Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Wednesday in the 1st Week of Lent
Responding to the Sign
Readings: Jonah 3:1-10; Psalm 51:3-4, 12-13, 18-19; Luke 11:29-32


This is a wicked generation; it is asking for a sign. The only sign it will be given is the sign of Jonah…

One may well wonder why Jesus is so worked up in the gospel of today. What’s wrong with seeking a sign? Isn’t it simply another way of searching for God, of finding out what God wants of us in the here and now? But wait. Hasn’t God already indicated what God wants? Hasn’t God already sent the Sign of all signs – Jesus, the only Son of the Father? And hasn’t this same Jesus been working many signs: miracles of great power and healing? Indeed, the people have been witnesses and even beneficiaries of the signs worked by the Sign. Here then lies the problem. This generation has received the signs but rejected the Sign. They have benefited from the miracles but refused to accept their deeper significance. At root, the miracles of Jesus are a proclamation of good news: liberty to captives, new sight to the blind, freedom to the downtrodden (see Luke 4:18). But one can only accept the good news if one is ready to repent, something which this generation firmly refuses to do. We might consider, for a moment, what this generation is like.

Perhaps most strikingly, it is a generation of insiders. These are the people who take pride in being God’s chosen ones. These are the ones who belong to the same country as all the prophets, and as Jesus himself (see Luke 4:24). These are the ones who ought to recognize the signs, and the Sign. Instead, they turn out to be like someone faced with a crucial decision who knows, deep down, what is the wise choice to make, but, for one reason or another, prefers to do the opposite. So s/he keeps postponing the decision, and goes looking for advice from one person after another, until s/he finds someone who is likeminded. In a sense this person is looking for a sign, but only a very specific sign. What is sought is a sign that only confirms the choice to which s/he is inclined, a sign that requires no change to be made to the status quo. This is the problem. This is why Jesus is so worked up.

To such a generation Jesus can offer nothing else – since nothing else will be accepted – but the sign of Jonah, the same Jonah who, in the first reading, preaches in this fashion: only forty days more and Nineveh is going to be destroyed. In other words, stop messing around already! If you don’t change now, you will die! Jesus’ lament is that while the Ninevites, who were gentile outsiders, responded with repentance, this generation remains obstinately unmoved. It continues to seek a sign.

The parallel with our situation is quite obvious. Isn’t this the whole significance of these forty days of Lent? We are the insiders of today. We are the ones to whom the message of repentance is being addressed. We heard it at the beginning, on Ash Wednesday: Now is the favourable time… Repent and be faithful to the Gospel.

How shall we respond?

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Tuesday in the 1st Week of Lent
Kernels rather than Husks

Readings: Isaiah 55:10-11; Psalm 34:4-5, 6-7, 16-17, 18-19; Matthew 6:7-15

In your prayers do not babble as the pagans do…

There’s quite a striking contrast in the readings today between the babbling of the pagans at prayer and the word that goes from God’s mouth. Most obviously, the pagans use many words, but God seems to speak only one. Yet the differences go far deeper than quantity. The babbling of the pagans is ineffective, whereas God’s Word always succeeds in what it was sent to do. The former does not receive a hearing from God, whereas, like the rain and the snow, the latter does not return without watering the earth, making it yield and giving growth to provide seed for the sower and bread for the eating. Why the difference? The reason is quite plain to see.

The babbling of the pagans is empty. Apart from the sounds that are made, they carry little if anything of those who are praying. On the contrary, knowingly or not, those who claim to be praying in this way are actually using their many words as a shield or a mask behind which to hide. The doubts and struggles, the fears and anxieties, the desires and dreams of the ones who are praying – all those things that would constitute the kernel of true prayer – are not to be found in the mass of words that pour from their mouths. All that is offered to God are the empty husks of meaningless words. The kernel, the inner self, remains hidden and protected. Little wonder that such prayer is ineffective. Empty husks cannot bear fruit.

In contrast, God’s Word is potent because it fully expresses who God is and what God wishes to do in the world. It is above all a Word of love – a Word that communicates God’s desire for the flourishing of all of creation. It is a Word so powerful that it actually makes God present wherever it resounds, such that there is life for the dying, light in the darkness, healing for the sickly, rescue for those in distress. And, in contrast to the self-protectiveness of the pagans’ babbling, the power of this Word is rooted in its vulnerability, in its willingness to be like a grain of wheat that falls into the ground and dies; and in the dying to bear much fruit (see John 12:24).

True prayer, then, is a matter of trying continually to present to God the kernel of our hidden selves. It’s not always a comfortable thing to do. Indeed, the vulnerability that this involves may even feel quite frightening, such that we may resort to different avoidance tactics. We may, for example, prefer to judge the actions of others, or pose very difficult and highly intellectual questions to keep ourselves and others occupied, or we may busy ourselves with many important, even holy and charitable, activities. But there’s usually a part of us that knows the truth, a part of us that desires to reveal itself to God, a part that desires to know and to be known, even if it means having in some way to die. This is where true prayer begins. This is the kernel from which life springs. And this is also where our Lenten discipline is meant to bring us. We wish to allow the husks of our babbling to be stripped away, so that God can see and embrace the kernel of who we are. To do this, we need first to allow the power of God’s Word to sink deeply within us. We need to allow the significance of the dying and rising of Jesus Christ, the Word-Made-Flesh, to penetrate us more deeply, so that we may find new courage truly to lift our minds and hearts and hands to God in prayer.

How is the Lord teaching us to pray today?

Monday, February 26, 2007

Monday in the 1st Week of Lent
They Didn’t Know

Readings: Leviticus 19:1-2, 11-18; Psalm 19:8, 9, 10, 15; Matthew 25:31-46

Be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy…

Yes, of course, I do wish to be holy. That’s the whole point of our Lenten observance, isn’t it – to be closer to God, to be more like the Lord, to be more holy? And in case there’s any doubt in my mind, the readings for today focus my attention on a crucial aspect of holiness – practical love of neighbour, especially the ones most in need. For in so far as you did this to one of the least of these… you did it to me…

So I may try my best to be charitable. I may try to set aside some of my possessions and even some of my time for the poor and the needy. And I may then review my performance with justifiable pride and be quite relieved and thankful that I’m not like those goats in the gospel, those herded to the left of the judgment seat of the Lord. They never did the necessary. They never recognized the Lord in the least of his brethren. But I have done it, at least some of the time. Can I then count on finding myself among the sheep on the Lord’s right hand on judgment day? Can I then consider myself truly holy?

I wonder…

I wonder especially because of a rather disturbing characteristic of those sheep on judgment day. They seem to be as puzzled and surprised as the goats at how things turn out. Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you…? They seem quite unaware of all the good that they have done. How could this be? Are they simply being politely modest as I sometimes choose to be? How could they not know?

My discomfort increases as I continue to wonder…

Could it be that while the goats did not recognize the Lord in the hungry and the lonely, the naked and the imprisoned, the sheep somehow did not recognize themselves in the ones who fed and welcomed, who clothed and visited them? Could this be a measure of their holiness? Could it be that they had come to the point where all their efforts on behalf of the needy had become so in tune with the Lord’s saving work that they had come to forget themselves, to forget that they were really doing anything worthwhile? All their labour had become simply a part of the work of Christ, in them and in the world. And their holiness had truly become not so much their holiness as the holiness of God working in them.

If this is true, then I still have a distance to travel. I may not exactly be a goat, but neither am I truly a sheep. I’m too conscious of all the good that I do, too attentive to my own virtue. As I continue to journey through the discipline of Lent, perhaps I need to keep my eyes focused on God rather than on myself. Perhaps I need to ask God for the grace of self-forgetfulness. So that God’s holiness may finally shine out in my heart and in my life, transforming me into a true sheep of the Shepherd’s flock.

Be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy…

Saturday, February 24, 2007

1st Sunday in Lent (C)
It Only Works If You Believe…

Readings: Deuteronomy 26:4-10; Psalm 91:1-2, 10-11, 12-13, 14-15; Romans 10:8-13; Luke 4:1-13

Sisters and brothers, do you like stories? I think many people do, especially children. Stories are powerful. Stories can entertain us. They can make us laugh and they can make us cry. But there is an even greater power in stories. Stories actually have the power to save us.

Some of you may know that on Tuesday morning a senior priest in my community died. Fr. Desmond Reid, SJ would have been eighty-six in May. He had been serving in our parish of St. Ignatius for more than thirty years. Thirty years of celebrating the Eucharist, of preaching and hearing confessions, of marrying couples and baptizing their children, of counseling the troubled and giving alms to the poor. So you can imagine how the parishioners must have felt when they learnt that he had died. During his wake and funeral there were many sad faces and tear-filled eyes. People were grieving his loss. Indeed, many of us are probably still grieving. Of course, it’s natural and even healthy to grieve. But there’s also a danger of being so overwhelmed by sadness that we let our grief crush our hope. There’s a danger of giving in to discouragement and despair.

In the face of this terrible danger, quite naturally and quite spontaneously, those grieving the loss of Fr. Reid began to tell stories. Stories were told of his final hours in Mount Alvernia Hospital. Stories were told of the things that Fr. Reid had done over the years. Heart-wrenching stories were even written in the Remembrance Book that was prepared for the occasion. They were all stories that spoke of what Fr. Reid meant to the people who came to bid him farewell. And something happened as people exchanged these stories. In a way, it was as though Fr. Reid was still alive. The stories gave us the power to bear our sadness and our grief. They helped to save us from falling into despair. This was so especially because we did not only tell stories of Fr. Reid. Rather, we also reminded one another that his story was really part of another much bigger story – the Story of God’s love for his people in Jesus Christ. During the wake and the funeral, we also remembered especially the Story of Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, who suffered, died and was buried, yet rose again in triumph, and is now seated at the right hand of the Father. And even as we continue to grieve the loss of Fr. Reid, the memory of this great Story gives us consolation and hope. It saves us from despair. Even now we continue to draw strength from it. Such is the power of the Story. But, of course, it only works if you believe.

Isn’t something similar happening in our readings for this first Sunday of Lent? As you know, Lent is a time of preparation, a time when we prepare to renew our baptismal vows at Easter. It is a time when we remember how the Christian life is a battle between good and evil. And it is a time when we acknowledge how weak we are, and how often we are defeated in this fight against the devil and the powers of darkness. But, even as we do this, there is a danger that we might be overwhelmed by our own weakness and sinfulness. There is a danger that we will give in to despair and fall forever into darkness.

That is why we need to learn from the people in the first reading. Here we find Moses teaching the people to come together regularly to tell a story. This is not just any story. This is a story of power and of victory. It is the story of the Exodus, the story of how, with mighty hand and outstretched arm, the Lord brought them out of slavery in Egypt to a land where milk and honey flow. And not only do the people continue to tell and to re-tell this story, but they also express their wholehearted belief in its power by offering to God the first-fruits of the produce of the soil that God had given them. In this way they gain the strength that they need from God to continue to face their enemies. Because, as we said earlier, the story only works if you believe.

And isn’t it the same for us? Even as we prepare to face and to do battle with the darkness – with all the sinful tendencies – that we find within and around us, even as we tremble at the thought of our own weakness in the face of evil, we come together today and remind one another of a story of great power. We heard part of this story summarized for us in the gospel.

Here we find Jesus doing battle with the devil. After fasting for forty days, Jesus is in a physically weakened state. We are told that he was hungry. And along comes the devil, tempting Jesus to satisfy his hunger with various things. First it’s bread: tell this stone to turn into a loaf. Then it’s earthly power and glory: I will give you all the power and glory of these kingdoms. And finally, the devil even tempts Jesus to fill his hunger by showing off his powers for the people to see. He brings Jesus to the parapet of the Temple and says, throw yourself down. But, in each of these temptations, Jesus triumphs. He is victorious because, physically weak though he may be, he is spiritually strong. His time of fasting and self-denial has helped him to see very clearly that his hunger can only be satisfied in one way. Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God. Jesus is focused completely on God alone. And this focus will remain even when it leads him up Mount Calvary and beyond.

As we begin our Lenten battle, this is the Story from which we draw strength. This is the Story that can save us from the darkness that threatens to engulf us. This is the Story that can help us to prepare well to renew our baptismal promises at Easter. This is the Story that can help us to see more clearly the darkness in our own lives, the temptations to fill our hungry hearts with things that are less than God. This is the Story that will give us strength to reject the darkness and to cling to God alone.

But as we heard in the second reading the Story can save only if your lips confess that Jesus is Lord and if you believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead. So, like the people in the first reading who offered the first-fruits of the soil to God, during this period of Lent, we will offer God our prayers, our fasting and our almsgiving. By our self-denial, we hope to allow God to strengthen our belief in the Story. We hope that, weak and struggling though we may be, God will increase our faith so that, like the Israelites, we may experience anew God’s saving power.

Sisters and brothers, the Story of Christ has a great power to save us. But it only works if we believe. Do you?

Friday, February 23, 2007

Friday after Ash Wednesday
Memorial of St. Polycarp, Bishop and Martyr
The Fast that Helps

Readings: Isaiah 58:1-9a; Psalm 51:3-4, 5-6ab, 18-19; Matthew 9:14-15

Today being a Friday in Lent, many of us will be abstaining from meat. Some will even be fasting in some way – from food or the TV or the computer… So it is very appropriate for us to listen to these readings today because they invite us to reflect a little more deeply on the significance of our abstinence and fasting.

In the gospel, Jesus makes it very clear that fasting is not an end in itself. If it were, then his disciples would fast. But the aim of fasting is to help us to see and experience God more clearly, to welcome the divine Bridegroom more wholeheartedly when he comes knocking on our doors each day. And since Jesus is already present among his disciples, they need not fast. Fasting is meaningful only in so far as it brings us closer to God.

If that’s the case, then there is a kind of fasting that helps and there is a kind that hinders. The kind of fasting that hinders is the kind that keeps us focused only on ourselves. We take pride in the fact that we are fasting. We may even think that by our self-denial we are somehow doing God a favour. And because we are so caught up in ourselves, we fail to notice the God who is present among us. We fail to welcome the Bridegroom when he comes. And the first reading gives some very concrete examples of how we might fail. We fail to see God who comes to us especially in the faces of the poor and the oppressed. We fail to see God who is present among us, for example, in our domestic help. How can our fasting please God if, at the same time in which we fast, we continue to work them to the bone, continue to squeeze every last ounce of energy out of them?

In contrast, the fasting that helps – the fasting that delights God – is the kind that takes us out of ourselves. It is the kind that helps us to experience God’s compassion for us, sinful and helpless as we are, and then to extend that same compassion to others. The fasting that helps is the kind that cultivates in us humbled and contrite hearts as well as compassionate and helping hands.

How is our fasting helping us today?

Thursday, February 22, 2007

NB: The following reflection is really a mistake that I shamelessly decided to post anyway. The Mass readings and prayers today should be for the feast of the Chair of St. Peter. Sincere apologies...
Thursday after Ash Wednesday
Choosing Life

Readings: Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Ps 1:1-2, 3, 4-6; Luke 9:22-25

Choose life, then, so that you and your descendants may live in the love of the Lord your God, obeying his voice, clinging to him; for in this your life consists…

Today, just a day after Ash Wednesday, we are reminded quite bluntly of what’s at stake in these forty days of Lent. It’s nothing less than a matter of life and death. Whatever sacrifices we may choose to make during this time are meant to help us to make this choice well in every circumstance. Our self-denial is meant to train us continually to turn away from death and to choose life.

At first glance, it may seem a ridiculously easy choice to make. Who among us, except the masochistic or suicidal, would wish to choose death? Why then should anyone need to undergo training in order to choose life over death? But the choice is far more difficult than we sometimes imagine. There are at least two aspects to the difficulty.

The first is a question of clarity. That is, we don’t often know what life and death really look like. For example, is life about having enough to eat and drink? After all, we would thirst and starve to death without drink and food. Yet we may remember Jesus telling us not to worry about what we are to eat and what we are to drink (Mt 6:25). There is something even more important than these basic necessities. Rather, as we heard in the first reading: in this your life consists… loving the Lord your God, obeying his voice, clinging to him… And Jesus says the same thing in the gospel: Anyone who loses his life for my sake… will save it. To find life is to follow Christ, to cling to God, at all costs, even unto death. This is a hard teaching, a counter-intuitive instruction. Not only is it difficult to swallow theoretically, but it is especially difficult, in our daily living, to distinguish the choices that lead to true life in Christ from those that lead to death.

The second aspect of the difficulty has to do with courage. Even when we do see clearly the choices before us, we don’t always have what it takes to do the right thing. Our desire to cling to God, our desire for true life, is not strong enough to overcome our desire for other things, and our fear of what will happen to us if we give them up. It is often for want of courage that we choose death.

Today, I continue to write from the perspective of one who recently witnessed another making that final journey from this world to the next. We may think that this final curtain call is not really a matter of choice. We all have to die, whether we like it or not. And yet, we do have a choice at least as to how we will face death. For example, one can go out kicking and screaming and finally succumb grudgingly and even despairingly to the inevitable. Or one can choose, however painful the struggle may be, to relinquish one’s hold on earthly life, in order to continue clinging to the God who ushers us into life eternal.

In order to make that final choice well, much depends on how we make the various choices that are placed before us at every moment of every passing day. To choose well we need training. We need to prepare our hearts to receive the clarity and the courage that is the Lord’s gift to his followers. This is what is at stake in our Lenten discipline. It is truly a matter of life and death.

Choose life then…

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Ash Wednesday
Planning the Pilgrimage


Readings: Joel l 2:12-18; Psalm 51:3-4, 5-6ab, 12-13, 14 and 17; 2 Corinthians 5:20—6:2; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18

Recently I had a conversation with someone who’s planning a group-pilgrimage to the Holy Land. It was interesting to hear about how carefully he was seeing to every detail of the trip. In particular he had decided to limit the number of places they were to visit so that they didn’t have to rush from place to place but could linger a little longer at each, spending more time in prayer and reflection. After all, it was a pilgrimage. Also, the places he chose to include on the itinerary followed the outline of the gospel stories of the life of Jesus, from the Annunciation to the Resurrection. After all, it was a pilgrimage. And careful thought was also given to where the group could celebrate Mass each day. Why? You guessed it. It was, after all, a pilgrimage.

Listening to him, I was quite struck by how this pilgrimage planner was continually and carefully keeping the purpose of the trip in view. And we know how important it is to do this don’t we? Haven’t we experienced planning a much-needed vacation for ourselves – hoping to rest and relax and to spend some quality time with our loved ones – but, upon returning from the trip, finding ourselves even more tired and more estranged from our loved ones than before we left?

In a sense, we are also embarking on a trip today. Today we begin our Lenten journey. During these days, we will be encouraged to spend more time especially in prayer, fasting and almsgiving. These will be some of the places on our spiritual itinerary during these days. And yet, like going on vacation, it is possible to go through the external motions of these activities but lose sight of their real purpose. It is possible to embark on this trip and then return from it feeling more tired than when we started.

Which is why, at the start of our Lenten pilgrimage, the Church, in her wisdom, carefully places before us the aim of all we are about to do. In particular, she offers us today the Word of God as a lamp for our steps and a light for our path (see Psalm 119:105).

The aim of this journey, the significance of this time, is highlighted by St. Paul in the second reading. Now is the favourable time, this is the day of salvation. This is the time for us to be reconciled to God. This is a privileged time for us to recognize and to acknowledge the areas of darkness in our own hearts, much like the psalmist does today: my offences truly I know them; my sin is always before me – a time for us to allow the light of God’s Word to illumine our darkness, to wash us from our guilt and to give us again the joy of God’s help.

This is the aim that we will have to keep continually before us even as we journey through these forty days. This is the purpose that we have to consider in choosing the places we will visit, the kinds of prayer, fasting and almsgiving we will undertake. And in making our choices it is probably less important what we do, than why we do it. Our activities will be helpful only in so far as they help us to turn more wholeheartedly to the Lord. As we heard in the first reading: Let your hearts be broken not your garments torn, turn to the Lord your God again. For, as Jesus shows us in the gospel today, it is possible to do all the right things but for all the wrong reasons.

Sisters and brothers as we begin our Lenten expedition today, we pray that God's Word may truly continue to light up the way before us, keeping us on the right track. After all, it is a pilgrimage, isn't it?

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Tuesday in the 7th Week of Ordinary Time (I)
Broken By the Broken Record

Readings: Sirach 2:1-11; Psalm 37:3-4, 18-19, 27-28, 39-40; Mark 9:30-37

For the past few days, like a broken record, Jesus has been saying the same thing to his disciples over and over again. The Son of Man – this person on whom they have pinned all their hopes for happiness – will have to suffer and die and then rise again. But they did not understand what he said. They just don’t get it. And I don’t blame them. I find it difficult to get it too. Don’t get me wrong. Of course I know what Jesus’ words mean as applied to him. I know all about the passion, and the crucifixion, and the resurrection. I’ve learnt all about these events in catechism class. But what I don’t get is what these words mean as applied to us, as applied to me. And it’s really not surprising that I don’t get it. All the odds are stacked against me.

The odds are against me because, knowingly or not, like the disciples, I have somehow been infected with the idea that where happiness is concerned size really matters. Whether I admit it to myself or not, at some level, I believe that to be happy I have to make myself as big as possible. So I spend my life trying to expand my career, my bank account, my wardrobe, my reputation, my network of contacts… And I continue to do this even when I become more religious or more active in church. The only difference is that I learn to use more respectable sounding names to describe what I’m doing – names like ministry and mission, communion and kingdom. But, if I’m truly honest with myself, I realize that often I’m really not unlike the disciples. In some way I too am continually comparing and competing with others to see who is bigger, to see which of us is the greatest.

Meanwhile, the broken record continues to play: The Son of Man has to suffer... The Lord tries continually to show me that although size does matter, it is a matter of becoming not bigger but smaller. To be truly happy, the important thing is to be as small as possible. Because it is only when I’m small like a little child that I can put all my trust in God alone. Only when I am small can I truly commit my life to the Lord, place all my hope in him alone for everlasting happiness and mercy. And resistant though I am to hearing this message from the Lord, He does not give up. Like a purifying fire, the broken record continues to play in the various trials and tribulations of life, until it breaks through my deafness and shatters my hardened heart so that I might become small enough to be held in the palm of God’s compassionate and merciful hand.

Sisters and brothers, it’s difficult to speak these words today and not think of our dear priest and friend, Fr. Des Reid. Especially when I think of his many years of selfless service among us, I wish I could say that his final hours on this earth were peaceful and painless ones. But they were not. He suffered. Yet in his ordeal those of us who were with him saw the gold tested in the fire. We saw him getting smaller and smaller. Until at last he was enfolded in the Lord’s embrace. It was as we heard in today’s psalm: The salvation of the just comes from the Lord, their stronghold in time of distress.

Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord.
And let perpetual light shine upon him.
May he rest in peace. Amen.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Monday in the 7th Week of Ordinary Time (I)
Eluding the Tyranny of the Technical

Readings: Sirach 1:1-10; Psalm 93:1ab, 1cd-2, 5; Mark 9:14-29


We live in a technically advanced society. And it’s really quite amazing to consider the things we can do. Advances in medical technology, for example, are helping us to deal ever more efficiently with sickness and pain. Recently someone I know underwent day surgery and had to return to the doctor some days later to have her stitches removed. She was very anxious about this appointment because she’d had stitches removed many years before and remembered it to be a painful experience. She recalled how it seemed to last forever as the doctor proceeded to cut and pull and cut and pull… But this time round she was pleasantly surprised by the new technique that the doctor used. He simply cut off one end of surgical thread and gently pulled the whole thing out at one go. Quick and painless. A tribute to the wonders of modern technology.

And yet, wonderful as it is, it is possible to become so obsessed with the technical that we lose sight of something even more important. In the spiritual life especially, problems can arise when we become focused on techniques alone. When we encounter a crisis, for example, isn’t it true that, knowingly or unknowingly, it is often technical help that we seek first? We want to be shown what to do, what prayers to say, which saint to invoke, what techniques to use, so that the problem can be solved, so that the pain will go away. Isn’t this what the father of the possessed boy might have been seeking so desperately in the gospel today? But the disciples of Jesus can’t help him. Why? Surely, they had been with Jesus long enough. They had witnessed all the various techniques that Jesus had employed before, the things he said, the actions he performed. Why couldn’t they do anything?

Jesus tells them why. Ultimately, it is not technical knowledge that saves us but the faith that leads to wisdom. The same wisdom that we heard about in the first reading today. The wisdom that is from the Lord and that the Lord conveys to those who love him. The wisdom that Peter, James and John were privileged to witness on the mountain of Transfiguration. The same wisdom that struck the whole crowd with amazement when they saw Jesus. It is by this wisdom that Jesus teaches the father of the possessed boy truly to pray beyond all techniques of prayer. Although his faith is weak, he is led to cry out earnestly in his need: Help the little faith I have! And in the naked sincerity of his pleading, Jesus is able to respond with healing. The spirit of dumbness is cast out – a testimony to the truth that this kind can only be driven out by prayer.

In the various crises that we may encounter from day to day, what do we need to do to ensure that the techniques we use are firmly rooted in the faith that leads to wisdom?

Sunday, February 18, 2007

7th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)
(First Day of the Lunar New Year)
Negotiating Doors and Doormats on the Way


Readings: 1 Samuel 26:2, 7-9, 12-13, 22-23; Psalm 103:1-2, 3-4, 8, 10, 12-1; 1 Corinthians 15:45-49; Luke 6:27-38

Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who treat you badly…

Although we have not chosen special readings to suit the occasion, it’s highly appropriate for us to hear these words on this first day of the Lunar New Year. Traditionally, for those who mark the occasion, this is a time for reunions and visitations. This is the time to catch up with relatives and friends whom we see infrequently, a time to maintain and to renew relationships.

But isn’t it true that, at least for some if not many of us, it’s not always a completely happy time? As children we may have eagerly awaited the New Year because we enjoyed receiving red packets and wearing new clothes. But as adults don’t we sometimes feel that it’s really quite a hassle? Quite apart from all the shopping and cooking and cleaning that needs to be done, one has also to meet and be nice to various people that one might sometimes prefer to forget. Of course, in theory, this is a privileged time for feuding friends and family members alike to bury the hatchet. But, in practice, doesn’t it sometimes seem as though the New Year is precisely the time for that hatchet to be buried more deeply into someone’s back and perhaps even twisted for added effect?

I’m exaggerating, of course. Please don’t be scandalized. The point is that we probably don’t have to look too far to find the enemies that the Lord is asking us to love. And whether we celebrate the Lunar New Year or not, each of us probably knows from experience how difficult it is to put Jesus’ instructions into practice. This is perhaps especially so when one’s enemies are of one’s own household (Matthew 10:36).

It’s difficult because enemies are such usually for a reason. Often they have knowingly or unknowingly caused us pain in one way or another. And when this happens it seems like every fiber of our being resists even the slightest suggestion of forgiveness and reconciliation. We have been hurt and quite understandably we respond by protecting ourselves, if not by retaliating. We slam the door of our anger and resentment and shut out the offending party. Indeed, we may need to hide behind this door for a time, because to open it is also to make ourselves vulnerable to being hurt again. Dare we risk it?

And yet we know that we cannot stay behind this door forever. Because the protection that it affords can very quickly turn into a prison, trapping us within our own fear and self-pity. We remain stuck in the life of the earthly man that Paul talks about in the second reading, and are prevented from living the life of the heavenly man. We are prevented from sharing in the freedom and love and joy and peace that is the birthright of the followers of the crucified and risen Christ. However deep the hurt, we need somehow to bring it to the Lord, so that he can heal us, so that the door of our anger and resentment might be flung open and we might once again breathe the fresh air of the resurrected life in the Holy Spirit.

But it’s also important to see that to open the door doesn’t mean we have then to turn ourselves into a doormat for everyone to step on. To love our enemies doesn’t mean we must necessarily give in to all their demands. Isn’t it true that sometimes the loving thing to do is precisely to stand our ground and to refuse to accede to another’s unreasonable demands, even when it might cause pain, both to us and to the other? It is true that Jesus tells us in the gospel today to turn the other cheek. And we know that during his Passion he submitted silently and meekly to being spat at and struck on the face and ultimately to being nailed to the cross. Still, his suffering was the direct result of him refusing to bow to the will of the religious authorities of his day. He continued to heal on the Sabbath. for example, and to speak out against hypocrisy even when they repeatedly warned him not to. And in the gospel of John, we are told that when one of the temple police struck Jesus on the face, instead of meekly turning the other cheek, and saying, Thank you very much. Would you care to do that again? he responded with, If I have spoken wrongly, testify to the wrong. But if I have spoken rightly, why do you strike me? (John 18:23).

To pass, then, from the earthly to the heavenly existence that is meant for all Christians, we need continually to walk through the doorway of resentment and across the doormat of passivity. But all this is much easier to preach than it is to practice. And we do ourselves a disservice if we expect that it will happen overnight. Of course, it sometimes does. But just as often it can take a very long a time, as long a time as the hurt is deep. And we need to be willing to endure the process. Indeed, we need to acknowledge that, in some way, each of us is still very much in process, very much on the way. And can’t we say the same of David? Despite his noble actions in the first reading, we know that a time will come, after he becomes king, when he will engineer the death of a loyal subject in order to conceal his own adultery. He too is in process. He too is on the way.

I am reminded of a married couple I know who recently encountered a major crisis in their life together. One of them discovered that the other had been unfaithful. You may imagine the chaos that resulted, the intensity of the feelings that were stirred up in both of them. There was guilt and shame, and anger and resentment, just to name a few. There was an understandable urge to point the finger one at the other. But what really moved and inspired me, even as they came, individually and together, to talk about their struggles, was the matured way in which the crisis was managed. Although at the beginning I could imagine that just thinking about the situation was like rubbing salt into an open wound, both of them persevered in grappling with their feelings without suppressing them. They also sought the help that they needed to do this and tried as far as possible to keep communication channels open in some way, even if it meant writing notes to each other when talking was unproductive and even destructive.

They were willing to do all this even when it was very tough because early on in the process they both somehow realized that although there were some crucial aspects of their marriage and of each other that they were unhappy with, deep down they each valued the relationship and wanted the marriage to work. You might say that, like David, they recognized that their marriage had been anointed by God. There was also the question of the children, visible signs of that divine anointing.

Two weeks after the infidelity was first discovered I had the opportunity to speak with the one we may consider the aggrieved party. One could hardly say that the pain and confusion had disappeared, much less that all was forgiven. But the progress was evident and even remarkable. The feelings were much less intense. One could sense, one could dare to hope, that although they were not quite out of the woods yet, they were on their way.

And isn’t this what we all can aim for? Difficult as it is to pass through the doorway of resentment and across the doormat of passivity in order to love our enemies and bless those who curse us, isn’t it possible to at least be on the way?

Sisters and brothers, today the Lord continues to call us to stretch beyond the earthly life of Adam towards the resurrected life of Christ. What do we need from Him to persevere on our way?

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Saturday in the 6th Week of Ordinary Time (I)
Faith and Sight

Readings: Hebrews 11:1-7; Psalms 145:2-3, 4-5, 10-11; Mark 9:2-13


It’s sometimes tempting to think that the personalities in the scriptures had it quite a lot easier than we do. They are often described as enjoying such intimate conversations with God. One gets the impression that they could actually see and touch and speak with God at every moment of the day. What a contrast to our own situation. Even when we do remember that God is in our midst, we have to struggle to seek and to find the unseen One. And especially when the going gets tough, when its seems we have little or nothing tangible to which to cling, we need to go by faith, the same faith that the first reading speaks of, the faith that alone can guarantee the blessings that we hope for, or prove the existence of the realities that at present remain unseen.

Yet we are reminded today that it is for faith that our ancestors were commended. Even for Abel, Enoch and Noah, it was by faith and not by sight that they came to enjoy the reward of being ushered into the presence of God.

And if the experience of Peter, James and John is anything to go by, sight can be highly overrated. In the gospel, these three privileged disciples are given a vision of Christ in his heavenly glory. They see the Lord conversing with Moses and with Elijah. Yet they still find it difficult to understand the significance of the sight. The Transfiguration on the mountain is meant to help them to believe that Jesus is indeed the One anointed by God, the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets. So that in believing this, they might descend the mountain with him and follow him on the road that leads to Calvary, confident that Jesus will rise again. Instead, Peter probably speaks for the others when he requests to stay on the mountain. Sight is given only so that faith might be strengthened. But it is to sight that Peter wishes to cling. Let us make three tents…

Lest we be too quick to judge or to laugh at Peter, James and John, don’t we also have similar experiences as theirs? Although probably none of us have seen the glorified Jesus with our naked eyes, it’s quite likely that we have had our own experiences of transfiguration – times when we too were brought to the mountain-top, times when we felt spiritually rejuvenated or strengthened, times when God graced us with a felt sense of the divine presence. What was our reaction? How did we interpret the experience? What did it do for our faith? How did it help us when the time came to make our descent?

Only faith can guarantee the blessings that we hope for…
How might the Lord be strengthening our faith today?

Friday, February 16, 2007

Friday in the 6th Week of Ordinary Time (I)
From Babel to the Kingdom

Readings: Genesis 11:1-9; Psalm 33:10-11, 12-13, 14-15; Mark 8:34--9:1


In a city of skyscrapers and high-rise housing it’s understandable if we wonder what all the fuss is about in the first reading today. So what if the people built a tower? In some part of our world today, construction of some sort is probably going on with each passing moment. Yet this ancient story still holds an awesome power to illuminate our situation today. After all, even now, aren’t the movie theatres screening a highly-acclaimed film entitled Babel?

To better appreciate what’s wrong, we need to recall the context of the Genesis story as we have heard it thus far. In particular, we need to recall God’s word to Noah in the reading of yesterday: As for you, be fruitful, multiply, teem over the earth and be lord of it… Contrast these words with what we heard today: Let us make a name for ourselves, so that we may not be scattered about the whole earth... God wants the daughters and sons of Noah to pour themselves out over the whole world, to expend their energies in working for the flourishing of all life, to give of themselves for the building up of others. Instead, humanity chooses to remain in one place, to hoard its resources, to build a monument to the self. And we witness the consequences. We see a replay of what happened to the first man and woman who grasped greedy at the forbidden fruit in the garden. What was intended to be a monument of glory becomes a symbol of shame. Instead of happiness, disobedience leads to disaster. Against their wishes, the people are scattered anyway, but now they no longer understand one another. Like Adam and Eve, they are alienated from one another even as they continue to pine for that original nakedness – that intimate connection with self, with others, with all of creation and ultimately with God – that brings true fulfillment. The parallel to our own situation today probably needs no further comment. It’s portrayed very powerfully in the film we spoke of earlier.

It’s onto this sorry state of affairs that the words of Jesus in today’s gospel is smoothed like a healing balm. Anyone who wants to save his life will lose it; but anyone who loses his life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it… Jesus shows us the way back to the vision of wholeness that was God’s original intention for creation, the way into the kingdom of God. It involves dying to self for others in loving obedience to the creator of all. In the words of an old hymn: to live is to die, and to laugh is to cry; to live is to love with all your heart…

Today, how are we being ushered out of Babel and into the kingdom of God’s love, joy and peace?

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Thursday in the 6th Week of Ordinary Time (I)
The Keeping of God’s Covenant

Readings: Genesis 9:1-13; Psalms 102:16-18, 19-21, 29 and 22-23; Mark 8:27-33

There are two words that one often hears being used together in the same sentence whenever people encounter trials of some sort: if and why. For example: If God really loves me, then why did God let this happen? Many of us know the promises that God has made to us – promises of a future full of hope and not of destruction (see Jeremiah 29:11). But don’t we find it difficult to believe in these promises especially when situations arise that seem to put them into question? Indeed, isn’t it precisely at times when we sorely need to cling to God’s promises that we find it difficult to place our trust in them? What, for example, is our reaction to the Covenant that God makes in the first reading today?

We might begin by noticing its scope as well as its substance. With whom is God covenanting? See, I establish my Covenant with you, and… with everything that lives on the earth… God is not just addressing Jews or Christians or Muslims. Rather, through Noah, God is covenanting with everything that lives on the earth. And what is God promising? There shall be no flood to destroy the earth again.

All this sounds pretty good until we think it over a little more deeply and perhaps relate it to our lives a little more closely. Has God really kept God’s word? Although we probably don’t know of another flood on quite the same scale as the one Noah is supposed to have survived, don’t we live in a post-Asian-Tsunami world? Aren’t the victims of that catastrophe still trying to reconstruct their shattered lives? And we can quite easily go on to list other natural disasters that have led to much loss of life, not to mention the wars and terrorist attacks, the genocides and other atrocities that human beings inflict on one another. If God really means to keep God’s covenant, then why…?

In the face of tragedy and hardship, it’s very natural to ask the question why? And we should probably not suppress the urge to do so. Yet some of us might have experienced how the attempt to answer the question objectively can actually be counter-productive. Some end up giving in to cynicism and despair. Others find themselves subscribing too easily to clichéd phrases – such as: God lets this happen for your own good – without much conviction.

But for those who continue to stay with their pain and to somehow address their anguish to God, something happens. For some the question why gradually leads to other questions, very personal questions like where were you? or how were you keeping your promises to me? And those who courageously continue to address these uncomfortable questions to God actually begin to receive a satisfactory response – a response tailored specifically to the questioner. The actual expression of the response will vary. It may come in words or in images, in thoughts or in emotions, or a combination of these. But, for Christians, these are all expressions of the same answer. We heard it in the gospel today:

And Jesus began to teach them that the Son of Man was destined to suffer grievously, to be rejected… and to be put to death, and after three days to rise again…

For us who are Christian, the answer to all our questions lies in the crucified and risen Christ. To be Christian is to continually find in Christ the privileged way in which God chooses to keep God’s Covenant. And to experience the blessings of this Covenant is also to share, each in our own way, in Christ’s sacrifice for the life of the world.

How are we being called to cling to God’s Covenant with us in Christ today?

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Wednesday in the 6th Week of Ordinary Time (I)
Waiting to See the Way of Christ

Readings: Genesis 8:6-13, 20-22; Psalm 116:12-13, 14-15, 18-19; Mark 8:22-26

It’s probably not difficult for us to imagine what it might have been like for Noah at the end of the forty days and nights of continuous rain. The downpour had finally ceased. The forty days were finally over – days of being cooped up in a confined space with tons of animals. One tries not to think of the smell… We might well imagine how anxious he was to have his feet firmly planted once again on solid ground. And yet, we witness his prudence and his patience. At the end of forty days, instead of charging headlong out of the ark and leading all his charges to certain death by drowning, Noah waits. He also watches attentively for a signal that the time is right. And when his patience – in watching and waiting – is finally rewarded, Noah is moved to offer a thanksgiving sacrifice to the Lord. Although he has been put through a great trial, Noah gives thanks because he appreciates God’s saving presence and activity through it all.

More likely than not, we too know what it’s like to wait. Grown-ups know what it’s like, for example, to wait for that promotion that is needed to help make ends meet, or for that partner that will cherish us for who we really are and not just how we look or what we can do. Adolescents know what it’s like to wait for exam results, or to grow up and to have people take us seriously and to be able freely to pursue our own dreams. Married couples know what it’s like to wait for that much longed-for child. The elderly know what it's like to wait for that final curtain that will bring our earthly existence to a close. We know what it’s like, especially when we’re going through a trial of some sort, to wish anxiously for it to end, to look forward eagerly for the light at the end of the tunnel. We all have experiences of waiting.

And we know how tempting it is to try to shortcut the waiting process in some way. Much like Noah must have been tempted to exit the ark when the raven failed to return. Still, the final fulfillment of God’s promises often take time. There is a process to be undergone, much like the gradual way in which the blind man is healed in today’s gospel. And the process cannot be rushed. It is for God’s initiative that we have to watch and to wait.

There is more. Today’s passage marks the beginning of the crucial and pivotal central portion of Mark’s gospel, which is sandwiched between two stories of blind men being healed. And scholars tell us that the healings are profoundly significant. They point to the way in which Jesus is trying, in this part of the gospel, to open the eyes of his disciples to appreciate the true identity of Christ and the need for Him to suffer and to die for the life of the world. In a sense, Jesus also watches and waits. He waits for his disciples finally to see, to appreciate, and wholeheartedly to embrace Him, the suffering Messiah.

And at root, isn’t this also the kind of thing for which we need continually to wait? We often need time to allow the Lord to open our eyes to see the significance of our daily struggles. We wait for the Lord to help us to see that our crosses are not meaningless when borne with love, that it is through Him, with Him and in Him that we endure. And it is only when, like the blind men, we patiently allow ourselves gradually to be brought through to the other end of the dark tunnel that, like Noah, we may eventually be moved to offer the Lord a sacrifice of thanksgiving.

How is the Lord gradually healing our blindness? How is He inviting us to watch and to wait today?

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Tuesday in the 6th Week of Ordinary Time (I)
Saved by the Man in the Boat

Readings: Genesis 6:5-8; 7:1-5, 10; Psalm 29:1a and 2, 3ac-4, 3b and 9c-10; Mark 8:14-21


Today we are again presented with two stories that bear a close correspondence to each other. In each of them there is a chosen saviour gathering survivors into a boat. In the story from the book of Genesis, Noah is instructed to gather a remnant of creation into the ark to preserve it, not just from the waters of the flood, but also especially from the great wickedness of manthe thoughts in his heart fashioned nothing but wickedness all day long. Likewise, in the gospel, Jesus symbolically gathers his disciples into a boat on the lake and warns them to be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod.

The warning is, of course, for our ears as well. For isn’t the same wickedness that was prevalent in the days of Noah and of Jesus also present in our own time? Do we not continue to witness the corrupting influence of the yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod? Although the Pharisees were as pious as Herod was decadent did they both not have in common the same avarice, the same tendency to rely on their own strength to grasp at and to hoard the things that each found important? Herod was quite obviously greedy for wealth and political power. But were the Pharisees not also greedy for ritual purity and perfection? And did not this common characteristic prevent both from recognizing and receiving Christ as the Chosen Saviour, the new Noah, appointed to gather all into God's saving embrace? (By the way, for those who are interested and old enough to watch it, I found the film Perfume: the story of a murderer a powerful indictment of the very thing we are talking about here.)

But there is one thing that presents an obstacle to Jesus’ attempts at warning his disciples. For while Jesus speaks to them about profound spiritual realities, his disciples attention is focused upon the fact that they have no bread. In their anxiety over their daily sustenance, they forget that they are called to seek first the kingdom and all these things will be given you as well. And aren’t we, the present-day disciples of the Lord, not unlike them? While we may not think of ourselves as being quite as wicked as Herod and the Pharisees, do we not often find ourselves in the same boat as the first disciples? Do the stresses and strains of daily living not threaten to dull our spiritual senses, making it difficult for us to discern and to act against the yeast of the Pharisees and of Herod? Are we not often also without perception?

If so, then like the disciples, we need to be reminded of the different times in our own lives when the Lord has provided for us, when the Lord has multiplied our meager spiritual resources to meet life's challenges. For it is only when we allow such concrete examples of the Lord’s providence to overwhelm us anew that we can truly be brought back to our spiritual senses, to appreciate the things that are truly essential, and to heed the words of warning by which the Eternal Word seeks to save us from the flood waters that daily threaten to engulf us.

How is the Lord gathering us into the ark of God’s providential love today?

Monday, February 12, 2007

Monday in the 6th Week of Ordinary Time (I)
The Signs before Us

Readings: Genesis 4:1-15, 25; Psalms 50:1 and 8, 16bc-17, 20-21; Mark 8:11-13


There’s a parallel between the two stories in our readings today that may not be so evident at first glance. Most obviously there is in each of them the desire for a sign. The Pharisees demand from Jesus a sign from heaven just as Cain is signed by God with a mark that protects him from violent retaliation.
We can probably all identify with the need for a sign. We read in the newspapers everyday of how fraudsters cheat people by claiming to be someone they are not. And although some of us may still believe that a person’s word is his or her bond, we know that it’s prudent to insist on some written guarantee, something in black and white, some sign of sincerity. Similarly, while we know that we are called to walk by faith and not by sight, we also know what a difference it makes when God graces us with some felt assurance of God’s presence and love for us. So we can probably sympathize with the Pharisees and with Cain. Surely they should not be faulted for their craving for a sign.

That may be so. But perhaps it’s not so much their desire for a sign that should be faulted as much as their obvious blindness to the signs that have already been given them. Cain requires a sign because he fails to recognize God’s providential concern for all creation, a concern that enables God even to hear Abel’s blood crying out… from the ground. The Pharisees demand a sign even though Jesus has been performing many signs and wonders, wowing the crowds with his words of wisdom and works of power. Quite ironically they demand a sign from Him who is the Eternal Sign from heaven of the Father’s love for us. How could they be so blind?

Here we are led to the crux of the problem. Cain kills Abel and then demands some guarantee of God’s protection because his jealousy has blinded him to God’s love for him. Likewise the Pharisees demand from Jesus a sign from heaven because their jealousy and prejudice have blinded them to the sign that is Jesus himself.

In our own search for signs from God, perhaps what we need is first to ask the Lord to purify our hearts and clarify our vision, so that we might recognize the signs that are already before us. After all, as baptized Christians, haven’t we all received and been marked with the sign of the Cross of Christ – the Sign above all other signs?

How might we better recognize the signs of the Father’s love for us today?

Sunday, February 11, 2007

6th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)
Meeting the Lord’s Gaze

Readings: Jeremiah 17:5-8; Psalm 1:1-2, 3, 4 and 6; 1 Corinthians 15:12, 16-20; Luke 6:17, 20-26

How happy are you who are poor… you who are hungry… you who weep… Happy are you when people hate you…

But alas for you who are rich… you who have your fill now… you who laugh now… Alas for you when the world speaks well of you…

Sisters and brothers, I’m not sure how you feel, but I must confess that I find these words pretty difficult to listen to, much less to preach. It’s difficult because I know I enjoy a decent roof over my head and three square meals everyday (not to mention the snacks). It’s difficult because I know that I live in an affluent country where the standard of living far surpasses many other places in Asia, let alone the rest of the world. It’s especially difficult because I know I belong to a parish where every Sunday the carpark looks like a huge showroom for luxury automobiles. Sisters and brothers, I must be honest with you. I listen to our readings today and I squirm with discomfort.

Yes, I listen to today’s readings and my first instinct is to try to find some way to water down their message, to make it less uncomfortable to hear. But it’s difficult to do this because we know that the author of today’s gospel has intentionally written in this way. According to the scripture scholars, he has deliberately chosen to modify the version of the beatitudes found in Matthew’s gospel. He has, for example, changed happy are the poor in spirit to happy are you poor. He has also chosen to replace the last five beatitudes with four anti-beatitudes beginning with alas for you who are rich…

Why, we may wonder, has the author done this? Why has he written such an uncompromising and hard-hitting version of the beatitudes? And what difference does it make for us today?

Reluctant as I am to do so, we must bear with our discomfort, at least for a moment, and meditate more deeply on these words, for they are spoken to us by the One who bears the message of eternal life, the Eternal Word of God himself.

We notice first how the speech begins. Jesus came down… and stopped at a piece of level ground… then fixing his eyes on his disciples he said… What, we may wonder, did Jesus see, when he fixed his eyes on his disciples that day? We know that they were a very mixed bunch. There were fishermen as well as Pharisees. There were Zealots plotting to overthrow the Romans just as there were those who collected taxes on the Romans’ behalf. Yes, Jesus must have seen all these when he fixed his gaze upon his disciples. He must have seen the rich and the poor, the pious and the sinners alike. But is that all? Or was there something more that Jesus saw?

We might imagine that Jesus must also have seen beyond appearances, beyond the superficial, beyond the clothes people wore and the words they spoke, even beyond their occupations and their reputations. Jesus must have also gazed deeply into their hearts. And what might he have found there?

It is likely that two images met his gaze, the same two images that we heard about in today’s first reading and responsorial psalm.

There were those whose hearts were like dry scrub in the wastelands. They were those who placed their trust on the things of this world, whether it was on their own piety or political power or wealth. And because they had chosen to root their lives in the shifting sands of the material and the temporal, they had also lost their taste for the things that were truly enduring, things like faith, and hope and love. They were easily disturbed by every little change that came their way, whether it was a change in the government of the day, or in their own personal fortunes, or in the opinions that others had of them. Theirs was indeed a woeful existence. Gazing at them, Jesus was moved to say: alas for you…

In contrast, there were others whose hearts looked like trees planted by the waterside. These were people who had come to appreciate how unreliable and illusory were the things of this world, things like wealth and power and reputation. Instead they had learnt to place their trust in God alone. The roots of their hearts were thrust firmly into the depths of God’s love. Such that even when faced with the onslaught of bad weather and drought, indeed even in the face of death, they continued to bear fruit. Gazing upon them, Jesus was moved to say: how happy are you…

All this brings us back to the question with which we began our meditation: why did the author of our gospel choose such hard-hitting words? Quite obviously he had come to see that all those whose hearts were like dry scrub in the wastelands, all those who placed their trust in the things of this world, were more often than not also those who were rich, those who were having their fill, those of whom others had good things to say. Conversely, he had probably also come to see that those whose hearts looked like a tree by the waterside, those who placed their trust in God alone, were more often than not also those who were poor, those who were hungry, those whom others hated and looked down upon.

And, uncomfortable though it may make us, doesn’t this evaluation have more than a ring of truth to it? I’m reminded of a brief conversation I had yesterday with a couple who had recently returned from a two-week mission trip to an orphanage somewhere in India. You can probably guess what they said. They spoke at once of how poor were the people whom they had met as well as how loudly and joyfully these same people had sung out to God during praise and worship. More importantly, it was also clear to me, as I gazed at that couple, how moved they had been by their experience. Quite obviously something had happened to them and in them. They seemed changed by the experience.

What significance then, does all this have for us, we who are probably more wealthy than we are poor, more satisfied than we are hungry? Do we have any basis from which to disagree with Luke’s assessment? Is it really possible to be rich and still to trust in God? Is it likely that even as we enjoy the luxuries of Jaguar and Mercedes Benz, or Ben & Jerry’s and Häagen-Dazs, we might still have our hearts firmly rooted in the flowing stream of God’s love for us?

I hesitate to answer this question for myself, let alone for you. How can I be sure? What I do know is that the Lord continues to fix his gaze upon his disciples. The Lord continues to cast his eyes upon us, lovingly beckoning us to place our trust in Him who has in fact been raised from the dead.

Dry scrub in the wastelands or a tree by the waterside? Sisters and brothers, when Christ the Lord does look into our hearts today, what will he see?

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Saturday in the 5th Week of Ordinary Time (I)
Memorial of St. Scholastica, Virgin
The Sweat of our Brow and The Bread of Life

Readings: Genesis 3:9-24; Psalm 90:2, 3-4abc, 5-6, 12-13; Mark 8:1-10


With sweat on your brow shall you eat your bread…

We have only to reflect a little to see how accurately this verse from the first reading describes our situation. We know its truth from experience. Even those of us who are happily retired, or those of us who were born with a silver spoon in our mouths, or those of us who are priests and religious – who don’t quite have careers of our own as such – whatever our situation, we can all appreciate that the bread on which we live has come with the sweat of someone’s brow.

And yet, important as it is to labour, crucial as it is for us to work for our daily bread, we also know that our labour can actually make us even hungrier. For it is as we heard in today’s gospel acclamation: man does not live on bread alone… It is as we have seen earlier this week. We hunger and thirst not just for bread that can fill our stomachs. More than anything else, we yearn for that intimacy of relationship that alone can fill our hearts and our souls, that original nakedness that the first man and woman enjoyed before the Fall – both in each other’s company and ultimately in the company of God. And we know from experience how our labours can actually take us further from the intimacy that we seek. We know well how our work – with its stresses and strains, its rivalry and struggle to get ahead – while it can fill our stomachs, often also leaves our hearts empty.

Isn’t this what gives the miracle that Jesus performs in the gospel today its deeper significance? When we are told that the people had nothing to eat, we know that it’s more than just bread for which they hunger. And when Jesus multiplies food for them, we know that his actions symbolize something far more profound than the filling of the stomachs of the four thousand. For by his coming among us as a human person, by his taking on the work of a carpenter, by his teaching and healing, and above all, by his passion, death and resurrection, Jesus labours on our behalf for the bread that alone sustains us to eternal life. It is by the sweat of his brow – by the water and blood that flowed from his pierced side – that we can once more enjoy true intimacy with God, with one another, and indeed with all of creation. Isn’t this the mystery that we celebrate every time we gather round the Eucharistic table, every time we partake of the one Bread and the one Cup?

Even as partake of this Eucharist today, how might we enter more deeply into this mystery? How might we continue to mingle our sweat with that of Christ for the life of the world?

Friday, February 09, 2007

Friday in the 5th Week of Ordinary Time (I)
It’s Personal…

Readings: Genesis 3:1-8; Psalm 32:1-2, 5, 6, 7; Mark 7:31-37

There’s a way of looking at sin and forgiveness that likens the whole process to sending one’s clothes to the laundry. After some time spent living in the world, one’s clothes inevitably get soiled – we inevitably break some of the rules we are meant to live by, we get stained by sin. So one pays a visit to the laundrymat – we go to confession – throws the soiled clothes into the washer and voila, they come out spotless. Then it’s off into the world again till the next time we break some rules and need another good wash.

Helpful as this metaphor is, it does suffer from one limitation. When we think only in terms of doing the laundry, our experience of falling into sin and being forgiven can seem very mechanical, very routine and impersonal. Which is quite a stark contrast to the experience of sin and forgiveness described in our readings today.

Here we see how deeply personal is the whole process. We see how the man and the woman are tempted to taste something that seems better than what God has already provided them. And as they flirt with the temptation, they begin to doubt the providence of their loving Creator. Their hearts begin to turn away from God and towards the enticing prospect of a false independence. You shall be like gods. More than a mere staining of clothing – they had none to begin with – this is a breaking of relationship, a betrayal of trust, a rejection of friendship. It’s personal.

The results of the sin too are deeply personal, and interpersonal. Shame enters into the picture. No longer are they comfortable being naked before each other. They sewed fig-leaves together to make themselves loin-cloths. And no longer do they feel at ease walking naked in the company of God, listening to God’s voice. They heard the sound of the Lord God… and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden. And we know what can happen when we persist in hiding, when we continue to ignore God’s voice. We gradually forget what it sounds like. We become deaf to the sound of God’s call, even as it becomes muffled by the various other noises to which we attune our hearts.

Yet the good news is that God does not leave us to our own devices but continues to seek us out. In the life, death and resurrection of Christ, God breaks through our deafness, and speaks a Word of love loud and powerful enough to restore our hearing. Isn’t this what the healing of the deaf-mute signifies? God helps us all to hear again. God restores our relationships with him and with one another. God loosens our tongues to sing God’s praises so that others may know of the wondrous deeds God has done and is doing on our behalf. Where once we were impelled to hide from God, now we are enabled, as we heard in the psalm, to find in God our secure hiding place. Once again, it’s all deeply personal.

How would taking things more personally affect our relationships today?

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Thursday in the 5th Week of Ordinary Time (I)
The Nakedness for Which We Thirst

Readings: Genesis 2:18-25; Psalms 128:1-2, 3, 4-5; Mark 7:24-30


Both of them were naked, the man and his wife, but they felt no shame in front of each other…

It's striking to hear how, in our first reading today, despite being given mastery over all of creation, the man still yearns for more, and only finds fulfillment in relationship with another who is bone from my bones, and flesh from my flesh. The man’s thirst for companionship is quenched only when he meets someone in whose presence he can be naked yet without shame. Commenting on this same passage in his Theology of the Body, the late Pope John Paul II speaks of the original nakedness or original innocence that the first man and woman enjoyed. Much more than telling us about the man and woman not having any clothes to wear, the passage speaks to us of a radical transparency, a profound intimacy of persons, a deeply human communication that they shared with each other.

And, whether we are man or woman, married or single, isn’t this deep interpersonal communion something for which we all thirst as well? Yet doesn’t it sometimes seem as though our search is destined to be foiled at every turn? So many things come in the way – busy schedules, the fear of rejection, the experience of betrayal, the inability to listen… In desperation, our lonely hearts turn to various other avenues, many of which lead us to sabotage our own search for happiness. Unwittingly, when we walk down these alleyways of darkness, we allow unclean spirits to enter into our hearts and our lives. We become addicted to pornography or sex or work. We become unfaithful to our spouses. We sell our souls to the almighty dollar. Whether we are at home or at work, in school or in church, we cause hurt and alienation when we try to mask our loneliness by anxiously asserting ourselves, by seeking to dominate others, or by withdrawing from them. And through it all the burning thirst is never quite quenched. We continue to yearn for that original innocence, that original nakedness that the first man and woman enjoyed without shame…

Even so, all is not lost. For there is at least one other naked person in our readings today. We see, in the gospel story, how the Syrophoenician woman lays bare her soul before Jesus. We see how she shamelessly begs him to free her daughter from the unclean spirit that afflicts her. And Jesus rewards the woman for her openness, for her willingness to stand naked before the Lord. For saying this, you may go home happy. How, we may wonder, did this pagan woman find the strength and courage to do and say what she did? Doesn’t her journey to the Lord begin with the desperate situation in which she finds herself? Isn’t it precisely because she realizes how helpless she is – that there is nothing else she can do, no one else she can turn to who can help her daughter? If the woman is able to taste something of the original innocence that Adam and Eve enjoyed, if she regains the elusive ability to stand naked before another without shame – it is only because she has first come to discover, in a very real way, the radical poverty and powerlessness of the human condition, as well as the great compassion of our God for us in Christ Jesus.
Today, how is the Lord helping us to experience the nakedness for which we thirst?

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Wednesday in the 5th Week of Ordinary Time (I)
The Line between Good and Evil

Readings: Genesis 2:4b-9, 15-17; Psalms 104:1-2a, 27-28, 29bc-30; Mark 7:14-23


The good news in our gospel today is quite obvious, especially for those of us who are preparing to celebrate the Lunar New Year. Jesus pronounces all foods clean. But really the gospel message goes far deeper than the question of what we can or cannot eat. Today, our readings invite us to consider how and where we draw the line between clean and unclean, between good and evil.

Some days ago, someone was heard wondering about how we are often told to avoid being judgmental. But isn’t this very impractical? Don’t we need to discern the good from the bad, the clean from the unclean? Doesn’t this mean judging? How then to avoid being judgmental?

Jesus’ comments on Jewish dietary habits help us to reflect more deeply on these questions. When trying to distinguish between good and evil, the tendency among us, as it was with the Jews, is to draw the line outside of ourselves. So more than just distinguishing between clean and unclean foods, we may also draw the line between good and bad religions, or holy and evil people. Isn't this what some of us seem to have been doing, for example, when dealing with the issue of homosexuality that has filled the pages of the last two issues of the Catholic News? It's quite understandable, of course. We learn this approach from a young age.

We know how those of us who are parents often wish to shield our children as long as possible from the seedier side of life. Much like how God seems to be shielding Adam and Eve in the first reading. But we know that this can’t go on forever. The fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil has already been eaten. There is no turning back. So we give our children very broad guidelines. We tell them not to talk to strangers. And when we tell them stories or bring them to the movies, we teach them to tell the good guys from the bad guys. This approach is fine for children. But it causes problems when we grow up. For isn’t it true that when we adopt this kind of approach, we can very easily become judgmental and legalistic, and can even cause much needless pain and conflict?

In contrast, Jesus reminds us that evil arises not so much from without as it does from within. As someone once wrote: the line between good and evil passes through the human heart. If this is true, then perhaps we’re not so much called to judge between clean and unclean foods, or between good and evil people, as much as we are called to discern good and evil tendencies. And we only discern well to the extent that we learn to look within ourselves and to see that those same evil tendencies that Jesus speaks of in the gospel are to be found in each of us. And isn’t it only when we embark on this inward journey that we encounter the One who accepts us for who we are and yet calls us into the fullness of life? Isn’t it only in this way that we are enabled to deal more firmly and yet more compassionately with others around us who are caught up in the same ongoing struggle between good and evil?

Today, how is the Lord moving us away from being superficially judgmental and towards being truly discerning?

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Tuesday in the 5th Week of Ordinary Time (I)
Memorial of St. Paul Miki & Companions, Martyrs
Creating Order for Life

Readings: Genesis 1:20—2:4a; Psalm 8:4-5, 6-7, 8-9; Mark 7:1-13

As familiar as we might be with the creation story from the book of Genesis, it still has much to teach us. We notice, for example, that the mighty creating hand of God does two things. First, as we saw so clearly yesterday, God brings order out of chaos. From the formless void of the earth, God separates the heavens from the earth, the light from the darkness, and dry land from the watery depths. But it’s no less important to notice how God brings order out of chaos only so that life can flourish. So in today's first reading God creates all the different animals of the earth, culminating in the creation of humanity in God’s image and likeness. There we have them: order and life – the two inseparable aspects of God’s creative work, a work that continues even today. For we are the bearers of the divine command to be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth and conquer it… Ours is the awesome responsibility and privilege to continue bringing order to our world so that life, especially human life, might flourish in its fullness.

But it’s not such an easy task, is it? It’s not easy, for example, to keep in mind that order is for life. We see this illustrated in the gospel story today. In their zeal for keeping the traditions of the elders to the letter, the Pharisees and scribes sought to bring order to their daily existence. And yet, they seemed to have also lost sight of the fact that true order is meaningful only to the extent that it is put in the service of life. Although it may be orderly to dedicate a portion of one’s property to God, what use is that if one is only doing it to avoid caring for one’s parents? Indeed, an overemphasis on order can lead us to multiply regulations for their own sake, at the expense of true human flourishing -- to focus only on human traditions at the expense of the commandments of God.

Although the Pharisees are no longer with us, we remain subject to similar temptations, don’t we? We know, for example, how even church groups can become so caught up with the keeping of rules and regulations as to lose touch with the very reason for their existence; just as the breadwinners of a family can become so focused on providing for its material wellbeing as to neglect the relationships that are crucial to its survival. Indeed, not only is order meaningful only in the service of life, isn’t it also true that sometimes a little disorder is precisely what is needed for life to flourish? One is reminded of the following story told by the late Anthony de Mello, SJ:

A man offered to pay a sum of money to his twelve-year-old daughter if she mowed the lawn. The girl went at the task with great zest and by evening the whole lawn had been beautifully mowed – well, everything except a large uncut patch of grass in one corner. When the man said he couldn’t pay the sum agreed upon because the whole lawn hadn’t been mowed, the girl said she was ready to forego the money, but would not cut the grass in the patch. Curious to find out why, he checked the uncut patch. There, right in the centre of the patch, sat a large toad. The girl had been too tender-hearted to run over it with a lawn-mower.
Where there is love, there is disorder. Perfect order would make the world a graveyard.

How are we invited to collaborate in God’s creative work today?

Monday, February 05, 2007

Monday in the 5th Week of Ordinary Time (I)
Memorial of St. Agnes, Virgin and Martyr
The God who Renovates

Readings: Genesis 1:1-19; Psalms 104:1-2a, 5-6, 10 and 12, 24 and 35c; Mark 6:53-56

For the past few weeks contractors have been renovating the ladies’ bathroom on the third floor of our Spirituality Centre. It was starting to look too tired – paint peeling off the walls, tiles chipped and discoloured with age and fungus… You get the picture. The workmen spent the first week knocking everything down. When they were done, the ceiling had been stripped and so had all the wall-tiles, as well as the old mosaic flooring. Even the partitions to the cubicles had been demolished. At the end of the first week it looked much like how one might imagine the formless void of our first reading today. But after another week or so, things are improving. The new flooring and tiles are up. And even though there’s still no ceiling, you look at the work that’s already been done, and you can begin to imagine how God might have felt as he looked at his own handiwork and pronounced it good.

It’s a useful image to have before us even as we hurl ourselves into another work-week. For Monday though it may be, isn’t it more than likely that many of us are already feeling tired? We only have to board a bus or hop onto a train to realize what a nation of tired people we are, if we haven’t already fallen asleep ourselves. And our fatigue is not just physical. Ours is also often a tiredness of the heart. We lose sight of why we do the things we do. The flames of our passion for life subside to a mere flicker, just as our dreams for a fulfilling life may grow dim – gradually all but quenched by the stresses and strains of a hectic and punishing routine. The ladies’ bathroom comes to mind, even as we are reminded again of that formless void of the first reading. We too need to be renovated…

And like the people of today’s gospel, we look to Christ. Like them, we seek to recognize in him the divine renovator. Like those who found wholeness and healing simply by touching the fringe of his cloak, we who might be feeling too tired even to lift our minds and hearts to Christ in prayer, still hope to find in him the energy that we need to face the struggles of life. In Christ we seek the renovation we need in order once again to see and appreciate the goodness that our Creator has imprinted into our lives and our world.

How might we touch the fringe of his cloak today?

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Saturday in the 4th Week of Ordinary Time (I)
The Shepherd’s Rest

Readings: Hebrews 13:15-17, 20-21; Psalms 23:1-3a, 3b-4, 5, 6; Mark 6:30-34


I pray that the God of peace, who brought the Lord Jesus back from the dead to become the great Shepherd of the sheep… may make you ready to do his will in any kind of good action…

We have noted previously how many people come to religion seeking peace in the midst of inner turmoil, consolation in the midst of desolation, rest in the midst of stressful labour. Our readings today offer us an occasion to reflect a little more deeply on the nature of this rest. For, quite clearly, what the great Shepherd offers his sheep is not quite the rest of total inactivity and inert passivity.

We notice, for example, how the letter to the Hebrews ends with a prayer for action in accordance with God’s will. And in the gospel, we notice how busy Jesus and his disciples are. Even their prudent plans to go to some lonely place to rest for a while are interrupted by the large crowd requiring their ministry. Indeed, those who respond generously to the great Shepherd’s invitation to enter into his service often find their lives just as busy, if not busier, than before.

And yet, the psalmist sings of the fresh and green pastures where the Shepherd gives me repose. What is the nature of these pastures and this repose? We’ve probably experienced it ourselves. Rather than inactivity and passivity, the rest that the Shepherd affords has to do with relationship. It has to do with living one’s life no longer only for self but for others. It has to do with finding, in our ongoing companionship with the great Shepherd, the motivation and the energy that we need to serve those entrusted to our care. Much like the apostles in today’s gospel, those who enjoy the Shepherd’s rest are those who, even in the midst of their daily activities, seek somehow to rejoin him, to tell him all about what they have been doing -- all their triumphs and their struggles for his flock -- and to hear him invite them to come with him and rest for a while. For even if that rest is interrupted, it is still time spent in the company of the One who gives us strength. And that makes all the difference…

How is our Shepherd leading us to green pastures today?

Friday, February 02, 2007

Feast of the Presentation of the Lord
Recognizing the God Who Enters His Temple

Readings: Malachi 3:1-4; Psalms 24:7, 8, 9, 10; Hebrew 2:14-18; Luke 2:22-40 or 2:22-32

And the Lord you are seeking will suddenly enter his Temple…

There’s much truth in what someone once wrote: that even the person who knocks on the door of a prostitute is searching for God. Whatever our religious affiliation – even those who might consider themselves atheist – aren’t we all searching for God in some way? Don’t we spend much of our lives building temples to the God for whom we seek? Of course, few of us literally build churches or mosques or other official places of worship. The temples we build are of a different sort. We might think, for example, of our long years of study – often lasting even into adulthood. We might think also of the painstaking efforts we make to nurture that special relationship, or to build up our careers, or to school and tutor our children. Indeed, we could probably continue multiplying the examples… However we do it, we’re all looking for God. We’re all building temples

And yet, for not a few of us, there comes a time when we perhaps get a sense of the apparent futility of all our efforts at construction. Even after we might have built a beautifully sculpted temple, whatever the sort, there seems little we can do to ensure that the God we are seeking will actually come and live there. High-flying careers, a beautiful spouse, and intelligent healthy children cannot guarantee happiness. At some point, if we are lucky, we learn the truth in the words of the psalmist: if the Lord does not build the house, in vain do its builders labor (Psalm 127).

Which is why today’s feast is such a joyous occasion. What we celebrate is the entrance of the Lord into his Temple. In a sense, God didn’t have to come. God could very well have decided to leave our temples cold and empty. But come he does. And not just into the Temple in Jerusalem but into every nook and cranny of our lives, into the busy offices of our work, into the intimate corners of our homes, into the deepest recesses of our hearts.

But it is of crucial importance for us to consider carefully how this God of ours appears. For who would expect that the almighty God, creator of heaven and earth, of all that is seen and unseen, would enter his temple as a helpless infant, carried by a couple presenting the offerings of the poor? Who would find it easy to accept that God would decide to share equally in our blood and flesh, even to accepting death on a cross?

Isn’t this at least one reason why, despite all our efforts at building temples, we often don’t seem to experience the God whom we seek? Could it be that although God is already present in his temple, we do not yet have the eyes to see and the ears to hear him? Isn’t it striking that the two people who do recognize the child Jesus in the Temple have spent long years contemplating his coming? Could it be that through their time of waiting their hearts and minds have gradually been purified – much like the gold and silver mentioned in the first reading – giving them eyes and ears that are attuned to the presence of God, even when God decides to come wearing the distressing disguise of helplessness and poverty?

If all this is true, then perhaps what we need to do, quite apart from building more and more temples, is to cultivate our longing, to beg the Lord, who so graciously enters his temple, to purify our hearts and enable us to better recognize him.

How might we continue to do this today?

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Thursday in the 4th Week of Ordinary Time (I)
Arrival and Sending

Readings: Hebrews 12:18-19, 21-24; Psalms 48:2-3ab, 3cd-4, 9, 10-11; Mark 6:7-13

There’s quite clearly a great restlessness among and within us today. There’s a great yearning for something enduring in the midst of rapid change, for security in the midst of uncertainty, for a place of rest in the midst of constant motion. And many look to religion to fill this void. As baptized Christians, how do we deal with this experience? And what do we have to offer those who are searching?

Our readings help us to reflect on these questions by simultaneously presenting us with two images for our consideration. The first is that of an arrival. You have come to… the city of the living God… in which everyone is a ‘first-born son’ and a citizen of heaven… You have come to God himself… and to Jesus… Hearing these words, we may quite naturally think ahead to the End Times, the Final Judgment. But couldn’t these words just as well be a description of our current state as Christians? Aren’t we already baptized into the dying and rising of Christ? In Christ – the mediator who brings a new covenant and a blood for purification which pleads more insistently than Abel’s – aren’t we already co-heirs of the Father’s Kingdom? Isn’t this the awesome dignity that is already ours in Christ?

And yet, the gospel reminds us that our arrival is at once also a sending. Just as Jesus… summoned the Twelve and began to send them out in pairs… so too does he send us out, giving us authority over the unclean spirits that roam our world – unclean spirits such as greed and envy, discouragement and despair.

As Christians, isn’t this how we are called to negotiate the yearnings that we experience? Do we not arrive at our much longed for place of rest only in Christ, and only to the extent that we also continually allow ourselves to be sent? And isn’t this experience also that which we have to offer to those whose hungry hearts lead them to our doorstep? More than simply helping them to solve their problems, aren’t we called to offer them what we ourselves continue to receive: the joys and struggles of arriving in Christ by being sent?

How are we being invited to share with others our experience of arriving and being sent today?
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