Sunday, May 28, 2006

7th Sunday of Easter (B)
Of Foundations, Pillars & the Da Vinci Code

Readings: Acts 1:15-17,20-26; 1 John 4:11-16; John 17:11-19

Dear sisters and brothers, what do you make of the current hullabaloo over the Da Vinci Code? After reading the book and having paid some attention to the concern and even outrage expressed by many Christians, I wonder whether this whole controversy might not be something of a blessing in disguise. Let me explain.

Here in Singapore, most of us are painfully aware of the crucial importance, in any construction project, of solid foundations and strong supporting pillars. We have witnessed the horrors of the Nicoll Highway and Hotel New World disasters. We know what can happen when engineers and contractors cut corners. All of a sudden, structures collapse, lives are lost, people are injured and traumatized, public confidence is shaken. In the face of such tragedy, we can only regret that appropriate action had not been taken earlier. If only we had some warning that something was wrong.

What has this to do with the Da Vinci Code? Well, if we see our Christian faith as a high-rise building, then I wonder if the Da Vinci Code controversy might not be an early warning of sorts. Could it be the equivalent of cracks in the walls, or occasional tremors in the building – signs that something might be wrong. And perhaps more important than trying desperately to silence or censor this warning, we Christians need to carefully examine the structure that is our faith. Or as some would say, perhaps it’s time to do some trouble-shooting.

Of course, it’s understandable that Christians would take offence at the book and the movie, and even see them as an attack on Christianity. But the question to ask is “who are the casualties of this attack?” Whilst it’s appropriate to worry about non-Christians being scandalized, do we not also need to consider the likelihood that it is we Christians ourselves whose faith is shaken – we ourselves who are beginning to doubt the very foundations of our faith? Preposterous though Dan Brown’s claims may be – in particular, the notion that Jesus was a mere mortal who had a child with Mary Magdalene – there do seem to be those among us who actually wonder if there’s some truth in them.

Coincidentally, our readings on this 7th Sunday of Easter provide us with just the kind of scriptural material we need to examine the foundations and pillars of our Christian faith.

Let’s start with the foundations. We all know that in the scriptures Jesus is referred to as the corner-stone (e.g., Mt 21:42). He is the one on whom the whole Christian edifice stands or falls. To be more specific, it is his death and resurrection that makes all the difference. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:17: “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins… If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.”

Is it any wonder then that when, in the first reading, Peter and the early church look for Judas’ successor, they really only have one requirement in mind: “we must… choose someone,” Peter says, “who has been with us the whole time that Jesus was traveling around with us… right from the time when John was baptizing until the day when he was taken up from us – and he can act with us as a witness to his resurrection.” If Jesus is the corner-stone of our faith, then the rest of the foundations consist in eye-witnesses, especially the twelve apostles. Isn’t this what we profess in the Creed each Sunday, when we declare our belief in an “apostolic church”?

And isn’t this as firm a foundation as any? The Christian faith is built upon nothing less than eye-witness testimony. Why then should we be troubled by such nonsense as the Da Vinci Code? Entertained and even excited perhaps, but surely not troubled. Unless, of course, we aren’t quite aware of the solidity of these foundations, or we have built our own personal faith on something else. If so, the Da Vinci Code might serve as a call to conversion.

What about the supporting pillars? The first disciples, the eye-witnesses are no longer with us. The foundations have been laid. It is left to you and me to hold up the building. We are the supporting pillars.

Obviously, we are not and cannot be eye-witnesses in the strict historical sense, in the way that the apostles were. Jesus is no longer present among us in same way that he was before the Resurrection.

But neither is he absent. Notice how in our opening prayer, we asked the Father to help us to remember that “Christ our Saviour” both “lives… in glory” – in other words, he is in heaven – and yet “remain(s) with us until the end of time.” Jesus is somehow present among us. And we are the witnesses to this presence. How? Notice what John says in the second reading: “God is love and anyone who lives in love lives in God, and God lives in him.” John is reminding us that, although Jesus has ascended, the presence of God in Christ continues to show itself in the world, when people love one another as Christ loved us. When people lay down their lives for one another, even in apparently insignificant ways, Jesus Christ walks the earth once again. For us to be witnesses to this presence, we must have the capacity to sense it.

As The Little Prince said so wisely: “It is only with the heart that one sees rightly. What is essential is invisible to the eye.” If this is true, then the pillars of Christian faith consist not so much in eye-witnesses but heart-witnesses and hand-witnesses – in people who somehow experience and communicate the presence of Christ through lives lived in self-sacrificial love. And we do not have to look too far to do this. On any given day in our busy schedules, are there not a variety of opportunities for us to witness in this way – in our homes, our schools, our workplaces?

It follows then that the solidity of these pillars of our faith depends much upon us. What kind of witnesses are we? Do we help others to experience the crucified and risen One? Or do we, instead, provide scandal?

My sisters and brothers, if the Da Vinci Code controversy is indeed an alarm bell for us Christians, should we not heed it? Or do we wait till it is too late? Do we wait until the building that is our faith collapses, because it has been built on the wrong foundations, or because the pillars have buckled through neglect?

And if the latter is indeed the case? What should we do? We need to begin with the very thing for which Jesus prays in the gospel today. We need to re-consecrate ourselves in the truth – the truth about God’s undying love for us in Christ, the truth about the present state of our relationship with God, the truth about our calling to be witnesses of the resurrection.

Sisters and brothers, have you checked the foundations and pillars of your faith lately?

Thursday, May 25, 2006

The Ascension of the Lord (B)
True Glory

Readings: Acts 1:1-11; Eph 4:1-13; Mark 16:15-20

Sisters and brothers, what are we celebrating today? The crucified and risen Jesus ascends into heaven. He leaves his disciples. They will no longer see him in bodily form, the way they used to. How is that a cause for celebration? Does it not rather engender a sense of loss? Is it not a cause for grief?

To reflect on this question, it is useful for us to begin by trying to place ourselves in the shoes of the apostles in the first reading. What might have been on their minds and in their hearts as they stood there “gazing into the sky,” while their Lord and master ascended? What can we gather from the text that we heard proclaimed just now?

Surely, the apostles’ question to the Lord shortly before he ascends reveals their hearts’ desire. “Are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” Sadly, in spite of all that they have been through with Jesus – including his passion, death, and resurrection – the apostles are still without understanding. They are still concerned about earthly kingdoms and worldly glory.

But we shouldn’t be too quick to judge them, should we? Instead, is it not too easy for us to identify with them? Like them, do we not some also desire earthly glory in one form or another? To mention just one example, does not our desire for glory show itself in the form of an inordinate concern for what others say or think about us? Isn’t that the way of our world? Image is everything, isn’t it? Whether it is expressed in the car we drive, the clothes we wear, or the company we keep, the desire for worldly glory can be found lurking in the recesses of our hearts.

And then Jesus ascends. And in so doing, he demonstrates to the apostles, and to us, the true glory to which we should aspire – not so much the glory of restored kingdoms and triumphant armies, but the glory of being raised to where God is.

Of course, this is not something easy to understand. Is that not why the apostles stare, dumbstruck, into the sky? They still don’t quite get it. They probably struggle with a sense of loss. They probably wish he could take them with him. What they need is the promised Holy Spirit to remind them that where their Lord is going, they too can follow. Jesus has already shown them the way. And we too are reminded of this way by our readings today.

In the letter to Ephesians, we are reminded that the way of glory, the way of ascent, the way up, must first begin with a descent, a going down. “The one who rose higher than all the heavens,” we are told, “is none other than the one who descended” “right down to the lower regions of the earth.” And we know that, for Jesus, this descent was to the extent of suffering a cruel and shameful death on the cross, out of love for us, and the desire to do his Father’s will.

This descent will, of course, take many different forms in our lives. But our readings present us with several general characteristics.

First, we don’t do it on our own strength. We are empowered, gifted, each in our own unique way. We are told, in the second reading, that “when (Jesus) ascended to the height… he gave gifts to (us).” We are given a list of some of these gifts, but the list is not meant to be exhaustive.

Our readings also provide us with guidelines for the proper use of our gifts. Not to make a name for ourselves, or to build our own private kingdoms, but for two very specific purposes, one internal and one external.

Internally, our gifts are to be used for the well-being and growth of the church. As we heard in the Letter to the Ephesians, the diverse gifts are to be used “so that the saints together make a unity in the work of service, building up the Body of Christ.”

Externally, they are to be used to fulfill the mission given by Jesus to the apostles, and through them, to us. We heard this mission expressed in at least two different ways, this morning. In the first reading, we heard Jesus say: “you will receive power… and then you will be my witnesses… to the ends of the earth.” In the gospel, we heard him say: “go out to the whole world; proclaim the Good News to all creation.”

It is only by doing this, by descending to the place of self-sacrificial service through the use of our God-given talents and abilities, that we can hope to enjoy that for which we prayed in the opening prayer this morning: to “follow Jesus into the new creation, for his ascension is our glory and our hope.”

Sisters and brothers, on this joyful occasion, when “God goes up with shouts of joy; the Lord goes up with trumpet blast,” how are you being called to follow Him? What gifts have you been given? How are you using them?

Sunday, May 21, 2006

6th Sunday of Easter (B)
Between Success and Salvation

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

Dear sisters and brothers, I recently visited Malaysia. And at the place I was staying, I came across a rather large coffee table book, published in 1990, entitled, Singapore: Island, City, State. It was filled with many beautiful glossy photographs, scattered among several very well-written essays on various aspects of Singapore. One of the essays spoke of how Singapore’s survival and success was the result of the diligence of its people and leaders, as well as their constant striving for excellence. As I said, it was a very well-written and well-researched essay, with which there was much to agree and little, if anything, to find fault. In fact, as I read that article, I couldn’t help but feel proud of being a Singaporean. It was that kind of essay.

More than a decade has passed since the book was published. But the sentiments expressed in the essay remain relevant, and perhaps resonate even more strongly with our times. More than ever, whether one is a Singaporean or not, survival and success in this globalizing world seems to depend on a constant struggle and striving for excellence. One image that comes to mind is that of a mountain-climber – doggedly scaling a steep slope.

And that is to be expected and even commended, isn’t it? There’s nothing wrong with hard work. After all, in the book of Genesis, doesn’t God tell Adam: “With sweat on your brow shall you eat your bread” (Genesis 3:19)? And if one does climb strenuously, and has made all the necessary sacrifices, is one not entitled to enjoy the fruits of one’s labours with a clean conscience?

But here comes the rub. Even as we work hard and shop even harder – the Great Singapore Sale is upon us – we can’t quite quiet the voice of conscience, can we? We can’t quite shut out the faces and voices of those who, for one reason or other, can’t seem to keep up the pace. This information age ensures that we hear about them. We hear, for example, of the people whose upward climb is impeded because their livelihoods – indeed their very lives – are imperiled by an erupting mountain, or a raging typhoon. We hear about those who can’t even get started on the climb because their countries are crushed by debt or riven by deep divisions, unrest and war. Then there are those we don’t hear much about, but are left behind all the same – the aged poor, for example.

Can we afford to ignore these voices even as we climb? Can we simply leave behind those who can’t make it, like so much excess baggage? Isn’t this the danger that climbing presents us? Our continual striving for excellence, important as it is, risks hardening into a cruel elitism, an exclusion of the less fortunate.

In contrast, our readings today, present us with a very different set of images.

Here we find that the Christian faith has to do less with our own striving for success than with the salvation won for us by a loving God. As we heard in today’s psalm, God’s “right hand and his holy arm have brought salvation.” And if salvation is indeed a gift from God, it has less to do with climbing than with recognizing and receiving. Of course, salvation has to do with love, and love is always effortful. But, salvation doesn’t begin with our effort. As John tells us in the second reading, “this is the love I mean: not our love for God, but God’s love for us when he sent his Son to be the sacrifice that takes our sins away.”

Salvation begins with our attentive recognition and grateful reception of God’s love in Christ, the very same Christ who calls us his friends and who laid down his life for us. And this love comes to us in so many different ways, doesn’t it? We have only to look back at our personal and communal histories to be amazed anew by it. To speak of Singapore, important as our collective and individual efforts as a nation are, seen through the eyes of faith, is not our success also due in large part to the grace of God?

And if salvation begins with our recognition and reception of God’s love, it continues through our efforts to “remain in his love.” “If you keep my commandments,” says Jesus, “you will remain in my love.”

But, for Christians, this business of keeping commandments is not a stressful and scrupulous keeping of accounts to ensure that our spiritual debits and credits are always kept in the appropriate columns. Rather, Jesus says, we should keep the Father’s commandments just as Jesus himself did, by “loving one another,” to the point of laying down one’s life for one’s friends.

The mechanics of salvation is described for us in very practical terms in our first reading. Not only is Cornelius a gentile, a non-Jew, he is also a Roman centurion, an officer of the much-hated foreign army occupying the land of the Jews. Yet, Peter heeds God’s call and reaches out to him and his household by entering their house and sharing the good news with them. This is not an easy task for Peter. In order to do this, a part of Peter has to die: that part which was brought up to believe that entering the house of a gentile would render him unclean, and that God’s call was only to the chosen people of Israel. But, following his master’s footsteps, Peter does in some way “lay down his life,” and in the process, Cornelius and his household find themselves included in the Kingdom of God. As a result, what we proclaimed in the response to the psalm comes to pass: “The Lord has shown his salvation to the nations.”

Notice the stark contrast between the secular striving after success and the workings of salvation. For success, one has to climb up. And, all too often, this climb results in elitism and exclusion. People are left behind. For salvation, however, one has to “lay down one’s life” in a way that reaches out and includes rather than excludes. The contrast couldn’t be starker: success versus salvation, climbing up versus laying down, leaving behind and excluding versus reaching out and including.

And yet, to simply stop climbing, to simply stop striving for excellence does not seem to be an option for us. As is written in John’s gospel, even if we Christians do not belong to the world (cf. John 17:14), we have been chosen, commissioned and sent into it (cf. John 17:18) to bear fruit that will last. This means that we must somehow find a way to remain in the Father’s love, even as the world around us climbs for success. Or, better yet, we must somehow strive for excellence in a way that is also a laying down of our life for others. How each of us strikes this balance will vary with our different situations in life, but it is a grace for which we must all pray, confident in the promise that Jesus makes to us today: that “the Father will give (us) anything (we) ask him” in the name of his Son.

Sisters and brothers, how are you being called to balance between climbing and laying down your life, between success and salvation?

Monday, May 15, 2006

5th Sunday of Easter (B)
Christian Homemakers

Readings: Acts 9:26-31; 1 John 3:18-24; John 15:1-8

Dear sisters and brothers in Christ, do you ever sometimes stop and ask yourselves what it is you want most in life? What is your deepest desire? I sometimes think that at some level, everyone of us is looking for a special place, a place where we can find comfort and security, intimacy and acceptance, a place where we can relax and truly be ourselves because we know that we are valued for who we are and not only for what we can achieve or what we can produce. At some level, I think we are all looking for a home.

Isn’t that what we spend much of our lives doing? Why, for example, do we spend so many years in school? And have you noticed how school seems to be starting at an ever earlier age these days? Why do we slog so hard at work everyday? Why do we yearn for that special someone with whom to settle down? Is it not, in some way, to build a better life for ourselves – or, in other words, to make ourselves a better home? And doesn’t this desire also characterize us as a nation? Didn’t the government speak, some years back, about the need to make Singapore “our best home?”

Of course, materially speaking, Singapore is a good home for many. Those who have traveled a bit will have seen for themselves. Here, for example, we hardly see as many of the homeless people that are to be found in some of the other major cities of the world. But home is more than just a roof over our heads, isn’t it? We can be sheltered by a structure of brick and concrete and still feel homeless, can’t we? Just as we can be surrounded by people everyday and still feel lonely.

Which is why it is important for us to pay attention to what our readings tell us today. As we continue to celebrate this great season of Easter, as we continue to explore the reasons for, and the implications of, our Easter joy, our readings invite us to meditate more deeply on where and how Christians should make their home.

In no uncertain terms, Jesus himself answers the “where” question in the gospel. “Make your home in me,” he says, “as I make mine in you.” And he follows that by repeatedly telling us – no less than six times in the space of three verses – to “remain” in him, as branches in the true vine, so that we can bear “fruit in plenty.”

As we listen to these words of Jesus, I think it is important that we not be too quick to look at it first as an obligation. We Catholics are good at that aren’t we? Just yesterday, I was at a confirmation Mass, and after it was over, someone asked me if it satisfied the Sunday obligation. When Jesus says “make your home in me, as I make mine in you,” shouldn’t we first be struck by the immense honor and privilege that is being accorded us? Shouldn’t we first meditate on the mind-blowing reality of what Jesus is saying: that he, the Eternal Word and Splendor of the Father, the Wonder Counselor and Prince of Peace, actually makes his home in us? And isn’t this part of the reason for our Easter joy – that because of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the almighty God, who fashioned the whole universe out of nothing, has now made his home in our hearts and in our lives?

There is, of course, also an obligation. We do need respond to God’s initiative. We do need to “remain” in the Lord. But doesn’t the obligation feel much less burdensome, the more deeply we allow ourselves to be touched by the honor and privilege of God’s presence within and among us? And this is especially so when we meditate upon the cost that Christ had to bear so that this privilege might be ours. On the cross, he emptied himself to his last breath and to the last drop of his precious blood.

How, then, shall we respond? How might we remain in his love? Again, the readings are helpful. In the second reading, John speaks clearly about the need to “keep his commandments.” And “his commandments are these: that we believe in the name of… Jesus Christ and that we love one another as he told us to.” John also makes it very clear that “our love is not to be just words or mere talk, but something real and active.”

We see that kind of “real and active” love in the first reading, don’t we? Having repented of his former obsession with persecuting the followers of Christ, Saul now tries to join them in Jerusalem. But, quite understandably, “they were all afraid of him.” So we are told that Barnabas “took charge of (Saul), introduced him to the apostles, and explained how the Lord had appeared… and spoken to him… and how he had preached boldly in Damascus in the name of Jesus.” What exactly did Barnabas do for Saul? Was it not, in effect, to help make a home for him among the disciples? And isn’t this what “real and active” love is? Isn’t this what it means to remain in Christ? Isn’t this what it means to be a Christian: to help make others at home in Christ?

And isn’t this what Saul and the rest of the members of the early church all about? In their fearless preaching and witnessing to the crucified and risen Christ in word and action, they were really helping their listeners to make their home in Christ. And notice the fruit of this unity of purpose: we are told that they were “left in peace, building themselves up, living in the fear of the Lord, and filled with the consolation of the Holy Spirit.” In tirelessly making a home in Christ for others, they in turn found a home for themselves. They in turn found themselves remaining in the one who makes his home in them.

This seems also to be the experience, for example, of the women, featured in yesterday’s Straits Times, who generously participate in the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports’ child fostering scheme. In particular, Madam T. Sembugavalie, aged 66, one of the scheme’s longest-serving foster mothers, was reported as having taken care of almost 40 children over the past 32 years. She told the Straits Times that “her home remains open to children in need as long as she is healthy, ‘as every child has the right to a loving home.’”

Sisters and brothers, is this not the crucially important lesson that our readings have for us on this 5th Sunday of Easter: that to be a Christian is somehow to be a homemaker? Not just any homemaker, but one who continues to make one’s own home in the Lord by helping others to do the same. It’s an important lesson, especially for us who live in the hectic and fast-paced society that is Singapore. In the face of the many different demands on our time and energy isn’t it so important that we have a proper sense of our priorities? Isn’t it so important that we continually ask ourselves what it is that we truly desire, what it is that might truly help us to arrive and remain at home?

Sisters and brothers, as we continue to enter more deeply into the joy of this Easter season, how are we being invited, as individuals and as a community, to become better homemakers in the household of the Lord?