Tuesday, October 31, 2006

30th Tuesday in Ordinary Time (II)
Memorial of St. Alphonsus Rodriguez, Religious
The Influence of the Insignificant

If there is one central theme in all of Jesus’ words and works during his earthly ministry, it’s the kingdom of God. Not only does Jesus tell his listeners about the kingdom, he also speaks, acts, lives, dies and rises in such a way that those who follow him are led into the kingdom. The kingdom comes in their lives. In Jesus – in that one brief solitary life lived relatively quietly in an obscure part of the world – the kingdom is announced, inaugurated and experienced. And two thousand years hence, we count ourselves among the beneficiaries. The tiny mustard seed of Christ’s life, death and resurrection – insignificant as it may have seemed at the time – has grown to provide shelter to the birds of the air. The yeast that is Christ’s sacrifice has leavened the dough of our earthly existence – has taught us what it means to be loved and to love.

But Christ’s earthly physical life is no more – or rather isn't as it was before. It is now especially in his Church and through his people that Christ lives on. Not just through the official Church – not just at the Vatican – but especially through the local churches, the parish communities and the churches in miniature, that is, the Christian families, the husbands, wives, children… Ordinary and insignificant though we may seem God continues to desire to establish the kingdom through and in us.

This is evident also in the life of the saint whom we celebrate today: St. Alphonsus Rodriguez. He joined the Jesuits after the deaths of his wife and three children and spent the rest of his life as a sacristan and porter. Yet Alphonsus influenced the spiritual lives of many, including St. Peter Claver, who became the apostle to the slaves of Cartegena.

How is the mustard seed of God’s kingdom growing and giving shelter through our parishes and families today? How might the yeast continue to leaven the dough?

Monday, October 30, 2006

30th Monday in Ordinary Time (II)
Sex and Mercy

Readings: Ephesians 4:32–5:8; Psalm 1:1-2, 3, 4 and 6; Luke 13:10-17

If there is one area in which everyone knows the rules but finds them no less difficult to keep it’s that of sexual purity. So when we hear the first reading today warn against fornication or impurity… or promiscuity, it is not unlikely that at least some of us will feel more than a tinge of guilt. Yes, the rules are indeed easier to state than they are to live, especially in this sex-saturated yet strangely lonely consumer society of ours. And isn’t it the case that especially in the area of sex it often seems as though the harder one tries to fight against those frightening impulses the stronger they become? Is there a better way, perhaps?

The readings suggest as much by juxtaposing the theme of sex with several others that at first seem unrelated to it. Be friends with one another, says the letter to the Ephesians, and kind, forgiving each other readily as God forgave you in Christ. Friendship, kindness, mercy: what do these have to do with sex?

Isn’t it reasonable to think that in order to deal with our sexual temptations we need to go to their root? And doesn’t deeper reflection show us that we often act out sexually – whether on the street, in the bedroom, at the computer, or elsewhere – when we pine for that deep interpersonal connection to which all human beings are called? And could it be then that the path to sexual purity begins less with the strict enforcement of rules – as the Pharisees are wont to believe – than with a humble heeding of our own needs for intimacy?

Could it be that we first need to bring our loneliness, our weakness, our infirmity to Christ, who does for us what he does for the woman in the gospel today? Christ frees us from our affliction by offering us his friendship, his kindness, his mercy and love. Empowered by these precious gifts, we can then learn to befriend, to be kind and merciful to ourselves and to others. We can learn to see in ourselves and in others the dignity that befits the children of light, the dignity that prevents us from reducing subjects of love to objects of lust.

Where might sex and mercy come together for us today?

Sunday, October 29, 2006

30th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)
The Evolution of Bartimaeus

Readings: Jeremiah 31:7-9; Psalm 126:1-2, 2-3, 4-5, 6; Hebrew 5:1-6; Mark 10:46-52

There is someone sitting by the side of the road... It’s a strange sight. The road is meant for traveling, not camping. Yet here he is, setting up shop. Who is he? Where is he from? What’s wrong with him? No time to ask. I’m in a rush. I’m on the road. I’ve work to do and mouths to feed. Got to go…

And there he is again, that person by the road. Doesn’t he have any place else to go? Doesn’t he know it’s very unsightly, sitting there in his rags? I wish I didn’t have to see him everyday. He makes me uncomfortable. But only for a moment. I’ve got to go… work to do, mouths to feed, bills to pay…

But there’s no escaping him. Day after day, I see him by the side of the road. Sometimes I’m in such a hurry I almost don’t notice him. But he’s there all the same. What to do? Can’t stop to chat. So little time. So much stress. Work to do, mouths to feed, bills to pay, dreams to live… Got to go…

Then one day it happens… The market crashes… a job is lost… a child dies… a spouse leaves… a tumour is discovered… All this while, rushing headlong on this road, thinking I’m going somewhere. Thinking there’s really somewhere to go. Now I’ve hit a dead-end. Drained and heartbroken… close to despair… I can’t see a way forward. It’s as if I’m blind. Darkness engulfs me… I collapse in a heap…

Again, there’s someone by the side of the road, someone who cannot see. And that someone is me…

How foolish I’ve been. Did I really think I could escape the limitations of weakness, the limitations of human living – that I could cheat suffering and death – if only I set my mind to it, if only I worked hard enough, if only I focused my efforts? I never really gave it much thought, but isn’t this how I’ve lived my life – thinking I could somehow buy my own happiness, earn my own salvation? How foolish and how blind. Now I’m beginning to see that it is really true – what is written in the scriptures – no one takes this honour on himself, but each one is called by God.

You can’t really save yourself. You need to be called.

So when they told me that Jesus of Nazareth was passing by I didn’t hesitate. I didn’t care what others said or thought. He is my only hope, I said to myself, he is my salvation. He will show me a way out. He will let me see again. So, shamelessly, I cried out as loudly as I could. In a voice choked with emotion, I begged him to have pity on me.

And wonder of wonders, he called me over. Jesus of Nazareth – the Son of David, the promised Saviour – he actually called me. What do you want me to do for you? He asked. I wasn’t sure what he would do when I told him. At first I thought he’d simply point me in the direction I was to go. I thought he’d simply open my eyes to a road I’d not seen before, a way out of my predicament. But he did much more. He actually led me along the right path.

It was a mysterious path – narrow and winding. But as long as I kept him in my sights, as long as I held onto him – sometimes tightly holding his hand, sometimes barely clinging to the fringe of his cloak – I didn’t fall. Steep as it sometimes was, with him leading me, I persevered on the road. And as we traveled, I couldn’t help but be reminded of that verse from Jeremiah: I will bring them back… all of them: the blind and the lame… women in labour… I will comfort them as I lead them back, by a smooth path where they will not stumble.

Still, as the road wore on, parts of it began to seem strangely familiar. I began to suspect that this was the road to Jerusalem, the road to Calvary. In some ways it seemed like the same road on which I’d faltered those many days – or was it months, or even years – ago. I was reminded of that very spot where my first journey had ended, that place where I’d collapsed by the side of the road. And fear gripped my heart. But the Saviour’s steps remained sure, his guiding hands firm.

At the crucial point where I thought I would once again collapse under the weight of my difficulties, he took my place. He offered his shoulder to the dark wood of the cross, his hands and feet to the cold steel of the nails, his life for the sake of my own.

And yet, miracle of miracles, in spite of his sacrifice – or rather, because of it – he lives! And so do I!

Indeed, as the psalmist sings, in Christ, in Jesus of Nazareth, God has done great things for us. He has opened our eyes and planted our feet firmly on the path of life. He has taken away the tears of our sorrow and filled us with laughter and music.

There is so much over which to rejoice. There is so much to celebrate. But even as we exult, we need to keep moving. For there are still many others waiting to see again, many others waiting for the call of salvation.

Yes, there is still someone sitting by the side of the road…
What are we doing about it?

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Feast of Ss. Simon and Jude, Apostles
Citizens and Apostles

Readings: Ephesians 2:19-22; Psalm 19:2-3, 4-5; Luke 6:12-16

Metaphors and analogies are very useful, even essential, when we wish to understand spiritual realities. But we must be careful when using them because they are not without limitations.

Consider, for example, the two metaphors used in the first reading to describe the great privilege of being a Christian. Unlike an alien – who is always an outsider, someone who doesn’t quite belong – a Christian is a citizen, someone whose place in the country is assured, someone who has a right to be here. Similarly, to be a Christian is to find oneself incorporated into something much larger, more solid, more significant and even more beautiful than oneself, much like a brick or a stone is incorporated into an imposing building.

Important as these metaphors are, however, they are not without their limitations. When we think of a foreigner gaining citizenship, for example, isn’t there the danger of thinking purely in terms of a homecoming, a settling down, a coming to rest? And when we think of the spiritual life in terms of a building, isn’t there a danger of seeing it in purely static terms? Buildings don’t move from place to place. Isn’t this why the first reading speaks of this building in dynamic terms – as still being built?

In contrast, when Jesus calls the Twelve in today’s gospel reading, he doesn’t only greet them with a joyful welcome to the family. Jesus calls them apostles – ones who are sent. And it is this same element of sending, of moving out, that is emphasized in the responsorial psalm: their word goes forth to all the earth. When we become citizens in the Christian family, when we become incorporated into Christ’s Body, we share in the power that flows out of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, not just for ourselves, but so that we too can be sent out to others.

Becoming Christian is as much a sending-out as it is a homecoming.

Where and to whom are we being sent today?

Friday, October 27, 2006

29th Friday in Ordinary Time (II)
Crowds and Prisoners

Readings: Ephesians 4:1-6; Psalm 24:1-2, 3-4ab, 5-6; Luke 12:54-59

Jesus said to the crowds… So begins our gospel reading today. Indeed, in Jesus’ day, there must have been many who hung around Him, many who came to check Him out, or perhaps even to ask for healing, or for advice. And yet few actually became his disciples. Few followed him on the road to Jerusalem. And fewer yet actually made it to Calvary. Who, we might ask, are these crowds? What are they like? We get some indication from what Jesus says to them today.

Hypocrites! He calls them. You know how to interpret the face of the earth and the sky. How is it you do not know how to interpret these times?... Why not judge for yourselves what is right?

These are intelligent and clever people – not unlike our own high-tech generation – and yet something keeps them from acknowledging Jesus as Lord. Something prevents them from becoming disciples, from committing their lives to His Way, from following Him on the road to Jerusalem. This reluctance is understandable, especially when we consider how the author of the letter to the Ephesians describes himself in the first reading. I, the prisoner in the Lord… Quite apart from the horrors of Calvary, true commitment – any kind of commitment, let alone commitment to Christ and His Cross – often feels like a kind of imprisonment. It limits our possibilities – to be married to one, for example, is to forgo all the others. And so we hang back.

And yet, quite paradoxically perhaps, to remain free as the crowds do leads only to a different kind of imprisonment. One becomes enslaved by one’s own selfish whims and fancies, not to mention those of others. Isn’t this what Jesus means when he warns that the judge and bailiff will have you thrown into prison?

Far better to commit one’s life to the one Lord… and one God who is Father of all, over all, through all and within all.

Where is this commitment leading us this day?

Thursday, October 26, 2006

29th Thursday in Ordinary Time (II)
Loving from Worse to Better

Readings: Ephesians 3:14-21; Psalm 33:1-2, 4-5, 11-12, 18-1; Luke 12:49-53

There’s a truth that many know but probably few find easy to accept. From the parent struggling with a rebellious child, to the doctor treating a seriously ill patient, to the economist managing an ailing national economy, experience bears out this truth: sometimes things have to get worse in order to get better. All the same, it’s not easy to let things get worse, is it?

Consider, for example, the parents who suddenly realize that their young adult child is becoming more religious. Not a bad thing, we might think, except that the interest is in a religion or denomination different from theirs. There is then a frantic seeking after solutions to the problem, a desperate attempt to stop the child from defecting, to keep the young person in the faith. This is quite natural and understandable. Who among us will feel nothing if this were to happen to us? Who among us will be impervious to the pain, anxiety, and even tinge of guilt that usually accompany such an eventuality?

And yet, isn’t it also true that what may at first seem to be a betrayal of or defection from the faith could really be a step forward, a sign of progress? Could it be, for example, that the faith that was there before – that of the child and perhaps even that of the parents – really has to die so that a deeper faith might emerge? These are difficult questions to ask let alone to answer. Much will depend on the circumstances in the concrete. Still, we might consider the possibility that such an apparently divisive experience is not unlike what Jesus talks about in today’s gospel. Do you suppose that I am here to bring peace on earth? No… but rather division…

How then to face such situations of divinely-devised division? Where to find the wisdom to figure out what to do and the strength and courage to do it? The prayer in the first reading offers guidance. We return to the only true foundation, the deepest root of our faith, we pray to be planted in love and built on love… to know the love of Christ, which is beyond all knowledge… We bring our troubles to God and open ourselves to the Lord (who) fills the earth with his love. We pray for strength to continue to follow this Lord, even when the way leads through division in our very own household. All this because we cling to the hope that God’s power – the power of love – working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.

Indeed, sometimes things have to get worse in order to get better. And isn’t this especially true if one is in love – not just any love, but the love of God in Christ?

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

29th Wednesday in Ordinary Time (II)

Readings: Ephesians 3:2-12; Isaiah 12:2-3, 4bcd, 5-6; Luke 12:39-48

We’re nearing the end of the year: for many, a time of major exam preparation… and also a time for exam Masses. At a tertiary institution the other day I was told that attendance at exam Masses usually far exceeds the average attendance at weekly Masses. This is quite natural, I suppose. When should one pray most fervently if not at times of most intense testing?

And yet, in trying to fulfill our daily responsibilities, we might wonder how much to rely on God and how much on our own efforts. Among students, for example, there will be some who seem to depend 100% upon God… and not much else. These help to make up the large numbers at exam Masses. At the other extreme, there will be those who seem to rely 100% on their own efforts, such that they may even stop going to Mass to have more time for study.

Of course, the right approach is somewhere in the middle. Our readings seem to support this view. In the gospel, Jesus gives Peter and the disciples a very stern warning. They should be like the servant who carries out what his master wants, or receive many strokes of the lash otherwise. Contrast this with the first reading, which ends by saying that we can approach God in complete confidence, through our faith in him. And in the psalm we hear the psalmist say: I trust, I shall not fear. For the Lord is my strength, my song. Clearly, we are being asked to both work hard and trust in God. But does this then imply an approach of division? Does it mean that we should somehow divide our time, our efforts, our heart – somehow rely 50% on God and 50% on self? Those who have tried this can testify to how difficult it is to accomplish.

Is there not another way? Not an approach of division but one of integration: trust totally – 100% – in God, and let this trust move us also to give 100% of self. This sounds mathematically absurd. But the gospel is less about arithmetic than it is about a divine-human relationship. How does Jesus expect the disciples to carry out the master’s wishes if not by coming gradually to understand that everything they have and are – 100% – is a gift from God, entrusted to them and destined for the service of others? And is it not by approaching God in complete confidence – is it not by trusting totally in the God who alone is their strength and their song – that they can live out this responsibility of stewardship to the full?

A saying attributed to St. Ignatius of Loyola (and often misquoted) comes to mind. If memory serves, it goes like this: pray as though everything depended upon you, and work as though everything depended upon God.

On what or whom do we depend this day?

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

29th Tuesday in Ordinary Time (II)
Readiness, Recognition & Response

Readings: Ephesians 2:12-22; Psalm 85:9ab-10, 11-12, 13-14; Luke 12:35-38

(Christ) is the peace between us, and has made the two into one and broken down the barrier which used to keep them apart…

These words from the letter to the Ephesians refer, of course, to the relationship between Jewish and Gentile Christians. Through the blood of Christ, the barrier which used to keep them apart – that is, the Law – has been broken down. In Christ, unity has replaced division. In Christ, hostility has been put to death and peace has triumphed.

As we listen to these words can we not help but think of the conflict and division that continues in our world today? Not just international and national conflicts but also communal, familial and personal discord. Not just the divisions that are thrashed out with guns and bombs, but also those that are expressed in a snide remark or a cold shoulder. And can we not but be saddened by how even the names of God and of Christ can become instruments of hostility instead of peace?

But where is Christ in all this? In every situation of conflict – when we find ourselves and others immersed in this world, without hope and without God – does the Lord not continue to speak peace to his people?

As Christians, we cling to the belief that Christ will return, not just at the end of the world, but at each moment in time. The question we have to ask ourselves is whether we are ready to open the door as soon as he comes and knocks. Whether we are alert enough to recognize the often different and highly creative ways in which opportunities for peace are placed in our path. To do this, we need continually to keep our lamps lit. In faithfully bringing our daily preoccupations, our deepest hopes and fears, to God in prayer, in allowing the light of the gospel gradually to illumine every corner of our heart, might we not become more familiar with Christ? Might we not allow Him to become the main corner stone of our lives? Might we not be helped to better recognize and open the door to Him when he comes?

Indeed, the Lord speaks peace to his people. Today we pray for the grace to better recognize and respond to it…

Monday, October 23, 2006

29th Monday in Ordinary Time (II)
From Avarice to Grace

Readings: Ephesians 2:1-10; Psalm 100:1b-2, 3, 4ab, 4c-5; Luke 12:13-21

Whatever our profession or vocation, it seems that we all inevitably end up becoming builders of one kind or another. Not only do we build new roads and MRT lines, skyscrapers and housing estates, but also businesses and careers, friendships, families and communities. All this is quite natural and even essential to human living. And yet, if our readings today are anything to go by, it is important for us to examine how we build.

On the one hand, we can build like that man in gospel parable. Jesus indicates the whole basis of this kind of building when he tells us to be on your guard against avarice of any kind… We see this avarice illustrated in the man’s actions. His sole focus is on himself and what more he can possess. He hoards. And he does this as though he’s trying, in some way, to buy his own security. And yet, Jesus says, a man’s life is not made secure by what he owns. It’s a dangerous temptation, not least because it can be very subtle. Although the obscene accumulation of wealth is probably the most obvious form of avarice, is it not also possible to hoard other things: attention, acquaintances, political power, knowledge, even spiritual experiences…?

Contrast this hoarding born of insecurity with what Paul talks about in the first reading. In place of avarice, Paul speaks of grace. True security, true salvation, is not something that we can buy or hoard. We do not become secure by making ourselves rich. Instead, our security is found in God, who is infinitely rich… in grace. For it is by grace that you have been saved through faith; not by anything of your own, but by a gift from God…

This, of course, does not imply that we should then refrain from all building. But might it not change the style and atmosphere in which we build? What happens when we begin to grow in the security of knowing that we are God’s work of art… in Christ Jesus, that it is God who is building us up? Indeed, as the psalmist says, He made us, we belong to him. What might happen when we try to let God become the manager of this building project of ours? What difference might this make to all that we do and are preoccupied with each day?

Sunday, October 22, 2006

29th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)
80th World Mission Day
Portraits of Mission

Readings: Isaiah 53:10-11; Psalm 33:4-5, 18-19, 20, 22; Hebrew 4:14-16; Mark 10:35-45

Sisters and brothers, on this 80th World Mission Day, we may take some time to ask ourselves what mission looks like. What portraits are painted in your minds when you think of mission?

If you’re like me, probably what first comes to mind is the image of a missionary – someone who travels to a distant place and preaches the gospel to the people who live there. I think, for example, of that very charming photograph on page 9 of the latest issue of the Catholic News. It depicts two nuns armed with straw hats, walking stick, camera and big smiles on their faces. One of them is holding up the lower end of her habit as hand-in-hand they wade across an ankle-deep stream. The caption says: not letting rivers stop their mission.

I think also of that great missionary, St. Francis Xavier, one of our patron saints of missions. I imagine him traveling tirelessly from Lisbon to Goa, to Malacca and the Moluccas, then on to Japan and finally dying on the lonely and desolate island of Shan Chuan off the coast of South China. I think of him raising a crucifix in one hand and ringing a bell in the other, preaching and baptizing people in the thousands, all the while dreaming of other places to visit, other peoples to baptize.

Indeed this is the image of a truly great missionary. He traveled far and baptized many. But is it the only possible portrait of mission?

I cannot say yes because I’m reminded of the other patron saint of missions, St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus. She is not usually called great. She preferred to refer to herself as little. Entering the Carmelite convent at age fifteen, she remained there till her death at 24. I think of her praying alone in her cell, often suffering the spiritual dryness that she writes about in her autobiography. I imagine her doing the mundane chores that must have filled much of her life in the convent. Surely, by no stretch of the imagination, could this be considered an image of a missionary. Thérèse neither traveled nor baptized. But could it be a portrait of mission? The Church seems to think so. The little Thérèse is as much a patron of missions as the great Xavier. How might this be so?

We are guided to an answer by the theme chosen for this year’s World Mission Day: charity: soul of the mission. If this is true, if charity is indeed the soul of the mission, then Thérèse is without question a worthy patron. For this is what she writes concerning herself: Charity gave me the key to my vocation…. In the heart of the Church, who is my Mother, I will be love. Thérèse is patron of missions because in her own short life, she allowed God to paint a portrait of true love, a portrait of the soul of the mission.

But what does this mean? Isn’t love one of those words that many use but few truly understand? What does this love, this charity that is the soul of the mission, look like?

Our readings give us some indication. Above all others, the image that best expresses true charity is the image of Christ. And not just any image of Christ, but the image described in our first reading today: the image of Christ the suffering servant. This is the One whom the Lord has been pleased to crush… with suffering. The One by whose sufferings many, including you and I, are saved.

But it is not just any kind of suffering that saves. There are sufferings that are masochistic or manipulative, vain, foolish or pointless. And yet there are also sufferings that are freely embraced for love of another, out of the desire to be close to those who are in pain. Isn’t this what we heard in the second reading? It is not as if we had a high priest who was incapable of feeling our weaknesses with us; but we have one who was tempted in every way that we are, though he is without sin. Christ suffered in order to be with us in our suffering, to feel our weaknesses with us, so that we might be confident… in approaching the throne of grace.

In doing this, Christ models for us what it means to love. He shows us what the soul of mission looks like. It is the portrait of One who is truly great in the sight of God: One who did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

If this is true, then it becomes possible to multiply our portraits of mission beyond that of the heroic missionary preaching and baptizing in a distant land.

We might think, for example, of someone like Latiff Cyrano, the co-pilot of SQ 006, the plane that crashed in Taiwan six years ago. It was reported in yesterday’s Straits Times that he has recovered from the terrifying experience and is now a motivational trainer, devising a training module for other trauma survivors. I want to help, he was quoted as saying, not just by counseling others, but by inspiring them – if I can live through it, so can you.

I’m not sure if Mr. Cyrano is even Christian, but could what he is doing be, in some way, inspired by the love of Christ? Could it be possible that his is a portrait of mission?

Or what about the child who chooses a smaller slice of cake so that her sibling can enjoy the larger one?

What of the single-parent who spends a sleepless night by the bed of a sick toddler and then reports for work in the morning?

What of the high-flying professional who voluntarily takes a pay-cut in order to enter public service, with no ulterior motive, but only to better serve the poor?

What of the heartbroken yet hopeful mother who goes to Mass and says the rosary daily for the conversion of a wayward child?

Don’t these examples also show us what mission can look like?

In his message for this 80th World Mission Day, our pope expresses the hope that this celebration may be a useful opportunity to understand ever better that the witness of love, the soul of the mission, concerns everyone. Not just missionaries, but everyone.

Dear sisters and brothers, what does mission look like in your life? What images of charity, what portraits of Christ, are we painting today?

Saturday, October 21, 2006

28th Saturday in Ordinary Time (II)
Open Declaration

Readings: Ephesians 1:11-14; Psalm 33:1-2, 4-5, 12-136; Luke 12:1-7

If anyone openly declares himself for me in the presence of men…

Some may think it unlikely that they will ever have the opportunity, or courage, or even the inclination to openly declare oneself for Christ. And yet, such opportunities are probably less uncommon than we think, aren’t they?

In a climate that seems ever less conducive to married and family life, for example, are there not still a good number of committed Christian parents who choose to have as many children as they can reasonably afford and who work hard at providing their offspring with a well-rounded education? Is this courageous option not an open declaration for Christ, albeit a non-verbal one?

We can probably find other examples in our own experience – even some apparently very trivial ones. I’m reminded, for example, of the person who, while exercising in a gym, had someone come up to him and ask if he was educated in a Christian school. All because he had let someone else use the exercise machine ahead of him.

Significant or trivial, spontaneous or carefully considered, we become aware of, and respond adequately to, the daily opportunities for declaring ourselves for Christ only to the extent that we are open to the inspirations and empowerment of the One who will teach you what you must say.

What opportunities is the Spirit presenting us with today?

Friday, October 20, 2006

28th Friday in Ordinary Time (II)
Inside Out

Readings: Ephesians 1:11-14; Psalm 33:1-2, 4-5, 12-136; Luke 12:1-7

Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees – that is, their hypocrisy…

The construction of a building always begins with the foundations and the exterior structure, the outer shell. But that’s not all. After that’s completed there’s also important work to be done on the interior: the laying of water and sewage pipes, electrical wiring, telephone lines… Imagine what would happen if builders only paid attention to continually improving the exterior. We’d get a beautiful building but one that cannot be lived in. And imagine what would happen if we did try to live in such a place: no electricity, so no power; no telephone lines, so no communication; no pipes, so no water; no sewage system, so…

Sounds quite ridiculous, and yet, isn’t this what the Pharisees try to do – to live in a beautiful building in which hardly any interior work has been done? And isn’t it a very real temptation for us too: to build up and polish every exterior aspect of our lives – our education, our careers, our entertainment, even our religious commitments – without doing any interior work? But why might anyone be tempted to do such a ridiculous thing? Is it not because the exterior is what others see. And we don’t want others to think ill of us. We are afraid. So we polish the outside but neglect the inside.

But, as Jesus says in today’s gospel reading, do not be afraid. Do not allow the fear of what other’s might think or say to make us focus only on the externals. Instead God invites us to allow Him to do the impossible for us: to construct our lives from the inside out – from a secure sense of God’s love for us in Christ. In Christ, God invites us first to allow Him to lay the pipes and power lines in our hearts, so that we might build homes that can truly be lived in. For whatever others might think, it is in Christ that we were claimed as God’s own…. You are worth more than hundreds of sparrows…

Thursday, October 19, 2006

28th Thursday in Ordinary Time (II)
Salvation in Christ

Readings: Ephesians 1:1-10; Psalm 98:1, 2-3ab, 3cd-4, 5-6; Luke 11:47-54

There is a certain understanding of and approach to the faith that sees it primarily as providing answers to life’s questions. There is truth in this approach, of course. Our faith would be highly suspect if it didn’t give us guidance on how to live our lives in the here and now. But there is danger when this view is taken to the extreme.

Why, for example, is Jesus so critical of the lawyers in the gospel today? You… have taken away the key of knowledge! he says, You have not gone in yourselves, and have prevented others going in who wanted to. What is it about the lawyers that attracts Jesus’ strong rebuke? Is it not their presumption in presenting themselves as masters and interpreters of a very detailed and unchanging code of conduct that apparently contains all the answers to life’s questions? They are the professionals, the experts. People can only be saved by coming to them for help. But the kind of knowledge that they offer is not the kind that Jesus values. On the contrary, Jesus says they have taken away the key of knowledge. Why?

Consider what is written in the first reading from the letter to the Ephesians. The Lord has shown his salvation not in any unchanging legal code, nor in any purely human formulation of model answers. No, God has blessed us with all the spiritual blessings of heaven in Christ…. He chose us in Christ…. He has let us know the mystery of his purpose… in Christ… For us who are Christian, the salvation that we seek, the answers to life’s questions for which we crave, are found only in Christ. And Christ is a person not a code. Christ is a mystery to be lived not a problem to be solved. What we need is not so much for an expert to tell us the way it is but to be led into an ever deepening relationship and communication with Christ – who meets us both within our hearts and in our interactions with others. And we help one another less by providing answers than by somehow helping to mediate such an intimate dialogue with Christ.

How is the Lord making known his salvation to us and in us today?

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Feast of St. Luke, Evangelist

Readings: 2 Timothy 4:10-17b; Psalm 145:10-11, 12-13, 17-18; Luke 10:1-9

As we celebrate the feast of this great saint today, we might reflect a little on what it means to be an evangelist. As applied to St. Luke, the word is used in its narrow meaning to refer to any one of the four people after whom the gospels are named: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. But the word has a broader meaning. As we probably already know, it comes from the Greek euangelion meaning good news. An evangelist is thus one who preaches the good news. But what exactly does that mean? Perhaps, when we hear of preaching, the image of a pastor or priest at a pulpit or in a church immediately comes to mind. But is that all there is to being an evangelist?

The response to the psalm today provides us with a useful summary and starting point for our reflection: Your friends, O Lord, shall make known the glorious splendour of your reign. What is an evangelist? It would seem that before and above all else, the evangelist is a friend of the Lord. We probably know what it is to be and have a friend. But there is one quality of friendship that stands out today: a friend is one who keeps you company, even (especially?) when the going gets tough. Isn’t this what Paul found in Luke in the first reading? Only Luke is with me… And isn’t this what the evangelist, like Paul and the psalmist, finds in the Lord? The Lord stood by me and gave me power... He is close to all who call him, who call on him from their hearts.
This intimate experience of friendship is also an experience of God’s rule (which) lasts from age to age. It provides a basis from which the evangelist makes known the glorious splendour of God’s reign; and in so doing continues to keep company with the divine friend. More than any abstract knowledge, the evangelist makes known what s/he has first experienced, the Lord’s reign in his/her life and heart. Isn’t this the experience of the seventy-two in the gospel today? What is the peace that they are sent to proclaim if not God’s intimate friendship and Lordship in Christ Jesus? And it is out of this experience that they are then empowered to make known and to make real God’s everlasting kingdom over those corners of the earth in which they find themselves.

The Home section of today’s Straits Times carries a half-page article about Ms Mary Matthews, the former executive director of the Samaritans of Singapore, who died on Sunday of lung cancer. The article carries many tributes from various people who benefited from her counseling work. I’m not sure if Ms Matthews actually spoke the name of Jesus to those she helped. But reading the tributes, one gets a distinct sense that here is a true friend of the Lord who, through word, deed and life, made known the glorious splendour of God’s reign.

Indeed the harvest is rich but the labourers are few. How are we being called to be evangelists today?

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

28th Tuesday in Ordinary Time (II)
Memorial of St. Ignatius of Antioch
Slavery, Freedom & the Look of Love

Readings: Galatians 5:1-6; Psalm 119:41, 43, 44, 45, 47, 48; Luke 11:37-41

In the movie The Shawshank Redemption, a convict is finally released after spending almost a life-time in prison. But life on the outside is hard. In the words of a fellow-convict, he’s been institutionalized. He’s gotten so used to incarceration that try as he might he simply can’t seem to function as a free person. Tragically, he gives in to despair and he hangs himself.

It’s only a movie, but we might wonder if it is indeed possible to get so used to a life in prison that one prefers even death to freedom. In the first reading, Paul seems to be struggling against a similar tendency as he continues to exhort the Galatians not to submit again to the yoke of slavery. When Christ freed us, he reminds them, he meant us to remain free.

What has all this to do with us? We are probably neither convicts nor great fans of circumcision. And yet, in our own lives, might there not also be prison bars of a different sort – bars that we’ve perhaps gotten so used to as to forget that they are there? Whether it be drink or work, sex or shopping, or the need to control and manipulate, isn’t each of these as capable of enslaving as a prison or blind subservience to the Law?

If this is true, we need to consider, respectively, what slavery and freedom look and feel like. The gospel helps by offering a contrast between Jesus and the Pharisees. We know the freedom that Jesus enjoyed: he ate and drank with tax collectors and sinners, he healed on the Sabbath, he walked to Jerusalem and thence to Calvary… And we know also that Christians through the ages have followed in his steps. In particular, we are reminded today of Igntius of Antioch, who journeyed willingly to martyrdom. On the other hand, of course, we also know all about the Pharisees…

But it’s perhaps not primarily in what they do that Jesus and the Pharisees differ. What they do is only the result of how they see. When Jesus comes into the Pharisee’s house and sits down at table the Pharisee sees only one thing. He notices neither the honor that is being accorded him by Jesus nor the joy and fellowship that is theirs to enjoy. All he sees is an infringement of the Law. Jesus had not first washed before the meal. How different from the compassion with which Jesus looks at people, especially the sick and the sinner. Could this be what Jesus is teaching the Pharisees when he advises them to give alms? Rather than simply giving them another legal requirement to fulfill, by inviting them to attend to the needy, Jesus is helping them to look with eyes of compassion and love instead of self-righteous judgment.

How do we look at ourselves and at others? How might we allow the enslaved Pharisee within us to decrease, so that we might grow in the compassion and freedom of Christ?

Monday, October 16, 2006

Note: Apologies for the rather long silence. What started out as a break turned into a forced silence when the blog was locked by Blogger on suspicion of being spam. Below are some past reflections that were saved as drafts while we were still under suspicion. Hope everyone's keeping well... :)
28th Monday in Ordinary Time (II)
From the Dungheap

Readings: Galatians 4:22-24, 26-27, 31–5:1; Psalms 113:1b-2, 3-4, 5a and 6-7; Luke 11:29-32

As we continue to listen to Paul scold the Galatians for their insistence on observing the Jewish Law, we might wonder why the latter are so eager to submit to the yoke of slavery when they have already been baptized into Christ, who meant us to remain free. What is it about the slavery of the Law – especially a Law that requires circumcision – that makes it so attractive, more attractive even than a life of Christian freedom?

We might ask the same question of the wicked generation that Jesus reproves in the gospel. Why do they stubbornly continue to insist on asking for a sign? What is it that keeps them from believing in Christ? What is it that keeps them from the repentance that leads to life?

Puzzling as they seem, the experiences of the Galatians and those in the gospel are perhaps not too far from our own. Are there not also times when we may succumb to the same stubbornness – times when we find it difficult to choose the obviously better option, the more reasonable and wiser alternative? In our heart of hearts, we probably have some idea of what is the right and proper thing to do. But something just seems to prevent us from taking that step. Like the prodigal son in the parable of Luke 15, we sometimes seem to prefer the swill of swine to feasting in the Father’s house. Again, we might wonder what it is that makes us act in this way.

Our responsorial psalm guides us to a possible answer to our question and a way out of our predicament. The psalmist praises God for doing one thing in particular: the Lord stoops down from the heights to look down… From the dust he lifts up the lowly, from the dungheap he raises the poor. It is God who rescues us. But first, we must be willing to see and acknowledge where we are. Like the prodigal son, we need to come to our senses. We need to recognize our poverty, our place on the dungheap, so that we might allow God to lift us up.

Where, if any, are the dungheaps in our life? And how is God reaching down to lift us up?

Saturday, October 14, 2006

27th Saturday in Ordinary Time (II)
Traversing the Untraversable?

Readings: Galatians 3:22-29; Psalm 105:2-3, 4-5, 6-7; Luke 11:27-28

I’m reading a novel by Marilynne Robinson entitled Gilead. She writes so beautifully and so insightfully. Today I was especially struck by this nugget:

Every single one of us is a little civilization built on the ruins of any number of preceding civilizations, but with our own variant notions of what is beautiful and what is acceptable – which, I hasten to add, we generally do not satisfy and by which we struggle to live. We take fortuitous resemblances among us to be actual likeness, because those around us have also fallen heir to the same customs, trade in the same coin, acknowledge, more or less, the same notions of decency and sanity. But all that really just allows us to coexist with the inviolable, untraversable, and utterly vast spaces between us (p. 224f.).

To coexist with the inviolable, untraversable, and utterly vast spaces between us… Not an easy thing to do if the state of the world, our families and our communities is anything to go by. And yet, we do desire to traverse the untraversable. Perhaps we desire it too deeply, even inordinately. So much so that, in desperation, we resort to violence of one form or another. The wars and armed conflicts between and within nations come quickly to mind. But aren’t there also the petty disagreements, and the more subtle forms of violence and passive aggression by which we try forcefully to bridge the spaces between us and our parents and children, our neighbors and friends?

For Christians there is but one Way through this morass. Neither national nor ethnic ties, neither religious nor familial bonds, are sufficient to bring us what we seek. Not even the womb that bore, nor the breasts that suckled are privileged in this way. Only by hearing the word of God and keeping it – only in Christ Jesus – can we fruitfully negotiate the distinctions between Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female. And in seeking to do this might we not be led first to pay careful, respectful, even reverential attention to the vast spaces between us before we seek to bridge them? For is it not likely that it is precisely here, in the inviolable and untraversable, that we might glimpse a new vision of the Christ in whom we are all made one?

Thursday, October 12, 2006

27th Thursday in Ordinary Time (II)
Getting Ahead

Readings: Galatians 3:1-5; Luke 1:69-70, 71-72, 73-75; Luke 11:5-13

There’s probably at least one thing that’s part of almost every Singaporean’s psyche: the sense that nothing’s for free in this world, that no one owes us a living. Our particular historical and geographical background has made it necessary for us to cultivate this kind of work-hard-in-order-to-survive attitude. And, in itself, it’s not such a bad thing, unless of course people try to take illegal shortcuts to get ahead. We take justifiable pride in knowing that we have defied the odds and done well for ourselves over the years.

However, tensions arise when we spontaneously carry this disposition over into our spiritual life. Consciously or otherwise, do we not sometimes tend to think and act as though we could – and, indeed, have to – earn our own salvation? And are there not some of us who look out for and are attracted to various devotions, prayers and religious movements as shortcuts for us to get ahead in the spiritual life?

This tendency is not much different from the one that Paul is so worked up about in the first reading today. He does not mince his words. Are you people in Galatia mad? Paul’s complaint is against those who think that Christians must follow all the requirements of the Jewish Law, including circumcision, in order to be saved. By doing so, Paul insists, these people are forgetting that salvation is a gracious and unmerited gift from God. To have access to it, we need only to believe and to open our hearts to receive. There is really nothing we can do to earn it. Of course, receiving the gift then entails that we act in ways appropriate to people who are saved. But these actions come after the fact. We do not win our own salvation.

If it were otherwise, Jesus’ teaching on the need for persistence in prayer would mean little. Why would we need to keep shamelessly begging God for what we need if we could simply work hard and earn it ourselves?

No, if there’s a secret shortcut to getting ahead in the spiritual life, it is the need to realize two truths: our profound poverty and God’s boundless generosity. To be blessed with this realization is also to live the reality of the first Beatitude: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven (Mt 5:3).

What difference might such a realization make in our lives today?

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

27th Wednesday in Ordinary Time (II)
Vertical and Horizontal

Readings: Galatians 2:1-2,7-14; Psalms 117:1-2; Luke 11:1-4

There’s a characteristic of the spiritual life that’s probably as crucial as it’s easy to forget and difficult to negotiate. And that is the close connection between our relationships with God and with others. We know well that when Jesus was asked for the first and greatest commandment, he gave a two-in-one answer: love God and your neighbour. The vertical and horizontal aspects of the spiritual life are inseparable.

Our readings illustrate this truth very clearly today. What prompts Paul to go to Jerusalem after having preached the gospel for fourteen years? I went there as a result of a revelation, he says. God prompted him to go. And the outcome was the sealing of a partnership: we were to go to the pagans and they to the circumcised. Paul’s relationship with his Lord and Master led him not only to spread the gospel, but also to do it in collaboration with others.

There’s more. We also notice that the vertical and horizontal beams of the spiritual life are crucial in another sense. They inevitably come together in the shape of a cross. In the first reading Paul’s allegiance to the Lord leads him not only into partnership but also into conflict with Peter, whom he opposed… to his face, since he was manifestly in the wrong.

Is it any wonder that we may sometimes find it tempting to overemphasize one aspect of the spiritual life – the vertical or the horizontal – at the expense of the other?

During these times of temptation, we might revisit and make our own the prayer that Jesus shares in the gospel today. As we know so well, it contains both the vertical and the horizontal: Father, may your name be held holy, your kingdom come… forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive each one who is in debt to us

Where and how do the vertical and horizontal come together in our lives today?

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

27th Tuesday in Ordinary Time (II)

Readings: Galatians 1:13-24; Psalm 139:1b-3, 13-14ab, 14c-15; Luke 10:38-42

Some have observed that contemporary popular culture is breeding succeeding generations with ever shorter attention spans. Consider the advertisements on TV. Usually any one scene seldom lasts for more than a split second. That’s how products are sold. Otherwise people will simply switch to another channel. We’re getting ever more used to constantly shifting our attention from one thing to the next. It’s the only way to get things done, especially if we consider the many things that the average person has to do in any given day. The problem is that we can then only give very superficial attention to the people and events that come our way. We get distracted easily. It’s always on to the next thing and the next. What we gain in breadth we sacrifice in depth.

This seems to be Martha’s experience in the gospel story today. It’s a story we know well. But whatever we may have heard, the point of the story is not that we should all become contemplatives or hermits. Who’ll put food on the table and bring up the kids if we did? Still, we’ve probably experienced Martha’s problem: she was distracted with all the serving. There were just so many things to do that she was beginning to lose her focus. It was becoming difficult for her to remember why and for whom she was doing what she was doing. Hence the irritation and the complaint: my sister is leaving me to do the serving all by myself.

Jesus’ response is instructive. You worry and fret about so many things, and yet few are needed, indeed only one. Jesus isn’t necessarily saying that Martha’s work should be abandoned. He’s telling her that attention to Him should take priority over all else, because it alone is capable of giving meaning to everything that she does. First focus your attention to me, he seems to be saying.

Isn’t this the kind of attention that Paul describes after his encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus? Notice the urgency with which Paul drops everything and heads off to Arabia. He retreats to learn to focus attention on the one who called him. But we know also that his life is filled with activity. Unlike, Martha, however, Paul’s activity is very focused. Paul remains attentive to the one who called him.

How does one come to be so attentive to the Lord? How does one learn to be so centered as to continually seek and find God in all that one does? Obviously certain habits need to be cultivated. Time needs to be set aside to attend to God in personal and communal prayer so that we might learn to recognize God in the busyness of our daily routines.

And when we do this we begin to realize that it is really God who first attends to us. Indeed, with Paul, we realize that God has specially chosen me while I was still in my mother’s womb. And to attend to God is also to allow Him to lead me… in the path of life eternal.

Monday, October 09, 2006

27th Monday in Ordinary Time (II)
Receiving Good News

Readings: Galations 1:6-12; Psalm 111:1b-2, 7-8, 9 and 10c; Luke 10:25-37

Go, and do the same yourself. How do we hear these words of Jesus in the gospel today? We know the story well. We know it challenges us to imitate the compassion and self-sacrificing love of the Good Samaritan. But how do we feel when we hear this? Does it really feel like the Good News of Christ that Paul speaks about in the first reading? We probably know what it’s like to receive good news. It feels great! There’s joy, relief, consolation, a lifting of burdens, a loosening of tensions. We live for good news! Does hearing Jesus’ words evoke this same feeling in us? Or do we experience the opposite reaction instead? Do we instead experience the heart-sinking feeling of being imposed upon, of being asked to do something beyond us? Much depends upon how we hear.

We might, for example, hear Jesus’ words the way a child hears the words of her parents when she obtains results that are above average but not quite the best. The parents might respond by singing the praises of the one who came in first and telling the child, Go, and do the same yourself. Is the child likely to hear these words as good news? If we were to think of the Samaritan in much the same way as the child might think of the one who came in first, and if we were to think of Jesus’ words as pushing us to imitate the Samaritan’s good example, are we likely to feel like we are receiving good news?

Thankfully, there is another way of hearing this story. It begins not so much by asking, what must I do, but by first identifying with the one who fell into the hands of brigands. I am that person left for dead. I'm weak and helpless. In spite of my considerable capabilities and talents, I lie on the road of life powerless to save myself from a vain existence. And along comes the Samaritan who is Christ the Lord. He goes out of his way to help me, even at great cost to himself. Is this not good news? And will hearing the parable in this way not also influence the way in which I then hear Jesus’ words, Go, and do the same yourself? The words are the same. But the feeling is different. And the difference is crucial.

Indeed it’s not always easy to receive good news. And this is especially so with the Good News of Christ. What is not easy is for us to acknowledge and embrace the poverty of our human condition, our need for the Good Samaritan’s help, our total dependence on the Lord who keeps his covenant ever in mind.

How are we being invited to hear the Good News of Christ today?