Sunday, August 17, 2014

Security in Mercy

20th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Picture: cc Mark Robinson

Sisters and brothers, if I were to ask you to imagine a safe place, a secure location, what image would come to your mind? What does a secure place look like to you? I’m not sure. But my guess is that at least some of us might think of a place surrounded by high walls and locked doors. Perhaps even protected by security alarms and armed guards. To some of us, a safe place is a well-defended one. And yet, if we think a little more deeply, won’t we agree that it is precisely such places that are unsafe? Insecure? Isn’t that why they need to be so fiercely defended?

In contrast, I’m reminded of another image. One that I’ve heard older citizens describe. People who used to live in the kampongs, or rural neighbourhoods, of days past. They speak of a place where there was little if any concern for security. Doors were left wide open. Neighbours walked freely in and out of one another’s houses. And yet, things were seldom stolen. Children did not feel threatened. A sense of safety prevailed. Wouldn’t you agree, sisters and brothers, that this is the more secure location? Safe in its openness? Secure in its lack of defensiveness?

And what is true of places is also true of people. Consider, for example, the difference between a teenager and a mature adult. Typically, adolescents are still finding themselves. Still growing into in their own identity. And, in the relative insecurity of their age, teenagers can sometimes be very difficult to live with. Very defensive. Pushing people away. Especially those who love them most. Don’t we all go through this stage of life? In contrast, a more mature and secure person doesn’t need to be defensive. Is able to be more open to others. Even and especially to those who may look and speak and think and live very differently. Sisters and brothers, as with places, so too with people. The more secure, the more open. The more safe, the less defensive.

And it may surprise some of us. But it would seem that something similar can also be said about God. In the first reading, we’re told that God wants to manifest God’s integrity, God’s sense of self, to the world. How does God do this? Not by being defensive. Not by pushing people away. But by welcoming, by being open to, everyone. By showing hospitality even to foreigners. Through the prophet, God proclaims a time when even foreigners will be brought to God’s holy mountain. A time when God’s house will be a house of prayer, not just for the people of Israel, but for all the peoples of the world. What we find in the first reading is a God who is secure and open enough to include everyone in God’s kingdom.

Of course, the more observant among us may raise an objection. We may notice that God’s welcome is not really extended to all foreigners indiscriminately. But only to those who follow God’s ways. Those who are obedient to God. This may be true. But notice also how God leads the disobedient into obedience. Again, not by being defensive. Not by exerting force. Not by resorting to violence. But by reaching out a gentle hand of mercy. Isn’t this what St. Paul writes about in the second reading? Paul says that he has been sent by God specifically to the pagans, the foreigners, as their apostle. And Paul’s is a mission not of condemnation, but of mercy. A mercy that will eventually reconcile, bring together, both Jews and Gentiles. Both believers and pagans. Both locals and foreigners. For God has imprisoned all in their own disobedience only to show mercy to all.

But what, we may ask, does mercy look like in the concrete? How do you recognise mercy when you see it? This is the question that the gospel reading helps us to answer. For Jesus himself is the highest expression of the mercy of God. And, in his encounter with the Canaanite woman, Jesus shows us something of what mercy looks like. Notice how, at the start of the reading, Jesus seems very sure of himself. He is very clear about the exact scope of his mission. About the boundaries of his concern. I was sent only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel. And yet, in the course of his conversation with the woman, Jesus seems to allow himself to change his mind. He is open enough to be impressed by the woman’s responses. To be moved by the faith of a foreigner.

So that, as in the second reading, it would seem that mercy is connected with conversion. With being willing to change one’s mind and heart about something or someone. Even to go beyond the boundaries of one’s concern. And isn’t this also an expression of security? So secure is Jesus in his mission to the Jews, that he is able and willing to reach beyond its boundaries. To entertain the urgent cries of a non-Jew. To heal the daughter of a foreigner. In the second reading too, so secure is Paul in his mission the Gentiles, that he is able to express concern even for  those who lie beyond the scope of his calling. Those who belong to his own Jewish race.

A security that is willing to cross the boundaries of its immediate concerns. Even to change its mind. A mercy and a gentleness that brings about reconciliation. The bringing together of what was once kept apart. An integrity and a sense of self that is expressed not in hostility and anxious self-assertion. But rather in hospitality and an openness even to those who are different from ourselves. This, my dear friends, is the approach to security that our Mass readings present to us today.

And it is an approach that our world needs so very much to learn. For everywhere around us, we find people anxious to safeguard their own security only through defensiveness and violence. Instead of gentleness and mercy. Isn’t this what we are witnessing in northern Iraq? In order to securely establish a so-called Islamic State, a well-armed militia is willing to perpetrate all manner of atrocities on those it perceives to be different. Even against the innocent and defenseless. The sick and the elderly. Women and children.

And here, in apparently peaceful Singapore, don’t we find increasingly disturbing expressions of fear and hatred? Locals against foreigners. White against pink. Liberal against conservative. What are these rumblings, sisters and brothers, if not attempts to win security through the building of walls and the use of force. Attempts which demonstrate, quite ironically, the deep insecurity suffered by those who engage in them.

Faced with situations such as these, my dear friends, are we Christians not called to bear witness to a security that comes via a different route? Not violence but gentleness. Not hostility but hospitality. Not harshness but mercy. And we can do this only to the extent that we first allow ourselves to remain immersed in the mercy of God. The mercy that we celebrate at this Eucharist. The mercy expressed in the Body and Blood of Christ. Broken and poured out for us. And for the whole of creation.

Sisters and brothers, what can we do to deepen our experience of this merciful security of God? And to share it with others today?

Sunday, August 03, 2014

Through Which Ear?

18th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Picture: Puff Pieces

Sisters and brothers, I recently saw a drawing of a woman who looked very devilish. Her body was draped in a slinky fire red gown. There were horns growing out of her head. And the words on the drawing explained how she had ended up like this. I have an angel on one shoulder, and a devil on the other. She said. I’m also deaf in one ear. No prizes for guessing to whom she had been turning the deaf ear. It wasn’t the devil.

This is, of course, a familiar image of the spiritual life: A devil whispering temptations into one ear. And an angel offering good advice in the other. How we end up depends on the one to whom we choose to listen. The ear through which we decide to hear. Few of us will deny this. That the spiritual life is indeed an ongoing struggle between good and evil. A constant tussle between two voices. One luring us to destruction. The other leading us into life. Two different sets of voices. Two different ears into which they speak. Two contrasting ways of listening. The devilish and the angelic. The destructive and the life-giving.

This is also the contrast that our readings propose for our consideration today. In the first reading, the Lord God speaks to his people in a voice full of love and compassion. Whispering into their ear, as it were. Assuring them that God desires nothing else but their survival and happiness. Their well-being and satisfaction. There is only one thing the people need to do to enjoy this generous offer. Listen, the Lord says, listen to me. Pay attention, come to me; listen and your soul will live. And listening to God means turning a deaf ear to that other voice. The one that entices them to move in the opposite direction. To spend money on what is not bread. Their wages on what fails to satisfy.

We find a similar contrast in the gospel. A contrast between two different sets of voices. Two conflicting ways of listening. This becomes clearer when we consider the reading in its wider context in the bible. Today’s passage, from Matthew’s gospel, begins at verse 13 of chapter 14. Earlier, in verses 1 to 12, we find the tragic tale of the arrest, imprisonment, and execution of John the Baptist. We know the story well. We know that it was king Herod who had John killed. But how did this come about?

The process has much to do with the act of listening. John the Baptist, as you will recall, had scolded Herod for entering into an unlawful marriage with Herod’s sister-in-law, Herodias. And when Herodias complained, Herod chose to listen to her. He had John arrested. Then, during his birthday party, Herod again chose to listen to this Herodias. When she instigated her daughter to ask for John’s head to be handed to her on a plate, the king chose to accede to the girl’s request. He had John killed in prison.

But Herod’s actions were not just prompted by the people to whom he listened. They were also the result of the way in which he chose to listen. Both Herod and Herodias chose to listen and to react to John’s words of warning not with sorrow and regret. Not with humility and obedience. Which might have led to repentance and newness of life. Instead, they reacted with arrogance and anger. With stubbornness and pride. Which resulted not only in the killing of an innocent man. But also in the spiritual death of Herod and Herodias themselves. And, quite ironically, this self-destruction happens precisely at a time when the king was supposed to be celebrating his own birth. This is what happens when people choose to listen to devilish voices. And to turn a deaf ear to God. What should be a joyful celebration is transformed into a fatal festival. A poisonous party.

In stark contrast, the gospel reading presents us with a different form of listening. Not devilish, but angelic. Not destructive, but life-giving. Here the spotlight falls on Jesus. Notice how he listens. Consider how he responds. The gospel gives us three examples. First, upon hearing the news of John’s death, Jesus responds by withdrawing. Perhaps to mourn the loss. To pray for the dead. And to consider what this development might mean for his own ministry. A more headstrong, more self-centred, person might have decided simply to push on. To act as though nothing had happened. But Jesus is different. He chooses to pause. To listen. To take stock. A sign that his ministry is not self-driven. But God-centred. Not a work of pride. But an exercise in humility.

Second, when Jesus is confronted with a large crowd, he very quickly sets aside his original plans. And the reading tells us why. Seeing the people before him, Jesus took pity on them. He listened to their cries. He was moved by their need. Again showing us that his ministry is centred not on himself, but on his heavenly Father. Who, as the responsorial psalm tells us, is compassionate to all his creatures. It is because Jesus listens with compassion that he decides to change his plans. Instead of withdrawing, he sets about healing the sick.

It is also this same compassion that prompts Jesus to do what at first looks quite illogical. Knowing full well that five loaves and two fish is all the food they have, Jesus still insists on feeding the huge crowd of hungry people. His disciples tell him to send them away. But Jesus decides otherwise. Showing that he listens not just to worried disciples. Not only to needy people. But also, and above all, to his merciful Father.

And it is this humble and trusting obedience that effects a change in the opposite direction to what we saw in the story of Herod. There a birthday celebration was changed into a fatal festival. Here a barren wilderness is transformed into a bountiful banquet. The hungry are satisfied. The sick are healed. The dying find new life. Not only does everyone have enough to eat. But they even have scraps left over. Twelve baskets full. The words of the second reading are proven true. Nothing can come between us and the love of Christ. If only we are willing to listen.

To choose to listen like Jesus. Instead of like Herod. This is the challenge our readings present to us today. And it is a difficult challenge. For our society conditions us to listen in a very particular way. We call it advertising. Everywhere we go. In every direction we turn. Voices call out to us. Telling us what to buy. Showing us the things we must have. The services we cannot do without. And the more we buy, the hungrier we get. Having an iPhone 5 generates a craving for an iPhone 6. Is this not spending money on what fails to satisfy? And while we do this. While we listen to the devilish voice of advertising. We end up turning a deaf ear to other voices. Voices of the poor and needy. Not just strangers who need material help. But also friends and relatives. Fellow parishioners. And even our own selves. Hungry for attention and affection. Crying out for compassion and care. The same compassion and care that God continues to offer us. Especially at this Mass.

Sisters and brothers, whether we choose to admit it or not, we each have an angel on one shoulder. And a devil on the other. To which one are you choosing to listen today?

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Of Headless Chickens & Restful Hearts

Solemnity of St. Ignatius of Loyola (Parish Feast)

Readings: Deuteronomy 30:15-20;  Psalm 1:1-6; 1 Corinthians 10:31-11:1; Matthew 8:18-27

Sisters and brothers, have you ever noticed that we live in a society of headless chickens? Of restless people? Have you noticed how so many of us seem to be constantly on the move? Forever busy with many different things? Always working? Always multi-tasking? Always frantically rushing around like headless chickens? And, because we are so used to moving at this pace, many of us find it really hard to sit still. To take a break from everything. To do nothing. But simply to rest and relax. Or even to slow down. To focus on only one thing at any one time.

There is, of course, a price to be paid for this hyperactivity. It’s called stress. The sense of being burdened by something that we can’t quite identify. Of constantly having the weight of the world upon our shoulders. The feeling that, even though our lives may be filled with heated activity, our hearts are often left cold and empty. We lose touch with ourselves. We don’t know what we really want. What our deepest desires are. So we just keep on moving. From activity to activity. From event to event. From person to person. Without ever being able to settle on a single thing, once and for all. Isn’t this why commitments become so difficult for us to make and to keep? Why so many marriages break down? And vocations to the priesthood and religious life are so hard to come by?

Sisters and brothers, in a restless world like ours, settling down becomes a very difficult thing to do. For many busy and preoccupied people, simply falling sleep for the night is a great challenge. What more choosing a spouse, or a vocation, for the rest of one’s life? And yet, in the midst of all this restlessness, our hearts continue to cry out for rest. What can we do to heed this cry? To satisfy this yearning? How can we find rest in the midst of restlessness? What can the headless chicken do to stop running around? How can its head be reattached?

This, my dear sisters and brothers, is the question of the hour. It is also the question that our Mass readings help us to address. But to appreciate the answer they offer us, we need to ponder them very carefully. For, at first glance, it seems that, in the gospel, Jesus is only making the problem worse. Only adding to our restlessness. Notice how the gospel begins with Jesus giving orders to his disciples to move. To cross from one side of the lake to the other. And then, in response to those who say they want to follow him, Jesus seems to describe himself as someone who is always busy. Always on the move. The Son of Man, he says, has nowhere to rest his head.

And yet, contrary to appearances, Jesus is not calling his disciples to a life of perpetual restlessness. Of chronic busyness. His is not the life of a headless chicken. For notice how Jesus conducts himself while on the move. While crossing from one side of the lake to the other. Notice how, even in the midst of a storm so violent that the boat was being swamped by waves, Jesus is still somehow able to rest. His terrified disciples even have to wake him from sleep. And then, once awake, the Lord seems surprised at their panic. Their restlessness. Why are you terrified?, he asks them. Why are you unable to find rest?

But how is it that Jesus himself is able to rest? When surrounded precisely by such great restlessness. How does he manage to remain calm in the midst of such a terrible storm? Even in the face of certain death? What is his secret? The answer is really quite simple. Not easy. But simple. Jesus can find rest because he is able to do the same thing that Moses is asking the people of Israel to do in the first reading. Here, after having wandered in the wilderness for forty long years, the people have finally arrived at their destination. They are preparing to cross the Jordan into the Promised Land. And Moses teaches them what they must do to settle down safely in this new place. How they can finally be at rest. Again, the secret is quite simple. It has to do with making a choice. A choice to be faithful. To commit their lives to God. And God alone. Once and for all.

And to do this is not the same thing as simply adding God to a long list of things we need to do. For God is not just one thing among other things. Rather, to choose God is to make God the centre of everything else in our lives. Much like how the sun is the centre around which the planets revolve. And, according to Moses, we do this by loving God. By heeding his voice. By holding fast to him. Or, in the words of the second reading, by making sure that in whatever we do, we do it for the glory of God. This is the only way by which the restless can find rest. By choosing to love God above all else. By deciding to surrender our hearts to God.

Isn’t this also how Jesus remains so calm even in a storm-tossed boat? He is able to lay down his head to sleep, because his heart is resting securely in the will of his Father. His whole existence revolves around the love of God. And this too is a basic principle in the spirituality of St. Ignatius. Whose feast we celebrate today. As you know, Ignatius referred to himself as the pilgrim. Someone perpetually on the move. Always travelling towards God. And yet, he could also say that should the Society of Jesus–which he worked so long and hard to establish–were to be dissolved, he would need only fifteen minutes of prayer to be at peace. He could find calm in such a terrible storm–the destruction of his life’s work–because, like Jesus before him, his heart was at rest in the will of God. His one preoccupation was the glory of God. His heart was set on loving God. Who, in the dying and rising of Christ, had loved him first.

This, my dear sisters and brothers, is the Good News that our readings are offering to us today. In a restless world like ours, we find true rest only by returning love for love. This is how the chicken gets its head reattached. By surrendering its heart to the One who allowed his own heart to be pierced for our sins.

I’m reminded of these words from that old love song sung by the late Nat King Cole:

When I fall in love, it will be forever.
Or I'll never fall in love.
In a restless world like this is, love is ended before it's begun.
And too many moonlight kisses
seem to cool in the warmth of the sun.
When I give my heart, it will be completely.
Or I'll never give my heart.
And the moment I can feel that you feel that way too,
is when I fall in love with you.

Sisters and brothers, in this restless world of ours, this society of headless chickens, how can we continue to surrender our hearts to God, and so to rest in his love today?

Sunday, July 13, 2014

The Truth In Troubleshooting

15th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)
Bible Sunday

Picture: cc Blake Facey

Sisters and brothers, have you ever experienced an electrical malfunction? Say you switch on the TV set in your home. And find that nothing happens. No picture on the screen. No sound. What do you do? If you’re like me, you’ll probably wonder if there’s something wrong with the power supply. Is there a blackout? A short-circuit? Is the TV plugged in? Is the main switch on? If everything looks fine, then there must be something wrong with the TV itself. Maybe a fuse has blown.

Sisters and brothers, as you know, we call this troubleshooting. The steps we take, the questions we ask, to uncover the cause of a malfunction. But have you noticed that there is one thing we never check? One question we don’t ask? Something that we always take for granted? We never question the power of electricity itself. We always assume that electricity will make the TV work. And if it doesn’t work, then the problem must lie with the TV. Or with its connections. Never do we think to put electricity into question. Much less do we ever decide to give up using electricity altogether.

When troubleshooting electrical malfunctions, we never question the effectiveness of electricity. But what about when we have to troubleshoot malfunctions in the spiritual life? As you know, all our religious practices are meant to have a positive effect on us. When we gather for Mass every Sunday, for example. To be nourished by the Word of God and the Bread of Life. We expect to be changed for the better. And the same can be said of our other spiritual activities. When we maintain a habit of personal prayer and scripture reading. When we frequent the sacrament of reconciliation. We expect all these activities to make us more joyful and more loving. More peaceful and more caring.

But what if this doesn’t happen? What if, when we come to  Mass, we consistently feel bored out of minds? What if, just two seconds into the homily, we feel like reaching for our cellphones to check our messages? Or to send a tweet? What if we leave this worship space, after lifting our hearts in fervent prayer to God, only to find ourselves raising our voices in angry protest against the poor traffic assistants in the carpark? Or a fellow motorist on the road? What if our reading of the scriptures leaves us cold and uninspired? What if, even after saying many prayers, we remain wrapped up only in our own petty concerns? Instead of reaching out to care for those in need? In other words, sisters and brothers, what if we experience a spiritual malfunction? How do we troubleshoot the problem? What questions do we ask?

Our Mass readings help us by first indicating to us the one question we need not ask. Something that we can simply take for granted. And that something is the power of the Word of God. As God reminds us in the first reading, the word that goes from my mouth does not return to me empty, without carrying out my will and succeeding in what it was sent to do. Much like electricity, the power of God’s Word is such that it is always capable of producing a good effect. So, if there is a malfunction, the problem must lie somewhere else. And it is this somewhere else that Jesus helps us to pinpoint in the gospel.

Here, Jesus compares God’s Word to the seed that always carries within it the power to effect growth. If growth doesn’t occur, the problem lies not with the seed, but with the soil into which it is sown. With the people to whom the Word is proclaimed. And the parable highlights what some of these problems might be: Hearing without understanding. Or understanding too superficially. Or being too distracted by other concerns. By the pleasures and the worries of daily life.

But that’s not all. If we are honest with ourselves, we must also admit that problems may lie not only with the soil. But also with the sower. Not only with the ones who receive the Word. But also with those who, like me, bear the responsibility for proclaiming it. Isn’t this why Pope Francis devotes such a large part of his recent apostolic exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel, to the preparation of the homily? For just as a perfectly functioning TV set would not work very well if the connections to the power supply were loose. So too will poorly prepared proclamations of the Word be less fruitful. Even when received by well-disposed listeners like yourselves.

And this insight is important not just for priests like me. It is significant also for lay people like you. For we mustn’t forget that, like me, you too are called not just to receive, but also to proclaim the Word of God. In your own particular state of life. How fruitful are your proclamations of the Word? How well prepared are the homilies that you preach through the lives that you lead? At home... At work... In school...

Which is why, my dear friends, you and I–called as we are to be both listeners and proclaimers of the Word–need to pay careful attention to our scriptures today. In particular, we need to ponder what we find in the second reading. Where St. Paul reminds us that, along with the whole of creation, each of us is groaning inwardly. Yearning to be set free from our slavery to decadence. Hungry for the nourishment provided by the Word of God. Especially as we celebrate this Eucharist.

We need to allow ourselves continually to remain in touch with this inner yearning. Constantly to stay connected to this interior groaning. For this is the only location at which the Word of God is truly received. And from which it can be passionately proclaimed. It is only here, in this sacred interior space, that the power of God’s Word always finds a fertile resting place. Bearing fruit. Now thirty, now sixty, now a hundredfold...

My dear sisters and brothers, how are we, you and I, being challenged to do some spiritual troubleshooting of our own today?

Sunday, July 06, 2014

The Joy of Open Hands

14th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Picture: cc Riccardo Cuppini

Sisters and brothers, if I may, l’d like to invite you all to do something with me right now. At the count of 3, could you all please clench your fists as tightly as you can? And then try to pay attention to how you feel. Notice what clenched fists feel like. Can you do that? Good. Ready? 1-2-3, clench! And hold... Notice how you feel... Now, again at the count of 3, slowly unclench your fists. Open up your hands. And pay attention to how you feel. Ready? 1-2-3, slowly... open... How do you feel?...

So what was it like, sisters and brothers? What does it feel like to have your fists clenched? What does it feel like to open up your hands? Any difference? Of course there is, right? It’s the difference between tension and relaxation. Between stress and calm. Between exertion and rest. Between grabbing something and letting something go…

It’s helpful to keep this contrast in mind, because it can help us appreciate something that our liturgy is inviting us to consider today. Have you noticed what it is? Recall what we heard in the opening prayer just now. Remember what we prayed for. We asked God to fill us with holy joy. For, through the sacrifice of Christ, God has bestowed on us eternal gladness. And, remember also, how the first reading begins. Rejoice heart and soul, daughter of Zion! Shout with gladness, daughter of Jerusalem!… Sisters and brothers, if there is one thing that our liturgy is bringing to our attention today, it is joy.

And I think we can all agree that joy is something that everyone desires. Something we all seek. Except that we have different ways of going about it. Different approaches to finding joy. Do you know what your own approach is? I’m not sure, but I think that, for many of us, the way we seek to be happy is the way taught to us by the world. By the society in which we live. And often this is the way of constant effort. Of repeated self-exertion. The way of stress and strain. Of the clenched fist and the gritted teeth. We push ourselves hard in order to be able to grab as many of life’s pleasures as possible. In the belief that the harder we work, the more things we grab, the happier we will feel.

For many of us, joy is something we win for ourselves. Through sheer force of will. Through steely strength of determination. No one makes us happy. We earn it for ourselves. This is what we learn in society. And, more often than not, we assume that this must be true in our spiritual lives as well. Whether we realise it or not, we think that happiness in the spiritual life is also only about effort. How to be more joyful? Well, spend more time in prayer. Give more money to the church. Get involved in more ministries in the parish... More time. More money. More effort. Must mean more joy. Right? I’m not sure. Perhaps for some this approach does work. But, then again, isn’t it true that, it can also have the opposite effect? Very often, the demand for more only serves to make us more discouraged. More stressed out. More unhappy. Or, what’s worse, it can also make us more prideful. More arrogant. More self-righteous. More pharisaical.

Which is why it’s important for us to pay attention to the different approach to joy that our readings are offering us today. Notice the reason why Zion is asked to rejoice in the first reading. It’s not because of anything that she herself has done. Rather, Zion is invited to rejoice in the victory won for her by her king. Her joy is less something she earns than something she simply receives.

Not only that. Notice also the very curious way in which her king is described. He rides not on a war-horse. But a baby donkey. His is an image not of power and might. But of humility and gentleness. Indeed, some of us may remember that this is the very passage of scripture used by the gospel writers to describe Jesus. As he rides into Jerusalem on Passion Sunday. Quite clearly, the approach to joy being taught to us here is very different from the way of the world. It is less the way of exertion and grabbing. Than of resting and receiving. It is less the way of the clenched fist. Than that of the open hand.

And this is also the same approach that Jesus teaches in the gospel. Notice first how Jesus begins by speaking not of our joy, but of the joy experienced by God. Yes, Father, for this is what it pleased you to do... God rejoices in revealing Himself to mere children. And isn’t this the only true Source of our own joy? If we are able to rejoice, it is only by sharing in the joy of God. By humbly receiving God’s self-communication to us. Especially in the Mystery that we celebrate at this Eucharist. The Mystery of the Life, Death, and Resurrection of Christ. And isn’t this why the learned and the clever fall short? Not so much because God doesn’t reveal himself to them. For the responsorial psalm tells us that the Lord is good to all, compassionate to all his creatures. If the learned and clever fail to rejoice, it is only because they are too focused on themselves. Too full of their own expertise. Too wrapped up in their own efforts. Too busy clenching their fists.

In contrast, Jesus issues a moving invitation to those who labour and are overburdened. Those of us who find ourselves desperately struggling to meet the demands of the clenched fist. And perhaps often failing. Jesus invites us to come to Him. To approach Him. The victorious yet humble King. The King who is victorious precisely because he is humble. Humble enough even to let Himself be nailed to a cruel cross. To set His people free. We are invited to come to Him with open hands. To receive the joy that He has already won for us through His sacrifice. The joy of realising how much God loves us. How much God cherishes us. Takes pleasure in us. Wants to give us joy. Without our having to do anything to earn it.

And, quite paradoxically, it is when we do this. It is when we open our hearts and our hands to receive God’s love. Especially in this very Eucharist. That we find the energy to do what needs to be done. No longer out of an oppressive sense of obligation. But, instead, out of a deep and enduring gratitude. As the psalmist says, all your creatures shall thank you, O Lord, and your friends shall repeat their blessing. Isn’t this also what St. Paul is writing about in the second reading? When we open ourselves to receive the love of God in Christ, our interests begin to change. We turn away from the unspiritual toward the spiritual. Away from the ungodly toward the godly. Allowing the Spirit of God to make his home in us. Giving us the strength gradually to put an end to the misdeeds of the body. To pray more devoutly. To give more wholeheartedly. To serve more selflessly. To experience, even here on earth, something of the joys of heaven.

Sisters and brothers, if I might just invite you now to, once more, quickly clench your fists... And then to slowly open them up again... How do you feel?... Two different postures. Two contrasting approaches to joy. One grabbing. The other receiving. One anxious. The other trusting...

Which one do you choose today?

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Salvation As Good Plumbing

Solemnity of Ss. Peter & Paul

Picture: cc Robert the Noid

Sisters and brothers, have you ever had problems with plumbing? Recently, my washbasin started acting up. The water was taking a long time to drain away. Which made it very inconvenient to use the basin. At first I thought the problem was temporary. Maybe it had to do with the weather. Or with air pressure. Or water volume. Or some technical thing like that. So I left it. Hoping the situation would improve by itself. Wishful thinking. Instead of getting better, it got worse. The flow of water got slower and slower. Until, one day, it stopped altogether. My basin was well and truly clogged. It couldn’t be used anymore.

No longer able to deny or ignore the problem, I decided to dismantle the pipes to take a look. And a good thing I did. What I found embarrassed me. Contrary to my earlier diagnosis, my plumbing problem was not due to the weather, or to air pressure, or any other complicated technical thing. The cause was quite simple. The outlet through which water was meant to drain was completely choked up with dirt. Clearing it was a messy (and smelly) affair. And I must admit that I took no pleasure in doing it. But it was simple enough. And, at the end, I’m glad I did it. Glad I took the time, and made the effort, to unclog my pipes. Now, not only does the water drain off smoothly, but my basin also looks cleaner than it did before.

I share this experience, only because it seems to mirror quite well what our Mass readings are teaching us today. Something that we find in the lives of both Peter and Paul. The experience of salvation. In the words of the psalmist, the angel of the Lord is encamped around those who revere him, to rescue them. But what does this rescue look and feel like? What does it mean to be saved?

At first glance, our readings seem to give us a rather straightforward answer. Notice what happens to Peter in the first reading. He is persecuted by King Herod. Thrown into prison. Guarded by four soldiers. Fastened with double chains. But the angel of the Lord rescues him. Unfastens his chains. Puts his guards to sleep. Throws open the prison gates. Leads him out to freedom. Saves him from certain death. Is this what it means to be saved? Simply to be preserved from all danger? To be protected from every persecution?

Again, at first glance, it seems that Paul has a similar experience. In the second reading, he tells of how he has survived persecution. How he has successfully defended himself at a trial. The Lord stood by me, he says. I was rescued from the lion’s mouth. The Lord will rescue me from all evil attempts on me, and bring me safely to his heavenly kingdom. It would seem that, for Paul, as for Peter, salvation is about being protected from persecution. Being guarded from earthly enemies. Rescued from iron chains. Set free from prisons of stone.

Now, sisters and brothers, I’m not sure about you. But for me, this is a very attractive view of how God saves. Not that I often suffer persecution. But there are moments in my life, when I sometimes feel a little trapped. By one problem or another. At home or at work. In my personal life or in ministry. And how consoling it is to think that God will always rescue me. Will always find me a way out. No time to prepare a homily for Sunday? Don’t worry. God will provide. Really? All the time? Then why bother even to prepare in the first place?

And yet, as appealing as it sounds, there is at least one problem with this view of salvation. For we all know what eventually happened to the great apostles Peter and Paul. Although Peter survived the persecution of Herod in Judea. And although Paul successfully defended himself in the second reading. Legend has it that they were both martyred in Rome. By the emperor Nero. How could God allow that to happen? Why didn’t God rescue them? Does this mean that Peter and Paul were not saved? Or is there perhaps a different meaning to salvation?

Actually, our readings do offer us an alternative understanding. A deeper meaning. For one thing, the scripture scholars tell us that, in the first reading, Peter’s imprisonment and rescue is described in a way that is calculated to remind us of one thing. The Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Christ. So that the story of Peter’s rescue is really the author’s way of saying that God set Peter free to follow in his Master’s footsteps. Even to lay down his life, in love for God and for others. As Jesus did before him.

And this is also exactly what Paul says about himself in the second reading. My life, he says, is already being poured away as a libation, and the time has come for me to be gone… In the second reading Paul is boasting not just of being rescued from persecution. But of how God has cleared away all the things that hindered him from pouring out his life as a sacrifice to God. Not unlike how someone might clear out water-pipes choked up by dirt. The dirt of selfishness and sin. Of worldly ambition and fear. Of inadequate understandings of what it means to be saved.

Isn’t this what Jesus is doing for Peter and the other disciples in the gospel? At a place called Caesarea Philippi, Jesus begins to unclog the pipes of his disciples’ faith. Clearing away their unrealistic expectations of him. And, much like how a choked washbasin is cleared, the process involves roughly two steps. The first is a dismantling. An uncovering. Jesus invites his disciples to examine their own expectations of him by asking them two questions. First, Who do people say the Son of Man is? And then, more personally, But you, who do you say I am?

And, even though Peter seems to give the correct answer, the process is not complete. A second step is needed. Our reading today ends at verse 19. But we may remember what happens in the verses that follow. Jesus starts telling his disciples about how he will soon allow his life to be drained away on the Cross. He speaks to them about his Passion, and Death, and Resurrection. And Peter protests. Causing the Lord to rebuke him. Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle in my path, because the way you think is not God’s way, but man’s. What is Jesus is doing, if not clearing away the dirt that is choking Peter’s pipes. The false expectations that prevent Peter, not just from letting Jesus go to his Passion, but also from following in the Lord’s footsteps.

Sisters and brothers, isn’t this the salvation that we are celebrating today? God’s rescue of both Peter and Paul. Not just saving them from persecution. Not just freeing them from prison. But clearing away everything that prevents them from submitting to God. So that they can imitate Jesus in generously pouring out their lives, in love for God and for God’s people. And isn’t this the same kind of rescue that God is offering to us? Isn’t this the same kind of salvation that we all need so very much in this self-absorbed, me-first, society in which we live?

Sisters and brothers, how is God unclogging the pipes of your heart today?

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Even When We Let Him Go...

The Solemnity of the Most Holy Body & Blood of Christ (A)

Well you only need the light when it's burning low.
Only miss the sun when it starts to snow.
Only know you love her when you let her go...

Sisters and brothers, do you find these words familiar at all? Perhaps some of us may recognise them as the opening lines to that haunting song performed by the English singer and songwriter who calls himself Passenger. The song is entitled Let Her Go. And it’s a sad song. A lament. A song sung by someone remembering and mourning a broken relationship. Pining for a lost love. Yearning for what could have been. A song sung by someone who has begun to realise why his relationships get broken in the first place. Why his love was lost.

The reason is simple. It has to do with something that perhaps all of us have experienced in ourselves. At one time or another. We all have a tendency to take things and people for granted. We don’t cherish what we have until it’s gone. We only need the light when it's burning low. We only miss the sun when it starts to snow (or rain). We only know we love someone after we have let her/him go. It’s all quite tragic, isn’t it, sisters and brothers? And all the more so, because of the inevitability of it all. We just don’t seem able to appreciate those we love. Until it’s too late. Until we lose them. Until we break our relationship. Until we let them go.

And, strange as it may sound, I’m reminded of this song today, because I think it helps to illustrate quite well–though in an indirect way–what our Corpus Christi celebration is all about. To see the connection, we need to look a little more closely at our first reading. Remember the context. The people of Israel have been wandering in the wilderness for forty long years. They’ve experienced many ups and downs. And now, finally, they reach their destination. They find themselves by the eastern bank of the river Jordan. The Promised Land is just across the river. They’ve made it. It’s a happy occasion. A time to celebrate.

But, before letting them occupy the land that God is giving them, Moses gathers the people for a final pep talk. He warns them to remain faithful to God. To keep the Law that God gave them at Mount Sinai. How does Moses motivate the people to do this? He invites them to remember. To remember their experiences of the past. And we all know what these experiences are.

For one thing, they are experiences of Israel’s infidelity to God. Experiences of how, even though God had worked mighty miracles to free them from slavery in Egypt, Israel remained repeatedly rebellious. Resistant to God’s hand of friendship. Even as God was giving them the Law on Sinai, they broke their relationship with God by trying to replace Him. They fashioned and worshipped an idol. A false god. A golden calf. And, even though God was leading them to a land overflowing with milk and honey, they complained repeatedly of the hardship they had to endure on the way. Threatened, continually,  to give up the journey. To go back into slavery. To stop following the Lord.

In other words, from one perspective, the experiences of Israel in the wilderness are not unlike what is described in the song Let Her Go. They are experiences of having taken someone for granted. Of breaking a relationship. Of continually letting God go. So that the exercise of remembering, which Moses invites Israel to undertake in the first reading, could so easily have taken the form of a tragedy. A lament. A sad sad song of what could have been. Of a relationship that is broken. Of a love that is lost.

And yet, it is not. The first reading is filled with joy and hope. Instead of sadness and regret. It is filled with purpose and determination. Instead of dejection and despair. How did this come about? We know the answer. Tragedy is turned into celebration. Sorrow to elation. Lament to jubilation. For only one reason. Simply because, even though the people have taken God for granted, God has refused to leave them alone. Has insisted on guiding and protecting them through the dangers of the desert. Making water flow for them from the rock. Feeding them with manna from the sky. Patiently allowing Himself to be taken for granted. Stubbornly refusing to let His people go.

And isn’t this our experience as well? Isn’t this what we celebrate at Corpus Christi? And, indeed, at every offering of the Eucharist. We remember how, in our own history as a people, we have allowed God to be taken for granted. Have broken our relationship with God. Have even broken the body of God’s only begotten Son. Have tortured Him and hung him on a Cross. In the Eucharist, we remember how we have let our God go.

And yet, our memory is not a sad song of loss and regret. As it might so easily have been. Instead it is a joyful hymn of praise and thanksgiving. Of power and hope. We rejoice in the precious gift of the Body and Blood of Christ. Broken and poured out for us. As a touching and empowering reminder of God’s unconquerable love and care for us. We remember how, even though we may have taken God for granted. Have worshipped false gods. God still insists on accompanying us. On befriending us. On guiding and protecting us. As we make our way through the dangerous avenues of this passing world. Through the unavoidable stresses and strains of daily living. God simply refuses to let us go.

So that, as Jesus reminds us in the gospel, we who eat his flesh and drink his blood may have eternal life. Not just the mysterious life that awaits us beyond the grave. But that fullness of life, which begins already here and now. While we walk the face of this earth. The life enjoyed by those who live in Eucharistic ways. Those who imitate the example of Christ. Allowing themselves to be broken and poured out for the good of others.

And, when we do this, we actually become the very thing that we eat and drink. We become the Body and Blood of Christ. In and for our world. For, as St. Paul reminds us in the second reading, the blessing-cup that we bless is a communion with the blood of Christ, and the bread that we break is a communion with the body of Christ. By being part of this celebration, this memorial of the Lord’s Passion, we receive the power to share with others the fruits of His redemption. The transformation of sorrow into joy. Betrayal into trust. Brokenness into healing.

You only need the light when it's burning low.
Only miss the sun when it starts to snow.
Only know you love her when you let her go…

Sisters and brothers, by any stretch of the imagination, these should be words of sadness. This should be a song of lament. And yet, for us, the sad song of loss and regret has been transformed into a joyful hymn of praise and thanksgiving. All because the God we have taken for granted, has broken His Body...
Has poured out his Blood...
For us...
For you...
For me...
For the life of the world...

Sisters and brothers, how is God refusing to let you go today?

Sunday, June 15, 2014

From Math Books to Hiking Boots (Rerun)

The Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity (A)

Picture: cc blaircook

Sisters and brothers, imagine for a moment that you’re a student in a classroom, waiting for a lesson to begin. Or an adult at work, waiting for a meeting to start. You’re confident. You’re prepared. You’ve brought all the required books and notes. You’re eager to get started. But when the class or meeting begins, your heart sinks. You discover that you’ve prepared the wrong material. Frustrated, you struggle to keep up. But it’s difficult, because you were expecting something very different.

Sometimes I wonder whether we go through a similar struggle each year. On this solemn feast of the Holy Trinity. We know very well what this feast is about. We know we are celebrating God. But, because we Christians believe in one God, who is also a Trinity of Persons, we face a problem. All this talk of God being one-in-three and three-in-one doesn’t make much sense, does it? Especially when our attention remains focused only on the numbers. It’s as though we come to the celebration prepared for a math lesson. We hope to understand how 1 = 3. And 3 = 1. And, let’s face it, even after many celebrations of this feast, which of us can honestly say that we’ve fully understood? Which of us can claim to have solved the puzzle? On the contrary, we can be forgiven if, at the end of our celebration, we may find our hearts continuing to sink with confusion and disappointment.

And yet, sisters and brothers, what if our celebration today is not really a lesson in arithmetic? What if it’s more like a hike into the woods? What if our concern today is not really to solve a math problem? But to locate and travel to a spiritual place? If this is true, then maybe we need to be ready to leave the classroom. To step out into the open air. We need to exchange our books and notes for a sturdy pair of hiking boots and a good map.

And a good map is precisely what our readings provide for us today. This is a special kind of map. It points us to a special kind of place. A spiritual place. We have probably noticed by now that our three readings have something in common. Each of them speaks to us of the presence and saving action of God among God’s people. They speak to us not only of what our God is like, but also of where our God is to be found. Together they sketch for us a reliable map to the place where we can meet God.

In the first reading, this place is described as the mountain of Sinai. Only Moses is allowed to climb this mountain. Only he is privileged to have a close personal encounter with God. And it is important to notice what this encounter tells us about God. Remember that this is not the first meeting. Neither are the stone tablets in Moses’ hands the first pair. Today’s reading is from Exodus 34. Earlier, in Exodus 20, God had given Moses the Ten Commandments, inscribed on two earlier tablets. But Moses was so angry at the people’s idolatry–at their worship of the golden calf–that he had smashed those first two tablets. It is against this background of betrayal that God speaks those moving words we hear today: Lord, Lord, a God of tenderness and compassion, slow to anger, rich in kindness and faithfulness. In spite of the people’s infidelity, God continues to remain faithful. God remains willing to take them back. To guide and to care for them. Not to leave them to die of hunger and thirst in the wilderness.

Perhaps not many of us have been to Mount Sinai. I haven’t. Even so, haven’t we experienced the love and mercy of God? Don’t we know what it feels like to have our sins forgiven? To feel ourselves guided by the hand of God? Whether it was at a retreat. Or a penitential service. Or some other special occasion. Each of us can probably recall our own personal encounters with the God of tenderness and compassion. The One who simply refuses to abandon us. But insists on relentlessly pursuing and befriending us. Haven’t we each had our own mountaintop experiences? Times when we’ve met, and continue to meet, the loving God whom we celebrate today?

And yet, like the Israelites of the first reading, we cannot always remain encamped at the holy mountain forever. We have to move on. How and where then to find God? Like Moses, we long for God to accompany us on our way. Like him, we too may find ourselves praying: Let my Lord come with us, I beg. And, in the gospel, we have God’s answer to this prayer of ours. Here we learn that God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not be lost but may have eternal life. The love of God for us is so great that God cannot bear to let us journey on alone. Instead, through and in his only begotten Son, the second Person of the Trinity, God descends the mountain and pitches tent among us. In Christ, it is now possible for everyone to have a close encounter with God. In Christ, our meeting place with God has now become a person. The second Person of the Holy Trinity.

So that we don’t always have to climb a high mountain to find God. For, in Christ, the mountain has come to the people. In the Life, Death, and Resurrection of Christ, every truly human experience, even the most terrible suffering, even death itself, becomes a place where God can be found. Don’t we know of people who remain full of faith and hope, even in the midst of great suffering? Even in the face of death? In Christ, God remains accessible to us even in times of difficulty and distress.

But some of us might object. For Jesus is no longer present to us like he was to the first disciples in the gospels. Hasn’t he already ascended to the Father? How are we to find God now? Again, with great tenderness and compassion, God provides for our need. What we cannot see with the naked eye, God teaches us to recognise with tender hearts. Jesus remains present to us in the power of the Holy Spirit. The third Person of the Trinity. The same Spirit whom, in a few moments, we will invoke both on the gifts of bread and wine, as well as on ourselves. It is in the power of this same Spirit that we are able to recognise Christ. That we are able to meet God.

And isn’t this what we are doing at this Mass? Finding and celebrating the presence and saving power of God among us? And are we not called to remain in this place by continuing to live Eucharistic lives? Even after we leave this church? Even after we are told to go in peace, glorifying the Lord by your life? We are able to do this, because, in the Holy Spirit, our meeting place with God has become a spiritual practice. The Eucharistic practice of breaking the Bread of Life and sharing the Wine of Compassion. A practice that we continue to engage in, even after leaving this church, by following the instructions given in the second reading today: try to grow perfect; help one another. Be united; live in peace, and the God of love and peace–the God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit–will be with you. Will continue to grace you with his single three-fold presence.

Sisters and brothers, perhaps rather than a math puzzle for us to solve, the feast of the Holy Trinity is really a loving invitation to us to set out on a spiritual journey. A lifelong pilgrimage. Into God... 

Have you put on your hiking boots yet?

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Bicycle Lessons

6th Sunday of Easter (A)

Picture: cc dadblunders

Sisters and brothers, do you remember when you first learned to ride a bicycle? Do you recall what the process was like? How you gradually learned to balance on two wheels? Usually, children begin by riding tri-cycles. Which don’t require any balance at all. Since the three wheels provide a stable base. Later, the kids may graduate to bicycles fitted with small training wheels. One on each side. Although not as stable as a tricycle, the training wheels provide enough external support to enable the child to remain upright.

But, if the child is truly to learn to ride a bicycle, the training wheels have to come off at some point. Although, for a time, the child may still need an adult to hold on to the bicycle from behind. Then, there comes a moment when even the adult becomes unnecessary. When the child is able to balance on his or her own. Without external support. What a wonderful feeling! How exciting and exhilarating! To finally be able to ride a bicycle on your own!

But notice also what all this involves. Notice how it’s really a process of internalisation. Something external gradually becomes internal. At first, balance is achieved only with outside support. Extra wheels. Extra hands. But then the external supports gradually become unnecessary. Balance begins to come not from without but from within. It’s internalised. This is what it takes to ride a bicycle. The internalisation of balance.

Strange as it may sound, sisters and brothers, internalisation is also something our Mass readings are bringing to our attention today. As you know, in just two weeks time, we will be celebrating Pentecost. And, already today, our readings begin to prepare us for that feast by speaking to us of the Holy Spirit. By inviting us to consider why we need the Spirit. What the Spirit does for us.

We begin with the gospel. Here, as part of his farewell speech at the Last Supper, Jesus reassures his disciples by speaking  about the Holy Spirit. Jesus knows that he will soon be taken away from them. He will no longer be present to them in the same way as he is now. And yet, I will not leave you orphans, he tells them. I will come back to you. Jesus will somehow make himself present to them again. But in a different way. Through a process that the Spirit helps to bring about.

We get a better sense of what this process involves by paying attention to a word that Jesus keeps repeating in today’s reading. It’s a very small word. An apparently insignificant word. Neither a noun, nor a verb. Not even an adjective. But only a preposition. Notice how often, in today’s gospel, the Lord uses the word in. The world can never receive the Spirit, Jesus says. Since it neither sees nor knows him; but you know him, because he is with you, he is in you. On that day you will understand that I am in my Father and you in me and I in you.

Isn’t this an indication of what the Spirit does for us? The Spirit helps us to internalise the presence of Jesus. Even the presence of God. Father, Son and Holy Spirit. So that even though we may not see or touch the Lord the way the first disciples did. We can still sense his presence, by the power of the Spirit working within us. Through a process of internalisation.

Isn’t this also what is described in the first reading. When Philip proclaims the Gospel to the Samaritan town, the people are at first attracted by the external signs that Philip performs. We’re told that they united in welcoming the message Philip preached, either because they had heard of the miracles he worked, or because they saw them for themselves. Much like children learning to ride a bicycle, the Samaritans come to an initial reception of the faith by first relying on the external support of miracles. It is only later, after they have received the Holy Spirit, that the faith is gradually internalised.

Sisters and brothers, we know what it looks like when a child is finally able to ride a bicycle without external support. We know what the internalisation of balance looks like. But what does an internalised faith look like? What does it look like when someone no longer has to rely on the external supports of signs and wonders in order to believe? We find an answer to this question in the second reading.

Notice again, how, as in the gospel, we find here the repeated use of the preposition in. Reverence the Lord Jesus Christ in your hearts. Living a good life in Christ. Obviously, the writer presumes that the Christian community he is addressing is living an internalised faith. A faith that comes from within. Rooted in an intimate personal relationship with Christ. Even so, this internalised faith can and needs to be manifested externally. It can and needs to be expressed both in words and in deeds.

Always have your answer ready for people who ask you the reason for the hope that you all have. The hope that is in you. Which means, be ready to express and to explain your faith in words. To proclaim to people the source of your strength. And do it not just in words. But also through your actions. By living with a clear conscience. By living a good life in Christ. By being willing even to suffer for doing what is right. Just as Christ himself, innocent though he was, suffered and died for us.

Sisters and brothers, this is what an internalised faith looks like. This is what the Spirit does for us. It enables us to live in Christ-like ways, even when it’s inconvenient to do so. Even when circumstances may conspire to try to make us lose our balance. Even when we may not see or hear of any miracles being performed. Even when we may end up being penalised or persecuted for doing what is right. As when someone who refuses to backstab others, or to compromise his or her Christian values at work, may end up being side-lined or passed over for promotion.

This is what an internalised faith looks like. Not just living quietly in Christ-like ways, but also being able and willing to explain to others the reason why we live the way we do. Being willing and able to speak about the Mystery that we continue to celebrate in this season of Easter. The joyful Message of the Dying and Rising of Christ. Who continues to be present to us at all times and in all circumstances.

Sisters and brothers, as baptised Christians, all of us have received the gift of the Holy Spirit. All of us are called to proclaim Christ both in deed and in word. Both in good times and in bad. Whether welcome or unwelcome. The question we need to ask ourselves is the extent to which we are truly riding the bicycle of an adult internalised faith. Or are we still pedalling only kids' tricycles today?

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Celebrations in Contrast

50th Wedding Anniversary Mass of Charles & Suzanne

Readings: Ruth 1:16-17; Ephesians 4:1-6; John 17:20-23
Picture: cc Ross2085

Charles and Suzanne, sisters and brothers, have you ever noticed how you can read your smartphone more clearly when you look at it in the dark than in broad daylight? And, of course, you know the reason why. It’s the same reason why we switch off all the lights in the church before we screen a movie. It’s also the same reason why a white shirt seems to get dirty so much faster than a black one. Not that the white shirt is actually dirtier. It’s just that the dirt is more visible against a lighter background than a darker one. We call this contrast. We see things more clearly when we see them in contrast. So dirt is more obvious on a white shirt. Light shines out more brightly in darkness.

I mention this because it helps me to understand something about our Mass readings that at first seems very puzzling. As you know, we are all gathered here for a joyous celebration. Today we rejoice with Suzanne and Charles on the occasion of their Golden Wedding Anniversary. We join them and their family in giving thanks to God for 50 years of faithful and fruitful married life. And, typically, on an auspicious occasion like this, we expect everyone to be on their best behaviour. All of us. Including our jubilarians themselves. And me as well. We are expected to speak only about joyful things. To think only happy thoughts. To focus only on the brighter side of life.

And yet, when we look closely at our Mass readings today–readings which, by the way, were specially chosen by Suzanne and Charles–we find something quite surprising. Perhaps even unsettling. When we take the trouble to examine them closely, we find that each of our three readings is actually set against a background of deep darkness.

The first reading is taken from the beginning of the book of Ruth. Here we find Ruth speaking to her mother-in-law, Naomi. But before we examine Ruth’s words, it’s important to first consider their context. As you know, Naomi is a Hebrew woman from Judah. Years ago, a famine had forced her, together with her husband and their two sons, to become refugees in the foreign land of Moab. There both her sons married foreign wives. Ruth being one of them.  Then, one by one, her husband and her two sons died. Leaving Naomi and her two daughters-in-law to fend for themselves. With her family torn apart by death. Her heart broken by grief. Naomi decides to leave Moab. To return in sorrow to her homeland. This, my dear friends, is the background to our first reading. Truly, a situation of darkness.

We find something similar in the gospel too. The reading is taken from chapter 17. It is part of the High-Priestly Prayer of Jesus. And, again, it’s important to notice the setting for this prayer. Which is, as you know, the Last Supper. Earlier, in chapter 13, Jesus had washed his disciples’ feet, and shared a meal with them. Then, Judas Iscariot had left to betray his master. And, upon Judas’ departure, the gospel-writer had described the situation in these words: Night had fallen. Night had fallen. Not just because the sun had set. But because the Son of God would soon set out for his Passion. Night had fallen. Bonds of trust and friendship were being broken. Even as the body of Christ would soon be torn open. Again, dear friends, a situation of darkness.

And the darkness in the second reading is even more obvious. We find it already in the very first sentence. Using the name of the apostle Paul, the writer of this letter to the Ephesians refers to himself in a very striking way. I, the prisoner in the Lord, he writes. Reminding us of how Paul’s ministry ended. Of how the apostle was placed under house arrest in Rome. Before finally being beheaded by his enemies. Again, my dear friends, as in the other readings, a situation of darkness.

All of which may make us scratch our heads in bewilderment. Why these readings? Why all this darkness? Especially on a day like today. A day when most people would choose to look only at the light. Dear friends, Suzanne and Charles, please don’t get me wrong. I am not criticising your choice of readings. Indeed, I think you’ve chosen very well. In selecting readings set against a background of deep darkness, you actually help us to see more clearly. To see, by contrast. The bright light that shines in the dark. A light that darkness is powerless to overcome.

In the first reading, Naomi is in a truly vulnerable position. In a patriarchal society, with all the men in her family dead, she no longer has any social standing. And yet, in this darkness, Naomi thinks only about the welfare of her daughters-in-law. Instead of clinging to them, she tells them to leave her. To remain in Moab. To re-marry. To make better lives for themselves. And what’s even more remarkable is Ruth’s response. Although Naomi faces an uncertain future, Ruth chooses to remain by her side. Against the darkness of a family broken by disaster and death, we see, by contrast, the bright light of an enduring bond of love and fidelity. Wherever you go, I will go. Wherever you live, I will live.

This contrast is apparent too, in both the gospel and the second reading. At the Last Supper, even though Jesus knows that his disciples will soon be scattered. Even though he knows they will break their bond of friendship with him. Jesus remains faithful to his Father and to his friends. Right to the end. He even prays for the very people who will deny and desert him. He prays for unity and fruitfulness. May they all all be one… so that the world may believe it was you who sent me… Unity and fruitfulness. The same things that the prisoner in the Lord writes about in the second reading. Even though his imprisonment separates him physically from his friends, the writer continues to express his care and concern. He encourages his friends to maintain their ties of fidelity and love. Do all you can to preserve the unity of the Spirit by the peace that binds you together. There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God who is Father of all...

All of which should help us to better appreciate why Suzanne and Charles have chosen these dark readings today. Perhaps they are reminding us of the very thing that we continue to celebrate in this season of Easter. The Good News that, because Christ has risen from the dead, we really do not have to fear the dark. On the contrary, when we face the darkness in our lives with open eyes and courageous hearts, we actually allow the light to shine out all the brighter. All the more clearly.

Isn’t this also what we see when we gaze upon Suzanne and Charles? At the family they have raised. At the life they have built. Over 50 years. In the midst of the darkness of rising divorce rates, what we see here is the bright light of a love and a fidelity that continues to stand the test of time. A bond that endures, because it is rooted in the fidelity of Christ himself. And isn’t this also what we Christians are all called to do? To let our light shine out in the dark. Shine out by contrast. So that others may see Christ more clearly. May experience God’s love more deeply.

My dear friends, Charles and Suzanne, as we celebrate this joyous occasion, how might our Lord be calling us to continue to let his light shine out in the dark–shine out by contrast–today?
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