Saturday, December 26, 2015

Zoom


Feast of The Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph (C)

Picture: cc Anders Ljungberg

Sisters and brothers, do you know what a zoom lens is? Of course you do. It’s something that you find in cameras. It helps you to vary the size and content of your image. When you zoom in, your focus narrows. You see less of the scene. But closer. When you zoom out, the image appears further away. But you get a wide-angle perspective. You see more. Close-up and wide-angle. Two different perspectives. Giving you a more complete view of whatever it is you wish to photograph. That’s what a zoom lens is for. It helps us see more of reality.

Now I may be wrong, sisters and brothers, but I think that something like a zoom lens is what we need especially today. On this Sunday in the Octave of Christmas. When we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. For, typically, we celebrate this feast only by zooming in. We narrow our focus solely on our earthly families. And, by family, we usually refer only to the so-called nuclear family. Father, mother, children. Possibly, in some cases, also the domestic help. Traditionally, we celebrate this feast by looking to the Holy Family as a model for our own nuclear families.

And this is a praiseworthy thing to do. We may even say that it’s what our Mass texts are intended to help us to do. In the opening prayer just now, for example, we asked God to grant that we may imitate... the shining example of the Holy Family... in practicing the virtues of family life. And yet, have you ever found yourself wondering if this is perhaps too narrow a view of this feast? That, by limiting ourselves to using only the zoom-in function of our liturgical camera, we end up missing the bigger picture?

Again, I’m not sure, sisters and brothers. But I think that this is actually the case. And it’s made clear to us especially in the readings for this third year (Year C) of our Sunday cycle. If you take a closer look at the missal in your pews, you will notice that the readings for this feast are actually different in other years.

In the first reading for Year C, which we read just now, we hear the story of Hannah. And what is perhaps most striking about Hannah is how wide her view of family life is. For a long time, she has been shamefully barren. And when she does finally give birth to a son, she realises that he is God’s gift. I asked the Lord for him... and the Lord granted me what I asked. As a result, she does something truly remarkable. After weaning her precious child. After ensuring that he’s able to survive without his mother’s milk. She brings him to the Temple and surrenders him to God. Now I make him over to the Lord for the whole of his life.

How, my dear friends, is Hannah able to do this? To give up her precious son, on whom she would otherwise have depended to support her in her old age. Is it not only because she is able to zoom out? To see beyond her own earthly family. Which has her husband Elkanah as its head. To the much wider family to which we all belong. The household of God. And, having zoomed out, she is then able to zoom back in. To do what needs to be done in her own earthly family. To generously and selflessly offer her only son for the Lord’s service.

And isn’t this the kind of shift in perspective, the kind of zooming out and zooming in, that the Holy Family itself is struggling to negotiate in the gospel? The boy Jesus is twelve years old. He is almost a full-fledged member of his community. And, as all teenagers do even today, he begins to assert his independence. Not only does he, quite literally, get lost in the Temple. But he also shocks his parents with his response to their questions. When they finally find him, after 3 or 4 frantic days of searching. Why were you looking for me?Did you not know that I must be busy with my Father’s affairs?

Did you not know that I must be busy with my Father’s affairs? Or, in another translation, Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house? More than just another episode of teenage rebellion, Jesus’ words and actions are actually an invitation to his parents to zoom out. To see beyond their own narrow view of family life on earth. To the wider context of the heavenly household of God. To remember that, even though Jesus is their son, he also has a heavenly Father. Whose mission he must accomplish. And this process of zooming out is not easy. Not even for Mary and Joseph. For we are told that they did not understand what he meant.

And yet, even though they didn’t understand, they remained open. They continued to ponder. Mary, in particular, stored up all these things in her heart. And isn’t it only because they remained open to the wider perspective of God’s household, that they were able to to live their family life on earth in the way it is meant to be lived? Jesus, we’re told, went down with them… to Nazareth… lived under their authority… and increased in wisdom, in stature, and in favour with God and men.

My dear friends, isn’t this the deeper lesson that the Feast of the Holy Family holds for us? A lesson in the use of a zoom lens. First to recognise and rejoice in our dignity as members of God’s household. And then, to allow this primary identity, this first belonging, this wide-angle perspective, to shape how we relate to others on earth. As the second reading reminds us, we are already the children of God. And, as children of God, we keep his commandments and live the kind of life that he wants. For we know that he lives in us by the Spirit that he has given us.

In this wide-angle, zoomed-out perspective, we already belong to God’s family. And this is a source of great joy and consolation for us. Even and especially for those of us who may feel lonely and depressed. Those of us who, for one reason or another, may not have an earthly family of our own. No spouse or children. No parents or siblings. Or those who come from a broken family. Or a family that faces struggles of one kind or another. Even in such difficult circumstances, we can still be joyful. For, as the psalmist sings, they are happy who dwell in your house, O Lord. They are happy who realise that they belong, first and foremost, to God’s family. That they are beloved sons and daughters of a compassionate and merciful Father.

And, being filled with joy in the Lord, we can then zoom back in to share that same joy with everyone around us. With the immediate members of our families, of course. But also with others. Those who may be related to us in no other way except by being members of God’s household. Especially those most in need of our help. At this point, it may be helpful to remember that, in our opening prayer just now, we asked God to help us imitate the Holy Family not just in practicing the virtues of family life, but also in the bonds of charity. Bonds that stretch far beyond our blood relations. To the ties that bind us in the blood of the Lamb. Whose birth we celebrate at Christmas. The Lamb born to gather us into the happy household of God.

Sisters and brothers, as we continue to immerse ourselves in the joy of Christmas, both in our families and beyond, how are you being invited to make better use your zoom lens today?

Friday, December 25, 2015

Between Speed & Presence


Nativity of the Lord (Mass During the Day)

Picture: cc Fatima

Sisters and brothers, have you ever heard people say that our world is shrinking? You know what it means, right? Or at least you know what it doesn’t mean. It doesn’t mean that the world is actually getting smaller in size. The way a piece of clothing might shrink after washing. No, when people say that the world is shrinking, they’re not talking about size but about speed. What they mean is that we can now travel long distances in a much shorter time than before. This is the gift of technology. You hop onto a plane today, and you can find yourself in a friend’s house, halfway around the world, tomorrow.

Or, if you prefer not to travel, then you can just WhatsApp or Tweet or Facebook. And your friend will receive your message instantaneously. Speed. This is how technology allows us to shrink our world. To bridge distances. By increasing the speed of our movement and our communication. And who can deny that this is a good thing? A great gift. By increasing our speed, technology helps us to connect with more people. And in a much shorter time than before.

And yet, we also cannot deny that there are side-effects to this  continual increase in speed. Do you know what these side-effects are? I can think of at least two. Stress and shallowness. Whether we care to admit it or not, the constant increase of speed puts a strain on us. Physically. Emotionally. Spiritually. Even relationally. Although we may have many names on our list of contacts, don’t we often continue to feel lonely and disconnected? As though no one really understands what we are going through? And when we do get together with others for a meal, doesn’t each person often end up fiddling with his or her own smartphone, instead of interacting with those at table?

Quite ironically, our constant connection often leads instead to disconnection. We interact with many people. But often in ever shallower ways. Always feeling the need to keep moving on, we no longer take the time to linger. To ponder. To connect more deeply with our own selves. Much less with others. As much as speed may shrink our world, it also often stresses us out. And makes our interactions with others ever more superficial.

But what alternative do we have? How else are we to bridge the distances between us? To shrink our world? I’m not sure, my dear friends. But I thought that I found the answer earlier this morning. In something that a visiting Jesuit said to me at breakfast. Your church is getting smaller, he said. And I knew exactly what he meant. You see, he had concelebrated the Midnight Mass last night. And, as expected, the church was packed to the rafters. Which is why he said what he said. Like the world, our church too appears to be shrinking. Not because of any change in its physical size. But because more people seem to be showing up.

Could this be another way of bridging distances? Of shrinking our world? A way that depends not on speed. But on presence. Actually, isn’t this what Christmas is really all about? We celebrate how God bridges the tremendous distance that separates us from God. Not by moving faster. But by drawing nearer. By deepening God’s presence among and within us. Isn’t this what we find in our Mass readings today?

How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of the one who brings good news, who heralds peace, brings happiness, proclaims salvation… Why is the coming of God’s message described as beautiful? Not so much because of its speed. Not because the messenger moves very quickly. But because his words are full of the consoling presence of God. Your watchmen raise their voices, they shout for joy together, for they see the Lord face to face... the Lord is consoling his people... God shrinks the distance between us. Not by moving more quickly. But by involving himself more intimately in our lives. Allowing us, quite incredibly, to even see him face to face.

We find a similar message in the second reading. At various times in the past and in various different ways, God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets; but in our own time, the last days, he has spoken to us through his Son. God has progressed from communicating with us through prophets, to communicating through His Son. And we must not mistake this change for a mere substitution of one messenger with another. For the reading makes it quite clear that the Son is far more than just another messenger. He is the radiant light of God’s glory and the perfect copy of his nature... The Son is the very presence of God himself. In and through him, God bridges the distance between us by deepening his presence among us.

The gospel puts it even more poetically. In the beginning was the Word: the Word was with God and the Word was God.... The Word was made flesh, he lived among us, and we saw his glory, the glory that is his as the only Son of the Father, full of grace and truth... In and through Jesus, the Word of God comes among us as a living breathing human being. Immersing himself in all our pains and struggles. Sharing in all our hopes and dreams. Forever connected to us in a bond that can never be broken. In and through Christ, God shrinks the world. Not by the increase of speed. But by the deepening of God’s presence.

What does this mean for us, my dear friends? We who often do not seem to know any other way of bridging distances except by increasing our speed. We who shrink our world by moving ever more quickly. But who then discover distances opening up within and among us that we are quite unable to bridge. Distances reflected as much in the loneliness and disconnection that we experience within ourselves. As the conflicts and divisions that we see around the world.

Perhaps what makes Christmas such tremendous good news for us, is that it reveals to us a better way of bridging distances. A gentler way of shrinking our world. Not through stressful and superficial speed. But through consoling and enduring presence. The presence of a poor, innocent, defenceless baby. Whom we believe to be nothing less than the Wisdom of God. The Word of God. The Son of God. Made flesh for us. For you and for me.

As we come and adore this baby. As we come and allow his presence to fill our minds, our hearts, and our lives. Perhaps we can also begin to learn from him how to bridge distances by deepening our presence. To ourselves. To our families. To our communities. To the world.

My dear friends, what must we do to allow our Lord to continue shrinking our world, yours and mine, this Christmas?

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Stargazing


The Nativity of the Lord (Mass@Night)


Sisters and brothers, have you ever seen the stars twinkling in the night sky? I mean really seen them in their full glory? The first time I saw it I was abroad. In a remote place. Out in the countryside somewhere. Night had fallen. And I remember looking up, and having my breath snatched away from me by the awesome sight. The whole of the night sky was carpeted with stars. Some larger. Some smaller. But all shining brightly like a mass of lighted lamps hanging from a huge ceiling. So many of them! An incredible sight!

After I got over my amazement, I began to wonder to myself why the night sky looked so different back in Singapore. Why did there seem to be so many more stars here than back home? Didn’t we live under the same sky? Shouldn’t it contain the same stars? Why then did I not see such an amazing sight when I looked up at the night sky in Singapore? My dear friends, I’m sure you already know the answer. I found out only later.

Apparently it has to do with artificial light. Singapore is a city. An urban area. Which is usually very brightly lit at night. And all that artificial light actually makes it difficult to see the starlight. In contrast, rural areas, like that place where I was, are usually much more dimly lit. So the stars are more easily seen. I imagine it’s sort of like how it’s easier to read from the screen on your smartphone when the surroundings are dark than in broad daylight. The glare of artificial light makes it more difficult to see the brilliance of starlight.

And perhaps this truth can help us to better understand what is happening in the gospel tonight. As we begin to celebrate Christ’s coming among us at Christmas, our prayers and readings describe His advent as a burst of light. In the opening prayer, we said that God has made this most sacred night radiant with the splendour of the true light. And, in the first reading, the prophet Isaiah speaks of how the people who walked in darkness has seen a great light; on those who live in a land of deep shadow a light has shone.

On those who live under the gloom of tyranny and oppression. On those who suffer the pain of conflict and division. Of loneliness and disconnection. Of aimlessness and the lack of direction. The light of Christ’s love shines tenderly. Bringing justice and integrity to all. And a peace that knows no end. With the dawning of the light of Christ, God makes their gladness greater, and their joy increase. This is the prophet’s promise.

And yet, when this promise is finally fulfilled on that very first Christmas night, something very curious happens. When the light of Christ finally dawns upon the world, not everyone notices it. Not everyone is able to see it. The gospel reading presents us with a sharp contrast between two different groups of people. Living in two different locations.

When Mary and Joseph go looking for a place to have their baby,  they first try their luck in the town of Bethlehem. But there is no room for them at the inn. Apparently, when the glory of God shines in the town, none of its people realises what is happening. The promised Saviour has come among them, and they simply ignore him. They continue to go about their usual business without interruption.

In contrast, it is the shepherds living in the fields. In the countryside. Who see and welcome the Light. Like the people of Bethlehem, they too are going about their usual business. But, unlike the townsfolk, when the glory of the Lord shines round them, they take notice. They pay attention. They’re willing even to break their routine. To stop what they’re doing. And to visit the newborn Saviour. As a result, their hearts are filled with joy.

What do you think accounts for the contrast? Why the difference between the townsfolk and the country-shepherds? Why is one group so attentive to the Light? And the other so indifferent? I’m not sure, my dear friends, but perhaps it’s the same reason why we see more stars in the country than in the city. Perhaps it has to do with the presence of artificial light. When you live in town, there are so many other lights competing for your attention. Lights that seem too impressive to refuse. Skyscrapers and shopping malls. Designer goods and high tech gadgets. Lights that dazzle and distract you from the gentle glow of Christ. Of a God who chooses to come among us as a helpless, innocent baby. Lying on a bed of straw. A scene of stark simplicity. Making it difficult for us to rest our eyes on it without being tempted to jazz it up a bit. As with the twinkling of the stars. So too with the coming of Christ. The harsh glare of artificial light makes it difficult to see.

What then does this mean for us, my dear friends? We who live in this ultra-modern metropolis of Singapore. Surrounded by bright lights of so many different shapes and sizes. Does this mean that, in order for us to receive and to welcome the Light of Christ, we all have to relocate to the countryside? Move to a remote jungle in some foreign land? Where the artificial light is less glaring? I imagine that few of us actually have the luxury, or the inclination, of doing that. What then can we to do to better receive and welcome the Light of Christ?

To find an solution to our predicament, it may be helpful to remember something else about starlight. It may be helpful to remember that, even in the city, it is still possible to see the stars. The sight may not be as dramatic as in the countryside. Nor the lights so many or so bright. But the stars are still there to be seen. We just have to look a little longer. To focus a little harder.

And perhaps the same can be said about seeing Christ. The key lies not so much in a change of location. But in a shifting of attention. Away from the dazzling but temporary. To the gentle yet enduring. Away from the sophisticated but superficial. To the simple yet profound. As simple and profound as a poor defenceless baby. Inviting you to carry it lovingly. To caress it tenderly. To commit your life to it generously and courageously.

Isn’t this what the second reading tells us to do? God’s grace has been revealed, and it has made salvation possible for the whole human race. For city-dwellers like us, as much as for countryfolk elsewhere. What we have to do is to give up everything that does not lead to God, and all our worldly ambitions. We need to shift our attention away from merely artificial light. So as to let Christ be our One True Light. We must be self-restrained and live good religious lives here in this present world. Here in this brightly-lit city that we call our home.

As with starlight so too with Christ-Light. We see more clearly, the more we turn from the artificial to the authentic. The superficial to the deeply enduring. This is what it takes to welcome Christ this Christmas. Into our hearts. Into our homes. Into lives…

My dear friends, what will you be doing to keep on stargazing? How will you be shifting your attention this Christmas?

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Invisible to the Eye


Funeral Mass of Teo Ah Lim

Readings: Wisdom 4:7-15; Psalm 27; John 11:17-27
Picture: cc Prachatai

It is only with the heart that one can see rightly;
what is essential is invisible to the eye.
My dear friends, I’m sure many of us will recognise these words. They are taken from that delightful little book entitled The Little Prince. The words are spoken by a fox to a prince. After both fox and prince have become friends. And that is what the fox is really talking about. That is the invisible yet essential thing that cannot be seen with the eyes. But only with the heart. Friendship.

For when anybody else looks at the fox. All the person sees is an ordinary animal. A fox like any other. For the person looks at the fox only with the eyes. But, to the prince, this fox is unlike any other. It is special. It is his fox. Because he has taken the time and made the effort to befriend this fox, the prince has learned to look at it not just with the eyes, but also with the heart. And, with the heart, he sees something important. Something essential. Not just a fox. But also a friend.

Friendship, however, is not the only essential thing. There are others. Things that can be seen, recognised for what they really are, only with the heart. Today, my dear sisters and brothers, as we gather to bid farewell to our dearly beloved, Uncle Ah Lim, the scripture readings that you, his family and friends, have chosen, help to remind us of something else that we Christians believe to be essential. Something else that is invisible to the eye. Something else that can be seen only with the heart. Strange as it may sound to some, this something else is life itself.

Of course, many people would object. They would say that we can see life with our eyes. We can see whether a person is alive or dead. All we have to do is to determine whether the person is breathing. Or has a heartbeat. But, for us who are Christian, this isn’t really what it means to be alive. The first reading criticises those who think in a similar way. Those who believe that someone who dies young must be punished or cursed by God. The reading argues, instead, that such people have actually got it wrong. They look on, uncomprehending. Or, in the words of The Little Prince, they do not see rightly. They see only with their eyes. And their eyes see nothing beyond the length of a person’s days.

But the reading presents another view of life. It argues that the number of years is not the true measure of life. But rather understanding and an untarnished life. A morally upright life. This is the true indication of how alive we are. So that a morally upright person, who dies young, may actually have been much more alive than someone who lives a much longer but immoral life. And the death of such a good person should not be seen as a curse, but a blessing. He has sought to please God, so God has loved him. He has been carried off so that evil may not warp his understanding…

Of course, my dear sisters and brothers, by any standards, Uncle Ah Lim was blessed with a long life. He lived till the ripe old age of 84! So if you, his family and friends, have chosen this reading, it must be because you wish to remind us to look beyond what the eye can see. To look deeper than the obvious length of his years. To recall also, and more importantly, how he lived his life. How he touched your own lives. The precious place that he held and still holds in your hearts. And, in seeing with the heart, to once again recognise the true, the essential, meaning of his life. And to realise that his passing is no curse. But a blessing. God has taken him to Himself.

The gospel takes us even further. I am the resurrection and the life, Jesus tells Martha. If anyone believes in me, even though he dies he will live, and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Again, as with the first reading, Jesus’ words help us to redefine our understanding of life. Not just earthly life. But eternal life. The fullness of life. Anyone who believes in Jesus. Who commits his life to Jesus. Who lives as Jesus lives. Laying down his life for others as Jesus did. Such a person enters into a relationship with the Lord. Becomes his friend. Enjoys the fullness of life even before he dies. As you know, in John’s gospel, eternal life does not begin only at the point of death. It begins already at the point of commitment to Christ.

And again, here we find a resonance between what the reading tells us, and the life of Uncle Ah Lim. For he too believed in Christ. He too committed himself to living as Christ lived. Isn’t this why we have placed those Christian symbols over his coffin? To remind ourselves that here lies a friend of the Lord. Someone who has passed beyond this world. And yet, someone who enjoys life in all its fullness.

So that our gathering here today, is not just an occasion for us to mourn our loss. It is, also primarily an occasion for us to celebrate the power of God. At work in the life of Uncle Ah Lim. A life that began not just when he was born from his mother’s womb. But when he was plunged into the waters of baptism. When he was washed in the blood of the Lamb. When he became a committed and loving friend of the Lord.

And it is when we see Uncle Ah Lim’s passing in this light. The light of faith. The light that shines in the hearts of all of us who share in the life of Christ. It is then that we recognise what is truly essential. That our dearly beloved is still very much alive. Alive in God. Alive for us. Spurring us on to remain united to him by remaining united to one another. And, most of all, united to Christ.


My dear sisters and brothers, truly it is only with the heart that one can see rightly; for what is essential is invisible to the eye. As we gather to bid our farewell to Uncle Ah Lim. As we gaze upon the reality of his passing. Exactly what and how do we see today?

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Empty & Full


4th Sunday of Advent (C)

Picture: cc Epic Fireworks


Sisters and brothers, do you know what it feels like to be both empty and full at the same time? What do I mean? Well, imagine for a moment that you’re driving a car on the road. And you suddenly realise that the fuel tank is almost empty. The indicator light is flashing. You need to stop and fill up… Thankfully, you spot a petrol station along the way. But, unfortunately, when you drive into it, you find that it’s closed. No petrol to be bought here.

Which is bad enough. But then something even worse happens. You meet a few friends of yours, who beg you to give them a ride. And, before you can protest, they all pile into your car. So now your vehicle is both full and empty. Full of passengers. But empty of the fuel it needs to transport them. What are you to do?

I may be wrong, sisters and brothers, but isn’t this a good image of what daily life feels like for many of us? On the one hand, our lives are really very full. Full of work to do. Responsibilities to bear. Promises to keep. People to please. Goals to accomplish. Dreams to fulfil. At home. At work. In school. Even in church. And isn’t this true even of those of us who have already retired? Although we have plenty of time on our hands. Much more than before. Doesn’t all this free time feel strangely oppressive? Doesn’t it fill my life like a heavy burden. How to occupy my time? How to make myself useful? What am I to do?

And yet, full though our lives may be, when we stop to think about it, don’t many of us also often feel terribly empty? Empty of the energy and motivation, the courage and inspiration, that we need to bear the burden of life? Don’t we often feel tired and stressed? Frustrated and anxious? Short in temper and patience, but long on anger and resentment? And aren’t these feelings very much like that flashing indicator light on the car’s dashboard? Signalling frantically to us. Warning us that, even though the passenger compartment may be filled to overflowing, the gas tank is all but empty. The vehicle is at risk of stalling. What are we to do?

Sisters and brothers, if, like me, you’ve ever found yourself in a situation like this. If you ever feel as though your life is, at once, full of burdens to bear, and empty of the energy required to bear them. Then you need to pay close attention to our Mass readings for this 4th and final Sunday of Advent. For they show us a way out. God’s way out.

The first reading is addressed precisely to those whose lives are simultaneously full and empty. For some time now, for their own selfish reasons, the people of God have turned to the worship of foreign gods. Deities that they thought would enrich their lives. But these gods have proven to be nothing more than idols. False gods. Not only do they take up precious time and space in the people’s lives. But they also leave them painfully empty of spiritual nourishment. They make the people feel as though the Lord, the one true God, has abandoned them. Allowing them to be conquered by their enemies. Their sons and daughters carried off into exile in far distant lands.

But God has not forgotten his people. God promises to visit them again. To send them a new leader. A good shepherd. Someone who will stand and feed his flock with the power of the Lord, and the majesty of the name of his God. Someone who will finally fill the people in the way they need to be filled. The way they long to be filled. With true spiritual energy and inspiration. Enabling them to enjoy lasting security and peace in the land. Teaching them to be empty and full in a whole new way. Empty of oppressive idols. And full of the power of God. How will this leader do this? We find the answer in the other readings.

The second reading speaks to us of two contrasting ways of relating to God. Two different spiritualities, if you like. Each of them is, again, both full and empty. But in very different ways. The first is focused only on external observances. It is full of apparently pious religious practices. But these are actually empty and idolatrous. For they are centred not on God, but on those who perform them. They are full of self. And empty of God. Which is why God takes no pleasure in them.

In place of these external practices, Christ models for us a different form of worship. One that is also at once empty and full. But in the opposite way. Not full of self, and empty of God. But empty of self, and full of God. A worship that consists not in self-gratifying, ego-inflating external performance. But in a deep interior offering of self to God. Here I am! I am coming to obey your will. An interior offering that is then lived out in meaningful external actions in the world. Actions that draw strength from the selfless sacrifice of Christ on the Cross. Through which God makes everyone and everything holy.

But what does it look like when people actually allow themselves to worship God in this new Christ-like way? Which is at once empty of self and full of God? This is the question that the gospel helps us to answer. In the meeting between Mary and her cousin Elizabeth, we find a powerful picture of what the other readings describe only in theory. For although Mary is as young as Elizabeth is old. They both share something in common. Something very important. They are both empty of self, and full of God.

Isn’t this why they are both able to experience impossible pregnancies? One is still a virgin. And the other already beyond the age of childbearing. Yet they are both with child. One carries the Saviour-of-the-World. The other, his herald. Both women are generously and courageously participating in God’s plan to save the whole of creation. How does this come about? Through the power of the Spirit who fills them. And through their willingness to allow themselves to be emptied. Emptied of all traces of selfishness. And filled with the love of God. I am the handmaid of the Lord, let it be done to me according to your word.

So that Mary and Elizabeth are related not just by blood. But also, and more importantly, in the Spirit. It is the Spirit that brings them together. And notice what happens when they meet. Although they are both probably physically exhausted. One has travelled a long way through hill country. The other is old and already in the sixth month of her pregnancy. There is neither a sense of burden nor oppression. Neither anxiety nor complaint. Neither impatience nor irritation. The whole scene is saturated instead with joy. A joy so strong that it’s felt even by the unborn.

And isn’t this the same joy that God offers us at Christmastime? Isn’t this the joy that we have spent all these weeks of Advent preparing to receive? Isn’t this what we have been asking God to do for us? We who are often so full only of ourselves, and so empty of God? In these days of Advent, we have been doing whatever we can to beg and to allow God to reverse our painful condition. So that, like Mary and Elizabeth, and the babies in their wombs, we too can allow ourselves to be emptied and filled. Emptied of self. And filled with God.

My dear sisters and brothers, Christmas is just a few short days away. What must we do to continue allowing God to empty and to fill us today?

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Consoling Crybabies



3rd Sunday of Advent (C)

Readings: Zephaniah 3:14-18; Isaiah 12; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:10-18

Sisters and brothers, have you ever watched someone trying to pacify a crying baby? Or maybe you’ve done it yourself. What does it feel like? Is it easy? Or difficult? What do you think? I don’t have any first-hand experience. But I have seen it being done. And it varies, doesn’t it? Sometimes it’s very hard. Everything you try just doesn’t seem to work. The baby refuses to stop crying. But, at other times, it’s easy. Like magic.

For example, I recently found myself in a crowded MRT train. Where I saw a young family. Separated by the crowd. The mommy and an older child were seated at one corner of the carriage. The daddy was standing at the other end. Accompanied by the baby in a stroller. The train stopped. And many of the people, who were standing between mommy and daddy, got off. Allowing the baby to catch sight of his mom. Immediately, he started crying very loudly. The daddy quickly pushed the stroller over to where his wife was. And, like magic, the crying stopped at once. In fact, not only did the baby stop crying, he even started to smile broadly. Happy, no doubt, to be reunited with mommy. That was all he wanted. To be close to his mother. It was quite an amusing and amazing sight. The transformation of a crybaby into a smile-baby. A noisy burden into a bundle of joy.

I’m reminded of this today, because I think our readings present us with something similar. On this 3rd Sunday of Advent. Which we call Gaudete–or Rejoice!–Sunday, our readings seek to transform us in the same way that the baby was transformed. And it’s important for us to consider carefully just how this is done. How God consoles God’s people. Transforming crybabies into smile-babies. Broken hearts into joyful spirits.

To do this, we need to consider what it is that prevents us from being truly happy. The obstacles to experiencing joy. The first of these obstacles is expressed in a word that keeps getting repeated in our readings. The word is fear. The first reading talks about the fear of enemies. And the fear of evil. The second reading mentions something similar to fear. Worry. Worry about not getting what we need to live well. And to this list we can probably add our own  fears. Fear of failure… Fear of not having enough… Fear of not being enough… Fear of remaining single… Fear of staying married… Fear of pain… Fear of death…

Fear and worry. Two obstacles to joy. And how do our readings console those of us who are fearful and worried? By encouraging us to trust. To trust in God. In the words of the responsorial psalm: Truly, God is my salvation, I trust, I shall not fear. For the Lord is my strength, my song, he became my saviour. Or the second reading: There is no need to worry, but if there is anything you need, pray for it… Trusting that God will provide.

And yet, my dear friends, isn’t all this much easier said than done? Surely, we know that we need to trust God. But knowing it in my head and putting it into practice in my life are two very different things, aren’t they? So how do I bridge the huge gap between theory and practice? Between trust in my head and trust in my life? To answer this question, we need to go further. We need to consider the deeper reasons for our fear. I’m not sure about you, sisters and brothers, but one of the deeper reasons for my fear is actually the thought, or suspicion, that I am all alone. Alone in my weakness and helplessness. Alone to face challenges that I simply do not have the power to overcome.

But is it really true? Am I really all alone? Well, no. For my faith tells me that God is always with me to save me. Which is why there is actually an even deeper reason why I find it difficult to be joyful. An even deeper reason why I so easily succumb to fear. Why I find it difficult to trust. And that reason is forgetfulness. The forgetfulness of unbelief. I forget my faith. I forget what the first reading insists on reminding me. The Lord, the king of Israel, is in your midst. I forget that I am not alone. That God is close. Ever by my side. Just like how that mother on the MRT was close to her baby. The reading goes even further. Not only is God by my side, God is also on my side. God takes great delight in me. In us. He will exult with joy over you, he will renew you by his love; he will dance with shouts of joy for you as on a day of festival. Can anything be more incredible, more consoling, than that?

Against the poison of fear born of forgetfulness, our readings offer us the powerful antidote of memory leading to trust. They invite us to remember the promises of God. And the different ways that God has fulfilled these promises in our lives. Most notably by sending Jesus to be the sacrifice that takes away our sins. And also through all the many particular blessings that we have enjoyed, and continue to enjoy, in our own lives. Blessings that I too easily forget. Take for granted. Blessings that speak to me of God’s immense love and care for me. God’s powerful presence and action in my life.

So this is what I need to do whenever I tend toward discouragement and despair. Whenever I find myself getting lost in forgetfulness. In faithlessness. I need to remember that I am not alone. And also that I am loved. Deeply loved by a God whose name is Emmanuel. God-with-us. God-for-us. And this remembering will then help me to experience what St. Paul promises the Philippians in the second reading: that the peace of God… will guard your hearts and your thoughts, in Christ Jesus.

But that’s not all, sisters and brothers. The gospel also helps us to overcome two other forms of forgetfulness. Two other obstacles that prevent us from experiencing joy. The first is found in the advice that John the Baptist gives to the people who ask him what they must do to repent. He tells them to share what they have with those who have not. And to be careful not to take more than their due. In other words, practice mercy and justice. Why? Because mercy and justice help me to remember something else that I also often forget. Not only that I am not alone. But also that I have a responsibility for others. For my brothers and sisters. And especially for those most in need.

Second, just when people were beginning to think that John might be the Christ, he responds by telling them, and in no uncertain terms, that he is not the Messiah. Now this may sound a little strange, sisters and brothers, but this is also something that I often forget. That I am not the Messiah. That even though I am responsible for others. To help them in some way. I cannot save them. I cannot even save myself. Like the Baptist, my role is only to prepare the way for the true Saviour. The One who is coming. The One who is far more powerful than I am.

So I am not alone, and I am deeply loved. I am responsible for others, but I am not the Messiah. These, my dear friends, are the things that I too easily forget. And these are also the things that our readings are helping me to remember. So that my heart can be better prepared to welcome the true Messiah. The One who comes to bring peace and joy. To me. To us. To the rest of the world.

Sisters and brothers, as we celebrate Gaudete Sunday, Rejoice Sunday, how is God consoling you? Consoling us? Transforming us from crybabies into smile-babies today?

Sunday, December 06, 2015

Preparing for the Ball


2nd Sunday of Advent (C)

Readings: Baruch 5:1-9; Psalm 125:1-6; Philippians 1:4-6,8-11; Luke 3:1-6

Sisters and brothers, earlier this year, Disney Pictures released a remake of the fairytale Cinderella. Did any of you catch it? Did you like it? I must confess that I was quite taken by the movie. Even found parts of it very moving. I’m reminded today of 3 scenes in particular. The first is when the fairy godmother prepares Cinderella for the Royal Ball. Magically transforming an ordinary pumpkin into a golden carriage. Common house mice into snow white horses. Lizards into pageboys. An inquisitive goose into a talkative coachman. A tired and torn dress into a breathtakingly beautiful blue evening gown. And, of course, glass slippers out of thin air.

But in this version of the story, Cinderella’s preparation for the Ball actually begins much earlier. Many years before the fairy godmother ever makes an appearance. And this is my second memorable scene. When Cinderella is still a little girl, her mother falls ill and dies. But before breathing her last, she shares a great secret with her daughter. Something that would see the poor girl through all the trials that life can offer. She makes her daughter promise always to have courage and to be kind.

And Cinderella never forgets this secret. Always keeps her promise to her beloved mother. Always chooses to be kind. Kind to people. Kind to animals. Kind even to the stepmother and step-sisters who so cruelly bully and abuse her. And, in the movie, it is actually this continual cultivation of kindness that accounts for Cinderella’s transformation. Her ongoing efforts at putting virtue into practice opens a space in Cinderella’s life. A space for the workings of magic. For where there is kindness, there is goodness, and where there is goodness, there is magic.

The third memorable scene takes place at the Royal Ball. Where Cinderella finally gets to dance with the Crown Prince. Unable to contain her amazement, she says to him, They’re all looking at you. To which he replies, Believe me, they’re all looking at you. And he’s right. The sight of the magically transformed Cinderella is so stunning that everyone can’t take their eyes off her. Such that the Royal Ball itself is transformed into her debut. Cinderella’s coming-out party. A showcase for her glorious beauty.

A magical transformation. Prepared for by a lifetime of virtue. Resulting in a beauty so glorious that all are transfixed by it. 

Transformation, virtue, and glory. Strange as it may sound, sisters and brothers, I believe our Mass readings for this 2nd Sunday of Advent contain these same three elements. In the gospel, John the Baptist makes his appearance. And he encourages everyone to repent. To be transformed. To prepare themselves for a great event. A royal event. A new day is dawning. A Crown Prince is coming to claim his throne. And John is his messenger. A voice cries in the wilderness: Prepare a way for the Lord… But what exactly does this preparation, this repentance, look like?

Curiously, the first reading describes it, first of all, as a change of one’s clothes. Not unlike the magical makeover that Cinderella receives from her fairy godmother. Jerusalem, take off your dress of sorrow and distress, put on the beauty of the glory of God for ever… And these clothes that Jerusalem is being asked to put on are made of no ordinary fabric. They are woven instead out of virtue. Of good behaviour. For Jerusalem is told that God will give her two names: Peace through integrity, and honour through devotedness. Integrity and devotedness. Virtues very similar to the courage and kindness that Cinderella promised her mother she would cultivate.

And it is this practice of virtue that then makes space for the workings of the magic of God’s grace. Slowly but surely transforming the people of God in the direction of perfection. Which is also what we find in the second reading. I am quite certain, St. Paul writes, that the One who began this good work in you will see that it is finished when the Day of Christ Jesus comes. For now, Paul can only pray that his beloved Philippians will continue cultivating virtue. Continue making space for the magical workings of the grace of God.

My prayer is that your love for each other may increase more and more and never stop improving your knowledge and deepening your perception so that you can always recognise what is best.  Increased love. Leading to improved knowledge. Resulting in deeper perception. And clearer recognition of what is best. As in the Cinderella story, what we have here is a magical transformation. Brought about by the continual cultivation of virtue.

But that’s not all. There’s something more. Something quite marvellous. Although all the readings speak in various ways about the need to prepare for the coming of the Lord. The first reading in particular describes this coming in a rather surprising way. The prophet encourages Jerusalem not just to change her dress. But also to stand on the heights, and to direct her gaze to the east. And what is she being asked to look at? We might assume that it is the glory of the coming of the Lord. And we would be right. But what does the glory of the coming of the Lord look like?

Surprise surprise! The coming of the Lord that Jerusalem is asked to witness actually consists in the approach of her own scattered children. Joyfully returning to her like royal princes carried back in glory. For God will make a way for them to come home. God will decree the flattening of hills and the filling of valleys. God will even provide shade. And will guide Israel in joy by the light of his glory. So that just as all eyes at the Royal Ball were fixed, not so much on the Prince, but on Cinderella herself. So too will God take pride in showing off Jerusalem’s splendour to every nation under heaven

A magical transformation. Made possible by the cultivation of virtue. Resulting in a showcase of breathtaking beauty.

This, my dear friends, is what we are doing in Advent. This is the promise we are striving to keep. Just as Cinderella had to promise to be kind instead of mean. So too are we invited to promise to be loving instead of selfish. To be forgiving instead of vengeful. To be merciful instead of indifferent. And to continue cultivating these and other virtues. For it is by doing this that we make room for the grace of God to transform us. And, through us, to transform our world. From rags to riches. Through grace to glory.

And truly, isn’t our world today crying out for transformation? Isn’t it covered in the rags of violence and hatred. Of greed and despair? In the midst of all this ugliness. When everyone is tempted to react by turning their faces. By closing their doors. By baring their teeth. By clenching their fists. We Christians are invited instead to continue committing ourselves to cultivating virtue. Especially the virtue of mercy. The same mercy that we celebrate at this Mass. The mercy shown to us in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Sisters and brothers, like Cinderella, the fairytale, Advent too is a time for transformation. Made possible through the cultivation of virtue. What must we do, you and I, to allow God to continue transforming us, through grace to glory, today?

Wednesday, December 02, 2015

Our Call To Be Merciful


Wednesday in the 1st Week of Advent
Day 3 of Triduum in Preparation for Parish
Feast of St. Francis Xavier: Our Call To Be Merciful


Sisters and brothers, do you watch TV? Do you know what it feels like? What exactly happens when someone watches TV? I’m not sure, sisters and brothers, but I think that watching TV is actually very much like eating. When I watch TV, I’m actually feeding myself in some way. In what way? Well, in at least three different ways. Depending on how I watch.

The first, and perhaps most common way, is to feed my eyes. I do this usually when I’m tired. Or stressed out. When I just want to relax. When I’m looking for entertainment. At these times, I usually don’t really care what I’m watching. It doesn’t matter if the programme makes no sense. In fact, the more nonsensical the better. Why? Because I’m not really watching for the content. I’m too tired for that. I just want to rest my mind. By feasting my eyes.

But entertainment isn’t the only reason why I watch TV. Sometimes, I watch to gain information. For example, I may tune in to the BBC. Or to the Discovery Channel. Or even to the Food Network. Why? So that I can learn something. Something about what is happening in the world around me. What am I really doing? When I watch TV for information, I’m actually feeding my mind.

And that’s not all. There’s also a third way of watching TV. Sometimes I do this intentionally. But, very often, it happens by accident. I may, for example, sit down in front of the TV, hoping to relax and be entertained. But something in the programme  touches me. Moves me. Inspires me. And perhaps I may be motivated to do something about it. To change the way I live. Maybe even to try to change my world. What’s going on here? What am I doing when I watch TV in this third way? I’m watching not just for entertainment. And not just for information. But for inspiration. For transformation. This is what happens when I watch TV to feed not just my eyes. And not just my mind. But to feed my heart. To nourish my soul.

From entertainment. To information. To transformation. From feeding my eyes. To feeding my mind. To feeding my soul. Three ways of watching TV. Corresponding to three ways of being fed. Each way progressively deeper and more engaging than the previous one. But why, my dear friends, am I talking to you about this? What has eating and watching TV got to do with our Mass? Or with our preparations for the parish feast? As you will recall, the theme for this third night of our Triduum is Our Call to be Merciful. So what has mercy got to do with watching TV?

I’m not sure, sisters and brothers, but I think it’s helpful for us to look at our readings tonight in the same way that we might watch a good programme on a TV channel. Do you know the name of this channel? I think we can call it AMC. Not the AMC that you get on cable-TV. That’s the channel where you find programmes like Hell on Wheels. And The Walking Dead. That AMC stands for American Movie Classics. No, the AMC I’m talking about is not found on cable-TV. But on God’s TV. And on God’s TV, AMC stands for Almighty Mercy Channel.

I call it the mercy channel, because that’s what we see in our readings today. Striking images of what it looks like when God shows mercy. And, like any other TV channel, we can watch this evening’s programme at three different levels of depth. Three different degrees of engagement. And each of these levels correspond to the initials of the name of this channel. AMC: A is for appearances. M is for motivation. And C is for call.

What does it look like, when God shows mercy? What do we see? In our readings today, mercy looks like two things. Healing and feeding. In the gospel, we’re told that Jesus went up into the hills. Where he attracted large crowds. What did he do for all these people? First he healed them. He mended their broken bodies. He made the lame walk. The blind see. The dumb speak. And everyone praised God for it. Then, later, the Lord also fed a large crowd of four thousand men, to say nothing of women and children. And he did it with just seven loaves and some small fish. Mending broken bodies. And feeding empty stomachs. This is what mercy looks like in the gospel. At least when seen with our eyes. This is the appearance of mercy.

There is more. What Jesus does in the gospel is actually a fulfilment of the promise that God makes in the first reading. What is this promise? Again, it has to do with the same two things. Feeding and healing. The Lord of Hosts will prepare for all peoples a banquet of rich food. A great makan session. Large enough to feed the whole world. And God promises not just to feed. But also to heal. To mend not just broken bodies. But also broken hearts. Hearts fractured by loss. Hearts fearful of death. For God promises to destroy Death for ever. And to wipe away the tears from every cheek. To take away the people’s shame everywhere on earth.

Feeding and healing. This, at first glance, is what the mercy of God looks like. God feeds and heals people. God fills empty stomachs. Mends broken bodies. Restores dejected hearts. This is the appearance of mercy. And it’s important for us to see this. To appreciate how God feeds us and heals us. How God has fed and healed us in the past. And how God continues to feed and heal us in the present. But it’s not enough for us to remain at this level. The level of our eyes. The level of appearances.

For isn’t it true that there are times, when we are hungry for something, and God just doesn’t seem to feed us? Times when we are broken in some way, and God just doesn’t seem to heal us? When I need a job, for example. And I just can’t seem to find one. Or when I’m longing for a partner in life. And the right person just refuses to show up. Or when I’m hoping and praying to be cured of a painful illness. And the doctors just don’t seem to know what to do. How do I feel? What do I do, when it appears that God has abandoned me? That God has forgotten to show mercy?

It’s especially at such times that I need to go deeper. To go beyond the first way of watching TV. To go beyond appearances. Beyond looking at God’s mercy only with my eyes. I need also to use my mind. To reflect on what I believe. To meditate on what the scriptures tell me. In particular, I need to consider what Jesus tells his disciples in the gospel today. After spending three whole days in the hills, healing and teaching the crowds, the Lord must be very tired. But still he isn’t satisfied. He wants to do even more. He wants to feed the people. Why? What is his motivation for doing this? For showing such selfless mercy? I feel sorry for all these people, he tells his disciples. They have… nothing to eat. I do not want to send them off hungry, they might collapse on the way…

This, my dear friends, is God’s motivation for showing us mercy. God feels sorry for us. God is moved with compassion for those who suffer. God’s heart is broken with pity. To the extent that God is willing even to send God’s only begotten Son to break his Body for us on the Cross. And to feed us with the Bread of Life in the Eucharist. What happens to me when I remember all this? When I allow myself to reflect more deeply on God’s motivation for showing  me mercy? Perhaps I’ll gradually begin to realise that there is actually nothing that God wouldn’t do to save me. To save us. To reach out to us. To feed us. To heal us. As St. Paul writes in the letter to the Romans (8:31-32), If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else?

To realise God’s motivation for mercy is also to grow in hope and in trust, that God will never deny us anything that is for our good. But how then to explain the appearances? The times when God seems to have abandoned us. When God seems to be willing to leave us hungry and broken. Without food and healing. What is happening then? To begin to answer to this question, we need to look even more deeply at our readings for today. Deeper than the A of appearances. Deeper even than the M of motivation. Deep enough to hear the C of the call of Christ.

In the gospel, when Jesus wishes to feed the crowds, he doesn’t just do it himself. For some reason he chooses to call his disciples. To ask for their help. To invite them to join him in performing an act of mercy. Why does Jesus do this? Is he just trying to give his disciples something extra to do? So they won’t fall asleep? Or is there perhaps some deeper reason? Could it be that this call is not something extra? But actually an important part of God’s mercy?

As we said earlier, both in the first reading and the gospel, God shows mercy by healing and feeding people. But there is actually something that God does even before the healing and the feeding. Something even more basic. In the first reading, God gathers people to God’s holy mountain. Just as, in the gospel, Jesus went into the hills and gathered people to himself there. For some reason, when I think of the mercy of God, I tend to think only of the feeding and healing. But could it be that God shows mercy first by gathering people? By gathering people who have been scattered. People who have lost their way. People who have failed to find any real meaning in life. Aimless people. Directionless people. Homeless people. To all these people, God shows mercy by first gathering them to himself. Gathering them and giving them a reason to live. And a home to live in. As we prayed earlier, in the response to the psalm: In the Lord’s own house shall I dwell, for ever and ever.

But what is this house? What is this home? As you know, the true house of God is not, first of all, this church building. Or any other concrete structure. The house of God is the person of Jesus himself. Jesus, the compassion and mercy of God. And to live in God’s house, is to live the way Jesus lived. The way the Body of Christ is meant to live. By laying down one’s life for one’s friends. By joining the Lord in showing mercy to others. Especially those most in need.

If this is true, then the call that Jesus extends to his disciples is not some optional extra. In itself, the Lord’s call to his disciples is an act of mercy. Mercifully, Jesus shares his mission with his friends. So that they too will experience the joy of having a firm direction in life. Of having something deeply meaningful to live for. Of having a true and lasting home to live in. The Body of Christ. The Lord’s own house. For ever and ever.

And what happens to us when we begin to realise this? Perhaps we will begin also to feed on the Word of God. Not just with our eyes. And not just with our minds. But also, and most deeply, with our very souls. We will begin to watch the TV channel of God’s mercy. Watch AMC. The Almighty Mercy Channel. Not just for entertainment. And not just for information. But, most importantly of all, for transformation. We will first allow God’s mercy to transform us. So that we may, in our turn, go out and transform our world.

Transform our world, by heeding the Lord’s call to live lives of mercy. By showing mercy to others. By feeding the hungry. By helping to fill empty stomachs. And guiding aimless lives. By helping to heal broken bodies and broken hearts. And to mend broken relationships and a broken world. And to be willing to keep on doing this even though we ourselves may sometimes have to go hungry in some way. Even when we may sometimes have to allow ourselves to be broken. Again and again. By disappointment and by misunderstanding. To keep showing mercy, even when it may seem as though, in the process, God has forsaken us. For didn’t Jesus himself feel that way as he hung on the cross? And when he cried out in anguish, My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

And when we do this, we will be doing what our patron, St. Francis Xavier, did. Even if we do not actually leave our own country. For, like Francis, we will become servants of Christ’s mission. A mission of compassion and of care. A mission of reconciliation and of love. We will be hearing and responding generously to the same call that Francis heard. So many centuries ago. Our common Christian call to receive and to show mercy.

Sisters and brothers, if it is true that watching TV is very much like eating. And very much like showing mercy. Then how is God feeding you today?

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