Saturday, August 27, 2016

Atas


Picture: cc Noel Cosgrave

My dear friends, do you know what a social climber is? I’m sure you do, right? It’s the kind of person who does whatever it takes to get ahead in life. I believe the Singlish word for it is atas. High class. Not that all high class people are social climbers. They’re not. But social climbers are people who try their very best to be and to look atas.

And one way to do this is, of course, by networking. Rubbing shoulders with the right crowd. All those people whom the climber believes can help him or her to climb higher and faster. Usually people already perceived as being atas. High class contacts that the climber carefully cultivates. For example, by visiting the places they visit. Dressing the way they dress. Behaving the way they behave.

But, as you know, this is done not necessarily because the climber really likes all these people. On the contrary, the climber may envy them. Even detest them. These contacts are cultivated not for their own sake. But only as means to an end. They are seen as so many rungs on a ladder. Stepping stones to help the climber reach the top. And that’s all that the climber really wants. To get to the top. That’s the ambition of the climber’s heart.

I mention this because I believe it is possible to misread our Mass readings for today. To see them as nothing more than an instruction manual for social climbers. For even though the readings are all about being humble, they do seem to encourage us to do so only in order to get ahead in life. So the first reading says be gentle in carrying out your business… The greater you are, the more you should behave humbly. But why? So that you will be popular. So that you will be better loved than a lavish giver. And so that you will find favour with the Lord.

In the gospel too, Jesus tells a parable advising guests at a wedding feast to take the lowest place. But why? So that your host may invite you higher. And so that everyone with you at the table will see you honoured. But then doesn’t all this look like nothing more than a sophisticated strategy for climbing the social ladder? I only pretend to take the lowest place. But my sights are really set much higher.

Even Jesus’ advice to his host can be misunderstood in a similar way. When we throw a party, why should we invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind? Is it because we really care about them? Well, it seems not. For the reason given is that repayment will be made to you when the virtuous rise again. So it may appear as if we invite the poor only so that we ourselves can be made rich. But then won’t we be using the poor the way social climbers may use the rich? Simply as rungs on a ladder? Stepping stones to reach the top? Is this what it means to be truly humble?

I think we can probably all agree that the answer is no. This is not what true humility looks like. True humility is not just about pretending to take the lowest place. Pretending to welcome the poor. Only so that we can ourselves be made rich. For when we do this, we continue to be driven by the same selfish ambition that motivates social climbers. Our concern is not really with the interests of the poor, much less with the will of God, but only with our own advancement. What is needed is a change of heart.

But this is something that is actually beyond our own strength. As the first reading tells us, there is no cure for the proud man’s malady, since an evil growth has taken root in him. We really do not have what it takes to make ourselves humble. Which is why we prayed the way we did in our opening prayer earlier. We asked the God of might, and the giver of every good gift, to put into our hearts the love of your name. We asked God to change our hearts. To replace our selfish ambition with a burning desire for God. This is the first step to true humility. A change of the contents of our hearts. A clearing out of selfish ambition. And a filling in with the love of God.

And the good news for us is that God has already answered our prayer. By sending us Jesus. Who emptied himself to become a human being like us. And who then humbled himself to accept a shameful death on the Cross. It is when we gaze upon the reality of the Lord’s painful sacrifice. It is when we gather to recall the mystery of his great love for us. That we allow God to change our hearts in the direction of true humility. Melting the hardness of our pride. And igniting in us the fire of God’s love.

But that’s not all. This change in the content of our hearts has an important practical effect on us. We begin to lose our anxious ambition for getting to the top. Why? Simply because we begin to feel at home in God. As we prayed in our responsorial psalm: In your goodness, O God, you prepared a home for the poor. By changing our hearts, God leads us home. God enables us to feel at home in whatever situation we might find ourselves. For our hearts remain always centred on God. As St. Augustine once wrote, You have made us for yourself, O God, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.

The change of heart leads to a corresponding change in spiritual location. From selfish ambition to love of God. From anxious striving to peaceful homecoming. The second reading describes for us what this new spiritual location looks and feels like. What you have come to is Mount Zion and the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem… You have come to God himself… and to Jesus, the mediator who brings a new covenant. More important, when we reach this spiritual home, we find a surprise waiting for us. For the reading tells us that in this new spiritual location, everyone is a ‘first-born son’. In other words, here, at home in God, everyone of us is an heir. We no longer need to climb. For we find ourselves already mysteriously at the very top.

A change of heart. A coming back home. A claiming our dignity as heir. Heart. Home. Heir. These are the real stepping stones to true humility. This is the authentic path. Not a climbing over others. But a laying down of one’s life for their sake. This is the path that the Lord himself walked. The path that leads to the heights of heaven. By first passing through the depths of the earth. This is the Christian approach to being truly atas.

Sisters and brothers, what must we do to continue walking along this path today?

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Between Obstacles & Opportunities


21st Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)


My dear friends, if I were to ask you what you think is the most memorable moment in this year’s Olympic Games, what would you say? I expect that, for many Singaporeans, the most memorable moment must have been when Joseph Schooling struck gold in the men’s 100m butterfly swimming event. And that’s to be expected. It is, after all, our nation’s first ever Olympic gold medal! But, even so, I wonder if there is not another even more memorable Olympic moment. Memorable not just for a single nation. But for the whole human race.

It happens midway into the second heat of the first round in the women’s 5000m race. Many runners are bunched up tightly. Jostling for position. Abbey D’Agostino, of the United States, accidentally clips the heels of the runner in front of her, New Zealander, Nikki Hamblin. And, very tragically, both women fall to the track. What happens next is nothing short of awe-inspiring. Instead of simply resuming her race, the American runner, who is quicker to regain her feet, pauses to help her still stunned Kiwi rival to stand. Saying, “Get up, get up, we have to finish this!”

As it turns out, however, the American is more seriously injured. She falls again. And this time it’s the turn of the runner from New Zealand to wait for her and help her up. Resuming the race only when she sees that the American can continue on her own. And then waiting for her at the finishing line. Where the two runners, who have never met before, embrace each other joyfully. Even though they both finish well behind all the others.

What do you think happened here, my dear friends? What makes this a memorable moment? I’m not sure, but I think it has to do with how an obstacle was transformed into an opportunity. Isn’t this what Abbey D’Agostino and Nikki Hamblin were able to do? Even though they both finished last. By helping each other after their fall, they turned a serious obstacle to sporting success into a priceless opportunity for demonstrating the true spirit of the Olympic games.

To turn obstacles into opportunities. This is also what our Mass readings encourage us to do today. In the second reading, the obstacle in question is suffering. When we suffer, it is quite natural to think that, for as long as the suffering lasts, we cannot be happy. That the only way to true happiness is to somehow remove the obstacle. To quit the stressful job. To cure the serious illness. To replace the indifferent spouse. To ease the painful loneliness… But the reading invites us to do something different. Not so much to remove the obstacle of suffering, as to somehow turn it into an opportunity for growth. How?

By remembering that suffering is often the way by which the Lord trains the ones that he loves. Those whom the Lord considers his children. Suffering is part of your training; God is treating you as his sons and daughters. Viewed in this light, suffering actually becomes a happy privilege. A confirmation that we are beloved children of God. So that instead of mourning and groaning. Instead of getting depressed and discouraged. When suffering causes us to stumble, we should instead hold up our limp arms and steady our trembling knees and smooth out the path we tread. Seeking to turn the obstacle into an opportunity. As those two fallen Olympic runners did.

But obstacles don’t just come in the form of suffering in general. They often also take the shape of particular people. Those whom we may consider to be our rivals. Competitors. Isn’t this one possible reason why that person in the gospel wants to know whether there will be only a few saved? Perhaps he wants to know how many vacancies there are in the kingdom. So that he can figure out how many people he needs to beat. How many obstacles he has to overcome. In order to secure for himself a place there. As usual, Jesus doesn’t give a direct answer. Instead he tells the questioner to try your best to enter by the narrow door. But what’s so difficult about entering by a narrow door? Why does Jesus say that many will try to enter and will not succeed? Is it because they are all too fat? Even if they are overweight, surely they could squeeze through by turning sideways? So what exactly is the problem?

I’m not sure, sisters and brothers. But I’m reminded of scenes from those old slapstick comedies, where two people try to enter through a doorway that can really fit only one person at a time? They would have no trouble going through if only one were willing to allow the other to go first. But neither of them wants to give way to the other. They keep trying to squeeze through at the same time. And, of course, they fail. And we, the viewers, have a good laugh at their expense.

Isn’t it possible that one of the main reasons why it’s so difficult to enter by the narrow door is that we tend to see one another only as rivals vying for limited spots in the kingdom? Just as Olympians might compete for a limited number of medals. But being saved is not quite the same as competing for Olympic honours. In fact, both the gospel and the first reading surprise us with descriptions of the incredible inclusiveness of God’s kingdom. In the first reading, God promises not only to save a chosen few, but to gather the nations of every language. Even gentile foreigners. Whom the Jews tended to think were excluded from God’s favour. God promises even to make some of these foreigners into priests and Levites.

We find the same inclusiveness in Jesus’ description of the kingdom. People from east and west, from north and south, will come to take their places at the feast in the kingdom of God. Why are they able to make it through the narrow doorway? Whereas others fail? Perhaps it’s because they are willing to give way to one another. To let the other go first. To see each other not so much as rivals to beat, as people to help. Perhaps it’s because they are able to do what Abbey D’Agostino and Nikki Hamblin did in such an inspiring way. To see one another no longer as obstacles to overcome, but instead as opportunities for showing kindness and mercy, hospitality and love. 

To see others no longer as threats, but instead as friends. Isn’t this a call that we need to heed especially today? When we continue to struggle with desperate tendencies to exclude others. For example, even as we celebrate something as positive as Joseph Schooling’s Olympic triumph, aren’t there still those of us who delight in using it as another excuse to continue highlighting distinctions between so-called true-blue Singaporeans and foreign talent? Sisters and brothers, why are we so afraid of one another? Should we not be more afraid of failing to make it through the narrow doorway? Of hearing those terrible words being addressed to us: I do not know where you come from. Away from me, all you wicked people!

Sisters and brothers, Abbey D’Agostino and Nikki Hamblin were able to make the Olympic games memorable, by turning an obstacle to success into an opportunity for friendship. How are we being called to do the same today?

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Highway Code


Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Picture: cc Fraser Mummery

My dear friends, do you remember that test that we need to pass before we can get a driving license? I’m not referring to the driving test itself. That’s of course a given. I’m talking about what comes before that. Something more basic. As you know, we won’t even be allowed to take the driving test, let alone to get a driving license, without first learning the Highway Code.

And we all understand why. The Highway Code contains crucially important information about how to behave on the road. It teaches us how to recognise road signs. To understand and to obey them. So that we know how to behave properly while driving. To keep the roads safe. Otherwise, even if we may know how to operate a vehicle, if we don’t follow the signs, we will end up only endangering ourselves and others. 

Learning to recognise, understand and obey road signs. This is what it means to pass the Highway Code. One of the first things we need to do to get a driving license. To be allowed to drive safely on the road. My dear friends, I wonder if something like this is also what we are trying to do today. As we celebrate the Solemn Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

As you know, this feast celebrates our belief that, when our Blessed Mother reached the end of her time on earth, she was assumed–taken up body and soul–into heaven. Now although it may sound incredible, this belief is actually not too difficult for us to grasp. It’s pretty straightforward. But our Mass readings remind us that there is something more going on here. More than just someone being beamed up into the sky. As they might on Star Trek. Our readings help us to see a deeper significance to the Assumption. And they do it in three steps. Not unlike the three steps of the Highway Code: recognition, understanding and obedience.

The first step is taken in the first reading. Here, we are told of two characters appearing in the heavens. A woman in the pangs of childbirth and a huge red dragon. But the reading doesn’t just describe what happens to these characters. It also teaches us to recognise them as signs. Thus prompting us to do the same with Mary’s Assumption. To consider it not just as a historical event. Something that happened to our Blessed Mother a very long time ago. But also to recognise it primarily as a sign. Not unlike the signs in the Highway Code. Signals with particular meanings. Calling us to behave in particular ways.

Having invited us to recognise the Assumption as a sign, the first reading then prompts us to take a second step. It helps us to understand its deeper meaning. We’re told that what happens to the woman and to the dragon in the reading constitutes a victory. And we’re thus invited to see the Assumption in the same way. As a sign of victory. Victory won by our God. Authority won for his Christ. But how exactly is this victory won? Against what enemies? And for whose benefit?

We find the answers to these questions in the second reading. Which tells us that the victory was won through the Dying and Rising of Christ. By which the Lord destroyed all his enemies. Especially sin and death. So that Mary’s Assumption points us to the same thing as the Cross of Christ. It is a sign of victory over everything that keeps us from experiencing the joy and peace of God’s kingdom. And this victory is meant to benefit not just Jesus and Mary. But everybody. Including you and me. For just as all die in Adam, so all will be brought to life in Christ.

A sign of a great victory over everything that makes us sad and fearful. Everything that causes us pain and suffering. Everything that oppresses and depresses us. A sign of tremendous and lasting joy. A joy to be shared by all who believe in Christ. By all who follow in his footsteps. This is the deeper meaning of the Assumption. But, as with the road signs in the Highway Code, this meaning is not just something theoretical. It is intended to be primarily practical. To truly recognise and understand this sign is to behave in a certain way. To obey what the sign is calling us to do. When we arrive at a STOP sign, for example, we obey it by stopping our vehicle. So what does it mean to obey the sign of the Assumption? How should we behave?

Quite obviously, since it is a sign of great victory shared by all of us, to obey it is simply to rejoice. And not just for a moment. The way many of us must have done yesterday morning. When we witnessed Joseph Schooling’s awe-inspiring triumph at the Olympics. The Assumption is an invitation not just to rejoice fleetingly, but for all eternity. To live consistently joyful and victorious lives. This is what it means to obey the sign. To do what the Assumption is calling us to do. This is the third step. From recognition to understanding to obedience. But what does this really look like? What does it look like when people actually recognise and understand the deeper meaning of this sign? When they truly obey the call to live joyously victorious lives? This is the question that the gospel helps us to answer.

The passage is a familiar one. It’s the story of the Visitation of Mary to her cousin Elizabeth. The story of the meeting between two pregnant women on a mission. One has been travelling as quickly as she could through hill country. The other is old, but already in the sixth month of her pregnancy. They must both be exhausted. And yet their encounter contains neither complaint nor irritation. Neither depression nor anxiety. There is only joy. A joy expressed in the willingness to endure great inconvenience, in order to render service to another. A joy demonstrated in the ability to celebrate another’s triumph. Without any trace of jealousy or envy or competition. A joy that culminates in song. A spontaneous hymn of praise and thanksgiving to God.

Joy expressed in service, celebration and praise. This is what it looks like when people recognise, understand and obey the signs of God. The sign of Mary’s Assumption. And yet, my dear friends, how many of us truly experience this kind of joy on a regular basis? I dare not say for sure. Not even for myself. But isn’t it just as likely that, for some of us, even those who may be materially rich, life often feels more like a crushing burden than a joyful celebration? Don’t some of us experience even our closest relationships as more of a suffocation than a support? Isn’t our regular emotional state often characterised more by anger and frustration, than by care and compassion?

It’s as though we have learned to drive through life without first learning how to recognise the road signs of God’s presence and action in our world. We may know how to operate the vehicle. But we don’t know how to obey the signs. As a result we end up posing a danger to ourselves and to others. Isn’t this why we need the Assumption? A celebration that helps us to familiarise ourselves once again with the signs of God. In order to experience the joy that they bring. And so to share it with others.

My dear friends, we have all somehow passed the driving test of life. We have all obtained our driving licenses. What must we do to deepen our knowledge of the Highway Code today?

Saturday, August 06, 2016

Suspension Bridges


19th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

Picture: cc Falk Lademann

My dear friends, have you ever seen one of those flimsy-looking bridges that stretch across deep ravines? Perhaps in an action movie. If not in real life. Do you know what they look like? The bridge is usually anchored at opposite ends. And suspended over the space to be crossed. Two anchored ends and a suspended middle. That’s what this kind of bridge looks like. It’s a simple suspension bridge.

And those who have ever tried to cross one will know that it’s not always easy. In fact it can be quite scary. Especially if you’re afraid of heights. And the bridge starts to sway as you cross. Or to sag in the middle. This may be enough to make you decide not to cross over at all. But instead to remain safely on your side of the bridge. And that’s when it becomes helpful to consider the things that make the bridge safe. Apart from the strength of the material from which it is constructed, a lot also depends on how firmly the bridge is fastened at either end. If the ends are securely anchored, then the middle can be safely crossed. With courage and confidence. Instead of fear and trembling.

I wonder if we might not say the same about life. Isn’t life a constant crossing over, from the past, through the present, and into the future? And don’t the confidence and courage that we need to cross the suspended middle that is the present depend very much on how securely anchored we are at either end? On how deeply rooted we are in the memories of our past? On how confidently hopeful we are in our dreams for the future?

And isn’t this also the image that we find in our readings today? The image of a flimsy-looking bridge precariously suspended over a deep ravine? The first reading speaks of how the ancient Israelites, like Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, were able to joyfully take courage in facing the challenges of their own present time. They could do so because they placed their trust in the promises of God. Promises made to them in the past. Promises of a secure future. Ensuring them that God would never forget them. That God would always watch over and protect them. Never allow them to be completely destroyed.

And God proved to the Israelites that their trust was not misplaced. For God rescued them from slavery in Egypt. Helped them to cross safely into the freedom of the Promised Land. This central experience of the Exodus–the night that had been foretold to their ancestors–becomes for the Israelites a consoling memory of God’s fidelity to them in the past. Giving them confidence in the present. And fresh hope for the future. In other words, the first reading describes for us how God called the people of Israel to be something like a simple suspension bridge. To face the challenges of the present with joyful courage. By remaining firmly anchored in their memory of God’s help in the past. As well as in their trust in God’s continued assistance in the future.

The second reading gives a name to this kind of suspended in-between existence. This uncomfortable experience of constant crossing over. From slavery to freedom. From death into life. The letter to the Hebrews calls it faith. Faith expressed in the humble obedience of Abraham to God’s call to uproot his family. To set out on an arduous journey. Without knowing where he was going… Faith that is seen in the surprising ability of Sarah to conceive Isaac. Even though she was well past the age of childbirth… Faith that is revealed in the astonishing readiness of Abraham to sacrifice his only son. The same son through whom God had promised to make him the father of many nations. Abraham’s faith is shown not just in his willingness to sacrifice Isaac. But also in his continued belief that God would somehow fulfil the promise to multiply his descendants. Even after Isaac was dead.

In Abraham and Sarah, we see the obedient willingness to keep crossing over. The marvellous ability to courageously allow oneself to be suspended and stretched across the deep ravines of life in the present. It’s not an easy thing to do. How did they manage it? Only by remaining firmly rooted in their memories of God’s fidelity to them in the past. As well as in their trust in God’s promises for the future. This is what faith looks like. This is how it operates. Very much like a suspension bridge.

And isn’t this also what Jesus is talking about in the gospel? When he tells his disciples to stay awake? To be dressed for action? To be ever ready to open the door? The Lord is calling them, and calling us, to always be willing to do what Abraham and Sarah, and all the other great figures of the Bible were called to do. To always be ready to allow ourselves to be stretched across the deep ravines of life in the present. To always be willing to cross over from out of our comfort zones into the unknown. To conquer our fear. And to live a life of faith. But what does this look like in the concrete? What does it mean for us to cross over, to be stretched out, in the present? The answer is probably different for each of us. And yet, when we look at our world today, don’t we see one very obvious way in which this call is being addressed to all?

It’s quite difficult to deny that our world is currently at war. Not a conventional war perhaps. But a war nonetheless. A war that is being fought not just far away. It has already arrived at our doorstep. As witnessed by the report on the front page of today’s issue of the Straits Times. Telling us of the capture of a group of terrorists in Batam, who were planning a rocket attack on Marina Bay. This is war. A war in which the casualties keep mounting with each passing day.

And yet it’s important for us to realise that these casualties are counted not just in human lives. Serious and disturbing though this may be. The casualties of this war are counted also and especially in the rise of fear and insecurity. Of mistrust and suspicion. Of hostility and prejudice directed against those perceived to be different from ourselves. Isn’t this the deep ravine that we Christians are being called to cross over today? To insist on proclaiming the Good News with our lives, by resisting the temptation to avoid and to demonise others. To persevere instead in welcoming the stranger. In praying for those who may persecute us. In reaching out to those who may seem different from us. Isn’t this what faith must look like today?

And yet we should also be realistic. In a global climate of fear and mistrust, this is not an easy thing to do. To adequately meet the challenge, we must keep ourselves rooted in our memory of our past. The same memory we are gathered here to celebrate. The powerful memory of the One who passed over from death into life. In order that we–sinners and enemies though we were–might be saved. We must also remain firmly anchored in our hope for the future. Our trust that the One who is coming at an hour we do not expect will eventually wipe away every tear. Heal every wound. Make all things new. For he comes to reconcile all things in himself.

My dear friends, it is indeed difficult to deny that a deep ravine lies before us. How is God calling us to help to bridge it today?

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