Sunday, July 05, 2015

Celebrating Failure

14th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)
(Mass@Retreat for RGS)

Sisters and brothers, what are the things that usually make you happy? What do people usually celebrate? When you walk into someone’s office, for example. What do you usually find hanging on their walls? Well, apart from artwork and family photos, one other thing you might find are academic diplomas and other certificates of achievement. Some people may even display their graduation photographs.

These are the things that typically make us happy. Give us joy. We usually celebrate and take pride in our accomplishments and successes. Not in our failures. And this is as it should be. Nothing wrong with that. Yet this natural tendency of ours to rejoice in our successes can make it very difficult for us to understand the prayers and readings for our Mass today.

You will remember what we asked God for in our opening prayer just now. Fill your faithful with holy joy, we said. For on those you have rescued from slavery to sin you bestow eternal gladness. Joy and gladness. This is what we are praying for at Mass today. But I’m sure you have also noticed that our readings are not about the things that usually make us joyful. The things that usually make us glad. Our readings are not about success and accomplishment. But about failure and disappointment.

In the gospel, Jesus preaches in the synagogue in his hometown. But, even though he impresses the people with his wisdom and power, they reject him. And we’re told that he could work no miracle there. We find something similar in the first reading. Here God sends Ezekiel to bring God’s message to rebels who have turned against God. To people who will very likely refuse to listen to him. Both the first reading and the gospel speak not about success but about failure. Not about achievement but about disappointment.

The second reading goes even further. For not only does St. Paul write about his own failure. He even celebrates it! Takes pride in it! For some time, the apostle has been suffering from something he calls a thorn in the flesh. Scripture scholars are unsure what exactly Paul is talking about. It could be a physical illness of some sort. Or a temptation. Or perhaps some ongoing persecution that he’s been experiencing. Whatever it is, this weakness is something over which Paul has no control. He is helpless to overcome it.

And yet, after praying to God to take it away from him. And failing to receive a favourable response. Quite incredibly, Paul is still moved to write these astonishing words: I shall be very happy to make my weaknesses my special boast. It’s as though the apostle were choosing to display a certificate on the wall of his office, proudly announcing his thorn in the flesh to everyone. Unlike most of us, Paul celebrates and rejoices not just in strength, but also and especially in weakness. Not just in success, but also and especially in failure. Not just in achievement, but also and especially in disappointment.

I’m not sure about you, sisters and brothers. But this is something that I find very difficult to understand. Let alone to imitate. My usual reaction to failure and disappointment, to weakness and helplessness, is not one of joy and celebration. But of anger and embarrassment and discouragement. Instead of celebrating my failures, I usually choose to hide them. And not just from others. But even from myself. I try not to think about them. To avoid getting depressed.

All of which may indicate that perhaps the joy and gladness I usually experience is somehow different from what we are praying for today. What we are praying for is not just any kind of joy but holy joy. Not just any kind of gladness but eternal gladness. What’s so special about holy joy and eternal gladness? In what way is it different from the ordinary kind?

St. Paul gives us the answer in the second reading, when he tells us the reason why he is able to celebrate his weakness. It’s not because it feels good to be helpless. But because God’s power is at its best in (human) weakness. When all human efforts have failed, then it becomes clear that only God alone could be responsible for whatever success may come.

Ordinary joy comes when our own efforts meet with success. But holy joy comes even in failure, because we trust and hope that God will somehow bring success out of our failure. Even though we may not see or understand how and when this could happen. In ordinary joy, my attention is fixed on the results of my own efforts. On monitoring and measuring them. And congratulating myself for them. In holy joy, my attention is fixed not on my results. Much less on myself. But on God. And on what God wants me to do. And I continue to fix my eyes on God, even if my efforts seem to bear no visible fruit to speak of. No human achievement to boast about. As the psalmist says, our eyes are on the Lord till he shows us his mercy.

Our eyes are on the Lord. Not on ourselves. This is what sets apart holy joy from the ordinary kind. And this is an important lesson for us to keep in mind especially today. When it sometimes seems that the only kind of joy we know is the kind that comes from measuring and monitoring tangible results. Today, when the language of strategic planning and key performance indicators has made its way from corporate boardrooms into church circles. Today, when we sometimes find ourselves obsessively counting baptisms and anxiously projecting future Mass attendance. Nothing wrong with that, of course. We do have a duty to do our best. But we also need to carefully bear in mind these enlightening words from Pope Francis’ The Joy of the Gospel:
Sometimes it seems that our work is fruitless, but mission is not like a business transaction or investment, or even a humanitarian activity. It is not a show where we count how many people come as a result of our publicity; it is something much deeper, which escapes all measurement. It may be that the Lord uses our sacrifices to shower blessings in another part of the world which we will never visit. The Holy Spirit works as he wills, when he wills and where he wills; we entrust ourselves without pretending to see striking results. We know only that our commitment is necessary. Let us learn to rest in the tenderness of the arms of the Father amid our creative and generous commitment. Let us keep marching forward; let us give him everything, allowing him to make our efforts bear fruit in his good time (The Joy of the Gospel, 279).
Sisters and brothers, what we are praying for today is holy joy. The kind that comes from keeping our eyes fixed on the Lord. And not on ourselves. Where are your eyes fixed? What are the things that you choose to hang on the walls of your office today?


  1. God turns the secular notion of success and failure on its head. In a society like Singapore's even (as Fr Chris revealed) hard measures of success, namely KPI's and budget overruns, have compelled us to think only in these terms. The end result is a paranoid fear of failure, breeding the kind of kiasu-ism that pervades society. As Christians, while it's good to work strategically for the goals that we set (God would not want anything less), we ought to always bear in mind the Christian dimension of success and failure, that is, whether in success or failure, God's Hand is at work. Man proposes, God disposes.
    May we always be sensitive to God's workings in our lives to give us holy joy and eternal gladness.

  2. yes, as Christians we ought to learn to PUT ON THE MIND OF CHRIST - to adopt a mindset which may run contrary to the world's views (secular views) - be it of success/failure.

    As God's ways are NOT our ways, let us dare to ADOPT the mindset of Christ, to dare to be different and to dare to stand out as people who are different from the vast majority.

    It is the NARROW path - in the shape of a CROSS that leads to God - not the wider path which leads to perdition.

    O Lord, teach me YOUR WAYS and guide me to walk in YOUR PATHS. Amen.

    Sih Ying
    10 July 2015