Sunday, March 26, 2006

4th Sunday in Lent (A)
Outstanding Christians

Readings: 1 Sam 16:1,6-7,10-13; Eph 5:8-14; John 9:1-41

Sisters and brothers, someone once cheekily confessed to me that he was an outstanding Christian. I was a little puzzled at first, because I didn’t think this person was the sort to blow his own horn. But he later clarified, with a chuckle, exactly what he meant. For him, an outstanding Christian is one who always comes to Mass late and prefers to stand outside the church.

In church, this afternoon, there is also a group of people who stand out among us, but for a different reason. I’m referring to the elect. It’s difficult not to notice them. They are seated right in the middle of our worship space, dressed in distinctive maroon-coloured T-shirts. Visually, they stand out.

In the readings of today, too, one person stands out: the man who had been blind from birth. This connection between him and our elect is no coincidence, for to meditate on the experience of the man born blind is also to gain some insight into the faith-journeys of our elect. In the gospel, Jesus sends the blind man to wash in the pool of Siloam. And after he does so, the man gains his sight – not just physical, but also spiritual sight. This is how he stands out: of all the characters in the story, he alone has the faith to acknowledge and worship Jesus as Lord.

In the same way, Jesus has called our elect to the pool of baptism at Easter. There they will gain spiritual sight. There they will profess their faith in Christ and worship him as Lord, in full communion with his church for the first time. The words of the letter to the Ephesians will then apply also to them: You were darkness once, but now you are light in the Lord. At baptism, they will commit themselves to living like children of light, for the effects of light are seen in complete goodness and right living and truth. They will try to have nothing to do with the futile works of darkness but (expose) them by contrast. And by living in such a faith-filled manner, they will shine out like bright stars in a world filled with shadows and lights contrary to the light of Christ (cf. Ph 2:15).

But surely the readings of today are meant not only for our elect, are they? Rather, they also invite the rest of us to reflect on the extent to which we are living out our baptismal faith. They offer us a very sober warning about how easy it is to remain spiritually blind. In our readings, even the religious professionals – the Pharisees in the gospel, and the prophet Samuel in the first reading – fail to recognize the grace of God at work. What about us who profess to be Christians? To what extent do we continually try to heed the advice of the letter to the Ephesians? To what extent do we continually try to discover what the Lord wants of (us)? And when we do discover it, how well do we respond? To what extent do we continually try to shine out in our world with the light of Christ?

To help us answer these questions, it’s useful to consider the other characters in our readings today, and the things that keep them spiritually blind, the things that prevent them from recognizing and responding to God, the things that hinder them from coming to faith in Christ.

What are some of these obstacles? Prejudice is the first. We see this in Samuel, who favours Eliab because of his appearance and height. But he is reminded that God does not see as (we see); (we look) at appearances but the Lord looks at the heart. Similarly, the Pharisees say of Jesus, This man cannot be from God: he does not keep the Sabbath. And by clinging to their understanding of the meaning and importance of Sabbath observance, the Pharisees remain blind to the Word-of-God-Made-Flesh. We too have our various prejudices. We too may judge according to appearances, or even according to how well someone keeps religious rules. The question is whether we are willing to change our point of view, as Samuel does, when it becomes clear that God is moving among us in a new way. Or do we prefer to cling to our prejudices, as the Pharisees do, and so remain blind to God’s action?

But why, we might ask, do the Pharisees cling so stubbornly to their prejudice even when it becomes clear that God is at work in Jesus? As the once-blind man says to them, Ever since the world began it is unheard of for anyone to open the eyes of a man who was born blind; if this man were not from God, he couldn’t do such as thing.

Could it be out of a desire for power and control – even a desire for power and control over God? The Pharisees were pious and scrupulous observers of the Law to the nth degree. But isn’t there also a shadow side to piety? Isn’t it true that it can become a subtle means of bending God to our own will? So that to admit that God can be at work in someone like Jesus, who seems not to keep the Law, would be tantamount to admitting that God is beyond our control – something which the Pharisees cannot accept? Do we not also try, from time to time, to manipulate God? We may tell God, I will come to church more frequently, if only you will get me a job… find me a wife… heal me of my illness… Of course, it’s a good thing to come to church. Just as it’s a good thing to ask God for what we need. The problem is the if only – the condition that we set on our religious observance. As if God had something to gain from our coming to church. And yet, in one of the prefaces for Mass we say to God: You have no need of our praise, yet our desire to thank you is itself your gift. Our prayer of thanksgiving adds nothing to your greatness, but makes us grow in grace…

But perhaps there is something even deeper than the desire for control. This is what prevents the parents of the blind man from supporting him when they are questioned by the Jews. He is old enough, they say, let him speak for himself. And we are told that they spoke like this out of fear of the Jews, who had agreed to expel from the synagogue anyone who should acknowledge Jesus as the Christ. Fear – that is the final obstacle to faith that we find in our readings today. Fear of what will happen to us if we stand out in the crowd, fear of the suffering that comes our way, even if, or perhaps precisely because, we follow Christ. Like the Pharisees and the parents of the blind man, we prefer to live in ways that give us an illusion of control. We keep the rules, religious or otherwise. We keep a low profile – we try not to stand out in the crowd, for fear of the consequences.

But this safety-first attitude robs us of a very precious experience – the experience of being accompanied and strengthened by the crucified and risen Christ when we suffer. As we heard in today’s psalm: If I should walk in the valley of darkness no evil would I fear. You are there with your crook and your staff; with these you give me comfort.

My sisters and brothers, you the elect stand out visually among us this afternoon. But it will be very sad if you were to stand out among us spiritually as well. For are not all of us gathered here called to the same faith in Christ? Is it not true that Christ wishes to heal all of us of our spiritual blindness, so that we might all shine out in our world with his light? Is not the letter to the Ephesians addressed to us all when it says: wake up from your sleep, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you?

My sisters and brothers, elect and baptized alike, how are we being called to be outstanding Christians today?

Thursday, March 23, 2006

3rd Sunday in Lent (A)
From Quicksand to Solid Rock

Readings: Exo 17:3-7; Rom 5:1-2,5-8; John 4:5-42

My sisters and brothers, recently a powerful anti-drug advertisement has been appearing on television. You may have seen it. A young man approaches a drug-pusher for a fix. He asks the pusher: How much? The pusher’s reply is striking. I don’t recall the exact words, but it goes something like this: Fifty dollars… and your health… and your freedom… and your family… and your happiness… and your life... It’s a very powerful portrayal of the terrible price exacted by drug abuse.

Of course, used in an ordered manner, drugs can cure us of our ailments. But when they are abused, trouble starts. Still, some people succumb to the temptation, probably because they are attracted to the euphoria and the temporary escape from the troubles of life that drug-abuse affords. But the long-term costs far outweigh any apparent short-term benefits.

Abuse leads to addiction. And drug addiction – indeed, any kind of addiction – enslaves. The more you have, the more you want. Just ask any recovering drug addict who has been put through cold turkey. Like quicksand, drugs suck you in, hold you captive, and then gradually drain the life out of you. Abuse leads to addiction. Addiction leads to death.

I don’t expect that there are any drug addicts in our midst this morning. But isn’t there a similar dynamic at work in the spiritual life? What do I mean?

Recall the dynamic of drug addiction: abuse, then addiction, and then death. Let’s first consider the abuse. According to St. Ignatius, all things on the face of the earth are created so that human beings can use them to glorify God. In this he was only echoing Augustine, who said that we should use all things but enjoy only God alone. Yet, is it not often the case that we look to things less than God for our fulfillment and ultimate enjoyment? Does this disordered relationship to things not amount to abuse? And is it not the case that the more we have the more we want? Does the abuse then not lead to addiction? And is it not also the case that our addictions often turn us away from our deeper selves, away from our neighbour, and ultimately away from God, the source of all life? The dynamic repeats itself: abuse, addiction, and death.

Of course our drugs are not heroin, or cocaine, or ecstasy. Their names sound more respectable – names like work, productivity, high-technology, efficiency, consumer goods, free-trade… But whatever their names, when they are abused, when they are treated as ends in themselves, the death-ward slide begins.

And it is precisely this tendency towards death that is the target of God’s action in our readings today. The Israelites, in the first reading, are tormented by thirst. More than a physical thirst, this is a spiritual thirst. They have been rescued by God from abuse in Egypt. But their taste-buds have not yet gotten accustomed to the spiritual food and drink that God is offering them. They remain addicted to what they had in Egypt. In the desert they are going through cold turkey. And it’s not fun. Is it any wonder that they complain? Similarly, in today’s gospel, the Samaritan woman is also thirsting for something more than water. As Jesus gently points out, she has no husband even though she has had five. We don’t know her situation in detail, but her thirst is plain to those who, like Jesus, have the eyes to see.

What is God’s response to this terrible thirst born of abuse and addiction? In the first reading, God produces water in the wilderness for the people to drink. And in the gospel, Jesus offers the Samaritan woman living water. From where does this water come? In what does it consist?

In contrast to the quicksand of addiction, the living water that God gives flows from solid rock. This is the rock in the desert that Moses strikes with his staff, but which is only a foreshadowing of the ultimate rock who is the crucified Christ – struck by the centurion’s lance, as he hangs upon the cross. And out of his pierced side flows blood and water.

This is Christ the Rock of our salvation. And the water he gives is nothing less than the love of God for each and all of us – a love expressed in the death of Christ for our sakes. As Paul says in the second reading, what proves that God loves us is that Christ died for us while we were still sinners. God’s response to abuse, addiction and death, is to rescue us from the quicksand and to place our feet firmly on the solid rock of his love for us in Christ. This is the rock from which flows the living waters of our baptism, which, as Jesus tells the Samaritan woman, will turn into a spring inside (us), welling up to eternal life.

These are the waters for which the elect among us are strenuously preparing themselves throughout this season of Lent. Aided by our prayers, they are trying diligently to turn away from the quicksand of sin, so as to be firmly founded on the solid rock who is Christ. Can those of us who are already baptized do anything less? Should we too not recall the grace of our own baptism? Should we too not assiduously turn away from our own addictions so as to be more firmly grounded on Christ?
My sisters and brothers, on this third Sunday of Lent, let us take the words of the psalmist to heart: Come, ring out your joy to the Lord; hail the rock who saves us… O that today you would listen to his voice! Harden not your hearts…
2nd Sunday in Lent (B)
Let Go! Keep Moving!

Readings: Gen 22:1-2,9-13,15-18; Rom 8:31-34; Mark 9:2-10

My sisters and brothers, many of us have probably heard the story about the atheist who falls off a steep cliff, and finds himself hanging on to a branch for dear life, suspended between heaven and earth. As he hears the branch creak and strain with his weight, and as he feels his own strength ebbing fast, he looks up to the heavens and cries out: if there’s anyone up there, save me! And to his amazement, a voice booms out: I am with you… Do not be afraid! Encouraged, the atheist yells again: save me! To which the voice replies: I will… let go! The atheist considers this for a moment, and then looks to the heavens once more and shouts: is there anyone else up there?

It’s an amusing story – more so perhaps, because it’s so easy to see ourselves in it. We’re not atheists – at least not strictly speaking – nor is it likely that we have fallen off any cliffs, but most if not all of us will probably have experienced dangers or perils of some kind or other. Our cliffs might take the form of illnesses, or crises at work, in the family, or in our other relationships. Or, they might simply involve our more mundane struggles to fulfill our many responsibilities, even Christian responsibilities, in life. However we might experience it, falling off the cliff makes us feel our own weakness and inability to help ourselves. They make us realize our need for a saviour. And yet, even as we cry out to God for help, isn’t there also often a part of us that finds it hard to trust fully in the One whose help we seek? We hang on for dear life to other supports, whether they be particular persons, a career, or some particular religious belief or practice. We feel the need to keep all our bases covered. It’s difficult to trust in God alone, it’s difficult fully to let go and let God. That is why we need to listen closely to what our readings have to teach us on this Second Sunday of Lent.

Today, the action takes place on two mountain-tops. We begin with Moriah. Quite naturally, we will notice first that this is the mountain of sacrifice. It’s the place, where God makes the horrendously unthinkable request of Abraham: to kill his only son, Isaac – born to him when Abraham was already a hundred years old. Obviously the point of the story is not that we should be willing to perform human sacrifice at God’s bidding. Rather, we are being called to imitate Abraham’s obedience to God, his determination to let nothing come between him and his God, not even his own beloved son, through whom God had promised to make him a great nation.

From where does Abraham’s determination, his obedience, come? Is it not his profound faith and trust in God – that Isaac would be safe with God – and that in spite of the apparent loss of his only son, God would still somehow make good on His promise? The words of our responsorial psalm come to mind: I trusted even when I said, ‘I am sorely afflicted.’

And Abraham’s trust does not go unrewarded. Here, we see a second important aspect of Moriah. Not only is it the mountain of sacrifice, but it is also the place of blessing. Abraham’s trust in God opens him to God’s bountiful blessings. Because you have done this… -- because you’ve obeyed me, because you’ve trusted in me, because you’ve not been afraid to let go – I will shower blessings on you. And these blessings are not just for Abraham, but also for many others. I will make your descendants as many as the stars of heaven and the grains of sand on the seashore…. All the nations shall bless themselves by your descendants, as a reward for your obedience.

On Moriah we learn that through obedient trust in God the sacrifice of one is transformed into blessings for many.

But seeing more clearly the lesson of Moriah is not quite the same as living it more nearly. We all know we need to trust God, but trust has gradually to be cultivated. It cannot be forced, nor can it be rushed. How then does one come to have the trust in God that Abraham had?

For this we need to climb the second mountain in our readings today. As with Moriah, there are also two important aspects to Tabor. Quite obviously, it is first the mountain of transfiguration. On Tabor, Peter, James and John are graced with an experience of Jesus in His glory. They hear the Father telling them: this is my Son, the Beloved.

We too have our own Tabors. Whether it is a seminar, or a retreat, a talk, or even a walk in the park – whatever the medium, the important thing is that we are graced with an awareness of who this Jesus is, whom we follow. Our spiritual life is given a much-needed shot in the arm. We experience a spiritual high. And we begin to take our prayer more seriously. We begin to get more involved in church activities and so on.

Important as the transfiguration is, however, there is yet a deeper significance to Tabor. To discover this, we need to pay closer attention to its biblical context. In all three of the gospels where this story appears, it is sandwiched between two predictions by Jesus of his impending suffering, death and resurrection. Seen in this light, more than just the mountain of transfiguration, Tabor is also the place of preparation for the passion. It is on Tabor that Jesus and the three disciples are offered the strength to weather the storms that lie ahead. It is on Tabor, that the disciples are reminded by the Father not only of who Jesus is, but also that they should listen to him. However, this deeper significance of Tabor – its connection to the cross of Christ, and to the crosses that will inevitably enter every Christian life – will be missed if we, like Peter, insist on remaining on the mountain-top, insist on clinging on for dear life to the spiritual highs that we have experienced.

The true meaning of Tabor is learnt only when we accompany Jesus down the mountain.

For it is only when we do so, that we see the story of Abraham and Isaac replayed in the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus. It is only when we accompany Jesus to Calvary, and beyond, that we see how, by His humble obedience and unwavering trust in His heavenly Father, Jesus’ one sacrifice is transformed into the blessing of eternal life for all. In Jesus, we see the truth of what we heard in the second reading: that like Abraham, God did not spare his own Son, but gave him up to benefit us all. This sacrifice demonstrates, once and for all, that God is indeed on our side. And with God on our side who can be against us?

This reassurance strengthens us and serves as the unshakeable foundation of our own trust in God, especially when we have to climb our own Moriah’s and Calvary’s – when we, in our turn, experience the call to sacrifice what is dearest to us – when we, like that atheist in the story, hear the call to let go and surrender ourselves into the hands of God.
My sisters and brothers, if the Christian life indeed consists in a continual movement between Moriah and Tabor, then the important thing, for each and all of us, is to resist the temptation to remain on any one or other of these mountains, sacred though they may be. My sisters and brothers, on this Second Sunday of Lent, how are we being called to let go and to keep moving, to follow Christ and to place our trust in God alone?
1st Sunday in Lent (B)
A Matter of Life and Death

Readings: Gen 9:8-15; 1 Pet 3:18-22; Mark 1:12-15

My sisters and brothers, have you ever had the experience of expecting to be splashed with cold water? You know it’s going to happen, you know it’s going to be shockingly unpleasant, but you also know that there’s little you can do about it. So, you brace yourself, you grit your teeth, you tense your muscles, you prepare yourself mentally for the impact. I must confess that that is often my reaction to the season of Lent.

Let’s face it, Lent is uncomfortable. It gets under your skin. We’re expected to do certain things with an intensity that we’re not quite used to in ordinary time. We’re expected to reduce our more frivolous activities, to control our appetites, so as to be more intensely focused on prayer and self-examination. We’re also encouraged to do more to reach out to those in need. Lent is uncomfortable. I brace myself to meet it, as I would a bucket of cold water.

Why then do we submit ourselves to our Lenten discipline? What’s at stake? And how might we go through it more gracefully and fruitfully? On this first Sunday of Lent, our readings help us to address these questions by turning our attention to two places: the waters of the flood and the wilderness of temptation. These are places of discomfort and desolation, of death and destruction. And yet, God leads His favoured ones into them – first Noah and then Jesus. More than that, the word leads is clearly an understatement. Mark says that the Spirit drove Jesus out into the wilderness. And, as for Noah, we know that it was literally a matter of life and death: build the ark or perish in the waters of the flood. What is happening here? What can we learn that might help us on our Lenten journey?

The first important observation we make is that, unpleasant as they may be, the waters and the wilderness are places of transition. Earlier in the story of the flood, we are told that humankind had become so wicked that God regretted His own creation. Meant for life eternal in the bosom of our creator, we had chosen rather the path that leads to death. And so the flood was intended to wipe the slate clean, to allow God to recreate the earth starting with Noah, God’s favoured one. Terrible and destructive as the flood waters were, they were meant to be a place of transition, from death to new and more abundant life.

Much the same can be said for the wilderness of Jesus’ temptation. Here, the gospel writer is making an association with, among other things, the forty years that Israel spent in the wilderness. Uncomfortable as that long trek was, it was an important and necessary phase in God’s plan to free God’s people from slavery in Egypt, and to lead them to new life in the Promised Land. Further, in Mark’s description of the temptation of Jesus, we are told that although Jesus was tempted by Satan in the wilderness, he also experienced communion with the wild beasts, and the angels looked after him. And it is out of this experience that Jesus emerged to begin his public ministry, proclaiming the Good News from God.

We see then, that more than simply places of discomfort and desolation, the waters and the wilderness are also places of power. God has an ultimate purpose in leading his favoured ones through them. In doing so, God demonstrates His awesome power, which is able to bring life and renewal out of death and destruction. And not just for Noah and Jesus, but also, through them, for the rest of creation. See, I establish my Covenant with you, and… with every living creature to be found with you… everything that lives on the earth.

Is this not the deeper significance of our Lenten discipline? Like Noah and Jesus, are we not also God’s favoured ones? Are we not also being led to renounce all that smacks of death and destruction, so as to walk in newness of life? And in so doing, are we not also being asked to be channels of God’s life-giving power to the rest of our world? How then do we do this? What is it about Lent that helps us to achieve all this? There is one final but crucial aspect of our readings that invites our reflection.

For God’s favoured ones, for Noah and for Jesus, the waters and the wilderness are also places of testing. They test the one crucial quality that enables Noah and Jesus to cooperate with God in accomplishing His great plan of salvation: they test their obedience. Noah is asked to undertake the arduous task of building and populating the ark. And, in spite of being ridiculed by others, he faithfully carries out God’s instructions.

Fresh from his baptism in the Jordan, Jesus submits to the Spirit who drives him out into the wilderness to be tempted. And we know that this is but a preview of Jesus’ ultimate submission. The wilderness of temptation is but a foretaste of the desolation of the cross. As we heard in the second reading: Christ himself, innocent though he was, died once for sins, died for the guilty, to lead us to God.

The way from death to life necessarily passes through the discipline of obedience. It was so for Noah and for Jesus. It is so for us as well. And it is in the uncomfortable season of Lent that we allow our obedience to be tested and strengthened. It is through the discipline of Lent that we are helped to discern, in our lives, the life-giving from the death-dealing, so as to give ourselves more wholeheartedly to God. But our obedience is not a new commitment. Rather is it a reminder and a renewal of an earlier commitment: the commitment made in the waters of our baptism. As we heard in the second reading, our baptism was a pledge made to God from a good conscience. In submitting to the discipline of Lent, we are helped to live this pledge more faithfully and fruitfully for the life of the world.

My sisters and brothers, this is what is at stake in our Lenten discipline. Lent is nothing less than a matter of life and death. And not just for ourselves but, through us, for the rest of creation.

Today, even as I brace myself for the cold water that is Lent, I invite you to join me in making our own the prayer of the psalmist: Lord, make (us) know your ways. Lord teach (us) your paths. Make (us) walk in your truth, and teach (us): for you are God (our) saviour.