Thursday, November 30, 2006

Feast of St. Andrew, Apostle
The Importance of Being Friends

Readings: Romans 10:9-18; Psalm 19:8, 9, 10, 11; Matthew 4:18-22


What does our Christian faith mean to us? How is it often presented to us? Doesn’t it sometimes seem to be all about a list of beliefs that we need to hold, or a set of religious practices that we need to observe? Indeed, seen from this perspective, the message of our readings – on this feast of St. Andrew the apostle – seem simple enough to understand. How are we saved? We need simply to confess with our lips that Jesus is Lord and believe from our heart that God raised him from the dead. And how are we to do this? We must listen to the Good News as it is preached by other people or as it is wordlessly proclaimed by all of creation. The heavens proclaim the glory of God… Simple enough? Seems so. As simple as, for example, listening to a talk or a lecture, or reading a book, understanding the contents and then trying to put them into practice.

And yet, anyone who tries to live out the implications of such belief and confession will testify to the difficulties involved. It’s not easy truly to allow Jesus to be Lord over our whole life, is it? There often seem to be so many other desires, other anxieties, other preoccupations that threaten to displace Him from the throne of our hearts.

Still, we notice how the first apostles respond to Jesus’ call in the gospel. They left their nets at once and followed him. Of course, they underwent many ups and downs after that. They even deserted and denied their Lord in his time of need. Yet we are told that all but one of the Twelve repented and persevered to the end. Could they have done this merely by clinging to a list of beliefs or a set of religious practices? Or was there more to it than that? Was it not rather the person of Jesus that impressed and attracted them to leave all? Did their strength to follow Christ through all the ups and downs of life not come rather from their relationship, their friendship, with the One who called them to be fishers of people? Indeed, do we not get a hint of this crucial personal dimension of our faith in our opening prayer, where we express the hope that St. Andrew may always be for us a friend in God’s presence?

What difference does being friends of and in the Lord make to our lives today?

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

34th Wednesday in Ordinary Time (II)
Praise and Inspiration

Readings: Revelations 15:1-4; Psalm 98:1, 2-3ab, 7-8, 9; Luke 21:12-19


Our readings invite reflection upon a connection between two aspects of the spiritual life that’s probably not very obvious, but is well known to some, especially those in the Charismatic Renewal. It’s the connection between praise and inspiration.

In the first reading, we notice how those who had fought against the beast and won, sing a great hymn of praise to God, even as angels are bringing the seven plagues upon the earth. And in the gospel, Jesus assures his disciples that even when they have to undergo persecution on account of His name, he will be with them, inspiring them and giving them an eloquence and a wisdom that none… will be able to resist or contradict. Could there be some connection between the praise we find in the first reading and the inspiration in the gospel?

Without hesitation, those in the Charismatic Renewal would say yes. Indeed they rely on this connection between praise and inspiration at their prayer meetings each week when they go through what some call the Charismatic Cycle. The meeting usually begins with enthusiastic and even boisterous praise of God in song. But if properly facilitated, loud praise gradually gives way to a time of quiet, when all listen attentively to words of inspiration from God and then share what is received with one another either through words of prophecy or passages from scripture, through testimonies or teachings. The principle being relied upon is that praise somehow inserts us into the flow of God’s Spirit, such that our hearts become more open to God’s inspirations and promptings.

And doesn’t this basic spiritual principle admit of broader application in our lives – beyond the limited time and space of the Charismatic prayer meeting, beyond even those in the Charismatic Renewal? Amidst the inevitable trials that come our way each day perhaps we need especially to recall the great and wonderful works of our Lord God and to praise Him for it in word and deed. Could this be one way that we can practice the endurance of which Jesus speaks in the gospel, the kind that will win you your lives?

What connection might we find between praise and inspiration today?

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

34th Tuesday in Ordinary Time (II)
The Juice that Endures

Readings: Revelations 14:14-19; Psalm 96:10, 11-12, 13; Luke 21:5-11


I’ve visited vineyards and wineries before, but for some reason the image that the first reading brings to mind is a sugar cane making machine. At the hawker stall we don’t often see the sharp sickle or parang (machete) that was used to harvest the sugar cane. But we do get to witness the stallholder feeding the tough green stems into his machine. And we see the result. The only useful thing – from our point of view at least – that remains is a thirst-quenching glass of juice. The rest is discarded.

In this final week of our liturgical year, our readings continue to invite us to consider what will happen at the end of time. When that day comes, many things will be no more. As Jesus says in the gospel, All these things you are staring at now – the time will come when not a single stone will be left on another: everything will be destroyed. A sobering thought, especially when we are then led to reflect upon the various things that take up our attention each day. How many of these will endure? If not even the beautiful religious structure that is the Jerusalem Temple is spared, what will remain of the things of our world?

We know the answer to that question, don’t we? As we heard in the psalm, when the Lord does come, it will be with justice that he will rule the world and he will judge the peoples with his truth. Justice and truth – these will endure. And are these not simply part of the love with which God created all things, the same love that brought Jesus from the heavens to the earth and from the cross to the sky? Isn’t this the only thing that will endure: the love that we allow God to cultivate in our hearts and in our lives?

Today, even as we continue to build and to tear down, to work and to rest, to play and to pray, we might consider how much of what we do is motivated by love.

How are we filling that eternal glass of sugar cane juice today?

Monday, November 27, 2006

34th Monday in Ordinary Time (II)
Climbing with Heart and Hands

Readings: Revelations 14:1-3, 4b-5; Psalm 24:1bc-2, 3-4ab, 5-6; Luke 21:1-4


We may each be conscious of it to differing degrees, but don’t all of us have the desire to climb the mountain of the Lord and to stand in his holy place, to enjoy God’s blessings and rewards, to be saved by God from the various difficulties and trials that assail us? If so, today’s readings help us to reflect more deeply upon how we might see that desire fulfilled.

Who shall climb the mountain of the Lord? Who shall stand in his holy place? The one with clean hands and pure heart, who desires not worthless things...

How can we be counted among the hundred and forty-four thousand in the first reading who have the Lamb and the Father’s names written on their foreheads? It’s all got to do with our hearts and our hands.

It’s got to do with allowing God gradually to purify our hearts from the desire for worthless things – that is all things seen apart from God who created them.

And this interior purification finds expression in our hands, that is, in the way in which we live our lives. Consider those in the first reading and the widow in the gospel. The former never allow a lie to pass their lips and no fault can be found in them. The latter contributes all she had to live on.

There is at least one more point that becomes clear when we consider another possible interpretation of the gospel passage. Some scholars say that more than simply praising the generosity of the widow Jesus is actually criticizing the religious structures and practices of his day that require the impoverished to contribute even what they need for their own daily sustenance. In this way, Jesus models for us yet another aspect of the clean hands and pure hearts who gain admittance to God’s holy place. He sees clearly and critiques courageously the evil and injustice around him, even at the cost of his own life.

How does the Lord wish to continue purifying our hearts and hands this day?

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ,
Universal King (B)
Visions of the Night

Readings: Daniel 7:13-14; Psalm 93:1, 1-2, 5; Revelations 1:5-8; John 18:33b-37


Sisters and brothers, what’s your favourite time of day? How do you feel about the night? Do you like it or loathe it? Or are you indifferent? We all probably have many different attitudes toward the night. There are those, of course, who exploit the night for immoral, even sinister purposes. And, quite understandably, there are those too who find its quiet and darkness lonely and frightening. But aren’t there also others who find, in the night, an opportunity to party or to rest and relax, even to think, to pray, and to find inspiration for the challenges of the day?

And the night is not just a particular period of time is it? There are also nights of a different kind. We may think, for example, of the dark nights or crises that we might face in our own personal lives whether at home, at work, in the family, or even in prayer. We may think also of the clouds of darkness that hover so ominously over many different parts of our world. Think, for example of the civil strife in Iraq and nearby East Timor, the genocide in Darfur, the material poverty and hunger in Africa, the psychological distress and spiritual desolation that afflict many in the developed world. Think also of the various social challenges that we face here in Singapore: the widening income gap, the ageing population, the problem of drug-abuse and other forms of addiction, broken marriages and dysfunctional families… What about these kinds of nights? What are our thoughts and feelings, our reactions and responses to them?

Why, you may be wondering, are we dwelling on these rather depressing issues on this final Sunday of our church’s calendar when we celebrate the great feast of Christ the King? We are only following the lead of our readings of today. Of course, the readings speak to us about the everlasting kingship of Christ, the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. But consider how, when and to whom Christ the King appears.

Notice, for example, how the prophecy of Daniel begins in the first reading: I gazed into the visions of the night… And what is this night if not the desperate and desolate situation in which Daniel and his people find themselves? Their country is no more – overrun and occupied by foreign invaders – and the people live under oppression. It is into this thick national darkness that the prophet gazes unflinchingly, as he searches for a sign from God. How did his people come to this sad end? What must they do? What has God to say about all this? And Daniel’s courageous and prayerful search is rewarded. He receives a wonderful vision, a divine assurance that God will not forsake his people. One will come on the clouds of heaven, One who will free them from their distress, who will rule over all peoples, and who will establish a Kingdom that will last forever.

At one of the lowest and darkest points in his nation’s history, Daniel receives and shares with his people a marvelous message of hope. What they have to do is to remain faithful, to continue to put their trust in their God, to cling onto the truth of God’s promises come what may.

There is another person in our readings today who receives a kingly vision. No, more than a vision, Pilate receives the King himself. And like Daniel, Pilate too is operating in a time of darkness. Remember what is written earlier in John’s gospel, in chapter 13. After Jesus washes his disciples’ feet and Judas leaves the gathering to betray Jesus, the writer tells us that it was night. Again, more than just a period of time, this night refers to the spiritual darkness that envelops the earth because of what is about to befall Jesus. What a dark night it is when the only begotten Son of God is so cruelly betrayed and denied, humiliated and degraded, tortured and ultimately killed.

This is the profound darkness that forms the background of Pilate’s trial of Jesus. Or, to be more accurate, we should say that it is really Jesus who is putting Pilate on trial. Notice, for example, how Jesus responds to Pilate’s questions. Do you ask this of your own accord…? All who are on the side of truth listen to my voice. What is Jesus doing if not trying to lead Pilate through the darkness into the light? What is Jesus trying to achieve, if not to help Pilate to recognize Jesus’ true identity as he who is coming on the clouds of heaven, to help him to acknowledge and submit to the kingship that is not of this world?

Here we see the truth of what we heard in the second reading: everyone will see him, even those who pierced him… In the midst of the darkness, in whatever form that darkness might take, all will be blessed with a vision of the King. But who will recognize Him? Who will acknowledge his kingship and follow Him?

We know how the story of Pilate ends. Even though he is convinced of Jesus’ innocence, he fails to meet the challenge that Jesus presents. Pilate is unable to see beyond his own very delicate and difficult political situation. He is unable to find the courage to listen to the voice of Christ, to stand on the side of truth. He hands Jesus over to be crucified.

In our readings today, two men find themselves enveloped in darkness. Two men have visions in the night. But only one gazes unflinchingly. Only one recognizes the coming King. Only one is open enough to receive and share God’s message of light and of hope.

Sisters and brothers, in the various dark nights of our lives and of our world, what consolation, what message of hope is being offered to us? How are we being challenged, and what must we do to stand on the side of truth, to follow Christ the King?

Saturday, November 25, 2006

33rd Friday in Ordinary Time (II)
Death-Defeating Love

Readings: Revelations 11:4-12; Psalm 144:1, 2, 9-10; Luke 20:27-40


After our commemorations of martyrs over the past several days, our readings today invite us to reflect upon our belief in the resurrection. This is what gives meaning to the martyrs’ sacrifice: the belief not only that there is an afterlife, but that there is an intimate connection between it and life in the here-and-now.

This is a connection that the Sadducees in the gospel refuse to acknowledge. They argue that it would be absurd to believe in the resurrection given what Moses commands. If the dead are indeed raised, whose wife would the woman be who was married and widowed several times? If there is a certain logic to the Sadducees’ argument, it is the logic of the Law.

Although in his response to them Jesus also refers to Moses, he relies on a different kind of logic. This is a logic that we ourselves are familiar with and rely upon. It is the kind of logic by which the bereaved somehow come to know that their dearly departed relatives and friends are still alive. It is the kind of logic that children use when they are asked why Jesus was raised from the dead. They reply that he loved us so much that he couldn’t remain dead. And it is by this same logic of love that the two witnesses of God in the first reading today carried out their ministry even unto death, a love that saw God breathing life into their corpses. Such is the power of this love that it defeats death even as it shapes the way in which people live their lives.

Isn’t this why the psalmist both acclaims God as my love, my fortress… my stronghold, my saviour and also says that God trains my arms for battle… prepares my hands for war? This same God who loves us also prepares and strengthens us to face the different battles of life with such grace that even if we have to die, we will yet live. Such was the experience of Jesus. And such is also the experience of his disciples.

What impact does our belief in the resurrection have on our lives today?

Friday, November 24, 2006

33rd Friday in Ordinary Time (II)
Memorial of St. Andrew Dung Lac & Companions, Martyrs
Sweet and Sour

Readings: Revelations 10:8-11; Psalm 119:14, 24, 72, 103, 111, 131; Luke 19:45-48

As many will recall, on September 12th of this year our Pope, Benedict XVI, gave a speech which provoked many strong and diverse reactions from all quarters. Many in the Islamic world, for example, protested vehemently over his comments about Islam and its association with violence. Several Catholic churches were attacked and a nun was killed in Somalia. There were also, of course, those who supported the pontiff who himself saw it fit to apologize, even though he didn’t quite retract his statements. So was the Pope imprudent in speaking as he did at the time? Or was he being prophetic? We probably each have our own opinions on the issue. Our purpose here is not so much to make a judgment on the Pope’s speech as it this to use it as an illustration of an inevitable tension that all Christians have to struggle with if they wish to be faithful to the Word of God.

We see this tension described in our readings today. What happens when the Word of God come to John the visionary? He is re-commissioned as a prophet. He is called to prophesy again…about many different nations… But his reception of the Word is not a wholly pleasant experience. Although the Word is sweet to the taste, it turns sour in his stomach. What are we to make of this experience?

The gospel helps to illumine the matter. Consider Jesus’ own experience. On the one hand, the people as a whole hung on his words. They were attracted to the things he said. On the other hand, however, Jesus was not all sweetness. He also said and did challenging things, things which must have seemed very sour to some. We are told today, for example, that because he drove out the peddlers from the Temple, the elite in society, the chief priests and scribes, the leading citizens, were turned off, even to the extent of trying to do away with him.

Isn’t this also what we can expect if we, in our turn, are to take seriously the implications of God’s Word in our own lives? Aren’t we also called to struggle with the inevitable tension of knowing when to speak an attractive and popular word and when we are instead being called to offer something less comfortable, something less convenient to hear? Isn’t this the same struggle we find in the lives of the martyrs? We are told, for example, that the priest Andrew Dung Lac actually changed his name from Dung to Lac in an effort to avoid the attention of the authorities. But he was unsuccessful and ultimately gave his own life for the faith.

Today, how are we being called to welcome God’s Word, and to struggle with both the sweet and sour in our lives and in our world?

Thursday, November 23, 2006

33rd Thursday in Ordinary Time (II)
Memorial of Blessed Miguel Agustin Pro, Jesuit Martyr
Opportunities for True Happiness

Readings: Revelations 5:1-10; Psalm 149:1b-2, 3-4, 5-6a and 9b; Luke 19:41-44

We all want to be happy. And we spend much of our lives seeking happiness. Yet isn’t it the case that, hard as we try, happiness often seems too elusive for us to grasp? Doesn’t it sometimes seem as though that which we seek is locked up in the scroll we heard about in the first reading, the one so tightly fastened with no less than seven seals? And no one is able to open it – neither the smartest genius nor the richest tycoon nor even the most powerful king.

Indeed, isn’t the central message of our faith precisely that there’s only One who is fit to open the scroll, only One who is worthy enough to reveal the secret of happiness, the message of peace, that scroll contains? This One is a king – the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David. But not just any king, for this One is also a Lamb. And not just any lamb, but the Lamb who was slain, the One who was sacrificed, and by whose blood we were all bought… for God.

Isn’t this what our faith continually reminds us: that the path to true happiness lies in joining the Lamb’s line of kings and priests to serve our God in the very concrete circumstances of daily living? And isn’t this what Jesus is referring to in the gospel when he speaks about the need to recognize your opportunity when God offers it? Isn’t this the experience of the martyrs whom we celebrate these several days? Blessed Miguel Pro, for example, was able to recognize and seize the opportunity to follow the Lamb even to the point of exclaiming, as he was being executed by firing squad, Viva Christo Rey! (Long live Christ the King!). How were the martyrs able to make the ultimate sacrifice at the crucial moment if not by continually seeking and recognizing the opportunities for service that God presented to them each day?

Indeed, what opportunities are being presented to us today to join the martyrs in humble service and joyful exclamation: Viva Christo Rey!?

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

33rd Wednesday in Ordinary Time (II)
Memorial of Saint Cecilia, Martyr
Serving the Exacting?

Readings: Revelation 4:1-11; Psalms 150:1-6; Luke 19:11-38


What is probably the central message of our readings today is something that we all know well. There is only one proper and fitting response to God. It is the response of the twenty-four elders in the first reading, who worship God by prostrating themselves and throwing down their crowns in front of his throne. It is also the response of the good servants in Jesus’ parable, who render diligent, faithful and creative service by using wisely the money their master entrusts them. We know this. And yet, how many of us find it easy to do?

It’s difficult enough to worship God as wholeheartedly as the twenty-four elders and to serve God as selflessly as the good servants when God is seated on his throne of glory. How many of us, after all, have a natural affinity for prostration? But there’s something that perhaps makes it even more difficult. We get a hint of what this is by noticing not just what Jesus says in the gospel, but where and why he says it. Just before the parable, we are told that Jesus was near Jerusalem and (the people) imagined that the kingdom of God was going to show itself then and there. And at the end, when he had said this he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem. Clearly, Jesus himself is the man of noble birth who goes to be made king. And the distant place to which he journeys is Jerusalem with all the pain and suffering that awaits him there.

Isn’t this what often makes wholehearted worship and selfless service even more difficult: that the king we are to worship and serve is the same one who expects us to carry our cross and follow him? Isn’t this the reason why Jesus sometimes seems to us an exacting man, a demanding taskmaster? Isn’t this the reason why we may find ourselves tempted to take the course of rebellion, as the king’s enemies do, or the path of apathy and fear, as the wicked servant does?

What do we need at such times, what can be done, to break through the hardness of our own hearts? Perhaps we might remember, even as we gaze upon the tortured visage of our crucified Lord, that he did this for me/ for us. We might then have a new perspective on things. Perhaps the exacting taskmaster will disappear, leaving in his place a humble and compassionate Lord, lovingly inviting us to embrace the path of life. And we might then join the heavenly hosts in proclaiming: Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God, the Almighty!

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Memorial of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary
The Blessing in Belonging

Readings: Zechariah 2:14-17; (Psalm) Luke 1:46-55; Matthew 12:46-50

Among the pleasant yet humbling duties of a priest is that of blessing. Wherever one goes, it seems people are hungry for a blessing. The reasons for and objects of the blessing sought are various. It may be for a person or persons on a special occasion – a trip or a birthday, surgery or exams – or simply for general well-being. It may be for animate or inanimate objects. But what are we really asking for when we seek a blessing? What really happens when we are blessed?

This memorial of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary presents us with an opportunity to reflect on what might be the deeper meaning of blessings. In the first reading, the people of Judah are asked to sing and to rejoice. They are going to receive a blessing from God. What is this blessing? God will hold Judah as his portion in the Holy Land, and again make Jerusalem his very own. The people are asked to rejoice because they will once again become God’s people, because they will once again belong to God.

Isn’t this also the reason why Mary rejoices in the Magnificat? Not in any merits of her own, but simply because God looks upon his servant in her nothingness. In this Mary is experiencing the very blessing that her parents sought for her when they presented her to God shortly after her birth. God claims Mary as his own, even as he did the people of Judah. And in her openness to being God’s very own possession, to belonging to God alone, Mary becomes the bearer of the Son of the eternal Father.

This same blessing of belonging is also what Jesus extends to all his followers in the gospel. Anyone who does the will of my Father in heaven… is my brother and sister and mother. Quite an amazing proposition, isn’t it -- that a Christian can actually be Christ’s mother, can actually, as it were, give birth to Christ in the world? But isn’t this awesome thing what we seek, albeit with varying degrees of consciousness, when we ask to be blessed: to be renewed in our sense of belonging to God, to continue to enjoy the protection and grace that such belonging brings, and to continue to bear Christ to the world? Indeed isn't this the grace of our own presentation, our own baptism?

How might we allow this divine blessing of belonging to become more real in our lives today?

Monday, November 20, 2006

Prayer Request:

Dear friends, your prayers are requested for the Jesuit novices here in Singapore. Those in the first year have just begun their 30-day retreat. And those in the 2nd year are in the midst of another of their experiments. Many thanks!
33rd Monday in Ordinary Time (II)
Hunger and Thirst


Readings: Revelation 1:1-4; 2:1-5; Psalm 1:1-2, 3, 4 and 6; Luke 18:35-43

You have less love now than you used to. This is the Lord’s critique of the church in Ephesus, even as he praises them for their diligence, discernment and patience. What is the Lord referring to? We don’t have the details. But we might be led to reflect on some of our own relationships – on how they begin and how they continue. Isn’t it true that the beginnings are often characterized by hunger and thirst – a desire to get to know the other more, to be with the other? And isn’t it true, at least for some, that as time goes on there is a danger of taking the other for granted. The hunger has been satisfied, the thirst has been quenched, or so we think. The relationship continues but we have less love, as it were, now than we used to.

How different it is with the blind man in the gospel. Here’s a person who’s quite obviously hungry and thirsty. He’s poor and blind. He begs for a living. He begs Jesus for his sight. And we may also notice how, perhaps because he is blind, his other faculties are used to the full to help him get that for which he hungers. He listens out for the Lord’s passing. He shouts persistently to get the Lord’s attention.

And even after he gets what he wants, even after Jesus heals him and he receives his sight, he continues to hunger and thirst. He follows the Lord on the road to Jerusalem, all the while praising God.

There’s at least one more significant point in the story of the blind man’s healing, found only in Luke’s version. We are told that all the people who saw it gave praise to God for what had happened. The man’s hunger and thirst, his love for the Lord, quite naturally had an effect on the people around him. They too were drawn more deeply into relationship. They too were inspired to continue hungering and thirsting.

In this second to last week of our church’s year, what is the state of our own relationship with the Lord, the intensity of our love? How hungry, how thirsty are we?

Sunday, November 19, 2006

33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)
Spiritual Insurance


Readings: Daniel 12:1-3; Psalm 16:5, 8, 9-10, 11; Hebrews 10:11-14, 18; Mark 13:24-32

Sisters and brothers, isn’t it true that life is full of uncertainty? In fact, some people say that we can only be sure of two things in life: death and taxes. Everything else is uncertain.

I’m reminded of someone I knew who had just retired and was looking forward to spending his retirement doing the things that he didn’t have time to do before. He planned to exercise regularly. He even bought some exercise equipment to help him to keep fit. But nobody expected that shortly after his retirement he would be diagnosed with stomach cancer. He fought his illness bravely. He went for an operation to remove the tumour. He underwent chemotherapy. For a short while the doctor even said that he was in remission, and advised him to go for a holiday. But the cancer had already spread to his bones, and he passed away only about one year after the cancer was discovered.

Yes, if there is one sure thing for all of us, it is death. We just don’t know when.

Then, of course, there are taxes. I was watching Today in Parliament a few evenings ago. The coming 2% increase in the Goods and Services Tax had just been announced. The health minister was answering questions from MPs concerned about how the GST increase will affect health-care costs. You probably remember what he said. The minister confessed that he himself was worried, because you never know for sure when and how seriously you are going to fall ill. What was his advice? Apart from more government subsidies, he encouraged everyone to look after themselves, to keep fit, to live a healthy life-style, and finally to buy insurance. Yes, buy insurance, for ourselves, our spouses, and our children. When the only things you can be sure of in life are death and taxes, it seems the best anyone can do is to advise you to buy insurance.

There’s something similar going on in our readings today. In the spiritual life too there is both uncertainty and certainty.

As we approach the end of our church year – this is the second-last weekend – our readings remind us of something very important, something that we can all be sure of in the spiritual life, but something that we easily forget. The world as we know it is coming to an end. We can look around us at this beloved church building of ours. We can think of the great and prosperous city of Singapore that we have built for ourselves, the skyscrapers in the CBD, the shopping malls along Orchard Road, the housing estates in the heartland, the condominiums, even the IRs that will soon be built. We can think of our cars, our careers, our bank and CPF accounts… All of this is coming to an end. There will be a time of great distress, says the first reading from the book of Daniel, unparalleled since nations first came into existence. And after that, the gospel tells us, the sun will be darkened, the moon will lose its brightness, the stars will come falling from heaven and the powers of the heavens will be shaken.

As much as we can be sure of death, we can also be sure of the end of the world. It will come. This may sound frightening. What might make it even more frightening for some people is that we don’t know when all this is going to happen. In fact, Jesus says that nobody knows it, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son; no one but the Father.

Still, as Christians, we should not let this uncertainty worry us. Why? Because the readings tell us of one more thing that we can all be sure of. Christ has already offered one single sacrifice for sins. And he has achieved the eternal perfection of all whom he is sanctifying. By his life, his suffering, his dying on the cross and his resurrection, Christ has already won for us a great victory over sin and death. So that when he does come again with great power and glory at the end of time, he will send the angels to gather his chosen from the four winds. And they will enjoy everlasting life, even as the enemies of Christ will be condemned to everlasting disgrace.

This is our great consolation and our great hope – more reliable than any government subsidy, more dependable than any insurance policy, however large the amount: As long as we remain faithful, as long as we maintain our membership among the chosen people of God, we will be spared. But how do we do this? How do we maintain this heavenly insurance policy?

Recall what we prayed at the beginning of Mass. We asked God our Father to keep us faithful in serving you, for to serve you is our lasting joy. And in the responsorial psalm we proclaimed that it is God alone who is our portion and cup, it is the Lord alone who is our prize. Isn’t this what is expected of us, the premium that we need to pay? We need to let these prayers of ours come true in our lives. We need to allow God to truly be the One that we desire most, more than anything else in this world. We need to serve God faithfully in all that we think, say and do each day. And, with God’s help, as long as we do this, we can be confident of what we proclaimed in the responsorial psalm: that God will show us the path of life, the fullness of joy in His presence, at His right hand happiness for ever. Of this too, we can be sure.

My sisters and brothers, more than the 2% increase in the GST, we can be sure that the world as we know it is coming to an end. We just don’t know when it’s going to happen.

Have you bought your insurance?

Saturday, November 18, 2006

32nd Saturday in Ordinary Time (II)
The Blessedness in Asking


Readings: 3 John 5-8; Psalm 112:1-2, 3-4, 5-6; Luke 18:1-8

Most of us are familiar with that line from Acts 20:35: it is more blessed to give than to receive. And generosity is indeed a common trait among Christians. I myself am a regular and grateful beneficiary of others’ generosity. Every Sunday, just to mention one example, parishioners take turns to bring us lunch. And I often admire and am inspired by the people who respond so selflessly to the needs of others. Just the other day, I listened in rapt attention as someone shared his experience visiting refugees in a remote corner of a neighboring country. Indeed, the praise that John showers upon his readers in the first reading – you have done faithful work in looking after these brothers – could very easily be applied to many whom we know.

But, quite ironically perhaps, while many rejoice in the various expressions of charity, not too many find it easy to do what Jesus encourages in the gospel: to pray continually and never to lose heart. If my own, albeit limited, experience in spiritual direction is anything to go by, it’s often even more difficult to ask God for what we want than it is to give others what they need. I often wonder at this tendency – something that I must confess to sharing at least to some extent. Why do some of us prefer to give to others than to ask another for what we need – even when that other is the almighty and ever-compassionate God? And even when we do finally get around to asking why do some of us find it difficult to persevere in asking when we don’t seem to obtain a favorable response at first? Could it have something to do with pride, or bashfulness, or the need to be in control, or the unwillingness to burden another with our problems…? I’m not sure. In the gospel, Jesus seems to see this as connected to faith. When the Son of Man comes, will he find any faith on earth?

I’m also reminded of what Louis Evely says: Everyone who prays begins by asking for something that he wants, something he has set his heart on; but if he prays truly, by the time he has finished, he will have set his heart not on the thing he was asking for, but on him of whom he was asking it. Could this be, at once, the great incentive and source of resistance to our asking God for what we need? Could it be that there is a part of us that, whether consciously or not, resists this call to intimacy with God, this chance that we may find ourselves drawn away from what we want and towards the One who is the deepest desire of our hearts?

Whatever the reason, if we do find this resistance within ourselves, perhaps the first thing for which we need to ask God is the grace of perseverance in prayer. How best might we do so today?

Friday, November 17, 2006

32nd Friday in Ordinary Time (II)
The Struggle that is Love

Readings: 2 John 4-9; Psalm 119:1, 2, 10, 11, 17, 18; Luke 17:26-37


We all know for a fact that there are many people in the world for whom life is a struggle. We may think, for example, of the many people – poor and middle-class alike – for whom it is a daily struggle simply to make ends meet, let alone to get ahead in society. But isn’t there also another group of people who struggle in a different way? On top of the many different stresses and strains of daily life, these voluntarily, even spontaneously, take on an added responsibility and commitment. They struggle to keep a clean conscience, to think of the welfare of others both near and far, to act in Christ-like ways at home, in school, on the roads, in the work-place. And, often enough, they pay a price for their efforts – whether in the form of the scorn or misunderstanding of others, or the loss of career prospects, or simply the humble realization of their own sinfulness and moral weakness.

These are the people who struggle to live what John talks about in the first reading today: This is the commandment which you have heard since the beginning, to live a life of love. And whatever the popular media may tell us, to choose to live such a life is also to choose to struggle, because love is effortful. To choose such a life is to live in a manner contrary to the people described in the gospel – the people of Noah’s day, and of Lot’s day, and also of Jesus’ day and ours as well – who were eating and drinking… buying and selling, planting and building…

And yet, that’s not the end of the story. Although it may not sound like it, the readings of today actually proclaim good news – especially for those who struggle to love. The day will come when the Son of Man is revealed. And then all will know the truth of what we heard in the responsorial psalm: they are happy who follow God’s law… who do his will seeking him with all their hearts. Indeed happy are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied…

How are we being called to struggle today?

Thursday, November 16, 2006

32nd Thursday in Ordinary Time (II)
Kingdom in Relationship

Readings: Philemon 7-20; Psalm 146:7, 8-9a, 9bc-10; Luke 17:20-25


Every time we recite the Our Father, we pray for the coming of God’s kingdom. But what do we really mean? What does the kingdom look like to us? Many of the people in Jesus’ day probably had a rather definite picture of what the coming of God’s kingdom would look like. For some, there would be great signs and wonders, chief of which would be the defeat of the Roman conquerors by a military messiah. But Jesus corrects such expectations by telling us, in today’s gospel, that the coming of the kingdom of God does not admit observation… the kingdom of God is among you. What does he mean? We might wonder…

Paul’s very brief letter to Philemon helps us to imagine what the coming of the kingdom might look like, especially when we consider the relationships that are described in the letter. There is first the relationship between Paul and Philemon. It seems clear, in the letter, that Philemon is somehow indebted to Paul (perhaps for his conversion) such that Paul has no diffidence about telling Philemon to do whatever is your duty. But Paul abandons the language of duty and chooses instead the language of love. I am appealing to your love instead. Could this kind of shift signal the coming of the kingdom?

There is yet another shift involved here. Consider the favor that Paul asks of Philemon. This involves a second relationship: that between Philemon and Onesimus. Paul is asking Philemon to allow a radical shift in this relationship, from that of master-slave to that of blood-brother and brother-in-the-Lord. Could this be another signal of the coming of the kingdom?

As we ponder these questions today we might also consider the many different relationships in our own personal and communal lives. What shifts are necessary to hasten the coming of God’s kingdom among us?

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

32nd Wednesday in Ordinary Time (II)
The Saving Power of Gratitude


Readings: Titus 3:1-7; Psalm 23:1b-3a, 3bc-4, 5, 6; Luke 17:11-19

There are many advantages and benefits to living in a meritocratic society. But sometimes one wonders if one of the prices to be paid is a gradual loss of a sense of gratitude. When the theory is that everyone can make it if only s/he works hard enough, who gets the credit for success? I worked hard. I deserve what I got. And yet, if today’s readings are anything to go by, gratitude is crucial in the spiritual life.

In the gospel, ten lepers turn to Jesus in the depth of their need. And all ten receive physical healing. But it is only the foreigner, the one who re-turns to Jesus in a lavish display of gratitude, who receives salvation. Your faith has saved you.

Even as we live in this affluent society of ours, aren’t there many among us who are needy in one way and time or another, and who turn to Jesus for pity and help? Yet, we may wonder how many of us actually find the salvation that was the Samaritan’s reward? How many of us, for example, find in our association with Jesus the strength, energy and spiritual resources we need to meet the demands of daily living? How many of us can resonate with the experience of the psalmist, who had the Lord for his shepherd, leading and protecting even in a dark valley? Or are we not instead, like everyone else, simply stressed out and overwhelmed by all that life expects of us? If the latter is a better description of our situation, we might perhaps examine how far we have traveled along the road of gratitude.

Paul helps us along by reminding us of a crucial insight about God: it was not because he was concerned with any righteous actions we might have done ourselves; it was for no reason except his own compassion that he saved us… We are all beneficiaries of the kindness and love of God, freely given, not merited. And it’s only to the extent that we allow this truth to penetrate ever more deeply into our hearts that we may begin to experience the power that gratitude brings, the same gratitude that won the Samaritan his salvation.

For what can we be grateful to God today?

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

32nd Tuesday in Ordinary Time (II)
Behavior & Disposition

Readings: Titus 2:1-8, 11-14; Psalm 37:3-4, 18 and 23, 27 and 29; Luke 17:7-10


It is for you to preach the behaviour that goes with healthy doctrine, says Paul to Titus, in the first reading. And, indeed, it is important for us to examine ourselves to see how our behaviour compares with the conduct that Paul describes as becoming of Christians. Even so, there’s an added dimension to today’s readings that we must not neglect if we are to find the strength and inspiration with which to heed Paul’s admonitions. More than just proposing a set of acceptable behaviours for Christians, the readings also describe the kind of disposition that facilitates such behaviours. Three characteristics stand out.

First, cultivate the right ambition. In this regard, Paul tells Titus to have no ambition except to do good. Quite a remarkable and counter-cultural aspiration, especially in our go-getting and rat-racing society. Jesus goes even further in the gospel. More than simply doing good, he tells his disciples to cultivate an attitude of dutiful service that seeks no reward for one’s trouble except, perhaps, that of knowing one is doing God’s will (to paraphrase a prayer of St. Ignatius Loyola). And, in case doubts arise as to the feasibility and practicality of such attitudes, the psalm provides us with both direction and encouragement by reminding us: If you trust in the Lord and do good, then you will live in the land and be secure. If you find your delight in the Lord, he will grant your heart’s desire.

As we face the challenges this day brings, perhaps we might consider: How do we behave? What is our disposition? In whom do we place our trust?

Monday, November 13, 2006

32nd Monday in Ordinary Time (II)
On-The-Job-Training?

Readings: Titus 1:1-9; Psalm 24:1b-2, 3-4ab, 5-6; Luke 17:1-6


It may be possible to approach our readings today as one might an advertisement for a job vacancy. After all, they do present us with a list of desirable characteristics, don’t they? Paul’s letter to Titus contains qualities to look for in an elder: not married more than once… irreproachable… not arrogant or hot-tempered… nor out to make money… hospitable… have a firm grasp… of the tradition… And in the gospel, Jesus gives his disciples several dos and don’ts: don’t place obstacles before these little ones, forgive, have faith.

While sometimes useful, such an approach can also be something of a hindrance, an obstacle in our spiritual quest. We might, for example, be too focused on the extent to which we measure up, and then either become arrogant (if we feel we do) or depressed (if we feel we don’t and can’t). Perhaps what is more important is to remember how Paul begins his letter. Not so much with a list of his own personal qualities but with the mission that has been given him, the message that God has called him to proclaim. He refers to himself as an apostle, someone sent by God to proclaim to others the hope of the eternal life that was promised so long ago by God, who does not lie.

Might this not present us with a more accurate picture of how we are called? Not so much through a strict evaluation of whether or not we make the grade, but rather through a gracious proclamation of hope. A proclamation so powerful that when we truly believe it, when we put our faith in it -- yes, even faith the size of a mustard seed -- and when we, in our turn, proclaim it to others, a radical transformation begins, through which we are molded into the kind of people who, with clean hands and pure heart, can fruitfully seek the face of the God of Jacob.

How is the God who does not lie purifying us in faith and hope today?

Saturday, November 11, 2006

32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)
Giving and Receiving the Kingdom Way

Readings: 1 Kings 17:10-16; Psalm 146:7, 8-9, 9-10; Hebrew 9:24-28; Mark 12:38-44 or 12:41-44

Sisters and brothers, we live in a world where the emphasis is placed not so much on giving or donating as it is on taking or earning. Nothing is for free. We need to work hard in order to secure a decent living. We need to compete vigorously with others in order to achieve happiness for ourselves and those whom we love.

From this perspective, however, what the two widows do in today’s first reading and gospel can seem highly impractical, even foolish. Who among us can honestly say that we give alms the way that they do? If we were truly to do so, how would we and our families survive?

How then are we to understand our readings today?

Perhaps we need to begin first by broadening the scope of our attention. More than simply being concerned with two widows and how they give alms, our readings present us with two groups of people who represent very different – even opposite – ways of giving and receiving, two very different ways of seeking after happiness.

The people in the first group include the scribes and those who are simply referred to in today’s gospel as the rich. How do they give and receive? How do the rich people in the gospel give alms? Although they may give a great deal, Jesus says they only put in money they had over. And how do the scribes get what they want? How do they seek happiness? Jesus says quite bluntly: they… take the front seats in the synagogues and the places of honour at banquets… swallow the property of widows, while making a show of lengthy prayers.

What do these people have in common? Quite clearly, they are the elite in society. They are the ones with status, wealth, power and all the advantages that come with these things. Of course, in themselves, these things are not wrong. But we may notice how, perhaps because of the privileges that they enjoy, the people in this group are quite easily led to focus only on themselves, their own needs and desires, as well as their own ability to get what their want. Even to the extent of unscrupulously taking what rightfully belongs to others. Even to the extent of trying to fool or manipulate God, and perhaps even themselves, with long prayers that mean nothing. And even when they do give alms, they do not really give as much as they invest. Their primary concern is again for themselves rather than for others. They donate perhaps only so that they might obtain tax exemption or gain a better personal or corporate reputation. All this just so that they can amass yet more money, yet more power, an even higher status in society.

The people in the second group are very different. These include the prophet Elijah and the two poor widows. What do they have in common? How do they give and receive?

At first glance, it may seem that the prophet Elijah is no different from the scribes since he too obtains what he needs from a poor widow. But when we read the background of the story in the bible, we see that Elijah does this in obedience to God. It is God who tells him to go to Zarephath and there to receive food from the widow. By doing this, God is teaching Elijah what it means to trust completely in God. Elijah receives what he needs not by grabbing or snatching or swallowing, not by relying on his own power, but by humbly receiving his daily sustenance as if from the hands of God. In this he is learning to be like the two widows.

They represent all who are poor in this world, those who have no status or power, those whom the world despises. Yet, perhaps precisely because of their weakness and poverty, these more easily come to grasp a deep truth that the rich and powerful find difficult to comprehend. They realize that true happiness is not really something that one can earn through hard work, or grab through devious and unscrupulous means. Rather true and lasting fulfillment is a gift from God. They learn what we heard in our psalm today: that it is ultimately the Lord who keeps faith for ever… who gives bread to the hungry… who sets prisoners free… who loves the just… upholds the widow and orphan.

And isn’t it because they have learnt this truth that they can be so generous with the little that they have? What they give is much more precious than food or drink or money. What they give is nothing less than their very selves, their very lives. In this way, they imitate the One we heard about in the second reading. They follow Christ himself, who doesn’t only give us food or drink or money, but offers himself. By doing this, they are able to follow Christ not into a man-made sanctuary, but into heaven itself.

Also, by doing this, they benefit not only themselves. But through their gift, through their sacrifice, they become the voices and hands and feet through which God consoles others who are sorrowing… gives bread to others who are hungry… upholds others who may be widows and orphans…

My sisters and brothers, when we reflect on our own daily lives, on the things we do to find happiness, on the ways in which we give and receive, what do we see? Do we find a rich person or a poor widow, a prophet or a scribe?
31st Saturday in Ordinary Time (II)
Memorial of St. Martin of Tours
Mastering and Being Mastered

Readings: Philippians 4:10-19; Psalm 112:1b-2, 5-6, 8a and 9; Luke 16:9-15

To live in this world of ours is quite inevitably to come into contact with a myriad of different things, situations and people, all of which often tug at us in many different directions, make many different, even opposing, demands on our time, energy and resources. How does a Christian respond constructively? Does one simply go with the flow – indiscriminately follow every impulse that comes along? It’s often only a matter of time before those who do that experience the confusion, anxiety, and sense of meaninglessness that results from such a course of action. Is one then to try to escape everything – literally or figuratively to flee to some remote mountain hideaway? Again, it is only a matter of time before those who try realize the futility of such a course of action. However remote or well-guarded the hideaway, whether it be in a far-off place or deep within ourselves, the world quite inevitably catches up with us.

Our readings today provide a different solution. No servant can be the slave of two masters… says Jesus. To which Paul adds: there is nothing I cannot master with the help of the One who gives me strength. The Christian way to deal with our predicament is first to continually ask ourselves: who is my master? And it is only when we allow the almighty God to sit enthroned in our hearts and lives – that our relations with all other things and people become rightly ordered, that we can truly immerse ourselves among them without losing ourselves. It is only when this happens that we can experience the strength of which Paul speaks. It is only when we gradually allow God to be our one and only master that we can in turn learn how to rightly master life’s demands.

How might we allow God to sit more firmly upon the thrones of our hearts this day?

Friday, November 10, 2006

31st Friday in Ordinary Time (II)
Memorial of St. Leo the Great, Pope and Doctor of the Church
Astute or Foolhardy

Readings: Philippians 3:17—4:1; Psalm 122:1-2, 3-4ab, 4cd-5; Luke 16:1-8

When we consider the lives of the saints from a certain perspective the choices they made and the things they did can seem rather foolish. Think, for example, of St. Ignatius of Loyola, giving up his status among the nobility to go on an arduous pilgrimage to the Holy Land, dressed in sackcloth. Consider, also, Mother Teresa, leaving her rather comfortable religious life in a teaching congregation to live and work among the destitute. Think also of the apparently imprudent choices that some people make everyday: not participating in office gossip even at the risk of being ostracized, speaking up for the truth even when people will be likely to misunderstand and disapprove, really listening and trying to understand someone whose views are opposed to their own even at the risk of receiving a good scolding. These choices and actions can seem at least puzzling, if not downright foolhardy.

And here is Jesus telling us in today’s gospel to be astute. What does he mean? In what way are Christians called to be astute.

Consider the steward. How was he astute? Was it not in being willing to sacrifice a short-term gain (his commission) for a long-term advantage (a welcome after his dismissal)? Similarly, the saints were willing, even eager, to sacrifice short-term pleasures and comforts for the ultimate long-term gain. In the words of the first reading, they came to see, in powerful ways, that our homeland is in heaven. And having set their sights on this final destination they were happy to let go of earthly things. Indeed, like the psalmist, they rejoiced at the prospect of journeying to God’s house, no matter the cost.

What vision of our heavenly homeland do we cherish? What short-term sacrifices are we willing to make? How astute are we?

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Feast of the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica in Rome
God’s Building


Readings: Ezekiel 47:1-2, 8-9, 12; Psalm 46:2-3, 5-6, 8-9; 1 Corinthians 3:9c-11, 16-17; John 2:13-22

To help us reflect more deeply on the readings today, it’s useful to consider briefly what it is we are celebrating. Our feast commemorates the dedication of the Lateran Basilica in Rome – the cathedral church of Rome and thus also of the whole Roman church, of which we are a part. However, as may be obvious to many, the feast is much more than a celebration of a physical building. In the liturgical calendar – along with other feasts such as the Presentation and the Transfiguration of the Lord, as well as the Triumph of the Cross – it is listed as a feast of the Lord, that is, as marking an event in the life of Christ. But how is the dedication of a cathedral – even a basilica – an event in the life of Christ? And of what relevance is this event to us here and now?

Here is where the readings prove helpful. The dedication of the physical building reminds us of our own dedication, our own identity as baptized Christians, as Church, as People of God, as Body of Christ. Didn’t you realize that you were God’s temple? The feast is a celebration of who we are, of who we are meant to be. And because we are God's temple, because Christ is the foundation, the corner-stone of this spiritual house, it is also ultimately a celebration of Christ, a feast of the Lord.

Who are we then? Who are we meant to be? Consider the first reading. Of what significance is the temple, except to be the abode and source of the life-giving stream, which grows into a great river? Fish will be very plentiful, for wherever the water goes it brings health, and life teems wherever the river flows.

This is who we are meant to be, what we are meant to do: to somehow be channels of God’s life and love in the world. And we can only begin to fulfill this awesome responsibility to the extent that we allow the spirit to flow freely in us and through us. Isn’t this why what Jesus does in the gospel is so important. He cleanses it of all the extraneous things that desecrate it, that prevent it from fulfilling its true purpose.

How might we allow Christ to do the same for us today?

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

31st Wednesday in Ordinary Time (II)
Action & Renunciation

Readings: Philippians 2:12-18; Psalm 27:1, 4, 13-14; Luke 14:25-33


As is sometimes the case, our readings today present us with two themes that tug at each other in a healthy tension. On the one hand, renunciation: none of you can be my disciple, says Jesus, unless he gives up all his possessions. And on the other, action: work for your salvation in fear and trembling… do all that has to be done… That they are in tension with each other becomes clear when we consider that many of the different actions that people engage in each day have to do with the accumulation of possessions – whether material, intellectual, or even spiritual. And yet, our readings seem to be inviting us both to act and to renounce. Why and how does one go about doing this?

Both the first reading and the psalm offer us some indication. Whilst the former extols action, it also reminds us that it is God, for his own loving purpose, who puts both the will and action in you. And the psalmist extols the Lord as my light and my help, even as he encourages us to hope in him, hold firm and take heart. Hope in the Lord. Could it be then, that the renunciation that is the cost of discipleship is important not just for its own sake, but so that, even as we continue to work hard, we might be helped to cling on to nothing else but God alone? Could it be that what we are being invited to do is to work in such a way that our hearts continue to remain focused on the Lord, and to let the Lord be the motivating power behind our work?

How is the Lord helping us to do this today?

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

31st Tuesday in Ordinary Time (II)
The Paschal Banquet in the Here and Now

Readings: Philippians 2:5-11; Psalm 22:26b-27, 28-30ab, 30e, 31-32; Luke 14:15-24


It’s easy to frown upon the guests initially invited to the banquet in today’s gospel. Such an important social occasion and they blow it off. They make excuses –excuses that don’t even sound very convincing – at least not to these ears. I can’t come because I need to try out my new oxen?! Isn’t it really a matter of priorities? The new oxen won’t run away, nor will the land disappear. Leave them. If these potential guests had even a modicum of common courtesy they’d come to the banquet!

Yet when one looks through this gospel scene, as one would a lens, at the situation in which many of us find ourselves, doesn’t it become at least a little more understandable that those invited guests should give excuses? Isn’t our own society the epitome of what it means to be busy? We have so many things to do. Businesses, cars, or groceries might take the place of oxen, and condos that of the land. We probably don’t intend to be rude. Still, given all that we have to do, isn’t it all too tempting to blow off an invitation to the banquet?

Also there’s probably more to this tendency than the lack of time, isn’t there? Isn’t it also a question of not really hearing and recognizing the invitation when it is issued? For example, we might tend to think of this banquet as either having taken place when Christ first came among us two thousand years ago. Or we may look forward to His second coming at the end of time. But what of the daily coming of Christ at each moment of our lives? Could it be that the banquet to which we’re being invited is actually taking place here and now?

What is this banquet, we might wonder? In whatever concrete form it might take, could it be that the dying and rising of Christ described in the first reading is actually taking place here and now? And could we somehow be invited to participate in it? Indeed it may, at first, neither look nor feel like a banquet, or any kind of celebration. But could this be another reason why we tend to miss out: we don’t recognize it when it is presented to us. We are too busy looking somewhere and for something else.

Where is Christ dying and rising in our lives today?

Monday, November 06, 2006

31st Monday in Ordinary Time (II)
Whose Party?

Readings: Philippians 2:1-4; Psalm 131:1bcde, 2, 3; Luke 14:12-14


I’m not sure, but I wonder if it sometimes happens that we take Jesus’ words too literally and end up acting contrary to the spirit of what he says. Last Saturday, for example, when Jesus told us to make your way to the lowest place at the dinner table so as to humble oneself, isn’t it possible to do exactly that but in such a way that one might instead draw more attention to oneself? And can’t we do the same with what Jesus says in today’s gospel? Isn’t it possible for us to impose our hospitality, our gifts, our ideas upon others in subtly condescending ways that increase our self-esteem and our reputation even as they inconvenience, embarrass, or even humiliate the recipients?

Isn’t it often an even greater test of the genuineness of one’s charity and care for the needy – or those one perceives to be needy – to receive and enjoy their hospitality, their gifts, their ideas? Even for Jesus, while he did help many by teaching, healing and working of miracles, did he not also do what we see him doing in today’s gospel: enjoy the hospitality of tax-collector and Pharisee alike?

Could this be an expression of the disposition that Paul encourages the Philippians to cultivate in the first reading: always consider the other person to be better than yourself? Not an easy thing to do, especially if the other is clearly much less well off, whether materially, emotionally, or spiritually. Yet – however needy the other might seem to be – isn’t there something that s/he has to offer me as well? And doesn’t true hospitality, true humility consist first in allowing oneself to receive that precious gift of the other?

Could this be a way to the kind of unity and peace that Paul is exhorting the Philippians to cultivate? Where everyone is united… with a common purpose and a common mind? Could this be a way in which we might enjoy that about which the psalmist sings: that our souls might be kept in silence and peace before God?

Could it be that Jesus is exhorting us today not just to throw more parties of our own but also to see how we might grace the parties of others? After all, isn’t our ultimate goal to all be guests of the Divine Host, to enjoy His hospitality at that Final Party of Lasting Joy?

Sunday, November 05, 2006

31st Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)
Of Resolutions, Commandments and the Power of God

Readings: Deuteronomy 6:2-6; Psalm 18:2-3, 3-4, 47, 51; Hebrew 7:23-28; Mark 12:28b-34

By now many of us will have read, listened to, or otherwise heard about our President’s speech for the opening of Parliament on Thursday. I myself read it off the internet yesterday and was suitably impressed. The speech is a model of clarity of thought and brevity of expression. In just a few pages, it describes the key challenges we face at this point in our nation’s history and the steps we must take to meet them.

It is not my intention to discuss here the points raised in that most impressive speech. That is probably not what a homily is for. Nor do I have the expertise to do so. But there is a general observation that one might make about the speech. It is, from beginning to end, an expression of resolve. It begins by referring to how, when Singapore was thrust into independence forty-one years ago, we resolved to succeed. And it ends with the phrase: let us resolve… Also, it is really quite remarkable, how often words such as we must…, we will… and we need to… occur in the text. The speech is, quite plainly, filled with imperatives. It gives us a list of crucially important things that we, as individuals and as a nation, need to do.

What seems less obvious, however, is how and from where we are to find the inspiration and the energy to do the things that need to be done, apart from the need to survive in a rapidly changing world.

You will probably be wondering, at this point, why I seem to be skating on thin ice. Of what possible relevance is all this to our liturgy this morning?

Consider our readings. What we are presented with today is something that we all know like the back of our hands – perhaps even better. The greatest commandment or commandments of our faith: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength.... You must love your neighbour as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these.

We might pause for a moment, however, to become aware of our spontaneous reaction to these words. We’ve heard them often enough. How do we receive them today? Is it not likely that some, if not many, among us will receive them in much the same fashion as some might receive the President’s speech: simply as a list of things for us to do, relying upon little more than the strength of our own resolve, considerable though that may be? They are, after all, commandments aren’t they? You shall love… God… You must love your neighbour…

And yet, as a much-revered older priest remarked the other day: you can’t command love. Of course, we may do that with children sometimes. Do you love me? We might ask them. Or we might even tell them: You must love so and so… But as the years go by and children become adults, don’t we all somehow come to realize the truth? Love can only be freely given and freely received. Or it is not love. And attempts at forcing another to love are likely instead to produce stress or even resentment in any of its various expressions.

What then are we to make of the greatest commandment? Could the Lord really be trying to force us to love God and neighbour? Or, rather, could it be possible that a shift needs to be made in how we receive this commandment? Not unlike the shift, described in our second reading, from the Old to the New Covenant. Could it be that we need to listen to the greatest commandment again (and again) with ever new ears, new minds, new hearts?

We need first, for example, to notice how the commandment begins. Listen, O Israel, the Lord your God is the one Lord… Apart from the call to listen, the opening words don’t so much impose an obligation, as they offer a reminder. They don’t really command us to do something – that comes later – but rather do they remind us of who God is. It’s a very short statement, a very brief phrase: the Lord your God is the one Lord… But in it is found a wellspring of meaning and feeling. It evokes a whole history of relationship.

To truly listen to it is to remember what God has done for us in Jesus Christ the Lord. How God sent his only Son, to become for us the ideal high priest who won our salvation once and for all by offering himself. To truly open our hearts to these words is also to recall how Christ has been a saviour to us in our own personal histories. How, for example, God might have helped us to find a friend or a partner when we were lonely, a job when we were retrenched, healing when we were sick, meaning when we were lost and confused, faith when we were doubting, hope when we were close to despair…

To truly listen to these words – the Lord your God is the one Lord – is also to come to the same realization as the psalmist does, who sings today of who God is for him: not simply a law-giver, much less a law-enforcer, but my strength, my rock, my fortress, my saviour… my shield, my mighty help, my stronghold… the God who saves me. And, like the psalmist, isn’t it out of this profound realization of who God is for us that we might be moved to profess: I love you, Lord, my strength?

Sisters and brother, it is probably painfully true that our nation stands at a turning point in its history, that we are faced with many difficult challenges that require great strength of resolve. But, as Christians, perhaps the question we need to ask ourselves is not just what we need to do, important as that is, but also where we might find the strength to do it?

And isn’t this what our readings present to us today? Quite beyond the strength of our own resolve, aren’t we being offered an immense and irresistible power? By recalling and realizing anew who God is for us, aren’t we being offered access to the one Lord who alone is our strength, the Almighty and Ever-Compassionate One in whom is the sum of all the reasons why we must love?

Sisters and brothers how might we better open ourselves to this power today?

Saturday, November 04, 2006

30th Saturday in Ordinary Time (II)
Memorial of St. Charles Boromeo, Bishop
Between the Death-Bed and the Dinner-Table

Readings: Philippians 1:18b-26; Psalm 42:2, 3, 5cdef; Luke 14:1, 7-11

Among the more valuable graces with which one might be blessed is to find oneself by the death-bed of another, to witness that solemn final journey of another from this life to the next. Depending, of course, on the circumstances and the dispositions of our hearts, such experiences have the capacity to provoke profound questions within us: What will I be like when my time comes? What will be uppermost in my mind and heart? How will I react when death's curtain finally draws to a close the drama that has been my life? Morbid considerations, some might think. And yet, don’t such spiritual masters as St. Ignatius of Loyola recommend reflections like these, not least because thoughts about how one will face death can powerfully shape the way in which one lives one’s life, and vice versa?

Today we are graced to listen to the considerations that preoccupy the great apostle Paul towards the end of his own remarkable journey. The dilemma that he so poignantly describes in the first reading indicates to us what is uppermost in his mind and heart. We find here neither a desperate clinging to this life for its own sake, nor a tired resignation to the inevitable. What we do find is a tension between two deeply felt desires: whether to be gone and be with Christ or to stay alive in this body… to help you to progress in the faith and even increase your joy in it. As the time approaches when he must depart, the deepest desires of Paul’s heart are shaped by the two greatest commandments: love of God and of neighbour. At a time when many might quite naturally be preoccupied with self, how does Paul come to be so centred on God and others?

Is it not because he has spent a life-time allowing the Spirit of God to mould and shape the desires of his heart? Is it not because he has long been practicing the same kind of asceticism that Jesus describes in the gospel today? At a wedding feast, do not take your seat in the place of honour... make your way to the lowest place – not the place of manipulative attention-seeking but the place of compassionate service and self-gift. This is the place, for example, that Mary took at the wedding at Cana. Inconspicuously yet effectively she interceded when it mattered most. Why is Jesus so particular about conduct at the dinner-table if not because, trivial as it may seem, it has the capacity to profoundly influence our conduct on the death-bed as well. For it is at such apparently trivial locations as the dinner-table that the opposing desires of our heart are shaped: the desire for self-aggrandizement versus the desire for self-sacrificing service. And it is these desires that determine our conduct and our place at the heavenly banquet.

As we move between the dinner-table and the death-bed today, how might we yield more readily to the God who continues to mould our hearts on the way?

Friday, November 03, 2006

30th Friday in Ordinary Time (II)
Blindfold

Readings: Philippians 1:1-11; Psalm 111:1-2, 3-4, 5-6; Luke 14:1-6

Most, if not all, of us will be familiar with the statue of Lady Justice. Blindfolded, she carries a double-edged sword in one hand and a scale in the other. The statue expresses the ideal after which justice, or the law, strives: to judge (scale) impartially (blindfold) through the power of reason (sword). It’s a lofty ideal not easily achieved. And even when it is achieved, might we not wonder whether there’s something even higher towards which we might aim?

Consider Jesus’ response to the Pharisees today. Ostensibly, they were applying the law as impartially as they could. It didn’t matter how needy the man with dropsy was, he should not have been healed on the Sabbath. That was the Law. Yet, through his pointed questioning, Jesus uncovers an inherent inconsistency in the Law, even – or especially – when rigorously applied. If one is allowed to rescue one’s ox from a well on the Sabbath, what more the rescue of a human being from his infirmity?

Paul’s letter to the Philippians also takes us to another, more human, level than the purely legal. Paul speaks of love. My prayer is that your love for each other may increase more and more and never stop improving your knowledge and deepening your perception so that you can always recognize what is best. Clearly, the focus is less on the strict application of laws than the cultivation of a heart that is perceptive enough to see and respond to the often all too human condition of those we encounter.

Does this mean that the blindfold should be taken off Lady Justice’s eyes? Not necessarily. Isn’t it true that sometimes it’s precisely when one is blind that one can see more rightly? Isn’t there a difference between the blindness of obstinacy, which afflicts the Pharisee, and the blindness of love, which leads one to see beyond the incidentals to the heart of a situation or person? Whatever may be the case, we find ourselves once again being challenged by the gospel to allow God to increase our love, to improve our knowledge and to deepen our perception.

How is God doing this for us today?

Thursday, November 02, 2006

The Commemoration of all the Faithful Departed
Where Everybody Is…

Readings: Isaiah 25:6-9; Psalm 27; Romans 5:5-11; Mark 15:33-16:6

Just a day after having joyfully celebrated the triumph of all the saints in heaven, we commemorate all the faithful departed. Traditionally, we distinguish these two celebrations in terms of people and places. In the first we rejoice with all those who have made it to heaven. And in the second, we pray for those who are not quite there yet, those who remain, as it were, suspended between heaven and hell. The first feast is for the saints in heaven, the second for the souls in purgatory. Valid and helpful as this approach is, doesn’t it also give rise to some perplexity and even confusion? To paraphrase a recent insightful remark of a revered older priest, you don’t know where everybody is. Take my late father, for example. Do I rejoice with him on All Saints’ Day? Or do I pray for him on All Souls’ Day? Or, to cover all the bases, do I do both? I can’t be sure, since I don’t really know exactly where he is? Is there any way to deal with this perplexity, this doubt, this confusion?

Thankfully, the readings for these two days give us some guidance. Remember the readings for yesterday. The emphasis was on the triumph of the saints in heaven, and the difficulties and trials that they endured in order to get there. As we rejoiced with the saints, we were also invited by our readings to model ourselves after them, even as they modeled themselves after Christ. We were exhorted to purify ourselves, to take comfort from the beatitudes. These were powerful readings, enlightening readings. They tell us what our heavenly destination is like and even tell us how to get there.

But isn’t it possible that those same readings might evoke in us a reaction other than joyful hope and patient expectation? When we hear of the purity, poverty and heroic virtue of the saints, for example, isn’t it possible that we are led to doubt our own capacity to follow them? And not just ourselves, but isn’t it likely that we may also wonder whether our dearly departed loved ones could have followed where the saints have gone? Sure, they may have been very good people. But were they quite as pure and perfect as we tend to think the saints are?

It is especially upon this parched earth of perplexity and doubt that the bold words of the psalmist falls like much needed rain: I am sure I shall see the Lord’s goodness in the land of the living. And on what is this brazen confidence based? Is the psalmist not aware of his own sins and shortcomings? Yes, probably even more than we are. But the psalmist’s confidence is not based on his own righteousness or heroism. Rather, the Lord is my light and my help… the stronghold of my life. And who is this Lord but the One who has promised to take away his people’s shame everywhere on earth. What does this Lord do but continually prove His love for us even as he did by letting Christ die for us while were still sinners.

Important as it is then for us to continue to purify our hearts and to pray for our dearly departed, we should not let ourselves be overwhelmed by the weight of our sins or those of our loved ones. In the words of the young man in the gospel: there is no need for alarm. For our trust and hope is in the One who rolled back the stone from the mouth of the tomb and raised Jesus to life.

Indeed, we don’t really know where everybody is, but our faith reminds us who our God is and what he continues to do.

How is the Lord strengthening our hope and proving his love for us this day?

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Solemnity of All Saints
The Roar for Which We Hope

Readings: Revelation 7:2-4, 9-14; Psalm 24:1bc-2, 3-4ab, 5-6; 1 John 3:1-3; Mt 5:1-12a

I grew up in the heyday of the Kallang Roar. This was when the National Stadium was relatively new, and Singapore was still playing in the Malaysia Cup. It was a time when every Singaporean knew the names Quah Kim Song, Dollah Kassim and S. Rajagopal. I remember going to Kallang with my family to watch the matches. The atmosphere was electric. It seemed everyone was supporting the same side, except the opposing team, and, of course, the poor referee.

But today what I’m reminded of most is what it was like when we scored a goal, especially when we were the underdogs, or had been trailing for some time. It’s difficult to describe the feeling. You had to be there. It seemed as though the whole stadium – about 55,000 people – rose to its feet as one body, and with one voice roared its approval. Gooooal!!! The joy, the thrill, the exhilaration… absolutely incredible! I never thought of it then, but at those times, I’d surely have hated to have been on the opposing team.

Why, you might wonder, on an occasion like this, are we reminiscing about the good ole days of the Kallang Roar? Quite simply – although it pales in comparison – it’s the closest thing in my own experience to the scene described in the first reading today: a huge number, impossible to count, of people from every nation, race, tribe and language… shouting in unison: Victory to our God… and to the Lamb! It’s not Kallang, but if that’s not a roar, I don’t know what is.

VICTORY!!!

This is what we are celebrating today, isn’t it? Not just an ordinary goal but the ultimate triumph of the home team. Not just any ordinary goal-scorer but Christ, the Lamb of God himself, who was slain and now lives no more to die. Today, we celebrate all the diehard supporters of Christ the ultimate underdog who won for us the final victory. Joyfully we remember all those who remained on the side of Christ even when the going was tough.

These are the people who continued to hope even when others laughed at their foolishness. They are the ones who, when tempted with the corrupting influences of power and wealth, chose to remain gentle and poor in spirit. When, in spite of everything that is wrong with our world, everyone else seemed blissfully indifferent, they mourned in secret. When others were seeking popularity and fame at all cost, they hungered for what is right. When others were judgmental, they were merciful. When others were starting and prolonging wars and conflicts, they sought to make peace. Throughout all their troubles, they remained faithful. They kept clean hands and pure heart… desired not worthless things. Indeed, these are the people who have been through the great persecution, and have washed their robes white again in the blood of the Lamb.

Yes, these are the ones we celebrate today. Like the other fans at the National Stadium, the vast majority of these will be unknown to us. But there will also be those who are familiar: relatives, friends, colleagues, neighbours, fellow-parishioners. Yes, perhaps even former members of the national soccer team, or a referee. They’re all there, their arms and voices raised:

VICTORY!!!

And we share their joy today because we too consider ourselves on the same team. In some way, the Lamb’s triumph, their triumph, is also our own. Even as we celebrate these saints in heaven, we too cherish the desire one day to take our places beside them. And because each of us entertains this hope we fervently pray that through their intercession, we may also purify ourselves and try to be as pure as Christ. So that when that final whistle blows, we too may find ourselves on the winning team.

Sisters and brothers, may we see one another there when that day comes…

VICTORY!!!
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