Sunday, February 21, 2021

Receiving Revelation

1st Sunday of Lent (B)

Readings: Genesis 9:8-15; Psalm 24(25):4-6,7b-9; 1 Peter 3:18-22; Mark 1:12-15

Picture: cc Hafiz Issadeen

My dear friends, have you ever gone for an X-ray or a scan of some kind? As you know, scans uncover things that would otherwise remain hidden. And we use them not just out of curiosity. Scans play an important role both in diagnosis and prescription. Not only do they reveal hidden things, they also suggest the actions needed to address them.

Revealing hidden things in order to prompt needed action. This is also what our readings do for us today. Although, at first glance, the flood in the first reading may seem like nothing more than a punishment sent by God, it also functions as a spiritual scan. For before being swept away physically, by the raging waters of the flood, sinful humanity was already drowning spiritually, in its own violence and cruelty. The physical event uncovers the spiritual reality.

But the flood doesn’t just reveal the deadly consequences of sin, it also indicates a way out. We see this especially in the Covenant that God makes, not just with Noah, but with every living creature… for all generations. What this reveals to us is God’s desire not to destroy the wicked, but for the wicked to turn back and live (see Ez 33:11). Repentance wins salvation.

Which is also the Good News that Jesus proclaims in the gospel. But first the Lord allows himself to be driven by the Spirit into the wilderness. Like the waters of the flood, the wilderness also functions like a scan. It reveals the otherwise hidden spiritual experiences of the Lord. Much as, in his public ministry, Jesus displays mastery over diseases and demons alike, what the wilderness shows us is that this mastery comes through a constant struggle against Satan. A struggle that the Lord always wins, because he draws power from the One who sends angels to look after him.

And the second reading reminds us of the full extent of Christ’s victorious struggle. In the body he was put to death, in the spirit he was raised to life… Here is revealed the deeper significance of his Dying and Rising, into which we have all been baptised. If only we keep struggling in the Lord, we too will enjoy the benefits of the Covenant. We too will find life.

Revealing hidden things in order to prompt needed action. This is really what the season of Lent is all about. More than just a time for giving up desserts, Lent is meant to function like a scan. It reveals hidden things to prompt needed action. Consider the opening prayer we offered earlier. We asked that through the yearly observances of holy Lent… we may grow in understanding of the riches hidden in Christ (revelation) and by worthy conduct (action) pursue their effects

Perhaps this is the deeper reason why some Catholics feel as if 2020 was a year-long experience of Lent. Not just because it was so difficult and trying, but also because it reveals to us hidden things about ourselves and our world. Indicating to us what we need to do to repent and to find fullness of life.

Sisters and brothers, if Lent is truly a spiritual scan, then what must we do to better submit to its consoling discipline today?

Sunday, February 07, 2021

Of Burdens, Bonds & Blessings

5th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

Readings: Job 7:1-4,6-7; Psalm 146(147):1-6; 1 Corinthians 9:16-19,22-23; Mark 1:29-39

Video: Ron Wells @ YouTube

He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother… My dear friends, are you familiar with these words? Apart from being the title of a song from the 1970s, some of us who may also recognise them as the motto of Boys Town. We may recall their story. One of the early residents of the home was a polio-stricken boy named Howard, who had been abandoned by his family. He had to wear heavy leg braces. And since he had great difficulty walking, several of the older boys took turns to carry him up and down the stairs. One day, Father Flanagan, the home’s founder, asked one of them if doing this was hard. To which the boy replied, He ain’t heavy, Father, he’s my brother.

Unpolished words. Yet how beautifully they express the awesome ability of bonds of kinship to transform burdens into blessings. This is what we find in our readings today.

In the gospel, Simon’s mother-in-law is in bed, burdened by a fever, but Jesus heals her. And the writer takes pains to describe how he does it. He went to her, took her by the hand and helped her up. It’s as though healing happens through connection. Bonding with her, Jesus transforms the burden of fever into the blessing of service. And a similar thing happens to the Lord himself. After a hectic day in Capernaum, prayerful communion with his heavenly Father gives the Lord the energy he needs to continue serving elsewhere.

But if bonds can lighten burdens, the reverse is also true. The breaking of bonds can cause terrible suffering. Isn’t this the experience of Job in the first reading? After losing not just his wealth and health, but also all his beloved children, poor Job is paralysed with grief. He compares himself to a slave, toiling under the heat of the sun, and to a hired workman, who finds no meaning in his labour, beyond the money he expects for it. For the bereaved, life itself feels like a painful burden.

Even so, the psalm reminds us that God heals the broken-hearted and binds up all their wounds. The Lord Jesus has power not just to cure ailing bodies, but also to relieve burdened spirits. Isn’t this Paul’s experience in the second reading? Like Job, Paul also refers to himself as a slave. Yet Paul sees his own slavery not as a burden, but as a gift. The bond that Christ has established with him energises Paul to preach the gospel, so as to have a share in its blessings.

Just as bereavement burdens, bonding heals. Perhaps this is why Covid-stress is so real. Even if we may not admit it, the loss of our usual ways of connecting – with self, with others, and with God – weighs heavily on us. Still, this too can be a blessing, if it awakens us to how important these bonds really are. If it motivates us to find other creative ways to cultivate and nourish them. And if it inspires us to make our own these words from the song we mentioned earlier… If I’m laden at all, I’m laden with sadness, that everyone's heart isn't filled with the gladness of love for one another

He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother. These unvarnished words contain a simple yet profound truth. Sisters and brothers, what must we do to deepen our experience of it today?

Sunday, January 31, 2021

From Exclusion to Enhancement

My dear friends, some of us may remember the story of the king who showed his three sons a large empty room, and told them that the one who could best fill it up would inherit the kingdom. The first son tried to fill the room with rocks, and the second with feathers. But the third son simply lit a candle, the light of which filled the room most completely.

Close your eyes for a moment, if you will, and imagine what the scene looks like. See the empty room… filled first with rocks… then with feathers… and finally with light… The contrast is striking, isn’t it? Light operates very differently from rocks and feathers. Instead of forcefully occupying a space, to the exclusion of others, light gently enhances it. And all that’s needed is the willingness to strike a match.

Pondering this amazing quality of light can help us deepen our understanding of what we find in our readings today. At first glance, what is perhaps most striking is authority. The authority of Jesus’ teaching in the gospel. The authority that flows from his true identity as the only Son of God. The authority by which he can even cast out unclean spirits.

But our readings are not just about authority. They are also about its necessary counterpart. For the effects of authority to be felt, it needs first to be recognised. It requires undivided attention. And there are various obstacles to such attention.

In the first reading, the obstacle is distance. The Israelites had complained that God’s appearance, high up on Mount Horeb, was too forceful and intimidating for them. Today, we may consider God not so much intimidating as irrelevant. Too far removed from the practical concerns of our daily life. We find it difficult to relate the time we spend here in church on Sunday to the rest of our busy week. Such that we may treat God the way someone simply tolerates a roomful of rocks.

In the second reading, the obstacle comes in the form of  distraction. Believing that the Second Coming is imminent, Paul advises single Christians not to bother getting married, for fear that engagement in the world’s affairs will distract them from attending to the Lord’s. Isn’t this a concern with which many of us can identify? According to this view, God is again not much different from rocks and feathers. Making more space in my life for God means having less space for everything and everybody else. And vice versa.

Which is why it’s important for us to remember, that Christ’s authority is most clearly seen, his power most effectively felt, when the Lord hangs lifeless on the Cross. Having poured out his love to the last drop of his precious blood. In so doing, Christ shines a light that enhances without excluding. A light that we receive anew, and in which we bask and are sent out on mission, whenever we gather for Mass.

Sisters and brothers, at a time when so many are anxiously fighting to occupy more space for themselves, what must we do to keep striking a match today?

Sunday, January 17, 2021

Discovering Water

2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

Readings: 1 Samuel 3:3-10,19; Psalm 39(40):2,4,7-10; 1 Corinthians 6:13-15,17-20; John 1:35-42

Picture: cc Ryndon Ricks

My dear friends, do you know what water is? Believe it or not, this is how a famous college graduation speech in the US begins. Actually, to be more exact, the speech begins with a story of two young fish, who happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way. Morning, boys! says the senior, How’s the water? The juniors swim a little further along, then turn to each other and ask, What the hell is water?

The point of the story, the speaker goes on to explain, is that the most obvious important realities are often the ones that are the hardest to see and talk about. The young fish are surrounded by water. They swim in it. They are filled and sustained by it. Yet they have no knowledge of it. They’re not even conscious of its presence…

And can we not say the same about God? The Bible tells us that in God we live and move and have our being (Ac 17:28). Yet how many of us are actually conscious of God’s presence? How often do we recognise God’s voice, heed God’s call? Learning to recognise and to respond positively to God’s presence, God’s call. This is also the subject of our readings today. What is needed for this to happen?

Perhaps the first and most obvious thing is guidance. Just as the younger fish have the older one in the story, so too does Samuel have Eli in the first reading. The Corinthians have Paul in the second reading. The first disciples have John the Baptist and Jesus in the gospel. But it’s important to see the form that such helpful guidance takes. Notice how it’s less about expounding on complex ideas than pointing out obvious things that often go unnoticed. Less about providing easy answers than posing evocative questions. Look, there is the lamb of God… Our bodies are members making up the body of Christ… Your body… is the temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you… What do you want?

Even so, on its own, guidance is not enough. It needs to be accompanied by receptivity. A willingness to learn, to look and to listen, to ponder and to question. And to keep doing so, even if an answer is not immediately forthcoming… What the hell is water? … Speak, Lord, your servant is listening… I waited, I waited for the Lord… Rabbi, where do you live? … Also, receptivity needs to be expressed in a willingness to make time and space. As the first disciples did, when they came and saw, and stayed with Jesus for the rest of that day.

Guidance and receptivity, time and space. These are some of the more important things by which we learn to recognise and to heed God’s call. Not just in spectacular extraordinary experiences. But also, and more importantly, in the mundane humdrum routine that characterises daily life. If all this is true, then what are its implications for how we cultivate and share our faith, how we teach our children, promote vocations...?

Sisters and brothers, what must we do to better help one another deepen our experience of water today?

Saturday, January 09, 2021

Between Vaccination & Belief

Feast of the Baptism of the Lord

Readings: Isaiah 55:1-11; Isaiah 12; 1 John 5:1-9; Mark 1:7-11

Picture: cc Arne Müseler

My dear friends, have you made up your mind yet? Have you decided whether or not to get vaccinated against Covid-19? What will affect your choice? As you know, this new virus has made our world a more dangerous place. And the vaccine promises us safety from danger, immunity against infection. But some may still hesitate to get vaccinated, because they are unsure how safe the vaccine is. Various voices tell us different things. Some say it’s safe. Others otherwise. Yet others say it depends on which vaccine we get. So our decision will likely depend on which voice we choose to trust.

Danger and safety, promise and trust. We find these same things in our readings today. In the gospel, when Jesus allows himself to be immersed in the waters of the Jordan, something new is happening. For though the baptism performed by John signifies repentance from sin, Jesus is without sin. So what does the Lord’s baptism mean?

The second reading helps to explain, by reminding us that our world is a dangerous place. Not just because of Covid-19, but because of the virus of selfishness and sin, of deceit and division. The deadly effects of which we saw painfully played out in the US Capitol this past week. Yet the reading also says that, in Christ, we Christians find safety. By our faith, we can overcome the world.

And it is to assure us of this that Jesus allows himself to be immersed in the waters of the Jordan. He does so not so much to demonstrate his desire to repent, as to promise his followers immunity against infection. The voice from heaven further strengthens this assurance. You are my Son, the Beloved; my favour rests on you.

But that’s not all. The second reading goes on to remind us that we can trust in the Lord’s assurance, especially because his promise to accompany us in the troubled waters of our sinful world leads also to the shedding of his precious blood, the laying down of his own spotless life. As a result of which, we his followers now enjoy a share in the power of his Spirit.

Danger and safety, promise and trust. All this helps us to better respond to the call, in the first reading, for us to come to the water. What does this mean, if not to first accept the assurances of Christ, to receive the generous gift of his life and love, as we are doing here at this Mass. From which we then gain the strength and courage we need, in the Spirit, to follow in the Lord’s footsteps. To allow ourselves to be immersed, not just in the peaceful pool of sacramental baptism, but also in the turbulent reality of social engagement. To become witnesses in the world to the power of his love.

Sisters and brothers, could it be that becoming a Christian is much like deciding to get vaccinated against Covid-19? The decision we make depends on whom we choose to trust. If so, then in whose voice will you place your trust today?