Friday, May 25, 2007

Friday in the 7th Week of Easter
The Rising that Empowers a Dying

Readings: Acts 25:13b-21; Psalm 103:1-2, 11-12, 19-20ab; John 21:15-19

The great season of Easter is fast drawing to a close. It will end with the feast of Pentecost this Sunday, when we will remember and celebrate the great power that is given to all who truly believe in Christ’s rising from the dead. Today, our readings focus our attention on what is probably the single crucial effect of this awesome power at work in the lives of two of the greatest witnesses to the resurrection, Saints Peter and Paul. Although the Scriptures do not give explicit details, tradition has it that they were both martyred in Rome. Today, we are invited to ponder their martyrdom from two perspectives.

The first reading offers us a somewhat factual account of how Paul came to take the road to Rome. The story that is told by the Roman Procurator of Palestine, Porcius Festus, is striking in its simplicity and ordinariness. The Jewish authorities oppose and accuse Paul and so Paul appeals to Caesar. It will be years more before the curtain finally draws to a close the drama of Paul’s life. But the stage is set. And the plot is a simple one. The facts are straightforward. Yet Festus is right in feeling unqualified to deal with questions of this sort. For there is more to the drama than cold hard facts. The questions of this sort that need to be considered go beyond even the complex details of the apparent religious dispute between Paul and the Jewish authorities. There is more to the drama than meets the eye.

The nature of this more is presented to us in today’s gospel, which provides us with a crucial second perspective on the situation. It is a story that is very familiar to us. Jesus questions Peter and thus enables him to repent of his earlier denial of his Lord. But there is more here than an interrogation and an exchange of information. Simon son of John, do you love me? Yes Lord, you know I love you… What we have is a mending of a strained and broken relationship. And what power there is in the resulting reconciliation. Not only is Peter healed of his guilt and restored to the Lord’s friendship, he is also empowered to serve others. Feed my lambs… Look after my sheep… Feed my sheep. And there is even more to consider. This service will not be of any ordinary kind. It will be service in the footsteps of the One who loved us unto the Cross. When you grow old you will stretch out your hands, and somebody else will… take you where you would rather not go… The power that is offered to Peter is the same power which inhabits Paul. It is the power to return love for love and to lay down one’s life in the service of others. And if tradition holds true, it is this power that will lead Peter and Paul to Rome, where through their respective deaths they will both give glory to God.

Not all of us are called to be martyrs in quite the same way as Peter and Paul. But, like them, we are all called to live to the full the implications of the Mystery we celebrate at Easter. In the very ordinary situations of our daily lives, we are called and empowered to lay down our lives in the service of the One who laid his down for us. This is the power that we have been meditating upon in this great season of Easter. It is the power of the One who dies unto life, the One who is humiliated unto glory.

How much do we wish to receive this same power today?

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Thursday in the 7th Week of Easter
Sacrament of Unity and Love

Readings: Acts 22:30; 23:6-11; Psalm 16:1-2a and 5, 7-8, 9-10, 11; John 17:20-26

May they be so completely one that the world will realize that it was you who sent me and that I have loved them as much as you loved me…

It is sometimes said that the Church is a sacrament, a visible and effective sign, of the kingdom of God. By this is meant that when the world looks at or comes in contact with the Church, the Body of Christ, it can actually be brought into the presence of God. Simply put, to meet the Christian community, or any part of it, is to meet Christ and so to have a God-experience. Indeed, it is on this sacramental quality of the Church as a whole, that the effectiveness of the seven sacraments is based. To meet a true Christian is somehow to have a God-experience. Awesome thought!

And today, Jesus spells out for us how this happens. The Church becomes a visible and effective sign of God’s presence in our midst especially when it is united in the love that the Father has for the Son. Instead of providing us with an illustration of what this looks like, our first reading today presents us with a negative demonstration. Although the event is described as a meeting, we see quite clearly that it is anything but. Although there may be physical proximity of bodies within an enclosed space, there is obviously no meeting as such. We notice, for example, the frequency with which words such as dispute and split and protest and tear… to pieces are used in the text. These are words of division not meeting. And it is perhaps not surprising that it should be so. We are told that the group is made up of Pharisees and Sadducees. And although both groups hold divergent beliefs, they cling to their respective views with the same hardheaded stubbornness and tenacity. Can there truly be a discussion between them, let alone a meeting of the minds? This is a good illustration of how the world conducts its meetings.

Of course, as Christians, we must side with the Pharisees and argue for the belief in the resurrection. But must we also imitate them in the way in which they conduct their meeting? Or does the prayer of Jesus in today’s gospel not indicate to us another way? Among Christians, Jesus emphasizes a unity based on the love between the Father and the Son. How is this unity arrived at? What might the process look like? And how might it differ from what we find in the first reading, where there is merely a stubborn insistence on imposing one’s views on the other? What might our meetings look like if we were instead to first insist on reminding ourselves that we are all loved by God and so try to love one another, even in the midst of our differences? Would this not imply that, rather than emphasizing our differences at the outset, we should first seek common ground? And wouldn’t this common ground then provide us with a firmer basis upon which to carry on our discussions? More than that, if we were indeed to carry on our conversations with other Christians in this way, would we not then be playing a part in the fulfillment of the prayer of Jesus today? Is this not a way in which we might show the world who Jesus is and so begin to assume our dignity and role as sacrament of the kingdom of God?

If it is indeed true that to meet a Christian is to have a God-experience, how are we being called to fulfill this high calling today?

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Wednesday in the 7th Week of Easter
Commendation & Consecration

Readings: Acts 20:28-38; Psalm 68:29-30, 33-35a, 35bc-36ab; John 17:11b-19

Perhaps one of the most difficult things about farewells is the need to let go. Especially when one has lived a passionate and meaningful life, a life that has made a difference, there will bound to be things and people to let go of. And this isn’t an easy thing to do, simply because bonds have been formed, bonds of care and concern, of charity and compassion. Yet, isn’t this what farewell is all about? You realize that you have to depart, that you will not be as involved in the life of the loved one as you were before, at least not quite in the same way. So you offer the other the very best of wishes. You bid farewell.

And this can be a very heart-wrenching thing to do, not least because you may foresee various dangers that this loved one might have to face in the future, without the benefit of your presence and help. As Paul says in the first reading, when I have gone fierce wolves will invade you… even from your own ranks… And Jesus faces a similar difficulty in the gospel: I passed your word on to them and the world hated them…

What to do? Both Paul and Jesus respond to this common difficulty in like fashion. Again, as we did yesterday, we notice how they are concerned not solely with themselves and the people they are leaving behind. Their thoughts are centred, rather, on the One who had sent them and is now recalling them. And it is their trust in the power and providence of this One that enables them to depart in peace. I commend you to God, says Paul to the Ephesians, and to the word of his grace that has power to build you up and to give you your inheritance among all the sanctified… In like manner, Jesus prays for his disciples, who include all of us: Holy Father, keep those you have given me true to your name… Consecrate them in the truth… At a time when they might be weighed down with worry over those they have to leave behind, both Paul and Jesus continue to place their hopes in God. Even as they bid their final farewell, they commend and consecrate those whom they love into God’s hands.

And isn’t it true that no matter how great the physical distance among us, when all are consecrated and commended in the same Truth and Love, the bonds that bind us together will never really be broken?

How are we being invited to let go today?

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Tuesday in the 7th Week of Easter
Final Farewell

Readings: Acts 20:17-27; Psalm 68:10-11, 20-21; John 17:1-11a

Today we listen to the farewell speeches of two different men. One is a tentmaker, the other a carpenter. One has traveled far and wide across Asia Minor and now speaks at a place called Miletus. The other has moved only within the narrow confines of ancient Palestine and now speaks in the city of Jerusalem. One addresses what is probably a largely gentile audience, the other has been speaking to fellow Jews and now prays to his Father in heaven. These are two different men, speaking at different times and places, to different groups of people.

Yet, the content of what they have to say is strikingly similar. Both are bidding their final farewell. And in so doing, both offer a summary of what their lives have been about, of what they have stood and fought for. Still, even though they are both speaking about themselves, the central place in their respective accounts is occupied by Someone else. For his part, Paul states his earnest desire: that when I finish my race I have carried out the mission the Lord Jesus gave me… to bear witness to the Good News of God’s grace. And as far as his audience – the Ephesians – are concerned, his conscience is clear in having without faltering put before you the whole of God’s purpose. Clearly, it is God’s grace and God’s purpose that has been and continues to be the driving force in Paul’s life. The same can be said of Jesus. I have glorified you on earth and finished the work that you gave me to do. Both Paul and Jesus have allowed their lives to revolve solely around the will of God. Indeed, this is the poignant reason why they are bidding their farewells. One will make his way to Rome, to imprisonment and decapitation. The other will be made to climb a hill outside Jerusalem where he will shed his life-blood on a cross. The sacrifice of one will imitate and make known that of the other. For it is through this Other’s sacrifice that the fruit of eternal life will be borne for all. And eternal life is this: to know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.

Two very different men. Two very similar lives. And this is only to be expected. For one is the follower and the other the Master. The first is a Christian. The second is the Christ.

And what of us? When the time comes for us to bid our final farewell, what will we be speaking of?

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Saturday in the 6th Week of Easter
The Ministry of Encouragement

Readings: Acts 18:23-28; Psalm 47:2-3, 8-9, 10; John 16:23b-28

One of the things I’m afraid of, as someone who has the happy responsibility of preaching from the pulpit, is that I might become a nag. Why, you might wonder. Well, we all know what a nag is, don’t we? Who wants to listen to a nag? In my own experience, for example, the people I like to be around, the people I’m more likely to listen to, even when they tell me things that are difficult to hear, are not those who nag at me. Those I tend to listen to are those who somehow give me the sense that they are on my side. They somehow make me feel good about myself, even when they are offering me constructive criticism. The naggers on the other hand, I tend to avoid like the plague. And even when I can’t avoid them, even when I have to listen to them, I find that my mind seems spontaneously to switch off whenever I hear their voice. I’m not sure if you have the same experience, but I seem to have an allergy to those who always seem to delight in finding fault with something or other, those who always seem to be telling people to stand up straight or tuck in your shirt, so to speak.

How different is the approach taken by those in our readings today. My attention is drawn, for example, to a word that appears twice in the first reading. And this word is not nag. No. On the contrary, the word is encourage. We are told first that Paul travels through Galatia and Phrygia, encouraging all the followers. We also hear of how the Christian community encouraged Apollos in such a way that his zeal and talents as a preacher bear fruit for the good of the early church. And we notice also how this encouragement is really the result of a choice that is made. In the case of Apollos, for example, the community could have acted quite differently. For in spite of his eloquence and sound knowledge of the scriptures, he had only experienced the baptism of John. Yet, instead of harping on his deficiencies, Priscilla and Aquila take him under their wing, offering him the encouragement and support he needs to flourish in the ministry.

We have also been witnessing the same thing happening in the gospel readings of these days. Jesus knows his disciples well. He knows all their shortcomings. He knows, for example, that they will soon desert and deny him. Yet, in his farewell discourse, his concern is not with nagging them but with encouraging them to persevere in the truth. Today, in particular, he reminds them of that one truth that we all need continually to be reminded of. He tells them that the Father himself loves you… And it is through this same encouragement that they will find strength to survive and surmount the difficulties that lie ahead.

Together, Paul and Priscilla, Aquila and Jesus demonstrate to us the truth that, as Christians, we are all called to a ministry not so much of nagging and finding fault, but of consolation and encouragement. Listening to their example, we might perhaps remember with gratitude the different people in our own lives through whom God continues to encourage us, and so find the strength to reach out in our turn to encourage others.

How are we being invited to exercise our God-given ministry of encouragement today?

Friday, May 18, 2007

Friday in the 6th Week of Easter
Overcoming Inertia

Readings: Acts 18:9-18; Psalm 47:2-3, 4-5, 6-7; John 16:20-23

One of the things we learnt in school was Newton’s Laws of Motion. According to the first law, the law of inertia, a body at rest tends to stay at rest and a body in motion tends to stay in motion. As the years go by, one sees that this law has applications beyond the scientific realm. It also provides a good description of what often happens in the spiritual life as well. We all know how difficult it is to break a bad habit. It’s not easy, for example, to stop smoking or to stop gossiping. We may be enthusiastic at first but gradually we quickly become discouraged when the pangs of withdrawal set in. It’s also difficult to get groups to see and do things in new ways. Those who try often have to deal with different forms of resistance. We know, for example, how even fifty years after Vatican II, there still remain those who continue to resist its reforms. A body at rest tends to stay at rest. It is indeed difficult to change and to try new things. Sometimes the resistance is a sign that it’s simply not the right thing to do, or maybe it’s not the right time for it. But what to do if we are convinced that this is precisely what God wants us to do? Where and how to find the courage to persevere through the difficulty, to overcome the inertia, strong though it may be?

This is exactly the question that Paul faces in the first reading. Here we find an account of the founding of the Corinthian church. We observe the strong opposition that Paul faces from the Jewish community of that city. Anyone would be daunted by such vehement resistance, especially when viewed from a solely human point of view. But instead of getting discouraged Paul finds strength to persevere by looking at the situation from the perspective of God. Although he is rejected by his own people, in his prayer God reassures him in a vision that he will find support from other quarters. And Paul is encouraged to persevere. He remains in Corinth for eighteen months, preaching the good news and thus laying the foundations of what will become a vibrant new Corinthian church.

We see something similar in the gospel, where Jesus encourages his disciples to persevere even as he prepares to walk the road to Calvary. He reminds them to set their sights firmly on the joy that awaits them in the future, the joy that is theirs through his own triumph over sin and death. It is this hope for what is to come that will give them strength to meet the challenges of the present, and to overcome the inertia of those – including themselves – who would resist the good news.

As we meditate on these readings today, perhaps we might ask ourselves if we too are not being called to make a change of some sort, or whether we too are not being encouraged to persevere in a change that we are in the process of initiating. In the face of the different forms of resistance that we might face, how are we being invited to see things from the perspective of the God who is king of all the earth? How are we being encouraged to cling to the hope presented to us by our Crucified and Risen Lord, the hope of lasting joy?

Thursday, May 17, 2007

The Ascension of the Lord (C)
Not Alone

Readings: Acts 1:1-11; Psalm 47:2-3, 6-7, 8-9; Ephesians 1:17-23 or Hebrew 9:24-28; 10:19-23; Luke 24:46-53

Today I’m reminded of the story of the boy who was sent to school by his parents. I don’t remember the name of the school. Maybe it was SJI (Jnr). At first, he was very sad to leave his parents. He didn’t understand why they had to leave him with all these strangers in such a strange place. But his mum and dad explained to him that they loved him very much and that he was always in their thoughts even while they were hard at work to support the family. Also, they reminded him that, in a way, even though he could not see them in school, they were still very much with him. At recess time, for example, when the boy ate the sandwiches that his mother had made for him earlier that same the morning, he could remember how much his mum loves him. Or when he was talking with his friends and sharing the stories and jokes that his dad had told him at home, he could also remember how much his father cares for him. In this way, even though he was apart from his parents while in school, he was actually learning to appreciate even more deeply the love that his parents had for him. And because he remembered how much his parents love him, he began to enjoy his time in school. He became a very good boy. He concentrated on his studies. And he also had lots of fun talking and playing with is friends at recess time.

That was not all. Some time later, the boy’s brother was also sent to the same school. Like him, his younger brother was very sad to leave his parents at the beginning. He often cried and refused to do his schoolwork or to play with the other children. Now it was the turn of the older boy to help the younger one. He reminded him of all that his parents had told him. He especially taught him how to remember how much mum and dad really loved them. The older boy felt good to be able to help his brother in this way. It made him feel even closer to his parents and their love for him. After some time, he even began to help other kids who were having trouble. He really began to enjoy his time in school.

In a way, the feast of the Ascension, which we are celebrating today, is something like this story. Jesus leaves his disciples, he leaves us, to go to his Father in heaven. But he is not leaving because he doesn’t like us. Like the mum and dad in the story, he goes so that he can work for us, to make us even happier. And even though he goes, he actually does remain with us in some way. Like the boy in the story, there are things that we can do to make him present among us. There are things we can do to remember how much he loves us. When we come together to celebrate this Mass, for example, when we listen to the bible readings, and when we receive Holy Communion, we remember all that Jesus has done for us. We remember how he became a human being like us, how he suffered and died on the Cross and how he was raised on the third day for us.

We can also feel Jesus’ presence especially when we reach out and help one another. Sometimes we will meet people who are sad. Maybe they have no friends to talk to or play with. Or maybe they don’t know how to do their schoolwork. By helping them as best we can, we can also show them how much Jesus loves them. And when we do this, Jesus becomes present among us, because we are learning to be more like him.

Although Jesus ascends to heaven, he does not leave us alone. How can you meet Jesus and speak with him today?

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Wednesday in the 6th Week of Easter
Memorial of St. Andrew Bobola, SJ
In God’s Time…

Readings: Acts 17:15, 22—18:1; Psalm 148:1-2, 11-12, 13, 14; John 16:12-15

It can sometimes be difficult and even discouraging to live our Christian calling to the full. This is especially so at times when we have to wait. Sometimes, we may, for example, have to wait even as we struggle to understand why something has happened. At other times, in spite of the pains that we may take to set a good Christian example, we may still have to wait a long time for a particular individual, perhaps a loved one, to finally embrace the faith. Or, our waiting may also be for a group of people to see the truth of the gospel in a particular situation. This group may sometimes be small, like a parish neighborhood group. But it can also be as large as the whole universal church. We remember, for example, how the contents of many of the documents of the Second Vatican Council are based on the work of several theologians who had earlier been suspected by church authorities of presenting erroneous teaching and so silenced. It can indeed be difficult and discouraging in such circumstances to continue proclaiming the gospel in the particular way and situation in which we find ourselves. At such times we may find the courage to persevere by recalling two insights in our readings today.

The first is the radical nature of the gospel we are sent to proclaim. We often hear how faith and reason go together. And it is important to remember that. But, as we see in today’s first reading, it is also important to remember that faith also requires us to go beyond reason. Paul’s speech in the first reading, for example, is a model of rational thinking and presentation – things which should have appealed to his Athenian listeners. Yet many laugh at him when he gets to the crux of his message: the raising of Christ from the dead. Surely, it is no easy thing to expect rational minds to accept such a truth. And this is especially so because one can really only accept Christ’s rising if one is first ready to accept the dying that precedes it. Indeed, in any given situation, to embrace the truth of the good news often requires that we be willing first to die in order to live anew. Isn’t this why it is so difficult for us, let alone for others, to accept what the Lord might be saying at any given time and place?

The second insight is one that Jesus, excellent teacher that he is, reminds us of in the gospel today. I still have many things to say to you, he says, but they would be too much for you now. For every situation and person, there is an appropriate time for the truth to ripen such that it becomes more palatable, radical though it may be. Eager as Jesus is to share all that he is and has with his beloved disciples he is careful to respect their need for time to digest all that he is saying. He recognizes that the Spirit will gradually reveal all to them in due time. How is Jesus able to do this? How is he able to wait so serenely and patiently for his disciples to come to the knowledge of the truth? Is it not because he places his trust in the workings of the Spirit? Is it not because he trusts in the saving power of the God in whom we live and move and exist? And are we not all called to do the same, even as we continue to do our best to proclaim the good news to all we meet?

How are we being invited to wait today?

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Tuesday in the 6th Week of Easter
Signs and Wonders

Readings: Acts 16:22-34; Psalm 138:1-2ab, 2cde-3, 7c-8; John 16:5-11

Two days before the feast of the Ascension of our Lord, and two Sundays from the feast of Pentecost, we find Jesus promising to send the Advocate, the Holy Spirit. And when he comes, he will show the world how wrong it was… Jesus’ description of the work of the Holy Spirit is perhaps not all that easy to follow. There is mention of right and wrong, of judgment and sin, of belief and unbelief. It all sounds pretty abstract. What does all this mean in our own lives? The amazing story in the first reading helps us to understand.

For some, the presence and activity of the Holy Spirit is associated with great signs and wonders. And we see this to be the case in the first reading too. After Paul and Silas have prayed and sung the praises of God in jail, there is suddenly an earthquake, and all the prisoners are freed from their chains. A mighty and wondrous sign from God? Perhaps. Yet, aren’t there even more powerful works, even mightier signs of the presence and activity of the Holy Spirit to be witnessed in the story? Isn’t it wonderful, for example, that after having received many lashes and then thrown into prison, Paul and Silas can still be in the mood to pray and sing God’s praises? Isn’t it amazing that even after the earthquake had broken their bonds, Paul and Silas continued to remain in their cell? In any other prison, we might perhaps have heard of the inmates going on a riotous rampage in retaliation against their captors, or at the very least, quickly making good their escape. But to continue to sit quietly in one’s cell? And to even be concerned for the wellbeing of the jailer, the very one who had thrown them into the inner prison and fastened their feet in the stocks? What sort of wonder is this if not the work of the Holy Spirit?

And it is precisely through these wondrous works of the Spirit manifested in the conduct of Paul and Silas that the world – represented by the jailer and his household – is made to see how wrong it was, to accept baptism, and to joyously celebrate its conversion to belief in God. Here we find the truth of the response to today’s psalm: You stretch out your hand and save me, O Lord. Indeed, the Lord saves not just Paul and Silas, but more importantly, the jailer and his whole household. These are the saving effects of the presence and activity of the Holy Spirit. These are the great signs and wonders worked by the Advocate through those with open minds and hearts.

And, of course, this presence and activity continues among us today. In a world of violence, where many give in to retaliation and despair, there continue to be those who choose the way of peace and of hope. In a world which often seems only to delight in pandering to the cravings of the rich, there continue to be those who expend their energies in championing and satisfying the needs of the poor.

Where is the presence and activity of the Advocate to be found in your life today?

Monday, May 14, 2007

Feast of St. Matthias, Apostle
Fate, Freedom and Faith

Readings: Acts 1:15-17, 20-26; Psalm 113:1-2, 3-4, 5-6, 7-8; John 15:9-17

Life is uncertain. And recent events have continued to confirm us in this view. At one moment, you can be happily chatting with a friend at a bus-stop and at the next moment there’s a car barreling into you, sending you sprawling on the ground and headed to the hospital. Life is unpredictable. Not even the military might, the wealth and political power of the USA could predict or prevent the loss of life and property caused by those tornadoes that struck the Mid-West most recently.

And life’s uncertainty and unpredictability leads some among us to resign ourselves to fate. Whatever will happen has already been pre-determined. It is our fate. We see something of this view even in our first reading today, when it speaks of the fate of Judas, who abandoned his apostolic calling to go to his proper place. And yet, we may well wonder if fate is truly all there is. Was it only due to fate that those National Servicemen lost their lives when a fighter jet crashed into the storeroom in which they were working? Was it only due to fate that a media celebrity was sentenced to serve a term in prison and to pay a fine for drink driving? Is it all fate?

Some more modern minds would disagree. They would prefer to think in terms of freedom. We are free to determine our own fate, to forge our own destiny. And we bear the consequences of our choices. Planes will crash if they are defective. The courts will impose sentence if people are convicted of crime.

We Christians too recognize the reality of free choice. We do believe that Judas was free to choose whether or not to betray his Master. Just as the early Christian community was free to nominate those they thought were most suitable to succeed him. As we are told in the first reading, there were about a hundred and twenty persons in the congregation, but only two were nominated, and one finally chosen. Indeed, we believe that the chosen one, Matthias, was also free to choose whether or not to accept his appointment. We too believe in free choice.

But we also believe in something far more important, something that gives meaning to our choices, that guides us and gives us confidence in the exercise of our freedom. As Jesus tells us today, you did not choose me, no, I chose you… Above all, our faith is in a God who chooses us. And this is a choice made in love, a radical love expressed most poignantly and profoundly in the image of Christ on the Cross. This is a choice made for our ultimate well-being. It is also a choice made for others and for all creation. For not only are we chosen, we are also commissioned… to go out and to bear fruit… that will last… It is only in freely responding to this prior divine choice that we live our destiny to the full, that we come to take our appointed places around the table of the Lord.

Yes, life is indeed uncertain. But, clinging in faith to the certainty of God’s choice of us in Christ, we dare freely to choose to respond daily in love.

How do you choose today?

Friday, May 11, 2007

Friday in the 5th Week of Easter
I Have Told You Everything…

Readings: Acts 15:22-31; Psalm 57:8-9, 10 and 12; John 15:12-17

There is no denying the fact that, both as individuals and as a community, committed Christians are faced with a dazzling array of choices to make. Often these are difficult decisions without any clear-cut answers. It’s also often the case that whatever option one chooses it is impossible to please everyone. As is the case in the first reading today, although the story has a happy ending, we may yet wonder at the feelings of those, especially of the Pharisees’ party, who had been advocating circumcision for all.

What to do? Clearly, at least two extremes need to be avoided. On the one hand, when faced with a variety of differing opinions and options, we might be tempted to throw up our hands in despair and refuse to decide. This temptation may come in the subtle form of handing over the decision to experts of one sort or another. Let them decide. What do we know? Yet Jesus words to us today are shocking enough to stop us in our tracks. I have made known to you everything I have learned from my Father… Everything! However complex a situation or a decision might be, even if it does require consultation with experts, do we dare to believe that, in Christ, we have the capacity to make a good decision?

On the other hand, we must also resist the temptation simply to refuse to listen to anyone, especially those whose views might be considerably different from ours. Although it’s obviously faster and easier to decide in this way, don’t we run the risk of missing out on what God might be saying to us through these others? Again, Jesus’ words in the gospel should give us pause. I call you friends… If we were to take this seriously, can we afford to ignore what Christ might be saying to us through one of his other friends?

Clearly, it’s not easy to steer a middle course between these two extremes. And yet, this is exactly what we see the early Christians doing in the first reading. Yesterday we observed how their decision-making process was guided by Christ’s commandment of love. Today we see the fruit of this decision. The community most directly affected by the decision experiences a significant God-ward movement. Where, at first, its members were disturbed and unsettled, now they are delighted with the encouragement that is offered them. In heeding Christ’s command to love one another by courageously deciding on the difficult issue of circumcision the early church fulfills its commission and bears fruit that continues to last even down to our day.

What are we, in our turn, being called to decide in love today?

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Thursday in the 5th Week of Easter
Freeing the Burdened or Burdening the Free?

Readings: Acts 15:7-21; Psalm 96:1-2a, 2b-3, 10; John 15:9-11

Continuing where we left off yesterday, the first reading again offers us a concrete illustration of what it looks like when a Christian community tries to follow Christ’s instruction to remain in my love. The Council of Jerusalem, as it is sometimes referred to, reaches its climax with several crucially important speeches. We are told that the discussion had gone on a long time. And we can probably imagine what this means. Do we not have experiences of such discussions – where many people speak and many things are said but no connection seems to be made, no meeting of the minds achieved, no satisfactory solution reached? And then Peter rises and speaks in a way that somehow silenced the entire assembly. Was this only because of who he was or the force of his personality? Was the silence only due to the fact that people respected and deferred to Peter the Rock? Perhaps. But more likely than not, it also had something to do with what Peter said.

Consider the gist of his speech. It’s really an appeal to go back to the basics, the bare essentials, of the Christian faith. Remember, says Peter, we believe that we are saved in the same way as (the pagan Christians) are: through the grace of the Lord Jesus. More than the observance of any religious regulation, it is through the grace of God in Christ that we are saved. And how has this grace been communicated to us in the past? Again, Peter invites his listeners to remember how God showed his approval of (the pagan Christians) by giving the Holy Spirit to them just as he had to us. The community should thus not make it more burdensome than necessary for them to come to and to remain in the faith. In effect, Peter shifts the direction of the debate from the drafting and enforcing of rules and regulations to the question of how God is continuing to love God’s people.

His speech also helps the assembly to listen with open ears and hearts to the experience of Barnabas and Paul, to their account of how God had been working through them among the pagans. And James then confirms the thrust of these speeches by highlighting how this is entirely in harmony with scripture.

This is what the love of Christ looked like in the Council of Jerusalem. For the early Christians, it meant recalling that, whether we are Jew or gentile, we do not save ourselves, but are instead saved by the grace of God in Christ. It meant remembering their own concrete experiences of God in the past so that they could better recognize God’s ongoing presence and work in the present, even when it manifested itself in surprising and unsettling ways. It also meant finding validation of such experiences from a Spirit-filled interpretation of scripture and so reaching a decision that freed rather than burdened others. This is what love looked like then.

What might it look like – who are the pagans – for us today?

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Wednesday in the 5th Week of Easter
Clinging to the Vinedresser

Recently I had a lunch date with a few old friends several of whom I’d not seen for many years. We had a delightful time catching up. And, as one would expect when there’s a person of the cloth present, several shall we say controversial issues were raised in our conversation. Here are some examples: Is it alright to do yoga? Or are you opening yourself to demonic influences? What about the recent move to decriminalize certain sexual offences? What is the church’s stand on this? What stand should a faithful Catholic take? And what about the recent change in the local church’s practice regarding abstinence on Fridays? Why the change? Can we still choose to abstain? Are we being too relaxed?

A brief weekday homily like this is probably not an appropriate occasion to address these issues adequately. But, in reflecting upon the Mass readings of today, we may at least find some guidance as to how we might go about seeking some answers.

The metaphor of the vinedresser pruning the vine and cutting off branches that bare no fruit is particularly helpful, especially when considered together with the controversy that is unfolding in the first reading. The issue facing the early church is clear: should circumcision be required of gentile Christians? And we all know the answer that was ultimately arrived at. But perhaps it is just as, if not more, important also to consider how the controversy arose and how it was resolved. We may first presume that both sides to the dispute have noble intentions. Both are concerned to do what Jesus is asking of us in the gospel today: to remain in me. Yet, both have very different ideas as to what this means. Does remaining in Christ require circumcision or not? Here we have a useful insight to remember: the desire and effort to remain in Christ can actually lead to legitimate differences of opinion and even to heated arguments between equally committed members of the faithful. And it is often precisely through such disagreements and negotiations that the Divine Vinedresser prunes his vine to make it bear more fruit. In this case, the branch that is the requirement of circumcision will eventually be cut off, thus paving the way for the spread of Christianity far beyond its humble Jewish origins.

But in order for such pruning to take place, all parties to the disagreement must at least be willing to listen attentively to the opponents and to consider the possibility that God might be speaking through them. Indeed, the fruitfulness of such debates depends very much on the ability to do this, which in turn depends on the answer to one crucial question. Are the parties attached above all else to the vinedresser? Or are they merely clinging stubbornly to their favorite portion of the vine?

As we negotiate the various difficult issues that come our way, to whom or what do we cling?

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Tuesday in the 5th Week of Easter
Peace in Reverse?

Readings: Acts 14:19-28; Psalm 145:10-11, 12-13ab, 21; John 14:27-31a

A peace the world cannot give, this is my gift to you…

It often seems that the world approaches peace in much the same way that it does the many other things that it seeks, things like knowledge and development and democracy. The strategy, if there is one, is simply to marshal as many resources as possible and to forge relentlessly onwards with as much speed and acceleration as one can manage. The situation in Iraq comes spontaneously to mind. And isn’t this also the way in which, as individuals, we often seek peace in our own lives? Don’t we try to leave behind the unpleasantness of the past – and even of the present – and run ever more quickly towards the future in a kind of self-induced blissful forgetting? But even if we do manage to achieve an uneasy stillness, we know from experience that this is often simply the calm before an even bigger storm. Even if all the messiness seems to have disappeared from plain sight, don’t we have the nagging suspicion that it has only been swept under the carpet? And isn’t it true that all the things we try so hard to run away from simply accumulate to form a distinct bulge on the floor of our lives over which we continually trip and stumble even as we try our hardest to ignore it?

How then to dispose ourselves to receive this peace that is the gift of the crucified and risen Lord? The actions of Paul and Barnabas in the first reading may offer us a symbolic indication of what is required. The striking thing about the reading is the direction in which people seem to be moving. When Paul is stoned and left for dead, we are told that he stood up and went back to the town, the very place where people had tried to kill him. After both Paul and Barnabas have successfully completed their mission, we are told that they went back through Lystra and Iconium to Antioch where they gave an account of all that God had done with them to the very community that had commissioned them. Even as Paul and Barnabas move relentlessly onward to proclaim the good news, they also have the occasion to go back, to retrace their steps. In failure and in success alike, they make time to go back so that they can better move ahead.

Isn’t this something we need to learn as well, we who take justifiable pride in the speed at which we have now learnt to move ahead? Don’t we need also to learn to make time and space, if only in our imaginations and our prayer, to go back, to retrace our steps, to get reconnected with ourselves, with our communities and with our God? And so to receive the peace that Christ wishes to bequeath to us and through us to others?

How might we better receive Christ’s peace today?

Monday, May 07, 2007

Monday in the 5th Week of Easter
What It Looks Like

Readings: Acts 14:5-18; Psalm 115:1-2, 3-4, 15-16; John 14:21-26

If anyone loves me he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we shall come to him and make our home with him…

What does it look like when people heed Jesus’ words and actually begin to love God and allow God to dwell in their hearts? The answer to this question is made manifest in the experiences of the early Church in the Acts of the Apostles. In particular, we see this in the experiences of Paul and Barnabas today. As we may remember, prompted by the Holy Spirit, the church had commissioned them to preach to the gentiles. And they have been faithfully carrying out their mission in the power of the same Spirit. Motivated by love for God and for humanity, they reproduce in their own lives the mission of Christ the crucified and risen Lord. God has indeed made a home in them such that, as Jesus did before them, they speak movingly and act powerfully to bring others into the knowledge and love of God.

And, also like Jesus, they persevere in their ministry even when faced with two formidable obstacles. The first is stubborn opposition even to the point where their lives are endangered and they have to flee for safety to Lycaonia. Here, they meet a second obstacle which, though far more subtle, is no less dangerous. Fleeing from opposition they find themselves face to face with seduction. They are tempted to accept the accolades of the Lycaonians who look upon them as gods. Yet they are wise enough to discern where this temptation will lead. Not only will it do spiritual harm to the people to whom they are ministering, but it will also lead Paul and Barnabas away from their original motivation. To accept the people’s sacrifice is also to allow themselves to be led away from their home in God and God’s home in them. The response to the psalm expresses the firm response of Paul and Barnabas: not to us, Lord, but to your name give the glory…

This, of course, is just one picture of what it looks like when people allow themselves to enter into a relationship of love with God. Today we in our turn are asked to imagine what it looks like in our own lives. What does the mission look like, where do we find the twin obstacles of opposition and seduction, in our workplaces, in our homes, in our church, in our world...? It is important that we consider these questions, for to imagine is often a necessary first step to making real.

How are we being invited to allow God to make a real home with us today?

Friday, May 04, 2007

Friday in the 4th Week of Easter
Removing Splinters…
Readings: Acts 13:26-33; Psalm 2:6-7, 8-9, 10-11ab; John 14:1-6

Some of us have probably had the experience of having a splinter under our skin or a food fragment lodged between our teeth. It irritates. You struggle to get it out. Well, I’ve been experiencing something of that feeling, on and off, since last Sunday afternoon. That was when our parish had its Parish Pastoral Council Meeting. And I beg your patience as I attempt to use this reflection on today’s Mass readings to remove the splinter.

At the meeting, we spent more than half the time discussing the twin issues of how to enforce a better sense of decorum among those who come to our church for Mass and how to make us a more welcoming parish. I do think these are very important issues. And I do remember actually preaching on one of them some time ago. Still, what discomforted me was the approach we seemed to be taking. Do we really help people to be more respectful at Mass and more welcoming towards others by waving a finger at them continually? Was this how those of us who are respectful and welcoming arrived at this happy state? Or was it not rather because we heard and were moved by the gospel? Was it not because something happened within us? The very something that both Paul and Jesus proclaim so passionately in the readings today.

Rather than enunciating certain conventions of dress and codes of conduct to be enforced, both are eager to proclaim a Way to be walked. As Jesus highlights in today’s gospel, this is a Way that transforms hearts that are troubled into hearts that are trusting. It is also a Way that the apostles walked. As Paul tells us in the first reading, they moved from being companions of Jesus to being witnesses. And Jesus even says quite explicitly that he himself is this Way. One moves from being troubled to being trusting when one gradually learns to accompany Him everyday, even as He continues, in our own lives, to journey from Galilee (the place of His ministry) to Jerusalem (the place of His passion, death and resurrection).

Hearing this message proclaimed so powerfully today, one wonders whether it is reasonable to expect that once someone begins walking this Way, issues such as decorum and welcoming might actually begin to address themselves. Could it be, then, that the question we should really be asking is how we might proclaim ever more powerfully the at once consoling and convicting message of Christ, such that those who worship in our parish might find their troubled hearts touched and moved to trust in Him who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life?

Both as individuals and as a parish, how effective are we at proclaiming this message today?

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Feast of Ss. Philip and James, Apostles
Divine Submarine

Readings: 1 Corinthians 15:1-8; Psalm 19:2-3, 4-5; John 14:6-14

When we were in the Novitiate – the first two years of training – one of the Fathers used to speak to us about submarines. He wasn’t referring to the Navy. He was talking about how in some places novices were particularly adept at submerging themselves whenever there was trouble, or whenever there was work to be done. He was encouraging us not to be submarines, but to instead be generous enough to volunteer ourselves for work.

Yet, isn’t it true that God sometimes seems rather submarine-like? Precisely at times when we find ourselves in trouble, or when we need help to do some particularly difficult work, God seems to disappear. How are we to continue doing God’s work if we don’t even sense his presence?

Jesus offers us some guidance when he tells Philip in today’s gospel, whoever believes in me will do the same works that I do. In times of trial, if we are to regain our sense of God’s presence and so be strengthened to continue doing God’s work, we need to believe. Paul elaborates on the content of this belief in the first reading. Like the Corinthians, we are invited to keep believing that Christ died, was buried and raised, so that we might have fullness of life. Perhaps more strikingly, we may notice the many times that the word appear appears in Paul's letter. The God in whom Paul is exhorting the Corinthians, and us, to believe is above all a God who appears, especially in the person of the Crucified and Risen Christ.

If one were to cling to this belief, then even when God seems to have submerged beyond our sight, we will spare no effort at seeking God out. Because we believe that despite all evidence to the contrary, God must still be present, we will persevere in begging for the grace to recognize the divine presence. And isn’t it true that many who do this actually find their prayers answered? Even as they cry out to God, they find the very places that were once so painfully marked by God’s absence gradually become permeated with God’s consoling presence.

How is it that the Divine Submarine suddenly chooses to re-emerge? Is it not rather that God has always been present, submerged below the surface perhaps, but present nonetheless, and continually communicating with us. It’s just that when we begin to express our longing to God, we too learn to become more submerged in our daily existence and so begin to recognize the divine presence that never really left us. Instead of merely skimming the surface of life, we learn to live more deeply, more in tune with the God who constantly appears. We learn to believe in the Word who became flesh and died and rose for us. And in that belief, to find the strength we need to do God’s work, to show God’s face to others.

How is the Divine Submarine making its appearance among us today?

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Wednesday in the 4th Week of Easter
Memorial of St. Athanasius, Bishop and Doctor of the Church
For Whom Do We Pray?

Readings: Acts 12:24—13:5a; Psalm 67:2-3, 5, 6 and 8; John 12:44-50

This past weekend we celebrated Vocation Sunday and many of us must have been praying for more vocations – a very commendable and important thing to do. Today, our Mass readings offer us an opportunity to reflect a little more on what it is that we do when we pray for vocations. Exactly for what and for whom are we praying?
For the most part, I suspect that our prayer for vocations is primarily an intercessory prayer for a very specific result. We are praying that more people will be set apart and sent by God to commit their lives to the priesthood and religious life. And because many of us are probably not in the position to heed such a call ourselves, our prayer is essentially a prayer for others – that they might be called and that they might respond generously. But is the prayer for vocations truly meant to be solely an intercessory prayer – a prayer for others?

Two interesting points in our readings today would suggest otherwise. The first comes to our attention when we consider that it is not only Barnabas and Saul who are called, but that, before them, Jesus himself has a deep sense of being called as well. As we heard him say in the gospel today: Whoever believes in me believes not in me but in the one who sent me… and what I had to speak was commanded by the Father who sent me. If Jesus himself speaks only what the Father commands him, shouldn’t each of us his followers be doing the same? Whether we be priest, religious or lay, shouldn’t we all be filled with the same sense that, in every circumstance of our daily lives, we too are called to speak only the words of the Father who sends us? Isn’t this something we ought to be praying for when we pray for vocations?

The other point is this. Notice how Barnabas and Saul receive their mission in the first reading. Although there are many stories in the bible of people receiving their calls directly and personally from God, in this particular situation, we see something significantly differently. The mission of Saul and Barnabas is received by the Christian community when it gathers to pray. I want Barnabas and Saul set apart for the work to which I have called them. Important as it is for those individuals who are called to hear and heed it, in this case, it is quite clearly the community that is the prime mover. The community receives the call to send people on mission. It then heeds it by commissioning Barnabas and Saul and sending them off. When we pray for vocations, ought we not also be praying that we, members of the Christian community, might have ears and hearts open enough to discern how God might be calling us to mission? Ought we not also to ask for the wisdom, the courage, and the generosity to identify and to commission those among us who might serve as our representatives, not just for the priesthood and the religious life, but also for other no less important roles of ministry and service? In other words, when we pray for vocations, more than simply praying for others, isn’t it crucially important that we also pray for ourselves?

The next time we do gather to pray for vocations, for what and for whom will you be praying?

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Memorial of Saint Joseph the Worker
Walking the Dog

Readings: Genesis 1:26-2:3; Psalm 90:2-4. 12-14.16. R v. 17; Matthew 13:54-58

My family has a dog. It’s a good watchdog. It barks loudly whenever strangers come too near the main gate. But it has one fault. Whenever it’s taken out for a walk – it loves to be taken out – bystanders may be forgiven for wondering if it’s the master who is taking the dog for a walk or if it’s really the dog who’s taking the master for a walk.

This is the image that comes to mind when I listen to our readings on this feast of St. Joseph the Worker. As we heard in the first reading, we’re all meant to be masters of the fish of the sea, the birds of heaven and all living animals on the earth. We are meant to fill the earth and conquer it. And, indeed, we do spend much of our lives striving for mastery. From womb to tomb, isn’t human life one long process of striving for mastery – over our own bodily functions, over our studies, our relationships, our careers and so on? And yet, as scientifically and technologically advanced as we are, don’t we often get the feeling that our lives are running away from us, that we the masters are really being walked by the dog? On a global level, aren’t we still at the mercy of tsunamis and hurricanes, earthquakes and global warming? And there is an even more telling sign of our helplessness.

What does true mastery look like in the readings of today? Notice how it is really God’s mastery that stands out most of all in the first reading. God simply speaks and the universe comes into being. And one wonderful sign of God’s mastery is that God is able to rest. He rested on the seventh day. In contrast, isn’t one of the great afflictions of our society the fact that many of us simply cannot rest. Either we don’t have the time to bring our bodies to a standstill, or, even when we do slow down physically, we are often so anxious about so many different things that we simply cannot lay our minds and hearts to rest. Quite clearly, the dog is walking the master.

In contrast, we are presented, in today’s gospel, with the mastery of Jesus. He speaks with such wisdom and performs miracles of such power that even the people of his hometown are astonished. Where did the man get it all? And, of course, we who are Christian know the answer quite well. Jesus’ mastery comes about because he places God above all else. Jesus is masterful because he acknowledges the mastery of his heavenly Father. We prayed for a similar wisdom in the responsorial psalm: make us know the shortness of our life that we may gain wisdom of heart. The wisdom and mastery we seek is that which flows from a realization of where we stand before the almighty and ever-loving God who created the heavens and the earth.

But the mastery of Jesus is also a gentle mastery. Notice how the gospel passage ends by telling us that Jesus did not work many miracles there because of their lack of faith. This is the same meekness that sees Jesus walking the road to Calvary and onward to the Resurrection. Indeed, it is when he is led to the Cross, precisely when it seems that the dog is walking the divine master, that Jesus manifests the full extent of his mastery over sin and death.

Sisters and brothers, in our daily preoccupations, are we truly walking the dog? Or is the dog walking us?
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