Monday, July 31, 2006

Monday in the 17th Week of Ordinary Time (II)
Memorial of St. Ignatius of Loyola
Ignatian Way
Readings: Jeremiah 13:1-11; Deuteronomy 32:18-19, 20, 21; Matthew 13:31-35

On this feast of St. Ignatius of Loyola, the readings for ordinary time help us to reflect upon some characteristically Ignatian themes. In keeping with Ignatius’s own preference for referring to himself as a pilgrim, we shall organize our reflection along the lines of a spiritual journey. There is an intended destination, a way of proceeding, and a strategy for moving along the way.

The destination of Ignatius’ pilgrimage is summarized in the well-known and oft-quoted Ignatian phrase: to the greater glory of God. Reference is made to it in the opening prayer today. But what does this mean? Our first reading from the prophet Jeremiah brings out one important aspect. Notice how the reading ends: I had intended the whole House of Judah to cling to me… to be my people, my glory, my honor and my boast. God’s glory is found in God’s people, but only and especially when they cling to Him, as God intended. Here we are reminded of the following words from St. Irenaeus: the glory of God is the human person fully alive. God is not a tyrant. His glory is not opposed to, but consists precisely in human flourishing. When people enjoy intimate communion with their Creator (remember the loincloth), when the love of Christ comes to maturity in their hearts and bears fruit in their lives, that is when God is glorified. The greater the intimacy and communion, the greater the glory.

If this is so, the glory of God does not – indeed cannot – consist solely in the external observance of rules and rites, religious or moral. One can do all the right things for the wrong reasons. Rather, the way to the greater glory of God must pass through one’s heart. Notice the nature of God’s complaint in the first reading: this (is an) evil people who refuse to listen to my words, who follow the dictates of their own hard hearts… What is needed then is a softening of the heart – a turning from arrogance to humility. The crucial point is that the way begins with the desires of the heart. We find a similar approach in the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. At the beginning of each prayer period, Ignatius encourages the one who prays to beg for that which I desire. Indeed the whole of the Spiritual Exercises is structured according to these graces, these desires for which one begs. Ironically, this is not always easy to follow. We are not always comfortable with allowing ourselves to become aware of and to express our own deepest desires. If something is truly of God, if something is to lead to God’s greater glory, it must be something very difficult, something that goes against the grain, or so we tend to think. There’s some truth in this. Jesus himself had to struggle in Gethsemane. But notice how Jesus’ struggle was also to discern and follow what was his own deepest desire: not just to be safe from physical harm, but to follow His Father’s will.

Given what we have said so far, what might be an effective strategy for helping ourselves and others to move along this way to God’s greater glory? If the way is that of the heart, of intimacy and love, then the strategy cannot be the strict imposition of rules and regulations. People cannot be forced to fall in love – even with God. They instead have to be allured, even seduced (see, e.g., Jeremiah 20:7). One has to start from where people are, what they are comfortable with, and gently lead or accompany them to where they need to be. Ignatius expresses this in terms of entering through another’s door in order to lead him/her through ours. And is this not what God is doing in the first reading? The use of the parable-in-action is not simply because God is keen on theatrics. Rather, the strategy is to help the people to see that their happiness lies in intimate contact with God, just as a loincloth clings to a man’s waist.

Of course, this strategy is not always the quickest. Neither are the results always the most obvious. But, like the mustard seed and the yeast in the gospel, once the process is begun, the growth is inevitable and impressive, not just for the pilgrim but also for all with whom the pilgrim comes in direct or indirect contact. It was so with Ignatius, as it was for Christ.

How are we being called to walk this Ignatian and Christian way today?

Sunday, July 30, 2006

17th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)
A Tale of Two Economies

Readings: 2 Kings 4:42-44; Psalm 145:10-11, 15-16, 17-18; Ephesians 4:1-6; John 6:1-15

Money makes the world go round… So goes an old song, the rest of which I don’t remember. Of course, scientifically, we know that the revolution of our globe has more to do with gravity than with dollars and cents. Still, there’s quite a bit of truth in the words of that song. Economic factors are indeed among the foremost considerations in the choices we make everyday – not just in our families, but especially on the national and international scene. And practically speaking, we can’t do otherwise, can we? Economics is a fact of life. We cannot but take it into consideration when we make decisions. Still, it’s important for us to reflect more deeply upon the kind of economy that we should aspire towards, especially in light of what the scriptures tell us today.

Our readings present us with two contrasting economies. The first is probably more familiar to us than the other. Let’s call it the economy of the world. What are its characteristics?

First consider its starting point. The economy of the world begins with a scarcity of material resources for human consumption, which gives rise to a problem of distribution. In both the first reading and the gospel, the question is how a very meager amount of food can be used to feed a huge multitude of people. In the first reading: twenty barley loaves and fresh grain for a hundred men. And in the gospel: five barley loaves and two fish for five thousand men, to say nothing of the women and children. Humanly speaking, it seems an impossible task.

It is this problem of scarcity that leads to a second characteristic of the economy of the world. Because there doesn’t seem enough to go around, the tendency is to keep what one has for oneself. As Elisha’s servant asks, How can I serve this to (so many)? The possible implication: better to keep it for ourselves. The economy of the world is thus often characterized by grasping and hoarding. We might symbolize it with the image of a clenched fist. Isn’t this, in effect, what the people in the gospel are trying to do when they wish to take (Jesus) by force and make him king? They are trying to keep for themselves this unbelievable discovery of theirs, this amazing bread-making machine named Jesus.

And we know that the clenched fist is used not only to grasp and hoard but also to fight to acquire and defend what one needs and wants. The result? Person is set against person, nation against nation. The economy of the world is thus an economy of violence and division. Again we are reminded of the people’s willingness to take Jesus by force.

Sounds all too familiar, doesn’t it? Indeed, this economy is to be found not just in the scriptures. We see it at work around us everyday. It determines much of how nations relate to one another. It also often determines the choices we ourselves make: what to do with our money, our time, our talents…

In contrast, our readings also present us with another radically different economy. Let’s call it the economy of God.

Again, we begin by considering its starting point. We notice how although it takes into consideration the reality of seemingly scarce material resources, this is not its true beginning. Rather, it goes behind this reality, as it were, and considers to whom these resources belong and from whom they come. Listen again to what the psalmist says: The eyes of all creatures look to you and you give them their food in due time. The starting point of this economy is God. It then follows that – despite all appearances to the contrary – this economy cannot but be an economy of abundance. For God will provide.

Notice how the psalmist not only acknowledges that all of this world’s goods ultimately come from God and belong to God, but also that God intends that they be used to feed all of creation. In the Church’s social teaching, this is called the principle of the universal destination of goods. In contrast then to the earlier economy of grasping, this is an economy of generosity. It is the same generosity that prompts the man in the first reading and the boy in the gospel to share their meager resources with others. And it is the same generosity that ultimately characterizes how God deals with creation. Again, notice what the psalmist says: You open wide your hand, grant the desires of all who live. In contrast to the earlier economy of the clenched fist, this is an economy of the open hand.

Notice also a crucial result of this economy of the open hand. No more violence and division. In their place is the unity and peace described in the second reading. It is in the spirit of this economy that the Ephesians are being encouraged to do all you can to preserve the unity of the Spirit by the peace that binds you together.

We live in a world held in thrall by the economy of the clenched fist, even as it yearns desperately for the economy of the open hand. As followers of Christ, the Open Hand of God, how are we being called to help mediate the transition – in our persons, in our families and communities, in our country and in our world?

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Saturday in the 16th Week of Ordinary Time (II)
Under Construction

(NB: The following reflection is based on the readings for the weekday. Today's Mass readings should, however, be taken from the memorial of St. Martha. Apologies for the oversight.)

I find myself in a city furiously preparing to host a significant international event. There’s much construction and renovation – both structural and social – with the inevitable upheaval and chaos that accompanies such efforts. Ideally, when one’s home undergoes renovation, one moves to a temporary dwelling till the work is done. But what if there is no other place to go? Then one has to stick it out in the hope that human effort will indeed bear good fruit in the near future.

Something similar is being described by Jesus when he compares the kingdom of heaven to a field sown with both wheat and darnel. This field could well be an image of our world. As even a cursory glance at the daily news will tell us, it’s not a pretty sight. At best, it’s a mixed field that’s not quite ready for harvest. Like the city, it’s a construction project that’s far from complete. There’s beauty, but also much ugliness; goodness, but also much evil. Yet, despite the chaos and upheaval, it’s the only world we have. There’s no escaping to another dwelling – temporary or otherwise. This is where we have to remain.

The consolation for us – indeed, even a cause of great rejoicing – is that God does not observe from a distance. Rather, it is God who matures the wheat and fashions the skyline. God is no spectator. God gets His hands dirty – even to the extent of having them nailed to a cross. If there was one who could move to another dwelling, it would be God. Yet God chooses to stick it out with us, here in this valley of tears.

Still, we are not to be complacent. As the prophet reminds us, we are not simply to say, “This is the sanctuary of the Lord, the sanctuary of the Lord, the sanctuary of the Lord!” Rather, we are called to turn away from those tendencies within us that would sabotage the building project, those areas within our own hearts that are conducive to the growth of darnel. We are called to cooperate in God’s project, so that God’s kingdom may indeed come to fruition in our world; so that all creation may see “how lovely is (the) dwelling place” of the God of hosts.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Friday in the 16th Week of Ordinary Time (II)
Of Sowers and Shepherds, Soil and Sheep

Readings: Jeremiah 3:14-17; Jeremiah 31:10, 11-12abcd, 13; Matthew 13:18-23

Today we are presented with two images of how God relates to God’s people. Like a shepherd, God calls and gathers his scattered sheep. He leads them to pasture and guards them from danger. God is also like a sower, who scatters abroad the seed of God’s Word. And when that seed flourishes in good soil, God gathers a rich harvest for the Kingdom.

If like Sower and Shepherd, God indeed scatters and gathers, calls and guards, what might be the response required of us? Ours is to be rich soil and attentive sheep. We need to learn to be ever more open to the Seed of God’s Word, and ever quicker to recognize and eager to respond to the Shepherd’s voice.

And there is more. For are we not, in our turn, called to be shepherd’s and sowers too? “I will give you shepherds after my own heart,” says the Lord. We are called, gathered, and guarded not only for ourselves, but also so that through us, the Lord can call, gather and guard others. But this can only happen when we allow the Lord to give us His heart – the heart of the true Shepherd. Otherwise, our efforts at the ministry of consolation will inevitably degenerate into an exercise in manipulation for our own selfish benefit. To recall another biblical text, rather than pasture the sheep, we will instead pasture ourselves upon them (see, Ezekiel 34).

What kind of soil and sheep, what kind of sowers and shepherds are we?

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Thursday in the 16th Week of Ordinary Time (II)
Acquiring the Taste for Life

Readings: Jeremiah 2:1-3, 7-8, 12-13; Psalm 36:6-7ab, 8-9, 10-11; Matthew 13:10-17

“They have abandoned me, the fountain of living water, only to dig cisterns for themselves, leaky cisterns that hold no water.”

It’s perhaps difficult to comprehend why the people addressed in today’s first reading decide to abandon the God who alone is their source of life, and who has continually demonstrated His undying love and fidelity to them, only to “dig… leaky cisterns” for themselves. Can they really be so faithless and foolish?

And yet, do we not also do the same ourselves? We too “dig leaky cisterns” don’t we? Do not many of us live as though we can shop our way to true happiness? (Indeed, is ours not a culture of consumerism? And is consumption not an essential aspect of the global economy?) Do we not place undue emphasis upon how others regard us? Do we not try to “keep up with the Joneses”? Do we not so easily forget that it is impossible to be truly happy ourselves without being conscious, and seeking to alleviate, the sufferings of others? And do we not succumb to the workaholism by which we forget that happiness is primarily a gift of God to be humbly received, rather than an object of anxious striving…

Still, we might continue to ask the question “why?” Why indeed do we “dig leaky cisterns”? The answer is provided by Jesus in the gospel: “the heart of this nation has grown coarse, their ears are dull of hearing and they have shut their eyes…” Like the people of Jesus’ time, we have lost our taste for the water of life.

Thankfully, Jesus also provides an antidote. He tells parables – stories with a hidden meaning. What do parables do? They puzzle and perplex, but only so that listeners might ponder and probe, might look beyond the obvious, so as to find the deeper meaning. Parables are invitations. They are the means by which a loving God ushers us into His presence, to gaze upon the face of the One who is “the source of life.” And let us not be mistaken. Parables are not only to be found in the Bible. In Christ, all of creation – yes, even the mundane aspects of daily living – are parables, invaluable opportunities for us to acquire the taste for the life-giving presence of God. Is it not common, for example, to hear of how various people struggle through particular crises in life, only to arrive at a new-found faith in the living God?

What are the “leaky cisterns” and “parables” in your life?

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Wednesday in the 16th Week of Ordinary Time (II)
Memorial of Ss. Joachim & Anne
The Wisdom of the Ancestors

Readings: Jeremiah 1:1, 4-10; Psalm 71:1-2, 3-4a, 5-6ab, 15 and 17; Matthew 13:1-9

In today’s Mass readings and prayers I am reminded of two points from yesterday’s lectures on Chinese philosophy.

The first is the Daoist notion of Wu Wei. If I understand it correctly, although this notion can be literally translated as the principle of non-action, it doesn’t counsel total passivity. Rather, the idea is that the only kind of human action that can bear good fruit is that which intentionally seeks to cooperate with the natural flow of the Dao or principle of life. To be avoided are the extremes of excessive or insufficient action because both lead to interference with the flow of the Dao.

It’s possible to see an analogous principle in today’s Mass readings. What are the kinds of conditions that yield a rich harvest? On the one hand, all the potential for growth is contained in the seed scattered by the sower. And yet, a key point in the gospel parable is the importance of the soil into which the seed is sown. Only rich soil yields a rich harvest.

The same dynamic can be found in the call of Jeremiah. What are the conditions for a fruitful prophetic ministry? Looking only to himself and his own limited resources in the face of the daunting task ahead, Jeremiah is afraid. “I do not know how to speak, I am a child,” he protests. But God reassures him: “I am with you to protect you… I am putting my words into your mouth.” Like the gospel parable, all the potential for fruitfulness lies in God and God’s word. However, for that potential to ripen Jeremiah needs to accept his appointment as prophet. He needs to cooperate with the grace of God at work in his own life and in the world.

At this point, a doubt may present itself. If so much – indeed everything – depends on the power of God, what assurance do we have that God will keep his promises? This is where a second point from yesterday’s lectures comes to mind: the recognition and respect for the experience of antiquity, the wisdom of the ancestors. Isn’t this what we celebrate in this memorial of Saints Joachim and Anne? This God of ours has a history of relationship with us, God’s people. And it is an impeccable track record. God has always been faithful to His people – even to the extent of sending us His Son. In the words of the psalmist: “O God, you have taught me from my youth and I proclaim your wonders still.”

With this reassurance, like the psalmist, do we not find ourselves drawn to put all our hope and trust in the Lord? Do we not also find ourselves drawn to consider how – like the multitude of ancestors before us: like Jeremiah and Joachim and Anne – we too are being called to cooperate with the grace of God present in us and in the world? And when we do this, will we not also become ancestors – bearers of God’s wisdom – to those who will come after us?

May the prayers of our ancestors help us to attain the salvation God has promised to all of creation.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Feast of St. James the Apostle
From Solidifying to Hollowing Out

Readings: 2 Corinthians 4:7-15; Psalm 126:1bc-2ab, 2cd-3, 4-5, 6; Matthew 20:20-28

As we celebrate the feast of James the apostle, our readings offer us an itinerary or trajectory for our meditation. At the start we see the mother of the sons of Zebedee asking that her sons may sit on either side of Jesus in His Kingdom. In so doing, she is walking the path of solidification. She is trying to establish her sons in secure positions of authority. And, of course, being their mother, is it not likely that she too hopes to benefit from their good fortune?

Jesus grants her request but takes her sons (and her?) on a very different and unexpected path. His is a very different form of authority: not that which would demand service, but that which seeks to serve – even to the last drop of his precious blood.

In contrast to the path of solidification, Jesus’ is the path of hollowing out. It is not an easy path. Those who walk it will likely find themselves “in difficulties on all sides.” But it is a path that holds much power and the promise of much fruitfulness, because in the process of hollowing out, we find ourselves becoming the bearers of something very precious. In the words of Paul, we become “the earthenware jars that hold this treasure, to make it clear that such an overwhelming power comes from God and not from us.” Although we may be “sowing in tears,” the Lord promises that we “will sing when (we) reap.”

This is the path that James himself walks. He, who first sought to solidify his own position of authority through his mother’s request, dies a martyr’s death when he is beheaded by Herod Agrippa in about AD 42.

As we continue to work towards realizing our various plans and projects, our many ambitions and aspirations, we might do well prayerfully to consider which path we are treading today.
Monday in the 16th Week of Ordinary Time (II)
In The Belly of the Monster

Readings: Micah 6:1-4, 6-8; Psalm 50:5-6, 8-9, 16bc-17, 21 and 23; Matthew 12:38-42

“Listen… for the Lord is accusing his people.”

How do I hear this accusation today? How does it apply to me? Surely there are areas of shadow and darkness in my personal life: the insecurities and petty jealousies, the stubborn grudges against my neighbour, the failure sincerely to seek God’s face, and fully to trust in God alone…

But, today, the accusation I hear is more social and structural. We have just spent several days at a school for the children of migrant workers – have visited some of the students’ homes – have seen something of their living conditions. And this evening we had dinner at a fancy restaurant. What a contrast? I’m probably exaggerating, but still, how can fasting and feasting, destitution and decadence, be allowed to coexist so closely together?

Could we, could I, somehow be implicated in the sufferings of the migrants – I who live in such comfortable conditions?

“My people, what have I done to you? Answer me... What is good has been explained to you… to act justly, to love tenderly and to walk humbly with your God”

But even if I do become vaguely conscious of the suffering of the poor, even if I curb my consumeristic appetites and try to engage in charitable works, what difference can I make? Isn’t it highly unlikely that my puny efforts can overcome the inertia of global social, political and economic structures that keep increasing the distance between the haves and the have-nots? Can I really help the poor? On the contrary, the temptation is great simply to allow myself to succumb to apathy rather than to suffer the discomfort of hoping for something that seems to be beyond all hope: a more equitable distribution of this world’s goods.

Thankfully, the gospel provides consolation in the “sign of Jonah.” The discomfort I fear is not unlike that suffered by Jonah in the “belly of the sea-monster.” Here all is damp, dark and foreboding. It’s not a place anyone wishes to be. And yet, ironically, it is a place of salvation.

I remember Jonah’s story. He who tries so desperately to escape God’s call finally abandons himself to the surging waters of God’s wrath and is swallowed by a sea-monster. But what Jonah endures in its belly is merely the deep darkness that precedes the dawn. After three days and three nights, Jonah emerges to carry out his God-given mission with great efficacy.

More importantly, it is not just Jonah who accompanies us in the darkness. There is, above all, the comforting and sustaining presence of the crucified and risen One, the Eternal Sun who has risen and will never set, the same One in whom God shows “God’s salvation to the upright.” Perhaps this is what it means to “walk humbly with my God:” to persevere in acts of justice and tender love while keeping one’s eyes upon Him. Not so much on the results of our efforts, but upon Him…

This is the invitation: to enter the belly of the monster. How shall I respond?

Sunday, July 09, 2006

14th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)
From Idol to Icon

Readings: Ezek 2:2-5; 2 Cor 12:7-10; Mark 6:1-6

Dear sisters and brothers, the old catechism contained the following question and answer: “Where is God? God is everywhere.” And that in fact is what we believe: God is everywhere! But if that is indeed true, have you ever wondered why so few seem to experience God?

If God is everywhere, wouldn’t people be quick to recognize and turn to Him, so as to find true meaning in their lives? Instead, we often see many who seem lost: people who live lives – even very affluent lives – of quiet desperation.

If God is everywhere, shouldn’t we be able to find consolation in His presence and direction in His word on a regular basis? And yet, all too often, we instead find ourselves either too busy to care or grasping anxiously in the darkness, at a loss as to where to go and what to do.

Could it be that the problem lies with us? Could it be that, although God is present, we do not have the eyes to see and the ears to hear Him? Could our situation be similar to what we find in the gospel reading of today? Here is Jesus teaching in the synagogue in his home town and the people “would not accept Him.” In Jesus, God is present in their midst, but unrecognized and unaccepted. Why? Because Jesus is simply too familiar to them. “This is the carpenter,” they say, “the son of Mary…” Familiarity hinders recognition.

Is this not the same problem we face? Everything, everyone, in our lives, is too familiar – our families and our friends, our worship and our work – such that we are unable to recognize God in them. And we pay the price for our failure. But how and why does this over-familiarity happen?

It has to do with how we see. When it comes to recognizing God, there are really two ways of seeing, one that hinders and another that helps. The way that hinders is the way that sees things and people as idols.

An idol is opaque – like a brick wall. You cannot see through it or beyond it. And so you find yourself restricted to examining its surface. Isn’t this what happens to the people in the gospel today? When they look at Jesus, they do not see the presence of God, but only the Jesus with whom they are familiar. They only see what is on the surface: “the carpenter… the son of Mary, the brother of James and Joset and Jude and Simon.” And even though they acknowledge the wisdom of Jesus’ words they cannot bring themselves to accept Him. To accept Him would mean letting go of their familiarity, changing their ideas about Jesus. And this they are unwilling to do

But why, we might ask, are they so attached to their preconceived notions about Jesus? The reason lies in another characteristic of an idol. Not only is an idol opaque, it also often functions as a mirror. When one looks at something as an idol, one is really looking only at oneself. Isn’t this why we have celebrities? Isn’t this why the “American Idol” franchise is so popular? Don’t many people project their own unfulfilled dreams and anxieties onto their idols? And is this not why the people in the gospel refuse to accept Jesus? To accept Him would mean they have to change their view of Him, which also means they have to change their view of themselves – something they are unwilling to do.

In order to recognize the presence of God in our midst, we need instead to see things and people as icons. In contrast to the idol – which is like a brick wall – an icon is more like glass. It’s translucent. When one looks at an icon, one doesn’t stop at the icon itself. Instead, one’s gaze is somehow drawn to what lies beyond.

Isn’t this what Paul is describing in the second reading today. He speaks of “a thorn in the flesh,” a specific area of suffering and trial that he continues to experience despite having asked God to remove it. But his gaze does not stop at the trial itself. Somehow he is able to see beyond the trial, to its deeper meaning. He is able to see how his suffering helps him to experience the strength that comes from God alone. “I shall be very happy,” he says “to make my weaknesses my special boast… For it is when I am weak that I am strong.”

Isn’t this also the experience of the prophet Ezekiel in the first reading? Ezekiel proclaims the word of God to the people even in the face of opposition, because he is able to see beyond the people’s rejection of his message to the reality of his own personal calling as a prophet. It is God Himself who has called him to prophesy, so that “whether they listen or not, this set of rebels shall know there is a prophet among them.”

The lesson for us then is clear. If we find it difficult to recognize God in our lives, perhaps we need to examine and change the way we see. Perhaps we need to look for icons instead of idols. But how are we to do this? Only by having an experience of what lies beyond. And how are we to obtain this experience?

Again, our readings help us. Notice how the first reading begins. Notice how Ezekiel comes to hear God’s call. “The spirit came into me,” Ezekiel says “and made me stand up, and I heard the Lord speaking to me.” The ability to see beyond the surface, to look at things as icons instead of idols, to recognize the presence of God in our midst, comes not so much through our own effort, but as a gracious gift from God. And it is for this grace that we need to pray. As we declared in the response to the psalm today, we need to keep “our eyes on the Lord till he show us his mercy.”

Isn’t this also the experience of Paul? In his affliction he cries out to God. And God helps him to see how his trial is actually bringing and keeping him close to God. “My grace is enough for you: my power is at its best in weakness.”

From Paul’s experience we learn that while everything depends on God’s grace, there are things we can do to become more open to receiving the Spirit. For example, we can try to set aside time each day for personal prayer and for reading God’s word in the Bible. We can also enroll in such worthwhile programmes as the “Life in the Spirit Seminars” or the “Week of Guided Prayer” – both of which are being offered in our parish.

My sisters and brothers, God is everywhere! How well do we see and recognize Him for ourselves and point Him out to others?

Monday, July 03, 2006

13th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)
Hug Your Relatives!

Readings: Wisdom 1:13-15,2:23-24; 2 Cor 8:7,9,13-15; Mark 5:21-43

Dear Sisters and Brothers, at a house-blessing yesterday, a cousin was observed reminding her children to “give auntie,” or “give uncle a hug.” She explained that she was trying to teach them to hug their relatives. So, when her youngest boy – who’s in primary school – had to leave early for a school activity, and wanted to shake my hand to say “goodbye,” I managed to wrangle another hug out of him by telling him that it was his mom’s wish. J

But it wasn’t only because of its obvious benefits for me and the other aunties and uncles that I was struck by my cousin’s “hug your relatives” campaign. It was also an invitation to reflect upon the importance of touch in human life and relationships.

We live in a society where touch has become ever more ambivalent and problematic. The clergy paedophilia scandal in the United States some years back provides a striking example of how touch can be abused and with what horrible consequences. Even here in squeaky clean Singapore reports of molest cases are a regular feature in the newspapers. Not to mention the recent buzz over the mushrooming of “massage parlours” in the heartland.

At the other extreme, we probably know of those who, for one reason or another, are averse to all forms of touch, and others who tend to interpret any touch as being inappropriately sexual in nature.

Yet, whether we care to admit it or not, we all need the human touch. The doctors among us will know better, but I remember reading somewhere that the healthy growth and development of an infant will be adversely affected if it doesn’t get enough physical human contact.

Indeed, touch is crucial for life. And if we are to attend carefully to our readings today, we will notice how certain kinds of touch are crucial even for eternal life.

To set the scene we are first reminded that we are created for light and life. In the first reading, we heard that God made us “imperishable… in the image of his own nature,” but that it was “the devil’s envy that brought death in the world.” And in the opening prayer, we declared that the light of Jesus has scattered the darkness of hatred and sin,” thus reclaiming our birthright for us: the brilliant radiance of eternal life. In the words of the responsorial psalm (30:6): “at night there are tears but joy comes with dawn.”

Much as this is true, however, isn’t it also true that there are still many areas both in our lives – yours and mine – and in our world which have yet to be penetrated by the life-giving light of Christ? It’s sort of like working in an air-conditioned office or cubicle without any windows. Even if the sun’s shining brightly outside, if not for the artificial light, we’d still be in darkness inside.

How then might these areas be illuminated by God’s light and life? Here’s where we see the significance of touch. In particular, our readings highlight the importance of two kinds of touch.

The first is the touch of faith. This is the touch of the woman with the haemorrhage, the touch of the one in need, the one suffering the effects of darkness and death, and, having nowhere else to turn, places total trust in the power of Christ. Notice how the gospel emphasizes the extraordinary nature of this touch. “You see how the crowd is pressing around you and yet you say, ‘Who touched me!’” exclaim the amazed disciples, even as Jesus looks around for the one responsible. Why does he look around? Because, we are told, as soon as Jesus feels the touch of faith, he is “immediately aware that power had gone out from him.” Even before Jesus knows who touched him, his healing power works its wonders in the woman. Never mind that it is only his cloak that she touches. She, who had lived in the painful darkness of an incurable illness for twelve long years, is healed instantly. And Jesus himself acknowledges the cause of the cure. “Your faith has restored you to health,” he declares, “go in peace and be free from your complaint.”

Of course, this is not to question the faith of those who are sick but who, in spite of fervent prayers, have not been cured. The life and light that the touch of faith brings is first and foremost that of renewed relationship with God and neighbour. And even if physically healing does not result, the one in darkness is somehow enabled to see the light of the dawn. He or she is somehow given the strength to bear the suffering in peace.

Neither are we to think of the touch of faith only in physical terms. Do not the victims of sinful habits and broken relationships, of religious persecution and economic injustice also called to reach out to the Lord in faith, so as to claim his healing power? And do we not also reach out with the touch of faith on behalf of others when we pray for them each day, and at each Mass?

Here we come close to yet another form of touch spoken of in our readings today. We find it in the second reading, where Paul is engaged in a mighty fund-raising effort for the church in Jerusalem. He invites the Corinthians to “put the most into this work of mercy.” In so doing he is calling them to reach out to their needy brothers and sisters in Jerusalem with the touch of generosity.

Apart from giving them advice about how they can strike a balance between meeting their own needs and generously helping to meet the needs of others, Paul also reminds the Corinthians why they should be generous in the first place.

“Remember,” he says, “how generous the Lord Jesus was: he was rich, but he became poor for your sake, to make you rich out of his poverty.” The Corinthians are to reach out to others with the touch of generosity because they themselves have experienced the touch of Christ.

This is the same touch of generosity by which Jesus heals Jairus’ daughter in the gospel. We are told that Jesus took the hand of the dead girl and called her from death to life, from darkness to light. And this is not an isolated incident. Do we not believe that this was how Jesus lived his whole life – continually reaching out to others with the touch of generosity? And is his death on the cross not the ultimate touch of generosity – by which our loving God, gathers his wayward children into the warmth of his Fatherly embrace? By his life, death and resurrection, Christ made us all sons and daughters of the Father, and brothers and sisters to one another. Is this not the wealth of which Paul speaks when he says that Christ “became poor for (our) sake, to make (us) rich out of his poverty?” By Christ’s touch of generosity, we have all been made relatives, relatives of God and of one another.

Sisters and brothers, my cousin intended her “hug your relatives” campaign only for her children. But in light of our reflection today, we might also find in it a summons to us; a summons to reach out with the touch of faith and the touch of generosity, so that the floodlights of God’s divine life might shine more brightly upon the areas of darkness in our hearts and in our world.

Sisters and brothers, how and to whom are we being called to reach out today? How are we being summoned to “hug our relatives?”