Friday, August 31, 2007

Friday in the 21st Week of Ordinary Time (I)
Exam Prep


Readings: 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8; Psalms 97:1 and 2b, 5-6, 10, 11-12; Matthew 25:1-13

Students are often told that it’s far better to work steadily and regularly far in advance of an exam, than to cram for it at the last minute. The advice is not always heeded, of course. As a student, I too had my fair share of experience in burning the midnight oil. To be fair, this method does work, at least sometimes. It is possible to pass an exam, and even to ace it, in this way. Still, even if it may get one through the exams, cramming is hardly an ideal method of education. I was recently reminded of this fact when a conspiracy of various circumstances resulted in my having to take an exam at short notice – too short, as it turns out. Let’s just say the results left something to be desired…

As much as it is in the academic sphere, the temptation to resort to cramming is also present in the spiritual life. In his Spiritual Exercises, for example, St. Ignatius writes about a particular type of person who knows the steps that are necessary to attain salvation, but keeps procrastinating. Like a lazy student, s/he keeps putting off the necessary conversion till the next day. Perhaps, at the back of his/ her mind is the idea that it is possible to cram at the last minute and still pass that ultimate of all final exams.

This is exactly the kind of attitude that our readings warn us against today. Cramming is dangerous, especially in the spiritual life. For while a student often knows the exact date, time and place of the exam, we do not know either the day or the hour when we will be called to face our Maker. As Jesus’ parable makes clear, the Bridegroom’s coming will surprise both just and unjust alike. Do not all the ten bridesmaids fall asleep? What to do then? The answer lies in always keeping a sufficient supply of oil at hand. This, the scripture scholars tell us, means having a store of good works on which to rely.

It is not enough simply to try to stay away from sin. We know how difficult that is, in itself. What is just as, if not more, important is what Paul exhorts the Thessalonians to do in the first reading: to continue to make more and more progress in the kind of life that you are meant to live… What is required is steady and sustained effort at cooperating with the grace that God gives us to live just and virtuous lives – lives filled with good works. This is the only proper way to prepare for the Bridegroom’s coming, the only effective way to bone up for that ultimate of final exams.

Have you started studying?

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Thursday in the 21st Week of Ordinary Time (I)
Awakening to Love

Readings: 1 Thessalonians 3:7-13; Psalms 90:3-5a, 12-13, 14 and 17; Matthew 24:42-59

Stay awake, because you do not know the day when your master is coming…


From a literal perspective, it would seem that many of us are pretty good at staying awake. Indeed, if anything, our problem is not so much oversleeping as it is being sleep-deprived. Our busy schedules often mean that many of us can only get to bed late in the night, only to be roused by our alarm clocks hours before we’ve had our required quota of rest. And the sleep deficit then adds up over the days and weeks. Physical fatigue is compounded by other stresses of daily living. Life becomes quite a challenge…

But what Jesus encourages is a wakefulness of another sort. In today’s gospel, it’s quite clear that, for Jesus, to stay awake is to be a particular sort of servant, one who is faithful and wise, one whom the master can count on to feed his household at the proper time. What would this servant look like in our own day? Like many of us, wouldn’t s/he also be sleep-deprived and stressed out? Perhaps. Our readings don’t go into specifics. But they do offer us of an insight that might help to further orientate our reflection.

It is found in the prayer of St. Paul for the Thessalonians: May the Lord be generous in increasing your love and make you love one another and the whole human race as much as we love you. Knowing that the Thessalonians are faced with the considerable challenge of being trustworthy servants, of staying awake, Paul prays for love. Not just any love, but a love that is distinguished both by its scope and its effect. This love is not limited only to one’s relatives and friends. Neither is it merely a kind of vague feeling of warmth towards the mass of humanity without any concrete expression towards particular persons. The love for which Paul prays is expressed both in relations with one another as well as with the whole human race. And the effect of this love is shown in Paul’s own experience. In the midst of all Paul’s troubles and sorrows – perhaps we might also include stress and sleep-deprivation – he finds comfort and even joy on account of the Thessalonians. His love for them leads him to rejoice. Isn’t this a foretaste of the reward that the master will bring with him when he comes and finds his servant at his employment?

When we find ourselves struggling to stay awake, perhaps this the love for which we too need continually to pray. In the words of the response to the psalm: Lord, fill us with your love that we may rejoice.

How might we awaken to love today?

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Wednesday in the 21st Week of Ordinary Time (I)
Memorial of the Beheading of John the Baptist
Fork in the Road


Readings: 1 Thessalonians 2:9-13; Psalm 139: 7-12; Mark 6:17-29

Not only does today’s feast bring us to a fork in the road, it also helps us to examine the terrain of the two different paths that stretch out before us. On the one hand we have the path walked by Herod and his companions. On the other, we have the road traversed by John the Baptist and Paul, the same road that Paul encourages the Thessalonians to take in the first reading today when he asks them to live a life worthy of God.

A cursory glance at these two paths presents us with both differences and similarities. The differences are stark. On the surface, Herod and friends seem to have made the better choice. They enjoy power and wealth. Theirs is a luxurious life filled with much feasting and dancing and making merry. In contrast, we heard yesterday of the various hardships suffered by Paul as a result of his ministry. And today, we find John the Baptist languishing in prison and then beheaded for speaking out in the cause of right. The difference is clear: the first road is easy walk, but the second is hard and treacherous.

In addition, there seem to be similarities as well. For isn’t it obvious that those on both paths are people of great passion? The apparent zest for life demonstrated by Herod and his friends seems similar to the passion with which John the Baptist preached in the wilderness, and that animated the ministry of Paul.

However, our perspective on the two roads changes radically when we view them through the eyes of faith in Christ. For it is only through this faith that our celebration today has any meaning. It is only through faith that we can truly celebrate the beheaded even as we might pity the one who ordered the beheading. It is only through faith that we can see the truth of what Jesus tells us in the Sermon on the Mount: Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road broad that leads to destruction, and those who enter through it are many. How narrow the gate and constricted the road that leads to life. And those who find it are few (Matt 7:13-14 (NAB)).

It is only through faith that we can see more clearly how this might be so: how the narrow road might lead to life and glory, even as the broad and easy one ends in death and destruction. The difference lies in the quality of passion. Herod and companions are passionate about nothing else beyond the narrow circle of the self and its many cravings. We see in the gospel, for example, how it is Herod’s passion for his own reputation – as much as it is Herodias’ concern with hers – that leads to the death of a just man. Theirs is a passion that forever remains rooted in selfishness. It ends in destruction.

In contrast, the passion of John the Baptist, and of Paul, is born of an experience of the prior compassion of God who, in Christ, calls all to share the glory of his kingdom. Having heeded this divine call they, in their turn, are moved to minister compassionately to those who are suffering, even to the extent of laying down their own lives. Isn’t this life-giving passion in compassion the very thing we are celebrating today? Isn’t this the very path that fascinates Herod, even as he fails to muster enough courage to take it? Isn’t this the same road that we are continually being encouraged to take, however tempting the alternative might be?

Where do we encounter this fork in the road today? Which path will we take?

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Tuesday in the 21st Week of Ordinary Time (I)
Memorial of Saint Augustine, Bishop and Doctor of the Church
Keeping to the Point


Readings: 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8;Psalms 139:1-3, 4-6; Matthew 23:23-26

During exam preparation, one of the more common and fearsome pitfalls that teachers constantly warn their students against is the danger of writing an answer that goes out of point. For a beautifully constructed and deeply insightful essay will still receive a failing grade if it does not address the question asked. What a phenomenal waste of time, talent and effort when this happens! Or, as the Malays and Peranakans might say, sayang!

Isn’t Jesus warning against a similar danger in the gospel today? The scribes and the Pharisees expend much effort on keeping minute details of the Law, but they neglect the weightier matters like justice, mercy, good faith. This imbalance in their actions is due to a more serious problem. Their obsession over external observance blinds them to the importance of considering and cultivating the proper interior dispositions that should motivate their actions. They miss the point. And these are the same deep interior things that are the point of the first reading. The writer is concerned to defend the motivations for his ministry: we can swear before God, that never at any time have our speeches been simply flattery, or a cover for trying to get money… And because the motivations are right, the appropriate behaviour follows as a matter of course: we were unassuming… we were eager to hand over to you not only the Good News but our whole lives as well.

In the great essay-writing project that is life, it is indeed easy to miss the point. We succumb to the temptation to focus on the inconsequential things, whether it be possessions, or popularity, or power. We so easily blind ourselves to the interior things by obsessing about the externals. But all is not lost. For even as we may falter, God continues to do what Jesus does in the gospel today. As the psalm reminds us, God continues to search us and to discern our purpose. Often this may happen through some adversity. Unwelcome though these may be, by demonstrating to us the illusory nature of many external things, they serve to bring us back to the point of our existence. It is not an accident that the first reading mentions rough treatment and insults suffered in the course of the ministry. Are these not the ways by which God reminds us of what truly matters?

We are reminded of that passage, as famous as it is beautiful, from the Confessions of Saint Augustine:

Late have I loved you, Beauty so ancient and so new, late have I loved you! Lo, you were within, but I outside, seeking there for you, and upon the shapely things you have made I rushed headlong – I, misshapen. You were with me, but I was not with you. They held me back far from you, those things which would have no being, were they not in you. You called, shouted, broke through my deafness; you flared, blazed, banished my blindness; you lavished your fragrance, I gasped; and now I pant for you; I tasted you, and now I hunger and thirst; you touched me, and I burned for your peace.

Like Augustine, how might we continue to learn to pant for God alone? How is God keeping us on point today?

Monday, August 27, 2007

Monday in the 21st Week of Ordinary Time (I)
Memorial of Saint Monica
The True Interpreters of Scripture


Readings: 1 Thessalonians 1:1-5, 8b-10; Psalms 149:1b-2, 3-4, 5-6a and 9b; Matthew 23:13-22

We find both praise and criticism in the readings today. The Thessalonians are congratulated for having shown their faith in action, for having worked for love and persevered through hope. The scribes and Pharisees, on the other hand, are sharply rebuked for being fools and blind! They mistakenly accept swearing by the gold but not by the Temple, swearing by the gift but not by the altar. And we may wonder whether we, in our turn, might attract praise or criticism. But in order to figure that out, we need to consider what it all means. What does it look like when faith is put in action, when work is done for love, and when perseverance is manifested through hope? What does it look like when people do not blindly misplace their trust?

The Pope’s latest book, Jesus of Nazareth, contains the following lines: The saints are the true interpreters of Holy Scripture. The meaning of a given passage of the Bible becomes most intelligible in those human beings who have been totally transfixed by it and have lived it out. Interpretation of Scripture can never be a purely academic affair, and it cannot be relegated to the purely historical. Scripture is full of potential for the future, a potential that can only be opened up when someone “lives through” and “suffers through” the sacred text.

If this is true, then we are fortunate to be celebrating the memorial of Saint Monica today. For in the story of her life, we see an inspiring image of what Christian faith, hope and love can look like. Monica’s story is one we know well. In particular, we know how she did not give up praying for her son, Augustine, throughout his troubled youth. We know how her unremitting prayer and inspiring example helped to win Augustine over to the faith. Monica persevered even when all her efforts seemed to be in vain – Augustine’s conversion was a very long time in coming. In this she showed that her trust was placed not so much on the gifts that humanity had to offer as much as it was on the altar of God’s providence. And her trust was not misplaced. We will celebrate the memorial of her son, the wise, eloquent and saintly bishop of Hippo, tomorrow.

But even as we look to Saint Monica to illuminate the scriptures for us today, it’s also important to remember that the communion of saints in which we profess our faith every Sunday includes not only those who have gone before us marked with the sign of faith. It also includes us – those who continue to struggle on in what often seems a valley of tears. We too are saints. We too are the people in whom the Lord takes delight.

How might today’s scripture be illustrated in our lives? How are we being called to "live through" and "suffer through" the sacred text today?

Friday, August 10, 2007

Break

Breaking the Word will be taking a break for the next couple of weeks. Blessings...

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Thursday in the 18th Week of Ordinary Time (I)
National Day of Singapore
Why?!


Readings: Numbers 20:1-13; Psalms 95:1-2, 6-7, 8-9; Matthew 16:13-23

My guess is that few of us will find it difficult to resonate with the question that the Israelites pose to Moses at Meribah. Why did you bring us out of Egypt, only to bring us to this wretched place? … There is not even water to drink! Why indeed! And the question becomes even more pointed when one considers who the Israelites are. They are not enemies upon whom the Lord might desire to wreak vengeance. Neither are they individuals of no consequence about whose welfare the Lord might be indifferent. No! Quite to the contrary. As they themselves rightly observe, they are the assembly of the Lord. They who were once no people, individuals scattered and oppressed, have now been liberated and gathered together, assembled, by God and promised a new and fuller life. Why then have they been led into this wilderness to suffer? Why… why… why…?!

This might well be the same question in the mind, if not on the lips, of Peter in today’s gospel. The place has changed: Meribah gives way to Caesarea Philippi. But isn’t the situation strikingly similar? Isn’t Peter being led by Jesus into a wilderness of sorts? Shortly after professing his faith in Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the Living God, Peter finds himself having to wrap his mind around the news that Jesus is destined to go to Jerusalem and suffer grievously… Shortly after he sticks out his neck and commits himself to following Jesus, Peter finds himself being led by Jesus to an apparently wretched place. Why?! As with the Israelites, the question becomes even more pointed when we consider what Jesus says of Peter: you are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church. The parallel with the situation in the first reading is quite striking, especially when we consider that ekklesia, the Greek word for church, means assembly.

Each in its own way, the two readings present us with situations in which God’s chosen ones find themselves being led to a place of trial. They suffer hardship precisely because they have allowed themselves to be assembled by God. Is it at all difficult for us to identify with these biblical situations? Do we not also have similar experiences of meeting difficulties precisely because we decide to follow the Lord, precisely as a result of trying to live out our identity as church, as members of the assembly of the Lord? And when this happens, do we not find ourselves spontaneously asking the same question? Why?!

It’s possible to come up with various answers to this terribly poignant question. It’s possible, for example, to say that God is helping to wean the people from the death-dealing waters of Egypt so as to help them acquire a taste for the life-giving waters of Meribah. And this may well be true. But what seems more important to note is that, in the first reading, God doesn’t offer a direct answer to the question. Neither does Jesus in the gospel. Instead, in the first reading, God simply responds by making water flow from the rock, so that the people might assuage their thirst. The early Fathers of the Church saw the rock at Meribah as a figure of Christ on the Cross. Just as water flowed from the rock when it was struck by Moses’ branch, so did blood and water flow from the side of Jesus when it was pierced by a centurion’s lance (see John 19:34).

When we do find our throats burning with thirst and our parched lips mouthing the question why?!, perhaps we might ponder the mystery of Meribah and Caesarea Philippi, and in the process, find ourselves acquiring a taste for the waters of life.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Wednesday in the 18th Week of Ordinary Time (I)
Memorial of St. Dominic, Priest
Battling the Combatants & Sparing the Civilians


Readings: Numbers 13:1-2, 25–14:1, 26a-29a, 34-35; Psalms 106:6-7ab, 13-14, 21-22, 23; Matthew 15: 21-28

This past Sunday we had occasion to reflect upon what might be the proper Christian attitude toward heaven and earth, the religious and the secular. By using the metaphor of the kitesurfer we suggested then that there is a need for balance. As Christians who have already been called out of darkness into God’s own wonderful light (1 Peter 2:9), but who still continue to live in this passing world, our calling necessitates that we set our minds on the things of heaven even as we remain fully engaged in the affairs of earth. In this way, we cooperate in God’s efforts at hastening the coming of heaven upon earth.

Today’s readings invite us to deepen our meditation on the same theme. The metaphors used are those of warfare. In the first reading the Israelites find themselves being urged by God to enter and to take possession of the Promised Land. They respond in various ways, two of which are found in the first reading. There is the fear and apprehension of the majority of the scouts. Cowed by the ferocious strength of the Canaanites, they discourage the people from heeding God’s call. In contrast, there is the courageous enthusiasm of Caleb, who even though he has seen the same things as his companions, remains eager to engage the Canaanites in battle, to do God’s bidding. Avoidance and engagement: these are the options laid before the people today.

But other responses are possible too. For we know, of course, that there is something more at stake here than a piece of land. As Pope Benedict XVI tells us in his latest book: As time went by, it became increasingly clear that the promise of the land meant this: The land was given as a space for obedience, a realm of openness to God, that was to be freed from the abominations of idolatry. That is what the Israelites are being called to do in the first reading: to enter the land and to engage in battle so as to win it over to God. But as the story unfolds, we will see that even when the Israelites do finally enter and possess the land, many will be seduced by the idolatry they find there. In either case, whether it is through avoidance born of fear, or idolatry born of seduction, God’s purpose is thwarted all the same.

And there is at least one more danger, especially highlighted for us in the gospel today. We know well, for example, how important it is for soldiers caught in the heat of battle to carefully distinguish the civilians from the combatants. Aren't the Israelites challenged to do the same? Even as they enter and do battle to win over the land for God, don’t they need to refrain from too quickly dismissing all the inhabitants of the land as evil? Isn’t this what Jesus teaches us through his interactions with the Canaanite woman today? Can we not but marvel at the flexibility and openness with which he allows this female foreigner to shatter prevailing stereotypes? Contrary to popular belief, even in a Canaanite, and a Canaanite woman at that, one can find great faith.

As we ponder upon the situation of the Israelites at the edge of the Promised Land, are we not drawn to consider the challenge we ourselves face as God’s chosen people? Today, are we not also being called to enter and take possession of the land, to do battle and to win it over to God? Are we not challenged to not let fear or seduction or stereotypical thinking hinder us in our task?

How might we courageously battle the combatants while sparing the civilians today?

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Tuesday in the 18th Week of Ordinary Time (I)
The Buoyancy in Humility

Readings: Numbers 12:1-13; Psalms 51:3-4, 5-6ab, 6cd-7, 12-13; Matthew 14:22-36

It’s probably true that none of us in our right minds would have tried to do what Peter attempts in the gospel today. Yet isn’t it also true that we can quite easily identify with his desire? Although we may not be drawn literally to walk on water, don’t we wish we could, at least occasionally, rise above the heavy sea of our daily struggles? Don’t we sometimes find ourselves sinking in the midst of life’s difficulties, even as we wish someone like Jesus could swiftly come to our rescue, skimming gracefully across the waters’ surface and pulling us to safety? And don’t these dangerous waters make their appearance in many different forms?

Consider for example the story in the first reading. Although it’s set on land – in the Tent of Meeting to be exact – and not on water, isn’t it clear that Miriam and Aaron are both sinking in some way? Don’t they speak out against Moses not so much because he has done something inappropriate, but because they are jealous of him, envious of the high regard that the people have for him? Has the Lord spoken to Moses only? Has he not spoken to us too? Even though they may not literally be soaked, aren’t Miriam and Aaron both sinking into the depths of their own jealousy and envy? In contrast, isn’t Moses the one who skims the waters’ surface? Doesn’t he demonstrate his ability to rise above the justifiable anger and sense of betrayal he might feel so as to plead with God to show mercy on the very ones who stabbed him in the back?

What is it, then, that might keep us skimming instead of sinking? How do we avoid being engulfed by the heavy seas of life? In seeking an answer to this question, it’s helpful to remember that, by nature, the human body tends to float rather than sink. Why else do mobsters like the Sopranos on TV have to attach weights to their murdered victims before dumping them into the river? We only begin to sink when we try too hard, when we struggle to stay afloat on our own strength, when we forget to relax. Isn’t this what happens to Peter? He begins to sink only when he takes fright, when he forgets to relax and to trust in the One who beckons him.

In contrast, first Moses and then, to a far greater degree, Jesus, are able not just to float, but even to skim the water’s surface, because they have learnt to place their lives in the hands of Someone else. The intimacy with God that they so carefully nourish by regularly spending time in prayer is manifested in how they allow God to be the centre of their lives and actions. Isn’t this what makes them so buoyant? Isn’t this what allows them to rise to the occasion time and time again? Their ability to float, and even to walk on the waters of life, springs from the virtue that is mentioned at the beginning of today’s first reading. In a word, they are humble. They know and live the truth. They know and live from their Source and towards their Goal.

How might we experience the buoyancy in humility today?

Monday, August 06, 2007

Feast of the Transfiguration (C)
Behind the Distressing Disguise


Readings: Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14; Psalms 97:1-2, 5-6, 9; 2 Peter 1:16-19; Luke 9:28b-36

Some of us will probably have experienced how easy it is to scare little children, even when one doesn’t really intend to. I remember, for example, some occasions when an adult might make a funny face or put on a strange-looking mask with the intention of amusing a child. But instead of lighting up with laughter, the child’s face unexpectedly crumples up into a grimace of fear, and tears might even start streaming down. What can the poor adult do but stop making that funny-face, or take off the strange-looking mask and allow the child to see the comfortingly familiar face behind it; to reassure the child that there’s really nothing to fear.

We celebrate something similar today in this feast of the Transfiguration. Perhaps the most striking aspect of the readings is that of light and glory. The prophet Daniel speaks of the blaze of flames that surround the throne of the one of great age. And the gospel describes how the aspect of Jesus’ face was changed and his clothing became brilliant as lightning. If we were to imagine what the throne-room of the first reading and the mountain of the gospel look like, can we not but be dazzled by the brightness that engulfs them both? And yet, to focus only on the light is also to miss the significance of our feast. For there is a reason why this glorious divine radiance is made manifest, a reason that only becomes apparent when we examine more closely its timing.

The prophet Daniel is blessed with his consoling vision at a time when he and his people are living the life of exiles in a foreign land. The disciples Peter and James and John are led up Mount Tabor at crucial turning point in their walk with Jesus. Prior to this they have witnessed the words of wisdom spoken and the miracles of power worked by their Lord. They have enjoyed his popularity. But now Jesus is turning towards Jerusalem and Calvary. Soon Jesus, the glorious Messiah, the only Son of God, will don the distressing disguise of a suffering servant. His body will be beaten and broken and buried, but only to rise again on the third day. As it is with Daniel and his people, a cloud will soon come upon the disciples and their lives will be covered with shadow. Like the confused child, their hearts will know fear, and they will be tempted to fall away, to stop following their Lord.

It is at this crucial moment that they are privileged with a peek behind God’s distressing disguise. It is at this point on their journey that they receive the assurance that the cloud of shadow that engulfs them is actually suffused with the powerful presence of God. It is here on the mountaintop that they are reminded of the true identity of this One whom they are following: This is my Son, the Chosen One. Listen to him. This then is the deeper significance of the Transfiguration. The time of light is meant to provide courage to face the darkness. As Peter tells us in the second reading: you will be right to depend on prophecy and take it as a lamp for lighting a way through the dark until the dawn comes…

What is the dark cloud that might be engulfing us today? Where is our Mount Tabor? How is the Lord strengthening us by allowing us a peek behind his distressing disguise?

Sunday, August 05, 2007

18th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)
Kitesurfing


Readings: Ecclesiastes 1:2; 2:21-23; Psalm 90:3-4, 5-6, 12-13, 14, 17; Colossians 3:1-5, 9-11; Luke 12:13-21

Sisters and brothers, I recently found myself jogging along the beach at East Coast Park, when I came upon a fascinating sight, something I’d never seen before, at least not close-up. Just a short distance from the shore, a man was kitesurfing – or I believe another name for it is kiteboarding. His feet were fastened to a small surfboard or wakeboard with which he used to skim across the surface of the water. And in his hands he held a bar connected by several lines to a large kite or sail, which caught the wind and propelled him along. The breeze was strong and the man was obviously quite skillful. It was a joy simply to watch him glide gracefully across the surface of the water at a good speed.

As I watched him, I couldn’t help but marvel at the skill that was needed to do what he was doing. His body was the only thing connecting the kite to the surfboard. Not only did he have to pay attention to the conditions on the water and to keep an eye on where he was going, but he also had to be sensitive to what was going on in the air. He had to be alert and responsive to the subtle changes in both wind and water currents so that he could translate the power of the wind into a force for motion. He had to know when to flex and when to relax the different muscles of his body in ways that enabled him to get to where he wanted to go. If, for some reason, he were to let go of the bar, or fail to catch the wind, not only would he stop moving, he might even begin to sink. And if, on the other hand, he didn’t pay attention to where he was going, he could crash into something or someone, or be carried out to sea. Quite clearly, to be able to kitesurf well, the man had somehow to remain in close touch with both wind and water.

Isn’t this a good image of the skill that is needed to live a good Christian life? As Christians, not only must we pay careful attention to what goes on in the often tumultuous waters of earthly living, we are also called to do what we heard in the second reading today. We must look for the things in heaven, where Christ is. We must let our thoughts be on heavenly things. Just as a good kitesurfer must be sensitive to both wind and water, a Christian is called to remain in close touch with both earth and heaven.

This is quite a challenge. It’s not easy to maintain the balance. There are constant temptations to focus too much on the things that are happening either on the water or in the air, either on the things of earth or on the things of heaven. In the midst of the constant stresses and strains of life, for example, don’t we sometimes wish we could fly off to some faraway land, to escape from it all? Some actually find such escapes in alcohol or drugs or the internet. Others may even resort to religion. They may, for example, spend plenty of time in church, but only in order to avoid having to see and deal with difficult members of the family. Then there are those who find themselves drawn to the ultimate escape. Perhaps they take too much to heart the words of the first reading today. The disappointments of life have led them to see the vanity, the illusory nature, of our endless strivings. Why not be gone forever? Why not succumb to despair and lose oneself in the jaws of death?

If these people think too much of death, there are those, on the other hand, who tend to forget all about it. Often these will be people who have done well for themselves, people who are apparently very skillful at navigating the waters of life. But their earthly skills and successes tend to blind them to the things of heaven. Like a kitesurfer who loses hold of his kite, they fail to get to where they need to go and may even find themselves sinking in life’s treacherous waters.

Isn’t this what Jesus is warning us about in the gospel today, when he tells us to be on your guard against avarice of any kind, for a man’s life is not made secure by what he owns, even when he has more than he needs? Isn’t Jesus telling us not to be too embroiled in the things of this earth in such a way that we lose sight of our final heavenly destination?

And isn’t this a warning that we need very much to hear, especially in these days? Consider the report in today’s Straits Times telling of how the buoyant property market is resulting in more people bringing members of their own family to court over property disputes. A father is suing his daughter and her siblings, a mother is suing her son, another mother her daughter and son-in-law, and someone else his cousin. Aren’t these clear signs that something is amiss? Isn’t it obvious that there are those among us who are drowning in the avarice that Jesus is warning us against today? In the midst of an economic boom, aren’t some of us forgetting the vanity, the illusory nature, of material possessions? Aren’t we forgetting that, rich or poor, there will come a day when we all have to die? And what will become of our million- and billion-dollar properties then? Isn’t what we heard in the first reading all too true? Don’t we all have to leave what is our own to someone who has not toiled for it at all?

Sisters and brothers, to live a good Christian life, we must learn to avoid both pitfalls. We must learn to resist the twin temptations of avarice and escape. We must somehow acquire the skill of the kitesurfer. We must somehow learn to simultaneously be fully engaged in all the intricate details of our earthly life while continually focusing our thoughts on heavenly things. Granted, this is not easy to do. But doesn’t our second reading point us the way forward when it encourages us to look to Christ?

For just as the body of the kitesurfer is the only thing connecting wind and water, so too is the mystery of the Body of Christ our privileged connection between earth and heaven. We learn to kitesurf only to the extent that we look to Christ and follow his example. Isn’t this what we are doing here at this Eucharist this evening? We are here as the Body of Christ contemplating and celebrating Christ’s presence among us in Word and Sacrament, in people and presider. We are here to acquire the skills of Christ our consummate kitesurfer.

Sisters and brothers, shall we all go kitesurfing today?

Friday, August 03, 2007

Friday in the 17th Week of Ordinary Time (I)
Pay Attention

Readings: Leviticus 23:1, 4-11, 15-16, 27, 34b-37; Psalm 81:3-4, 5-6, 10-11ab; Matthew 13:54-58

It’s not difficult to identify with the people’s surprise and puzzlement in today’s gospel. I’m reminded of the feeling a student might have when a classmate does especially well in a test or an examination. Everyone goes for the same classes, reads the same textbooks, listens to the same teachers. How did this person do so much better? Did s/he have extra help, extra tuition perhaps? Or maybe s/he’s just much smarter than the rest of us. Maybe s/he’s a genius. Otherwise, where did this person get this?

Perhaps the people in the gospel were thinking along similar lines. Isn’t Jesus one of us? Aren’t we familiar with his background? Didn’t he grow up among us? Didn’t he go to the same synagogue, listen to the same scriptures, hear the same preaching from the same rabbi? Didn’t he celebrate the same ceremonies and rituals as we did (the same rituals that Moses speaks about in the first reading today)? Where did the man get this?

Of course, we might say that Jesus is special. He is the Son of God, the Word made flesh and splendour of the Father. Even so, isn’t it likely that the power Jesus demonstrates in today’s gospel is not simply something that he was born with? Or, even if it was, that there was still a need for him to allow it to develop and to grow? Aren’t we told in Luke’s gospel, for example, that Jesus increased in wisdom (Luke 2:52)? If so, then we might continue to ask ourselves: Where did Jesus get all this…? Even if we acknowledge that Jesus was inspired by the Holy Spirit in a very special way, might we not continue to ask how and by what means did that inspiration take place?

Following this line of questioning, we find ourselves faced with an almost irresistible conclusion. If Jesus was indeed so familiar to his fellow townsfolk, if he was indeed exposed to the same scriptures and rituals and religious practices, isn’t it very likely that it was precisely through these very practices that Jesus obtained the wisdom and power that he manifests in the gospel today? But, if so, why does he seem so special?

Could the answer to this question be similar to the one that might be given to the student wondering about the classmate who seems special? Could it be that this classmate does well not so much because of extra tuition, or a higher IQ, although these may well be possible reasons, but simply because s/he is able truly to pay attention to what’s going on in class? Could it be that Jesus was special because he truly listened to the scriptures, actively participated in the rituals, carefully pondered over the close connection between them and daily human living? In his attendance at all the religious rituals that everyone else attended, the rituals that Moses prescribes in the first reading, could Jesus have been practicing what the Vatican II document on the Liturgy refers to as full, conscious and active participation? Could this have made all the difference for him, as well as for those to whom he ministers?

If so, isn’t this an invitation to us who may often find ourselves in need of wisdom and power to face life’s many struggles? Aren’t we also being called to strive for full, conscious and active participation in the Liturgy? In the words of Luke’s gospel, aren’t we being reminded to pay attention to how you listen; for to those who have, more will be given; and from those who do not have, even what they seem to have will be taken away… (Luke 8:18)?

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Useful Reminders

Here are some useful reminders from past issues of America magazine (the website is having an open house in the months of July and August. Content is accessible free of charge after online registration):

Good Liturgy: The Assembly

Presiding at the Liturgy of the Word

Presiding at the Liturgy of the Eucharist

The Ministry of the Lector

The Parish Liturgy Committee

Celebrating 'Good Liturgy'
Thursday in the 17th Week of Ordinary Time (I)
From the Dragnet to the Dwelling Place


Readings: Exodus 40:16-21, 34-38; Psalm 84:3, 4, 5-6a and 8a, 11; Matthew 13:47-53

As we continue our meditation on the coming of God’s kingdom, our readings today offer us two further metaphors for our consideration. The first is found in the gospel. Here, the kingdom is likened to a dragnet that gathers in a haul of all kinds. The second is to be found in the first reading and the psalm. Here we are invited to consider: How lovely is your dwelling place, Lord, God of hosts.

It is perhaps useful to acknowledge and to reflect more deeply upon the inherent tension between these two metaphors. If the dragnet highlights the apparently indiscriminate inclusiveness of the kingdom, at least in the initial stages of its advent, the dwelling place underscores its inherent selectivity. The dragnet hauls in everything. But not everyone is fit to enter into the dwelling place of God. And we will only finally discover who is fit and who is not at the end of time, when the great separation is carried out. At this point in the history of salvation, it may seem like it doesn’t take very much to be included among the contents of the dragnet. We may, for example, already be baptized and may even go faithfully to Mass every Sunday. But where will we be on the Last Day? And where are we now? Are we content merely to remain in the dragnet? Or are we truly seeking entrance into God’s dwelling place? And, if so, what can we do?

Perhaps the first is to ponder upon the awesome mystery that our readings remind us of today. In the first reading, God actually comes and pitches God’s tent among the people. God makes God’s dwelling place among them. For us who are Christian, this takes place especially through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, the Word who became flesh and made his dwelling among us (see John 1:14). This is a cause of great joy and consolation for us. For now, in Christ, we all have access to God’s dwelling place. Now, because the Word pitched his tent among us, we believe in faith that it is possible to encounter God in every time and place and circumstance. Because Christ passed from death into the new life, even our own experiences of suffering and death can become doorways into the dwelling place of God. But having access doesn’t necessarily mean that we will be fit to enter. For that something more is needed. We find a hint of what this might be in the experience of the Israelites in the first reading.

At every stage of their journey, we are told, whenever the cloud rose… they would resume their march. If the cloud did not rise, they waited… At every stage of their journey through the wilderness, the Israelites let God determine for them whether they marched or waited. At every stage of their journey, they made the Tent of Meeting, God’s dwelling place, the central focus of their attention. Are we not invited somehow to do the same? Are we not called to seek and find the presence of Christ in every situation and circumstance of our lives? Is this not the way in which we can move from the dragnet into the dwelling place of God?

How might we be helped to do so today?

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Wednesday in the 17th Week of Ordinary Time (I)
Memorial of St. Alphonsus Liguori, Bishop and Doctor of the Church
What It Feels Like


Readings: Exodus 34:29-35; Psalm 99:5, 6, 7, 9; Matthew 13:44-46

If on Monday we were led to consider what the coming of God’s kingdom looks like, today we are invited to reflect upon what it might feel like. Perhaps we often have the sense that religion has much to do with sacrifice. And the Ten Commandments that we heard some days ago might even have confirmed us in this view: thou shall not this and thou shall not that… What then might the coming of God’s kingdom feel like if not sacrifice?

Of course, sacrifice does have a large part to play. We notice, for example, how in the first reading, the glow on Moses’ face causes him considerable inconvenience. People avoid him. He even has to put on a veil to cover his face. And the two people in today’s gospel make a considerable sacrifice in selling everything they own. But the accent in today’s readings is not on the feeling of having to make an unwelcome sacrifice. Despite being inconvenienced, Moses continues to enter the tent of meeting. And although the people in the parables sell everything they do it very eagerly and joyfully.

I’m reminded of a story I heard recently about the university undergraduate who was rather lazy. He was often too busy to help when his mother needed him to run an errand at the neighbourhood grocery store or when his younger brother needed some help with his homework. Then he met a new girlfriend. And suddenly, even though the girl lived on the other side of the island, he’d think nothing of visiting her everyday just to run errands for her mom and to tutor her brother. The difference falling in love makes…

Isn’t this what the coming of the kingdom feels like? Not so much the obligation to make sacrifices as the love that motivates it. And haven’t we more than ample reason to fall in love? After all, it is God who has first loved us in sending us Jesus to be the atoning sacrifice that takes away our sins (see 1John 4:10).

In the oft-quoted words of the late Fr. Pedro Arrupe, SJ (27th Superior General of the Society of Jesus):

Nothing is more practical than finding God, that is, than falling in a love in a quite absolute, final way. What you are in love with, what seizes your imagination will affect everything. It will decide what will get you out of bed in the mornings, what you will do with your evenings, how you spend your weekends, what you read, who you know, what breaks your heart, and what amazes you with joy and gratitude. Fall in love, stay in love, and it will decide everything.
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