Monday, December 31, 2007

31 December
Seventh Day in the Octave of Christmas

Readings: 1 John 2:18-21; Psalm 96:1-2, 11-12, 13; John 1:1-18

There’s more than meets the eye…

I’m not much of a fan of the Transformers, but there is truth in the tagline popularized by the cartoon series. And it’s probably one of the invaluable lessons we learnt on our recent trip to the mountains. Three of us were sent to a place that had not been visited by any of our predecessors. This was virgin territory as far as Jesuits were concerned. Not even our superior was sure what to expect. We were only given the impression that it would be very remote and very rural, with few modern amenities and conveniences. Yet the scene that greeted us as we alighted from the bus was not unlike any sleepy provincial capital. There were banks and schools, jeepneys and tricycles. All of which moved one of us to exclaim, with thinly veiled relief, that things weren’t so bad. However, in the days that followed, that same person, who had passed that rather premature verdict, was to discover that there was more to the place than what we saw at the bus station. He was sent by the local bishop to minister in a remote parish where, as it turned out, there were no roads. He had to hike an average of three hours every day, through mountainous terrain.

There’s more than meets the eye…

Isn’t this also a key lesson that our readings are trying to teach us on this seventh day in the octave of Christmas? The gospel proclaims to us that the helpless and innocent baby seen lying in a manger is nothing less than the Eternal Word, who was with God, and was God, right from the beginning. And all things came to be through him… Unbelievable! Inconceivable! Isn’t this why we are taking the trouble to lengthen our celebrations of Christmas Day over eight calendar days: to allow time for the eyes of our hearts to see beyond appearances, to recognize the Eternal in the infant, the Omnipotent in the powerless?

And that’s not all. For we are told that the Word is also the Light. He comes to dispel the shadows, to pierce through appearances, even the semblance of religious devotion. Isn’t this what we find in the first reading? For a time, the antichrists mentioned there appeared to be part of the Christian community. They probably faithfully attended Mass every week. Perhaps they were even active members of some parish organizations. But there comes a point when the appearances are stripped away, when these people are shown to be deserters of the faith, when it becomes clear that none of them was of our number. And the decisive sign of their status as outsiders? Their unwillingness to accept the mind-blowing truth that God could, and would, actually become a man, that the Divine could actually be found in the human.

Isn’t this yet another reason why it is good for us to linger before the babe in the manger? Not only are we searching for God, but we are also allowing God to search us, to enlighten every nook and cranny of our hearts and lives, so that, as we prayed in the opening prayer today, our religion might indeed have its origin and perfect fulfillment in the birth of the Son of God.

There’s more than meets the eye… Are we ready to see it?

Thursday, December 06, 2007


Breaking the Word will have to take yet another break till after Christmas, as we'll be heading to the mountains for Christmas ministries. Blessings...

Thursday in the 1st Week of Advent
Building and Stripping

Readings: Isaiah 26:1-6; Psalm 118:1 and 8-9, 19-21, 25-27a; Matthew 7:21, 24-27

Trust in the Lord forever! For the Lord is an eternal Rock…

What is it like to immerse ourselves wholeheartedly into our Advent project of entering and remaining in the Father’s House, of doing the Father’s will? Jesus answers this question for us in the gospel today by using a metaphor that seems very easy for us to understand. It is the metaphor of construction. To do the Father’s will is to listen and to act upon Jesus’ words and so to become like the man who built his house solidly on rock. Sounds simple enough, especially to our modern ears, accustomed as we are to construction projects of all sorts. Are we not preoccupied, on a daily basis, not only with the building of skyscrapers and roads, but also with the construction of economies and careers, of personalities and intellects? And yet, as easy to grasp as the metaphor seems to be, it is also just as easy to misunderstand.

For we are used to the kind of construction that emphasizes accumulation. We store up sand and gravel. We acquire bank accounts and investment portfolios. We study for MBAs and put together impressive resumes… So it’s not surprising if many of us view the building of our spiritual life in much the same terms. We increase our knowledge of the Bible and the Catechism. We join more church groups and activities. We acquire more disciplines of prayer and devotion. All these are, of course, important and invaluable means to a healthier spiritual life. But isn’t it important to remember that they are still only means, and that they should not be allowed to hinder us from our end?

For the spiritual life has less to do with accumulating than it does with stripping. When Jesus tells us, in chapter seven of Matthew’s gospel, to listen and act upon his word, he is referring to the things he has been saying earlier, in chapters five and following. He is referring to the Sermon on the Mount. And we know how the Sermon begins: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven… Is it any coincidence then that the first reading speaks to us about trusting in the God who brings down the lofty city, allowing it to be trampled underfoot by the needy, by the footsteps of the poor? To enter the Father’s House, to do the Father’s will, to keep Jesus’ word, to set our houses on solid rock, involves submitting ourselves to a process of stripping, a process whereby we gradually learn to trust, above all else, in God the eternal Rock.

How are we being invited to submit ourselves more fully to the process today?

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Wednesday in the 1st Week of Advent
The Stimulation of Sunshine

Readings: Isaiah 25:6-10a; Psalm 23:1-3a, 3b-4, 5, 6; Matthew 15:29-37

Although its atmosphere is quite distinct from the rigor of Lent, the season of Advent does still require a certain degree of commitment and sense of purpose from us if we are to experience its fruit. As we have been saying, this is a time to prepare diligently for the coming of the Lord, so that we might be led by him to enter and remain in our Father’s house. Yet, isn’t it true that we can often allow the season to quickly pass us by as yet another missed opportunity to experience God in a deeper, more intimate way? Perhaps what we need is to find and foster within ourselves the appropriate dispositions that can move us to action. I’m reminded of the following well-known fable of Aesop’s.

The Wind and the Sun were disputing which was the stronger. Suddenly they saw a traveller coming down the road, and the Sun said: “I see a way to decide our dispute. Whichever of us can cause that traveller to take off his cloak shall be regarded as the stronger. You begin.” So the Sun retired behind a cloud, and the Wind began to blow as hard as it could upon the traveller. But the harder he blew the more closely did the traveller wrap his cloak round him, till at last the Wind had to give up in despair. Then the Sun came out and shone in all his glory upon the traveller, who soon found it too hot to walk with his cloak on. (Taken from here.)

Like the fable, our readings today invite us to meditate upon at least three attitudes, three rays of sunshine, that can warm up our hearts enough to move us to take off our cloaks of apathy and complacency and enter more seriously into the spirit of Advent.

The first disposition is implied in these words from the first reading: this is the Lord for whom we looked; let us rejoice and be glad that he has saved us! What moves the people to rejoice is their recognition of the coming of the One for whom they looked. Their deep yearning is indeed fulfilled, but only after they had first yearned, only after they had first looked. For what or whom are we looking or yearning this Advent?

Then, in the second reading, we find people glorifying God because they are moved with amazement at the mute speaking, the deformed made whole, the lame walking, and the blind able to see… What are the events around us that can move us with amazement in the same way this Advent?

Finally, and perhaps most significantly, we find the motivation of motivations. In the gospel, Jesus performs a miraculous feeding because his heart is moved with pity for the crowd, for they have been with me now for three days and have nothing to eat… And we might add that Jesus’ very presence and ministry is itself the expression of the very compassion of God for us. What people or situations do we see around us that can move our own hearts with compassion this Advent?

Today, how is Christ, the Eternal Sun, shining upon us, warming our hearts, stimulating us to action?

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Tuesday in the 1st Week of Advent
Advent Advocate

Readings: Isaiah 11:1-10; Psalm 72:1-2, 7-8, 12-13, 17; Luke 10:21-24

Justice shall flourish in his time, and fullness of peace for ever…

As was the case yesterday, the response to our psalm for today also provides a useful focus to our reflection. For in a sense, Advent is all about time, about the coming of the Lord’s time. And, as we will recall from previous years, Advent is a curious time, when we find ourselves in between the two comings of the Lord: his first coming at his birth and his second coming at the end of time.

We eagerly watch for this coming because, as promised, it will be a time of justice and peace, a time when God will decide aright for the land’s afflicted and when there shall be no harm or ruin on all of God’s holy mountain. These promises sound particularly poignant this week when, here in this land in which I find myself, a group of farmers will be completing their foot-march of 1600 kilometres, from their province to the country’s capital in order to garner support for their bid to have their ancestral lands restored to them. Indeed, our celebration of Advent should remind us that we are all still waiting for a time when people will no longer have to go to such lengths to see justice done. And as we wait, do we not also find ourselves called to work in the cause of justice and peace?

But the in-between nature of Advent also means that waiting and working cannot be our only preoccupations. For the time of the Lord is also already upon us. Isn’t this the reason why, in the gospel, Jesus can joyfully offer a heartfelt prayer of praise and thanks to the Father for what the Father has already done? Although you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned you have revealed them to the childlike… If it is true that the time of the Lord, the time of justice and peace, has already arrived, then Advent must also be for us a time of revelation, recognition and rejoicing.

Even so, it’s necessary to acknowledge the challenge that we face. It is not easy to wait for something we need urgently, just as it is not easy to see and to recognize something that seems to remain hidden. For the first requires courage, and the second, wisdom. Isn’t this why our readings today suggest to us the need for a companion on our Advent journey? We don’t often hear about this companion except when Pentecost comes around. And yet, both our readings today speak about the Holy Spirit. It is the Spirit in whom Jesus is anointed and under whose influence he rejoices. Isn’t it also only in the Spirit that we can receive the courage and wisdom we need to spend this season fruitfully?

If Jesus is the reason for the season, and the Father’s house its destination, then the Spirit must surely be our much-needed advocate, our companion on the way.

How might we better open ourselves to the Spirit’s influence today?

Monday, December 03, 2007

Monday in the 1st Week of Advent
Memorial of St. Francis Xavier, Priest
Our Christmas Destination

Readings: Isaiah 4:2-6; Psalm 122:1-2, 3-4b, 4cd-5, 6-7, 8-9; Matthew 8:5-11

December is here again. And, as always, our preparations for and celebration of Christmas will probably take us to many different places. We will be jostling elbow to elbow at the malls for those obligatory holiday purchases. We will be chatting with colleagues, friends and relatives at pleasant office-parties and homely get-togethers. Some of us will be vacationing in exotic tourist locations. And, in all likelihood, we will, at some point, also be praying solemnly before the crib and singing with gusto in church.

Yet, wherever we might find ourselves this December, already on this first Monday of Advent, our readings highlight for us the one place that we must all enter and in which we must all remain, the one location without which every other visit will be pointless. We find the clearest indication of where this is in the response to the psalm: let us go rejoicing to the house of the Lord. Isn’t this the point of it all? Isn’t this the one reason why we so carefully yet joyously prepare for the coming of Christ? So that he might gather us all into his Father’s house?

But where exactly is this place? And how do we get there? Where, for us, is the Zion and Jerusalem referred to in the first reading? Where, in our own day, is the Kingdom of heaven that Jesus speaks of in the gospel? No doubt, Advent will involve each of us in pondering over and responding to these questions. And the centurion in today’s gospel offers us a useful model for how we can enter and remain in the Father’s house. For doesn’t Jesus number him among the many who will come from the east and the west…? What’s so special about him?

Clearly he stands out because of his faith in Jesus. But in what does this faith consist? What is it that moves him to do and say the things that so impress the Lord? Several aspects come to the fore. There is, first, his amazing assurance in who Jesus is and what he can do: only say the word and my servant will be healed… This is coupled with his own humble and realistic appraisal of his own standing in the sight of God: I am not worthy to have you enter under my roof… But his appreciation of the disparity between the Lord’s authority and his own unworthiness does not prevent him from seeking Jesus out. Is this not because his humility and faith are matched by his profound realization of the urgency of his need, and not just his own personal need, but also that of someone whom he loves? Lord, my servant is lying at home paralyzed, suffering dreadfully…

If Jesus is truly the reason for the season, then the Father’s house is its true destination. And the centurion shows us how to get there.

Where will you be this Advent?

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Saturday in the 34th Week of Ordinary Time (I)
Safety in Prayer

Readings: Daniel 7:15-27; Daniel 3:82, 83, 84, 85, 86, 87; Luke 21:34-36

I find it quite significant that as my companions and I move from one place of lodging to another we keep being reminded of the need for security. Take care of your belongings… Remember to lock your door... On this last day of the Church’s liturgical year, as our readings continue to focus our attention on the prospect of the end of time and how, as Christians, we should prepare ourselves to face the final visitation of the Son of Man, the concern is also with security of a sort. In particular, we are reminded to safeguard ourselves against two dangers.

The first is the one faced, in the first reading, by no less Godly a prophet than Daniel. Looking ahead into the mists of time, and finding himself face to face with an apparently terrifying future, Daniel confesses that he finds his spirit anguished… and… terrified by the visions of his mind. The second danger is that spoken of by Jesus in the gospel, when he warns his disciples to beware that your hearts do not become drowsy…

Anxious spirits and drowsy hearts, these are the twin and contrasting dangers that face us all. For, as Jesus reminds us, that day will assault everyone who lives on the face of the earth. On the one hand, there will be some among us who will be so obsessed and disturbed by the prospect of future terrors that we might even allow our faith and trust in God to be shaken. On the other hand, there will also be those of us – and we will probably be in the majority – who will be unperturbed. We will be too preoccupied with the anxieties of daily life to care about the one thing necessary. And we will be caught by surprise when the Lord comes knocking on the doors of our hearts.

To both these dangers, the readings offer the same safeguard. Troubled in spirit, Daniel prays, and the meaning of his visions are made known to him. Similarly, Jesus exhorts his disciples to fight the drowsiness of their hearts by remaining vigilant at all times and to pray that you may have the strength... to stand before the Son of Man… More solid than any locked door, and more reliable than any alarm system, we are each being invited to remain in constant contact with the One who alone can keep us safe from the tribulations that are imminent.

How safe are you?

Friday, November 30, 2007

Feast of St. Andrew, Apostle
The Belief that Makes Us Fishers of People

Readings: Romans 10:9-18; Psalm 19:8, 9, 10, 11; Matthew 4:18-22

Yesterday, I returned from our long retreat to find a package waiting for me. In it was a gift with an accompanying note promising prayers for the retreat. I found one line particularly striking. It was the last. It said, with a smiley face at the end, God always turns up! Nothing really extraordinary about that statement. It’s a most appropriate thing to say. And everyone knows it to be true. Right? Or I should, at least, having made and given my own fair share of retreats in the past.

Yet, reading them only at retreat’s end, I found myself marveling at how well they described my experience. The past thirty days were indeed a demonstration of their truth. God kept turning up! And what was surprising and enlightening for me – even to the point of embarrassment – was how surprised I was that this should be so. I often found my director responding to what I had to say with, And you seem surprised at this… Yes, a crucially important observation. I was surprised: surprised that God should turn up, and even more surprised at my own surprise.

What has all this to do with the feast of St. Andrew the apostle?

No doubt we will have noticed that the readings speak to us about being saved. But salvation is a big word. What does it mean for us? Our readings offer us a deceptively simple description of the process. According to the letter to the Romans, salvation takes place in a cycle involving the following steps: someone preaches or confesses with the mouth, others listen to the message and then believe in it with the heart, which leads them, in their turn, to preach and confess to others. The gospel story puts it even more simply. Jesus tells Andrew and his companions: come after me, and I will make you fishers of men…

To be saved, then, is to listen to, to believe in, and to go after Jesus, and so to be transformed from people who fish into fishers of people.

I say that the process is only deceptively simple for at least two reasons. The first is strikingly illustrated in the experience of Andrew and his companions. In order to become fishers of men, they left not only their boat but also their father. And the radical nature of their willingness to let go of their possessions, their loved ones and, indeed, their own lives, is rooted in a second challenge, that of believing, truly believing with the heart, the message that we have heard and are called to confess. However we may wish to express it, this is the good news that God is on our side, that God loves us, that God always turns up!

As we celebrate the memory of St. Andrew the apostle, perhaps we might ask God to help us to ponder over the depth and efficacy of our own belief. In all that we do, are we truly fishers of people, or only people who fish? Are we saved?

PS: Many thanks for your prayers...

Sunday, October 21, 2007


Breaking the Word will be taking another break till the end of November for a short vacation and a long retreat. Your prayers will be much appreciated. Blessings!

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Saturday in the 28th Week of Ordinary Time (I)
An Acquired Taste?

Readings: Romans 4:13, 1-18; Psalm 105:6-7, 8-9, 42-43; Luke 12:8-12

Probably few, if any, of those who read this blog (including its author) will have had the experience of actually being taken before synagogues and before rulers and authorities in order to speak in defence of the faith. Thankfully, most of us live in environments that are not explicitly hostile to Christianity. Even so, we cannot deny that to live truly Christian lives, to truly acknowledge Christ in our daily living, often requires that we think and act in ways that can best be described as counter-cultural. At work, for example, when everyone seems to be looking out for number one, do we not find ourselves invited to heed a different call, to run a different race? But how do we know how to run this alternative race? How do we learn to recognize this divine call? How do we know what is the Christian thing to do in any particular situation in which we find ourselves?

One common approach is to try to learn more about what the rules say. We try, for example, to read up and even to teach others what is the church’s current teaching on various issues, such as living wills, or homosexuality, divorce and remarriage... This emphasis on norms is, of course, important. But it’s not the whole story. I’m reminded of an experience of mine, some years ago, when I was asked to share a short reflection with some university students. Perhaps imprudently, I chose to illustrate my point by referring to a movie, and an R(A) movie at that. After I’d said my piece, a student, whom I later discovered was a member of a rather conservative religious group, questioned me thus: Do you mean to say that your religious superiors allow you to watch movies? Don’t you think movies are an occasion for sin? I was rather flabbergasted at the time, and was led to reflect further upon the experience. Can movies be the occasion for sin? Probably. Are all movies always an occasion for sin and so to be avoided by everyone, on every occasion, and at all costs? I wonder…

To overemphasize the adherence to norms over and above all else is to fail to see the whole picture. For, as Paul continues to remind us in the first reading, it was not through the law that the promise was made to Abraham and his descendants… but through the righteousness that comes from faith… What does this imply? What’s the difference between the law and faith? Jesus’ words in the gospel highlight for us one crucial difference. To live by the law is to always be concerned with having all the answers before hand. It is to think that we can respond adequately to life simply by clinging rigidly to certain norms of conduct. But notice what Jesus says in the gospel: Do not worry about how or what your defense will be or about what you are to say. For the Holy Spirit will teach you at that moment what you should say… The inspiration to do and say the right thing is given in the Spirit at the particular moment and in the particular situation of need.

Does this mean that norms are unimportant in living a truly Christian life? By no means. To quote Dean Brackley again:

Norms have a part in this, but not the most important part. Authentic freedom is about responding to reality under the guidance of the Spirit. There are three dimensions, or “poles,” of moral experience to which we must attend: ‘reality’ itself, the world outside us; ‘norms,’ which signal what is at stake in a given situation; and the action of the Spirit on our interior life. As we mature beyond moral minimums, we follow the Spirit more than we are guided by norms or abstract ideals in responding to the world. For Christians, Christ is the norm of norms and his Spirit guides them…

But all this implies that we Christians are continually learning to be more and more attuned to the voice of the Spirit, that we are gradually acquiring the taste for the Spirit's inspirations.

How might we continue to acquire this taste today?

Friday, October 19, 2007

Friday in the 28th Week of Ordinary Time (I)
Memorial of Ss. John de Brebeuf, Isaac Jogues, Priests and Martyrs, and Their Companions, Martyrs
Losing Our Grip

Readings: Romans 4:1-8; Psalm 32:1b-2, 5, 11; Luke 12:1-7

Once again, the third gospel tells us of a time when so many people were crowding together to see Jesus and hear what he had to say that they were trampling one another underfoot. Yet Jesus seems oblivious to the presence of all these hungry souls. Instead of immediately ministering to them, we’re told that he began to speak first to his disciples. He warns them about the leaven of the Pharisees. What’s so important about this teaching that it can’t wait till Jesus has seen to the needs of the crowds? What’s so dangerous about the leaven of the Pharisees? Is their hypocrisy really so deadly?

To appreciate the gravity of Jesus’ warning, we need to consider again what he is talking about. The problem seems to be not so much the isolated actions of the Pharisees, as their whole approach to life and to God, as well as the reason why they do the things they do. Why do they obsess over minute details of the Law? Why do they like to show off their good works while covering up their own shortcomings? Why do they tend to judge others so mercilessly? In doing all these things, are they not trying desperately to maintain a tight grip on life? And not just life on this earth, but even in the hereafter? And why do they feel the need to do all this? Jesus gets to the heart of their motivation when he speaks to his disciples about fear. The Pharisees, and all like them, are driven by a deep anxiety born of a lack of trust. They find it difficult to let go, to lose their grip on life, because they cannot be sure that there will be anyone to catch them if they do. They cling desperately to things that are within their control – the Law, their own pious observances – in the hope that these will justify them.

But, as Paul tells the Romans in the first reading, we are justified not on the basis of our works but through faith. Christianity is not a matter of clinging tightly to life, even eternal life, but of losing one’s grip in order to fall into God’s embrace. And we can only learn to do this when we take to heart what Jesus says about God in today’s gospel. We only learn to loosen our grip on life when we begin to realize that God is truly on our side, that even the hairs on our heads are counted… This realization comes to us not only through hearing what Jesus says, but also especially through witnessing what he does when he mounts the Cross on Calvary.

And in the martyrs whom we celebrate today, we see extreme illustrations of the awesome power of this trust in God that bears fruit in a willingness to let go. St. Isaac Jogues, for example, had returned from North America to his native France bearing the hideous marks of unbelievably cruel torture at the hands of the Indians with whom he had sought to share the Good News. His fingers were so mangled that he needed a dispensation to allow him to continue to celebrate Mass. Yet he volunteered to return to North America to continue working among the Indians there. And it was on his return trip that he won the crown of martyrdom. As Jesus did before him, St. Isaac trusted in the providence of God to the extent that he was willing to lose his grip on life.

Probably few of us will be called to the same degree of renunciation. Even so, whatever our situation, each of us is called to beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, to let go of our anxieties, and to place our trust in God.

How are we being invited to do this today?

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Wednesday in the 28th Week of Ordinary Time (I)
Memorial of St. Ignatius of Antioch, bishop and martyr
Painting Portraits

Readings: Romans 2:1-11; Psalm 62:2-3, 6-7, 9; Luke 11:42-46

Taken together, both our readings today paint for us a portrait of a particular type of person. Certain characteristics of this type are quite clearly spelt out. Such a person is judgmental. S/he expects a certain standard of behaviour or performance from others. And it would seem that most people tend to fall short of that standard. In Jesus’ words, this type of person imposes on people burdens too hard to carry… What’s more, this judgmental attitude seems to go hand in hand with a certain degree of hypocrisy. As Paul puts it: you… judge those who engage in such things and yet do them yourself… Clearly this type of person suffers from a certain blindness that hinders them from making accurate evaluations of self. This is because they are blissful unaware of the fact that they are focused on the wrong things. They obsess over the inconsequential things at the expense of the essentials. As Jesus says: you pay tithes of mint and of rue… but pay no attention to judgment and to love for God… This blindness allows them to enjoy a certain misplaced self-confidence or pride, which leads them to think that they are a cut above others, that they are members of an elite group.

In contrast, it may be useful for us to consider yet another portrait. What follows is taken from a book that I happen to be reading at the moment. It’s a book on the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, written by Dean Brackley, and entitled The Call to Discernment in Troubled Times. Here we find a portrait, not of elitism, but of solidarity.

Solidarity is the social meaning of humility. Just as humility leads individuals to all other virtues, humility as solidarity is the foundation of a just society. In short, the standard of Christ today is “downward mobility.” That means entering the world of the poor, assuming their cause, and, to some degree, their condition. Solidarity shapes our lifestyle, which will depend on each one’s vocation. Solidarity does not necessarily mean destitution. It has nothing to do with denying our training or neglecting our talents. Special obligations, for example, to family and benefactors, carry weight in deliberating about lifestyle. We should beware of dogmatizing about having a car or a computer, about whether to save for old age or where to educate our children. These are legitimate matters for discernment, but not for one-sized-fits-all formulas. At the same time, the objective criterion of our “poverty” is solidarity with the poor. We will feel uncomfortable with superfluities when poor friends lack essentials. Attachment to them will detach us from luxuries, and even necessities. As the New Testament and Christian tradition tells us, possessions are resources entrusted to us, to be administered for the good of all, especially those in need. This logic extends to other resources. What about pursuing higher education in a world of hunger? If we have that opportunity, then studying means storing up cultural capital to be administered later on behalf of those who need us. How much should we have? Better to reframe the question: Do we feel at home among the poor? Do they feel comfortable in our homes? Or do our furnishings and possessions make them feel like unimportant people? Solidarity leads to sharing the obscurity, misunderstanding, and contempt experienced by the poor….

To combat world poverty and environmental decay, we need to make this the Century of Solidarity, especially international solidarity. As elites extend their power through globalized markets, finance, and communications, the response can only be to globalize the practice of love. We need to enlist the Internet, e-mail, and discount air fares in the cause. But more than anything else, we need “new human beings” who identify with the poor majority of the planet – including people in rich countries who know about trade, finance, and human rights law and can help address the complex causes of misery. Many such people are stepping forward, especially from colleges and universities and from the churches, with their unique potential to connect people across borders and a wealth of experience on the ground…

Today, if someone were to paint portraits of us, of our society, of our children, which would they resemble more closely, that of solidarity or that of elitism?

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Tuesday in the 28th Week of Ordinary Time (I)
Memorial of St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, Virgin
Soaking the Rice Pot

Readings: Romans 1:16-25; Psalm 19:2-3, 4-5; Luke 11:37-41

As to what is within, give alms… and everything will be clean for you.

The Pharisee in today’s gospel is not wrong in emphasizing the importance of purity or cleanliness. From the point of view of personal hygiene, we all know how important it is to wash one’s hands before a meal. And cleanliness of a sort is also of paramount importance in the spiritual life. We see in the first reading, for example, the connection between purity and the ability to know God. Paul accuses the impious of not according glory to God even though God has made God’s presence evident to them in all of creation. In their vanity, they preferred to acknowledge other things as their gods. As a result, God handed them over to impurity. They lost their ability to savour God’s presence in their midst. What we have here is but the opposite of what Jesus proclaims in the beatitudes: blessed are the pure in heart, they shall see God.

No, the Pharisee’s mistake lies not so much in his concern for cleanliness as in his obsession with the exterior at the expense of the interior. Indeed, his preoccupation with external rituals becomes simply another expression of the vanity that blinds people to God’s presence. Looking at Jesus, he sees not the presence of God but only someone who has not washed before a meal.

But perhaps we shouldn’t blame him too much. For the kind of purity that Jesus is emphasizing is not something that we can achieve through our own ascetical practices. We might think, for example, of how difficult it is to clean the inside of a rice-pot immediately after it has been emptied of its contents. We often need to soak it in water, or even detergent, for a while. And this is probably how we might understand Jesus’ advice to the Pharisee: give alms, and behold, everything will be clean for you. What does Jesus mean? Is it simply a matter of setting aside for the poor some coins that one has left over? Surely, the Pharisee was no stranger to this sort of almsgiving.

Or was Jesus not rather inviting the Pharisee to embark on a process of soaking? For to truly give alms, one must first allow oneself to become aware of, and even to be affected by, the plight of those to whom one is giving. Just as a used rice-pot has to be soaked in detergent in order to be cleaned, so must the Pharisee allow his heart to be softened by contact with the needy. And, as often happens, in these waters of compassion, one encounters the same God that our saint for today, St. Margaret Mary Alacoque encountered. One sees the heart of Christ pierced through for all our sakes.

How is Jesus inviting us to experience this kind of soaking, this kind of interior cleansing process, today?

Monday, October 15, 2007

Monday in the 28th Week of Ordinary Time (I)
Memorial of St. Teresa of Jesus, Virgin and Doctor of the Church
The Evil of Apathy

Readings: Romans 1:1-7; Psalm 98:1bcde, 2-3ab, 3cd-4; Luke 11:29-32

This generation is an evil generation…

In the gospel, Jesus addresses his listeners with these very strong words at a time when more people gathered in the crowd. We may wonder at the reactions he might have evoked. You are evil! Me? Evil? How? Why? Why, indeed! Were they murderers or terrorists? Were they fornicators or paedophiles? Perhaps there were some among them who were guilty of these things. And yet, when we consider Jesus words more carefully, we see that he considers his generation evil not so much because of what it is doing as much as for what it fails to do. In contrast to the queen of the south who came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, in contrast to the people of Nineveh, who repented when they heard the preaching of Jonah, Jesus’ generation does nothing, it fails to respond. Instead, it seeks a sign.

It fails to appreciate what Paul appreciates in the first reading. Here, we see Paul expressing his deep conviction on two crucial points: his own identity and the identity of Jesus. Paul sees himself as the slave of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God. And this Jesus Christ, this master whom he serves, is nothing less than the Son of God. It is out of this sense of who he is in relation to Christ that conditions everything that Paul says and does, including the writing of the letter to the Romans. Paul’s life is a response to the one who called him.

Isn’t this what’s so singularly striking about Jesus’ accusation: that it contrasts so starkly with what we might traditionally think of as evil? For Jesus, evil seems to consist less in doing bad things than it does in failing to appreciate who we are in the sight of God, and consequently failing to respond to the call of God, the call to be members, labourers, even slaves in God’s vineyard.

And what of us? What of our generation? In a world plagued by the evils of poverty and war and environmental degradation, what kind of response are we being called to make?

If today Jesus were to cast his eyes on us, on our generation, what verdict would he pass?

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Special Guest

In case you haven't already noticed, do check out the comments to this Thursday's post. There you will find a homily by a special guest. Many thanks to Fr. Luke Fong for sharing, and to all those who took the trouble to leave a comment. Have a great weekend!

Saturday in the 27th Week of Ordinary Time (I)

Readings: Joel 4:12-21; Psalm 97:1-2, 5-6, 11-12; Luke 11:27-28

One of the jokes that we’ve been sharing among ourselves since returning from Navotas has been that we miss the processions. There’s more than a tinge of sarcasm in this statement. During our time there, we used to meet for Mass with the people every evening. And after Mass, without fail, we would be expected to follow the people as they walked through the streets in procession from one neighbourhood chapel to the next, reverently carrying an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe in front of them. Never mind if it was raining. Never mind if the streets were flooded. Never mind if we had to dodge traffic and other less savoury objects along the way. Every evening, we walked through the streets together, sometimes singing and sometimes quiet, sometimes holding candles and sometimes in darkness. No, I think I can probably speak for my companions, even the most pious among us, when I say that the processions are probably among the things we miss least in Navotas.

And yet, this six-month program in which my companions and I find ourselves is also something of a procession. It involves quite a bit of moving around. We have just returned from Navotas, and in a week’s time we will be out again. And not only are we moving in space but we are also moving in time. We have been reflecting on and sharing our own life histories. We have been rereading the life of our founder, St. Ignatius of Loyola, and recalling the beginnings of the Society of Jesus. Like it or not, this program is really one big procession (as is life). But what, we may wonder, is the point of all this moving around? Where, we might ask, is the destination of our procession?

The Mass readings offer us an answer to this question. They speak to us of a possible destination for all our moving around. They speak of a time that is not really a time, and of a place that is not really a place. This time is the day of the Lord. And this place is the valley of decision. This is that time and that place where God makes known to us what God wants. And it is also that time and place where we come face to face with the need to make a choice, to decide whether or not to do what God wants of us in each concrete situation of each passing day. It is that time and place that our founder Ignatius spoke about when he ended his letters, as he often did, with the following prayer: may God our Lord grant us his abundant grace so that we might know his most holy will and entirely to fulfill it…

Isn’t this the point of all our moving around? Isn’t this the destination of our procession? We are preparing our hearts, our minds, our wills to hear the word of God and keep it. For, as Jesus tells us in today’s gospel, it is those who do this who are blessed by God. And we know that those who receive this blessing do so in order to become blessings for others. It was so for Ignatius of Loyola, just as it was for Mary our blessed mother. Isn’t this why it is fitting that the people of Navotas carry Mary’s image with such reverence and piety? They hope for a blessing from the one who was blessed for receiving God’s most holy will and entirely fulfilling it in her life.

Where and how are you processing today?

Friday, October 12, 2007

Friday in the 27th Week of Ordinary Time (I)
Inside or Outside

Readings: Joel 1:13-15; 2:1-2; Psalm 9:2-3, 6 and 16, 8-9; Luke 11:15-26

Some say the way something looks depends very much on where one is standing. If this is true, it might help to explain the rather strange situations described in our readings today. The first reading presents us with a puzzling description of the day of the Lord. On the one hand, we are told that it comes as ruin from the Almighty… a day of darkness and of gloom, a day of clouds and somberness! And yet, immediately after this, we are also told that the coming of this day will involve the advent of a people numerous and mighty, who will spread over the mountains like dawn. So which is it? Will the day of the Lord be ruinous or glorious? Will it come as the darkness or the dawn? Perhaps it depends on where we’re standing. It will look one way if we are standing within the household of God, if we are numbered among the people of the Lord. And it will look quite another way if we’re outside looking in.

We find something similar in the gospel. Here the day of the Lord comes in the person and ministry of Jesus. And yet, when he expels a demon, there are those who say that it is by the power of Beelzebul that he does this great work. So which is it? Does Jesus rely on the power of the prince or demons or on the finger of God? Again, how something looks depends on where one is standing. Quite obviously, it is those who are on the outside looking in, those who do not acknowledge Jesus as master and Lord, who view his ministry in a negative, even demonic, light.

And there’s more. From what Jesus says in the gospel, we learn that how something looks depends not only on whether we are outside looking in or inside looking out, but also on what is inside us. For to stand with Jesus, to commit our lives to following him, is to have his spirit within us. On the contrary, to shy away from Jesus is to run the risk of being inhabited by evil. Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.

How something looks depends on where we are standing.

The day of the Lord is coming among us everyday. How does it look like to us? Where are we standing?

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Thursday in the 27th Week of Ordinary Time (I)
Awaiting the Dawn

Readings: Malachi 3:13-20b; Psalm 1:1-2, 3, 4 and 6; Luke 11:5-13

My nine companions and I spent this past week living in a district called Navotas, comprising fourteen neighbourhoods, most of them very poor. The exposure experience was organized by the Pag-Aalay Ng Puso Foundation (offering of the heart), or PPF for short, a local NGO that has been working in the area since 1988. Almost twenty years have passed since PPF began working for and with the people of Navotas. And yet it’s so easy, especially for an undiscerning and overly critical eye, to miss the good that has been achieved thus far. For in many ways the people of Navotas are still living in the darkness of poverty and squalor.

One morning, my host brought me to the cemetery next to where her neighbourhood was located, to show me the final resting place of a relative. But we were prevented from reaching our destination because the way was strewn with human faecal matter. Indeed, although our host families were chosen partly because their houses are equipped with toilets, many other households in the area do not yet enjoy the same luxury.

Later we were told that although public toilets were built some years ago, with contributions from benefactors, the PPF had had to spend a whole year educating people about the importance of modern sanitation. It was only gradually that people were won over and began spontaneously to build toilets in their own homes. Even so, not all have heard the message, as my aborted cemetery visit made clear. Much more needs to be done. In this and in many other ways, the PPF and the people of Navotas continue to await the dawn of a new day.

And yet theirs is not a waiting of total passivity but of perseverance, the same perseverance that we find spoken about in our readings today. In the gospel, Jesus highlights the importance and efficacy of perseverance in prayer: ask and you will receive; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you… And in the first reading, we find a perseverance not just of personal prayer but also of communal dialogue and collaboration. Faced with a situation where the innocent suffer while the guilty seem to prosper, the people who fear the Lord spoke with one another, and the Lord listened attentively…

Quite inexplicably, in spite of the challenges we had to face, this past week spent in Navotas has been a very happy one for me. How could this be? Perhaps it is because in the apparent hopelessness, there are yet people who are persevering. Perhaps it is because in the apparent darkness of the night, dawn is already breaking, the sun of justice is already beginning to shine with healing rays.

How are we being called to persevere as we await the dawn?

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Breaking the Word will be taking a break for the next week and a half to participate in an exposure program. Blessings...

Friday, September 28, 2007

Friday in the 25th Week of Ordinary Time (I)
Ad Maiorem Dei Gloriam

Readings: Haggai 2:1-9; Psalm 43:1, 2, 3, 4; Luke 9:18-22

Ad maiorem dei gloriam. These are words that every devotee of St. Ignatius of Loyola knows well. To the greater glory of God. To be a follower of St. Ignatius is to share in the desire that burned within his heart, not just to work for God’s glory, but God’s greater glory. These words can inspire in many a deep and intense motivation for action. They can be quoted easily and often, even with clenched fists, as a rallying cry. Let’s do such and such. Why? For the greater glory of God. But one must also be careful. For as easy as these words are to learn and to recite, their meaning is far more difficult to grasp.

This, I believe, is a possible reason for Jesus’ strange reaction in the gospel today. When his disciples call him the Christ (the anointed one) of God, he rebukes them. Why? Could it be because they have a very particular, and also a very mistaken, or at least inadequate, understanding of what it means to be anointed by God? Could it be because, even though they have gotten the words right, they have yet to grasp their true meaning? Could it be because, in their minds, they associate the Christ with glory without really knowing what the face of glory looks like? At this point in their following of Jesus, the idea that glory could be found in a face as bruised and bloodied as the thorn-crowned head of Christ as he hangs from the cross, is still far from their minds. Such that when Jesus is arrested, most of them will flee for their lives. So much for getting the words right. What they have still to learn is the meaning behind the words.

And this will only happen when they are forced, by circumstances beyond their control, to confront their own cowardice and fear, their own reluctance to share in their master’s passion. They will only come to recognize the face of glory when they are driven to do what we find Jesus doing in the gospel today, to gaze upon and to ponder, in prayerful solitude, the prospect of the cross. For it is only when they do this that the promise made in the first reading can be fulfilled in them. It is only when they do this that they will experience the power of God’s presence, recognize the glory of God’s Temple, in their midst.

Where is the face of God’s glory to be found in our own lives today?

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Thursday in the 25th Week of Ordinary Time (I)
Memorial of St. Vincent De Paul, Priest
Coaxing the Cow

Readings: Haggai 1:1-8; Psalm 149:1b-2, 3-4, 5-6a and 9b; Luke 9:7-9

As often happens, although hundreds of years separate the events and personalities described in each of them, there is an interesting parallel between our two readings today. In the first, God sends the prophet Haggai to the representatives of the people of Israel: the governor of Judah, Zerubbabel, and the high priest, Joshua. Haggai speaks a word of admonition. God’s will is that the newly returned exiles should rebuild the Temple. But the people have been resistant. They have been more concerned about their own day-to-day existence. They have stubbornly neglected the affairs of God. In the gospel, the role of admonitor had fallen upon John the Baptist. His too was a call to action, a call to repentance, a call to prepare the way for the coming of the one true Temple of God, the Word-made-flesh. And John too met stubborn resistance, especially in the person of king Herod, who went to extent of putting him to death.

In both these stories, we see the truth of that well-known Chinese proverb. You can bring a cow to water, but you cannot force it to drink. There is in many, if not all, of us, a stubborn streak that causes us to resist the workings of grace. Even though there may be a part of us that knows there is something we need to do, another part of us prefers either to ignore it altogether, or to keep procrastinating. We somehow manage to find excuses to put off till tomorrow what we should be doing today. Those familiar with twelve-step programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous know this dynamic well. According to conventional wisdom, the alcoholic is not likely to take steps to get help until s/he hits rock bottom, until it becomes undeniable that there really is a problem that needs to be faced.

This might well explain Haggai’s approach to the stubborn people of Israel. Twice, in the first reading, we find him telling the people to consider your ways! They have eaten and not been satisfied. What Haggai is trying to do is to help the people to come to the same realization that the prodigal son did in Jesus’ parable. Sitting among the pigs and sharing the same menu with them, he realized his own wretched condition. He had truly hit rock bottom. Only then did he decide to change. Haggai’s strategy in the face of stubbornness and procrastination is to keep the people’s attention focused on their own wretched condition, in the hope that one day they might hit rock bottom and decide to change. Indeed, he cannot force the cow to drink. He can only bring it to the water and invite it to consider its own reflection in it, in the hope that it might realize the depths of its own thirst.

Hundreds of years separate us from Zerubbabel and Herod. But aren’t our situations also similar? Who are our Zerubbabels and Herods? How thirsty are we today?

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Wednesday in the 25th Week of Ordinary Time (I)
At the Information Booth

Readings: Ezra 9:5-9; Tobit 13:2, 3-4a, 4befghn, 7-8; Luke 9:1-6

I was quite an imp as a child. Whenever I was brought to a shopping mall, I used to love to go running around on my own. And, of course, when you go running around on your own, you run the risk of getting lost. My parents’ approach to the problem was quite simple. The first thing they did when we arrived at a mall was to point out to me where the information booth was. If you get lost, they’d say, come here, tell the person your name and ask him or her to page for your parents.

Our daily living involves plenty of running around. For better or worse, whether we like it or not, we live in the world. Not only that, but like the apostles in the gospel today, it is also in the world that we Christians are meant to fulfill our calling. Even the cloistered religious or the hermit, who doesn’t seem to run around at all, by his/ her solitary life, bears witness in the world. And because this is so, because we have to be running around in some way, we face the same risk that I faced as a child. We risk getting lost. We risk forgetting who we are and what we are meant to do.

In the course of our running around, we quite easily begin to go only wherever we want to go, and to live only for ourselves, or our own family, or our own community. We run the risk of forgetting that, at least for us Christians, what gives meaning to our running around is the fact that we have been sent. And sent not just for ourselves and for our own, but also for others. Like the apostles before us, we are sent to, in some way, proclaim the Kingdom of God and to heal the sick.

Yet, even when we do remember this, we can still get lost in other ways. Amidst the pressures and demands of running around, don’t we also sometimes forget from where our strength comes? Don’t we tend to rely only on our own resources, our own talents, our own friends and contacts? Isn’t this why some of us can become so obsessed with hoarding the resources we think we need, in whatever form these might take? And yet, as the gospel reminds us, the power and authority that we need is not something for which we can work. It is given to us by the one who summons and sends us. And however important it may be to earn our daily bread, we are also told to take nothing for the journey, to travel light, to rely on and trust in the providence of God above all.

Yes, when we go running around, it’s easy to get lost. What to do when this happens?

Thankfully, as there was for me in my childhood, there is also for us an information booth where we can find help. This is not so much a place as it is a grace. It is the grace of remembering who we are. It is the grace that Saint Ignatius speaks about in the first week of the Spiritual Exercises, the same grace that we find in Ezra the prophet in the first reading. It is the grace of knowing, on the one hand, that we are sinners, that our guilt reaches up to heaven. And yet, on the other hand, it is also the grace of realizing that mercy has come to us from the Lord our God, who has given us new life. Whenever we find ourselves in danger of getting lost, this is the grace for which we need to ask God. This is the information booth to which we need to return. Here, we can be reunited with our heavenly Father. Here, we can once again experience ourselves being sent out on mission, by the Son, in the power of the Spirit.

How much do you need the information booth today?

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Tuesday in the 25th Week of Ordinary Time (I)
Demolition for Construction

Readings: Ezra 6:7-8, 12b, 14-20; Psalm 122:1-2, 3-4ab, 4cd-5; Luke 8:19-21

What a wondrous celebration it must have been in the first reading, when the new Temple was dedicated and all the priests installed. A marvelous new beginning: new structures and new appointments, to be sure, but, most importantly, also new relationships. Isn’t this what the festivities are about? Not only is it a matter of dedicating a new building to God, but it is also a matter of signifying new relationships among the people and between them and God. The consecration of the new priests, for example, signifies new relationships of service, not just between them and God, but also between them and the rest of the people. And, more than that, we also see the whole people renewing its relationship with God. As we’re told, animal sacrifices for sin are offered for the whole of Israel. More than simply the successful completion of a construction project, what is being celebrated in the first reading is no less than the rebirth of God’s people.

In the midst of the festivities, however, we might recall that this marvelous new beginning takes place only on the ruins of what went before. The new is constructed only because the old was demolished. Not only is a new Temple built in place of the old one destroyed by foreign invaders, but a new relationship is forged in place of the former one, the one that failed because of the sins and infidelities of the past. This failed relationship is recalled and forsaken, so that a new one can grow. Israel is born anew only because it first allows the old to pass away. Construction comes only after demolition.

Isn’t Jesus speaking about a similar process in the gospel? Contrary to appearances, Jesus is not denigrating his mother and the rest of his family. Rather, he is trying to help his listeners to appreciate the kind of relationships that matter in the Kingdom of God. The ties that bind in the Kingdom are not so much a matter of blood relations as a common fidelity to the will of the Father. But in order to build the latter kinds of ties, one must first be weaned from undue attachment to the former. Construction comes only after demolition. By no means, of course, does this imply that we should disregard all blood relations. After all, it is God’s manifest will that we honor our father and mother. Even so, we may well have experienced occasions when what our blood relations ask of us is quite clearly in opposition to the will of God. In such situations, painful though it may be, we need to let go of one set of relations so as to cling to another. Construction can come only after demolition.

What new beginnings are we being called to make today?

Monday, September 24, 2007

Monday in the 25th Week of Ordinary Time (I)
To Hear Is To Shine

Readings: Ezra 1:1-6; Psalm 126:1b-2ab, 2cd-3, 4-5, 6; Luke 8:16-18

To hear is to shine. This might be a useful summary of our gospel passage today. Immediately after speaking about the importance of hearing and keeping the word of God, Jesus paints for us a picture of a lamp, alight and mounted on a lamp-stand. The point is clear. When someone truly listens to God’s word, s/he becomes a light to all around, illuminating the darkness of sin and selfishness, of doubt and unbelief. But what might this look like in real life, in our lives?

The first reading helps to prepare us for this personal reflection. For here we see a confirmation of Jesus’ message. The background of the story is dark. The people of Israel are in exile, far from their home. Jerusalem and their beloved Temple have been destroyed. But today, we see light beginning to shine out. It shines from an obvious location: the chosen people of Israel. The first reading tells us of the preparations they make to return from exile and to rebuild what has been lost. But the Israelites are by no means the only lamp shining out in the darkness.

We hear also about their neighbours, the people among whom they live as exiles. We’re told that these gave them every assistance… The Israelites can shine only because of the light received from others. And all this is made possible because of light shining from yet another source – Cyrus the king Persia himself. How does the light come to be ignited in this most unlikely source? We’re told that the Lord roused the Spirit of Cyrus… Gentile conqueror though he may be, Cyrus heard the word of the Lord and allowed it to shine out through him. Cyrus heard and he shone. And how contagious was that shining…

Over the past week, my community has been engaged in sharing with one another our life-stories. It’s been an opportunity to look back at the lights and shadows of the past, to recognize, in others and in ourselves, that light can shine even in the most unlikely, the darkest, of times and of places. It’s not always an easy, much less appealing, thing to do. Yet it is also necessary. For it is only in recognizing the, often improbable, lamps shining in our own lives that we can truly hear the word of God, and in the hearing, continue to shine out for others to see.

How are we being invited to hear and to shine today?

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Saturday in the 24th Week of Ordinary Time (I)
Endurance of the Heart

Readings: 1 Timothy 6:13-16; Psalms 100:1b-2, 3, 4, 5; Luke 8:4-15

Much of it is mind over matter. That’s what distance runners tell us. Here, for example are some quotes from an online article on the importance of mental endurance in distance running: A lot of running is mental," says Chicago ultrarunner Scott Jacaway. "You need the physical part, but when you go long distance, it becomes a mental thing." …. "You've got to get yourself mentally to Never-Neverland," says Stuart Schulman, a former marathoner and ultrarunner... When he ran, he says he'd refocus his mind off the race and onto something else, like the scenery, "so you don't concentrate on your misery. And then you just wake up five miles later."

Don’t concentrate on your misery… Sounds like good advice not just for runners but also for us Christians, called as we are to go the distance in following Christ. As Jesus tells us in the all too familiar parable of the sower and the seed: the ones who yield a rich harvest are those who persevere in keeping the word of God. Similarly, in the first reading, Paul puts to Timothy the duty of doing all that you have been told, with no faults or failures, until the Appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ… In our efforts to heed the call to perseverance, perhaps there’s something to learn from the distance runners. Perhaps it is important for us to learn, from time to time, to refocus our thoughts, to take our minds off our own difficulties and discomfort and onto the One whom we follow, whom, as Paul tells us, at the due time will be revealed by God, the blessed and only Ruler of all…

Not an easy thing to do, especially since the revelation we are awaiting comes from One whom no one has seen or is able to see… How then to set our minds on this invisible One? Will we not rather tend to fall back on feeling sorry for ourselves? Which is why it’s important to see that perseverance is not just about mind over matter. It really involves primarily the heart. Towards the end of the article mentioned earlier, for example, we find these words: "I've always felt like my secret weapon is my love of the sport," ... "I also remind myself that the process is more important than the outcome, that racing is something I choose to and love to do."

How powerful is love if it can motivate someone to sacrifice so much all for the sake of a sport. And how much more powerful will love be if it were for the Word who became flesh and died for us, as well as for the people in whom the Word remains present in our midst. Who then are the ones who yield a rich harvest? Who are the ones able to persevere in the midst of difficulty and discomfort? Not so much those who only have strong minds, but those who with a noble and generous heart have heard the word and take it to themselves…

How are you running the race today?

Friday, September 21, 2007

Feast of St. Matthew, Apostle and Evangelist
From Customs House to Dinner Table

Readings: Ephesians 4:1-7, 11-13; Psalms 19:2-3, 4-5; Matthew 9:9-13

I, the prisoner in the Lord, implore you to live a life worthy of your vocation…

These are very powerful, very moving words. And if we were to imagine them addressed, very personally, to each of us, what would they mean? What would it mean for each of us to live lives worthy of our vocation, of our calling?

Matthew’s story helps us in our reflection, especially when we consider carefully how his life changes as a result of heeding Jesus’ call. In the short gospel passage of today, the radical shift in Matthew’s situation is vividly illustrated by the two very different places where Matthew is to be found. Before his call, we find him seated in the customs house. This is where Matthew works. From here he sets out to separate people, his own people, from their hard-earned money. For Matthew is a tax collector, a much-hated collaborator with the Roman invaders. Yet appearances are deceiving. Although Matthew seems to enjoy some power here in the customs house, this is also, for him, a place of alienation. For by choosing to sit here, by choosing to earn his living here, by choosing to serve Caesar here, he shows himself to prefer money to his own people. And so he is shunned and looked down upon by them. And in his alienation from others, he is also alienated from himself, from his true identity as a proud member of the chosen People of God.

All this changes in the gospel. Jesus calls and Matthew rises. He leaves the customs house and follows Jesus. He stops selling his people, and himself, to foreign invaders. When next we find him, he is seated at the dinner table. Except that this is no ordinary dinner table. As with the customs house, here too appearances can be deceiving. Here, although Matthew appears to be the host, it is really Christ who holds the place of honour. And with Christ at the center, individual sinners can come together to form one Body. They do this, not so much by taking what belongs to others, as they do by sharing what each has been given. As we are told in the first reading, each one gives of the unique gift that each has received, such that slaves of Caesar become servants of the Lord, sinners become saints, who together make a unity in the work of service, building up the body of Christ.

This is what living a life worthy of our vocation looked like for Matthew. What does it look like for us? Where do we find ourselves today? At the customs house or the dinner table?

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Thursday in the 24th Week of Ordinary Time (I)
Memorial of St. Andrew Kim Taegon, Priest and Martyr, St. Paul Chong Hasan, Martyr, and Their Companions, Martyrs
With Tear-Filled Eyes

Readings: 1 Timothy 3:14-16; Psalms 111:1-2, 3-4, 5-6; Luke 7:31-35

Especially in the face of globalization, one of the many things that we Christians can, and indeed need to, learn from the secular world, is how to mould popular opinion. If our mission is to evangelize the world, to go and make disciples of all the nations… (Matthew 28:20), then it’s necessary to make use of all available means to get our message across, to win people over to the cause of Christ. We need to become media-savvy. We need to learn how to generate good publicity (some say all publicity is good publicity), how to use it for the spread of the gospel. And in order to do this, we need to learn from the world of the mass media, of public relations, of marketing and perhaps even advertising. Yes, as church, we need to humble ourselves and to open wide our eyes to learn…

But there is also another side to the issue, isn’t there?

The quest to manipulate popular opinion should not blind us to the fact that it can often be more of a hindrance than a help. Isn’t this what we are being reminded of in both the readings and the feast that we celebrate today? Whereas public opinion might look down upon Timothy because of his tender age, in the first reading, Paul exhorts him not to give in. He is instead to act in spite of, and even against, popular opinion by remaining true to the call and the gifts and the ministry that he has received. We find the same thing happening in the gospel. In the eyes of popular opinion, the woman is a lowly sinner. She is unworthy even to hold a conversation with, let alone physical contact. And yet, her gratitude to Jesus is so great, her love so intense, that she is driven to do the unthinkable. Even in the face of contempt and ridicule, she not only gatecrashes an exclusive party, but also becomes intimate with the guest-of-honor.

And, of course, the saints we remember today offer us an example of the ultimate disregard for popular opinion. Whatever their individual ages, they collectively represent the Korean church in its infancy. But, in keeping with Paul’s exhortation to Timothy, they did not let their youth hinder them from remaining true to their faith. Collectively, too, they represent a church derided by popular opinion. Even so, they continued to cling bravely onto Christ even to the point of death.

Popular opinion is an ambivalent reality. And, as church, we need to relate to it as such. In the gospel today, we’re told that the woman who was a sinner was weeping as she stood behind Jesus. Her eyes were open, but they were also filled with tears. Perhaps she provides for us an image of what a balanced relationship to popular opinion might look like today. Even as we keep our eyes open to the things we can learn from the secular world, perhaps we need also to let them be filled with tears, tears that spring from a passionate love for Christ, tears that help us to disregard the things that might hinder us from doing what faith demands…

How open, how filled with tears, are our eyes today?

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Wednesday in the 24th Week of Ordinary Time (I)
Wisdom to Know How We Ought To Behave

Readings: 1 Timothy 3:14-16; Psalms 111:1-2, 3-4, 5-6; Luke 7:31-35

Do you ever encounter people faced with confusing situations or difficult decisions, who come to you for advice? What do you do? How do you try to help them? Of course, the most important thing is to listen with compassion, or what counselors prefer to call, empathy. After that, how one responds depends on the situation in question. Sometimes the thing to do seems only too obvious. At other times, even the one whose advice is sought will be stumped.

In my own ministry as priest and spiritual companion I often find myself having to avoid two extreme approaches. On the one hand, especially when the solution to the problem seems very clear, I have to fight the temptation simply to tell people exactly what I think they should do. On the other hand, especially when the problem seems all but intractable, when there seems to be no easy solution in sight, I have to resolve to still remain present to the person before me, even though there may be an impulse to disengage because there seems to be nothing concrete I can do to help. There are various reasons why it’s important to avoid these two extremes. And the main one is, I believe, to be found in today’s readings.

We notice what Paul’s concern is in the first reading. He wants his readers to know how people ought to behave in God’s family. And what is more interesting is what he does to achieve this goal. At least in this passage, he doesn’t so much tell people exactly what they should do in every circumstance – how could he? – as much as he seeks to remind them of the profound depths of the mystery of our religion. He reminds them of what God has done for us in Christ. He invites them to continue to contemplate the life of Christ and, in Christ, to discover for themselves the way they ought to behave, the choices they ought to make, in the different situations of their lives.

To do this, to look to Jesus for answers to life's questions, is not easy to do. It’s difficult enough to discover the connection between the mystery of Christ and our own situation. But what’s perhaps even more difficult is to accept, to be open to, the Truth when it uncovers itself to us. All too often, even when we know what we need to do, how we ought to behave, we may find all kinds of excuses to avoid doing it. Isn’t this what Jesus is saying in the gospel today about the people of his generation? No matter the form in which Wisdom comes to them – whether it be through the preaching of a strict ascetic like John, or through the more humane approach of Jesus – they are able to cook up some reason to reject it.

And yet Wisdom does not give up. In Christ, God does not stop reaching out to God’s people. God continually seeks to enlighten our hearts and to set our steps on the path of life. And often God chooses to do this through the supportive and loving presence of various people: friends, advisors, confidants, people willing to accompany others while they search, in the face of Christ, for the guidance they need, people like you and me.

How are we being called to do this today?

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Tuesday in the 24th Week of Ordinary Time (I)
The Vigilance that Raises to Life

Readings: 1 Timothy 3:1-13; Psalms 101:1b-2ab, 2cd-3ab, 5, 6; Luke 7:11-17

It’s quite clear what the first reading offers us today. We don’t really need much explanation to see that we are being presented with a list of qualifications. We are being told what to expect from our leaders, especially our bishops, priests and deacons. What seems less clear is what we ought to do with this information.

One approach will be to use it as ammunition to judge and to criticize. Although this can be taken to an extreme, it can also be a legitimate use of the information, especially if the criticisms are warranted and constructive. Indeed, isn’t it far better to criticize wrongdoing than to condone it? I am reminded, for example, of how the pedophilia scandals that afflicted several parts of the church were partly the result of people turning a blind eye to, and even covering up, obvious misconduct. So criticism can be healthy. But it does have its limits. By its very nature, criticism happens only after or during the event. When done properly, it constitutes a step towards repairing the damage already done. Yet, is there not another way of using what Paul tells us in the first reading, a way to prevent the damage occurring in the first place?

This approach demands a different way of proceeding. It implies that ordinary people have some involvement, are given some input, in the process of calling, choosing and training their leaders, not to mention the way in which the ministry of leadership is carried out. It involves a kind of vigilance that would help to safeguard the integrity of those chosen to shepherd God’s people. For this to happen both sheep and shepherds have to play their part: the former to take an interest and the latter to give some space and opportunity for that interest to make some practical difference.

For example, we might consider how parishioners might take an active interest in encouraging those in the community in whom they recognize the necessary gifts for ministry. They might perhaps also be given some consultatory role at some point in the course of a seminarians training. Whatever may be the mechanics of it, such an approach to what Paul offers us in the first reading today might help to ensure and preserve the quality and integrity of those who serve as leaders in the church. Indeed, in some cases, it might even become a way by which the Body of Christ can raise an apparently dead or dying community to life, and help it to find its authentic voice in the world. Of course, as with everything else, there will be difficulties. There will be those who might be abuse their influence. Still, we may wonder if this is sufficient reason to leave things as they are. Perhaps what is needed is for us to cultivate the same compassion that moved Jesus to action in the gospel of today.

Today, how are we being called to the vigilance that brings life?