Sunday, May 19, 2024

The Power of Place

Pentecost Sunday

Readings: Acts 2: 1-11; Psalm 103 (104): 1, 24, 29-31, 34; Galatians 5: 16-25; John 15: 26-27, 16:12-15

Picture: By Becca Ayalah on Unsplash

I'd like to teach the world to sing, in perfect harmony.

I'd like to hold it in my arms, and keep it company…

My dear friends, I wonder if any of us still remembers these words, taken from a song released way back in 1971. The song began as a jingle, advertising a famous soft drink. But it became so popular, its writers added more words to it, removed the references to the soft drink, and transformed it into a chart-topping pop song. How did this happen? How did the focus shift from marketing yet another commercial product to sharing an inspiring message of unity and peace? I don’t know. But I hope it’s not too naive to think that perhaps it had something to do with the power of place. That instead of a world where everyone drinks the same sweet fizzy beverage, we realised we much prefer one where we can all live together in harmony. A place of caring and communion, rather than endless consumption and cut-throat competition.

The attractive power of place. We find something similar in our scriptures today. It’s not exactly clear what is happening in the first reading. The Spirit brings about something mysterious. Somehow, simultaneously, the marvels of God are proclaimed in many different languages. On the one hand, the reading tells us that this is the result of the power of speech. The disciples received a gift, allowing them to preach in foreign languages. But it’s also possible that their listeners were given the power of hearing. Allowing them to understand the gospel in their respective native languages.

And more than just speech or hearing, there's also the power of place. The reading tells us that the disciples had all met in one room. In another translation (RSV), they were all together in one place. What is this place? At one level, the answer seems obvious. They were likely gathered in the upper room, where the Last Supper had been eaten. But could it be that more than just their physical location, the reading is pointing us to a spiritual place. The same place to which their listeners – devout Jews from every nation under heaven – were all drawn to assemble. The same place that Jesus had talked about at the Last Supper, when he told his friends to remain in him, as branches in the vine. For as long as they remain in this place, the Spirit of truth will lead them to the complete truth. Reminding them of everything the Lord had taught them. Deepening, not just their understanding of his teaching, but their relationship with and in him. (The Spirit) will glorify me, since all he tells you will be taken from what is mine…

More than just a miraculous gift of speech or hearing, what we see at Pentecost is the power of place. Not just any place, but that special spiritual location that we have devoted all of the forty days of Lent and the fifty days of Easter to finding and occupying. Why else have we spent all this time devoutly focusing our hearts and minds and bodies on the great Mystery of the Lord’s Passion, Death and Resurrection? Why, if not to help one another find and remain in the Lord? Trusting in his promise that, if only we keep doing this, we too will experience anew what the early Church received: the awesome power of the Spirit, moving in this place.

Giving us courage to keep doing what the second reading tells us we need to do. To reject self-indulgence, and to choose instead to be led by the Spirit. So that we might belong to Christ Jesus, and inherit the kingdom of God. To keep choosing to work for a world where the wholesome fruit of the Spirit flourishes, instead of one marked only by the deadly obvious results of self-indulgence. A world that’s truly safe for everyone. Which may sound too much for us to do. Busy and distracted enough as we are. And perhaps it is. But hasn’t our observance of Lent taught us to focus less on what we have to give up, and more on what the Lord is offering us? The promise of unending love and unity and peace, found in Christ, in God’s kingdom. The attractive power of place.

I’d like to teach the world to sing… These words are actually from the song’s second verse. In the first and third verses, we find clearer references to placeI’d like to build the world a home, and furnish it with love. Grow apple trees and honey bees, and snow-white turtle doves…. I’d like to see the world for once, all standing hand-in-hand; and hear them echo through the hills, for peace throughout the land… Could it be that just as it was, more than fifty years ago, a song like this still has the power to attract and inspire us? Not just to work to build such a glorious place – wherever we may find ourselves – but also to keep singing about it, in the power of the Spirit, so that others too may join our joyful endeavour?

Sisters and brothers, as the beautiful season of Easter draws to a close, how is the Spirit renewing in us the precious experience of the power of place today? 

Sunday, May 12, 2024

Of Persons, Places & Presence

7th Sunday in Easter (B)

Readings: Acts 1: 15-17, 20-26; Psalm 102 (103): 1-2, 11-12, 19-20; 1 John 4: 11-16; John 17: 11-19

Picture: By Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

My dear friends, have you ever noticed how certain events in our lives have the power to turn a person into a place? What do I mean? Consider, for example, what happens in the early days of a romance… or when a baby is born… or when a loved one falls seriously ill. In each of these situations, doesn’t a certain person become the centre of attention for someone else? The partners in the romance for each other… the new baby for its parents… the sick person for the caregiver. It’s as if each of these persons becomes a place around which the life of the other keeps revolving. So that even when physically absent, the person still remains somehow present. If not at the top of the mind, then surely close to the heart. We might say that certain events in our lives have the mysterious power to connect persons, places and presence. And don’t the events we celebrate at Easter have a similar effect in the life of Jesus?

Somewhat like how the birth of a baby attracts its parents’ continuing presence to it, even when they may be physically absent, so too does the Lord’s Life, Death and Resurrection cause him to remain present to all those for whom he gave his life. So that, even though he is no longer with us in the same physical way that he was with his early disciples, we believe he hasn’t left us. As the opening prayer reminded us earlier, before his Ascension, Jesus had promised to be abidingly present among us, even until the end of the world. This is what we dare to believe: that God’s love for us is so strong and so enduring, that even now, centuries after his Ascension, even in this chaotic and uncertain world in which we live, Christ remains somehow present to us. Our challenge is to find ways to translate this belief into experience. How do we remain present to Jesus, who is always present to us? What can we do to let the person of Christ be the privileged place around which our lives revolve? These are questions our scriptures help us to ponder today.

One striking feature of the first reading is how the fate of Judas is described in terms of a change of place. Peter says that Judas abandoned his ministry and apostolate to go to his proper place. He left one spiritual place to go to another. And we know that this change of place was also a failure to remain present to a person. Judas betrayed and deserted the Lord. In contrast, the one prerequisite for Judas’ successor is that he must have been with us the whole time that the Lord Jesus was travelling round with us. He must have remained in place, faithfully present to the person of Jesus. To remain present to the Lord, so that he becomes the place around which our whole life revolves. This was difficult enough for the disciples before the Lord’s Ascension, when they could still see and hear and touch him. What more now, when we can’t? How are we to remain present to Jesus, to allow our lives to revolve around him, when he is no longer physically with us?

The second reading provides a first response by telling us that God is love and anyone who lives in love lives in God, and God lives in him. Even if Jesus is no longer physically with us, we can continue to experience his abiding presence, by allowing his love for us to draw us to live in love. By loving God, loving others, and loving even ourselves. Which sounds simple enough, but is by no means easy. Not only is it difficult to put love into practice, at times it’s hard even to know what love requires in a given situation. For example, when a spouse, or a close family member, or a boss makes certain demands of us, does love require us to always give in? Or could there be certain situations where the loving response might well be to say no? And, if so, then how do we recognise such situations? What would Jesus do?

To properly respond to questions like these, at least one thing is indispensable. We have to be able and willing to accept and act according to the truth. Even when it may be inconvenient or costly for us to do so. Isn’t this why, in the gospel, Jesus not only consecrates himself, he also asks his Father to consecrate us in the truth? To strive to live both in love and in truth. This is how we experience the Lord’s abiding presence to us. And this has important social implications. As the late Pope Benedict XVI taught, to live in love and truth is also to work for justice and the common good. For I cannot “give” what is mine to the other, without first giving him what pertains to him in justice. If we love others with charity, then first of all we are just towards them… (CV, 6). And (t)he more we strive to secure a common good corresponding to the real needs of our neighbours, the more effectively we love them (CV, 7).

Sisters and brothers, like the beginnings of a romance, and the birth of a baby, the Lord’s Dying and Rising has power to keep us in the Lord’s presence. What shall we do to submit ourselves more fully to this life-sustaining power today? 

Sunday, May 05, 2024

Love Finds A Way…

6th Sunday in Easter (B)

Readings: Acts 10: 25-26, 34-35, 44-48; Psalm 97 (98):1-4; 1 John 4: 7-10; John 15: 9-17

Picture: By American Jael on Unsplash

Through the concrete, through the rubble and dust, a flower will grow. It’s a hard world, to make sense of sometimes, but I want you to know.… love finds a way… My dear friends, how do these words make you feel? They’re taken from a song, released in 2017 by an English musician named Jamie Lawson. The words compare love to a flower that’s able to grow even through a crack in a hard dusty pavement. What does it feel like to look at such a sight?

I’m not sure, but isn’t it possible to feel burdened by it? To look at that brave flower, and to think too quickly of how I have to imitate it? To look at love only as an obligation that I have to fulfil? Which is actually the opposite of what the song intends to convey. In the first verse, we find these words, presumably addressed to someone preparing for bed, after a long hard day: Close your eyes now. Let the day fall away. You’ve done all you can do… And from the final verse: When you’re all out of pride, broken inside, at the end of the day, love finds a way… Rather than imposing an obligation, the song seeks to offer consolation. Inviting us to believe that, even when our own efforts may come up short, there is yet a bigger, wiser, more merciful power we can count on. One that gently gathers and guides everything, gradually bringing forth fruit in due season. Love finds a way… 

Isn’t this also what we find in our scriptures today? In the gospel, which continues from where we left off last week, Jesus invites his disciples – which includes all of us – to remain in his love, by keeping his commandments. And perhaps because we live in such a work-obsessed culture, it’s easy for us to hear, in this call, nothing more than an obligation we must fulfil. One that burdens us, and may even keep us awake at night. But the Lord’s intention is not to burden, but to console. Isn’t this why he goes on to call us his friends, carefully emphasising that this friendship is not the result of our initiative, but his? Not only did he choose and commission us, he also laid down his life for us. As a result, God raised him from the dead. So that from of the cruel rubble of the Cross, the beautiful flower of the Resurrection springs forth. Isn’t this what we celebrate at Easter?

And it's only by recalling his sacrifice, by tapping into the power flowing from it, that we are able to bear fruit. Isn’t this what the second reading means, when it tells us that the love we are talking about is not our love for God – not our fulfilment of an obligation – but God’s love for us – God’s consoling gift, given to us – when he sent his Son to take our sins away. The love in which we are called to live doesn’t originate from us. It comes from beyond us. Yet it’s also ever close to us. Constantly enfolding us in its embrace. And what a consolation it is to remember this, particularly when the day feels long, fruitless, and even too painful or confusing to bear.

In case all this sounds too abstract, the first reading shows us what it can look like in the concrete. How does Cornelius’ household come to be baptised? How does an observant Jew like Peter end up visiting a gentile? And not just any gentile, but a commander in the occupying Roman army. It’s as though a Ukrainian villager were to visit and preach to a Russian military officer in a Russian-occupied part of Ukraine! The reading makes it clear that, behind and beyond all human efforts, it is the power and influence of the Spirit that succeeds in bringing this about. Arranging it such that out of the rubble of sharp religious differences, and tense political conflict, the flower of faith begins to grow. Love finds a way

Which brings to mind these words written by George Antone, a Palestinian Catholic, whose family has been taking refuge, for the past seven months, in the only Catholic Church in Gaza: We strive hard to provide our children with safety and protection. I am not sure if we succeed in doing so every time, but we try with all our strength and love. We lack any military or capital power to protect them. All we have is to tell them that we love them above all else, and that our Lord Jesus Christ and his mother are with us in these difficult and uncertain moments…. The idea of leaving, of emigration, crosses the minds of many Christians. We are determined to preserve the Christian presence in Palestine. This is our homeland… We are the salt that helps the whole community, Christians and Muslims together. If we go, who will show Jesus to the people of Gaza?… (The Tablet, 23 March, 2024). Out of the terrible rubble of war, the fragile yet courageous flower of hope still grows. In the words of the song with which we began, it truly is a hard world, to make sense of sometimes, but.… love finds a way…

Sisters and brothers, as we gaze deep into our own lives, and out onto our troubled world, what do we see? How is love still finding a way, and how are we called to respond today?

Sunday, April 28, 2024

Between Hospice & Home

5th Sunday in Easter (B)

Readings: Acts 9: 26-31; Psalm 21 (22): 26-28, 30-32; 1 John 3: 18-24; John 15: 1-8

Picture: By John Fornander on Unsplash

My dear friends, what do people consider when choosing a home? Recently, it was reported that someone bought a good class bungalow, not far from here, for a cool S$84 million. Assuming the buyer intends to live in that house, what made her choose it? I’ve never bought a home myself, so please forgive me for engaging in some guesswork. I imagine that, among various other factors, these three would have been considered. First is, obviously, cost. Although, given how rich the buyer is, perhaps this wasn’t really a factor at all. The second is creature comforts. According to the news, along with 6 bedrooms, a pool, living, dining and entertainment spaces, the bungalow has enough room to park 8-10 cars. The third factor is class. Which refers not just to the bungalow itself, but also to its prospective residents. Their ability to buy and live in such a place marks them as belonging to an elite class. So class, comfort and cost. 3 Cs for choosing a home, a place in which to rest our bodies. But it’s not just our bodies that need a home, right? Don’t our hearts and our spirits do too? What factors do we consider when choosing a home for them? This, I believe, is the question our scriptures invite us to ponder today.

But first, perhaps it’s helpful for us to cast our minds back to our readings for last Sunday. Those of us who were here at the noon Mass, may recall how we were encouraged to align ourselves to Jesus, like building stones aligned to a keystone. To follow him, like sheep following a shepherd. To cling ever more tightly to him, like preschool children holding on to a walking rope. Today, the Lord calls us to an even closer, even more intimate relationship with him. More than just clinging to him, Jesus invites us to live and to make our home in him. Just as branches make their home in the vine. To let him be the place where our hearts and spirits find true rest and rejuvenation. In a way, like buying a good class bungalow, to be able to do this is also a mark of belonging. Belonging not to an exclusive class, but to the closely-knit Body of the Crucified and Risen Christ. Chosen and sent by God to bring new life to all the world. Closeness to Christ, and in Christ. This is the first factor, in the choice of a spiritual home.

Next, along with greater closeness, making one’s home in Christ also brings with it a certain kind of comfort. Though not the creature comforts provided by a bungalow. The first reading ends by telling us that the churches throughout Judaea, Galilee, and Samaria were… left in peace… living in the fear of the Lord, and filled with the consolation of the Holy Spirit. In another translation (RSV) the word comfort is used in place of consolation. The comfort of the Holy Spirit. This includes not just peaceful external relations with others, but also the deep interior calm described in the second reading. The calm enjoyed by those who live in God. Those who keep God’s commandments. Those who believe in Jesus, and who love others not just in words, but also in deeds. Those who become children of the truth, able to quieten their consciences, to rest their hearts, in God.

All of which already tells us that there is a cost to making one’s home in God. The cost of faith and obedience. Also, when we trust and obey the Lord, we may find ourselves led to make choices that disadvantage us in the eyes of the world. We may even have to suffer rejection and persecution. Perhaps not as obvious or bloody as the sufferings of Saul and the early Christians. But persecution nonetheless. Still, the cost of remaining faithful and obedient, even in the face of persecution, is not something we bear on our own. Rather, if we are able to trust and obey the Lord, it is only through the power that the Lord himself bestows upon us. Just as the vine bestows life on its branches. Isn’t this what Jesus means when he tells his disciples that they are pruned already, by the word he has imparted to them? The same living Word that is imparted also to us, especially when we gather for the Eucharist.

For some reason, I’m reminded of a visit I once paid, many years ago, to a friend’s terminally ill mother. She was living in a hospice, and terribly frail. Skin on bones, and bedridden. Yet her face seemed somehow radiant. And her words consoled me immensely. I don’t remember now exactly what she said. But with a serene smile she somehow expressed her readiness to go to God, her eagerness to go home. Closeness, comfort and cost. I believe these are the gifts she received, at the threshold between this life and the next, and which she also shared with me, in our brief but fruitful encounter.

Closeness, comfort and cost. 3 Cs for making our home, not in a good class bungalow, but in the Crucified and Risen Lord. Sisters and brothers, how might he be offering us these same precious gifts this Easter?

Sunday, April 21, 2024

Clinging To The Rope

4th Sunday in Easter (B)

(Good Shepherd or Vocation Sunday)

Readings: Acts 4: 8-12; Psalm 117 (118): 1, 8-9, 21-23, 26, 28-29; 1 John 3: 1-2; John 10: 11-18

Picture: By Hieu Pham on Unsplash

My dear friends, have you ever seen a children’s walking rope? It’s often used by preschool teachers, and has three key features. The rope usually has handles attached to it, which kids can hold on to, allowing the teacher to gather and lead them to where they need to go. Gathering and leading. That’s what the rope is for. That’s its first feature. Second, the rope is used at transitional or in-between spaces and times, such as when the kids are moving outside the classroom, where it’s less safe, and they require more guidance and care. Third, for the rope to work, the children must keep holding on to it, and resist the temptation to wander off on their own.

So gathering and leading… transitional or in-between spaces and times… and the need to keep holding on. These three features also characterise each of the two images used in our scriptures today. In the first reading, Peter describes the Crucified and Risen Jesus as the stone rejected by… the builders, but which has become the keystone. What is a keystone used for, if not to gather other stones to itself, so that they can all be led to complete the architect’s project? And where and when is a keystone most important, if not at the site and stage of construction, a transitional or in-between space and time? Also, a cornerstone is beneficial only to those stones that hold on or align themselves to it.

In the gospel, Jesus calls himself the Good Shepherd, who lays down his life for his sheep. By his Coming, his Dying, and his Rising, the Lord gathers us, his scattered sheep, into one flock. Leading us across the transitional space and time of this passing world, in between his First Coming and his Second. Ushering us ever more fully into God’s Kingdom. And in order to benefit from the Lord’s efforts, we need to keep holding on to him. We need to listen to his voice, to trust and take refuge in him. Which is not always easy to do, even for regular church-goers like us. For don’t we often encounter situations that captivate or burden us so much, that our attention is diverted away from the Lord? Like how the rich man, in Luke’s gospel, was so captivated by luxury, that he failed to notice the poor Lazarus at his door (Lk 16:19-21). Or how Martha  was so burdened by her chores, that she failed to keep her focus on Jesus (Lk 10:40). Similarly, we forget to listen to him, loosen our grip on him, even lose interest in him. And our hearts start to feel like scattered sheep. Broken into different pieces. Each one wandering off on its own. Getting lost in the darkness. Adversely affecting not just our spiritual wellbeing, but sometimes even our mental health as well.

Isn’t this why we need to heed St John’s advice in the second reading? Think of the love that the Father has lavished on us, by letting us be called God’s children… In other words, keep doing every day, what we are doing now, in this beautiful season of Easter. Keep pondering how, through the courageous yet humble sacrifice of Christ, and in the power of the Spirit, God the Father is ushering us into the joy of God’s Kingdom. For by regularly dwelling upon these mysteries, we allow the Lord to gather the different parts of our broken hearts, and to align them to him. So that he becomes the Unifying Principle of our existence. Isn’t this what it means to live a vocation? In whichever state of life we find ourselves – whether student or working or retired, single or married, separated or divorced or widowed, ordained or consecrated – to seek to be aligned to God’s will for us, and to keep moving in the direction in which God wishes us to go. Such that every experience we may have, every situation we may encounter, becomes a handle for us to cling ever more tightly to the One who died, and was raised to life for us.

Also, perhaps it’s important for us to recognise that, in this hyper-modern society of ours, there is at least one thing that makes it all the more challenging for us to remain focused on the Lord. Something that many of us have with us right now, sleeping snugly in our pockets or purses, or even buzzing busily in our hands. Something the use of which, researchers say, is rewiring our brains. Making it ever more difficult for us to focus our attention on any one thing in a truly sustained way. How are we to focus our hearts on the Lord, when our attention is continually fragmented by the notifications coming from our smartphones? Perhaps we need to cultivate habits that involve setting aside our attention-grabbing devices from time to time. So as to give our overloaded minds a much-needed break. Allowing us to regain the ability to recognise and resist the pull of darkness, so as to focus our attention on the One True Light.

Sisters and brothers, like preschoolers holding on to a walking rope, what must we do to cling ever more tightly to the Good Shepherd, as he leads us all into the justice and peace of God’s kingdom today?