Sunday, November 18, 2018

Ready for Take-Off

33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)
World Day of the Poor

Picture: cc abdallahh

My dear friends, does the name Anthonius Gunawan Agung ring a bell for you? It belongs to the 21-year-old air traffic controller, who was on duty at the airport in Palu city, Central Sulawesi, on that fateful evening of Friday, the 28th of September. The day when the earthquake struck. At the moment the quake started, Agung was clearing a plane for take-off. According to eyewitnesses, the young man insisted on remaining at his post, even as others fled the control tower, which had started to crumble. Only after the plane had departed safely, did Agung attempt to leave by jumping from the fourth floor. Sadly, he was seriously injured, and did not survive. His last recorded words to the pilot were clear for take-off.

I’m sure many of us will agree that, at a time of danger and great distress, Agung’s brave act of self-sacrifice is like a beacon of light shining brightly in the darkness. How did he do it? How was he able to respond so calmly and so courageously in such a chaotic time? What kind of training did he undergo? What kind of preparation? … My dear friends, I do not have the answers to these exact questions. But I believe it is questions like these that our Mass readings and prayers are inviting us to ponder today.

As we approach the end of the Church’s liturgical year, our readings speak to us about the end of time. Which, we believe, will coincide with the Second Coming of Christ. Both the first reading and the gospel describe this as a time of great distress. Perhaps it will be similar to what it was like for the people of Palu when the earthquake struck. The readings tell us that, although many will perish, certain people will be spared. Instead of being engulfed by the darkness, they will shine as brightly as the vault of heaven. Who are these people? These brightly shining lights? And how are they able to escape destruction?

The first reading calls them the learned, and those who have instructed many in virtue. The gospel speaks of them as those chosen by the Son of Man, whom he will send the angels to gather… from the four winds… Again, my dear friends, who exactly are these people? And, more important, how do we, how do I, join their ranks? What must I do to shine out in the darkness like they do? My dear friends, don’t you think that these are important questions for us to consider?

We find the beginnings of an answer in the psalm. Which reminds us that, in times of danger, our safety depends not on our own courage and heroism, but rather on the compassion and love of God. Isn’t this why we pray: Preserve me, God, I take refuge in you? I take refuge in the Lord by letting God become my portion and cup. My prize. By keeping the Lord ever in my sight. Trusting that God will show me the path of life, and the fullness of joy in God’s presence. In other words, according to the psalm, if I want to shine out in the darkness, to survive the destruction, the first thing I need to do is to learn to place all my trust in the Lord. To find my rest, my refuge, in God alone.

How do I do this? Well, I can begin by honestly examining my own heart. And I don’t mean consulting a cardiologist. But simply to reflect regularly on what I value most in my life. What or whom do I consider my portion and cup? My prize? My deepest desire, and highest priority? Where does my heart seek and find its rest? In success and achievement? In money and popularity? In friends and family? Or in the love of God alone?

Then, in addition to examining my heart, I need also to regularly recall my blessings. The many gifts I have received from God. Gifts which I so easily and so often take for granted. Preoccupied as I sometimes am with the many petty frustrations in my life. To remember and to give thanks for God’s gifts. And to allow my gratitude to lead me to realise how worthy our generous God is to receive my trust.

Of course, when I recall my blessings in this way, it’s likely that I will be led to remember God’s most precious gift of all. The gift that we are gathered here to celebrate. The one that the second reading speaks about when it reminds us that Christ has offered one single sacrifice for sins. And so achieved the eternal perfection of all whom he is sanctifying. Like, that courageous air traffic controller, Christ has laid down his life in time, so that all those who trust in him may be cleared for take-off into eternity. If I want to survive the trials at the end of time, then I need to draw ever closer to Christ in the here and now. To learn to think his thoughts. To imitate his actions. To gradually become like him.

But to become like Christ, I must first be able to find him. Where can Christ be found? Perhaps we all know the answer to this question. We believe that there are two inseparable places where Christ is found. Christ is found in prayer (especially prayer informed by the scriptures). And Christ is found in the poor. Yes, to draw near to Christ, it’s not enough for me to communicate with him in prayer. I also need to do what Pope Francis encourages us all to do in his message for this 2nd World Day of the Poor. To listen carefully, and to respond generously to the cry of the poor. Also to share in some way in God’s efforts to set them free from the distressing effects of injustice and oppression.

Gratitude and trust. Prayer and poor. These are the steps by which we are trained to shine out in the darkness at the end of time. But, of course, for some of us, all this may seem like too much work. Too heavy a burden. Too costly a sacrifice. Aren’t we busy and stressed out enough as it is? Who has the time to do all this? And yet, it may be good for us to ask ourselves what we are busy and stressed out about? What are we looking? Are we not looking for the same thing that is repeatedly mentioned in our prayers for today’s Mass. Surprisingly, perhaps, the word that keeps recurring in our prayers today is not burden or obligation or even sacrifice, but happiness. For example, in the opening prayer just now, we prayed for the constant gladness of being devoted to God. For it is full and lasting happiness to serve with constancy the author of all that is good.

Not just any passing pleasure. But constant gladness. Full and lasting happiness. This is what we expect to receive when we draw close to Christ. When we seek and find him both in prayer and in the poor. This is the precious gift that is meant not just for us to enjoy by ourselves. But also for us to share with a world that so often finds itself lost and stranded on the runway of life.

My dear friends, as Anthonius Gunawan Agung did so courageously at Palu, Christ has laid down his life to clear a path for us to eternal happiness and safety. What must we do to walk this path, to claim this gift, for ourselves and for others, today?

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Between Fighting Elephants & Trampled Grass

32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)
Picture: cc Gaurika Wijeratne

My dear friends, have you ever seen elephants fighting before? I myself have not. But do you know what happens when they do? According to an ancient African proverb, when elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers. I recently saw a tragic example of this in a news report on the BBC. Which showed heartbreaking scenes of severely malnourished children in a hospital in Yemen. They were reduced to skin and bone. Suffering from starvation. And their pitiful mothers could do nothing but look on helplessly and cry. They were starving because there was a famine. And the cause of the famine is, of course, the ongoing civil war in Yemen. A war being sponsored by foreign powers.

When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers. This is true not just of military conflicts. As you know, some say that the current trade war between the US and China will have a significant negative impact on smaller Asian countries. Nor is it only on the international stage that these things happen. For example, which of us can deny that when marriages break down, and parents divorce, it is often the little children who are most affected?

When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers. I mention this because I think it can help deepen our appreciation for our Mass readings today. At first glance, their message for us seems clear enough. The readings obviously inspire in us a word of admiration and praise. Praise for the incredible generosity of two poor widows. One in the first reading, who shares her last scraps of food with a hungry prophet. And the other in the gospel, who contributes all her meagre savings to the Temple in Jerusalem. Admire them. Praise them. Imitate them. This is what our readings seem to be telling us. Which is fine and good and true. And yet, there is more. What is this more?

When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers. We find this in our readings too. Why, we may ask, is the poor widow and her son starving in the first reading? Why is there a famine in the first place? Like the situation in Yemen, the famine in the first reading is the result of war. Not a military conflict, but a spiritual struggle. The reading is taken from chapter 17 of the first book of Kings. Earlier, at the end of chapter 16, we’re told that, after marrying Jezebel, the daughter of the king of Sidon, Ahab, the king of Israel, had led his subjects into idolatry. He began worshipping Baal, the god of his new wife. The god of the Sidonians.

Immediately after that, Elijah, the prophet of God, is sent to Ahab to announce a famine. A famine not just in Israel, but also in Sidon, the territory of Baal. A famine that is the result of Ahab’s idolatry. A famine that is the Lord God’s way of waging war against Baal, in order to win back the hearts of the people of Israel. In order to recall them from idolatry to true worship. From death to life. So that, if the widow and her son are starving in the first reading, it is because there is a battle raging between God and Baal. Between true worship and idolatry.

When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers. The situation is perhaps a little less obvious in the gospel. But here too, we find something similar. Why, we may ask, should a poor widow, who owns no more than two small coins, be expected to contribute to the maintenance of the Temple? Shouldn’t the Temple be contributing to her upkeep instead? Jesus gives us the answer in the first paragraph of the reading. Where he scolds those in charge of the Temple, for (swallowing) the property of widows, while making a show of lengthy prayers.

Despite their outward display of piety, the scribes in the gospel are actually no different from Ahab. They have fallen into idolatry. They worship the false gods of money and popularity. And, as a result, the poor suffer. Like her counterpart in the first reading, the widow in the gospel is herself a casualty of a spiritual conflict. A victim of the structures of sin.

When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers. If all this is true, then in addition to inspiring a word of praise for the incredible generosity of two widows, the readings also serve as a cry of lament for the injustice that’s done to them. Lament over the tragic circumstances that cause them to suffer. Situations far beyond their control, powerless as they are. Situations caused by the sinfulness of others.

And it’s difficult to deny that situations like these are to be found not just in biblical times. They continue even now. People forced to flee their homes, as much by the inequalities of our global economy, as by the ravages of war. Our own beloved Catholic Church scarred so terribly by a shameful history of the sexual abuse of children and the attempts to cover it up.

When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers. Thankfully, that is not all we find in our readings today. For, more than just a word of praise and a cry of lament, the scriptures also contain a message of hope. Hope that is found especially in the merciful actions of God, who upholds the widow and orphan but thwarts the path of the wicked. Unlike a careless elephant, God doesn’t just trample mercilessly on the grass. On the contrary, God makes every effort to be present to it and to protect it. To accompany it and to care for it.

In the first book of Kings, God sends the prophet Elijah not just to provide for the widow of Sidon, but also to confront the wicked king of Israel. In the gospel, God sends Jesus, God’s Only Begotten Son, not just to point out the hypocrisy of the scribes and the generosity of the widow, but also, to match and to outdo that same generosity with his own. By eventually laying down his life on the Cross to save us from our sins. Or, in the words of the second reading, to do away with sin by sacrificing himself.

More than just a word of praise and a cry of lament, our readings contain for us a message of hope in the undying love and mercy shown to us in Christ. A message of hope that is also, at the same time, a call to action. A call not just to imitate the generosity of the widows, but also to receive for ourselves, and to share with others, the merciful love of God. To learn from the examples of Elijah and Jesus, how to recognise situations of injustice. And, when necessary, to speak out against them. Injustice in our world and in our society. In our schools and in our workplaces. In our Church and, yes, even in our own homes… A call also, in so far as we are able, to accompany and to care for the casualties of conflict. If not in person and through material assistance, then at least in thought and in prayer.

When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers.

My dear friends, what must we do, as individuals and as a community, to be ever more mindful of the helpless grass that’s so often and so easily trampled by fighting elephants today?

Sunday, October 28, 2018

The Road (Rerun)

30th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

Picture: cc Tim RT

There is someone sitting by the side of the road... It’s a strange sight. The road is meant for travelling, not camping. Yet there he is. Setting up shop. Who is he? Where is he from? What’s wrong with him? … No time to ask. I’m in a rush. I’m on the road. I’ve work to do. And mouths to feed. Got to move on…

And there he is again, that person along the road. Doesn’t he know how unsightly he is? Sitting there in his rags? Doesn’t he have anywhere else to go? I wish I didn’t have to see him everyday. He makes me uncomfortable. But only for a moment. I’ve work to do. Mouths to feed. Bills to pay. Got to move on…

But there’s just no escaping him. Day after day, he sits by the side of the road. Although sometimes I’m in such a hurry, I don’t notice him at all. But he’s there all the same. What to do? Can’t stop to chat. So little time. So much stress. Work to do. Mouths to feed. Bills to pay. Dreams to live. Got to go…

Then one day it happens… The market crashes… A job is lost… A child dies… A spouse leaves… A tumour is discovered… All this while, rushing headlong along this road, desperately trying to get somewhere. Thinking I really have somewhere to get. Now I’ve hit a dead end. Drained and heartbroken. Close to despair. I can’t see a way forward. It’s as though I’m blind. Darkness engulfs me… I collapse in a heap… 

Again, there’s someone by the side of the road. Someone who cannot see. And that someone is me…

How foolish I’ve been. Did I really think I could escape what the letter to the Hebrews calls the limitations of weakness? Did I think that I could cheat even suffering and death? If only I set my mind to it? If only I work hard enough? If only I focus my efforts? I never really give it much thought. But isn’t this how I live my life? Thinking I can buy my own happiness? Earn my own salvation? How foolish and how blind! Only now I begin to see that it is really true, what is written in the scriptures, that no one takes this honour on himself, but each one is called by God.

No matter how hard you work. How rich you are. You cannot save yourself. You need to be called.

So when they tell me that Jesus of Nazareth is passing by I do not hesitate. I do not care what others might think. He is my only hope, I say to myself. He is my salvation! He will show me a way out. He will let me see again. So, shamelessly, I cry out as loudly as I can. In a voice choked with emotion, I beg him to have pity on me.

And, wonder of wonders, he calls me over. Jesus of Nazareth. The promised Saviour. He actually calls me. What do you want me to do for you? He asks. I’m not sure how he will react when I tell him. At first I think he’ll simply point me in the direction I need to go. Open my eyes to a road I’ve not seen before. But he does so much more. He leads me along the way. He is the way.

It is a mysterious path. Narrow and winding. But as long as I hold onto him. Sometimes tightly grasping his hand. Sometimes barely hanging on to the edge of his cloak. As long as I cling to him, I do not fall. Steep as it sometimes is, with him leading me, I persevere on the road. And as we travel on together, I can’t help but be reminded of that verse from Jeremiah: I will bring them back… all of them: the blind and the lame… women in labour… I will comfort them as I lead them back, by a smooth path where they will not stumble.

Even so, as the road wears on, parts of it seem strangely familiar. In some ways it looks like the same road on which I’d fallen those many days, or was it months, or even years, ago. I’m reminded of that very spot where I’d collapsed by the side of the road. And fear grips my heart. But the Saviour’s steps remain sure. His guiding hands gentle yet firm.

At the crucial point where I think I will again collapse under the weight of my difficulties, he takes my place. He offers his shoulder to the dark wood. His hands and feet to the cold steel. His life in exchange for my own.

And yet, miracle of miracles, in spite of his sacrifice – or rather, because of it – he lives! And so do I!

In the words of the psalmist, What marvels the Lord worked for us! Indeed we were glad… Then was our mouth filled with laughter, on our lips there were songs. 

Yes, there is so much for which to be grateful. So many reasons to rejoice. So much to remember and to celebrate. Which is what I do especially in church every Sunday. But even as I join others in celebration, I need also to remain in motion. On the road. No longer in anxiety and ambition. But now in mercy and compassion. For there are others wishing so desperately to see again. Many more waiting to hear the call of salvation.

Yes, there is still someone sitting by the side of the road…

What am I going to do about it today?

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Stepping On You Vs Laying Me Down

29th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)
(Mission Sunday)

When you're weary, feeling small,
When tears are in your eyes, I will dry them all.
I'm on your side, when times get rough,
and friends just can't be found.
Like a bridge over troubled water, I will lay me down.

My dear friends, do any of you still remember these words? They are the opening lines to that old song by Simon and Garfunkel, Bridge Over Troubled Water. As you may recall, the song is a promise made by one friend to another. A promise to stand by that friend in difficult times. Not to run away. But to remain by the friend’s side. Even when the going gets tough. This is one possible response I can make, when someone is in trouble. Instead of turning away, I can get involved. Like a bridge over troubled water, I will lay me down. Has anyone ever done this for you? Or have you ever done it for someone else? What does it feel like?

Of course, laying myself down is not the only response I can make when someone is in trouble. Can you think of any others? Apart from turning away, isn’t it true that I can also use that person for my own benefit? Instead of laying myself down to help, I can actually step on the one in trouble, in order to get to where I want to go. Like when a parent is dying, and all the children are fighting over their inheritance. Has something like that ever happened to you? Being used by someone like that? What’s it like?

Laying myself down versus stepping on another. Helping versus exploiting someone in trouble. This is the striking contrast that we find in our Mass readings today. A contrast between two very different responses to suffering. In the gospel, James and John come to Jesus with a request. But, before looking at the request, it’s important for us first to recall what has happened earlier. The reading begins at verse 35. From verses 32 to 34, Jesus has, for the third time, shared with his disciples what will happen to him in Jerusalem. He will be handed over to his enemies, who will humiliate and torture and kill him. And, after three days, he will rise again.

Jesus has just told his friends that he is getting into deep trouble. And what is their response? Master, we want you to do us a favour… Allow us to sit one at your right hand and the other at your left in your glory. What does this look like, sisters and brothers, if not stepping on someone in trouble, in order to get ahead? Using someone’s suffering to benefit myself?

But why, we may ask, is Jesus getting into trouble? It’s not because of any wrong that he himself has done. We believe that Jesus is the suffering servant mentioned in the first reading. Who humbly offers his life in atonement for our sins. So that by his sufferings he may justify many, taking their faults on himself. Taking my faults upon himself. By going to Jerusalem. By walking resolutely the Way of the Cross. Jesus lays himself down for me. Like a bridge over troubled water.

Laying myself down like Jesus, versus stepping on someone in trouble like James and John. Not only is this the contrast that we find in our readings, it is also the choice that they present to us today. To you and to me. For now that Jesus has sacrificed himself for our sake, there is a proper response that we Christians need to make. The second reading tells us what this response should be. We must never let go of the faith we have professed… What does it mean? What does it look like to never let go of our faith?

Let us be confident, the reading continues. Let us be confident… in approaching the throne of grace, that we shall have mercy from him and find grace when we are in need of help. To cling to our faith in Jesus is first to do what we said in the psalm. To place all our hope in the Lord. To trust and to rely on him in our every difficulty. But is that all? Does having faith in Jesus mean only to lean on him when I am in trouble? Does it mean only to fulfil my religious duties by coming to church every Sunday and Day of Obligation, so that I don’t have to go to Confession? Or going to Confession regularly, for fear of ending up in hell when I die?

If that’s the case, am I not simply using the Lord as a stepping stone to get to where I need to go? How different is that from what James and John are doing in the gospel? Making use of the Lord only for my own benefit. When I do this, when I remain focused only on my own salvation, have I really crossed over the bridge of the Lord’s loving self-sacrifice on the Cross? Or am I not still stuck in the troubled water of my own selfishness and anxiety and ambition? Caught up only in my own narrow concerns. Unable to see anything beyond.

No, my dear friends, as you know, to have faith is more than just to engage in the right religious practices for my own sake. Or even for the sake of my immediate family. To have faith is also to put into practice the Lord’s words at the end of today’s gospel: Anyone who wants to become great among you must be your servant… For the Son of Man himself did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. To have faith is not just to receive help from the Lord. It is also to imitate him in helping those who are in trouble. Especially those nearest me. Those within my reach. Not just those who may be poor and hungry and homeless. But also those who are lost and lonely and friendless. Those seeking deeper meaning in life. Those searching for God, perhaps without even realising it. Do you know anybody like that?

Isn’t this what it means to be on mission? Isn’t this why we celebrate Mission Sunday? To be on mission doesn’t necessarily mean helping needy people in some faraway place. Often the needy can be found much closer to home. Mission is also about reaching out to them. Being there for them, as they struggle with their burdens. Just as Christ continues to help me bear my own.

When you're weary, feeling small,
When tears are in your eyes, I will dry them all.
I'm on your side, when times get rough,
and friends just can't be found.
Like a bridge over troubled water, I will lay me down.

My dear sisters and brothers, by being raised up on the Cross, Christ the Lord has already laid himself down for us. How is he calling us to lay ourselves down for others today?

Sunday, October 07, 2018

Between Principle & Practice

27th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

My dear friends, do you know the difference between principle and practice? I was led to ponder this question a few nights ago, when I happened to watch a documentary on Channel NewsAsia, entitled China On Film. The programme showed some old film footage of China in the late 1920s, which was, as you know, a very tumultuous time. A time of civil war and conflict. The Nationalists were fighting the regional warlords and the Communists. The Japanese were threatening to invade. And caught in the middle of the resulting violence and bloodshed were the poor defenceless Chinese people.

The film clips showed masses of Chinese refugees fleeing their homes. Where did they go? One ironic source of safety was actually the foreign settlements. Which were under international protection, and closed to Chinese troops. One commentator pointed out that although, in principle, almost all Chinese deeply resented the foreign occupation of Chinese soil, in practice, they had to flee into foreign-controlled areas to save their lives. In principle, resentment. In practice, refuge.

Sisters and brothers, what do you think of this contradiction between principle and practice? If you were a Chinese refugee, wouldn’t you do the same? I know I would. And if you were in charge of a foreign settlement at that time, wouldn’t you do your best to save lives? Or would you be so hardhearted as to insist that people stick to their principle… and die?

I’m not sure, sisters and brothers, but it seems to me that, in order to live a truly human life, we often have to strike a delicate balance between both principle and practice. We can’t have one without the other. Which is also what we find in our Mass readings today. At first glance, the readings seem to involve nothing more than an argument over principle. The question is whether or not a man may divorce his wife. The Pharisees assume that the answer must be yes. But Jesus disagrees. For him, any person who divorces a spouse and marries another is guilty of adultery against that spouse.

For us Catholics, the general principle is clear, isn’t it? Marriage is for life. Divorce is prohibited on pain of sin. We all know this. But does this mean that all that’s left for us is simply to keep the principle, and to enforce it as best we can? And yet, the readings actually go beyond a mere argument over principle. Consider, for example, how Jesus responds to the Pharisees’ challenge. He doesn’t just propose to them a contrary principle. Instead he focuses their attention on what has been God’s practice from the dawn of creation. From the beginning… God made them male and female… and the two become one body… But why did God act in this way?

The first reading explains the origin of the different sexes and of marriage in a very interesting way. In creating the man and the woman, God wasn’t so much following a principle as God was responding, in practice, to a felt need. A need that we all have, don’t we? The need for true and deep and intimate companionship. It is not good that the man should be alone… It is out of a merciful desire to fill this deep need for connection that God helps the man to put his own ego to sleep, in order that the man may donate a part of himself to another. For true companionship cannot result from selfishness. It has to be born of loving self-sacrifice. But the point is that the man can't do this on his own. God has to help him.

Isn’t this why it’s so fitting that our second reading should speak to us of the self-sacrifice of Christ? For just as the first man fell asleep and donated a rib to form the first woman. So too does Jesus fall into the sleep of death on the cross, and pour out every last drop of his blood to form the church. To form you and me. And to take us to himself in true companionship and friendship. As the reading tells us, by God’s grace he had to experience death for all mankind… For the one who sanctifies, and the ones who are sanctified, are of the same stock; that is why he openly calls them brothers… 

Seen from this perspective, my dear friends, our readings are really less about explaining and enforcing a burdensome principle than they are about celebrating God’s practice of mercy. God’s ongoing desire to satisfy our deep need for connection and companionship. This is what God has been doing, right from the beginning of Creation to the climax of our redemption in Christ. And isn’t this also what we celebrate here at this Mass? The same kind of practice of mercy that we are all expected to engage in after we leave this church?

My dear friends, to live a truly human life, a truly Christian life, it is not enough for us to cling stubbornly to a certain set of principles. Important though these principles may be. In today’s gospel, it is the Pharisees who do that. Which leads Jesus to call them unteachable. A word that is better translated as hardhearted. In contrast, it is Jesus who remains ever mindful of God’s practice of mercy. Even as he models for us the great principle of love of God and of neigbour. It is Jesus who is himself the great expression of the practice of mercy. Jesus, who comes to call not the righteous, but sinners (Mt 9:13).

My dear friends, it’s difficult to deny that, in many ways, we live in a time that’s no less tumultuous than China in the 1920s. Many people are in flight, if not physically, then surely spiritually. Anxiously searching for a place of safety and rest. Desperately looking to establish meaningful connections. And precisely at a chaotic time like this, when the gap between principle and practice often seems to be at its widest, the temptation is great for those of us who feel like we have all the answers to cling stubbornly to a certain set of principles. Whatever these may be. And to seek to impose them on others. For this is what often seems to offer us the best form of security and safety.

And yet we Christians are called to do more. To act differently, For we follow a crucified and risen Lord, who came to seek out and to save the lost. We believe in a loving and merciful God, who continually flings open the doors of his Kingdom, so that pitiful refugees might enter, to enjoy true hospitality and safety and security. And to learn to share the same with others who are in need.

Sisters and brothers, what do we have to do, you and I, to continue striking that delicate but much needed balance between principle and practice today?

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Mind Your Language

25th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

Picture: cc Alwyn Ladell

My dear friends, do you remember the late, and much beloved, Fr Antoni Ponnudurai? Well, today happens to be the 3rd anniversary of his passing, and I’m reminded of a story he used to tell, from his time as a newly-arrived missionary in Indonesia. He was beginning Mass one day, with the intention of sprinkling the people with holy water. However, seeing that many of them were gathered at the back of the church, he asked them, in his beginners’ Bahasa Indonesia, to please move to the front, so that he could “throw water” on them. At which all the people burst out laughing. It was only later that he discovered the reason for their amusement. Apparently, the Indonesian words he had used to say “throw water” are actually an euphemism for “urinate”.

In addition to being quite funny, this story also illustrates the difficulties of communicating in a foreign tongue, a different language. Which is also something like what we find in our readings today. In the gospel, Jesus tells his disciples that he will soon be delivered into the hands of men, who will put him to death and, three days later, he will rise again. However, even though the Lord speaks quite plainly, and this is already the second time that he is sharing this distressing news with his disciples, the reading tells us that they did not understand what he said. Why? Why do you think it is so difficult for the disciples to understand the Lord’s words?

I’m not sure. But could it be because Jesus and his disciples are, in a sense, speaking different languages? For the Lord’s decision to freely surrender himself to suffering and death on the cross can only really be understood in the language of loving and merciful self-sacrifice. But the disciples are used to communicating in another, quite different, tongue. Theirs is the language of anxious ambition, and of cut-throat competition. Of constantly having to fight with others, so as to secure one’s place in society. Isn’t this why, soon after learning that their Lord and Master will suffer a painful and shameful death, we find them arguing which of them was the greatest?

And isn’t this also why, the reading begins by telling us that Jesus did not want anyone to know where he and his disciples were, because he was instructing them. The Lord is not just sharing with them a piece of information that is difficult for them to accept. He is actually teaching the disciples to think and speak and act in a whole new way. To use a totally different language from the one with which they are familiar. The one used by the world.

Two different languages, reflecting opposing ways of thinking and speaking and acting. This is also what we find in the first reading. Which speaks to us about the way of the wicked versus the way of the virtuous. On the one hand, the wicked feel so threatened by the virtuous person that they decide to persecute him, to test him with cruelty and with torture, and even to condemn him to a shameful death. In contrast to this violence of the wicked, the virtuous person professes to act always with gentleness and endurance. Trusting that God will take his part and rescue him from the clutches of his enemies.

Deep insecurity leading to violence and conflict, versus trusting confidence producing patient endurance. This is also what we find in the second reading, which presents us with a contrast between the wisdom that comes down from above, as opposed to earthly wisdom from below. Whereas the wisdom from above is kindly and considerate, full of compassion and goodness, leading to peace and holiness. Earthly wisdom is jealous and ambitious, producing disharmony and wickedness, conflict and division.

The reading also goes on to trace this sharp difference in external expression to its inner source deep within the human heart. Speaking to those who use the language of earthly wisdom, the reading asks, Where do these wars and battles between yourselves first start? Isn’t it precisely in the desires fighting inside your own selves? You want something and you haven’t got it; so you are prepared to kill. You have an ambition that you cannot satisfy; so you fight to get your way by force. In contrast to this violence and conflict born of anxiety, the reading tells us that peace and holiness come from hearts that trust in the Lord. Hearts secure in the hope that God will grant whatever we need, if only we pray properly. For, in the words of the psalm, the Lord upholds my life.

Profound anxiety and insecurity, leading to violent competition and conflict, versus deep confidence and trust, expressed in gentleness and compassion, and patient endurance even in the face of persecution. This is the stark contrast that our Mass readings propose to us for our prayerful reflection today. Two completely different languages. Two opposing ways of thinking and speaking and acting. And perhaps this contrast serves as a timely reminder for us, especially in light of the conversations that many people in Singapore have been engaged in recently. Conversations relating to a particular piece of criminal legislation, which some are fighting vigorously to repeal, and others just as vigorously to retain. 

I do not propose to consider which, if any, of these positions is the more Christian one. I believe the relevant authority has already provided helpful guidance on this question. But in addition to considering what may be the correct position for Christians to hold, isn’t it just as important, if not even more so, that we also carefully examine the language we use to engage others in conversation? When we speak about an issue as contentious as this, do we use the new heavenly language of gentleness and compassion, rooted in a deep trust in the loving mercy of God for all people? Or do we speak only in the earthly tongue of ambition and competition, born of a profound insecurity? The first way leads to peace and holiness. The other to violence and conflict.

Sisters and brothers, as Christians, we believe that we have been blessed by God in order that we, in our turn, may become a blessing to others. A blessing to society. But in order for us to fulfil this role, we need to take care that we always think and speak and act in the language of Christ. The language of loving self-sacrifice.

My dear friends, the late Fr Ponnudurai’s story teaches us that all it takes is an unfortunate choice of words, an inappropriate use of language, to turn a sprinkling of holy water into a shower of smelly urine. A blessing into a curse. How can we avoid doing the same to others today?

Sunday, September 16, 2018

When Who Determines Where...

24th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

Picture: cc cncphotos

My dear friends, please allow me first to apologise for the rather distasteful image that I’m about to call to your mind. But imagine for a moment, if you will, that you’ve just finished using the toilet, and as you stand up, a few coins fall out of your pocket, or your purse, and into the bowl. What do you do?… I’m not sure about you, but I’m quite certain that I’d just go ahead and flush the toilet. And maybe, just maybe, check the bowl after that, to see if the coins are still there.

But what if the object you drop is your brand new iPhone X, or your wedding ring? What then? Will you still flush the toilet immediately? Or would you not at least pause to consider the possibility of first sticking your hand into that bowl to fish the object out? Well it depends, doesn’t it? It depends on how valuable that object is to you. What an object means to me determines where I’m willing to go to retrieve it. And the same can be said about people. Who a person is for me determines where I’m willing to go to search for that person.

Who often determines where. This, I believe, is also what we find in the gospel. When Jesus asks his disciples the question, who do you say I am?, he is not just asking them to attach the correct title after his name. Jesus, the Christ. What he is really asking them is, what do I mean to you? Who am I to you? And there's a reason why the Lord chooses to pose this question at this point in their relationship. The question who? is meant to prepare them for the question where?.

For the reading tells us that, after asking his disciples the question who?, the Lord goes on to tell them about the terrible things that will soon happen to him. And, although he doesn’t say it in so many words, isn’t Jesus asking his disciples another question? I, the one you acknowledge as the Christ, your Messiah, your Anointed One, I am heading for a very destructive and deadly destination. Far darker and more distasteful than any un-flushed toilet. Do I mean enough to you for you to follow me there? Where are you willing to go to search for me? To remain with me? It’s not difficult to see how the question who? leads into the question where?.

And that’s not all. There is also some irony in this conversation. Irony that we begin to appreciate when we ask ourselves another question. The question why?. Why does Jesus choose to go to the place of destruction and death? Indeed, why is he even walking this earth? Isn’t it because he himself is the hand that our loving and merciful God reaches into our selfish and sinful lives to search for us, to save us?

Although it may seem at first that it is the disciples who have to follow Jesus to a dark and distasteful place, it is actually the Lord who is reaching into their dark lives to save them. Reaching into my dark life to save me. For as the prophet Isaiah reminds us, ours were the sufferings he bore, ours the sorrows he carried… (Is 53:4). In Christ’s Passion, Death and Resurrection, God shows me how much God loves me. Unworthy though I am. Giving me the courage and the strength to renounce my sinful egotistical self, to take up my cross for love, and to follow the Lord into the fullness of life.

Which is what makes Jesus the fulfilment of the hope expressed in both the first reading and the psalm. In the reading, the one who is speaking is able to face his trials courageously, because he is convinced that the lord is coming to his help. And the psalmist is able to persevere, even when surrounded by the snares of death, because he firmly believes that he will walk in the presence of the Lord in the land of the living. In whom are these hopes fulfilled, if not in Christ?

Who a person is for me determines where I’m willing to go to search for that person. Isn’t this also what we find in the second reading? Contrary to appearances, the distinction being drawn here is not between faith and works, but between living faith, which is shown in good works, and dead faith, which has no works to show. For to have faith is not just to profess belief in a set of abstract principles, but to remain in a loving relationship with the person of Christ. To allow the Lord to mean so much to me that I am willing to recognise and reach out to him in those who most need my help. Even if they may live in conditions as distasteful as an un-flushed toilet.

Who a person is for me determines where I’m willing to go to search for that person. Who determines where. Isn’t this an important principle for us to remember especially today? When our church continues to reel from one devastating revelation of clergy sexual abuse and cover-up after another? And when it is perhaps no exaggeration to say that it often feels as though our church, which we dare to believe is the body of Christ, has fallen into an un-flushed toilet?

At a time as dark as this, isn’t it very tempting to give free rein to righteous anger, and to resort to pointing fingers of blame and recrimination? Caring little about whether one’s accusations are justified or not. And conveniently forgetting to consider one’s own part in all this. Isn’t it also tempting to simply walk away in disappointment and disillusionment. To leave this corrupt church where it has fallen? And, incredible though it may seem, isn’t it also tempting to remain oblivious to all that is happening? To carry on like it’s business as usual.

I’m not sure what you think, my dear friends, but aren’t such reactions no different from flushing the toilet after something of mine has fallen into it? If I can bring myself to do it, it’s only because what has fallen doesn’t mean much to me. For if it does mean something to me, wouldn’t I at least consider trying to retrieve it? Perhaps by bringing my emotional reactions to prayer. By pondering and discussing the relevant issues with others, in the light of God’s Word. By considering how I myself may have contributed, perhaps unknowingly, to the culture of clericalism that allows such unsavoury things to continue. And, eventually, to help initiate whatever steps may be needed to turn the situation around.

My dear sisters and brothers, if it is true that who determines where, then who is the church to you and me? And where do we need to go to help retrieve her from the dark and distasteful place into which she has fallen today?

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