Saturday, April 23, 2016

Renewal & Refreshment


5th Sunday of Easter (C)

Picture: cc Brian Leon

My dear friends, have you ever noticed how quickly things age when you’re a child? Imagine that I’m five or six years old. And I come across a brand new toy that I like. So I pester my parents to buy it for me. What happens when they do? Well, I may play with it happily for a day or two. But, very soon after that, I’ll grow tired of it. A newer toy will catch my eye. And I’ll pester my parents to buy that for me. While the earlier one is cast away. Forgotten. Left in some dark corner of my room. Until I’m scolded for being untidy. And made to clean up the mess I’ve made. It’s actually quite amazing, isn’t it, sisters and brothers? How, for a child, something new very quickly grows old. A treasured gift becomes a tiresome burden.

And yet, to be honest, don’t we see this in us grownups as well? Especially those of us who have the money to buy grownup toys. Haven’t we noticed, in this consumer society of ours, how quickly new things grow old? And old things become obsolete? How soon, for example, we need to find a way to discard our iPhone 5 or 6. So as to make way for a brand new iPhone 6s?

Which is bad enough, if we were talking only about toys and gadgets. What’s worse is that we often do the same with people and relationships. Very quickly, don’t we grow tired, not just of cars and computers, but also of husbands and wives? Increasingly, in this ultra-modern society of ours, don’t we see employees getting laid off? Marriages dissolved? Domestic help abused? The elderly neglected? What to do? How to renew the old? To refresh the obsolete? To change tiresome burdens back into treasured gifts? This, my dear friends, is the crucially important question that our Mass readings and prayers help us to ponder today.

We see this most clearly in the second reading, where John describes his vision of a new heaven and a new earth. A marvellous place, where there will be no more death, and no more mourning or sadness. For God is making the whole of creation new. What does this tell us, sisters and brothers? What do we learn about renewal and refreshment? At least three things. First, we learn that renewal is not something that happens at our initiative, but God’s. It is God who renews. Second, we learn that God brings this about simply through the power of God’s presence. God chooses to make his home among us. And third, we learn that God’s presence is consoling. It wipes away all tears from our eyes. 

God’s initiative. God’s presence. God’s consolation. This is how renewal takes place.

But God also chooses to work through human instruments. Like Paul and Barnabas, in the first reading. Having reached the outer limit of their missionary journey, Paul and Barnabas make a U-turn. They go back through the same places they had visited earlier. Even places where they had encountered persecution. But why? Why don’t they take a safer path? The answer is simple. Paul and Barnabas choose to revisit places like Lystra, and Iconium, and Antioch, in order that they may renew and refresh the young Christian communities there. And, as in the second reading, they do this in a very particular way.

Through the ministry of encouragement. Of consolation. By putting fresh heart into the disciples. By encouraging them to persevere in the faith. By reminding them that we all have to experience many hardships before we enter the kingdom of God. But that’s not all. Not only do they refresh the hearts of individuals with sound teaching. Paul and Barnabas also renew whole communities, by appointing worthy leaders. Representatives of God on earth. Images of God’s consoling presence at the heart of God’s people. Sound teaching and solid leadership. These are the ways by which Paul and Barnabas bring renewal. First and above all, through the ministry of encouragement. Putting fresh heart into individuals and communities.

All of which should help us to better appreciate what Jesus is doing in the gospel. Something that is not always easy for us to understand. For, at first glance, it may seem that Jesus is placing a terrible burden on the shoulders of his disciples. Love one another; just as I have loved you. To love as Jesus loves. This is how we usually understand this commandment. Simply to love as Jesus loves. And how does Jesus love? By laying down his life for everyone. Including the people who denied and betrayed him. Even the people who tortured and crucified him. What could be more difficult and  burdensome than that?

But is this really how the love commandment is meant to be understood? As a terrible burden? Something that we have heard so many times that it has become old in our ears. And heavy on our hearts. Since we cannot bring ourselves to fulfil it? Or could there be another meaning? Something that we begin to appreciate by paying attention to two words that Jesus uses. The word give and the word new. I give you a new commandment.

Before love is a command, it is first offered to us as a gift. Something that we must receive, before we can offer it to others. And it’s important to remember how the disciples experienced this gift at the Last Supper. In chapter 13 of John’s gospel, before Jesus gives his disciples the love command, he first gives them something else. In verse 15, he says to them, I have given you an example… By which he refers, of course, to his washing of their feet. Something that we ourselves experienced on Maundy Thursday. Jesus, our Lord and Master, refreshes our feet with water. Just as he renews our hearts with his blood. This is how love is first experienced. Not as a terrible burden. But as a precious gift. Given to us by God in Christ.

And this is also what makes the commandment new. It is something that is first done to us. And for us. And in us. For the command is not simply to love as Jesus loves. But to love as Jesus loves us. As Jesus loves me. And I can do that,  only by first allowing myself to receive his love. By having my feet washed by his hands. My heart cleansed by his blood. Isn’t this what Easter is about? Continually allowing Jesus to renew and to refresh us. With the water of baptism. And the blood of the Eucharist. So that we, in our turn, can reach out to renew and refresh our world.

It is often said that, here in Singapore, ours is an aging society. And it’s probably true. But perhaps it is also true that ours is a very childish society. A society that tends to allow new things to grow old too quickly. And that transforms precious gifts into terrible burdens too easily. A society that needs the renewal and refreshment that is the precious gift of Easter.

I’m reminded of this prayer of St. Claude La Colombiere:

O God, what will you do to conquer 
the fearful hardness of our hearts?
Lord, you must give us new hearts,
tender hearts, sensitive hearts,
to replace hearts that are made of marble and of bronze. 
You must give us your own Heart, Jesus.
Come, lovable Heart of Jesus.
Place your Heart deep in the center of our hearts
and enkindle in each heart a flame of love
as strong, as great, as the sum of all the reasons
that I have for loving you, my God. 
O holy Heart of Jesus, dwell hidden in my heart,
so that I may live only in you and only for you,
so that, in the end, I may live with you eternally in heaven.
Amen.

Sisters and brothers, what must we do to allow our Crucified and Risen Lord to continue to refresh and to renew our hearts today?

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Sing!


3rd Sunday of Easter (C)


Sing, sing a song. Make it simple, to last your whole life long. Don’t worry that it’s not good enough for anyone else to hear. Just sing, sing a song…

Sisters and brothers, I think at least some of you may find these words familiar. They’re taken from an old song. Popularised in the 1970s, by a brother and sister duo, named The Carpenters. The song is quite simply titled Sing. And it’s message is as straightforward as its name. It’s an invitation to do one thing: To sing. To sing a song. Not just any song. But a joyful song. A song that lasts your whole life long. But how is that even possible? Difficult enough to sing a happy song once in a while. But for the whole of your life? How do we do that? What do you think, sisters and brothers? Is this something you’d like to be able to do?

To sing a joyful song for the whole of our lives. This is actually the invitation that our Mass readings present to us today. The ability to sing a joyful song as long as we live. This is the gift that is offered to us today. The same gift that we ourselves prayed for in the opening prayer just now. May your people exult for ever, O God… so that rejoicing now… we may look forward… to the rejoicing of the day of resurrection… To exult. And not just with the whole of our lives. But forever. This is the awesome gift that we prayed for just now. And what does it mean to exult, if not to sing and dance for joy? But what does it look like to sing in this way? How do we do it? Our readings help us to understand, by answering three questions about this mysterious gift of perpetual song.

The first is a what question. When I think of singing a song, I usually think first of using my voice. But surely it’s impossible for me to sing with my voice non-stop for the whole of my life? How will I eat or sleep? So, if not with my voice, then with what? With what do I sing this song? This is the first question. And the answer is found in the first reading. We gave you a formal warning not to preach in this name… These words, spoken by the High Priest to the Apostles, show us what the religious authorities are trying to do in the first reading. They are trying to silence the Apostles. To stop them from proclaiming the Good News. To smother their song.

The Apostles, however, respond by doing exactly what the High Priest tells them not to do. They continue proclaiming the Good News. They keep talking about the Crucifixion of Christ. And bearing witness to his Rising from the Dead. They keep singing their song. And they do this not just with their voices. In the reading, we’re told that the authorities have them flogged. And yet, quite incredibly, the flogging does nothing to discourage them. Instead, we’re told that they are glad to have had the honour of suffering humiliation for the sake of the name. The Apostles experience joy even in the midst of persecution. They exult even when made to suffer for their faith. A clear indication that they are singing not just with their voices. But with the whole of their lives. This is what they sing the song with.

The second question has to do with whom. To whom do we sing our song? The answer is found in the second reading. Which describes a vision of heaven. Where an immense number of angels, ten thousand times ten thousand… and thousands upon thousands of angels, are doing exactly what the Apostles were doing in the first reading. They are singing a song. They are proclaiming and praising, worshiping and glorifying, Someone. And not just the angels. But all the living things of creation. Everyone is singing the same song: To the One who is sitting on the throne and to the Lamb, be all praise, honour, glory, and power, for ever and ever. In the second reading, all of creation sings a mighty song of praise to God. God is the One to whom we sing our song.

Here then we have the answers to the first two questions. With what, and to whom, do we sing our song? With our whole lives. And to God and God alone. But surely all this is much easier said than done. Difficult enough to squeeze out one hour a week to come to Mass on a Sunday. And even then, don’t some of us find it a great challenge? A terrible struggle? And not just because the parish carpark is so often full. Or all the pews usually taken. Or the music too fast or too slow. Or the homily too long. Or the priest too boring. All this may be true. But isn’t it also because we ourselves are often too preoccupied. Our minds too distracted. Our bodies too tired and stressed out. We find it difficult to sing a song to God, because there is so often a different tune playing in our hearts. A song not of joy and praise. But of anxiety or discouragement. Not of love for others. But of preoccupation with self. A song that is not addressed to God. But sung for the benefit of those we seek to impress. The society in which we yearn so desperately to find recognition.

If all this is true, then perhaps the third and last question is the most important one. The question where. From where do we receive our song? This is the question that the gospel helps us to answer. Here, the action takes place in a very particular location. By the banks of the Sea of Tiberias. But more than just a physical place, this is also a spiritual one. For this is where important spiritual events take place.

Here is where disappointed and discouraged disciples gather. People who spend a whole night, perhaps even the better part of a lifetime, fishing. But without success. Here also is where Christ, the Crucified and Risen One, appears without warning. Not to judge or to scold. But to guide and to feed. Here, the Lord does the cooking. And the serving. And the encouraging. Here the tired find rest. The guilty forgiveness. The disappointed new hope.

Above all, here is also where singers receive their song. Simon, son of John, do you love me…? A question that is meant not to interrogate, or to incriminate. But to heal and to console. To lead and to inspire. To fill the one who is questioned with the gift of song. The power to give glory to God. And not just in life. But also even in death. When you grow old you will stretch out your hands, and somebody else will put a belt around you and take you where you would rather not go… Follow me.

The banks of the Sea of Tiberias. A place of loving encounter. Where absence is changed into Presence. Failure to fruitfulness. Guilt to mercy. A place where singers receive their song. This, my dear friends, is the spiritual location to which we are invited today. And to find it is not hard. What we need to do is to ask the Lord for the courage to face our own weaknesses. And the patience to wait for him to appear. And to do for us what he did for the disciples. Especially in this Season of Easter, the Lord wishes to give us a song to sing for all eternity.

To sing a song with our lives. A song for God. A song from the place of love… This is the gift of Easter. I’m reminded of these lines from another tune that has to do with singing…

My life flows on in endless song, above earth's lamentation. 
I hear the clear, though far-off hymn that hails a new creation. 
No storm can shake my inmost calm
while to that Rock I'm clinging. 
Since Love is Lord of heaven and earth,
how can I keep from singing? 

Sisters and brothers, indeed Love is Lord of heaven and earth. This is what we believe. What we proclaim especially at Easter. Love has triumphed over death. So how can we keep from singing?

Saturday, April 02, 2016

Locations of Mercy


2nd Sunday of Easter (Divine Mercy Sunday)

Picture: cc Kent Chen

Sisters and brothers, imagine for a moment that you want to buy an Apple computer. How would you go about it? Where to go? What to do? Do you know? Of course you do, right? For example, even though Apple has its headquarters somewhere in California. You know that you don’t have to fly all the way to the US to get your hands on a brand new Mac. You know that all you have to do is to visit any one of the many authorised Apple dealers right here in Singapore. Alternatively, you can also buy a Mac off the internet. Just go online. Key in your credit card number and delivery address. And your new computer will be delivered to your doorstep in no time at all. So simple!

And this applies not just to computers. It’s true of many other things as well. From clothes and books. To furniture and groceries. Conveniently located branch and online stores make shopping more convenient than ever. You don’t have to go far. All you need is to know what you want. And to have the money to pay for it. This is something that we all know very well. For we are expert shoppers. Consummate consumers. We know exactly where and how to buy what we want.

But what if what we want is not something that can be bought and sold? What if what we want is love and compassion? Or forgiveness and mercy? Things that money cannot buy. Do we know where to go to get them? Do we know what to do?

This, my dear friends, is exactly the kind of knowledge we are praying for at this Mass. Actually, this is what we prayed for in that beautiful opening prayer that we offered just now. We asked the God of everlasting mercy to increase the grace… bestowed on us. So that all may grasp and rightly understand in what font they have been washed, by whose Spirit they have been reborn, by whose Blood they have been redeemed. My dear friends, on this Divine Mercy Sunday, what we are praying for is the knowledge of where and how to obtain mercy.

And the words that we used in the opening prayer already indicate to us where to find what we are looking for. The principal location where God’s mercy is offered to us. Can you guess where? The prayer speaks of a fountain of water that washes us. A flow of Blood that redeems us. And an outpouring of the Spirit that gives us new birth. Where, my dear friends, do we find these three things together? It is a place that we visited only recently. During the Easter Triduum. Do you remember?

Water and Blood and Spirit. These are the three things that flow from the side of Christ the Lord. As he hangs dead on the Cross. And is pierced by a lance. The Pierced Side of the Crucified Christ. This is where forgiveness is found. This is where mercy is dispensed. Just as Apple has its main office in California. So too does mercy have its headquarters on the Cross.

But isn’t this a problem for us? Aren’t we separated from the Cross by a great distance? Not just in space, but also in time? The Crucifixion took place not just many kilometres away from here. But also many hundreds of years ago from now. How are we to go there to obtain mercy? Thankfully, we don’t have to. At least not physically. For just as you can buy a computer at a branch or online store. So too can you gain access to the mercy of the Cross, without actually going back in time and space. Mercy is accessible in many different locations. Isn’t this what we find in our Mass readings today? Different locations where people experience mercy and its wonderful effects.

In the gospel, the disciples have locked themselves up in an upper room. Earlier, most of them had run away when Jesus was arrested. But even though they deserted him. Jesus does not abandon them. He enters the locked room. And shows them his scarred hands and pierced side. Not just to prove to them that he is really who he says he is. But perhaps also to show them that he bears no grudges. That he yearns only for their friendship.

The Lord then transforms their fear and guilt into joy and peace. Their doubt and discouragement into faith and trust. Counselling the doubtful. Bearing wrongs. Forgiving offences. These are spiritual works of mercy that the Lord performs for his disciples. And he does it all in a locked room.

It is then from this same locked room that the disciples go out. To many other locations. To share what they themselves have received. To do for others what the Lord has done for them. In the first reading, we find them bearing witness to the faith so powerfully, that the numbers of men and women who came to believe in the Lord increased steadily. Not only do they instruct the ignorant. A spiritual work of mercy. The disciples also heal the sick. A corporal work of mercy. And they do it not just in rooms and houses. But even out in the streets.

The second reading goes even further. Here, not only is mercy found in the success of the streets. It is experienced even in the suffering of exile. The apostle John finds himself banished to the island of Patmos, for having preached God’s word and witnessed for Jesus. But, in his painful isolation, John is blessed with a powerful experience of mercy. The Crucified and Risen One appears to him and encourages him. Even gives him a new mission. I fell in a dead faint at his feet, but he touched me with his right hand and said, “Do not be afraid… Now write down all that you see…”

Comforting the afflicted. A spiritual work of mercy. This is what the Risen Christ does for John. And this is also what the Lord asks John to do for others. Through the written word. A written word that continues to encourage us today. So that even from a deserted island, mercy begets mercy. Even from a painful exile, the Good News of God’s love continues to ring out down through the ages. And all around the world.

From the cruel Cross to a locked room. From the streets of success to an island of suffering. In all of these places and more, God continues to offer people, to offer us, an experience of mercy. Inviting us to share with others what we ourselves have received. And this should be a great consolation to us. For in our own lives too, don’t we have our cruel crosses and locked rooms? Our streets of success and islands of suffering? The good news is that no matter where we find may ourselves, God’s mercy is still accessible to us. 

But what must we do to access it? We can buy a computer with money. What do we need to obtain mercy. Nothing more than desire and memory, prayer and praise. We must first want to experience mercy. We must also remember the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross. And then we need to pray for what we want. Giving praise to God for all that God has done and continues to do for us. Desire and memory. Prayer and praise. This is the currency by which mercy is obtained.

Sisters and brothers, we all know where to go and what to do to shop for what we want. But where must we go, and what must we do, to receive and to show mercy today?

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