of forcing the people to turn away from the world, God promises to send a prophet into the world. To transform worldly affairs from disturbing distractions into opportunities for connection.

This promise, which God makes in the first reading, God fulfils in the gospel. In the person and ministry of Jesus. He is the new Moses. The Prophet who is more than a prophet. In Jesus, God’s Word becomes Flesh. In him, God enters into worldly affairs. Like a girl learning to play soccer to get close to a boy, God gets involved in the messy and worrying business of ordinary human life. To get close to us. In Jesus, God transforms the distracting world into a holy place. A place for meeting God. In Christ, God can now be found, not just in church, but also in our homes, and in our workplaces. In the shopping malls, and on our streets. In good times, and in bad. In people who are happy, and also especially in those who suffer. But we need to develop the eyes to see him. The ears to listen to him. The hearts to give him our undivided attention. And to help others to do the same. Isn’t this why we are here this evening?

Sisters and brothers, this is our call. Not to run away from the world. But to enter into it. And to seek and to find God there. In the ordinary situations and people of everyday life. This is our call. This is our dignity. O that today you would listen to his voice! Harden not your hearts.

Sisters and brothers, how is the Lord helping you to deal with your distractions today?

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Attending to the Alarm

3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

Picture: cc Jean L.

Sisters and brothers, do you use an alarm clock? I think many of us do. And we know what we use it for. We know why we need it. We need it because we all have a tendency to lose track of time. And the alarm clock helps to remind us what time it is. When we are sleeping, for example, the alarm clock tells us when it is time to wake up. So that we won’t be late for work. Or school. But the alarm is only be effective if we obey it. If we ignore it. Or switch it off and go back to sleep. As sometimes happens to me. Then it will do us no good. We will oversleep. And have to pay the price for it.

But clocks are not the only kind of alarm. There are others. On an MRT train, for example, the announcements also act as a type of alarm. They remind us when it is time to get off. Also, someone recently gave me a small potted plant. Whenever I forget to water it, the leaves of the plant will start to droop. And that is a kind of alarm for me too. Reminding me that the poor plant is thirsty. That it is time to water it. Otherwise it will die.

And it’s not just plants that give off alarms. People do too, don’t they? When a baby cries, for example. It’s a reminder to the parents that it’s time to feed it. Or change it. Or let it go to sleep. And not just babies. Even adults give off alarms too. What does it mean, for example, when a wife starts nagging her husband even more than usual? Or when a husband starts spending more and more time away from home? Or when children suddenly start getting into trouble at school. All these things can be alarms as well. Signs to us that it is time to do something. Or to change whatever it is we have been doing. But, like the alarm clock, these signs will only be effective if we pay attention to them. If we do not ignore them. Otherwise we will continue to lose track of time. And have to pay the price for it.

I mention all this because, in each of our Mass readings today, we also find alarms ringing. In the first reading, God first sounds an alarm in the ear of the prophet Jonah. Telling him that it is time for him to go to the great city of Nineveh to proclaim the word of God. After some resistance, Jonah obeys. He goes to Nineveh and proclaims a message that is itself also an alarm. An urgent reminder to the Ninevites of what time it is. Only forty days more and Nineveh is going to be destroyed. The Ninevites’ own evil behaviour is like a train carrying them to destruction. Jonah reminds them that it is now time for them to get off this train. To turn back to God. Otherwise they will miss the chance to experience God’s mercy. Thankfully, the Ninevites are willing to obey God’s call. They pay close attention to the alarm. They repent. And the city is saved from destruction.

In the gospel, too, we find alarms sounding. John the Baptist gets arrested. And Jesus treats John’s arrest as an alarm. A sign that it is now time for Jesus to begin his public ministry. To start proclaiming the word of God in Galilee. And Jesus obeys. Like Jonah before him, Jesus himself also sounds an alarm. The time has come, he says, and the kingdom of God is close at hand. Repent, and believe the Good News.

But Jesus’ alarm is not just a call to repentance. Not just a reminder to turn away from everything that displeases God. It is also a call to discipleship. An invitation to the people to turn towards Jesus himself. To follow him. To live in the same way that he lives. To value the same things that he values. To put God at the centre of their hearts. To give God the highest priority in their lives. And when they do this, then the people will become fishers of people. Like Jesus, they themselves will become alarms ringing in the ears of others. Proclaiming to them the good news that the time has come for everyone to experience the mercy of God. For everyone to live in the joy of the Lord.

We find the same thing happening in the second reading. We all know the story of St. Paul. We know how, on the road to Damascus, like Jonah, Paul heard God’s alarm. How he repented. Turned his life around. Became not just a follower of Jesus, but also a fisher of people. How he himself became an alarm, reminding everyone what time it is. And this is exactly what Paul is doing in the second reading.

He sounds the alarm for the Corinthians. He reminds them that our time is growing short. That the world as we know it is passing away. The world that revolves around the hunger for fame and fortune. And the thirst for power and pleasure. The world that busies itself with buying and selling. With eating and shopping. With fighting and competing. The time is coming when this world will be no more. What to do then?

For Paul, the answer is simple. What we have to do is to live as though we were already part of another world. A different world. A world that revolves not around ourselves and our own cravings. But around God and God’s priorities. Around God’s love and God’s mercy. A world that is built not on the pleasures that pass too quickly away. Pleasures that we cannot bring along with us when we die. But a world that is built on the joy that will never end. The joy that comes from knowing the love of God shown to us in Christ Jesus our Lord. The same love that we are gathered here, around this altar, to experience and to celebrate.

Sisters and brothers, the alarms that we find in our readings do not ring only for the people who lived a very long time ago. These alarms continue to ring out loudly for us today. For like the Ninevites of Jonah’s day. Like the Galileans of Jesus’ day. And like the Corinthians of Paul’s day. We too live in a world that revolves around things that will very quickly pass away. Things that may make us feel good for a while. But are unable to bring us lasting joy. Things that separate us from God and from one another. Things that we fight each other for. Sometimes even kill one another for. But how many of us are able to remember this? How many of us are able to resist the temptation to live as though this is the only world that we have?

If we do find ourselves in such a situation of forgetfulness. Of losing track of time. Then our readings can help us. They act as an important alarm for us. Reminding us that there is another better way to live. Another better world to live for. A world that Jesus came to proclaim. Through his Life, and Death, and Resurrection. The same world for which he taught us to pray. In the Our Father. Whenever we say, thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

Sisters and brothers, the time has already come. This is what we believe. The time has already come, for us to live no longer according to the values of this world. But according to the values of another world. A new world. God’s world. A world of love and mercy. A world of justice and peace. The time has already come. The alarm is already sounding. Loudly and clearly. What must we do, you and I, to obey its call today?

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Meeting Halfway

Feast Of The Baptism Of The Lord

Video: Youtube Link

Ooh ooh, I can't go any further than this.
Ooh ooh, I want you so badly, it's my biggest wish...
Can you meet me halfway, right at the borderline?
That's where I'm gonna wait for you.
I'll be looking out night and day.
Took my heart to the limit, and this is where I stay…
Let's walk the bridge to the other side, just you and I.
I will fly, fly the skies for you and I
I will try until I die for you and I...

Sisters and brothers, I’m not sure if any of you are familiar with these words. They are taken from the song Meet Me Halfway. Released in 2009, by the hip-hop group, The Black-Eyed Peas. The song is sung by a pair of lovers, who have somehow gotten separated. And now they are pining for each other. Yearning to be reunited. I want you so badly, it’s my biggest wish… But there’s a problem. Neither seems able to make it all the way to where the other is. So each one promises to go as far as s/he possibly can. Hoping that they will meet somewhere along the way. Can you meet me halfway, right at the borderline?… I’ll be looking out night and day. Took my heart to the limit, and this is where I stay… Not quite the full distance. But only halfway. At the borderline.

Sisters and brothers, have you ever had a similar experience? Of wanting something or someone so very badly. And yet, finding yourself falling short? Not having what it takes to go all the way? Wishing that the distance could somehow be shortened for you? That someone would meet you halfway? And what a relief it is. What a great comfort and consolation. When that happens.

Well, sisters and brothers, believe it or not, this is what we celebrate today. In the first reading, God invites the people to come to the water. To seek the Lord. To turn to God, from whom alone they will receive everything they need for their happiness and survival. The satisfaction of their deepest desires. Buy corn without money, and eat, and, at no cost, wine and milk. The gracious invitation could not be any clearer. The promised rewards no more enticing. All you have to do is come. Come to the water. And God will provide everything you need.

But there is a catch. To turn to the Lord, the people have to stop feeding themselves on other foods. To stop clinging to things less than God. Things that may look attractive. But don’t fill the soul. Why spend your money on what is not bread, your wages on what fails to satisfy? And, of course, there are those who will fall short. Those who, try as hard as they might, will not be able to do this. Those who will find it difficult to travel all the way to the water of God’s presence.

So what to do if I find myself among people such as this? How to meet and be nourished by God, if I have not the strength to go the full distance? If I keep getting trapped in my own sinfulness. Imprisoned in my own blindness. Lost in my own addictions. My petty resentments. And worldly preoccupations. The gospel provides the answer. Since the people are unable to go the full distance. God allows them to come only halfway. If not to the brilliant glory of God’s holy presence. Then at least to the murky depths of the river Jordan. To the waters of repentance. Here, by being baptized by John, the people express their determination to turn away from idols. Their desire to turn back to God. And, even if they may not have what it takes to go all the way. Even though they may not be strong enough to live out their commitment to the full. Something marvellous happens. God actually comes to the water and meets them halfway. Jesus comes to the Jordan to be baptised along with them.

Of course, being the Son of God, Jesus himself needs no repentance. He has no sins to be washed away. He plunges into the Jordan not to be cleansed. But rather to make its waters holy. In Jesus, God comes to meet us halfway. Through the baptism of  Christ, the Jordan river becomes a borderline. Filled with the powerful presence of God. Father, Son, and Spirit. So that all the weak and hungry people. All the tired and thirsty people. All the hesitant and fearful people. People who can’t make it all the way. People like me. Can at least stumble to the river of repentance. Can fall headlong into its forgiving waters. And find life.

Nor do we actually have to travel to the Middle East to immerse ourselves in the Jordan. The second reading reminds us that Christ himself is the River of Life. Christ himself is the borderline where God comes to meet us. Who can overcome the world? Only the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God. The ones who immerse themselves in the river of blood and water flowing from the side of Christ. As he hangs on the Cross. The ones who are baptised in the Blood of the Lamb. The ones who share in the One Bread and the One Cup. The Broken Body and Precious Blood of Christ. The ones who draw strength from this River. To do what they would otherwise not be able to do by themselves. Overcome the world. This is the victory over the world–our faith. Our faith in Christ, by whose Dying and Rising, God comes to meet us halfway. At the borderline between sin and grace.

Sisters and brothers, this is what we celebrate today. The merciful love of a God who, knowing well our weakness, our inability to go the full distance, travels tirelessly to seek us out. Even to the extent of taking up and laying down his life for us. Meeting us at the limits of our endurance. So that, weak though we may be, we may yet find our way home. May yet enjoy not just food and drink. But life to the full. At the table of our Lord. At the altar of our God. As we do here at this very Eucharist.

And that’s not all. God calls us not just for ourselves. In the first reading, the people are told that God has made of them a witness to the peoples, a leader and a master of the nations. You will summon a nation you never knew… Not only are we called to meet God and to find life for ourselves. We, in our turn, are sent to bear witness to what we has been done for us. To call others to the life-giving waters of God’s love and mercy. And we do this by meeting them halfway. By offering others, who are weak and needy, what we ourselves have received in Christ. A helping hand. A listening ear. A forgiving heart. A life laid down in mercy and compassion. And isn’t this what this painfully divided and disconnected world of ours needs most of all today? People able to meet halfway. People willing even to lay their lives on the borderline. Not in violence and revenge. But in mercy and compassion. The same mercy and compassion shown to us by the God who first laid down his life for us.

Sisters and brothers, as for The Black-Eyed Peas, so too for us. Separated lovers can hope for reunion only by meeting one another halfway. At the borderline of God's undying love. How willing are we to go at least this far, to meet and be reconciled with God and with one another today?

Sunday, January 04, 2015

You Don't Have to Be a Star

Solemnity of the Epiphany

Don't think your star has to shine, for me to find
out where you're coming from.
What is a beauty queen, if it don't mean
I'm your number one.
And I don't need no superstar, ‘cos I'll accept you as you are.
You won't be denied, ‘cos I'm satisfied
With the love that you inspire.
You don't have to be a star, baby, to be in my show.

Sisters and brothers, I’m not sure if any of you still remember these words. They’re taken from a song, from the nineteen seventies, entitled You Don’t Have to Be a Star. Performed by the husband and wife duo of Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis, Jr. The song is addressed, presumably, to someone who’s working very hard to make a name for herself. Someone preoccupied with becoming a big-time celebrity of some kind. But, in the process, has neglected her lover. Has taken their relationship for granted. So, in the song, the lover reminds the beloved that she really doesn’t have to be rich and famous to enjoy the lover’s love. To be part of the lover’s life. The song is the lover’s way of presenting the beloved with an invitation. A call. To stop chasing after the passing glitter of stardom. And, instead, to simply step into the enduring light of the lover’s love. You don’t have to be a star, baby, to be in my show...

I’m reminded of this song today, because I believe our Mass readings present us with a similar call. A similar invitation. In the first reading, Jerusalem is encouraged to arise, to shine out. In such a way that, attracted to her light, all her children, who have been scattered in foreign lands, will come streaming back to her. And not just her children, but all the nations as well. At the sight of all these people flocking to her, Jerusalem herself will shine out all the more. Will become even more radiant. Her heart throbbing and full...

All of this is obvious enough to us. But there is one more very important point that we cannot afford to overlook. The light in which Jerusalem is being called to shine is not really her own. The reading is clear about this. The glory of the Lord is rising on you… Above you the Lord now rises... above you his glory appears… Although Jerusalem is asked to arise and shine out. She is not called to become the star of the show. She shines in the light and the glory of Someone Else. The Lord is the real Superstar. The One to whom all the nations will be attracted. So the invitation to Jerusalem is clear. To step into, and to shine out with, the light of her divine Lover. She doesn’t have to be a star, to be in God’s show…

This prophecy in the first reading finds its final fulfilment in the gospel. In the newborn baby Jesus, God’s glory shines upon the people. Attracting and calling everyone to step into its light. To bask in its brilliance. And to reflect this light to others. So that all may enjoy its life-giving effects. In the gospel, although there is a star shining brightly in the sky, it is not the centre of attention. The star’s role is only to guide people to Christ. He is the true Light. He is the real Superstar. The One who calls everybody to arise and to shine out in His radiance.

But that’s not all. The gospel also describes for us two very different reactions to this call. On the one hand, there are the wise men. Foreigners, who hear and heed the Lord’s call. Who accept His invitation. They travel a great distance in search of the Light. And when they finally find Him, we’re told that they’re filled with delight. On the other hand, however, and in stark contrast to the wise men, we have a wicked king, Herod. He too hears the Lord’s call. But instead of delight, what he experiences is disturbance. He is perturbed. And, in his perturbation, Herod refuses to step into the Light. Instead, he tries to smother it. To snuff it out. He pretends to be interested in worshipping Jesus. But he wants to find the child only so that he can kill him.

So what accounts for this difference in response? This contrast between the wise and the wicked? Between the delighted and the perturbed? The answer is simple. Herod refuses to step into the Lord’s Light for one reason. He has a desperate need to be, at all times, the centre of attention. The star of the show. His whole existence is built upon self-interest. Self-glorification. Self-assertion. Ego-inflation. He wants everyone to come to him. Instead of to the Lord. He cannot tolerate anyone else sharing the spotlight with him. In contrast, the wise men’s lives are centred not in themselves. But in something else. They desire and search for the light of Truth. And they are willing to go to great lengths to seek and to find it. Unlike Herod, they know and accept that they don’t have to be the star, to be in God’s show...

And this is the same admirable quality that we find in St. Paul. In the second reading, Paul speaks of having been entrusted by God with the grace he meant for you. For Paul’s readers. Like the wise men, Paul knows, and is willing to accept, that he is only a steward of grace. Only a witness to the Light. Only a servant of the Lord. His concern is not to become the centre of attention. But only to continue stepping into, and shining out with, the light of Christ. So that more people may be drawn to the Lord. May find life in His name. Like the wise men, Paul accepts that he doesn’t have to be a star, to be in the Lord’s show...

All of which should lead us to reflect upon ourselves. We who profess to be followers of Christ. Like the wise men and St. Paul, we too are called to continue stepping into, and shining out with, the Light of Christ. So that, through us, more people may come to know Christ. May find life in His name. And we are only really able to do this to the extent that we are willing to keep resisting the temptation to constantly be the centre of attention. The need to be the stars of our own individual self-glorifying performances.

And this is a great challenge for us. A great challenge for me. Especially because we live in a culture that encourages, even pressurises, us to do just that. To keep striving to become stars in our own right. To keep performing for others to see. To keep working to outdo the competition. In order to glorify ourselves. And, as Herod’s example teaches us, it’s possible to do this even with apparently religious activities. Even while claiming to worship God. While professing to work for God’s greater glory. Except that it’s not really God we’re glorifying. But ourselves. Whether we realise it or not, we’re not really shining out with the Light of Christ. But seeking only to snuff it out.

Pope Francis has a name for this. He calls it spiritual worldliness. And to succumb to spiritual worldliness is to forget, even to reject, the good news we are celebrating today. That, in Christ, the Star of God’s love is already shining in our world. Calling everyone to step into, and to shine out with, its brilliant light.

Sisters and brothers, it’s such a consoling message. If only we are open enough to receive it. You don’t have to be a star, to be in God’s show. How willing are we to accept this truth more fully? What must we do to heed God’s call more generously today?
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