Sunday, January 29, 2017

Replacing Loose Connections


4th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Picture: cc Thomas Mathie

My dear friends, have you ever been troubled by a loose connection? Do you know how frustrating it can be? Some time ago, I had precisely this problem with my laptop computer. Unknown to me, there was a loose connection in the power cable. I would use it to connect the computer to the electrical supply as usual. And everything would be fine for a while. But then, later on, the connection would somehow be lost. Even though the cable was plugged in at both ends. And I would continue working on the computer, blissfully unaware that this had happened. For, as you know, the computer’s built-in battery allows it to continue running, even when disconnected from an external power source.

But the loose connection meant, of course, that the battery was not being charged. Which was very frustrating. Especially when I later needed to rely on battery power, but could not, because the battery had been depleted without me realising it. The problem became irritating enough that I finally decided to replace the faulty cable. To invest in a new one. One that I could truly rely on to power my computer. And to charge my battery.

The frustration caused by a loose connection. By a depleted battery. Sisters and brothers, have you ever experienced something like that before? If you have, you know first hand how important it is to be able to connect your machine to an appropriate power source. And just as computers need to be connected to an electrical power source. So too do we need to be connected to a spiritual power source. One that gives us the energy to live the way human beings are meant to live. In a way that brings true happiness. Not just to us. But to everyone around us as well. Enabling us to live happily and harmoniously with one another. To do this requires a certain type of power. The power to rise above our own often petty concerns and painful insecurities. So as to be able to live in love. To join with others in working for the common good. But from where do we draw this kind of power? What is the source?

The answer is found in those four words that keep getting repeated in the responsorial psalm today: It is the Lord… It is the Lord who keeps faith for ever… It is the Lord who gives sight to the blind… It is the Lord who loves the just… It is the Lord… It is the Lord who sets us free from our preoccupation with ourselves. Who enables us to reach out to those most in need of our attention and our help. It is the Lord who gives us the power to be patient and forgiving. Of others, and also of ourselves. To remain calm and at peace. Even when surrounded by trouble and conflict. Or when experiencing stress and strain. It is the Lord, who is our true spiritual Power Source. It is the Lord…

If this is true, then I am faced with a crucial question: How can I remain connected to the Lord? What do you think, sisters and brothers? How would you answer this question? Speaking for myself, my first response is often to focus on things that I need to do. Or things that I need to avoid doing. For example, I may think that I need to pray more… To complain less… To get more involved in church work… To shop less… To read the Bible more… To gossip less… Things that might be the stuff of resolutions for the new year. Even the lunar new year. 

Which is fine. All of these things are, of course, very important. But doesn’t the doing of these things itself require power too? Especially if I want to do them not just once in a blue moon. Not just for the first two or three months of every year. Or whenever I happen to feel like it. But regularly. Consistently. Perseveringly. To do this requires power. Power to remain faithful to prayer… Power to resist the temptations that so often get the better of me… Power to be patient as much with myself as with others… Power that I am unable to generate on my own. Power that I need to draw from God. My only true Power Source.

Which may make it seem like something of a vicious circle, doesn’t it, my dear friends? On the one hand, I can only live a happy and harmonious life by remaining connected to God. And yet, left on my own, I don’t even have the power to do that. To connect with God. In fact, it is precisely when I mistakenly think that I do. When I forget that it is the Lord alone who is my only reliable Power Source. It is then that I so often become disconnected. And without my even realising it. Disconnected from God by my own pride and presumption. Much like how a computer might suffer from a loose connection. My interior spiritual batteries get depleted. I become more easily irritable and judgmental… Less patient… More vulnerable to temptation… Less inclined to think of the needs of others…

What then can I do? Is there no way out for me? How do I remain connected to God, my One True Power Source? The short answer, my dear friends, is that I cannot. At least not on my own. Left to my own devices, I do not even have what it takes to plug into the Divine Power Supply. I suffer from a perpetual loose connection. And yet, it is precisely when I allow myself to realise this. To acknowledge and to accept my utter helplessness and powerlessness to save myself. It is precisely at that moment that I find the possibility of being saved. For in realising this truth, I am given a chance to replace my faulty power cable. Exchanging prideful reliance on self with humble reliance on God.

Isn’t this what our readings are really about today? Isn’t this what is meant when the first reading tells us to seek integrity? To seek humility? And isn’t this why, in the gospel, Jesus teaches that the poor in spirit are happy? Blessed? Along with all those who have to endure suffering of some kind or other? What is being proposed to us, to you and to me, is not so much a programme of action for us to undertake. But a particular disposition for us to cultivate. The disposition of humility. Of poverty of spirit. An attitude that springs from the deep realisation that I do not have the power to save myself. Let alone others. That, without God, I truly can do nothing. I can’t even connect with the Power Supply.

And yet, quite paradoxically, it is precisely when I allow myself to acknowledge and to accept this, that I am then able to access God’s power. My weakness becomes my new, more reliable, power cable. For the second reading tells us that our merciful God has chosen what is foolish and weak by human reckoningThose who are nothing at all, to show up those who are everything.

This then is the challenge that our readings place before us today: To remain connected to God, by remaining in touch with our own poverty and powerlessness. Which can be especially difficult for the rich and powerful among us. Those who are accustomed to telling people what to do. To having things go our way. It is difficult for these to rely on God. Yes, difficult… but not impossible. For even the rich and powerful are subject to weakness and powerlessness. We just have to insist on being more honest with ourselves. To dig deeper within. And to allow what we uncover to lead us, in all humility, to God.

My dear friends, loose connections can indeed be very frustrating and draining. For us, and for those around us. How are we being invited to change our faulty power cables today?

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Rehabilitating the Appendix


2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Picture: cc AJC1

My dear friends, have you ever felt like an appendix? You know, of course, what an appendix is, right? It’s that slender little tube located at the end of the large intestine. For a long time, it was thought that the appendix serves no useful purpose. That it makes no real contribution to the healthy functioning of the human body. That, in the process of human evolution, it was somehow left behind and forgotten. Indeed, it can even be considered a nuisance. Since it is so prone to getting inflamed. And then having to be surgically removed.

So, my dear friends, have you ever felt like an appendix? Like you serve no real purpose in this world. Like you were useless. A waste of space. I’m not sure. But I suspect that there are more than a few of us who may feel this way from time to time. Whether we may care to admit it or not. Feel as though our existence is pointless. Aimless. Meaningless. Sure, our lives may be filled with many things that we have to do. Some of which may even be very important. And yet, don’t we sometimes still feel strangely empty? Isn’t this why some of us work so hard? Or shop so much? Or check our phones so frequently? Or indulge in various bad habits? Aren’t we somehow trying to avoid the depressing thought that, if we suddenly dropped dead, the world will still go on without us? Sure, there will likely be a wake and a funeral in our honour. Some prayers will be offered for us. Our bosses may need to replace us. Our families and friends may miss us. But, after all is said and done, won’t life go on as it did before? Not unlike how the body goes on even after the appendix is removed? So what’s the point?

My dear friends, have you ever felt like an appendix? I imagine that it can be a terrible thing to feel this way. Perhaps it's what leads some people to think of suicide. After all, if an appendix can be removed without adverse effects, why not a human life? Why not my life? And yet, as some of you may know, more recently, researchers have been saying that the appendix may not be useless after all. It is thought that it could actually perform the important function of storing and preserving helpful bacteria in the body. Bacteria that is essential to the immune system. Bacteria that would otherwise be wiped out should the body suffer a sudden bout of food poisoning, for example. So that it is now believed that people who have had their appendices removed may take a longer time to recover from certain illnesses. In other words, the appendix is in the process of being rehabilitated. Rescued from uselessness.

And what modern researchers are doing for the appendix, our Mass readings can do for us. Especially those of us who sometimes can’t help feeling like an appendix ourselves. For if there is one thing that all our readings have in common, it is that they contain people with a very clear sense of their own function. Their own true purpose. Their own proper role in the greater scheme of things.

In the first reading, the prophet Isaiah reminds the people of Israel of their own high calling. Far from being useless, they are called to be God’s servant. Called to continue praising and glorifying God. By living and worshipping together as a united people in God’s sight. And that’s not all. God tells them that their function goes beyond themselves. It extends even to the far reaches of the world. I will make you the light of the nations so that my salvation may reach the ends of the earth.

We find a similar sense of purpose in the second reading, taken from the beginning of St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. In introducing himself, Paul leaves no doubt as to who he is and what he is called to do. I, Paul, appointed by God to be an apostle. As you know, the word apostle means one who is sent. And not only is Paul sure of his own identity and mission. He is sure also of the identity and mission of the people to whom he is writing. He sends greetings to the church of God in Corinth, to the holy people of Jesus Christ, who are called to take their place among all the saints everywhere…

And just as the second reading describes Paul’s conviction. So too does the gospel present to us with that of John the Baptist. Notice how convinced the Baptist is of Jesus’ identity and mission. Without hesitation, he proclaims Jesus the lamb of God and the Chosen One. And it is not just about Jesus’s purpose and mission that the Baptist is clear. He is clear, first of all, of his own proper role and function. I did not know him myself, he says, and yet it was to reveal him to Israel that I came baptising with water…. Yes, I have seen and I am the witness…

Servant of God and light to the nations… Appointed apostle and holy people… Baptising prophet and outspoken witness… Lamb of God and Chosen One. My dear friends, these descriptions leave no room for doubt that the people in our readings today have a clear sense of who they are and the roles they are meant to play. Isaiah. Paul. John the Baptist. These are people who do not live empty lives. Sure, they do have to face terrible struggles. They may be persecuted and even put to death for their beliefs. But whatever else they may have to suffer, they do not suffer from a sense of uselessness or meaninglessness.

Far from feeling painfully empty, their lives are instead joyfully full. And it is this fullness, this sense of purpose, that is being offered to us today. To you and to me. And the key word is offered. For the sense of purpose enjoyed by the people in our readings today is quite unlike the kind of fullness that our world may encourage us to pursue. The kind of fullness that comes only from our own determination and achievement. Our own desperate attempts to fill our lives with every manner of frantic activity. Yes, even apparently pious activity. The fullness experienced in our readings today is first, and above all, a gift. A gift generously offered. Asking to be humbly received.

Isn’t this why we find words like called and appointed, chosen and sent, appearing so frequently in our readings? Contrary to what we may have been led to believe, the secret to living a truly full and meaningful life comes to us not first of all as a project that we undertake for ourselves. But rather as a gift that we receive from God. The initiative is not ours. But God’s. The same God who called and appointed, chose and sent, first Isaiah, and then John the Baptist. First Jesus, and then Paul. This same God is also calling and choosing, appointing and sending us. You and me. Asking us to let our lives revolve first of all around God’s love for us. A love that has been, and continues to be, offered to us, in the very concrete circumstances of our daily lives. We are called first to experience this love for ourselves. And then to go and share it with the rest of our world. Isn’t this why we gather here at this Mass? To remember and to celebrate this great love. To experience it for ourselves. And then to be sent to proclaim it to others. Go and announce the gospel of the Lord!

My dear friends, a precious gift is even now being offered to us. What must we do to continue humbly receiving it? For ourselves and for those to whom we are sent? What must we do to allow God to continue rehabilitating the appendix of our lives today?

Sunday, January 08, 2017

Black Hole or Bright Moon


Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord


Picture: cc Rachel Kramer

My dear friends, do you know what a black hole is? I’m sure many of you know better than I do. To understand it better, my simple mind finds it helpful to compare a black hole with the moon. Which often appears to us as a brightly shining object. High up in the sky. This is even though, as we all know, the moon doesn’t actually produce any light or its own. It shines only by reflecting the rays of the sun. And the moon is able to do this because its own gravitational pull is weak. Weak enough to allow the light falling upon it to escape. So that others can see it.

In sharp contrast to the brightly shining moon, however, a black hole is always shrouded in darkness. It does not shine. This is because its gravity is so strong that any light falling upon it is instantly absorbed by it. Sucked into the black hole itself. Unable to escape. As a result, the black hole remains invisible.We know it’s there only by observing its effects on the objects around it.

The moon, because of its weakness, is able to reflect the sun’s light. But a black hole is simply too strong to shine. My dear friends, don’t you find this contrast striking? And more than just an interesting tidbit, I think that this difference between a black hole and a brightly shining moon can actually help us to better understand what is being asked of us, on this solemn feast of the Epiphany of the Lord. For, in each of our readings today, we find people being challenged to respond appropriately when God’s light shines upon them.

The context of the first reading is the end of the Exile. For many long years, the people of Jerusalem have been living in darkness. Far away from home. But now they have finally been allowed to return to the Holy City. Now they are being graced once more by God’s life-giving presence. Like the rising sun, the glory of God is shining warmly upon them. How are they to respond? What must they do? The people are told that, like the moon, they should arise and shine out! They should reflect the light of God that is falling upon them. Scripture scholars tell us that this invitation to shine is actually a call to the people to rebuild the Holy City. God’s dwelling place on earth. To rebuild it not just for themselves. But also so that others might be attracted to its radiance. Might come to Jerusalem. And call it home.

The crucial question, that the people in the first reading have to answer, is whether or not they will heed this call. Whether they will be submissive enough, weak enough, to respond positively to God’s plea. To rebuild God’s House. Or whether they will be too stubborn, too strong, to obey. Whether, having themselves already made it back to the safety of Jerusalem, they will now look only to their own comfort and concerns. Instead of working for the benefit of others as well. Those who still remain far away from home. The choice presented by the first reading is clear. Either to shine out. Or to sit back. Either to reflect God’s light like the moon. Or simply to suck it all up. Like a black hole.

We find a similar contrast in the gospel. Here God’s light shines upon the darkness of the world in a marvellously new way. God comes among us as an ordinary human baby. Radiant with God’s mighty power. Seen especially in the baby’s disarming helplessness. Shimmering with God’s immeasurable riches. Expressed eloquently in the baby’s startling poverty. Providing for all those who have been exiled by sin and selfishness, a true home, in the baby’s surprising homelessness…

After Jesus had been born at Bethlehem… This is how the gospel begins. After Jesus had been born… In other words, after the Light had already begun to shine… The gospel then goes on to describe contrasting responses to the Light. On the one hand, there is a group of foreigners from the east, who respond very positively to the coming of the light. And they do this by first  spotting its radiance. We saw his star as it rose. A sign that they must have been watching out for its coming. Then, having spotted the Light, they set out courageously, and with great humility and determination, to seek and to find it. And, after having found it, they surrender themselves completely to it. A surrender expressed as much by their falling on their knees in homage, as by the precious gifts that they offer: gold and frankincense and myrrh. A surrender that continues even after they have returned to the places from which they came. By sharing with others the good news of the Light’s coming.

Spotting the light when it shines. Setting out to seek and to find it. And then surrendering wholeheartedly to its radiance. These are the ways by which those wise men from the east demonstrate their wisdom. Ways by which they help to rebuild God’s dwelling place on earth. Ways by which they arise and shine out. Much like how the moon reflects the rays of the sun. And, in so doing, they brighten the way for others as well. Even for the chief priests and scribes of the people. Through their questions, the foreign seekers actually manage to lead the local experts to discover the treasure hidden in their own scriptures.

In contrast, King Herod responds to the light not in weakness and humility, but in stubbornness and insecurity. In deceit and violence. Feeling threatened by the coming of another king, he wants to seek out and to smother the Light. He fails to reflect its brilliance. Even though it is shining out from within his very own backyard. So that, if the wise men are like a brightly shining moon, then Herod must surely be a big black hole.

To shine rather than to smother. This is also the challenge in the second reading. I have been entrusted by God, Paul tells the Ephesians, with the grace he meant for you. In his ministry Paul sees himself as doing nothing more than reflecting the Light who is Christ. A Light meant to be shared with others.

But, my dear sisters and brothers, hasn’t this same Light been entrusted to us as well? Hasn’t it already begun to shine in our own backyards? Especially in the past two weeks of Christmas? And, as we enter Ordinary Time tomorrow, are we not being called to continue sharing this light with others? Especially with those who may remain living in the darkness of exile. Far away from home. Are we not being called, each in our own way, to arise and shine out? To rebuild God’s dwelling place on earth?

I’m reminded of the news feature that I stumbled upon last night, on the BBC channel. It’s about the Syrian National Orchestra for Arabic Music. Whose members have been dispersed by civil war. But many of whom have chosen to remain and continue making music in their war-torn country. As a musician I feel I have a responsibility, one of them said. We have to sing. We have to play… The sound of music is louder than the bombs. It has to be louder. To persevere in sharing the light of music. Even in the darkness of war. Isn’t this what we are being called to do?

My dear friends, a challenging choice is placed before us, as the Christmas season draws to a close today: Having already received the light of Christ, we can now choose either to shine out and to share it with others, or to sit back and smother it. The alternatives are clear: To be a brightly shining moon, or a big black hole. Which will you choose to be in the days ahead?

Sunday, January 01, 2017

Peekaboo!


Solemnity of Mary, the Holy Mother of God

Picture: cc Liana_Kyle

My dear friends, have you ever witnessed parents comforting a crying baby? Consoling an infant in distress? As you know, they sometimes do it by playing a game called peekaboo! Perhaps you have played it before. What you do is turn towards the baby and use both of your hands to cover your face. You then suddenly remove your hands from your face and say peekaboo! Actually, it doesn’t really matter what you say. The point is to allow the baby to see a familiar and friendly face quickly appearing and disappearing in front of it. For some reason, babies enjoy being teased in this way. Provided, of course, that the conditions are right. The experience makes them laugh. It fills them with joy and delight.

Don’t you find it remarkable? That a simple game like this should have such power to make a baby so happy. And what’s perhaps more amazing is that the baby’s happiness doesn’t come only from seeing the grownup’s face. Otherwise it would be enough just to keep staring at the baby to make it laugh. But doing that is probably just as likely to make it cry even more. No, the baby’s delight comes from experiencing mommy or daddy’s face first being hidden and then suddenly revealed. It’s the curious combination of hiddenness and revelation that brings joy.

Why? I’m not sure. Perhaps it’s because, even though mommy or daddy’s face may be briefly hidden from it, the baby is still somehow able to sense its parent’s loving presence. The face may be hidden, but the love can still be felt. And that unseen presence is confirmed every time the face is uncovered. Giving the baby an exquisite experience of joy and delight.

Peekaboo! A simple game with the power to bring joy and delight through the covering and uncovering of a loved one’s face. Now, it may sound strange, my dear friends, but don’t you think that this is very much like what we celebrate at Christmas? A power that we are invited to ponder particularly today, on the solemn feast of Mary, the Holy Mother of God?

The first reading gives us a helpful introduction, by telling us how God bestows a special power on the priestly family of Aaron. It is the power to call down God’s blessing on the people of Israel. A blessing that is described as the uncovering of God’s face. It’s as though, through the blessing of the priest, God promises to bring joy to the people by playing with them a game of peekaboo! By revealing God’s face to them. A face that so often remains hidden. Hidden perhaps by the trials that the people may face from time to time. And yet, even in the midst of these trials, the people are invited to keep trusting in God’s loving presence. And, with the help of the priest, to keep praying for God’s blessing. Then God promises to uncover God’s face to them again. To quickly come to their rescue when they are in danger. Speedily bringing them peace in time of trouble.

It is probably no accident that this reading is chosen for us today. For we Christians believe that God’s promise to uncover God’s face finds its ultimate fulfilment at Christmas. A time when we ponder more deeply the birth of Jesus, the only begotten Son of God. The visible image of the invisible God. The firstborn of all creation. And the power to call down this awesome blessing is bestowed first on Mary, the Holy Mother of God. By graciously accepting God’s invitation to conceive and to bear a child, Mary helps to uncover God’s face to us all.

Even so, the gospel reading for today draws our attention to something more profoundly mysterious. At this point in the story, the baby Jesus has actually already been born. And yet, God’s face continues to require uncovering. For, as we all know well, at the birth of Jesus, many people are not able to recognise him. They are too preoccupied with their daily routine. Too caught up in business as usual. Too engrossed in the cares and concerns of life. So that the Master of the Universe can find nowhere else to be born than in a place used for keeping farm animals. The King of Creation has to be laid on a bed of straw. The glory of the only begotten Son of God is at once graciously revealed and also painfully hidden from the eyes of an unsuspecting world.

So that, quite mysteriously, even though Jesus has already been born, the gospel speaks to us of how God’s face continues to require uncovering. And to whom is this power given? This power to reveal God’s face? This power to call down God’s blessing? It’s given not just to humble Mary. But also to lowly shepherds. Who, we’re told, when they saw the child, repeated what the angels had told them about him. And everyone who heard it was astonished at what they had to say. By faithfully believing and joyously repeating what the angels had told them, the shepherds help to uncover God’s face to their world. In their own unique way, they conceive and give birth to God’s Son anew. Bringing joy and delight to all who would believe their story.

And it’s important for us to realise that this awesome power of uncovering God’s face, of calling down God’s blessing, is bestowed not just on the shepherds. But also on us. On you and on me. Mary’s adopted children. Members of her Son’s Body. The same people of whom the second reading speaks, when it says that God sent his Son, born of a woman… to enable us to be adopted as sons… And how do we know this? How can we be sure that we are indeed adopted daughters and sons of God? We know it through an interior experience: The proof… is that God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts: the Spirit that cries, ‘Abba, Father’ .

The same Spirit who made Mary the Mother of God. Giving her the power to conceive and to give birth to Christ in the world. The power of this same Spirit is given also to us. To you and to me. The power to keep doing, in our own lives, what we find Mary and the shepherds doing in the gospel. Uncovering God’s face to a world in distress. And how do we exercise of this power? By following Mary’s example. In the midst of considerable hardship. Surrounded as she is not by the familiar comforts of home, but by the startling and unsanitary company of ox and ass. Quite remarkably, Mary is able to keep pondering the faithful love of God. Allowing it to fill her with joy and delight. And she does this not just for her own enjoyment. But also so that she can keep uncovering to others what often remains so painfully hidden from them. Hidden as much by their own sinfulness as by the trials that they have to face. The glorious divine presence. The faithful and friendly face of God.

It is this awesome power, this precious privilege, that we ponder and celebrate today. The power and the privilege to uncover God’s face to a world in distress. A world so desperately in need of experiencing the peace of God’s Presence… The light of God’s Truth… And the warmth of God’s Love…

Sisters and brothers, in this joyful season of Christmas. As we continue to allow the Baby in the Manger to help us ponder God’s presence among us. How are we being called to help God play peekaboo with the rest of our unsuspecting world today?

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