Sunday, December 31, 2006

Sunday in the Octave of Christmas
Feast of the Holy Family
Deeper and Wider

Readings: Sirach 3:2-7, 12-14; Psalm 128:1-2, 3, 4-5; Colossians 3:12-21; Luke 2:41-52

Sisters and brothers, today we pray for something that probably every one of us wants very much. We pray for peace in our families. But what is our idea of peace and how do we go about receiving God’s gift of peace in our families?

When I think of a peaceful family, the first thing that comes to mind is one with no troubles, where there are no arguments or disagreements. Everyone is nice to everyone else. And I may even find support for this in our readings today. For example, doesn’t the first reading advise us to honor our father and mother? Doesn’t it tell us to show our elderly father sympathy even if his mind should fail? And doesn’t the second reading paint a beautiful picture of a happy family when it tells us what each person in the family should do? Wives should give way to their husbands. Husbands should love their wives. Children should obey their parents. And parents should never drive their children to resentment. If every one of us follows this advice, there will be no trouble in our families at all, would there? There will be lasting peace, right?

But how many of us can truly say that our families, whether immediate or extended, natural or adopted, are really like that? Or is it not more likely that just as families come in many shapes and sizes, they will also face all sorts of different problems? Are there not families, for example, where Dad is struggling with a drinking problem, or where Mom is suffering from depression, or where Sis has run away from home? Or will there not at least be some other more mundane difficulties such as misunderstandings between siblings or in-laws? As a Cantonese saying goes, one family doesn’t know the problems of another.

And isn’t it striking that even the model that is presented to us today, the Holy Family itself, is not without its fair share of problems. In the gospel story, the 12-year-old Jesus quite literally gets lost. And we are told that it is only after three days of frantic searching that Mary and Joseph manage to find him in the Temple. What must have been going through their minds and hearts in those three days? We know they were worried. Mary admits as much to Jesus when they find him. But might they not also have been feeling guilty? After all they only noticed him missing after a full day of travel. Could they not also have perhaps been struggling with angry feelings, directed toward themselves, at one another, at their own son? How does this picture of the Holy Family compare with our own ideas of a peaceful family?

If, then, Jesus, Mary and Joseph are truly to be a model for us of what a peaceful family looks like, it is not because they didn’t have any troubles but because of how they faced their problems.

We must first acknowledge that each one of them tries to fulfill their responsibilities to one another as best they can. Mary and Joseph do their utmost to search for Jesus when they realize he is missing. And we are told that Jesus, rebellious teenager though he might seem to be at one point, actually goes back to Nazareth with his parents and lives under their authority.

But there is more to the Holy Family than this, something that is at once wider and deeper. Their attention is focused not only on one another but also especially on God. We are told, for example, that they undertake an arduous journey to Jerusalem every year for the festival. Why do they do this? Is it not because they are clearly the kind of people we heard about in the response to the psalm? They fear the Lord and walk in his ways. They try to put God first in their lives.

Still, interestingly enough, it is precisely because they try to do this that trouble starts. Not only does Jesus go missing in Jerusalem, but he also seems to answer his parents in a very rude way when they ask him for a reason. Why were you looking for me? he says, Did you not know that I must be busy with my Father’s affairs?

But Jesus is not trying to be rude. He is beginning to realize that the boundaries of his true family extend far beyond his earthly parents. He is beginning to see that as much as he loves and respects Mary and Joseph, the One who has first claim on his time and energy is his heavenly Father. He realizes that not just him but even Joseph and Mary are being called to look beyond their own little immediate family circle and its own concerns to the much wider circle of the whole human family, all those whom his heavenly Father wishes to save.

Of course, at this point in the story, we are told that Joseph and Mary did not understand what Jesus meant. There is probably much confusion in their minds and hearts. But here is where we see that there is not only something wider but also something deeper that we can learn from them.

What is it that helps them to maintain peace within and among themselves even in the midst of trouble, even when there are things about one another that they don’t quite understand? Notice what is said about Mary: she stored up all these things in her heart. This is not to say that when trouble starts we should simply bottle up all our feelings and not talk to anyone about them. That would be a recipe for disaster. Rather, Mary is merely doing what we heard in the second reading from the letter to the Colossians: let the message of Christ, in all its richness, find a home in you. She patiently ponders in her heart all her experiences, especially the things she doesn’t understand. She waits hopefully for the Spirit to reveal all to her in God’s own time. And in so doing she fosters for herself and for her family in Nazareth something that the world cannot give. If the peace of Christ comes to reign in her home, it is because the message of Christ has first found a home in her heart.

Sisters and brothers, there probably isn’t any one of us here who doesn’t wish peace for our own families and for our own homes. Even as we continue to ask God to grant us this grace in the coming New Year, how can we prepare ourselves to receive it? How can we continue to learn to look beyond our natural families to the family of God? How can we allow the message of Christ in all its richness to find a home in our hearts this day?

Friday, December 29, 2006

29 December
Light in the Darkness

Readings: 1 John 2:3-11; Psalm 96:1-2a, 2b-3, 5b-6; Luke 2:22-35

Yesterday we meditated on the awesome power of the light of Christ, the power by which the Holy Innocents were ushered into eternal glory. Today, our readings help us to deepen our reflection. As we heard in our opening prayer: The coming of your light into the world has made the darkness vanish… What is our experience of darkness? And how does Christ’s birth cause it to vanish?

Of course, we all know that Christ comes to dispel the darkness of sin. But what does this mean for us? Is it only a matter of avoiding thoughts and actions that may be considered taboo – of trying not to be judgmental or not to gossip, not to use bad language, or not to steal the office stationery? All this is true. But is that all? Is this the full extent of the darkness that vanishes in the light of Christ?

Our first reading speaks of something far more radical. The light that Christ brings is the light of love, a love by which the almighty God empties himself for the sake of his people, even to the extent of assuming the condition of a helpless babe in a manger. And through this newborn baby the darkness of sin is recognized for what it is: simply the failure to love, the failure to desire the good of the other, the failure to allow one’s whole life to revolve around that desire, the way Christ did who came that we may have life to the full (cf. Jn 10:10). Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates his brother is still living in the dark…

If this is true, then we encounter darkness in our life whenever we encounter situations that make it difficult for us to love ourselves, God and others. This may come in different forms. There is the darkness of pain. Someone does something, or something happens that causes us to suffer. And in our pain, we allow our hearts to harden. There is also the darkness of routine. Day after day, we live with the same person, the same peculiarities of character, or we go through the motions of the same religious rituals, and we become jaded. The passion for life wanes and with it goes the desire to love and the willingness to pay the price of love.

What do we do at these times? The example of Simeon is instructive. He is an old man. He has waited a long time for the light. And yet, old though he may be, Simeon’s eyes are still very sharp. He recognizes the light even when it comes as a helpless child undergoing a routine religious ritual. And he welcomes it with joyful praise even as he speaks courageously of the pain that the light will bring: a sword will pierce your own soul too. How does Simeon do it? How does he remain in the light even in the midst of darkness? The gospel cannot make it anymore obvious: the Holy Spirit rested on him…it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit… prompted by the Spirit he came to the Temple...

How might we continue to allow the Spirit to move us from darkness to light today?

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Feast of the Holy Innocents, Martyrs
The Power of the Light

Readings: 1 John 1:5—2:2; Psalm 124:2-3, 4-5, 7cd-8; Matthew 2:13-18

A day after using white vestments for the Feast of John our continuing celebration of Christmas returns us to the blood red color of the martyrs. Why, we may wonder yet again, is there an apparent obsession with suffering and death, with darkness and gloom, even as the Church continues to celebrate the birthday of its Lord and Savior? …

I’m reading a book that some parishioners gave me as a Christmas present. It’s such an insightful and enjoyable read that I sometimes almost cannot contain my delight. Today, I found this little gem of a sentence: There is no recognition of the true light except in the midst of true darkness. We might say too that the converse is also true: that there is no recognition of true darkness except in the midst of true light.

And isn’t this the truth that our readings are presenting to us today? God is light, we are told in the first reading, there is no darkness in him at all. Yet, when that light shines so brilliantly upon us in the gospel – in the birth of the infant Jesus – it is recognized especially by contrast to the darkness: the darkness present in human hearts like Herod’s; the darkness that causes weeping and loud lamentation because innocent children are massacred.

If we do continue to celebrate martyrdom in the octave of Christmas it is not out of a masochism that takes pleasure in brooding over the shadow side of life. Rather, by bravely dwelling on the darkness of death and destruction, we hope to allow ourselves to be overwhelmed by the awesome power of the light, the same light emanating from the face of the babe in the manger.

And the power of this divine light is brought out especially well by the martyrs we celebrate today. From one perspective, their death is a horrible tragedy. Yet, in faith, we also see it as an entrance into eternal glory. And their triumph fills us with true Christmas joy and hope especially when we consider who they are. For these martyrs are neither learned doctors of the church, nor are they mighty saints. They are celebrated neither for their deep knowledge of the faith nor for any great works they themselves have done. They are mere infants. They understand little. They are probably hardly able even to speak or to stand on their own two feet. And yet, it is as we shall hear later in our prayer over the gifts, through their martyrdom, the Lord gives them life even before they understand.

How marvelous then is this great power that we celebrate at Christmas. Not only does it enable us to recognize the sinfulness in our hearts and in our world, but it also has the power to free us from the darkness – even in spite of our weakness and lack of understanding – and usher us into the light. Indeed, it is as we heard in the response to the psalm: our life, like a bird, has escaped from the snare of the fowler. This is the wondrous power of the light that we celebrate at Christmas, a power that we begin to appreciate all the more when we are willing to contemplate as well the darkness that it comes to dispel.

Today, how are we being ushered out of darkness into the light?
Feast of St. John, Apostle & Martyr
The Way of John

Readings: 1 John 1:1-4; Psalm 97:1-2, 5-6, 11-12; John 20:1a and 2-8

Yesterday, on the Feast of Stephen, we spoke of our need for the eyes of Stephen, to be able to see the manger in the stoning and the stoning in the manger. For since Christ has come in the flesh, all human experience is shot through with the presence of God. We just need the eyes to see and the ears to hear.

Today, on the Feast of John, we are invited to meditate even more deeply on this mystery. Consider the story in the gospel. The beloved disciple enters the tomb of his beloved Master. He finds only several pieces of cloth, yet he sees and he believes. He enters an empty tomb and sees the resurrection. He enters a place of sadness and of loss and finds new faith, new hope, a vision of new possibilities. Isn’t this what we seek as well?

For that empty tomb is not just to be found in the Holy Land. More likely than not, we all have our empty tombs, don’t we? We all know those places in our own lives where we may have experienced pain or loss, disappointments or even betrayal. And sometimes, it’s difficult for us to leave those places. It’s almost as if we were compelled to continue returning to them even when we know, deep down, that there is nothing left for us there. Except that we don’t always admit to ourselves that we are really still stuck in the tomb. We try to distract ourselves by keeping busy with other things, by desperately acquiring new experiences, all the while harboring the nagging suspicion that we’re not really living but only escaping. What we need is the grace given to the beloved disciple: to recognize in the tomb a vision of new life.

This is not something we can do for ourselves. It is a gift from God. Even so, there are things we can do to prepare ourselves to receive it. We can, for example, follow the way of John. We can go with the beloved disciple into the empty tomb and there consider the things that must have filled his mind and heart.

For empty though the tomb may be, it is often filled with memories – memories of that which has been lost. Isn’t this what must have preoccupied the beloved disciple as he stood gazing at those burial clothes in that cold dark space? Painful though it must have been was he not recalling that which he had heard and seen and touched with his hands? And isn’t it precisely in recalling his experience of the Word, who is life, that the beloved disciple receives the ability to recognize new life even in the face of death?

And isn’t this way open to us too? Although we may not have experienced Jesus in exactly the same way the first disciples did, haven’t we, in our own way, also heard and seen and touched the presence of God in our lives? And in recalling that which we have lost, will we not also be led to recognize the ways in which Christ continues to usher us out of the tomb into the newness of life?

For although this journey might begin in the tomb it doesn’t end there. As we heard in the first reading, the grace of the empty tomb leads the beloved disciple to give his testimony beyond it, to tell others of his own experience of the eternal life that was with the Father and has been made visible to us. And with this telling comes communion and the fullness of joy.

Sisters and brothers, as we continue to celebrate Christmas, as we continue to pray for the eyes of Stephen, how might we also walk the way of John today?

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Feast of St. Stephen, First Martyr
The Eyes of Stephen

Readings: Acts 6:8-10; 7:54-59; Psalm 31:3cd-4, 6 and 8ab, 16bc and 17; Matthew 10:17-22

On this day every year, just a day after having stood before the Christ-child in the manger, we find ourselves gazing at the scene described in the first reading from the Acts of the Apostles, the scene of Stephen’s stoning. Yesterday we gazed in wonder and awe at a newborn child. Today we gasp in horror and repulsion at the cruel killing of one of the first deacons of the Church. In the manger we were lulled by our favorite carols into quiet contemplation: all is calm, all is bright. At the stoning we are buffeted by the clamor of ferocious argument and the gloom of hardened hearts: all is dark, all is noise. Yesterday we listened joyfully to the angels of heaven proclaiming peace on earth to all of goodwill. Today we are forced to witness a shocking display of violence perpetrated by men upon their fellowman. Could a more striking contrast be possible?

And yet the Church displays great wisdom in placing manger and stoning so closely together before us. For when we gaze at our own lives, at our own world, isn’t it true that we inevitably find a mixture of both these scenes? Isn’t it true that just as there is joy and peace and hope, there is also sadness and violence and despair? And isn’t it true that we only truly understand the significance of one in the light of the other? We can only enter deeply into the mystery of one to the extent that we allow ourselves to be immersed in the other.

Without the manger it is tempting to allow the cruelty of Stephen’s persecutors and the violence of our own world to fill us with despair. Without the stoning we can so easily forget that not far from the manger’s holy interior lie so many inns that could afford no room for God’s own Son. Just as not far from the pious corners of our hearts there are many hardened nooks and crannies that still await God’s grace. And isn’t it precisely out of love for hostile hearts that the Son of God is born?

Even so, when we gaze more intently at manger and stoning, we begin to discover that they have more in common than we might think. For while the manger is the birthplace of the Son of Man, isn’t it also where the Son of God begins his journey unto his Cross? And while the stoning is Stephen’s pain-racked deathbed, isn’t it also the place of his glorious entrance into eternal life? Also, although the manger is as calm as the stoning is riotous, do they both not resound with the eternal Word of God, the same Word who comes to us as a helpless babe and who inspires Stephen’s submission, the same Word that speaks of a love stronger than death? And although the stoning is as violent as the manger is peaceful, do we not see in Stephen the peace that is the fruit of the eternal Spirit, the same Spirit that inspires his speech and empowers his actions, the same Spirit responsible for the new life in the manger?

But we know from experience that it is not an easy thing to see these similarities in our own lives. It is not easy to see the stoning in the manger and the manger in the stoning. To do this we need to ask for the same Spirit that animated Stephen and enabled him, even through his suffering, to see heaven thrown open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God. Today, even as we continue to celebrate Christmas, we need to ask, for ourselves and for our world, for the eyes of Stephen.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Christmas Vigil (Childrens’ Pageant)
Scratch & Win

Readings: Isaiah 9:2-4, 6-7; Luke 2:1-14 (Childrens’ Lectionary)

Sisters and brothers, all you who are very young, young and young at heart, how are you feeling this evening? Tonight, the baby Jesus finally arrives in our crib. As we stand with Mary and Joseph before the manger, surrounded by angels and animals, shepherds and wise men, as we gaze in awe upon the little baby Jesus’ face shining as if with the quiet radiance of reflected starlight, how do we feel?

Like many of you, probably, there is a nice warm glow in my heart and a sigh of contentment just waiting to escape through my lips. The baby is so cute... The shepherds look so sincere... The wise men so piously sober... The sheep are so… well… so woolly. The scene is just perfect… Except that there are three little words that keep crisscrossing my mind, words that have nothing to do with the crib, words that come from another part of my brain, distracting me from my cozy contentment: Scratch & Win…, they say, Scratch & WinScratch & Win

The words are familiar but sound very strange on this night of wonder. They recall the world of marketing and of advertising. I think of those little cards with a little silver-colored box on them. They look nice and neat, but you can’t leave them that way. You have to mess them up a bit. You have to scratch that metallic surface and look under it, because that’s what they’re for. The cards are important only for the prize that might be lying beneath. Scratch & Win

Disturbed from my reverie, I ponder again the scene before me. What am I looking at here? Why am I so happy and contented, apart from the fact that I usually feel this way around cute and chubby little babies? Scratch & Win

I recall our readings for tonight. And I’m almost shocked by what I hear. The reason for my joy is explained quite clearly in them. This bouncy baby, this chubby child, whose cheeks I’m so tempted to pinch, He is the promised One sent to save us. He is the One who has broken the power of those who oppressed and enslaved God’s people. And his power will never end. Wow! No wonder I’m happy.

But wait a minute! Could this really be true? How can this helpless baby also be a powerful savior? Is it really possible? Do I really believe it? How can it be so? When I think of powerful saviors coming to the rescue, I think of Superman or Spiderman, or perhaps even Jacky Chan, but a baby in a manger?

Yes, I’m scratching the surface of my contentment. And already it’s starting to look messy. Helpless babe, powerful savior – the two ideas don’t go together. And the gospel doesn’t help either. A savior is born for you… You will know who he is, because you will find him dressed in baby clothes and lying in a manger. Powerful savior, baby clothes, manger… No, they don’t fit. I’m beginning to regret scratching the surface after all.

But then another memory enters my mind. It’s a story I heard a long time ago, the story of The Emperor’s New Clothes. You know it too. Remember how the two cheats tricked the Emperor into believing that they could make him a special garment that only intelligent people could see? Remember how the Emperor paraded through the streets in his birthday suit and nobody dared to say a thing? Who was the powerful savior who came to his rescue? An innocent little child. He saw the truth clearly and shouted out bravely, The Emperor is naked! And, because of that little child, both Emperor and his people were saved from the evil trickery that was holding them hostage.

Could this be what this baby is doing for me? For us? I know that this baby will grow up to do just that. He will see through the false pretences that people put up to hide their insecurities and sinfulness. He will courageously scratch the surface of their hypocrisy and invite them to do the same. And he will pay the price for it with his life.

But even now, as a baby, isn’t he doing the same thing for me? As I gaze upon his helpless little body, as I peer into his searching eyes, isn’t he teaching me to look more deeply at my own life, at the activities that fill my days, the things with which I surround myself? Isn’t he challenging me to see more clearly the times when, even though I may think I’ve clothed my life with very beautiful and stylish designer garments, I’m really quite naked? Just by lying there in that manger that is not his own, and wrapped in borrowed clothes, isn’t he wordlessly encouraging me to scratch the surface of my own life, and of our own collective life as a people, to see if there’s anything truly enduring lying beneath?

And isn’t this what we need to do to experience the grace that this baby brings us at Christmas? We need to scratch the surface of our habitual romantic Christmasy feelings in order to allow ourselves to be washed over anew by the deep joy that comes from standing before the babe in the manger and having him teach us the things that are truly important.

Sisters and brothers, I wish you all a truly blessed and joyful Christmas!

Are you ready to scratch and win?

Saturday, December 23, 2006

23 December
Naming Grace

Readings: Malachi 3:1-4, 23-24; Psalm 25:4-5ab, 8-9, 10 and 14; Luke 1:57-66

We are presented with a curious event in the gospel of today. An impossible, miraculous, joyous birth has just taken place, and everyone seems to be quibbling over names. What, we may wonder, is all the fuss about? Zechariah or John, Ah Hock or Selvam, what difference does it make? And, more importantly, what has it to do with us, who continue to await the Lord’s coming?

Some days ago, someone was heard asking a very important question: People always tell me that God speaks to them. What do they mean? I never hear God speaking to me. Does God really speak to us? And if so, how does God speak? A very important question indeed, especially for us who are waiting for God to come? To answer it, we need first to recall that the word speak can mean different things, just as there are many different languages, many ways of communication. In addition to the many different spoken languages, for example, there is also sign-language, the languages of music and of dance, body-language, and even the language of international diplomacy. Daily we communicate with one another in less than explicit ways. We drop hints, give presents, hold hands, caress cheeks, attend or absent ourselves from functions...

How then does God speak to us? Could the channels of divine communication be as varied? Could the external events of our lives, as well as the interior movements of our heart constitute the grammar of such communication? If so, then it becomes crucially important to pay careful attention to and to identify the significance of each event and movement. Not only must we become aware of them, but we need to name them, much as the newborn son of Elizabeth and Zechariah is named.

It is no coincidence that he is named John. The Hebrew Yohannan means God has shown favour. By choosing this name, John’s parents are naming and claiming the grace that God is showering upon them and upon all who will benefit from John’s future ministry, ourselves included. It is also no coincidence that our gospel is paired today with a first reading that speaks of the prophet Elijah. For this is the favour that God is showing in the birth of John. His will be a ministry of reconciliation, as Elijah's was, helping to prepare the way for the coming Saviour. It is also no coincidence that Zechariah’s power of speech returns at the precise moment in which he names and claims God’s favour. For it is only then that he has anything meaningful to say. It is only then that he begins to appreciate the direction in which he and his new family are to travel.

Our situation is not much different. Just as the Saviour continues to come into our world, so too does John, God’s favour. Through the events of our lives, as well as the thoughts and feelings of our hearts, God continues to help us prepare the way for Christ’s coming.

How might we better name and claim this divine favour for ourselves today?

Friday, December 22, 2006

22 December
The Contours of Christmas Joy

Readings: 1 Samuel 1:24-28; 1 Samuel 2:1, 4-5, 6-7, 8abcd; Luke 1:46-56

In the songs of Mary and Hannah (responsorial psalm) we are given yet another glimpse of the joy that Christmas brings. We are given the opportunity to reflect once again on the contours of this our birthright as Christians. How does it come about? And what does it look like?

The dynamics of how this joy comes to be experienced could not be simpler. As Hannah tells Samuel: This is the child I prayed for, and the Lord granted me what I asked him… A deep longing is experienced. It is made known to God. And God answers the prayer. Isn’t this why the joy of Mary and Hannah have a similar object?

Of course, both of them are happy for similar reasons, albeit at different levels of significance. One who had long suffered the humiliations of her barrenness has finally conceived and borne a child. The other, although still very young, represents the humiliations and yearnings of a long-barren people, among whom we may include ourselves. And she too has conceived. Indeed she bears Him who is Saviour of all the world.

But their joy is not so much in their own achievement as it is in the God who has made it all possible: My heart exults in the Lord my saviour. Far from being focused only on their own individual triumphs, the horizons of their hearts, and hence of their prayer, could not be broader. They are moved to celebrate all that God does and continues to do in the world. He has pulled down princes… and exalted the lowly. The hungry he has filled with good things, the rich sent empty away…

And because they see so clearly how much they owe to the mercy and compassion of God, because their joy is so God-centred it has yet another significant aspect. There is no clinging to what they have received. Rather is there a radical openness to sharing what has been given to them with God and with others. As Hannah says of her precious first-born: Now I make him over to the Lord for the whole of his life. And does not Mary do the same? The little we know of her relationship with her beloved Son mirrors her actions at the Visitation. Just as she willingly shared the One she bore in her womb with Elizabeth and with the Baptist, so does she continue to share Him with the world, even unto Cross and Tomb and Sky.

As we continue to await Christ’s coming, what are the contours of our joy? What is its source and goal?

Thursday, December 21, 2006

21 December
Call of Lover and Beloved

Readings: Songs 2:8-14 or Zephaniah 3:14-18a; Psalm 33:2-3, 11-12, 20-21; Luke 1:39-45

It’s a beautifully moving and consoling image that the first reading from the Song of Songs presents us today. The Lord comes for us like the lover for his beloved. Like a sure-footed stag, he bounds effortlessly over all obstacles, even as around him the winter snows melt in the gentle rays of the sun. He peers into the clefts of the cliff wherein his beloved has been hiding and calls to her in the most intimate terms of endearment, inviting her to follow him out of the dreary darkness of winter into the light and life of spring.

Yesterday we saw this poetic image mirrored in the Annunciation, when the Divine Stag called in the voice of an angel to his bashful people represented by the Virgin Mary. And today we see yet another mirror image of the call of the Lover for his beloved. This time the Lord overcomes all obstacles through the generosity of the Virgin who bears him in her womb. Having herself been called, Mary sets out, goes quickly to her cousin and greets her. And Elizabeth and her as yet unborn son are, in their turn, called out into the joyful freedom of the Spirit. We know, of course, that the cycle will continue in the ministry of the adult John the Baptist, who will help to prepare the way, to call others out into the light of the coming Lord.

As we listen to these beautiful readings, it is more than likely that we will be reminded of how the cycle of calling and being called has been and continues to be played out in our own lives. We will be moved to gratitude for the times in the past when God has, through various people and events, called us from darkness into the light. We will be joyful too for the times when we’ve responded generously, allowing ourselves to be God’s heart and hands, his feet and voice, calling others into life.

How does our Divine Lover wish to continue to do this for us today? And what is our response?

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

20 December
Letting the Lord Enter

Readings: Isaiah 7:10-14; Psalm 24:1-2, 3-4ab, 5-6; Luke 1:26-38

Let the Lord enter! He is the King of glory.

In our eagerness and enthusiasm to prepare for Christmas, it is perhaps possible to forget one important characteristic of the Lord’s coming, one that is brought out so vividly in the infancy stories of Luke’s gospel. When God, the King of Glory, comes knocking at the door of our hearts and lives, it is often in ways that may surprise and even unsettle us.

We saw this yesterday, when the angel announced to Zechariah that he and Elizabeth, who was already past the age of childbearing, would conceive. And we see it again today, when that same angel deeply disturbs Mary by announcing that she, who is still a virgin, is to bear a child.

If this is true, how best might we go about letting the Lord enter?

Zechariah presented us with something of a negative example yesterday. He doubted. He questioned. He wanted to be sure. And he was struck dumb.

Seeing his fate, when it is our turn to answer the door, we might go to the other extreme and try our best to suppress all tendencies to doubt. Not unlike Ahaz in the first reading today, we may refuse to put the Lord to the test. We may force ourselves to sweep all our questions beneath the carpet of what we believe to be faith. We may close our eyes and grit our teeth and shout, I believe! But, by doing this, to what extent are we really letting the Lord enter our hearts and lives? Are we really allowing our relationship with the Lord to deepen, to become more intimate? Or, by refusing to allow the Lord to share in our interior struggles, are we not quite ironically shutting the door in his face?

Mary shows us a middle way between these extremes. She welcomes and believes the angel’s wondrous message at the same time in which she questions how it might come about. She humbly lays bares the concerns of her heart to the One whose handmaid she is. And God reassures her. God gives her strength to respond. God helps her to see a little further along the path she is to travel.

How is the Lord knocking on our doors today? How might we let him enter?

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

19 December
New Life for the Barren

Readings: Judges 13:2-7, 24-25a; Psalm 71:3-4a, 5-6ab, 16-17; Luke 1:5-25

It is a painful experience to be barren. Couples trying in vain to conceive know something of what it’s like to be in the shoes of Zechariah and Elizabeth and of Manoah and his unnamed wife. But so do others as well. We’ve probably heard, for example, of the anguish suffered by those with writers’ block, when creative juices dry up and one doesn’t seem to have anything meaningful left to say. We’ve probably also encountered times when winter seems to have arrived into our hearts and our lives – when no traces of vitality can be found – when the days seem perpetually cold and forbidding.

And not just individuals but communities and whole nations have experiences of barrenness too, don’t they? Isn’t this the lot of God’s chosen people in the days of Manoah and of Zechariah? Around the time Samson is born, the people of Israel are suffering under the constant attacks of their neighbours especially the Philistines. And by the time of Zechariah, in addition to being conquered by the Romans, the people have for many generations been going through the motions of ritual observance without hearing God’s prophetic and life-giving word.

It is into this dark and depressing milieu that God’s powerful word is spoken – a word that quite literally gives birth to new life, new hope, new possibilities of a radiant and vibrant future. But to experience this newness, to be in tune with this great divine initiative, one must have faith, must believe even in the midst of the darkness that God will indeed let it come to pass. Or one risks being struck dumb like Zechariah – who has nothing left to say because he finds it difficult to receive the only word that is worth speaking. And, just as important, one must realize that the new life that is coming to birth, however quietly and inconspicuously, is not ours to hoard. Rather does it need to be consecrated to God and held in trust for the benefit of others. So that the lips of all may be filled with the glory and praise of the One who brings abundant life to hearts and lives that are barren.

What is our experience of barrenness? How is God speaking His life-giving word to us today?

Monday, December 18, 2006

18 December
Dreaming unto Salvation

Readings: Jeremiah 23:5-8; Psalm 72:1-2, 12-13, 18-19; Matthew 1:18-25

It is important and helpful for us who continue to prepare for the Lord’s coming to notice the change of focus in our daily Mass readings from 17 December onwards. The spotlight is now shone quite deliberately upon the circumstances surrounding the birth of Jesus. The readings invite us to contemplate ever more deeply how Jesus came to be born more than two thousand years ago. But why is it important to do this? What’s the point? Is it simply out of a concern for more historical information – just like we might be interested in knowing more about the history of Singapore or the life and times of Stamford Raffles?

There is, of course, an element of the historical here. But there is more. This more is expressed in a suggestion found in the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. When presenting the material for prayer over the birth of our Lord, Ignatius suggests that the one praying should reflect on myself and draw some fruit. Could it be that one contemplates the Lord’s birth not only for its historical significance, but primarily in order to better appreciate the ways in which this same Lord is waiting to be born into one’s own life in the here and now?

Doesn't something similar happen to Joseph in the gospel? Which person in his position – however honourable he may be – would see in the spectre of an illegitimate child the marvellous vision of the coming King and Saviour prophesied by Jeremiah? Yet, like his Old Testament namesake so many generations before him, even in the midst of his turmoil and struggle, Joseph dares to dream. And through his dreaming, God awakens him to a new vision. The ominous night of scandal gives way to the glorious dawn of salvation. This same problematic child, so humbly waiting for permission to be born, is the one who is to save his people from their sins. Enlightenment leads to action. Joseph awakes and does what the angel of the Lord told him to do

Even as we continue to prepare for Christmas, what marvelous dreams, what glorious visions does the Lord have in store for us? And how might we respond?

Sunday, December 17, 2006

3rd Sunday of Advent (C)
The Path to Joy

Readings: Zephaniah 3:14-18a; Isaiah 12:2-3, 4, 5-6; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:10-18

Sing and shout for joy for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel!

What do these word’s mean for us? What is our spontaneous reaction to this exhortation from today’s psalm response? Perhaps there will be those blessed ones for whom singing and shouting for joy at the Lord’s coming will come quite naturally and spontaneously. Then there may be those who will think immediately of the revelry that prevails at Christmas: the feasting and caroling, partying and gift-giving. Truly these are legitimate expressions of the joy that our readings speak of today. But might there not also be some among us who – perhaps because of the particular situations we might be facing in our lives – find ourselves resisting and even resenting the obligation to rejoice? Of course, we may force ourselves to go through the motions of the external expressions of Christmas joy, but deep within we may find ourselves continuing to nurse life’s unresolved aches and pains. Is this the kind of joy to which our readings are calling us today? Are we being asked to consciously or unconsciously suppress our less presentable feelings in order to offer others a more politically correct exterior if only till the festivities of the season have passed? Or are we being invited instead to claim the authentic Christmas joy which results from allowing the One-Who-Comes to soothe the guilty conscience, to calm the traumatized nerves, and to heal the broken heart?

Assuming the latter is the more desired alternative, how do we go about acquiring this experience of authentic Christmas joy? Our readings offer us several helpful suggestions of how we might come to sing and shout for joy from the heart.

First, we need to SEE. We need to see the nature of this joy that is our birthright as Christians. This is quite unlike the joy of those who win a race or the lottery. It is not quite the joy of ultimate gratification. Rather is it more like the joy experienced by the married couple expecting a long-awaited child. For, quite mysteriously, the readings tell us at once that the Lord is both in our midst and also very near. This is thus a joy that can coexist with ongoing struggles because it’s a joy that is born of faith and hope in the One-Who-Comes. And we are helped to receive this blessing also when we come to see the truth proclaimed in the first reading: that the joy we are seeking is really a participation in the very revelry of God. It is God who wishes to exult with joy over us, to renew us by his love, to dance with joy for us as on a day of festival.

Clearly, this kind of joy is not something that we can manufacture for ourselves, neither with log-cakes and pine trees, nor eggnog and tinsel, important as all these things are. Rather is it a freely given grace from the God-Who-Comes. Isn’t this why we need to SEEK? We need to heed the advice of Paul in the second reading: if there is anything you need, pray for it, asking God for it with prayer and thanksgiving. If we wish to receive this joy, if we wish our families and communities to experience it, we need to pray continually, perseveringly, hopefully for it. And then, that peace of God, which is so much greater than we can understand will guard our aching hearts and calm our troubled thoughts in Christ Jesus.

There is at least one more important thing we need to do. We find it in the advice of John the Baptist in the gospel: if anyone has two tunics, he must share with the man who has none. Our capacity to experience true Christmas joy is intimately connected with our willingness to SHARE. This is not a matter of clearing out the old stuff to make space for the new that comes at Christmas. We are called instead to cultivate the awareness that the poor have a claim on our possessions. In the words attributed to St. Basil: The bread in your board belongs to the hungry; the cloak in your wardrobe belongs to the naked; the shoes you let rot belong to the barefoot; the money in your vaults belongs to the destitute.

Sisters and brothers, what is our next step on this path to Christmas joy?

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Saturday in the 2nd Week of Advent
Look into His Eyes

Readings: Sirach 48:1-4, 9-11; Psalm 80:2ac and 3b, 15-16, 18-19; Matthew 17:9a, 10-13

Elijah has come already and they did not recognize him but treated him as they pleased…

It’s quite striking to consider what the gospels tell us about the people who failed to recognize John the Baptist as the great prophet whom they were expecting. Among them numbered the scribes, the lawyers, the Pharisees – people who knew the Law and the Prophets like the back of their hands. Yet, in spite of their great knowledge of the scriptures, they failed to see Elijah and the Christ when they came.

We might consider one reason why. Notice what our first reading says about Elijah. Notice how extraordinary is the description. Elijah brings down fire, shuts up the heavens and he’s even taken up in a whirlwind of fire on a chariot of fiery horses. Compared with this description the Baptist seems more eccentric than extraordinary. Is it any wonder that the scripture experts fail to recognize him? And yet there is a resemblance between the two, a resemblance that can only be spotted by those who are willing to see beyond the incidentals – the fiery chariots and whirlwinds of fire – to the essentials – the work of reconciliation, of turning the hearts of fathers toward their children.

It’s quite striking how the idea of Elijah becomes an obstacle to recognizing and welcoming the real Elijah when he does come. Yet, we struggle with this tendency too. For example, the religious who clings to a preconceived idea of what religious life is like can find it difficult to actually live religious life in the concrete. Just as the person who clings too strongly to, who is in love with, the idea of falling in love and of being married, might find it difficult to live the messiness and chaos that often characterizes married life. We can probably think of other examples. What to do? One is reminded of a story told by Anthony de Mello, SJ in his book Song of the Bird:

The commander of the occupation troops said to the mayor of the mountain village: ‘We know you are hiding a traitor. Unless you give him up to us, we shall harass you and your people by every means in our power.’The village was, indeed, hiding a man who seemed good and innocent and was loved by all. But what could the mayor do now that the welfare of the village was at stake? Days of discussion in the Village Council led to no conclusion. So the mayor finally took the matter up with the priest. Priest and mayor spend a whole night searching the scriptures and finally came up with a text that said, ‘It is better that one man die to save the nation.’ So the mayor handed over the innocent man, whose screams echoed throughout the village as he was tortured and put to death. Twenty years later a prophet came to that village, went straight up to the mayor and said, ‘How could you have done this? That man was sent by God to be the saviour of this country. And you handed him over to be tortured and killed!’ ‘But where did I go wrong?’ pleaded the mayor. ‘The priest and I looked at the scriptures and did what they commanded.’ ‘That’s where you went wrong,’ said the prophet. ‘You looked at the scriptures. You should also have looked into his eyes.’

How is the Lord inviting us to look into his eyes as he comes to us in the concrete details – the people and the events – of our life today?

Friday, December 15, 2006

Friday in the 2nd Week of Advent
For Our Own Good

Readings: Isaiah 48:17-19; Psalm 1:1-2, 3, 4, 6; Matthew 11:16-19

I, the Lord, your God, teach you what is good for you…

Together with Jesus’ mention of children in the gospel, this line from the first reading evokes memories of childhood tantrums. This is for your own good, exclaim the helpless parents, even as they struggle with a stubborn and rebellious toddler.

It’s an image that brings out what might well be an important aspect of our preparation for Christmas. As much as we are looking forward to the Lord’s coming there may also be a part of us that resists it. For when the Lord comes, doesn’t he often also invite us to do things that are for our own good? We may, for example, find ourselves being asked to forgive someone who has hurt us deeply, or to surrender to the Lord a particular issue that has been causing us anxiety, or to continue being committed to honesty and integrity at work even though it may hurt our prospects for career advancement…

It’s important for us to acknowledge such instances of resistance when we find them in ourselves, because they are invaluable opportunities for growth. Although difficult to negotiate, they constitute the cutting-edge of our relationship with the Lord. They are growing-pains. And in order to endure them productively we need to pray in a particular way. We need first to listen to and to respect our own doubts and anxieties, the reasons for our resistance. Then we need to present these to God in prayer. Prayer such as this is not easy. It often feels like a struggle – as though we were wrestling with God and with ourselves. But it is good and authentic prayer. Our Blessed Mother probably did it at the Annunciation. As did Jesus himself at Gethsemane. It is through this kind of prayerful struggle that we can truly begin to hear the truth of God’s word to us: it is for your own good.

Here’s an excerpt from the writings of Martin Luther King, Jr. that illustrates our point well. It is taken from the book Prayer Is… by Rex Pai, SJ:

One night toward the end of January I settled into bed late after a strenuous day. Coretta had already fallen asleep, and just as I was about to doze off, the telephone rang. An angry voice said: ‘Listen, nigger, we’ve taken all we want from you; before next week you’ll be sorry you ever came to Montgomery.’ I hung up but couldn’t sleep. It seemed that all my fears had come down on me at once. I had reached the saturation point. I got out of bed and began to walk the floor. Finally I went to the kitchen and heated a pot of coffee. I was ready to give up. With my pot of coffee sitting untouched before me, I tried to think of a way to move out of the picture without appearing a coward. In this state of exhaustion, when my courage had all but gone, I decided to take my problem to God. With my head in my hands, I bowed over the kitchen table and prayed aloud. The words I spoke to God that midnight are still vivid in my memory: ‘I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But now I am afraid. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.’ At that moment I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced Him before.

Today, how might we better welcome the One who comes for our own good?

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Thursday in the 2nd Week of Advent
Memorial of St. John of the Cross, Priest and Doctor of the Church
Reviewing Our Blessings in Disguise

Readings: Isaiah 41:13-20; Psalm 145:1 and 9, 10-11, 12-13ab; Matthew 11:11-15

One of the distinctive characteristics of Ignatian spirituality is the importance placed on review. We see this emphasis in the life of St. Ignatius himself. Shortly after his conversion, for example, he starts keeping a journal of his spiritual experiences, carefully writing down the Lord’s words in red and those of the Blessed Mother in blue. And right up to his death, he practiced daily what he called the examination of conscience, wherein he reviewed the period of time that had just passed, to see where and how God had been communicating with him and how he had responded. He also recommends to those on retreat that after each period of prayer, they should take some time to review their prayer experience, and also to return, in subsequent periods, to those places in their prayer where they had experienced strong reactions. Why this emphasis on review, we may wonder?

Ignatius himself gives us an answer in his Spiritual Exercises, where he tells us that it is not much knowledge that fills and satisfies the soul, but the intimate understanding and relish of the truth (#2). By reviewing our experience, we allow our prayer to deepen. We give ourselves the opportunity to taste and see the many different ways that God has continually been present to us, ways that might even have been hidden to us before. To use a popular turn of phrase, we begin to see and to understand God’s blessings in disguise.

Isn’t this what Jesus is helping his listeners to do in today’s gospel? His words to them regarding the significance of John the Baptist begin a few verses earlier, where he asks them: what did you go out into the wilderness to see? What is Jesus doing, if not helping the people to review their experience of John the Baptist? Most likely this was not a comfortable experience for them. Not only did they have to travel out into the wilderness to see and hear him, but the Baptist himself was something of a wild man. Dressed in rough attire, he was surely not a sight pleasing to the eyes. Neither was his message of repentance pleasant to the ears.

Yet Jesus helps the people to see in review the great blessing in disguise that was John’s message and ministry. Because it was towards John that all the prophecies of the prophets and of the Law were leading. As rough and uncomfortable as the experience might have been for the people, in the Baptist, God was actually holding them by the right hand, and telling them: Do not be afraid, I will help you. By reviewing their experience with them, Jesus helps them to see and know… observe and understand that the hand of the Lord was making the barren wilderness of their lives a marvelously fertile place bursting with life in abundance. And in this renewed realization that the Lord is kind and full of compassion, they could find themselves moved to make known to all the mighty deeds of the Lord.

As we continue on our journey through Advent, what experiences might the Lord wish to help us review today? How is God continuing to hold us by the hand?

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Wednesday in the 2nd Week of Advent
Memorial of St. Lucy, Virgin & Martyr
Coming to the One who Comes

Readings: Isaiah 40:25-31; Psalm 103:1-2, 3-4, 8 and 10; Matthew 11:28-30

Perhaps a natural initial reaction to our readings today is one of consolation. Especially because for the most part we are a nation of the tired and the stressed out, a people who wear the yoke of numerous daily responsibilities and emotional burdens, God’s word must surely resonate within us. Who among us will not find consolation in the Lord’s promise to give us rest, to raise us up on eagles’ wings?

Yet, if we were to linger a little longer with our readings, another reaction might be evoked in us, that of puzzlement. In this season of Advent, when we await the coming of the Lord, how is it that the one for whom we are waiting seems to be waiting for us instead? Come to me, all you who labour… Who is actually waiting for whom? And how is it that Jesus can claim that his yoke is easy and… burden light? Doesn’t he expect more of his disciples than what is prescribed by the Law of Moses? Doesn’t he expect us, for example, even to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us? Doesn’t he encourage us not only to be pure in deeds but also in thought and intentions as well?

Rather than discourage us this puzzlement offers us an invaluable opportunity to enter more deeply into the mystery we celebrate. Our willingness to grapple with these questions enables us to experience a third reaction to God’s word, that of enlightenment. Indeed, as we proclaimed in our gospel acclamation today, our Lord will come with power and will enlighten the eyes of his servants. And in what does this enlightenment consist if not in the realization of how Jesus saves. More than through his teaching and healing and working of wondrous miracles of power, important as these are, the Lord saves primarily by offering to us the hand of friendship. We may recall, for example, how Jesus leads his disciples on a journey and then asks them, but who do you say I am? (Mark 8:28). Or how can we forget what Jesus says to his disciples before his passion (John 15:15): I call you friends…; or his questions to Peter after his resurrection (John 21:15): do you love me…?

Truly, the enlightenment we seek is an invitation to allow ourselves to enter into and deepen our loving relationship with the One who comes among us to save us. Why does Jesus call us to come to him even as we await his coming? Is it not because true love does not force itself on the beloved? And why does Jesus say that his yoke is easy even when the expectations seem difficult to meet? Is it not because love is a power able to overcome all obstacles?

The One whom we await, the One who comes to lift us up on eagles wings, is already among us. How might we come to him? How might we accept his hand of friendship today?

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Tuesday in the 2nd Week of Advent
The Shepherd’s Embrace

Readings: Isaiah 40:1-11; Psalms 96:1-2, 3, 10, 11-12, 13; Matthew 18:12-14

In these days when we find ourselves reminded of and invited to enter into the joy of God’s coming, we may also notice a phenomenon that those living in temperate countries know well. They tell us that it is precisely in this supposedly joy-filled season that many are prone to depression and suicide. Of course, much of it has to do with the climate – it’s cold and the days are very short. We don’t have these problems here in the tropics. But are there not some of us who might also find ourselves growing strangely depressed as Christmas draws near?

We know, at some level, what is expected of us. We know that we need to prepare well and not simply go through the motions of feasting and shopping. And yet, do we not sometimes wonder if there’ll really be any change in our situation when Christmas comes around? While we know that our interior valleys need to be filled in and the mountains laid low to welcome the One who is coming, our experience of previous Christmases may lead us to wonder whether there’ll actually be any breakthroughs made in our struggle with our own favorite sins. Whether, come Christmas day, the lonely will actually find companionship, or the stressed the rest and relief that they need so much? Or will we still find ourselves too weak to make a lasting change, and perhaps too lukewarm to care.

Our readings today help us in our struggle with these temptations to despondency by first agreeing with us that our efforts are probably miserably insufficient. All flesh is grass and its beauty like the wild flower’s. But what follows is crucially important: the grass may wither and the flower may fade, but the word of our God remains for ever.

While the inadequacy of our resolve may cause depression, our readings invite us to take courage and hope from the constancy of God’s love for us. It is this steadfast love that will bring God to us, that will see God coming among us – indeed, He is already in our midst – to take charge of the situation. We may be weak, but God is coming with power. And more than that, this powerful God is also coming with great tenderness and compassion – like a shepherd feeding his flock, gathering lambs in his arms…

Is this not our one safe refuge when the terrifying beasts of despondency and despair assail us? In the powerful yet tender arms of the shepherd, we find security and salvation. And even when we feel far from his embrace, we are reminded that this King and Shepherd is seeking us out. He is willing even to leave the ninety-nine sheep that did not stray to look for the one that is lost.

And even as we allow ourselves to experience the joys of the Shepherd’s coming, even as we allow ourselves to be fed and embraced, will we not also find ourselves drawn to go up to a high mountain and to shout with a loud voice this good news of the Lord’s coming? Will we not find ourselves impelled to seek out, in our turn, others who might be lost and afraid, others who may be yearning for the Shepherd’s touch?

How is God embracing us today? To whom are we being sent to proclaim His coming?

Monday, December 11, 2006

Monday in the 2nd Week of Advent
The Journey into Joy

Readings: Isaiah35:1-10; Psalm 85:9ab and 10, 11-12, 13-14; Luke 5:17-26

As we enter this second week of Advent, our readings present us with a wonderful drama of homecoming, a journey into joy. The exiles in the first reading are promised that they will be brought home on a highway undefiled… called the Sacred Way. The blind will see, the deaf hear, the mute speak, the lame leap like a deer, and all around them, even in the wilderness and the wasteland, flowers will bloom and there will be much rejoicing.

In the gospel, this hopeful drama of promise finds its fulfillment. In Jesus, God ransoms his people held captive by sin and despair. Through Christ, God’s people are led on a journey into joy. Not only does the paralytic pick up what he had been lying on and walk home praising God, but even those around him are astounded, are filled with awe at what they see. They too are led to praise God. They too are led on a journey into joy.

Why are they joyful? Is it not because the Lord removes the obstacles that prevent his people from returning home? There is, for example, the physical obstacle of the one who cannot walk. There is also the deeper spiritual obstacle of the sin that Jesus forgives. And this power of the Lord to remove obstacles, to build a Sacred Way to our heavenly home, is also at work through the cooperation of others, people like the companions of the paralytic. Their faith in Christ and their love for their friend leads them to persevere in finding creative ways to overcome all obstacles, even to the extent of entering a house through the roof.

In contrast, the Pharisees and doctors of the Law seem unable to overcome their own interior obstacles, their prejudices and stereotypes: who can forgive sins but God alone? Still, Jesus does not give up on them. It is for them – to help remove the obstacle of their doubt – that Jesus works the miracle of the paralytic’s physical healing to prove to you that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins. Does Jesus succeed? Do any of them follow him on the road home? The passage doesn’t quite tell us.

But as we enter this second week of advent, we might reflect upon ourselves as well. What obstacles is Jesus removing for us, and through whom? How is He inviting us on the road home, on the journey into joy?

Sunday, December 10, 2006

2nd Sunday of Advent (C)
In the Wilderness of the Heart

Readings: Baruch 5:1-9; Psalm 126:1-2, 2-3, 4-5, 6; Philippians 1:4-6, 8-11; Luke 3:1-6

The word of God came to John son of Zechariah, in the wilderness…

One of the perks of accompanying people on retreats is the opportunity to catch a glimpse of God at work in their lives. Although each individual’s experience is unique one can sometimes identify some common recurring experiences among those who give themselves generously to the process of prayer. People, of course, come with different needs and expectations. Some come without any fixed agenda. They simply want to spend some time away from the hustle and bustle of daily living. Others come with a particular issue they wish to thrash out with God. Whatever it is, quite frequently, as people immerse themselves into the silence and stillness of the retreat, they find memories, thoughts and feelings arising within them that may at first bring them some discomfort – an incident or a loss that brought sadness, anger at some injustice or insult or grievance, disappointment or frustration arising from failure… Whatever the situation or feeling, like John the Baptist in today’s gospel, they find themselves being ushered into the wilderness.

Uncomfortable and disorientating though this wilderness experience maybe, however, things often begin to happen when people resist the temptation to escape, to suppress their feelings, to distract themselves, or to think and pray about something else. As they remain in the wilderness, they begin to see another side to their experience. In particular, they may realize that beneath their pain and discomfort lie very deep desires – for fair treatment, for intimacy, for recognition, for love… – desires that may have been frustrated. And, as it was with John the Baptist, when they lift these desires to God, when they courageously remain in the wilderness, the word of God comes to them.

What is this word? How does it come? What does it achieve?

While the details may vary from one person to the next, what is similar is the amazing fact that the word actually comes in the wilderness. That is, it is in the very midst of the retreatants’ struggle with the difficult memory or thought or feeling that God appears and speaks to them. And, often quite miraculously, the very memory that brought pain and frustration becomes a memory of God’s marvelous presence and providence, a cause for joy and praise of God. In the words of the response to today’s psalm:

What marvels the Lord worked for us! Indeed we were glad…

And often, these are also memories of how God has worked marvels through the kindness of others – those who may have offered a word of consolation or a supporting shoulder, a helping hand or the comfort of companionship. And as Paul does in the second reading today, retreatants are led to pray with joy and gratitude for these bearers of God’s care and concern.

Everytime I pray for all of you, I pray with joy…

These wondrous effects of God’s word – the transformation from struggle to joy – is expressed so beautifully in the words from today’s first reading and gospel:

Every valley will be filled in, every mountain will be laid low, winding ways will be straightened and rough roads made smooth…

Someone grieving a loss is somehow enabled to let go. Another who is resentful finds the ability to forgive. Yet another who feels abandoned is consoled...

Aren’t these retreat experiences also examples of what the Lord wishes to bring us this Christmas? Aren’t they the reason for our preparation in this time of collective retreat that is the season of Advent? We enter into the respective wildernesses of our longing and waiting, so that like John, we may hear God’s powerful word addressed to us, calling and enabling us to:

take off our dress of sorrow and distress, in order to put on the beauty of the glory of God for ever…

Sisters and brothers, as it was for the Baptist, God’s word continues to come to us in the wilderness. How might we better receive and respond to it today?

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Saturday in the 1st Week of Advent
Harvesters of Hope

Readings: Isaiah 30:19-21, 23-26; Psalm 147:1-2, 3-4, 5-6; Matthew 9:35—10:1, 5a, 6-8

Happy are all who hope in the Lord… So says the prophet in the response to our psalm today. And indeed, our readings paint for us vividly reassuring portraits of hope fulfilled.

When the Lord has given you the bread of suffering and the water of distress, he who is your teacher will hide no longer… Then moonlight will be bright as sunlight and sunlight itself seven times brighter… on the day the Lord dresses the wound of his people and heals the bruises his blows have left.

Who among us will not find ourselves deeply moved by these words, even as we call to mind the wounds and bruises of our world, our families and communities, and our own hearts? Likewise, will we not find even more consoling the gospel’s account of how Isaiah’s prophecy is fulfilled in the ministry of Jesus – how Jesus felt sorry for the crowds who were harassed and dejected, how he teaches and cures them?

Yet, more importantly perhaps, we might consider how Jesus responds to the plight of the multitudes who are like sheep without a shepherd. He doesn’t only minister to them himself, for even though he is the God-man, he is still only one man, and the harvest is rich. Instead, Jesus also calls and sends others, inviting them to share in his mission of reaping the Father’s great harvest of hope. And even in our own day, does the Lord not continue to move hearts to compassion and even to a righteous anger at the suffering that prevails among us? Does he not continue to send labourers into the harvest?

Still this sharing in the labours of Christ is not a thankless task. For, isn’t it by lending their hands to the harvest that the co-workers of Jesus might come to see their own hopes fulfilled? Isn’t it only when we, in our turn, learn to give without charge what we have received without charge that we will begin truly to taste the happiness of our hope in the Lord?

In which corner of the Lord’s field are we being sent to reap a harvest of hope today?

Friday, December 08, 2006

Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary
Blooming in the Gloom

Readings: Genesis 3:9-15, 20; Psalm 98:1, 2-3ab, 3cd-4; Ephesians 1:3-6, 11-12; Luke 1:26-38

Those who have ever marveled at the sight of a lotus blossom, rising pure, white, and untainted from murky waters will have a sense of the wondrous thing we celebrate today. From the dark and distressing background of Adam and Eve’s plight – their fear and shame at having disobeyed their creator and their desperate attempts at shielding their own nakedness – arises a divine promise of salvation: I will make you enemies of each other, says God to the serpent, you and the woman, your offspring and her offspring

And we see that promise coming to fulfillment in the gospel. Here we catch a closer glimpse of this lotus flower who becomes the bearer of God’s salvation to the world. Like our first parents, Mary too is deeply disturbed by God’s visitation. But hers is not the fear born of sin and shame, but the discomfort of a humble heart unused to the reception of singular honours. That this is so can be seen from her willingness to receive the angel’s words of assurance – Mary, do not be afraid; you have won God’s favour – her readiness to ask difficult but crucial questions of God – but how can this come about – and ultimately, her obedience to God’s instruction – let what you have said be done to me.

As we meditate more deeply on this marvel who is the Immaculate Conception, might we not be led to emulate the psalmist and to sing a new song to the Lord for the wonders he has worked? And even as we do revel in the beauty of the lotus flower who is Mary, blooming amidst the ugliness of sin and shame, might we not also be granted the courage to gaze upon our own particular situations – our own world, our own families, our own parishes and communities, our own hearts – to acknowledge the darkness that is there, but also to recognize the presence of the One who has chosen us from the beginning… to be, for his greater glory, the people who would put their hopes in Christ? Might we not also find ourselves called, just as Mary was, to bear Christ to a hungry and waiting world? For indeed, it is as we prayed in the opening prayer: the image of the Virgin is found in the Church. May our merciful God, for whom nothing is impossible, grant us abundant grace to respond generously to his call, to bloom even as Mary continues to bloom in our Church and in our world.

Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us….

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Thursday in the 1st Week of Advent
Memorial of St. Ambrose, Bishop and Doctor of the Church
Fruitful Waiting

Readings: Isaiah 26:1-6; Psalm 118:1 and 8-9, 19-21, 25-27a; Matthew 7:21, 24-27

We know that Advent is a time of longing and of waiting. But how does one wait? Is there a more and a less fruitful way? It would seem so, if our readings are anything to go by.

In a time of exile, the first reading expresses the people’s longing as they look toward a time of restoration. Yet not all will find their hopes fulfilled. Not all will find that for which they wait. Only a select number will be able to welcome the Lord, to bless his name, when he comes. For the gates of God’s visitation will open only for those who remain true to their identity as God’s people, only for the upright nation… the faithful one whose mind is steadfast, who keeps the peace…

And isn’t Jesus saying something similar in the gospel? Who will enter the kingdom of heaven? Not those who merely mouth the words, Lord, Lord, but the person who does the will of my Father in heaven.

What does fruitful waiting look like then? It is neither passive, nor mere lip-service. Rather does it imply acting and living as if the One for whom we long, the Lord of justice and of peace, were already here in our midst.

To do this we require a very precious grace. Something for which we might beg God today and everyday: that we might trust in the Lord for ever, for the Lord is the everlasting Rock…

Today, how do we wait?

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Wednesday in the 1st Week of Advent
Joyful Feeding

Readings: Isaiah 25:6-10a; Psalm 23:1-3a, 3b-4, 5, 6; Matthew 15:29-37

Singaporeans are known for our appreciation of good food. We may not all be gourmets in the strict sense but many are happy to follow Gurmit Singh and Michelle Chia on their quest for all the Lost Makan Places. Many of us are willing to go that extra kilometer to find the tastier char kuay teow, the crispier prata, or the flakier curry puff. We know how to enjoy good food.

And isn’t this what is described in our readings today: the joys of the Messianic banquet that God prepares for his hungry people? The Lord of hosts will prepare for all peoples a banquet of rich food… fine wines… Even more, we see that promise being fulfilled in the ministry of Jesus in the gospel. They all ate as much as they wanted… Isn’t this what we are waiting and longing for especially in the season of Advent? Isn’t this the ultimate lost makan place for which all peoples yearn?

Still, we must be careful not to let the metaphor of feeding and feasting lead us to trivialize the depth and breadth of God’s promise and its fulfillment. This is not just any carefree jaunt to the neighborhood hawker centre. Rather is it the fulfillment of everything for which humanity longs: the end of hunger and disease, of terror and conflict, death and destruction, the coming of true peace and harmony, community and communion, when God will remove the mourning veil covering all peoples and the shroud enwrapping all nations. This is the joyful feast for which we wait.

But isn’t there something more in our readings today? The joy of the banquet is not experienced only by those who are fed. As those who cook and serve at table can attest, great joy is also to be found in the feeding of others. And isn’t this the joy which the disciples of Jesus find themselves drawn to share? By offering their own meager resources of seven loaves and a few small fish, they find themselves privileged to partake in the divine joy of the One who feeds all on his holy mountain.

How is God inviting us to feed and to be fed at His banquet today?

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Tuesday in the 1st Week of Advent
The Joy of Being Sent

Readings: Isaiah 11:1-10; Psalm 72:1-2, 7-8, 12-13, 17; Luke 10:21-24

The description in the first reading of the Day of the Lord is nothing short of incredible, isn’t it? Wolf lives with lamb, panther lies down with kid, calf and lion cub feed together, young child puts hand in viper’s lair… And these things will perhaps seem even more marvelous when we see that they also represent the fullness of human flourishing that the Lord brings. In his days justice shall flourish and peace till the moon fails. Considering these wonders we cannot but imagine and recall our own yearning for justice and peace, among nations and peoples, in our country and communities, in our families and within our own minds and hearts… We cannot but think of a world without hatred and terror, without poverty and disease, where all will live in the love of God and neighbour.

More importantly, however, the gospel reminds us that that marvelous Day for which we all long has already arrived! That One of whom Isaiah speaks, the shoot from the stock of Jesse has already come! He is in our midst. But not all see him. Indeed, in the gospel, Jesus rejoices with his Father for allowing his disciples, mere children, to recognize his true identity as only beloved Son of the Father, and so to be drawn into the justice and peace of his kingdom.

And in Jesus’ joyful outburst we learn an important thing: no one knows who the Son is except the Father, and who the Father is except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. Recognition is nothing less than a gift from God. But it is a gift that’s freely given to all who are open enough to receive.

There’s something more, something we can we learn from the gospel about the nature of this openness. Today’s passage is found in a section in Luke’s gospel that has to do with mission. Jesus is joyful here because he had earlier sent out his disciples to spread the good news and they had returned to tell him all about the fruits of their mission. In their willingness to go where the Lord had sent them, the disciples experienced something of what Isaiah describes in the first reading. And they were filled with joy.

What joy does the Lord have in store for us – where and to whom is he sending us – today?

Monday, December 04, 2006

降临期 第一主日

主内的兄弟姐妹,在这降临期的第一主日里,耶稣在福音内提醒我们应当时时醒悟祈祷,以便准备迎接他的来临。 但是我们应该怎么做才算是醒悟呢? 而且我们应

这些问题让我想起了一部名叫 The Shawshank Redemption 的英语影片。 影片里有 一位已被关进监牢一辈子的老囚犯。 但是,很不幸的,当他终于被释放的不久以后,却自寻短见。他为何会这么做呢? 那是因为他实在是在监狱里住了太久了,已经太习惯在那儿的生活,连自由的滋味也给望了。 所以当终于被释放时,发现自己难以适应监狱外的环境。 甚至把自由看成一件可怕的事。 当被释放时,受不起环境的挑战,情愿选择死来解脱。

同样的,当耶稣来临时,他也会给我们带来真正的,永恒的,自由与和平。 根据第
一读经所记载,耶稣会在地上执行公道和正义。 而且我们也在今天的圣咏已唱到了:上主来到世上时,会领迷途者归回正路,引导谦卑者遵守正义,教导善良者走入征途。 天主这一切的作为的确都是可喜可贺的事。 但是,如果我们不小心的话,如果我们不醒悟的话,不也有可能会跟那位老罪犯一样,因为感到不习惯而把天主恩赐的这些大好事当成坏事,为自由与正义而感到恐惧吗?

尤其是在我们这个繁忙的狮城里,大家因为都必须拼命地工作来养育自己的家庭,会时常觉得疲劳,而且还会受到心理上的压力。 在这种情况下,我们不是都很容易把正义的需求给忘了吗? 我们因为都必须为自己和家庭的日常生活发愁,不是很容易忘记社会上比我们更贫困的,需要我们帮忙的那些人吗? 甚至有时不也会很容易忘了感谢与侍奉天主吗?


这不就是我们应当醒悟的很重要的一方面吗?我们即使在繁忙的生活中也得必须牢牢地记起正义的需求。 当然这并不是件容易做得到的事。 所以我们必须为此而不断地,谦诚地,祈祷。 就象我们在今天的集祷经一样,恳求天主激发我们的心志, 使我们迈向正义。 也象圣保禄宗徒在我们今天的第二读经为得撒洛尼人的祈求一样:愿主使你们彼此的爱情,和对众人的爱情增长满溢。

的确,醒悟不是件容易的事。 但只要我们热心地恳求上主,他是一定会听从我们的。 因为他在我们今天的第一读经已经说了得很清楚:我要实践我。。。预许赐福的诺言。


Monday in the 1st Week of Advent
The Grace of Recognition

Readings: Isaiah 2:1-5; Psalm 122:1-9; Matthew 8:5-11

One word, one quality, comes to mind as we listen to the readings on this first Monday of Advent. Even as we prepare our hearts, even as we eagerly await, the coming of Christ both at the last day and in each passing moment of everyday, our readings invite us to reflect upon some of those who experience the great fulfillment of their longing. And if there is one characteristic that all these have in common, it is the capacity for recognition.

Consider the first reading. How does it come about that the Lord will wield authority over the nations such that nations will not lift sword against nation? Is it not through the willingness of all nations to recognize the Lord’s authority, and in that recognition, to further recognize one another as sisters and brothers in him, and so to stream together eagerly to the Temple of the Lord?

And do we not see the same thing in the gospel? How is the Centurion’s servant restored to health and wholeness? Is it not through the willingness of the Centurion – himself a person of authority – to recognize and acknowledge the authority of a humble itinerant Jewish teacher? And prior to this, is it not also due to the Centurion’s capacity to recognize and acknowledge kinship with one whose social status is far below his own? Even more, doesn’t the healing of the servant come about also through the capacity of Jesus himself to see beyond the outer appearance – and beyond all stereotypes – of one who is both a gentile and an officer in the occupying Roman army, and to recognize in him a deep and genuine faith?

And we can go further, can we not? Isn’t the very ministry of Jesus itself the result of the willingness of a mighty yet compassionate God to continue to recognize and acknowledge kinship with his people, with us, even when we may have given sufficient cause for him to forsake us?

In an age when the differences among us – national, ethnic, religious, ideological, temperamental – often seem to present insurmountable barriers to the lasting peace that Isaiah describes, perhaps our special prayer for this advent might be the grace of recognition.

How and in whom is the Lord inviting us to recognize his coming today?

Sunday, December 03, 2006

1st Sunday of Advent (C)
The Wakefulness of the Heart

Readings: Jeremiah 33:14-16; Psalm 25:4-5, 8-9, 10, 14; 1 Thessalonians 3:12—4:2; Luke 21:25-28, 34-36

As we begin a new liturgical year, we once again find ourselves being reminded by Jesus to be prepared for God’s coming, to stay awake, praying at all times… This is the same admonition – and indeed from the same passage of scripture, albeit slightly longer – that we heard yesterday. So what’s new?

Probably nothing. After all, it’s the same mystery we are examining, just as it’s the same God who’s coming and the same Lord who speaks. And yet, because we are dealing with mystery, thing’s are never completely the same, are they? There’s always something fresh, something new, something challenging for us to consider.

Yesterday, our reflection on the book of Revelation led us to think of staying awake in visual terms. We reflected upon how, even in the midst of our busy lives, we need to be like the visionary John, who helps his people to keep alive the vision of God’s coming kingdom. Today, our readings provide yet another perspective on what it means to stay awake that has less to do with the eyes and the imagination, and more with the heart.

Watch yourselves, says Jesus, or your hearts will be coarsened with debauchery and drunkenness and the cares of life…

And lest we be puzzled by the metaphor Jesus uses in the gospel, the other two readings help us to understand what Jesus means by speaking about what might be the opposite of coarsened hearts. What is it like – a heart of flesh, a heart that remains true to the Lord? It is like that One whose coming is described in the first reading, who shall practise honesty and integrity in the land. It is like the heart of Jesus, the ultimate person of integrity, who remains true to the mission entrusted to him by his Father, even unto death. It is like that for which Paul prays in the second reading, when he asks that the Lord be generous in increasing your love and make you love one another and the whole human race as much as we love you. To have a heart of flesh is to allow ourselves to be touched by the joys and sorrows, the fears and aspirations of those around us, and to respond generously according to our capacity.

To continue to do this in a world that often seems only to delight in and to reward hardened hearts is not an easy thing. Isn’t that why we must continue to pray as we did in the opening prayer: that the All-powerful God increase our strength of will for doing good?

Still, we pray with confidence that God is sure to answer us, because in Christ, he has done what he said he would through the prophet Jeremiah, he has fulfilled the promise he made to the House of Israel and the House of Judah, and indeed to all the world.

How might we continue stay awake, and to cultivate hearts of flesh today?

Saturday, December 02, 2006

34th Saturday in Ordinary Time (II)
The Prayer that Awakens

Readings: Revelations 22:1-7; Psalm 95:1-2, 3-5, 6-7aba; Luke 21:34-36

On this last day of the church’s liturgical year, the gospel issues an admonition that is important enough to be repeated tomorrow: stay awake, praying at all times…

But what does it mean to stay awake? And conversely, what does it mean to fall asleep? With the very hectic schedules that many of us keep, hasn’t sleep deprivation become a widespread condition? Don’t many of us have to sleep late and wake up early just to fulfill the various responsibilities that life sets before us? Is this the kind of keeping awake that Jesus advises? Perhaps and perhaps not.

A useful perspective on the question is gained when we consider what the book of Revelation has been helping us to do throughout the past two weeks. Although sometimes obscure and confusing, our first readings have presented us with various visions of the end times. They have helped to keep alive for us our dreams of the day when all our deepest desires will be fulfilled in God, when God’s reign will truly be extended over all of space and time, when love, justice and peace will triumph over apathy, oppression and war, when it will never be night again… because the Lord God will be shining on us. And once again, we are reminded today that all that we have heard is sure and will come true… And happy are those who treasure the prophetic message of this book.

Could this be what it means to stay awake – namely to keep alive the vision of God’s kingdom even in the midst of our worldly preoccupations? Could this not be that for which Jesus asks us to pray? If so, perhaps we could pray in words and sentiments similar to these:

Disturb us, Lord, when
With the abundance of things we possess
We have lost our thirst
For the waters of life;
When having fallen in love with time,
We have ceased to dream of eternity;
And in our efforts to build a new earth,
Have allowed our vision
Of the new Heaven to grow dim.

How best might we stay awake today?

Friday, December 01, 2006

34th Friday in Ordinary Time (II)
Rejoicing in the Buds

Think of the fig tree and indeed every tree. As soon as you see them bud, you know that summer is now near… So with you when you see these things happening: know that the kingdom of God is near…

As we listen to these words of Jesus in the gospel placed side by side with John’s vivid description of the birth pangs of the new heaven and new earth it’s quite natural to think immediately of the end of the world and the end of time. And that is, of course, what the scriptures are speaking about, especially in these last days of our church’s liturgical calendar.

But we should take care to remember that Jesus’ words are addressed to us as much as to past and future generations. We must be careful not to limit our search for the signs of the coming kingdom only to the extraordinary and marvelous things that John describes. Neither should we think that these things will only happen far into the future; certainly not within our own lifetime. For are there not signs of the kingdom coming among us everyday? Are the fruit trees of the kingdom not budding already? Do we not see, in our own day, efforts being made for peace and justice, life and love…? Many of these may not be very big or extraordinary signs. In a bus packed to capacity, for example, we might notice someone giving up her seat for someone else who needs it more. But isn’t it in the nature of buds to be small and even inconspicuous?

And if we do heed Jesus’ advice, if we do take care to notice and acknowledge the signs of God’s presence, will we not also be inspired to do our part, to contribute our own energies and efforts to hastening the coming of God’s kingdom? Will we not also share in the experience of the psalmist, who joyously proclaims: My heart and my soul ring out their joy to God, the living God?

How is the tree of God’s kingdom budding around us today?

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Feast of St. Andrew, Apostle
The Importance of Being Friends

Readings: Romans 10:9-18; Psalm 19:8, 9, 10, 11; Matthew 4:18-22

What does our Christian faith mean to us? How is it often presented to us? Doesn’t it sometimes seem to be all about a list of beliefs that we need to hold, or a set of religious practices that we need to observe? Indeed, seen from this perspective, the message of our readings – on this feast of St. Andrew the apostle – seem simple enough to understand. How are we saved? We need simply to confess with our lips that Jesus is Lord and believe from our heart that God raised him from the dead. And how are we to do this? We must listen to the Good News as it is preached by other people or as it is wordlessly proclaimed by all of creation. The heavens proclaim the glory of God… Simple enough? Seems so. As simple as, for example, listening to a talk or a lecture, or reading a book, understanding the contents and then trying to put them into practice.

And yet, anyone who tries to live out the implications of such belief and confession will testify to the difficulties involved. It’s not easy truly to allow Jesus to be Lord over our whole life, is it? There often seem to be so many other desires, other anxieties, other preoccupations that threaten to displace Him from the throne of our hearts.

Still, we notice how the first apostles respond to Jesus’ call in the gospel. They left their nets at once and followed him. Of course, they underwent many ups and downs after that. They even deserted and denied their Lord in his time of need. Yet we are told that all but one of the Twelve repented and persevered to the end. Could they have done this merely by clinging to a list of beliefs or a set of religious practices? Or was there more to it than that? Was it not rather the person of Jesus that impressed and attracted them to leave all? Did their strength to follow Christ through all the ups and downs of life not come rather from their relationship, their friendship, with the One who called them to be fishers of people? Indeed, do we not get a hint of this crucial personal dimension of our faith in our opening prayer, where we express the hope that St. Andrew may always be for us a friend in God’s presence?

What difference does being friends of and in the Lord make to our lives today?

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

34th Wednesday in Ordinary Time (II)
Praise and Inspiration

Readings: Revelations 15:1-4; Psalm 98:1, 2-3ab, 7-8, 9; Luke 21:12-19

Our readings invite reflection upon a connection between two aspects of the spiritual life that’s probably not very obvious, but is well known to some, especially those in the Charismatic Renewal. It’s the connection between praise and inspiration.

In the first reading, we notice how those who had fought against the beast and won, sing a great hymn of praise to God, even as angels are bringing the seven plagues upon the earth. And in the gospel, Jesus assures his disciples that even when they have to undergo persecution on account of His name, he will be with them, inspiring them and giving them an eloquence and a wisdom that none… will be able to resist or contradict. Could there be some connection between the praise we find in the first reading and the inspiration in the gospel?

Without hesitation, those in the Charismatic Renewal would say yes. Indeed they rely on this connection between praise and inspiration at their prayer meetings each week when they go through what some call the Charismatic Cycle. The meeting usually begins with enthusiastic and even boisterous praise of God in song. But if properly facilitated, loud praise gradually gives way to a time of quiet, when all listen attentively to words of inspiration from God and then share what is received with one another either through words of prophecy or passages from scripture, through testimonies or teachings. The principle being relied upon is that praise somehow inserts us into the flow of God’s Spirit, such that our hearts become more open to God’s inspirations and promptings.

And doesn’t this basic spiritual principle admit of broader application in our lives – beyond the limited time and space of the Charismatic prayer meeting, beyond even those in the Charismatic Renewal? Amidst the inevitable trials that come our way each day perhaps we need especially to recall the great and wonderful works of our Lord God and to praise Him for it in word and deed. Could this be one way that we can practice the endurance of which Jesus speaks in the gospel, the kind that will win you your lives?

What connection might we find between praise and inspiration today?