Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Note: Breaking the Word will be taking a break for the next couple of weeks. :)
19th Wednesday in Ordinary Time (II)
Christian Conflict Resolution

Reading: Ezekiel 9:1-7; 10:18-22; Psalm 113:1-2, 3-4, 5-6; Matthew 18:15-20

Disagreement and conflict are inevitable parts of human life at all levels – inter-personal, communal, national, international… Even our church, the Body of Christ, if it is to live up to its claim to being catholic (universal), needs continually to negotiate the differences that exist between its various members and parts. How is this negotiation to take place? Our readings invite reflection on this question, even as they present us with some characteristics of Christian conflict resolution.

An important part of this process is the role to be played by official communal authority. In the gospel, Jesus says, report it to the community. Because we are part of a community, we all live under authority, whether we actually have direct recourse to it or not. And the exercise of this earthly authority has God’s mandate. Whatever you bind on earth shall be considered bound in heaven; whatever you loose on earth shall be considered loosed in heaven.

But official authority is neither the first nor the last word on the matter. In the gospel, Jesus asks that the parties first speak to one another. If your brother does something wrong, go and have it out with him alone, between your two selves. A key characteristic of Christian conflict resolution is dialogue. Indeed, is not the recourse to authority itself a fraternal conversation carried out at another level? And, quite strikingly, even the result of this fraternal conversation receives the divine mandate. If two of you on earth agree to ask anything at all, it will be granted to you by my Father in heaven.

However, we will be mistaken to think that every exercise of authority, or every fraternal conversation, necessarily receives the divine mandate. We notice how in the first reading, for example, not even the sanctuary of the Temple is spared from God’s judgment. Something else is essential. Authority must be exercised and fraternal conversation must be carried out under a very specific sign, the same sign that is marked on the foreheads of those who are saved in the first reading, the sign of the cross. It is when conflicts are resolved in the same spirit with which Christ the Lord emptied himself, even unto death, that we have the assurance that whatever is bound by us on earth is also indeed bound in heaven. For this is Christ’s promise: where two or three meet in my name, I shall be there with them.

As we go about negotiating the inevitable conflicts that come our way, we might do well to ask ourselves: in whose name are we meeting?

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary
Victory in Motion

Reading: Revelations 11:19a; 12:1-6a, 10ab; Psalm 45:10, 11, 12, 16; 1 Corinthians 15:20-27; Luke 1:39-56

I must confess to having a rather static view of happy endings. The happily ever after of many a fairy-tale is my idea of a happy ending, but with an added twist. The lead character or hero, whoever he or she may be, walks or rides off into the horizon, and the scene freezes. The curtain closes. There is no more movement. The hero is happy – frozen – but happy.

Today, in the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, we celebrate the ultimate happy ending. Christ the Lord has won the victory over sin and death. And Mary – representing all of us – shares fully, body and soul, in this victory. Christ’s victory is Mary’s victory. And Mary’s victory is also our victory. What is it like? What do the readings tell us?

We might begin with the response to the psalm. On your right stands the Queen… Where is Mary? She remains, always at the right hand, in the presence, of Christ her Son and Lord. Is this not also the kind of happy ending to which we can aspire: to always be in the presence of Christ, our heart’s desire? But what is it like to be in Christ’s presence?

It may be possible to think of it in static terms, as I tend to do with fairy-tales: Mary standing, frozen, at Christ’s right hand. But that vision doesn’t help me very much as I continue to live and struggle in this life. There seems little connection between this static vision and the perpetual motion of daily living. The gospel presents us with a more helpful scene. Here, Mary is far from static. Quite to the contrary, Mary is in full flight. Carrying Jesus in her womb, Mary went as quickly as she could to the aid of Elizabeth. There is no room for the frozen here. What we find instead is a presence-to-Christ that remains in motion, a motion that saves. For Mary, to remain in Christ’s presence is, inevitably, to announce and accompany Him in his mission of universal salvation. And in the hill country of Judah, this probably meant, very concretely, helping Elizabeth with house-chores, working in the kitchen, fetching water, feeding the animals…

We cannot say for sure what the ultimate happy ending is like that awaits us in the heavens. But while we’re still here on earth, we learn much from Mary’s example. Hers is the life that led to the Assumption, the happy ending to which we are called. And from Mary we learn what it means to be present to Christ, to share in Christ’s victory: not just being preoccupied with our own individual – frozen – victories, but being present to Christ in ways that remain always in motion, even as Christ remains in motion, reaching out to save the world, one little corner at a time.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Monday in the 19th Week of Ordinary Time (II)
Memorial of St. Maximilian Kolbe
Two Faces of Glory

Readings: Ezekiel 1:2-5, 24-28c; Psalm 148:1-2, 11-12, 13, 14; Matthew 17:22-27

In the responsorial psalm, we acclaim the glory of God that fills the whole earth. What does this mean? The other readings help us in our meditation.

In the first reading we have Ezekiel’s vision of the glory of God. There is thunder and lightning, fire and wind… But central to the vision is the human-like figure ablaze in glorious light. This awesome vision of the power and majesty of God, who chooses to appear as a human figure presents us with one face of God’s glory. Probably not many of us will have experienced a vision such as Ezekiel’s, at least not with the same intensity. But perhaps some of us will have seen this face of God’s glory – perhaps in a beautiful sunset, or in the face of a new-born child, in praise and worship, or in silent adoration before the Blessed Sacrament.

In the gospel Jesus, the God-human, speaks of his own impending suffering and death. Surely this is a radical contrast to Ezekiel’s vision. What has power and majesty to do with suffering and death? How could Jesus’ prophecy about his own fate have anything to do with God’s glory? The incident with Peter and the fish provides some indication. On their own, suffering and death are evils to be lamented and avoided if at all possible. But, as we well know, there is a deeper significance to Jesus’ suffering and death. Rather than seeking to escape his fate Jesus embraces it. Why? Just as Jesus pays the temple tax for Peter – despite not being obligated to do so – so by his suffering and death, Jesus pays the debt owed by humanity to the horrible reality of sin. And it is the love that motivates this self-sacrificing payment that presents us with another face of God’s glory. This second face of glory is perhaps less easily recognized than the first. But it is by no means uncommon. Consider the saint we celebrate today. While Maximilian Kolbe was imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp, a prisoner escaped, and the Nazis responded by choosing ten people to die by starvation. One of the men had a family, and Kolbe, a Franciscan, voluntarily died in his place. Like Jesus before him, Kolbe embraced death for love of another. We probably don’t see sacrifices like Kolbe’s everyday. But are there not people in our lives who die to themselves for love of others in less conspicuous but no less admirable and inspiring ways?

What face of God’s glory are we being shown today?

Sunday, August 13, 2006

19th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)
Nourishment in the Desert

Readings: 1 Kings 19:4-8; Psalm 34; Ephesians 4:30-5:2; John 6:41-51

The desert can be a very formidable and uncomfortable place. There’re no air conditioners in the desert, no refrigerators or ice-cold beers, no hamburgers or Kentucky Fried Chicken, no washing machines or showers, no wireless connections or DVDs… And yet, today we hear of someone who actually goes a day’s journey into the desert. Why? Is Elijah out of his mind?

Quite coincidentally, if you believe in coincidence, not too long from now, most of us will also be journeying into the desert, to a place called Turpan. In fact, we’ll be spending the night there. Have you asked yourself why? Are we out of our minds?

And even before we set off for the desert, have you asked yourself why you’re here in Beijing, China? Of course, there are more creature comforts here than at Turpan. Here we have air-conditioners and refrigerators and KFC. But still, isn’t coming to China somewhat like entering the desert? We come to a strange and unfamiliar place and meet new people of a culture different from ours. The air is different. The roads are different. And the bathrooms are… well, also different. More likely than not, exciting as it may be, for most of us, just being here in China poses a challenge that we will do well to acknowledge. Once again, we might ask ourselves: Why are we here? What are we hoping to find?

Could we be hoping to find what Elijah found? Just as he is ready to lie down and give himself up for dead, Elijah finds nourishment. Incredible as it may seem, Elijah finds food and drink where one would least expect. But even more significant than the food and drink is their effect on Elijah. He walks for forty days and nights to the mountain of God. What Elijah finds in the desert is nothing less than a highway to God.

Could it be that here in our desert, whether it is Turpan or Xian, Xiahe or Beijing, in the dorm or in the street, in class or on excursions, whether we are conscious of it or not, we are also hoping to find, as Elijah did, some nourishment for our souls, food for our own respective journeys? If so, the good news is that there is food and drink in the desert. God is awaiting us there.

But to enjoy this nourishment, we must be like Elijah. We must get up and eat. Yet, we don’t always wish to do so. Consider the people in the gospel. Here is Jesus, the Bread of Life come down from heaven, offering himself to them. And they reject him because he is too familiar: Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph? Do we not know his father and mother?

It’s not only the familiar that invites rejection. We also reject the different and the strange as well, don’t we? And more likely than not, in the days ahead, there’ll be times when we’ll find ourselves tempted to reject the nourishment set before us, in whichever form it may take: people or places, ideas or experiences. It is at times like these that we will need to recall the message in the second reading today: Be kind… compassionate, forgiving… In particular, we will need to remind ourselves to seek first to observe and listen, to know a little more, and to understand a little more, before we criticize. Because it is only by doing this that we can begin to taste and see the goodness of the Lord. It is only by doing this that we can find, in the desert, the nourishment that we seek.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Saturday in the 18th Week of Ordinary Time (II)
The Faith that Moves Mountains

Readings: Habakkuk 1:12—2:4; Psalm 9:8-9, 10-11, 12-13; Matthew 17:14-20

If your faith were the size of a mustard seed you could say to this mountain, “Move from here to there”, and it would move; nothing would be impossible for you.

We probably all know these words well, have heard them many times, and perhaps have been puzzled by them. Is it really possible to move a mountain with a simple verbal command? And yet, if we tried hard enough, we could probably recall many instances in the history of human experience, and in our own lives, when mountains were indeed moved in this way. One is reminded, for example, of how the fervent prayers and inspiring example of St. Monica eventually moved the mountain of her son Augustine’s unbelief.

Monica's example also brings out another aspect of Christian faith: not only does it move mountains, but it does so precisely because it is willing to watch and wait. We see this in our first reading as well. After making the thoughts of his heart known to God, the prophet says: I will stand on my watchtower, and take up my post on my battlements, watching to see what he will say to me, what answer he will make to my complaints. And in reply, God encourages the prophet to wait for his vision’s fulfillment: if it comes slowly, wait, for come it will, without fail.

What mountains are we being called to move today?

Friday, August 11, 2006

Friday in the 18th Week of Ordinary Time (II)
Memorial of St. Clare of Assisi
Peace and Renunciation

Readings: Nahum 2:1, 3; 3:1-3, 6-7; Deuteronomy 32: 35cd-36ab, 39abcd, 41; Matthew 16:24-28

What has the first reading to do with the gospel? -- A useful question with which to begin our meditation today.

The first reading speaks of a messenger bringing good news of peace to God’s people. See, over the mountains the messenger hurries! ‘Peace!’ he proclaims… Yes, the Lord is restoring the vineyard of Jacob and the vineyard of Israel.

In the gospel, Jesus, the Living Word of God, God’s messenger and message par excellence exclaims: If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross and follow me. For anyone who wants to save his life will lose it; but anyone who loses his life for my sake will find it.

The first reading speaks of peace, the gospel of renunciation. Once again we might ask ourselves: what connection does one have with the other? What has peace to do with renunciation?

We find something of an answer in the life of our saint for today. As we well know, St. Clare was a companion and follower of the great St. Francis of Assisi. She lived a life of voluntary evangelical poverty that was austere yet rich in works of charity and piety, and became a mother and foundress of an order of nuns: the Poor Clares. Not all of us are called to the specific form of poverty that Clare and Francis lived. But all Christians are called to the kind of renunciation that animated them, the kind that Jesus talks about in the gospel. For the way of renunciation is also the way of peace. This is what Clare discovered. And it is something that we need to discover for ourselves in the particular and unique circumstances of our own lives.

Today, how are we yearning for peace? How are we being called to be messengers of peace? What expressions of renunciation are we being invited to embrace?

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Thursday in the 18th Week of Ordinary Time (II)
Feast of St. Lawrence, Deacon, Martyr
Generosity and Martyrdom

Readings: 2 Corinthians 9:6-10; Psalm 112:1-2, 5-6, 7-8, 9; Jonah 12:24-26

Quite obviously, today’s proper readings for the feast of St. Lawrence bring out key aspects of the saint’s life and death. In speaking of the importance of sowing bountifully, of giving to the poor, and lending to those in need, the first reading and the psalm bring out Deacon Lawrence’s generosity to God, as well as his love and service of the poor. In particular, we remember how, when asked by his persecutors for the treasures of the church, Lawrence pointed to those to whom he was distributing alms and said: these are the treasures of the church. And by speaking of the grain of wheat that falls into the ground and dies, the gospel brings out the deeper significance of Lawrence’s martyrdom.

Thus do the readings highlight Lawrence’s generosity and martyrdom. As we reflect on these qualities, we may perhaps find it easier to identify with the first. Is it not more likely that we be called to put something in the envelope during Catholic Charities Week than be put to death for the faith? There is perhaps a natural tendency for us to think that whilst all Christians are called to be generous, few are called to martyrdom. I remember how, for example, after listening to a talk on the Cross in the Christian life, someone approached the speaker and pointed out that not all saints are martyrs.

Yet, we might consider whether the two qualities are all that different. Isn’t Lawrence’s courage in the face of suffering and death but another aspect of the generosity that made him willing to give all for God and for the service of God’s people? And even if not all Christians are called to die the way the martyrs do, aren’t we all called to carry our own crosses everyday in order to follow our crucified and risen Lord?

Today, when many are turning to religion for consolation and strength, it is tempting for us who are Christian to downplay the sacrificial aspect of our faith. But what is our belief without the cross? On the contrary, today’s readings bear a message that is especially needed today: that although generosity and martyrdom both entail loss in some form, both lead to great gain. In the harvest field of the Lord, sowing bountifully means reaping bountifully. And the seed that falls into the ground dies only to bear much fruit.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Wednesday in the 18th Week of Ordinary Time (II)
Memorial of St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein),
Virgin, Martyr
National Day of Singapore
Particular and Universal
Readings: Jeremiah 31:1-7; Jeremiah 31:10, 11-12ab, 13; Matthew 15: 21-28
(Note: There is also an optional set of proper readings for National Day)

The readings today invite us to reflect upon an important tension in our faith. The tension is expressed especially in Jesus’ responses to the Canaanite woman. Initially, Jesus says: I was sent only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel. Yet he also eventually grants the woman’s request. At first, Jesus emphasizes his mission to the particular people of Israel. But, impressed and persuaded by the urgency of the woman’s need and the strength of her faith, Jesus also opens himself to the universal scope of his coming.

It is important to keep in mind this tension between the universal and the particular when we listen to the other readings today. In the first reading, when God says: they shall be my people, who is God referring to? Will God only look after all the clans of Israel to the exclusion of all other peoples? And, in the response to the psalm, when we declare that the Lord will guard us as a shepherd guards his flock, who do we mean by us? Who is the object of God’s care? Will the Lord only shepherd baptized Christians to the exclusion of people of other faiths and none? Is it not also written that God wishes all to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth (see 1 Timothy 2:4)?

This tension – between the universal and the particular – is an important one to maintain. Trouble starts if we overemphasize one at the expense of the other. For example, on this day when we remember Edith Stein – who died in a Nazi concentration camp – we are reminded of the horrible fruit of the Nazis’ belief in the superiority of the Aryan race over all others. And do we not continue to see the effects of the neglect of the universal in the Middle East today?

On the other hand, neither can we afford to neglect the particular. We are finite human beings with limited resources. We can, for example, only be in one place at any given time. Even if we are to cultivate a love that is open to all, we cannot but set priorities to how this love is expressed, as Jesus does in the gospel. More importantly, there is also the danger of claiming to have a universal love without actually loving any particular person. One is reminded of what a character from the Peanuts comic strip says: I love humanity. It’s my neighbour I can’t stand.

As we Singaporeans celebrate another National Day, we might fruitfully reflect upon the importance of maintaining this tension in our lives as citizens. Even as we proudly celebrate our achievements and dedicate ourselves to continue building up our families, our communities, and our nation, do we not also need to consider how we are being called to contribute to the well-being of other families and communities, other nations and peoples?

A happy National Day to all!

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Tuesday in the 18th Week of Ordinary Time (II)
Memorial of St. Dominic
Reaching Out

Readings: Jeremiah 30:1-2, 12-15, 18-22; Psalm 102:16-18, 19-21, 29 and 22-23; Matthew 14:22-36

I’m reminded today of Michaelangelo’s famous painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. I’ve never seen the original, only copies. But I’m reminded today of the scene it presents: both God and humanity reaching out to each other, fingers barely touching. This is an image of our salvation. This is an image of what God does continually – from age to age and generation to generation, from day to day and moment to moment – God reaches out to humanity.

But it takes two hands to clap. We need to respond in order for the contact to be made. And this is something we don’t do so well. We tend to look to other gods – such as material success and wealth – for our happiness, thus forsaking the One True God. And we pay the price for our lack of fidelity. Hence God’s indictment of the people in today’s first reading may also apply to us: your wound is incurable, your injury past healingSo great is your guilt, so many your sins. And even when we do finally decide to turn and walk towards God, our resolve is weak. Like Peter in the gospel, we encounter the various storms of life and we falter. We start to sink again into what could be our watery grave.

Still God continues to reach out. As long as we make some effort – however tentative and feeble – God comes the rest of the way. When we stumble, we have only to cry out, as Peter does: Lord! Save me! And God comes at once to our aid. This insight should not give us cause to remain lukewarm. On the contrary, it should move us to respond ever more generously, to reach out ever more readily.

How are being called to do so today?

Monday, August 07, 2006

Monday in the 18th Week of Ordinary Time (II)
A Bitter Pill

Readings: Jeremiah 28:1-17; Psalm 119:29, 43, 79, 80, 95, 102; Matthew 14:13-21

As Christians, we are all called to be prophets each in our own unique way. And to be a prophet is to bring the Good News of God’s word to God’s people. To be a prophet is to do what Jesus does in the gospel: to feed people with that which alone can give them sustenance. Humanity does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God. There is gratification in feeding people this way. Especially when we can see very clearly that they are enjoying the food that we bring.

But God’s word does not always present itself as a delicious meal. As the Chinese saying goes: good medicine is bitter to the taste. Likewise, feeding on God’s word can sometimes be a less than pleasant experience. The one who serves at this table cannot be too attached to gratification. For diners are not likely to thank those who feed them with such fare – spiritually nutritious though it may be.

Is this not why it is easy for us to identify with Hananiah in the first reading? Do we not also wish that we had only consolation to offer? And yet in trying to grasp at the gratification that comes from keeping people happy, Hananiah forsakes his own prophetic call. He ends up speaking his own word instead of God’s. It is Jeremiah who instead remains faithful. He continues to speak God’s word even when it is hard to hear. And Jeremiah’s experience is also not foreign to us. Do not good parents do the same with their children?

As we meditate more deeply on God’s word to us today, how are we being called to be faithful to our prophetic calling – in our families, in our church, in our world – even when it seems that all we have to offer is a bitter pill to swallow?
Feast of the Transfiguraton (B)
Between Mountain and Vale

Readings: Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14; Psalm 97:1-2, 5-6, 9; 2 Peter 1:16-19; Mark 9:2-10

Quite clearly the action for today’s feast takes place in two symbolic places: the majestic throne room of the Ancient One and the Mount of Transfiguration. Both throne and mountain invite reflection today. Together, they point to the reality spoken of in the response to the psalm: the Lord is king, the Most High over all the earth. Reflecting upon these places, we may perhaps be reminded of our own personal and communal mountain-top experiences – times when we were graced with a felt sense of God’s majesty and power. Recalling such experiences, we easily identify with Peter’s desire to make three tents and remain on the mountain-top. But we also know that such peak-experiences usually don’t last for very long – at least not long enough. All too soon the quickened heart-beat slows and the warm glow fades. As we return wistfully to the sometimes tiresome and always tiring reality of everyday existence we are perhaps left to wonder if the experience really took place or whether it was simply a dream, an exercise in wishful thinking.

There is, however, another important place in today’s readings upon which we need to reflect. Unlike the throne-room and the mountain, one is not usually drawn to remain here. But this place is no less important. It is the road down the mountain. This is the place of connection, of mediation. What does this road connect? It connects the mountain with the valley: the mountain of peak-experience and the valley of the mundane, of tears, of suffering, and of death.

When our attention is focused on this place, we are made to remember the wider context of both the first reading and the gospel. We are reminded that when Daniel has his vision of God’s majesty, he is actually living an exile’s life. We recall that in the gospels, the transfiguration is situated within the context of Jesus’ attempts to teach his disciples that the Son of Man has to suffer…

It is when our attention is focused on the road that we begin to see the deeper significance of both throne and mountain. We begin to see that our experiences of both these places are meant to help us remember and recognize God’s majestic presence in the ordinary and even difficult events of life. We are led to see what the writer of the gospel of John, for example, came to see: that God’s glory is made manifest when Jesus is lifted up on the cross, drawing all people to himself. It is here that we learn what the apostles in today’s gospel have yet to learn: what rising from the dead means.

Here on the road between mountain and vale, we are invited to cling onto the conviction that, whatever we may encounter on the way, God continues to reign. Even as, in the difficult days ahead, we may be tempted to doubt our peak-experiences, we are invited to place our faith firmly in the reality spoken of by Peter in the second reading when he declares: we did not follow cleverly devised myths… but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty. Indeed, we will do well to be attentive to it, as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in (our) hearts.

And when we follow Christ on this road, he teaches us to see God’s face and hear God’s voice not just on the mountain-top, but also in the valley. Indeed that’s what the road is for. The mountain is for the valley. In the valley is concealed the mountain. And the road connects them both.

What is the Lord teaching us on the road today?

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Saturday in the 17th Week of Ordinary Time (II)
The Rescue of Jeremiah and John

Readings: Jeremiah 26:11-16, 24; Psalm 69:15-16, 30-31, 33-34; Matthew 14:1-12

Two prophets with different fates – that seems to be the subject of our two readings today. Both Jeremiah and John the Baptist encounter persecution and both face the death sentence. In the first reading, however, Jeremiah finds a protector in Ahikam son of Shaphan. But in the gospel, John the Baptist is beheaded in prison. Were not both faithful to their God-given mission? Did both not cry out to God for help – just as the psalmist does in the responsorial psalm? Rescue me from sinking in the mud; save me from my foes… In your great love, answer me, O God. And yet God does not seem to heed the prayer of John even as God rescues Jeremiah.

John’s experience is not foreign to us. We probably know, at least to some extent, what it feels like to suffer for doing what is right without being rescued in spite of our prayers. And the media brings us news of innocent suffering and death on a daily basis.

At such times, we may think that God has forsaken us. Has He?

A hint of an answer appears at the end of today’s gospel reading. We are told that John’s disciples went off to tell Jesus about John's fate. The last word of the reading provides the consolation in our desolation. Although God may seem to allow John the Baptist to walk into the terrifying mists of darkness and death, it is not a journey into oblivion. Rather, in Jesus, God accompanies John. In Jesus, God shares in John’s agony and anguish. We are reminded especially of Jesus’ cry on the cross: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? (Matthew 27:46) In Jesus, God gives John the answer beyond all answers. In Jesus, God stretches out His mighty arm to save in a manner that transcends all others. For in Jesus, God enters into every human experience possible, even the experience of death. O death where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting? (1 Corinthians 15:55) It is thus also in Jesus, that we find the strength to walk the way of the prophet, to work towards that day when innocent suffering and death may be forever eradicated.

Read in faith, today’s readings tell of how both prophets – both Jeremiah and John – are rescued by God. For the Lord listens to the needy and does not spurn his servants in their chains. How is God rescuing us today?

Friday, August 04, 2006

Friday in the 17th Week of Ordinary Time (II)
Memorial of St. John Vianney – Priest
Survival and Prophecy
Readings: Jeremiah 26:1-9; Psalm 69:5, 8-10, 14; Matthew 13:54-58

In these trying times in which we live, it is easy to get caught up in the ongoing effort to meet all the demands on our time and energy. It can be so tiring trying to meet all our obligations. And yet it seems we have to keep going at breakneck speed simply to survive – to secure our place in the world. Even our religion, our Christian faith, can often become a matter of obligation and survival. As with our secular responsibilities, it seems we need also to satisfy our religious obligations in order that we may secure our place in heaven. But is this all there is to it? Is ours simply a religion of survival?

Our readings present us with another perspective. They invite reflection on prophecy. What are some of its characteristics? First, prophecy is a response to a real need. The people in the first reading worship in the Temple of the Lord without understanding. They need Jeremiah’s call to repentance. The same can be said of the people in the gospel, to whom Jesus speaks. And this word is not proclaimed at the prophet’s whim. The prophet receives it from God with the command to proclaim it. It is a divine imperative. You must speak the words I have commanded you to tell them; do not omit one syllable. Sadly, however, the prophetic ministry often provokes scorn and rejection. They would not accept him. And yet, the prophet is called to continue his God-given mission and so to win salvation not just for himself, but also for those to whom he is sent.

Are the times in which we live any different from those of Jeremiah and Jesus? Clearly, the voice of the prophet is needed now, perhaps more than ever. But who are the prophets of our day? The natural reaction of many to this question is perhaps immediately to look around at others. And yet, is every Christian not called to be a prophet in his or her own unique way? Is each of us not part of a Church that is called to be a prophetic sign to the world? If so, then we need somehow to move beyond our religion of survival towards one of prophecy. Even as we go through the daily grind, we need somehow to find the time and space for God’s word to address us and impel us. Ironically, the survival of our world -- as much as our own -- depends upon it...

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Thursday in the 17th Week of Ordinary Time (II)
Pottery and Kite-Flying

Readings: Jeremiah 18:1-6; Psalm 146:1b-2, 3-4, 5-6ab; Matthew 13:47-53

Survival in this world of ours necessitates constant change. Governments exhort citizens to be nimble, to learn to adapt as quickly as possible to global conditions that shift from second to second. We must keep moving towards the new or be left behind. But change, especially rapid change, produces anxiety. And in the midst of our daily struggles, we find ourselves yearning for some firm foundation, something stable and unchanging that can anchor us. Is this not why we are seeing a renewed interest in religion?

And yet, even in religion, one has to be careful how and where to cast one’s anchor. To be a Christian one also needs to be willing to change. Isn’t this an important aspect of the first reading? God calls the House of Israel to learn to be the clay in the hands of the divine potter, who sometimes wishes to start afresh and work it into another vessel. This is radical change.

Is there no consolation for us then? Is our yearning for a firm foundation doomed to remain unsatisfied? No. The readings speak not only of the new and the changing, but also of the old and the constant. Every scribe who becomes a disciple of the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who brings out from his storeroom things both new and old. Even when the clay is refashioned into something drastically different, does it not remain the same piece of clay?

But there is more. Beyond simply an exhortation to change, the first reading is also an invitation to submit to the firm yet tender hand of the divine potter, even as He sometimes seems to break us. We are being called to let God be our only firm foundation.

I watched a play last weekend. The kite was its central metaphor. There are at least two essentials in kite-flying. The wind, of course, is needed to propel the kite. But one also needs a string to prevent its loss.

Today, how are we being called to submit to the divine potter? How are we being invited to let God be our wind and our string?

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Wednesday in the 17th Week of Ordinary Time (II)
The Heartfelt Cry and the Divine Reply

Memorial of Blessed Peter Faber, S.J.
Readings: Jeremiah 15:10, 16-21; Psalm 59:2-3, 4, 10-11, 17, 18; Matthew 13:44-46

There is a question that, at one time or another, probably crosses the mind of everyone who prays: Has my prayer been heard? Or: When will God answer my prayer? Today’s readings help us to reflect on the kind of prayer that actually receives a favorable reply. In particular we are invited to observe how Jeremiah prays and how God answers him.

We notice, first of all, the honesty and directness of Jeremiah’s prayer. There’s no beating around the bush or false diplomacy. Jeremiah says whatever is in his heart. He has faithfully carried out God’s mission for him, but has received only persecution in return. He cries to God for help. Notice how direct he is: Your anger is very slow… I suffer insult for your sake… Why is my suffering continual…? Do you mean to be for me a deceptive stream with inconstant waters?

And God does indeed give Jeremiah a reply – a word that contains a lesson. God tells Jeremiah what he needs to do to experience God’s salvation: If you come back… If you utter noble, not despicable thoughts… Even as Jeremiah complains about the cost of his divine calling, God invites him to an even deeper fidelity, promising that in return, I mean to deliver you from the hands of the wicked and redeem you from the clutches of the violent. In effect, God is asking Jeremiah to be like the two people in the gospel parables of today. Having found something priceless, they sell everything they own in order to take possession of it. Similarly, God is asking Jeremiah to sell all – including his security, his good reputation, redress against his persecutors…

Is this not also the same sentiment expressed by the psalmist when he says that God is my stronghold, a refuge in the day of my distress? Strongholds and refuges are only effective if, forsaking other places, one actually enters them. One cannot be in two places at the same time.

Where do I find my treasure? In whom do I take refuge?

In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission.
– Hebrews 5:7

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Tuesday in the 17th Week of Ordinary Time (II)
Memorial of St. Alphonsus Liguori
Two Faces of Terror
Readings: Jeremiah 14:17-22; Psalm 79:8, 9, 11 and 13; Matthew 13:36-43

There is terror and destruction in both readings today. In the first, the prophet laments the great destruction that he witnesses around him. In the gospel, Jesus describes the terrible fate that will befall the weeds: they will be thrown into the fiery furnace, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth. There are, however, crucial differences between these two faces of terror. The first is seen in time, the second at time’s end. Those who experience the first can still hope for a time of healing. Not so for those in the second. The first is reversible, the second is final.

Perhaps the natural first reaction to these two descriptions is one of fear and anxiety. Clearly, both readings present us with a warning. We must do what is necessary to avoid such horrors.

But deeper reflection makes another reaction possible. More than just a warning, the readings also celebrate something we all need, something for which we all yearn: the merciful compassion of God. They invite us, especially in times of trial, to turn our eyes to the One who makes His rain fall upon good and bad alike. They remind us that the terror at the end of time is still not yet. That it is precisely because of God’s compassion that we still live on this side of eternity. That whatever the trials that befall us in the present, there is still hope – not in any creaturely reality, but in God alone. It is still possible to turn our hearts to God, begging as the psalmist does that God's compassion (might) quickly come to us… (who) are brought very low.

On this feast of St. Alphonsus, we are also reminded of the hope that brings so many to the Novena Church on Thomson Road. We are reminded of the letters of petition and of thanksgiving. And we find reassurance that when our hopes are placed in God, we will ultimately not be disappointed.

Even so, we must not take God’s mercy for granted . We must not delay if there is something for which we need to repent. For the first reaction of fear and anxiety is not without basis. The end of time will ultimately come. And we know what awaits those who have been living the life of weeds instead of wheat. We need to do what is necessary to shine like the sun in the Kingdom.

Whoever has ears ought to hear.