Sunday, January 29, 2023

From Huat, Ah! To Hosanna!

4th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Readings: Zephaniah 2:3, 3:12-13; Psalm 145 (146):6-10; 1 Corinthians 1:26-31; Matthew 5:1-12a

Picture: by Galen Crout on Unsplash

My dear friends, what does it mean when someone shouts, Huat, ah!? We know the answer, right? It’s an expression of desire, an aspiration to prosperity. Inspired by a particular vision of the good life, according to which happiness means financial wealth and material success. I can imagine, for example, a fictional visitor to our parish, on a busy Sunday morning, gazing awestruck at our gloriously packed carpark, and then being moved to shout, Huat, ah! I mention this not just because we’re mid-way through the celebrations of the Lunar New Year, but because our scriptures seem to offer us something similar today. Aspirations inspired by a certain vision of the good life, a particular way of looking at things.

In the gospel, Jesus begins his Sermon on the Mount by listing eight so-called beatitudes. Reasons why someone might be considered happy or blessed. Dispositions to which we might be drawn to aspire. Except that these dispositions are the opposite of typical Lunar New Year aspirations. Not prosperity, but poverty. Not success, but hunger for justice, and mourning over its lack. How can anyone aspire to such depressing things? As we ponder this question, it’s helpful to notice that the beatitudes actually flow from a three-fold look. First, the reading begins by telling us that it was only upon seeing the crowds, that Jesus went up the hill, and began to teach. The Lord’s instruction is a response to the many who are broken, afflicted, and lost, the very people to whom Jesus had been ministering earlier.

And yet, although prompted by them, the Lord’s teaching is offered not to the crowds, but to the disciples. It is to them that he shifts his gaze, after climbing the hill. And it is while looking at the disciples, that Jesus is moved to speak about what true blessedness looks like. That contrary to what all the commercials tell us, the good life consists not in wealth and success, but in finding and taking one’s place in God’s Kingdom. How? By becoming poor and hungry, meek and mourning, like Jesus. So that not only are the beatitudes prompted by Jesus’ gaze at the crowds and at his disciples, they also provide an intimate portrait of the Lord himself.

And it is this same three-fold look–at the crowds, at the disciples, and at the Lord–that we are invited to keep sharing. So that we might aspire to draw close to Jesus, who though he was rich, became poor, to draw close to us (2 Cor 8:9). To seek the Lord with all our heart. To seek integrity and humility in him. To let him become our wisdom, and our virtue… our holiness, and our freedom. To learn to patiently accept the trials that life often places in the path of a disciple, just as the Lord accepted his Cross, in order to lead us all into the fullness of Life. And to even be moved to give voice to that joyful shout that greeted Jesus, as he entered Jerusalem on Passion Sunday, and which we ourselves will sing shortly: Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!

Sisters and brothers, amid the cries of Huat, ah! ringing out all around us, how shall we cultivate and express our own aspirations for the Lord and his Kingdom in the days ahead?

Sunday, January 22, 2023

Formation As Acclimatisation

3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

(Sunday of the Word of God)

Readings: Isaiah 8:23-9:3; Psalm 26 (27):1, 4, 13-14; 1 Corinthians 1:10-13, 17; Matthew 4:12-23

Picture: by Joe Pearson on Unsplash

My dear friends, imagine for a moment that I’m sitting in a dark room, and someone suddenly shines a bright light on my face. How will I react? Most likely, I’ll close my eyes, cover my face, turn away from the light. Having been accustomed to the dark, I need time to get used to the light, a period of acclimatisation, to make the transition from darkness to light. We find a similar transition in the scriptures today.

The first reading speaks of a people living in darkness, who finally see a great light. Scholars say this prophecy likely foretells the rise of a new king, possibly Hezekiah, who will free the people from the oppression of the Assyrian Empire. But the gospel gives the prophecy a deeper meaning. Its ultimate fulfilment is found not in Hezekiah, but in Jesus. It is Jesus, the King of kings and the Good Shepherd, who helps his subjects make that crucial transition from the darkness of sin to the bright light of God’s kingdom of love and peace. Of course, this comes as no surprise to us, since we often ponder this same prophecy in the joyful season of Christmas.

But now, in Ordinary Time, we are drawn to pay closer attention to how exactly Jesus fulfils the prophecy. We’re told that he begins his preaching with a message of repentance, a call to turn away from the dark toward the light. Which makes a lot of sense, when we recall how anyone who’s used to being in the dark tends to react to the light by instinctively avoiding it. And beyond repentance, Jesus also calls to discipleship, inviting people to follow him, to live with him, to learn from him, to make him the centre of their lives. He also promises to give them power, flowing from his Cross, to usher others into the Light. He will make them fishers of people.

Repentance, discipleship, and mission. This is how the Lord acclimatises us to living in his Light. This is the process of formation he offers us as a precious gift, to which we need to keep submitting ourselves. A process centred on Christ, the Word-of-God-Made-Flesh, whom we encounter not just by studying the Bible, but also by participating regularly and actively in the worship offered by his Body, the Church, as well as by reaching out in some way to those who suffer.

Repentance, discipleship, and mission. This is how we overcome our tendencies not just to avoid the Light, but also to domesticate it, or to relegate it to some small insignificant corner of our lives. As the Corinthians seem to have done in the second reading. Leading Paul to call them to repent of their petty divisions, and to focus once more on Christ, in whom is found that true union of minds and hearts, beyond any merely cosmetic or manipulative expressions of friendliness. Repentance, discipleship and mission. Doesn’t this process remain particularly important for us today? Living as we do in the shadows of a predominantly consumeristic society, and an often still unconsciously clerical church?

Sisters and brothers, as we celebrate another Sunday of the Word of God, what shall we do to allow the Lord to continue acclimatising us to his Light today?

Sunday, January 15, 2023

(Spiritual) Superfood

2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Readings: Isaiah 49: 3, 5-6; Psalm 39 (40): 2, 4, 7-10; 1 Corinthians 1:1-3; John 1: 29-34

PictureJannis Brandt on Unsplash

My dear friends, do you know what superfoods are? My guess is that some of you probably know far more about them than I do. According to Wikipedia, “superfood” is actually a marketing term for food claimed to confer health benefits resulting from an exceptional nutrient density.  Superfoods are said to be high in nutrients like antioxidants, vitamins and minerals. However, while specific superfoods may be beneficial, the term itself isn’t officially recognised or defined. But this hasn’t stopped retailers from charging higher prices for foods labelled as such. Nor has it prevented people, mainly from rich nations like ours, from buying them.

Which goes to show how seriously some of us take our physical health. But our scriptures offer us something like a spiritual superfood. As you’ve probably already noticed, in each of our readings, we find individuals and groups of people who’ve been called by God. In the gospel, even as John the Baptist identifies Jesus as the Chosen One of God, John also tells us that he himself was called by God for this very purpose. Not just to baptise people with water for the forgiveness of their sins, but to point them to Jesus. Similarly, in the second reading, Paul refers to himself as one appointed, or called, by God to be an apostle. He also addresses the Corinthians in similar fashion. They too are called. Called to be holy. Called to be saints.

In our readings today, not only do we find people who have received a calling, a vocation, but this sense of being called becomes for them a great source of spiritual nourishment. So, in the first reading, like Paul and John, Israel too is convinced that God has called and formed her in the womb to be his servant. Not just to restore the tribes of Jacob, but to be the light of the nations. And not only does this sense of her own calling give her life meaning and direction, not only does she feel honoured by it, God’s call also becomes her strength. It nourishes and energises her, keeps her spiritually healthy. Which brings to mind how, elsewhere in John’s gospel, Jesus himself says, My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work (4:34).

But can’t we say the same about ourselves? By virtue of our baptism, hasn’t God called us too, as individuals and as Church? Hasn’t God given us a new song to sing? The song of Christ’s merciful love, which we celebrate at this Eucharist. To be sung not just with our mouths, but with our very lives. Isn’t the singing of this song meant to enrich us spiritually, in the same way that superfoods are supposed to nourish us physically? And isn’t this particularly important for us today, when many seem to show signs of spiritual hunger and malnourishment? Signs like feeling chronically burdened or bored, listless or restless, addicted or depressed? Like sheep without a shepherd (Mk 6:34)?

Sisters and brothers, if rich people are willing to pay a premium in response to what is essentially a brilliant marketing tactic, what are we willing to do to enjoy the rich spiritual nourishment that God has prepared for us in Christ?

Sunday, January 08, 2023

Christmas as Crisis

Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord

Readings: Isaiah 60: 1-6; Psalm 71 (72): 1-2, 7-8, 10-13; Ephesians 3: 2-3, 5-6; Matthew 2: 1-12

Picture: cc Alvaro [Ando] & Marcin Wichary on Flickr

My dear friends, do you know what luminol is? Those who’ve ever watched the old TV series, CSI, may remember this. Luminol is the chemical that crime scene investigators use to uncover traces of blood, even on surfaces that have already been cleaned. Once the liquid comes in contact with blood, it emits a blue glow that can be clearly seen in a darkened room. That’s what luminol does. It reveals hidden things.

And isn’t this also what today’s feast tells us about Christmas? Epiphany means revelation. At Christmas, the previously invisible almighty God is revealed as a visible helpless human baby. Also, unlike in past generations, this revelation is not just to a privileged few, but to all nations. For though night still covers the earth and darkness the peoples, the light of Christ now shines clearly for all to see. This is also the mystery that the second reading proclaims. The good news that, in the life, death and resurrection of Christ, even pagans (like us) now share the same inheritance.

But there’s more. In manifesting God’s merciful love for all peoples, Christmas also shines a revealing light on us, uncovering what may be hidden even from ourselves. Not just the colour of our passports, the size of our bank accounts, or the shape of our social networks, but the disposition of our hearts, what or whom it is we really worship.

Isn’t this what we see in the gospel? The birth of Jesus causes a crisis, evoking contrasting reactions. The wise men–all pagans–see the star, and make an arduous journey to a foreign land, in search of the newborn king. And, upon finding him, they fall down before him in humble worship. The whole of Jerusalem and her leaders, however, do not respond as the prophecy says they should. Not only do they fail to spot the star, instead of growing radiant, with hearts throbbing and full, news of the long-awaited messiah’s birth troubles them. And, rather than worshipping him, Herod seeks to have him killed. A clear sign of idolatry.

All of which brings to mind what Pope Francis says about crises, in the book entitled Let Us Dream, published in 2020, when the world was still engulfed in the shadows of the pandemic: In the trials of life, you reveal your heart: how solid it is, how merciful, how big or small. Normal times are like formal social situations: you never have to reveal yourself.… But when you are in a crisis, it’s the opposite. You have to choose. And in making the choice you reveal your heart…. In moments of crisis… people reveal themselves as they are. Some spend themselves in the service of those in need, and some get rich off other people’s need… If the Pope is right, then a crisis is like luminol. It brings hidden things to light. And Christmas does the same.

Sisters and brothers, even as international borders reopen, and many are understandably eager for revenge-travel, what is the light of Christ revealing to us about ourselves, as individuals, as church, and as a society today?

Sunday, January 01, 2023

Incubation & Incarnation

Solemnity of Mary, the Holy Mother of God

Readings: Numbers 6: 22-27; Psalm 66 (67): 2-3, 5, 6, 8; Galatians 4: 4-7; Luke 2: 16-21

Picture: cc Troy B. Thompson on Flickr

My dear friends, have you ever seen an egg incubator before? I remember visiting the Singapore Science Centre as a child, and being fascinated by the one they had there. It kept fertilised chicken eggs warm. And, if you were lucky, you could see a chick slowly emerging from its shell! To incubate is to provide the right conditions for bringing life to birth and maturity. Isn’t this what mothers and fathers do?

But what does it look like to incubate not just any kind of plant or animal life, but divine-human life? This what the scriptures help us to ponder today, as we celebrate the Holy Mother of God. For a start, the first reading and the psalm make it clear to us that the life we are considering originates in God. God promises to bless those who invoke God’s name, by uncovering God’s face to them, by showing them God’s ways. So that by following the way of life proposed to them by God as a precious gift, they will come to know and bear witness to true justice and peace on earth.

As Christians, we believe that this promise is fulfilled in Jesus, at once truly God and truly human, in whom God quite literally uncovers God’s face. And yet, isn’t it curious that, in the gospel chosen for our feast, we join the story only after the baby Jesus has already been born, and is found lying snugly in the manger? If motherhood is really about incubation, why not begin by considering the nine months between conception and birth?

I’m not sure, but perhaps our attention is being drawn to another way by which the Mother of God incubates life. Not just in the marvellous purity and generosity of her womb, but also by the freedom and hospitality of her heart. Perhaps this is why the gospel makes it a point to mention how Mary keeps paying close attention to the events unfolding around her, carefully treasuring and pondering them in her heart.

And what exactly is going on in her heart? We can’t say for sure. We can only guess. But perhaps it’s something like what the second reading tells us happens when God sends the Spirit of adoption into human hearts. The Spirit moves them–moves us–to recognise and proclaim God’s incubating Fatherly presence in our lives. Which may explain why, by the end of the gospel, after pondering God’s action in their lives, Mary and Joseph are moved to obey the angel’s instruction. They give their baby the name that means God saves.

Treasuring and pondering, obeying, naming and proclaiming. These are some of the actions by which Mary incubates life. Not just in her womb, but also in her heart. And not just Mary, but also Joseph and the shepherds too. They model for us what we too are called to do, both individually, as adopted sons and daughters of God, and also collectively, as Church.

Sisters and brothers, if incubation is really about providing the right conditions for life, then what must we do to keep incubating Christ, in our hearts, in our homes, and in our world, today and throughout the new year?