Readings: Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Psalm 1:1-6; 1 Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 9:18-26 Picture: cc alantankenghoe
Sisters and brothers, I was at the Farrer Road MRT station yesterday, where I encountered someone who had taken the wrong train. I knew she had taken the wrong train, because she was complaining loudly on her mobile phone. Apparently, she had intended to meet someone at the Farrer Park Station on the North-East Line, but had somehow ended up at the Farrer Road Station on the Circle Line instead. Wrong train. Wrong line. Wrong direction. Wrong station. Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong. No wonder she sounded so frustrated, as she stood in front of the MRT map, desperately trying to figure out how best to get back to where she wanted to go.
It’s quite likely that some of us will find the woman’s predicament more than a little funny. How could she make such a silly mistake? She should have been more careful. But I suspect that there are also some of us who will be able to empathise with her. Perhaps we too have experienced what it feels like to be lost. Perhaps we too have taken a wrong train, or boarded the wrong bus before. Or maybe we were driving on a highway, and missed a turn-off, or went in the wrong direction, and ended up far far away from where we were supposed to be, from where we wanted to go. That can be a very scary experience. Whatever people may say, it’s usually no fun getting lost. When that happens, all we want is to find the quickest and shortest possible way to get back on track. And how relieved and thankful we are when we finally meet someone who can help us to find our way.
It’s good for us to remember such experiences today, sisters and brothers, as we celebrate our parish feast. For on this Solemnity of St. Ignatius, our readings remind us that, as with the MRT, in the spiritual life too, it’s possible to get on the wrong track. Except that in the spiritual life, the consequences are far more serious. It’s not just a matter of being a little late for an appointment. As Moses reminds the people in the first reading, in the spiritual life, the choice we have before us is between nothing less than life and death, blessing and curse. To stay on track–to choose to obey God–is to live and to flourish. To get off track–to choose to turn away from God–is to lose not just our bearings, but our very lives as well.
And yet, as important as it is for us to stay on the right track, our celebration today is not really about never getting lost. For we know that much of the early life of St. Ignatius was spent precisely on the wrong track. His Autobiography, for example, begins with this sentence: Until the age of twenty-six he was a man given up to the vanities of the world, and his chief delight used to be in the exercise of arms, with a great and vain desire to gain honour. In other words, right until he was a young adult, St. Ignatius was well and truly lost. Instead of obeying God, his life revolved around only gratifying himself. He was preoccupied with fulfilling his own worldly dreams and ambitions. Quite clearly, the young Ignatius was on a fast-track to spiritual destruction.
If this is the case, then what we are celebrating today is not the perfection of someone who always made the right choices. Someone who always took the straight and narrow path. Someone who never boarded the wrong train. Someone who never got lost. No. In remembering the life of Ignatius, we celebrate not so much his perfection, as we do the mercy that God showed him in Christ Jesus. Even though Ignatius was lost, God saw fit to set him back on track. So that what St. Paul writes about himself in the second reading, can quite easily be applied to Ignatius as well: The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. And I, says Paul, am the foremost of sinners; but I received mercy...
I received mercy... This, sisters and brothers, is the wonderfully consoling message–the marvellous piece of Good News–that we are celebrating today. For, however pious or faithful we may believe ourselves to be, isn’t it true that we all have, within us, similar tendencies towards getting lost? Isn’t it true that all of us need the mercy of God? The same mercy that was shown to both Ignatius and to Paul? And what we celebrate today is the wonderful news is that this mercy is continually being offered to us. However lost we may sometimes feel, God never fails to reach out to us. God never ceases trying to get us back on the straight and narrow.
But, if this is true, how do we allow God to keep us on the right track? How do we receive and benefit more and more from the mercy that has been showered upon us in Christ Jesus? The gospel shows us the way. And the way consists in pondering and responding appropriately to the question that Jesus poses his disciples: Who do you say I am? When we truly allow ourselves to consider this question in all seriousness, what we receive is a map showing us the road that leads to life. A road that involves leaving selfishness behind, in order to walk ever further into the mystery of God. Which is why Jesus is quick to remind us that to travel along the right track is also to walk the Way of the Cross: If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross every day and follow me. For anyone who wants to save his life will lose it; but anyone who loses his life for my sake will find it.
This too was the experience of Ignatius. Having been converted and set on the right track, he experienced a deep desire to follow Jesus. And, as you know, while in a chapel at La Storta, about ten miles north of Rome, Ignatius was blessed with a vision of God the Father placing him with Christ the Son. And what was Christ the Son doing at the time? He was carrying his Cross.
But that is not all. For Ignatius, getting back on track didn’t just mean denying himself and picking up his own individual Cross. For Ignatius, following Jesus also meant reaching out in some way to others who were still lost. From the early days after his conversion, Ignatius experienced a deep desire to, in his own words, help souls. And it is because of this desire of his, that we’re now blessed with the Ignatian tradition of spirituality. This too is what we celebrate today. Not just the mercy of God shown to Ignatius, but also the mercy of God shown in and through him. The mercy of God that led Ignatius to seek out and to save the lost, as Jesus and St. Paul did before him.
Sisters and brothers, in remembering our patron saint today, what we are celebrating is the mercy that Ignatius received from God and then shared so generously with others. We celebrate the wonderful way in which God brought Ignatius back when he had gone astray. And what God did for Ignatius, God also continues to do for us.
Sisters and brothers, do you perhaps know of someone who needs your help to get back on track today?
Wedding Mass of Michael & Emily Keeping Our Eyes on the Cat
Readings: Ecclesiastes 4:8-12; Psalm 32:12, 18, 20-22; 1 John 3:18-24; Matthew 7:21, 24-29 Picture: cc iMorpheus
Emily and Michael, dear friends, not so long ago I found myself living in a three-storey house, in which there was a flight of stairs. While living there, I could often be observed, on a regular basis, doing something that might have looked very strange, to say the least. I would stand at the foot of the stairs and throw a little rubber toy up to the second floor. I would then walk up the stairs, retrieve the toy, and throw it back down again. This action would be repeated, many times. And it was not done for the exercise. Why, then, you might wonder, did I do it? Perhaps you might begin to suspect the state of my mental health. Perhaps you should have chosen someone else to marry you. And you would probably be right. This was, for all intents and purposes, a meaningless action. An exercise in futility. What possible good could there be for me to tire myself out like that?
Except that, in describing my actions, I left out an important detail. What I haven’t told you is that, at that time, in addition to the other members of the Jesuit community, I was also sharing the house with a young tomcat. And, for some strange reason, this animal loved to chase the toy I was telling you about. Whenever I threw the toy upstairs, the cat would dash after it. Having caught it, it would then wait at the top of the stairs for me to throw the darn thing downstairs, so that it could chase it again. And we would keep doing this until either one of us was too tired to continue.
Like I said earlier, on its own, this was an apparently meaningless activity. And yet, I found myself enjoying it immensely. It was the cat that made all the difference. It got such a kick out of chasing that toy. And it lifted my spirits just to be able to give it so much joy. Not only did I feel happy when watching the cat in full flight, the light-heartedness also remained with me for some time after. It was quite amazing really how, by keeping my eyes on that cat, I managed to transform what was essentially an exercise in futility into an enjoyable, even fruitful, experience. Several moments with the cat on the stairs, and I was ready to face the rest of the day.
I bring this up because it bears some similarity to the lesson that you, Emily and Michael, wish us to recall on this memorable occasion. In the readings that you have chosen, we see similar transformations of futility into fruitfulness. The first reading speaks to us about the meaninglessness of hard work and self-sacrifice, if one does not have another with whom to share the fruits and frustrations of one’s labour. A person is quite alone, we’re told, no child, no brother, and yet there is no end to his efforts, his eyes can never have their fill of riches.... This is... futile, a sorry business. The constant struggle and striving that fills many of our lives is not much different from someone throwing a toy up and down a flight of stairs for no apparent reason. What makes all the difference is when all that effort is centred on a loving relationship with another. Keeping our eyes on such a relationship–as I kept mine on our cat–is what transforms life from an exercise in futility to a fruitful, even at times pleasurable, experience.
But that’s not all. The readings that you, Emily and Michael, have chosen, speak to us of something even more. For it’s not just any relationship that is capable of effecting such a marvellous transformation. In the gospel, for example, we see another reference to the terrible potential futility of life. Two people expend much time and effort to build a house each, only to have the rains come down, the floods to rise, and the gales to blow, and strike their respective houses. One house falls, rendering its builder’s efforts futile. But the other stands. And, as in the first reading, the difference between the two has to do with relationship. And not just any human relationship. The house that stands does so because the builder has erected it on a relationship with God. A relationship of love expressed in a willingness to do whatever God wants. As Jesus tells us: It is not those who say to me, “Lord, Lord” who will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the person who does the will of my Father in heaven.
The second reading reinforces this message, by reminding us that love is expressed more in deeds than in words. Whether it be for one another, or for God, our love is not to be just words or mere talk, but something real and active. Love is expressed when, for example, in addition to the sweet nothings whispered in the ear in moments of romance, one is willing also to listen attentively to another’s sharing of difficult feelings in times of trial. Or to get out of bed, in the middle of the night, to see to a crying baby, so that the other can catch up on sleep. It is only when we are willing at least to learn to live in this way that, we know that God lives in us by the Spirit that He has given us. Living and working in us, to transform the futility of our lives into an eternity of fruitfulness. It is this profound truth that you, Emily and Michael, have chosen as the foundation upon which to build your new life together. And what a wise choice you have made.
For whether we choose to recognise it or not, life can indeed often seem like an exercise in futility. And however carefully we may try to insulate ourselves, it is often only a matter of time before the rains come, and the floods rise, and the gales blow. But what you are reminding us today, is that even when these things do happen, we do not have to despair. For, in the words of our responsorial psalm, the Lord looks on those who revere him to rescue their souls from death, to keep them alive in famine. And it is in the Lord that we place all our hope. It is upon His love that our eyes are fixed.
Isn’t this why so many of us have taken time off to join you, Emily and Michael, in this moving celebration of your union in Holy Matrimony. As members of your family, your friends and community, we are here also to pledge our commitment to support you in your new life together. To remind you, and to allow you to remind us, of the very same truth of which our readings speak today: that futility can indeed be changed into fruitfulness, if we but remain rooted in the love of God.
Sisters and brothers, in the days ahead, how might we continue to help one another to do this? While climbing up and down the seemingly futile staircase of life, how might we continue to keep our eyes fixed on the Cat today?
Sisters and brothers, recently it was reported in the local news that a potentially tragic story has finally arrived at a happy ending. The story is about a homeless dog–a yellow Labrador–which was first noticed about a month ago, wandering around a neighbourhood in Jurong East. No one knows the dog’s name. But because it kept returning to a certain spot, near a lamp post, by the side of a road, and appeared to be watching and waiting for its owner, people started calling it the Hachiko of Jurong. As you know, Hachiko was the name of a famous Japanese dog, which for years kept returning faithfully to a train station to wait for its master, even after the master had already died. Some days ago, a concerned citizen finally managed to capture our local Hachiko, and now plans to adopt him. The dog in distress has found a new home. How did this happy ending come about?
From the news reports, it seems that Jurong’s Hachiko was saved because the people in the neighbourhood were able to do three things. First of all, they took notice. They saw the dog’s plight. They saw that something was not right. Here was a tame, fully grown Labrador, wandering around, hungry and tired, without anyone to care for it. Unlike the typical stray animal, this dog didn’t seem able to fend for itself. Maybe it was lost. Perhaps it had been abandoned. Whatever the reason for the dog’s condition, people took notice. And, second, not only did they take notice, they also took pity. How long could this poor animal survive, all alone out on the streets, under the scorching sun and the heavy rain? Was it getting enough food? Where did it sleep? What would happen if one day something startled it and it ran out onto the road? Questions like these prompted people not just to take notice and to take pity. They were also moved to take action. For weeks, in addition to feeding the dog, various people also tried to catch it so that they could look after it. And now that someone has succeeded, a hungry homeless animal can finally receive the care that it needs to survive. All because people were willing to take notice, to take pity, and to take action.
I mention this story because, although there are no homeless dogs in our Mass readings today, we do find a lost and abandoned people. A people neglected and abused by their own leaders. By the people appointed to care for them. In the first reading, the Hebrews have fallen into this sad state. Their kings have led them into idolatry–the worship of false gods. As a result, God has allowed their city to be destroyed, their temple to be desecrated, and they themselves scattered among distant foreign lands, without anyone to care for them. But all is not lost. For although their leaders have failed them, their true Lord and Master has not. God takes notice of their plight. God sees their suffering and takes pity on them. And out of pity, God takes action. God promises to send them new leaders: I will raise up shepherds, God says, to look after them and pasture them; no fear, no terror for them any more; not one shall be lost.
And this promise, which God makes in the first reading, finds its ultimate fulfilment in Jesus. In the gospel, we see how Jesus cares for the people around him. His apostles return from a mission, all excited and eager to share their experiences with him. But Jesus sees beyond their apparent enthusiasm. He sees their tiredness. He takes notice of the fact that there were so many coming and going that they had no time even to eat. And, having taken notice, Jesus also takes pity, and then he takes action. He invites them to go away with him to a lonely place and rest for a while.
And it’s not just for the apostles that Jesus cares. We’re told that he also watches over the large crowd of people coming to him for help. Jesus takes notice of their distress. They are lost and confused. They are like sheep without a shepherd. Jesus sees and takes pity on them. And even though he has made vacation plans with his apostles, he puts those plans on hold. He takes action to minister to the needy people. To shepherd the lost sheep. He teaches them at some length. And after feeding their minds and hearts with his words, he goes on to fill their stomachs by his miraculous power. With five loaves and two fish, he feeds more than five thousand people.
But that’s not all. What Jesus does in the gospel is a symbol of something even greater. For, in Jesus, God Himself is taking notice of the plight of the whole world, of our plight, yours and mine. God takes notice of our hunger for unity and peace. God sees our deep need to be reconciled within our selves, with one another, and with God. The second reading speaks of this need in terms of a tragic division between Jews and Gentiles. In response, God the Father sends His Son among us. And out of divided peoples, we’re told that Jesus creates one single New Man in himself... restoring peace through the cross. By his Life, Death and Resurrection, Jesus unites us all in a single Body, reconciling us with God. In Christ, we who once were lost and abandoned, have once again been brought home.
And it is this same reconciliation, this same homecoming that we celebrate in this and in every Eucharist. We rejoice in the goodness of our God, who has not left us to fend for ourselves. Instead, in Christ the Good Shepherd, God continues to take notice of our pain, to take pity on our suffering, and to take the necessary action to lead us back into the warm shelter of his Fatherly embrace.
And if God has done and continues to do all this for us, then surely we too are invited to do the same for others. All around us today, do we not see people who are lost or abandoned? People who are homeless or directionless in some way. And I’m not just referring to the more obvious examples, like migrant workers and the victims of human trafficking. I think also of our teenaged children, for example, who struggle to figure out what life is all about, even as they try to cope with the heavy demands of school. I think of young adults, dreaming of a full and happy life, but often not quite sure what that life looks and feels like. And reluctant to make and live out the commitments and sacrifices necessary for making such a life possible. I think of senior citizens, who may be finding it difficult to accept and to adjust to the diminishment and disease that so often come with advancing age. These are just a few examples of the many sheep among us requiring a shepherd’s care. Perhaps some of these are our colleagues, or our neighbours, or even members of our own family.
I’m reminded of these words from our parish’s Stations of the Cross booklet: The 6th Station: Veronica wipes the face of Jesus.... Lord Jesus, why do we always hang back when there is some good we could do, when there is someone we could help? Give us the courage of Veronica to oppose the opinion of the crowd and do what is right. The face of every man and woman is your face. Let us look at them, look at you, and show them love.
Sisters and brothers, it was because people were willing to take notice, to take pity, and to take action, that an unwanted dog in Jurong was able to find a new home. How are we being invited to do the same for the human Hachikos among us today?