Sunday, May 22, 2016

Divine Habitat


Solemnity of The Most Holy Trinity (C)

Picture: cc Sandia Labs

My dear friends, have you ever heard of Habitat for Humanity? Those who have will know that it’s a non-governmental organisation, an NGO. Whose main activity is to build houses for the poor and needy. According to its website, Habitat envisions a world where everyone has a decent place to live. It seeks to put God’s love into action by bringing people together to build homes, communities, and hope. Home-builders. That’s what they are. Except that they do it not for profit, but for love.

And they do it in a very particular way. They don’t just build houses and hand them out free of charge. Instead, through volunteer labour and donations of money and materials, they help their beneficiary families, whom they call partners, to build their own homes. Habitat then sells these homes to their partners at cost, and financed by affordable, not-for-profit loans. The monthly mortgage payments are in turn used to build more Habitat houses. And the process goes on.

So Habitat plays a triple role. It is, at once, developer and architect and engineer. It conceives the project. It designs the houses. And it provides the tools and materials. But the labour comes from the community. Its beneficiaries and its volunteers. In other words, Habitat builds homes by empowering people.

I wonder if this is not similar to what we are celebrating today. On this solemn feast of the Most Holy Trinity. Today, we celebrate God. Whom we believe to be one in three persons. Father, Son, and Spirit. Which is something we cannot fully understand. But that’s okay. For even if we can’t grasp the Trinity mathematically, our readings give us a good picture of what God is like. How God operates. And what our response to God should be.

In the first reading, we find a description of some of God’s activities at the dawn of creation. Mention is made of the fixing of the heavens. The founding of the earth. The settling of the mountains. The thickening of the clouds. And so on. The impression is given of a busy developer God. A God who appears to have one concern: To construct a home fit for human life. A suitable habitat for humanity. A place where people can survive and thrive. Grow and flourish.

But it’s important for us to see that this home-building project is not just a physical one. For although humanity lives on the earth, this is not exactly our final destination. The earth only provides a conducive setting for us to find our true home. Not on earth. But in God. This is why, the whole reading is focused not so much on the creation of the earth. But on the birth of Wisdom.

As you know, in the Old Testament, the Wisdom of God is a gift, specially prepared by God, for those who strive to live according to God’s wishes. Those who put God first in all things. Such God-fearing people receive the Wisdom of God.Which enables them  to find what they are looking for. To find God. To experience God. To make their home in God. Even while still living on this earth. This is God’s purpose. This is God’s vision and mission. From the very beginning. Like Habitat for Humanity, God is a home-builder. God’s plan is to help human beings to live on this earth in ways that will enable them to find and make their home in God.

The other readings show us how this is done. Like any other building project, it involves not just a developer, but also an architect and an engineer. One who draws up the plan. And  another who provides the power to execute it. To translate the plan into reality.

In the second reading, St. Paul helps us to better appreciate both the plan and the architect. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, he writes, by faith we are judged righteous and at peace with God, since it is by faith and through Jesus that we have entered this state of grace…

To be judged righteous and at peace with God. To live in a state of grace. Isn’t this what it means to find our home in God? To be able to find peace, even as we struggle to face the challenges of this earthly existence of ours. To be able to glory not just in our triumphs. But also in our defeats. To be able to boast not just about our comforts. But also about our sufferings. Seeing these defeats and sufferings as opportunities to draw closer to the Crucified and Risen Christ. To enter more deeply into the embrace of God. This is what it means to be at home in God. And we do this by following the plan drawn up for us. By imitating the example set for us. By following the way marked out for us. The Way of Christ Jesus our Lord. Who laid down his life out of love for his undeserving friends. Laid down his life out of love for you and for me.

Self-sacrificing love. This is the plan. And Christ is the architect. And no prizes for guessing who the engineer is. In the words of St. Paul, the love of God has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit which has been given to us. It is the Spirit who provides us with the tools and materials, the energy and the motivation, to translate the masterplan of Christ’s Life, Death and Resurrection, into the ordinary reality of our own lives.

This is, of course, not an easy thing to do. For Christ may have given us the plan. But we still have to figure out the exact details for ourselves. Details which are often revealed to us only gradually. In the concrete situations of our daily lives. And it is the Spirit who helps us to do this. Much like how an engineer would oversee the actual construction of a home. As Jesus tells his disciples in the gospel, When the Spirit of truth comes, he will lead you to the complete truth. The Spirit helps us to do what it takes to find and make our home in God.

But, my dear friends, do we really need a God like this? A God who is at once developer and architect and engineer? A home-builder God? After all, we are not homeless, are we? We live in a highly developed country. We belong to a wealthy parish. We all have homes of our own. Some of us even live in mansions fit for a king. And yet, isn’t it true that, however large or comfortable our houses may be, at least from time to time, we still can’t help but feel homeless? However cosy the pillows on which we lay our heads, we still yearn for a warm place to rest our hearts. We thirst for the peace that the world cannot give. We long to make our true home in God, and God alone. A home that we find only when we learn to surrender our hearts and our lives to God. Only when we are willing to reach out to help others to find a home.

I’m reminded of these lines from an old hymn we used to sing:
Lose yourself in me, and you will find yourself.Lose yourself in me, and you will find new life.Lose yourself in me, and you will find yourself.And you will live, yes you will live, in my love…
Sisters and brothers, today we celebrate the Holy Trinity. Father, Son and Spirit. A God who delights in building a habitat for humanity. A true home for you, for me, for all.


What must we do to keep losing ourselves in God today?

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Standing with an Army


Solemnity of Pentecost (C)


When I’m with you, when I’m with you,
I’m standing with an army, I’m standing with an army…

My dear friends, do any of you find these lines familiar? I have to confess that, since hearing them not too long ago, I have found them quite difficult to forget. They are taken, as you know, from a song released some months ago, entitled Army. Written and performed by the talented English singer and songwriter, Ellie Goulding. The song is a moving tribute to the power of friendship.

Now I’m no expert. But there are three themes in the song that I find particularly striking. Three aspects, if you like, of the power of friendship. The first of these is presence. As we find, for example, in these lines:

I know that I've been messed up.
You never let me give up.
All the nights and the fights,
And the blood and the breakups.
You're always there to call up.
I'm a pain, I'm a child, I'm afraid,
But yet you understand.

Isn’t this the kind of friendship we all want? The kind we dream about? The kind where you know that your friend is somehow always there for you. Even if s/he may not actually be around. For you know that, wherever your friend may happen to be, s/he is really only a call away. And it doesn’t matter even if you consider yourself a nuisance. Or childish. Or if you’re scared. Your friend understands. Remains by your side. A constant reassuring presence. Even in absence.

A reassuring presence. This, however, is not the only blessing that friendship brings. A second is the power of resistance. True friendship helps you to resist. Resist what? Well, how about those insistent voices in your head? Telling you you’re not good enough. Or the hurtful comments of the crowd? Persuading you that you’ll never measure up. Or the destructive influences of the world? Deceiving you into thinking that you must make something of yourself in order to be loved. True friendship gives you the power to resist all these insidious pressures:

We both know what they say about us.
But they don't stand a chance because,
When I'm with you… I’m standing with an army…

True friendship gives us the strength to withstand harmful influences. But that’s not all. There is at least one more positive aspect to the power of friendship. In addition to presence and resistance, friendship also gives us the power of connection. Not just connection between friends. But even beyond. Why do you think that Ellie Goulding’s song is so popular? Why can’t I seem to get it out of my head? Could it be that, quite apart from it having a catchy tune, there is also a power to its message? People can connect with what is described in it. Even if they haven’t experienced it themselves. It is something for which they yearn. Deeply. To experience the power of true friendship. The power of presence. Of resistance. Of connection.

And isn’t this very much like what we are celebrating today? On this solemn feast of Pentecost? In the gospel, Jesus speaks of the relationship between his disciples and himself as being so close, that he and the Father will be forever present to them. In the Holy Spirit. 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. These lines, as you know, are taken from chapter 14 of John’s gospel. Later, in chapter 15, Jesus will speak of this same relationship  as one between friends. I call you friends, because I have made known to you everything I have learnt from my Father (v. 15). Friendship with the Lord. Giving us the power to constantly experience his presence. Even in absence.

In the second reading, St. Paul makes a sharp distinction between spiritual and unspiritual things. Things that lead to the fullness of life. And things that lead to destruction. And Paul somehow assumes that all disciples of Jesus have already received the power to resist the unspiritual. And to embrace the spiritual. There is no necessity for us to obey our unspiritual selves or to live unspiritual lives. If you do live in that way, you are doomed to die; but if by the Spirit you put an end to the misdeeds of the body you will live.

Paul believes that it is by the Spirit that we are able to put an end to the misdeeds of the body. It is in and by the Spirit of friendship with Jesus that we receive the power of resistance. And not just resistance. But also connection. For Paul goes on to say that the Spirit enables us to make that most basic and crucial of all connections. The connection with our heavenly Father. The spirit you received is not the spirit of slaves bringing fear into your lives again; it is the spirit of sons, and it makes us cry out, ‘Abba, Father!’

In the first reading we find, in the experience of the first Pentecost, a broadening of this power of connection. What the Spirit of brings is not just the ability to relate to God. But also to connect with people who speak languages different from our own. Surely all these men speaking are Galileans? How does it happen that each of us hears them in his own native language? The ability to communicate–not just with our words, but also especially with our lives–in such a way as to enable others to understand the good news of Jesus. And not just to understand. But to be moved. To be evangelised. To be saved.

Friendship with Jesus gives disciples the ability to experience the power of his presence, in the Holy Spirit. Which then enables us to resist all that would harm us. And also to connect. Not just with the heavenly Father. But also with all those to whom the Father sends us. To proclaim the good news. To bear witness to love of Christ. To usher into the friendship of God.

Friendship leading to presence, and resistance, and connection. This is what we celebrate today. This is the power that the Spirit brings at Pentecost. A power for which we all yearn so deeply. Whether we care to admit it or not. A power that many often seek in all the wrong places. In smartphones and computer screens. In financial markets and corporate structures. In relationships characterised by deception and domination. A power that is actually already given to us. By the Father. Through the Dying and Rising of the Son. In the Holy Spirit. A power that we have spent these seven weeks of the Easter Season to ponder. To celebrate. And to claim for our own.

Not long after the release of Army, Ellie Goulding tweeted a message to her fans. Telling them about Hannah. The best friend for whom she had written her song. Here are some lines from that tweet:

The person who has seen me at my lowest and the first person I call in muffled sobs when something bad happens. We've been deliriously happy together, deliriously tired and deliriously sad together. I wanted to show our friendship for what it really is–honest, real, electric…. We open our hearts up and take risks, but together we are more powerful than ever. We are challenged every day but we see it through and sometimes it feels like we can conquer anything. When I'm with you, I'm standing with an army.

My dear friends, as we bring the Easter Season to a close, what must we do to continue standing in the friendship of the Lord? To continue standing in the power of his Spirit? To continue standing with an army, today?

Sunday, May 08, 2016

Where Do You Live?


7th Sunday in Easter (C)


Picture: cc OakleyOriginals

My dear friends, if I were to ask you where you live, how would you answer the question? Assuming, of course, that you trust me enough to tell me the truth. And you don’t just ask me to mind my own business. Very likely, you’ll do what the rest of us would do. What I was taught to do when I was growing up. As a little boy, I was made to memorise my home address. So that I could find help, if ever I got lost. But is that the only way to answer the question, where do you live? By revealing our street address? What do you think?

Some of us may remember that story at the beginning of John’s Gospel, where Jesus answers this same question in a very different way. While walking along the river Jordan, the Lord attracts the attention of two disciples of John the Baptist. And when he asks them what they want, they ask him in return, Rabbi, where do you live? Do you remember how Jesus responds? Well, he doesn’t just tell them his address. He doesn’t say 120 King’s Road. Or 8 Victoria Park Road. Instead, he invites them to come and see…

Why does he do that? When asked where he lives, why doesn’t Jesus just state his address? Perhaps we may think that it’s because he doesn’t have one. At this point in the story, he has probably already left his family home in Nazareth, to live the life of a travelling preacher. So, very likely, his address changes from day to day. He can’t say exactly where he lives. People just have to come and see for themselves.

A reasonable enough explanation. But could there be another? A deeper reason? Could it be that, for Jesus, the question where do you live cannot be adequately answered by repeating a string of numbers and names. Could it be that what Jesus wants to share with people is not just his street address, but his spiritual home? Not just where he lays his head from time to time. But where he rests his heart all of the time. Could it be that the Lord’s wish is to lead people to where he truly lives. Where he has always lived. Even from before the foundation of the world. His eternal resting place. In the loving and merciful will of the One who sent him. And the only way he can do this is by inviting them to follow him. To observe and imitate how he lives. To come and see.

To know not so much the Lord’s street address, but his spiritual home. So that we may truly live where he lives. In the way that he lives. Isn’t this the precious gift that Jesus is praying for, on our behalf, in the gospel today? Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, so that they may always see the glory you have given me… To be with me where I am. In other words, to live where the Lord himself lives. Not just to join him in heaven, after we are dead and gone. Although that is a good thing to pray for. But to live where he lives even now. While we still remain on this earth. To live in his love. Just as he lives in his Father’s love. This is the awesome present that Jesus asks the Father to give to his disciples. To give to us.

And this gift has actually already been given. Do you know what it looks like? We find the answer in the other two readings. In the first reading, Stephen fearlessly proclaims the gospel, and suffers persecution for it. He is dragged out of the city of Jerusalem. And taken to a place of punishment. Where he is cruelly stoned to death. And yet, the reading tells us that, even in the face of such terrible suffering, Stephen is able to experience the presence of the Lord. I can see heaven thrown open, he declares, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God. Even as he is being dragged to his death, Stephen is able to do what Jesus wishes that all his disciples could do. He sees the glory of God. A sign that, even in the midst of great trial and deep suffering, even when he finds himself at an execution ground, Stephen continues to joyfully make his home in the Lord. To live where Jesus lives.

We find something similar in the second reading, taken from the end of the book of Revelation. Here, the apostle John remains in exile on the island of Patmos. And yet, in his painful isolation, in his distant desolation, John too is able to experience the closeness of the Lord. He doesn’t see a vision this time. But he hears a voice. A voice that reminds him of the identity of the One to whom he has committed his life. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End… A voice that reassures John that he is not alone. I shall indeed be with you soon. A voice that proves to us that, even while on an island of exile, John continues to live where Jesus lives.

Sisters and brothers, although, in our readings today, Stephen and John find themselves at very different physical locations. Very different street addresses. They actually live in the exact same spiritual place. They share the same home. They live where Jesus lives. They live in the same way that Jesus lived. Bearing witness to the good news of God’s love for us in Christ. Seeing the Lord’s glory even as they lay down their lives for others. So that, what we find in the experience of Stephen and John, is really the Father’s gracious answer to Jesus’ fervent prayer in the gospel. In Stephen and John, we find people who have been given the priceless ability always to be where the Lord is.

To live where Jesus lives. Even while we remain here on this earth. To make him our spiritual home. No matter what our street address may be. To somehow be able to see his face. To hear his voice. To experience his presence. Even and especially in times of trial. Encouraging and consoling us. Accompanying and guiding us. Strengthening and inspiring us. Isn’t this something that we all need so very much? Especially those of us whose lives are often filled as much with stress and strain, as loneliness and a lack of purpose? Those of us who may sometimes try to fill the emptiness of our hearts with all sorts of bad habits and addictions. Desperate diversions that may dull our pain for a time. But can really do nothing to calm our restlessness. To shelter our homelessness. To heal our brokenness.

Perhaps it is especially for those of us who suffer in this way, that Jesus prays in the gospel. And the good news is that his prayer has already been heard. His request has already been granted. The gift has already been given. This is the good news of Easter. All we need to do is to keep taking the necessary steps to claim this gift for ourselves. To come to where the Lord lives. Like those first disciples did. To come and see. To commit and to follow. And then to be sent out to help others do the same. Others who, like us, often suffer from restlessness and homelessness. No matter what their street addresses may be.

Sisters and brothers, on this 7th Sunday of Easter, if I were to ask you where do you live? What would your answer be?

Sunday, May 01, 2016

The Look of Love


6th Sunday of Easter (C)

Readings: Acts 15:1-2,22-29; Psalm 66:2-3,5-6,8; Apocalypse 21:10-14,22-23; John 14:23-29

The look of love is in your eyes.
The look your smile can't disguise.
The look of love, it’s saying so much more than just words could ever say.
And what my heart has heard, well, it takes my breath away…

My dear friends, perhaps some of you may recognise these lines. They’re taken from an old love song, sung by Dusty Springfield in 1967. The song is entitled The Look of Love. And the title sums up very well what the song is all about. It’s about someone who looks deeply into her lover’s face, into her lover’s eyes, and is moved by what she finds there. For what she sees are the unmistakable signs of love. The mysterious look of love. Something that fills her own heart with desire. Moves her to want to reach out and gather her lover into her arms. To hold him tight. And to never let him go.

Powerful stuff, right? Yes, but is it real? I must confess, sisters and brothers, that I can’t say for sure. For, as you might expect, this is not an area in which I have a lot of expert knowledge. So what do you think? Can the look of love really hold such power? Or is it all just romantic nonsense? Have you experienced something like it yourself? Would you recognise it if you saw it? What does it feel like, anyway, when you see someone who is truly in love?

Believe it or not, I think this is the question that our readings help us to ponder today. By presenting to us the look of love. We see this most clearly in what Jesus tells his disciples in the gospel. Twice the Lord uses the word if. At the beginning, he says, If anyone loves me… And then near the end, he says, If you loved me… What is the Lord doing, sisters and brothers, if not describing what it looks like when someone falls in love with him? What happens when someone surrenders her heart completely to the Lord. Lets Jesus become the centre of her life. What does it look like when this happens? What are the signs of this love?

Jesus mentions three. The first is presence. If anyone loves me, the Lord says, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we shall come to him and make our home with him. When someone loves Jesus, and keeps his word, both Jesus and the Father become present to that person. Even take up residence in that person. But this is a mysterious presence. For we have to remember that these words are part of the Lord’s farewell speech to his disciples. Before he goes to his death on the Cross. He will soon be taken away from them. They will no longer see him. At least not in the same way as they did before. So this new presence that Jesus is promising them is a presence in absence. Their love for the Lord will somehow make him present to them, even after he has been taken away.

The Lord then goes on to describe this mysterious experience as the presence of the Holy Spirit. The Advocate, he says, will teach you everything, and remind you of all I have said to you. This is the second sign of love. When someone loves Jesus, not only will that person experience the Lord’s presence even in his absence. But this presence will have very beneficial effects. It will give direction to the person’s life. In any given situation, especially when facing difficult decisions, it will help the person to know what to do. Where to go. How to live. It will give clarity even in the midst of confusion. This is the second sign of love.

Which then leads to a third. Peace I bequeath to you, the Lord says, my own peace I give you, a peace the world cannot give. What the world can give is the superficial peace that results from the absence of trouble. What we feel when everything is going well. But what the Lord offers is a much deeper, far more precious, peace. A peace that endures even in times of trouble. And chaos. The kind of peace that Jesus himself experienced, as he hung on the Cross, and cried out to his Father, into your hands I commend my spirit… A peace that is accompanied even by joy. If you loved me, Jesus tells his disciples, you would have been glad to know that I am going to the Father. Jesus expects those who love him to rejoice even in his absence. To rejoice in the knowledge that he goes to his Father.

Presence in absence. Clarity in confusion. Peace and joy even in the midst of chaos. These are the signs that make up the look of love. This is what Jesus promises will happen to those who love him. And this promise is not just for individuals. This look of love can be seen even in whole communities. It is what we find in the first reading from the Acts of the Apostles. At this point in the story, Jesus has already ascended into heaven. He is no longer physically present to his disciples. And, in his absence, the community experiences chaos and confusion. Some Jewish Christians cause trouble by insisting that even gentile Christians must be circumcised to be saved.

It is a difficult time. And yet, the community survives. And thrives. The leaders meet to discuss the issue. And, in their gathering, they experience the presence of the Lord, showing them what they must do. Later they announce that it has been decided by the Holy Spirit and by ourselves not to saddle you with any burden beyond these essentials. The Spirit guides them. Helps them distinguish between what is essential and what is not. Enabling them to restore calm to troubled hearts. Presence in absence. Clarity in confusion. Peace and joy even in the midst of chaos. This is what we see in the second reading. Sure signs of the look of love. Present not just in individuals, but also in the whole Christian community.

The second reading takes us even further. In John’s vision, we see the look of love not just in individuals, and not just in a community, but in a whole city. Jerusalem, the holy city. Except that here there is an important difference. This time there is no longer any absence. No longer any confusion. No longer any chaos. For what John receives is a vision of what it looks like when God’s kingdom finally comes in all its fullness. Fullness of presence. Fullness of clarity. Fullness of peace and joy.

The look of love. Sisters and brothers, this is what we find in our readings today. The look of love in the life of an individual. In the life of a community. And, finally, in the whole city of God. A love that brings presence and clarity. Peace and joy. And all this is made possible only because of what Jesus has done for us. By being lifted up on the Cross. And raised to newness of life. So that what our readings offer to us today is really a close look at the face of Jesus himself. It is his love that our readings invite us to contemplate. To gaze deeply into his eyes and into his heart. Filled with such immense love for us. A love that never gives up on us. A love that refuses to let us go. This, my dear friends, is the look of love.

And, as in that old love song, so too with Jesus. His look of love holds incredible power. Power to fill our hearts with desire. Power to move us to do whatever it takes to hold on to him. To make the Lord the centre of our lives. As individuals and as families. As communities and as a whole church. This is the power that is offered to us especially in this joyous Season of Easter.

I can hardly wait to hold you, feel my arms around you.
How long I have waited, waited just to love you.
Now that I have found you, don’t ever go.
Don't ever go. I love you so.

This is how that old song ends. This is the effect of the look of love.

My dear friends, what must we do to surrender ourselves more fully to its power today?

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Renewal & Refreshment


5th Sunday of Easter (C)

Picture: cc Brian Leon

My dear friends, have you ever noticed how quickly things age when you’re a child? Imagine that I’m five or six years old. And I come across a brand new toy that I like. So I pester my parents to buy it for me. What happens when they do? Well, I may play with it happily for a day or two. But, very soon after that, I’ll grow tired of it. A newer toy will catch my eye. And I’ll pester my parents to buy that for me. While the earlier one is cast away. Forgotten. Left in some dark corner of my room. Until I’m scolded for being untidy. And made to clean up the mess I’ve made. It’s actually quite amazing, isn’t it, sisters and brothers? How, for a child, something new very quickly grows old. A treasured gift becomes a tiresome burden.

And yet, to be honest, don’t we see this in us grownups as well? Especially those of us who have the money to buy grownup toys. Haven’t we noticed, in this consumer society of ours, how quickly new things grow old? And old things become obsolete? How soon, for example, we need to find a way to discard our iPhone 5 or 6. So as to make way for a brand new iPhone 6s?

Which is bad enough, if we were talking only about toys and gadgets. What’s worse is that we often do the same with people and relationships. Very quickly, don’t we grow tired, not just of cars and computers, but also of husbands and wives? Increasingly, in this ultra-modern society of ours, don’t we see employees getting laid off? Marriages dissolved? Domestic help abused? The elderly neglected? What to do? How to renew the old? To refresh the obsolete? To change tiresome burdens back into treasured gifts? This, my dear friends, is the crucially important question that our Mass readings and prayers help us to ponder today.

We see this most clearly in the second reading, where John describes his vision of a new heaven and a new earth. A marvellous place, where there will be no more death, and no more mourning or sadness. For God is making the whole of creation new. What does this tell us, sisters and brothers? What do we learn about renewal and refreshment? At least three things. First, we learn that renewal is not something that happens at our initiative, but God’s. It is God who renews. Second, we learn that God brings this about simply through the power of God’s presence. God chooses to make his home among us. And third, we learn that God’s presence is consoling. It wipes away all tears from our eyes. 

God’s initiative. God’s presence. God’s consolation. This is how renewal takes place.

But God also chooses to work through human instruments. Like Paul and Barnabas, in the first reading. Having reached the outer limit of their missionary journey, Paul and Barnabas make a U-turn. They go back through the same places they had visited earlier. Even places where they had encountered persecution. But why? Why don’t they take a safer path? The answer is simple. Paul and Barnabas choose to revisit places like Lystra, and Iconium, and Antioch, in order that they may renew and refresh the young Christian communities there. And, as in the second reading, they do this in a very particular way.

Through the ministry of encouragement. Of consolation. By putting fresh heart into the disciples. By encouraging them to persevere in the faith. By reminding them that we all have to experience many hardships before we enter the kingdom of God. But that’s not all. Not only do they refresh the hearts of individuals with sound teaching. Paul and Barnabas also renew whole communities, by appointing worthy leaders. Representatives of God on earth. Images of God’s consoling presence at the heart of God’s people. Sound teaching and solid leadership. These are the ways by which Paul and Barnabas bring renewal. First and above all, through the ministry of encouragement. Putting fresh heart into individuals and communities.

All of which should help us to better appreciate what Jesus is doing in the gospel. Something that is not always easy for us to understand. For, at first glance, it may seem that Jesus is placing a terrible burden on the shoulders of his disciples. Love one another; just as I have loved you. To love as Jesus loves. This is how we usually understand this commandment. Simply to love as Jesus loves. And how does Jesus love? By laying down his life for everyone. Including the people who denied and betrayed him. Even the people who tortured and crucified him. What could be more difficult and  burdensome than that?

But is this really how the love commandment is meant to be understood? As a terrible burden? Something that we have heard so many times that it has become old in our ears. And heavy on our hearts. Since we cannot bring ourselves to fulfil it? Or could there be another meaning? Something that we begin to appreciate by paying attention to two words that Jesus uses. The word give and the word new. I give you a new commandment.

Before love is a command, it is first offered to us as a gift. Something that we must receive, before we can offer it to others. And it’s important to remember how the disciples experienced this gift at the Last Supper. In chapter 13 of John’s gospel, before Jesus gives his disciples the love command, he first gives them something else. In verse 15, he says to them, I have given you an example… By which he refers, of course, to his washing of their feet. Something that we ourselves experienced on Maundy Thursday. Jesus, our Lord and Master, refreshes our feet with water. Just as he renews our hearts with his blood. This is how love is first experienced. Not as a terrible burden. But as a precious gift. Given to us by God in Christ.

And this is also what makes the commandment new. It is something that is first done to us. And for us. And in us. For the command is not simply to love as Jesus loves. But to love as Jesus loves us. As Jesus loves me. And I can do that,  only by first allowing myself to receive his love. By having my feet washed by his hands. My heart cleansed by his blood. Isn’t this what Easter is about? Continually allowing Jesus to renew and to refresh us. With the water of baptism. And the blood of the Eucharist. So that we, in our turn, can reach out to renew and refresh our world.

It is often said that, here in Singapore, ours is an aging society. And it’s probably true. But perhaps it is also true that ours is a very childish society. A society that tends to allow new things to grow old too quickly. And that transforms precious gifts into terrible burdens too easily. A society that needs the renewal and refreshment that is the precious gift of Easter.

I’m reminded of this prayer of St. Claude La Colombiere:

O God, what will you do to conquer 
the fearful hardness of our hearts?
Lord, you must give us new hearts,
tender hearts, sensitive hearts,
to replace hearts that are made of marble and of bronze. 
You must give us your own Heart, Jesus.
Come, lovable Heart of Jesus.
Place your Heart deep in the center of our hearts
and enkindle in each heart a flame of love
as strong, as great, as the sum of all the reasons
that I have for loving you, my God. 
O holy Heart of Jesus, dwell hidden in my heart,
so that I may live only in you and only for you,
so that, in the end, I may live with you eternally in heaven.
Amen.

Sisters and brothers, what must we do to allow our Crucified and Risen Lord to continue to refresh and to renew our hearts today?

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Sing!


3rd Sunday of Easter (C)


Sing, sing a song. Make it simple, to last your whole life long. Don’t worry that it’s not good enough for anyone else to hear. Just sing, sing a song…

Sisters and brothers, I think at least some of you may find these words familiar. They’re taken from an old song. Popularised in the 1970s, by a brother and sister duo, named The Carpenters. The song is quite simply titled Sing. And it’s message is as straightforward as its name. It’s an invitation to do one thing: To sing. To sing a song. Not just any song. But a joyful song. A song that lasts your whole life long. But how is that even possible? Difficult enough to sing a happy song once in a while. But for the whole of your life? How do we do that? What do you think, sisters and brothers? Is this something you’d like to be able to do?

To sing a joyful song for the whole of our lives. This is actually the invitation that our Mass readings present to us today. The ability to sing a joyful song as long as we live. This is the gift that is offered to us today. The same gift that we ourselves prayed for in the opening prayer just now. May your people exult for ever, O God… so that rejoicing now… we may look forward… to the rejoicing of the day of resurrection… To exult. And not just with the whole of our lives. But forever. This is the awesome gift that we prayed for just now. And what does it mean to exult, if not to sing and dance for joy? But what does it look like to sing in this way? How do we do it? Our readings help us to understand, by answering three questions about this mysterious gift of perpetual song.

The first is a what question. When I think of singing a song, I usually think first of using my voice. But surely it’s impossible for me to sing with my voice non-stop for the whole of my life? How will I eat or sleep? So, if not with my voice, then with what? With what do I sing this song? This is the first question. And the answer is found in the first reading. We gave you a formal warning not to preach in this name… These words, spoken by the High Priest to the Apostles, show us what the religious authorities are trying to do in the first reading. They are trying to silence the Apostles. To stop them from proclaiming the Good News. To smother their song.

The Apostles, however, respond by doing exactly what the High Priest tells them not to do. They continue proclaiming the Good News. They keep talking about the Crucifixion of Christ. And bearing witness to his Rising from the Dead. They keep singing their song. And they do this not just with their voices. In the reading, we’re told that the authorities have them flogged. And yet, quite incredibly, the flogging does nothing to discourage them. Instead, we’re told that they are glad to have had the honour of suffering humiliation for the sake of the name. The Apostles experience joy even in the midst of persecution. They exult even when made to suffer for their faith. A clear indication that they are singing not just with their voices. But with the whole of their lives. This is what they sing the song with.

The second question has to do with whom. To whom do we sing our song? The answer is found in the second reading. Which describes a vision of heaven. Where an immense number of angels, ten thousand times ten thousand… and thousands upon thousands of angels, are doing exactly what the Apostles were doing in the first reading. They are singing a song. They are proclaiming and praising, worshiping and glorifying, Someone. And not just the angels. But all the living things of creation. Everyone is singing the same song: To the One who is sitting on the throne and to the Lamb, be all praise, honour, glory, and power, for ever and ever. In the second reading, all of creation sings a mighty song of praise to God. God is the One to whom we sing our song.

Here then we have the answers to the first two questions. With what, and to whom, do we sing our song? With our whole lives. And to God and God alone. But surely all this is much easier said than done. Difficult enough to squeeze out one hour a week to come to Mass on a Sunday. And even then, don’t some of us find it a great challenge? A terrible struggle? And not just because the parish carpark is so often full. Or all the pews usually taken. Or the music too fast or too slow. Or the homily too long. Or the priest too boring. All this may be true. But isn’t it also because we ourselves are often too preoccupied. Our minds too distracted. Our bodies too tired and stressed out. We find it difficult to sing a song to God, because there is so often a different tune playing in our hearts. A song not of joy and praise. But of anxiety or discouragement. Not of love for others. But of preoccupation with self. A song that is not addressed to God. But sung for the benefit of those we seek to impress. The society in which we yearn so desperately to find recognition.

If all this is true, then perhaps the third and last question is the most important one. The question where. From where do we receive our song? This is the question that the gospel helps us to answer. Here, the action takes place in a very particular location. By the banks of the Sea of Tiberias. But more than just a physical place, this is also a spiritual one. For this is where important spiritual events take place.

Here is where disappointed and discouraged disciples gather. People who spend a whole night, perhaps even the better part of a lifetime, fishing. But without success. Here also is where Christ, the Crucified and Risen One, appears without warning. Not to judge or to scold. But to guide and to feed. Here, the Lord does the cooking. And the serving. And the encouraging. Here the tired find rest. The guilty forgiveness. The disappointed new hope.

Above all, here is also where singers receive their song. Simon, son of John, do you love me…? A question that is meant not to interrogate, or to incriminate. But to heal and to console. To lead and to inspire. To fill the one who is questioned with the gift of song. The power to give glory to God. And not just in life. But also even in death. When you grow old you will stretch out your hands, and somebody else will put a belt around you and take you where you would rather not go… Follow me.

The banks of the Sea of Tiberias. A place of loving encounter. Where absence is changed into Presence. Failure to fruitfulness. Guilt to mercy. A place where singers receive their song. This, my dear friends, is the spiritual location to which we are invited today. And to find it is not hard. What we need to do is to ask the Lord for the courage to face our own weaknesses. And the patience to wait for him to appear. And to do for us what he did for the disciples. Especially in this Season of Easter, the Lord wishes to give us a song to sing for all eternity.

To sing a song with our lives. A song for God. A song from the place of love… This is the gift of Easter. I’m reminded of these lines from another tune that has to do with singing…

My life flows on in endless song, above earth's lamentation. 
I hear the clear, though far-off hymn that hails a new creation. 
No storm can shake my inmost calm
while to that Rock I'm clinging. 
Since Love is Lord of heaven and earth,
how can I keep from singing? 

Sisters and brothers, indeed Love is Lord of heaven and earth. This is what we believe. What we proclaim especially at Easter. Love has triumphed over death. So how can we keep from singing?
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