Sunday, May 12, 2019

Sirens


4th Sunday of Easter (C)
My dear friends, do you know what a siren is? What do you think of when you hear the word siren? As you know, this word has more than one meaning. If you’re like me, then perhaps the first thing you think of, when you hear this word, is a device that gives off a loud and sharp warning sound. Such as we might find on a police car or an ambulance. But that’s not the only meaning. As you may recall, the word siren also refers to a group of semi-human female creatures from Greek mythology, who use their beautiful voices to lead unsuspecting sailors to crash their ships on treacherous rocks.

Don’t you find it striking, my dear friends, that the same word could have such contrasting meanings? On the one hand, a disturbing sound that warns us of danger, and leads us to safety. On the other, a melodious voice luring us to our doom.

Well, there is no mention of sirens in our readings today. But we do find people listening to different kinds of voices. People following contrasting sounds. In the first reading, Paul and Barnabas preach the word of God in a place called Antioch in Pisidia, and some people listen to them, receive the word, and are converted to the Lord. These people heed the voice of God, and commit themselves to walking the difficult road that leads to the safety of eternal life.

On the other hand, the reading also speaks of how some of the devout women of the upper classes and the leading men of the city are persuaded by the Jewish authorities to turn against Paul and Barnabas and expel them from their territory. Instead of listening to the word of God and finding life, these people follow an opposing set of voices, which will ultimately lead them to their doom.

But that’s not all. Aren’t Paul and Barnabas, as well as their Jewish opponents, themselves also following contrasting voices? The reading tells us that the Jewish authorities contradicted everything Paul said, because they were listening to an interior voice. They were prompted by jealousy. On the other hand, Paul and Barnabas are able to persevere in their mission, even to the extent of being filled with joy and the Holy Spirit, despite facing rejection and persecution. Why? Because they follow the voice of God.

What we find in the reading are two contrasting voices. Or, if you like, two different kinds of sirens. One leading people to safety, and the other to destruction.

Doesn’t this help us to better understand what Jesus is talking about in the gospel? The sheep that belong to me listen to my voice; I know them and they follow me. I give them eternal life… The voice of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, operates like a warning siren, leading those who follow its call to the safety of eternal life. Not just eternal life after we die. But the fullness of life even while we remain on this earth. The kind of life that Paul, Barnabas, and the other disciples lived. Allowing us to experience joy, even in the midst of great struggle. To remain at peace, even when undergoing much suffering... Is there anyone here who is going through a great struggle, or undergoing much suffering?

Isn’t this also the experience that the second reading describes, when it speaks of people who have been through the great persecution, and who now stand in front of God’s throne and serve him day and night in his sanctuary? They will never hunger or thirst again… because the Lamb… will be their shepherd and lead them to springs of living water… These people find fullness of life, because they follow the Lord’s voice. A voice that speaks of love, holiness and peace.

How do you feel, sisters and brothers, when you hear all this? Don’t you desire to share the experience of those people in the second reading? Don’t you want to be among the sheep that belong to the Lord? Who follow the Shepherd’s voice and no other? If so, then isn’t it clear what we need to do? We need somehow to learn to recognise the Lord’s voice. To distinguish it from that of the enemy. We need, in other words, what Pope Francis writes about in his letter entitled Rejoice and Be Glad.

How can we know, the Holy Father asks, if something comes from the Holy Spirit or if it stems from the spirit of the world or the spirit of the devil? The only way is through discernment…. It is a gift which we must implore…. (166) And the Pope goes on to say that (Christ) asks us to examine what is within us – our desires, anxieties, fears and questions – and what takes place around us – “the signs of the times” – and thus recognise the paths that lead to complete freedom (168).

The ability to read the interior movements that I experience within my heart, and the signs of the times happening all around me. Some leading to life and safety. Others to death and destruction. This is the precious gift that we all need to pray for and to practise, as true sheep of the Good Shepherd, as faithful disciples of the Lord.

Sisters and brothers, whether we realise it or not, in each of our lives, there are two kinds of sirens sounding. Which one will you decide to follow today?

Saturday, May 04, 2019

Sing! (Rerun)



3rd Sunday of Easter (C)


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

My dear friends, do any of you still remember these words? They’re taken from an old song from the 1970s, sung by The Carpenters. The song is simply titled Sing. And its message is as straightforward as its name. It’s an invitation to do one thing: To sing! To sing a song! And not just any song, but a joyful song. A song that lasts your whole life long.

To be able to sing a joyful song for the whole of my life. In a sense, this is  also what we prayed for in our opening prayer just now. May your people exult for ever, O God. This is what we prayed. And what does it mean to exult, if not to sing and to dance for joy? To sing and dance for joy, not just today or tomorrow. But for ever. This is the grace we are seeking. This is the gift that’s being offered to us. But what does it look like to sing in this way? How do we do it? Our readings help us to understand, by answering three questions for us.

The first question is with what? With what do I sing? When I think of singing a song, I usually think first of using my voice. But surely it’s impossible to sing non-stop only with my voice! How will I eat or sleep? So, if not only with my voice, then with what? With what do I sing this song? We find the answer in the first reading, where the religious authorities are desperately trying to do one thing: to silence the Apostles. To stop them from spreading the gospel. To smother their song.

But the Apostles respond by doing exactly what the authorities order them not to do. They keep proclaiming the Good News of the Death and Resurrection of Christ. They keep singing their song. And they do this not just with their voices. For, in the reading, even though they are cruelly flogged, the Apostles do not allow themselves to be discouraged. On the contrary, they feel glad to have had the honour of suffering humiliation for the sake of (the Lord’s) name. They rejoice even in the midst of persecution. They exult even when made to suffer for their faith. This shows that they are singing not just with their voices, but with the whole of their lives.

The second question is to whom? To whom do we sing our song? And the answer is found in the second reading, which describes a vision of heaven, where an immense number of angels – ten thousand times ten thousand… and thousands upon thousands of them – are doing what the Apostles do in the first reading. They are proclaiming and praising, worshiping and glorifying God. In a sense, they are singing a song. And it’s not just the angels who do this, but all the living things of creation. Every created thing is singing the same song of praise and worship. This then is the answer provided by the second reading. To whom do we sing our song? To none other than God. God is the One to whom we sing.

This is what we Christians are supposed to do: We are to sing, with our whole lives, a joyful song of praise to God. But surely this is much easier said than done, isn’t it? Difficult enough to squeeze out one hour a week for Mass on Sunday. And even then, don’t some of us find it a great challenge? Not just because the parish carpark is so full. Or the music too fast or too slow. Or the homily too long or too boring. All this may sometimes be true. But isn’t the reason why some of us find Mass such a chore also because our bodies are often too tired and stressed? Our minds too distracted? We find it hard to sing a song to God, because there is so often a different tune playing within us. A song, not of joy and praise, but of anxiety and ambition. Not of love for others, but of preoccupation with self. A song addressed not to God, but to those in the world whom we may be seeking so desperately to impress.

If all this is true, then perhaps the third and last question is the most important one. The question from where? From where do we receive our song? This is the question that the gospel helps us to answer. Here, the action takes place by the banks of the Sea of Tiberias. But more than just a physical location, this is also a spiritual place. This is where disappointed and discouraged disciples gather. People who spend a whole night, perhaps even a whole lifetime, fishing. But without much success. Here is also where Christ appears. The Crucified and Risen One. Not to judge or to scold. But to guide, to feed, and to befriend. Here, the Lord does the cooking, the serving, and the encouraging. Here, the tired find rest. The guilty are granted forgiveness. The disappointed given fresh hope.

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

The banks of the Sea of Tiberias. A place of loving encounter. Where absence is changed into Presence. Failure into fruitfulness. Guilt and shame into mercy and mission. This, my dear friends, is the spiritual place to which we are called today. And to find it is not difficult. What we need to do is to ask the Lord for courage to face our own weaknesses – as Peter did – and the patience to wait for the Lord to appear and to minister to us. To do for us what He did for the disciples. To give us a new song to sing for all eternity.

I’m reminded of these lines from another tune…

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

Sisters and brothers, the One who gave His life for us has already been raised. Love has triumphed over sin and death. How can we keep from singing?

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