Sunday, December 25, 2016

Matchmaker Make Me A Match


Nativity of the Lord (Mass During the Day)


My dear friends, do you know how young people these days decide to get married? I recently met a happily engaged couple, who are excitedly looking forward to their wedding day next year. When I asked them how they met, I was a little surprised at their reply. They told me that a mutual friend had set them up. This good samaritan had guessed that the two might hit it off. And he was right. The couple discovered that they had actually been schoolmates years before. And that they had many other friends in common. Which led them to think that, if they could both get along with so many of the same people, there was a good chance they would also enjoy each other’s company as well. And they did. They agreed to meet… And now they find themselves eagerly looking forward to marriage.

So how do young people, in this day and age, come to meet and then decide to get married? Well, at least for this pair, what made all the difference was that kaypoh mutual friend of theirs. That self-appointed matchmaker. Having studied in the same school, it’s likely that the couple would probably have seen each other many times before. Yet they didn’t recognise one another as potential partners for life. Not till someone took it upon himself to arrange their first meeting. Helping each of them to recognise and accept the other as a candidate for marriage. And, by the way, this same couple is now looking to return the favour. I’m told that strenuous efforts are currently being made to set up that mutual friend of theirs. To matchmake the matchmaker. Who happens to still be single and available.

Who would have thought that, even in this modern day and age, where almost everyone is supposedly plugged in and connected to one another, a matchmaker could still help to transform mundane meetings into exciting engagements and joyful marriages? But what has all this got to do with Christmas? Well, it’s true that, in our Mass readings today, no mention is made of matchmakers. Much less of meetings leading to marriages. And yet, we do find a process that looks very similar. If not meetings resulting in marriages, then a seeing that leads to song.

In the first reading, we’re told that the watchmen of Jerusalem raise their voices, they shout for joy together. Why? For they see the Lord face to face. And the responsorial psalm tells us to sing a new song to the Lord. Why? For he has worked wonders. And all the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God. A profound seeing that leads to joyful song. This is what we find in our readings today. This is what all of us Christians are supposed to experience on a regular basis. Seeing our God coming to save us, we ought to find ourselves moved to raise our voices in joyful song. And not just our voices, but our whole lives should be lived as songs of praise offered to God. Not unlike how, having met each other for the first time, that young couple was moved to recognise one another as spousal material. And to eventually decide to joyfully commit themselves to each other in marriage.

A seeing that leads to joyful song. This is how the Christian life is supposed to be lived. And yet, my dear friends, how many of us actually experience this on a regular basis? In the ups and downs of daily living, how many of us can honestly say that we are able to see the Lord coming to save us? How many of us find ourselves moved to sing the praises of God? Are we not just as likely to relate to God in the same way that those two former schoolmates treated each other before they were formally introduced? Even if we may see, again and again, the saving presence of our God, we are often unable to recognise it as such. And with this failure of recognition comes the inability to rejoice. The reluctance to sing. Indeed, are we not more likely to raise our voices in complaint than in praise?

Yet we are not alone in feeling this way. The gospel tells us that this was also the experience of many people at the Lord’s first coming. He was in the world that had its being through him, and the world did not know him. He came to his own domain and his own people did not accept him. Like us, they too saw but could not sing. And can we blame them? For when the Word was made flesh and lived among us, for some mysterious reason, he chose to come as a helpless baby. One unable to find a better birthplace than in a manger surrounded by filthy farm animals. One who would, when he had grown up, challenge the religious authorities of his day. And then be executed as a convicted criminal. Only to be rumoured to have been raised to life on the third day. Someone who lived between obscurity and controversy. Is it any wonder that people refused to accept him?

Even so, there were those who did. Those who were able to see and recognise him as the One that the second reading calls the radiant light of God’s glory. The First-Born Son, whom all the angels of God worship. And the gospel tells us that to all these fortunate people, who were able to recognise and accept him, he gave power to become children of God. Power, in other words, to rejoice and to sing the praises of their heavenly Father. And not just with their voices. But in the way they lived their lives.

But how, we may ask, did these people succeed where so many others failed? How were they able to see in so profound a way as to be led to break out in joyful song? They didn’t do it on their own. They had help. The first reading speaks of a joyful messenger bringing news of peace. How beautiful on the mountains, are the feet of one who brings good news, who heralds peace, brings happiness, proclaims salvation… And the gospel points us more specifically to the person of John the Baptist. The one who comes as a witness. Helping others to recognise the Light when it shines upon them… Just as that happily engaged couple benefitted from the efforts of a matchmaker, so too did those who recognise Christ at his first coming benefit from the ministry of John the Baptist.

And what about us? Could this be the real reason why we celebrate Christmas? Why we need to celebrate Christmas? And celebrate not just today, but for all of the next two weeks of the Christmas Season? During this time, we will allow the liturgy to become our holy matchmaker. Helping us to see and to recognise Emmanuel. The God who regularly enters our lives to save us. To save us from our burdensome self-absorption. Our often soul-crushing routine. As we gaze upon the Christmas crib. As we ponder over the readings and prayers at Mass. We allow all of these to become our John the Baptist. To help us recognise how God comes to save us. Perhaps not in spectacular ways. But in ordinary yet mighty ways. Mighty in the way that a baby lying on a bed of straw can be mighty. Having the power to penetrate hearts so often hardened by the cares and distractions of life. To penetrate and to disarm them. To turn them from darkness to light. From self-centredness to compassion. From blindness to sight. From complaint to praise.

My dear friends, if it is indeed true that Christmas is about being led from meeting to marriage, from seeing to song. Then what must we do to pay closer attention to the matchmaker this Christmas?

Sunday, December 11, 2016

The Grace to Wag our Tails (Rerun)


3rd Sunday in Advent (A) (Gaudete Sunday)


Sisters and brothers, have you ever come across people leaving their dogs outside a store or a restaurant, while they go in to shop or eat? It’s not so common here in Singapore. But I once lived in a place where this happened quite frequently. And I remember being fascinated by the different reactions of those poor dogs. Some of them would just lie down on the ground, put their heads on their paws, and look really depressed at being left behind. Others did the exact opposite. They became very excited and distracted by everything around them. Sniffing at the trees, the dustbins, and the people passing by. You just knew that, if they weren’t on a leash, they’d probably run off without turning back. Then there were also the really impatient and demanding ones. Who wouldn’t stop barking loudly. Until their owners came out to get them.

But, every so often, if you were really lucky, you’d come across a dog who behaved quite differently from all the rest. This fellow neither barks nor makes a fuss. It doesn’t get impatient or distracted. Nor does it look depressed. On the contrary, even though it’s left outside, the dog remains calm. Its attention focused on one thing. Its body is positioned firmly in the direction of the doorway through which its owner entered. And, if there is a glass window, the dog keeps looking through it eagerly. Carefully scanning the interior. Watching for signs of its master.

What I find most impressive of all is that, very often, even while it watches and waits, this dog continues to express its happiness by wagging its tail. Imagine that. Left all alone outside on a sidewalk, while its owner is inside having fun. And this fellow not only keeps watching and waiting, it even continues to wag its tail when it catches sight of its owner through the window. I’m not sure about you, but I find that truly impressive. Not least because I myself am often unable to do the same. Difficult enough to remain patiently watchful in an uncomfortable situation. But to be joyful as well? I find that a tough act to follow.

And yet this is precisely the kind of grace we are praying for on this 3rd Sunday of Advent. As we said earlier, today is also called Gaudete Sunday. From the first word of the entrance antiphon, meaning Rejoice! Even as you watch and wait for the Lord’s coming, Rejoice! Even if you happen to find yourself in a difficult and uncomfortable situation right now, Rejoice!

That is the central message of our celebration today. And if, like me, you find this call more than a little difficult to answer, then we need to pay closer attention to what our readings tell us. For, as you’ve probably noticed, most of the people in our readings are also in really difficult situations. In the first reading, the people of Israel are living in exile, far away from home, in Babylon. The Christians, to whom the second reading is addressed, are undergoing persecution for their faith. And, in the gospel, not only is John the Baptist in prison for speaking against King Herod. But he will soon have his head chopped off.

Finding themselves stuck in bad situations. Not unlike those dogs left all alone on the sidewalk. It must be truly tempting for all these people either to give in to depression and despair, or to get distracted by everything that’s going on around them, and to give up their faith in God. But even as they continue to suffer, all of these people receive calls to persevere. Those in the first reading are told to strengthen all weary hands. To steady all trembling knees. And to say to all faint hearts, “Courage! Do not be afraid.” The people in the second reading are encouraged to be patient. And not to lose heart. And, in the gospel, Jesus promises John the Baptist that the one who doesn’t lose faith in the Lord is happy.

All of which is easier said than done. And yet, all these people are not left alone to do the impossible. A gift is being offered to them to help them. A secret for obtaining the grace to stand firm. The grace to rejoice even in the midst of their suffering. The grace to do what those impressive dogs we mentioned earlier seem to be able to do as if by instinct. When it feels as though we’ve been left behind by our Master. When we find ourselves in a difficult situation. How do we keep waiting patiently without giving up hope? How do we find joy in the midst of our distress? Well, much depends on where we choose to look.

If we simply put our heads on our paws, and stare only inward at our own difficult situations, we will naturally get depressed. And if, on the other hand, our focus is only outward. On the many things going on around us. The things that often keep us so very busy. Then we’ll just get distracted. But if we are able to imitate those impressive dogs, and keep eagerly looking forward. If we carefully keep watch for the signs of the Master’s coming. Then perhaps we will receive the incredible ability, the unbelievable courage, not just to remain calm. But even to wag our tails in joyful expectation.

In the first reading, for example, although the people may feel as though they are living in a barren and desolate place, the prophet calls them to look forward to a time when the wilderness and the dry-lands will exult. And the wasteland rejoice and bloom.  A day when the Lord will return them to their homes. When joy and gladness will go with them and sorrow and lament will be ended. In the second reading, although the people may feel that God has left them all alone on the sidewalk of persecution. They are reminded to continue looking for the Lord, who is already to be seen waiting at the gates. And, in the gospel, Jesus has a similar message for John. To the one who is suffering so much in prison, Jesus sends news of the many blessings already being showered on those outside: the blind see again… the lame walk… lepers are cleansed… the deaf hear… the dead are raised to life and the Good News is proclaimed to the poor…

Sisters and brothers, when we look closely at our lives. When we gaze deeply into our hearts. When we survey carefully the world around us. It is likely that we will find much to depress and distract us. But this doesn’t mean that we should just close our eyes and stop looking. We should, rather, insist on looking even more closely. Looking even more deeply. Looking even more carefully. To the Lord. To the One who has already come. And who will come again. The same Lord, by whose life, death and resurrection every tear is wiped away. And everything is made new. Especially in this third week of Advent, we need to keep looking for signs of his coming. In our hearts. In our lives. And in our world.

I’m reminded of these words from an old hymn written by Sr. Miriam Therese Winter: I saw Christ in wind and thunder. Joy is tried by storm. Christ asleep within my boat, whipped by wind, yet still afloat. Joy is tried by storm. I saw raindrops on a river. Joy is like the rain. Bit by bit the river grows, 'til all at once it overflows. Joy is like the rain.

Sisters and brothers, today is Gaudete Sunday. Today, whatever the trials we may be facing, we are all called to rejoice. For the Lord is close. What must we do to keep looking out for him, and to keep joyfully wagging our tails in welcome today?

Sunday, December 04, 2016

Bat-Signal


2nd Sunday of Advent (A)

Picture: cc Mark Morgan

My dear friends, are you familiar with the Bat-Signal? Do you know what it is? It’s something found in the Batman comics. You know, of course, who the Batman is, right? That fictional crime-fighting superhero, who protects the people of Gotham City. Whenever there is a serious crime wave. A crisis that even the police cannot handle on their own. The Police Commissioner switches on a special searchlight. Which projects the shape of a bat high up into the night sky. This is the Bat-Signal. It is, first of all, a sign of distress. A cry for help. A call to the Batman to come and save a city engulfed in darkness.

And the citizens of Gotham know that they can rely on this signal. They know that, once the sign of the bat flashes in the sky, the Batman will come to save them. Which is why the signal is not just a call for help. Not just a cry of distress. It is also a sign of hope. A promise to the people that their suffering will soon be ended. That help is on its way. That justice will eventually be meted out. And peace restored once again.

Of course, for the criminals in the city, on the other hand, for those responsible in some way for the people’s suffering, the bat-signal sends a very different message. It serves as a warning to the bad guys. Giving them due notice that their days of oppressing the good citizens of Gotham are quickly coming to an end. That they themselves will be sternly dealt with. Provided they turn over a new leaf. Provided they stop ignoring the rights of the poor. Provided they take steps to reach out and to help the needy. To restore justice. To work for peace.

A single signal shining in the dark, communicating different things to different people: A cry for help. A message of hope. A call to repentance. This is what the Bat-Signal stands for. This is what we find in the comic books. But not just in the comic books. Believe it or not, my dear friends, we find something similar in our Mass readings on this second Sunday in Advent.

The first reading speaks of a shoot springing from the stock of Jesse. The rise of a descendant of the father of King David. Someone who becomes a meaningful signal for a defeated nation. A country overrun by its enemies. A people walking in the darkness of exile. Someone who becomes a sign of their deep distress. Expressing their fervent cries for help. A sign simultaneously promising them that their suffering will soon be ended. That judgment will eventually be given in their favour. That justice will be meted out. A verdict for the poor of the land. A rod that strikes the ruthless. Sentences that bring death to the wicked. Which is why this same signal is also a warning to their enemies. Calling them to change their ways. To cease preying on the weak. To stop feeding on the flesh of the poor. To become like the lion who learns to eat straw like the ox. So that both predator and prey can live together. Enjoying the justice and peace that come to those who fear the Lord.

A single signal shining in the dark, communicating different things to different people: A cry for help. A message of hope. A call to repentance. We find the same thing in the gospel. This time, the signal comes in the person of John the Baptist. He is the voice that cries in the wilderness. He is the signal shining out in the darkness of the people’s distress. For not only is their land occupied by the Roman army. More importantly, their hearts and their lives are oppressed by the tyranny of sin and selfishness. Of ignorance and self-righteousness.

To them John offers a message of hope. Hope in the coming of the Lord. Who dispels the night of sin with the bright light of love. And, like the Bat-Signal, John’s is not just a message of hope for the oppressed. It is also a call to repentance for their oppressors. An alarm meant to awaken those who are asleep. Those still trapped in their own complacency. Those who assume they have nothing to fear, simply because they are the children of Abraham. The chosen people God. (Or simply because they are baptised, and faithfully go to Mass every Sunday.) To these, John issues a dire warning: Even now, he says, the axe is laid to the roots of the trees, so that any tree which fails to produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown on the fire…

A single signal shining in the dark, communicating different things to different people: A cry for help. A message of hope. A call to repentance. This is what we find in each of our readings today. And this signal is meant not only for us, who are gathered here this evening. Not only for our parish. Not only for the rest of the Catholic Church. This signal is meant for the whole world. As the first reading tells us, the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples. It will be sought out by the nations. And the second reading reminds us that Christ became the servant of circumcised Jews not just to fulfil the promises made to the patriarchs. But also to get the pagans to give glory to God for his mercy. The signal that we find in our readings today is meant not just for us, but also for the rest of the world. A world that remains plunged in the darkness of war and conflict. Of ignorance and disbelief. Of greed and lust for power. Of selfishness and sin.

But how can we expect our world to see and to recognise this signal? Provided, of course, that we are able to see and to recognise it first for ourselves. To see and to recognise it not just as it is proclaimed here in this church. But also as it continues to shine out in our world. I’m reminded, for example, of that encouraging news report in today’s issue of the Straits Times. Which tells the story of Jaycie Tay and John Shu. Of how, in 2013,  29-year-old twice-divorced and twice-incarcerated mother of four, Jaycie, happens to meet 47-year-old married father of two, John, at a bus-stop in Yishun. Jaycie is nearing the end of an 18-month sentence for drug offences. And waiting for a bus to take her back to her half-way house. John has to take a bus that day, because his motorcycle is in the shop.

They strike up a conversation. And John learns of Jaycie’s difficulties, as well as her desire to pursue a diploma, to give her children a better future. The two become friends. A few months into their friendship, John, who earns just over $2,000 a month, gives Jaycie $6,000 to pay for her diploma and other expenses. Why should I calculate so much about helping others? He says. I see Jaycie as a family member, like my younger sister. On her part, Jaycie completes her diploma, and has recently embarked on a part-time programme towards a degree in Business Studies. I never thought a stranger (who became a friend) would help me so much, she says. I hope that by sharing my story, other former offenders can also feel there is hope in life.

A signal shining in the dark, communicating different things to different people: A cry for help. A message of hope. A call to repentance. Isn’t this also what the story of John and Jaycie can be for us? Are there not similar stories in our own lives? Similar cries for help. Similar messages of hope. Similar calls to repentance. To recognise these signs and to respond adequately to them. Isn’t this what it means to celebrate Advent?

My dear friends, even in the midst of the darkness of our world, the Bat-Signal is already shining clearly in the sky. How are we being called to respond to it today?

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Speak Friend & Enter

Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe (C)

Readings: 2 Samuel 5:1-3; Psalm 121:1-5; Colossians 1:12-20; Luke 23:35-43

Sisters and brothers, have you ever forgotten your password? Do you know what it feels like? It can be quite frustrating. You stare at the screen of your device. And you keep trying different combinations of numbers and letters of the alphabet. But nothing seems to work. You remain locked out. Access is denied you. What to do? Should you keep trying? Or will you simply give up and ask for help?

I’m reminded of a scene from the first movie in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. The one entitled, The Fellowship of the Ring. A hastily formed fellowship–comprising a wizard, two humans, an elf, a dwarf, and several hobbits–has set out on a perilous journey to destroy a certain evil ring of power. In order to prevent a dark lord from using it to conquer the world. On the way, they are forced to pass through the underground kingdom of Moria. But when they get there, they find the doors sealed shut. Inscribed on the doors are the words, speak friend and enter.

So they start calling out different passwords. But nothing seems to work. They have found the right place of entry. But access is denied them. Until one of them realises that the answer is actually found in the inscription itself. Speak friend and enter. The password is the elvish word for friend. They speak the word. The doors swing open. They proceed inside. And not a moment too soon. For outside, a fearsome water creature begins attacking them. Threatening to pull them into the dark depths of a treacherous river. As it turns out, for the fellowship, gaining access to the kingdom of Moria is truly a matter of life and death.

In a time of danger, to be saved from certain death, by gaining access to a kingdom. And to do this by taking three steps. First, by finding the right place of entry. Second, by speaking the correct password. And, finally, by proceeding inside. Place, password & process. Strange as it may sound, my dear friends, I think we find these same three steps in our Mass readings for the solemn feast of Christ the King. But to appreciate this, we have to first allow the second reading to help us set the scene.

The reading speaks of how God has taken us out of the power of darkness and created a place for us in the kingdom of his Son. In a time of danger, we have been saved from darkness and death, by being given access to a kingdom of light and life. How is this done? As with the Lord of the Rings, the first step is to find the right place of entry. And the reading reveals to us what this place is, by telling us that in him, in Christ, we gain our freedom, the forgiveness of our sins. Christ is for us the place of entry. He himself is the doorway through which we have to pass. For he is the Beginning… the first to be born from the dead. All things are reconciled through him and for him, everything in heaven and everything on earth… But, as with the kingdom of Moria, finding the place of entry is only the first step. To open the doors, an important second step needs to be taken. Having arrived at the right place, we need now to speak the correct password. The key that gains us access.

The password to the kingdom of Moria is the elvish word for friend. But what is the password for the kingdom of God? We find the answer in the other two readings. Which both actually describe similar situations. The first reading takes place in the city of Hebron. Where all the tribes of Israel have gathered for one purpose. To proclaim, to anoint, and to enthrone David as their new king. On the other hand, at first glance, the gospel seems to describe a radically different scene. An execution. Jesus is being put to death by crucifixion. And all around him, bystanders watch in silence, while Jewish leaders and Roman soldiers mock and ridicule the Lord. Challenging him to save himself. Even one of his fellow prisoners joins in to mock him.

And yet, when we look more closely, what at first appears to be nothing more than a brutal execution, is actually very similar to what we find in the first reading: A crowning of a ruler. The enthronement of a king. For, despite the insults and scorn of those around him, the inscription on Jesus’ cross proclaims in no uncertain terms that this is the King of the Jews. And although everyone else fails to acknowledge him as such, there is at least one person who recognises him as king. One of the criminals crucified with the Lord receives the grace to say: Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.

What we find here, my dear friends, is something similar to what happens at the entrance to Moria. In a time of danger, someone successfully takes the three crucial steps needed for gaining access to a kingdom. First, the friendly criminal somehow arrives at the place of entry. He comes before the doorway that is Christ crucified. Christ hanging on his cross. And, having found the right place, the criminal manages to speak the correct password. The same word inscribed on the Cross. The word found also in the title of the feast that we ourselves celebrate today. The word is king. Except that this password needs to be spoken in a particular language. Not the elvish tongue of the Lord of the Rings. But, instead, the language of life. The dialect of decision. To speak the word that opens the doors to the kingdom, one must acknowledge Jesus as king, by the way one lives one’s life.

And this is precisely what the friendly criminal succeeds in doing. For even though he himself is suffering terribly, he is given the wisdom and the courage to speak in the Lord’s defence. Even more loudly than his words, through his actions, the friendly criminal proclaims Jesus as his king. As a result, the doors open for him. And he proceeds inside. He gains access. Indeed, I promise you, today you will be with me in paradise.

Place, password and paradise. These three steps, taken by the friendly criminal, gain him access to freedom and safety. And these are the same three steps that each of us is invited to take. This is what we celebrate today. The conviction that, in Christ, God has given us access to the Kingdom of Light and Life.

But to accept this offer, we must first seek out and make our way to wherever Christ continues to hang on his Cross. Wherever there is suffering. Whether it be ours, or that of others. Whether it be physical, or emotional, or spiritual. And, having arrived at the right place, we need then to fix our eyes on the Lord. As he hangs on his Cross. And to speak the correct password in the proper language. To proclaim, with our lives, through the choices that we make everyday, that we accept Jesus as our king. By choosing to love as he first loved us. By laying down our lives, for him and for others, as he first laid down his for us.

Place, password, and paradise. These are the steps that gain us access to the Kingdom of God. This is what it means to truly celebrate the solemn feast of Christ the King.

My dear friends, in a time of danger, God has already prepared for us a safe refuge in Christ. What must we do to keep on speaking the password that gains us access to paradise today?

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Of Mirrors & Windows


Wedding Mass of Hans & Pauline

Readings: Job 37:1-14; Psalm 97; Ephesians 3:14-21; John 17:20-26
Picture: cc jase

Pauline & Hans, my dear friends, do you know the difference between a mirror and a clear glass window? I’m sure you do. A mirror is opaque. When I look at it, not only does it obstruct my vision. It also reflects my gaze back at me. So that all I see is myself. My own reflection. On the other hand, a clear glass window is transparent. It allows my gaze to penetrate its surface. I can look through a window. And see the things that lie beyond.

A mirror reflects. And a window directs. Two very different objects having contrasting effects on my vision. And yet, my dear friends, isn’t it true that mirrors and windows are not just different kinds of objects? Don’t they also represent two different ways of looking at things? Two different ways of looking at life? Let’s say, for example, that I’m caught in a sudden thunderstorm, while on my way to an important meeting. I’m delayed. Perhaps even soaked to the skin. How do you think feel? How do I view the storm?

I’m not sure about you. But I would probably look at it as I would a mirror. Seeing only a reflection of my own annoyance and frustration. And yet, it doesn’t have to be that way. Someone else might react quite differently. Might recall, for example, news reports of the alarmingly low water levels at certain reservoirs in nearby Johor. And, with this fact in mind, this person might look past personal annoyance, and see the storm more as a blessing than as a curse. So that the storm functions less as a mirror than as a window. Something that directs the gaze beyond the self and its immediate concerns to things that are beyond.

A mirror reflects. A window directs. These are not just two different kinds of objects. But also two contrasting ways of looking at life. If this is true, then perhaps the next question we might ask is whether and how mirrors can be turned into windows. Whether and how we can change our way of looking at life from one to the other. Indeed, I believe this is precisely the question that you, Hans and Pauline, are helping us to ponder. Even as we gather to rejoice with you on this happy day.

We find a first indication of this intention of yours in the note that you have penned on the opening page of your wedding booklet. Here, you write about how God speaks to us in nature. And of your desire to share with all of us the feeling of awe for the beauty of life. Quite obviously, you have gazed upon the different faces of nature. Upon the rain-drenched forest, the euphoric mountain-top, and the hardy drain-dwelling flower. You have looked at all these apparently ordinary things, and glimpsed the glory of God. And now, you wish to share with us this same experience. Helping us to look at nature not just as a mirror reflecting our own narrow concerns. But also as a window directing our minds and hearts to God, the Creator.

Isn’t this why you have made the highly unusual choice of a passage from the book of Job as your first reading? For what we find here is a hymn to the awe-inspiring beauty of nature. An invitation addressed to Job, in the midst of his trials, to consider the changing faces of the seasons. To listen to the voice of God, who speaks to us in the flashing of lightning and the clashing of thunder. In the caress of snow and the patter of rain. In the blowing of wind and the hardening of ice. To reflect on these ordinary things and to see the marvellous works of God.

But that’s not all. It’s not just in nature as a whole that you, Hans and Pauline, have encountered the Divine. More particularly, you have both also experienced God in each of your own lives. As well as in your interactions with each other. This is evident in the write-ups that you have shared with me. For example, you, Pauline, speak about having experienced in your own life a series of changes in direction where, in retrospect, you can see clearly God’s hand at work. You also write about how Hans anchors you to God. Of how the generosity and love that he invests in the people around him inspires you to do the same. Of how he reminds you of the meaning of life and the dignity of work when the going gets tough.

And Hans, on your part, you write about how, through her courage to dream, Pauline has taught you that it is okay to dream wildly too. Of how her love and support for you helps you to experience what God’s unconditional love feels like. Of how, reflecting on your own experiences, you see that God has turned your life around since a fateful retreat in 2007. Of how you have no doubt that marrying Pauline is one of the masterstrokes in God’s unfolding plan for you. And how you are excited to see what he holds in store for you both in the days ahead.

To look at the ups and downs of one’s own life, and the life of one’s beloved, and see the hand of God. Isn’t this what it means to look at life as if gazing through a window? And yet, Hans and Pauline, you both admit that it didn’t start out this way. Regarding your first meeting with Hans, you, Pauline, will only share this cryptic little line: Thankfully, it wasn’t love at first sight. However, you, Hans, are a little more forthcoming… I will never forget that my first impression was that she was slightly irritating!

From seeing another as an irritation, to recognising the hand of God at work. And then joyfully committing the rest of your lives to one another. This is indeed quite a journey. A journey, above all, of interior transformation. A journey in which we allow the way we look at the people and events of our lives to be changed. No longer as if they were mirrors, reflecting back to us our own narrow concerns. But more as if they were windows, directing our gaze ever onward, toward a marvellous vision of God.

This is precisely the kind of transformation that we find in the other two readings that you, Hans and Pauline have chosen. In the second reading, the writer prays that God the Father might enable your inner self to grow strong. So that rooted and established in love, you might have the strength to grasp… the love of Christ. And so be filled with the utter fullness of God. In the gospel, Jesus prays that his disciples might be so united to one another that the world might look at them and be drawn to recognise the love of God in Christ. He also prays that, by remaining united to Him, they may always see the glory of God.

To be able to look at everything and everyone in one’s life as a window directing one’s gaze into the fullness of God. Isn’t this a precious gift? A gift that comes to us when we receive Christ into our hearts. When we remain in the embrace of his love. A gift that God delights in offering us. If only we remember to ask. Which is why it is fitting that all our three Mass readings are, in fact, prayers. A hymn of praise and two petitions for love. Prayers that the rest of us offer especially for you, Hans and Pauline, as you begin your new life as husband and wife. But also for ourselves, as we continue on the pilgrimage of life.

Mirrors reflect. And windows direct. Hans & Pauline, my dear friends, what must we do to keep gazing through the window that directs us into the heart of God today?

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Resisting the Mood


33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

Picture: cc anthrospective

My dear friends, are you familiar with the Singlish expression ORD mood? Do you know what it means? I suspect that many of you do. But it’s okay if you don’t. It’s an expression used mainly by those who have done or are currently doing full-time National Service. O-R-D stands for Operationally Ready Date. Which is the date that marks the end of a Singaporean male’s full-time National Service liability. As such, the ORD is, as you may well imagine, a very happy day. A day that many soldiers look forward to with great anticipation.

Knowing what ORD stands for, it’s not too difficult for us to guess what it means to be in an ORD mood. This is a condition that afflicts many of those whose ORD is fast approaching. Let’s say in a few months, for instance. Realising that the end is near, many of these fortunate full-time soldiers begin to feel much less motivated to work. And having been in the service for some time, they know all too well how to get away with doing less. So that if another soldier were to suggest that some piece of work should be given to one of these privileged individuals, someone else might be moved to declare: Aiyah, don’t bother to ask him to do, lah. He’s already in ORD mood!

Of course, someone in an ORD mood hasn’t actually reached his ORD. He hasn’t quite completed his full-time service. He should really still be working hard. But he doesn’t. Simply because he anticipates the end. He acts as though the end is here even before it arrives. That’s essentially what this mood involves. Acting as though the end is here even before it arrives. To stop working before one’s work is actually done. And, by the way, there are also those notorious individuals who seem to get into an ORD mood right from the day of their enlistment.

To act as though the end is here even before it arrives. This is the kind of condition that Jesus is trying to help his disciples to resist in today’s gospel. Except that the end in question is not the ORD, but the end of time. And the reason why they have to resist this temptation is because of a certain traumatic event that will soon come to pass. The siege and destruction of Jerusalem by Roman forces in the year 70. A time of great suffering and tribulation for the Jewish people. A time that might lead some of them to think that the end of the world has arrived. But Jesus is quick to warn his disciples. Take care not to be deceived, he says. Refuse to join those who claim that the time is near at hand. And do not be frightened. For the end is not so soon.

Jesus’ purpose in telling his disciples these things is not just to protect them from anxiety and despair. It is also to encourage them to keep on working. To remind them not to slacken their efforts. Not to allow themselves to get drawn into a kind of end-of-the-world mood. Acting as though the end were here even before it actually arrives. Allowing fear and anxiety to distract them from the task at hand. And what is the task at hand? It is the duty that they are expected to perform not just in good times. When circumstances are in their favour. But also, and especially in bad times. When the tides turn against them. And they have to swim with all their might just to keep from being swept away.

Men will seize you and persecute you, the Lord says. They will hand you over to… imprisonment, and bring you before kings and governors because of my name–and that will be your opportunity to bear witness. To bear witness to the name of the Lord. To live in his love and according to his values. To speak on his behalf and in the power of his Spirit. This is the important task that the Lord sets before his disciples. This is what they are supposed to do, even when they see the Holy City overrun. And their beloved Temple destroyed. Torn apart brick by brick and stone from stone. Still their courage must hold. And their work must continue. For the end is not yet. Their task is not complete.

What is more, the Lord promises them that if only they persevere, they will eventually be saved, when the end does finally arrive. Your endurance will win you your lives. For, as the first reading reminds us, at the coming of the Day of the Lord, at the rising of the Sun of Righteousness, only those who fear the Lord’s name, will find healing in its rays. Those who keep bearing witness right to the very end. On the other hand, the arrogant and the evil-doers, those who grow complacent, those who slacken their efforts, will find themselves completely burnt up.

To persevere in doing the work assigned to us. Even when it may seem inconvenient and unnecessary to continue doing so. Especially when it appears as though the end is fast approaching. And our work will make no difference one way or the other. To keep on working even when it’s so very tempting to remain idle. This is also the kind of advice that St. Paul offers the Thessalonians in the second reading. Except that here he refers to work of a more mundane sort. We hear, he says, that there are some of you who are living in idleness.… In the Lord Jesus Christ, we order and call on people of this kind to go on quietly working and earning the food that they eat.

If it’s so important for Paul that we should keep working to earn a living in a world that will soon pass away. How much more important it must be to labour to secure a place in the kingdom of God, which will endure for all eternity? Isn’t this something that we too need to bear firmly in our minds? We who continue to live in between the destruction of the Temple and the second coming of Christ at the end of time? Like those first disciples to whom Jesus is speaking in the gospel. Like those Thessalonians to whom the second reading is addressed. We too are expected to keep on working. To continue diligently bearing witness to the Lord. Whether or not it suits us to do so. And not to allow ourselves to be distracted by other voices.

Voices that so often succeed in luring us either into a false confidence or a despairing anxiety. Either by telling us how terribly important it is first to accumulate wealth and status on this earth. Why worry about the end of the world? We can’t predict its coming anyway. Or by making us worry that the end is very near. Doesn’t global terrorism continue to endanger everyone’s safety? Haven’t the Brits already voted for Brexit? And the Americans for the Donald?

Complacency or despair. In either case, we find ourselves distracted from the crucial task at hand. Announcing the gospel of the Lord. Sharing the awesome all-important message of God’s self-emptying love for us, shown especially on the Cross of Christ. The same love that we are gathered here to remember. To celebrate. And to allow to reinvigorate us. So that we can go forth from this place with new energy to continue announcing the gospel to a world that needs so badly to hear it.

My dear sisters and brothers, whether it is the ORD or the end of the world, what is to come will come. Whether we want it to or not. The important thing is that we persevere in doing what is expected of us right till the very end.

My dear friends, even if the end is near, it hasn’t quite arrived yet. What must we do to keep resisting the ORD mood today?

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