Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Wednesday in the 4th Week of Ordinary Time (I)
Memorial of St. John Bosco, Priest
Confronting Darth Vader

Readings: Hebrews 12:4-7, 11-15; Psalms 103:1-2, 13-14, 17-18a; Mark 6:1-6

Sometimes it’s quite amazing how much theology and spirituality one can learn from a movie…
For some time now they’ve been playing and replaying the 6-episode Star Wars saga on the Star Movies channel. Last night I caught some of the third episode: Return of the Jedi. The climax of the story is the final showdown between the hero, Luke Skywalker, and the evil Emperor and his apprentice, Darth Vader, who is also Luke’s father. Strangely perhaps, our Mass readings bring to mind some aspects of the story. In a sense, although the final confrontation might well result in Luke’s own death, and although Luke has the option of running away, he really has no choice but to face his father if he is to complete his training in the Force and become a full-fledged Jedi knight. In this sense, it is his destiny. And it is a destiny which he willingly embraces, finding the courage to do so in his apparently irrational and impossible desire to help his father turn back from the dark side. In the final climactic battle, as Luke defends himself against all that the evil Emperor and his own father throw at him, he experiences the temptation to give in to his own natural reactions of anger and fear and the desire for revenge, and in so doing to slide down the path leading to the dark side

What possible connection does this have with our readings today?

Isn’t it true that, whether we like it or not, each one of us has our own Darth Vaders to face – those dark areas in our world, in our lives, in our hearts, from which we often wish we could simply run away? Yet it is our destiny to confront and to triumph over them. And, in some perhaps inexplicable way, suffering has a crucial role to play in the process. Isn’t this what the first reading is getting at when it says that suffering is part of your training? Of course, we need to realize that not all suffering is due to our own fault. Suffering afflicts the guilty and the innocent alike. And indeed it often needs to be resisted and denounced. But isn’t that also part of the process by which we are led to confront the darkness in the world and in our own hearts?

Also, in this confrontation, it is important that we resist the temptations that Luke faced in the movie. It is important that we not let feelings such as anger and disillusionment, or skepticism and despair overwhelm us. As the first reading reminds us: be careful… that no root of bitterness should begin to grow and make trouble; for then we ourselves become pawns of the very thing against which we struggle.

All this sounds very complicated and difficult. Too much for us to understand let alone carry out. Isn’t that why, especially during this period of Ordinary Time, it is important for us to let our gaze remain fixed upon Jesus as he carries out his public ministry? In a sense, he did not have to confront the darkness. He did not have to endure the painful rejection that we see him experiencing in the gospel today. He did not have to sacrifice himself. Yet he did, and for the same reason that Luke chose to confront Vader: for love -- love of us and of his heavenly Father.

How are we being led to confront our own Darth Vaders and so play our part in the salvation of the Galaxy today?

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Tuesday in the 4th Week of Ordinary Time (I)
In Him Alone…

Readings: Hebrews 12:1-4; Psalm 22:26b-27, 28 and 30, 31-32; Mark 5:21-43

Let us not lose sight of Jesus, who leads us in our faith and brings it to perfection…

Following from where we left off yesterday, our readings continue to help us deepen our meditation on the need to remain focused on the Lord. We are presented with three images of what it might look like when people try not to lose sight of Jesus.

The first is the haemorrhaging woman in the crowd. In densely populated Singapore it’s perhaps easy for us to imagine what it must have been like for her. She wants so desperately to be healed. Yet there she is in the midst of a jostling crowd, trying her level best to keep the Healer in her sights, to at least remain within arms’ length of him, just so she can touch his clothes. Undaunted by the difficulties that beset her, and full of hope, she reaches out courageously… and is rewarded...

Then there is Jairus the synagogue official. One can only imagine his anxiety as he too battles the crowds for the sake of his critically ill daughter. But there are more obstacles in his path than a jostling crowd. There are those who try to dissuade him when his daughter dies: why put the Master to any further trouble? There are the professional mourners who laugh at the One in whom he has placed his hope. There are also, we might imagine, the interior obstacles within Jairus himself – doubts as to whether or not Jesus can really do anything for his dead daughter, temptations to discouragement and despair. But Jesus dispels these even as he turns out all the mourners and detractors and enters the place where the child lay. And where once there was only death and mourning, Jesus brings forth the joy of new life. Talitha kum!

The central lesson in these two stories is captured by what Jesus says to the woman with the haemorrhage: your faith has restored you to health. In the midst of every obstacle that life might place in our path it is faith in the Lord that brings the wholeness and healing and fullness of life for which we yearn.

Even so, it doesn’t all depend on us. The spiritual life is populated not just by crowds of detractors, but also with a great host of companions and supporters. For example, in the first reading we are presented with the image of a long-distance race. Except that we are not running the race alone. We are surrounded by many witnesses in a great cloud on every side of us, encouraging us, praying for us, inspiring us by their example, to continually set our sights on the prize that awaits us, even as we revel in their companionship. They too have run the race. They too have staked everything on the One who endured the cross. Also, don’t we also find encouragement and inspiration from one another? Are we not all members of the Body of Christ? In one another, do we not also find the truth in these words from a hymn written by a Filipino Jesuit?

In Him alone is our hope;
In Him alone is our strength;
In Him alone are we justified;
In Him alone are we saved.

In the midst of the difficulties that might beset us today, how might we continue to help one another to remain focused on Him?

Monday, January 29, 2007

Monday in the 4th Week of Ordinary Time (I)
Herd or Community?

Readings: Hebrews 11:32-40; Psalms 31:20, 21, 22, 23, 24; Mark 5:1-20

It’s quite striking how, in our readings today, everything seems to happen to groups. After recounting the exploits of the heroes of our faith, the first reading ends by telling us that they were not to reach perfection except with us. And in the gospel, we have a legion of unclean spirits possessing a man, a herd of pigs rushing to their doom, a group of country-folk imploring Jesus to leave, and masses of people from the Decapolis amazed by the witnessing of the former demoniac.

Aren’t we being reminded that – for better or for worse, whether we like it or not – to be a living breathing human person is inevitably to be part of a group, to be connected to others in a wide network of relationships? Indeed, in the gospel, the only one who is separated from others of his own kind is the demoniac. But he is so only because his humanity is enslaved by unclean spirits, such that nothing could secure him, not even the bonds of loving relationships. And once the demons are exorcised, he very quickly seeks connection with others. He first wishes to stay with Jesus and then proceeds to spread the good news of his healing to all.

Even so, the groups we belong to are not always of a healthy kind, are they? Most of us have probably experienced how – like the legion of unclean spirits and the herd of pigs in the gospel – a group can influence its members towards destruction instead of life. We can think immediately of secret societies and terrorist cells. But even among more ordinary groups of people – such as family members around the dinner table, or colleagues around a water-cooler, or study-buddies, or members of the same ministry in church – isn’t there also sometimes the tendency for conversations and interactions to veer towards the unsavoury, if not the demonic?

Clearly, although groups are inevitable in human existence, they can either tend towards becoming herds intent on destruction, or vibrant communities dedicated to the common good. What differentiates one from the other is the presence and saving action of Jesus the Lord. In him is liberty from destructive demonic forces of all kinds. In him we learn the true meaning of community. In him is the perfection that we share with all the heroes of faith.

Both as individuals and groups, how might we continue to remain focused on the Lord today?

Sunday, January 28, 2007

4th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)
Of Sticks and Stones and the Word that Overcomes Them

Readings: Jeremiah 1:4-5, 17-19; Psalm 71:1-2, 3-4, 5-6, 15-17; 1 Corinthians 12:31—13:13 or 13:4-13; Luke 4:21-30

Sisters and brothers, you’ll probably agree with me when I say that it’s not easy to be a Christian. I mean, it’s one thing to get yourself baptized and then go to church every Sunday, or even everyday. That is already not easy. But to try to live like Christ everyday… to try to live a life centered on God alone… to forgive and even to love your enemies… in the midst of all that is wrong in our world, to speak and live in ways that proclaim to all people the Good News that Good has already triumphed over evil… that’s not so easy, is it? It’s so much easier simply to be like everyone else.

I’m reminded of a couple of phrases that I heard or learnt when I was growing up. They’re probably familiar to you too. Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me. Remember that one? That was what you were supposed to say when others teased you or made fun of you. Instead of feeling hurt and bursting into tears, or getting angry and punching someone in the nose, you were supposed to simply chant that line at them and walk away. Very classy. Then there was the grown-ups’ favourite reply whenever I did something wrong and tried to push the blame on someone else. But so-and-so told me to do it, I’d protest. And the reply would be: If so-and-so told you to jump off a building would you do it too? It’s difficult to argue with that kind of reasoning.

These two lines from my childhood make a very good point, especially when we consider them together. They tell us that we should be able to think for ourselves and not be too easily influenced or manipulated by others. Don’t worry about what they may think or say about you. You do what you’re supposed to do, what you know to be right and good. And that’s that. This is very good advice, especially for us Christians, who are expected to proclaim the Gospel in deed and in word, both in and out of season, no matter what response we might get.

But, of course, although they may sound good in theory, things are not always so simple in practice, are they? However hard we may try to be our own person, isn’t there something within us that often seems to search desperately for the approval or acceptance of others. However independent we may think we are, isn’t there a part of us that somehow seems only all too eager to conform? From the clothes we wear to the cars we drive, from the language we use to the friends we keep, consciously or not, don’t many of us tend to be too much influenced by what others think and do?

To be fair, of course, the pressure to conform can be very strong. While it may be true that the words spoken on the childhood playground cannot hurt us, we all know how dangerous and even deadly words can be, don’t we? We may walk away unscathed when someone says to us, you look like a pig. But what about words such as: I’m seeing someone else now, I want a divorce… or I’m sorry the company is downsizing… or it’s stage four, I’m afraid there’s nothing more we can do…? And what about those words that we don’t actually hear but we somehow suspect are being uttered about us behind our backs? What about the gossip – whether downright malicious or simply misguided – that is capable of not only destroying our reputations but also our friendships and our families, our livelihood and our dreams?

In the face of such pressures, isn’t it at least excusable that we should simply do what everyone else is doing? Keep quiet even when it would be proper for a Christian to speak up? Continue speaking even when it would be prudent for a Christian to shut up? What else can we do? Never mind sticks and stones sometimes words can do as much damage, if not more.

But then, just as we may be ready to raise our arms in surrender, the gospel presents us today with this surprising story of Jesus. It is the beginning of his public ministry. He goes to his hometown where he is very well-known and proclaims the Good News. But he does so in a very strange way. We notice how, at the beginning, he won the approval of all… by the gracious words that came from his lips. And yet, he proceeds to antagonize his listeners, to speak words that are not pleasant to hear, so that they actually want to kill him. Couldn’t he simply have kept quiet and basked in their praise for at least a little while longer? Why did he have to speak those provocative words? Couldn’t he have saved them for another, more opportune, time?

Strangely enough, however, although they want to kill him, he manages to slip through the crowd and walked away. In my imagination, it’s as if he simply turned to his fellow townsfolk and chanted those words we learnt as children – sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me – and then walked away. Very classy.

But, of course, we know there is more. We know there will come a time when they will indeed be using sticks and stones, and nails and thorns. They will break his skin and tear his flesh. They will mangle and even kill his body. And still, by meekly hanging on the cross, he will continue eloquently to speak the truth. He will continue to proclaim the Lord’s year of favour… liberty to captives… new sight to the blind… freedom to the downtrodden… Even though they kill him, still he will rise again. What is this power that allows him to do all this? Is he superhuman, invulnerable to suffering? And yet we know all about the great anguish he will endure in Gethsemane. We know how his sweat will fall like great drops of blood. He is a human person like us – subject to the same pressures and temptations. How then does he endure where we so easily succumb?

We heard the reason in the first reading today. His strength comes from his relationship with someone else. I… will make you into a fortified city, a pillar of iron, and a wall of bronze... They will fight against you but shall not overcome you. If the gracious yet provocative words that Jesus spoke could not be silenced, not even by sticks and stones, it was because Jesus himself is also the eternal Word of the Father – a Word that is stronger than sticks and stones, more powerful than death itself. It is a powerful word because it is a Word spoken in love, the same love described so beautifully by Paul in the second reading. This is the Holy Spirit, the eternal love between the Father and the Son that overflows into us and the whole of creation. A love that endures even when all else passes away. As Paul says, there are three things that last: faith, hope and love; and the greatest of these is love.

And in Christ, this love, this power, is accessible to us as well. Here is where we can find the strength to speak the words that need to be spoken, even when it’s inconvenient or risky. If we are truly to heed Jeremiah’s call to brace ourselves for action… to stand up and tell them all that the Lord commands us, it is only by continually taking refuge in the Father’s love for us in Christ, it is only by truly letting this love be our rock and mighty stronghold.

Sisters and brothers, sticks and stones may indeed break our bones, but God’s Word of love to us in Christ remains forever.

How might we listen more closely to this Word, how might we enter more deeply into this Love, today?

Friday, January 26, 2007

Friday in the 3rd Week of Ordinary Time (I)
Memorial of Timothy and Titus, Bishops
Remembering What We Have Received

Readings: 2 Timothy 1:1-8 or Titus 1:1-5; Psalm 96:1-2a, 2b-3, 7-8a, 10; Luke 10:1-9

Today, as we remember the bishops Timothy and Titus – coworkers of Paul the apostle – our readings focus our attention on our mission as Christians. In the gospel, Jesus appoints and sends out the seventy-two to proclaim that the kingdom of God is very near. And in the first reading, Paul exhorts Timothy to never be ashamed of witnessing to the Lord, even to the extent of bearing hardships for the sake of the Good News.

And we know quite well that the same can be said of us too. The same mission given to Timothy and to the seventy-two has been given to us at our baptism. We too are called and sent out to witness to the Lord, to bear hardships for the sake of the Good News, to proclaim the kingdom of God. And yet, we know that this is not an easy mission to accomplish. We know how easy it is either to think ourselves too unworthy for the task, or to give up when the going gets tough. We know too well what it feels like to be out in the world like lambs among wolves. Sometimes it’s so tempting, so much safer, simply to try to blend in, to try to be lambs in wolves clothing. Except that when we do that, we so easily lose touch with the lamb within. We so easily become transformed into wolves ourselves. How then might we find the strength to persevere? What can we learn from the experience of Timothy and the seventy-two?

We might notice how Paul begins his exhortation to Timothy. We probably know the feeling of having someone nag us continually to do something which we know we should do, but can’t quite find the strength or energy or motivation to do it. We know how frustrating that can be, how it makes us feel more like giving up than carrying on. But Paul doesn’t do that. Rather than nagging, he begins precisely by helping Timothy to get in touch with the energy that he needs to accomplish his mission. He begins by helping Timothy to remember what he has received. I remember, he says, the sincere faith which you have… That is why I am reminding you to fan into a flame the gift that God gave you… God’s gift was not a spirit of timidity, but the Spirit of power, and love, and self-control…

And this gift was not received by Timothy as a solitary individual. Paul also reminds Timothy how the gift of faith that he received is shared with his grandmother and his mother – both of whom Paul mentions by name – and also with Paul himself. Just as Paul finds consolation and strength in the memory of this common bond, he expects that Timothy will as well. In the gospel too, the seventy-two receive their commissions from Jesus not as solitary individuals but as a community of disciples. They are even sent out in pairs. And, like Paul and Timothy, isn’t it also true of the seventy-two that in their sense of being bound together in a common mission they experience God’s Spirit of power, and love, and self-control?

Sisters and brothers, Jesus’ words to the seventy-two remain true for us: the harvest is rich but the labourers are few. How might we find the strength to respond to the Lord’s call? How is the Lord sending us out into his harvest today?

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, Apostle
God of Surprises!

Readings: Acts 22:3-16 or Acts 9:1-22; Psalm 117:1bc, 2; Mark 16:15-18

It is possible to celebrate today’s feast and to listen to the story of St. Paul’s conversion as if it were simply an incident that happened to someone else a long time ago. It is, of course, a crucially important event in the history of church. It led to the spread of Christianity far beyond the original circle of Jewish followers of Christ. It’s at least arguable that, if not for Paul, we all might not be Christian. But is that really the full extent of its importance? Is that the only reason why the story of Paul’s conversion is recounted no less than three times in the Acts of the Apostles alone? Is there not something more we can gain by meditating upon Paul’s story? Can we not, for example, learn something about what conversion means for us?

It is perhaps important first to notice what Paul’s conversion was not. It wasn’t really a turning from an ungodly life to a godly one. Although, before he met Christ on the road to Damascus, Saul of Tarsus was persecuting Christians to the death, he was doing it out of religious zeal. He thought he was actually serving God by doing so. His conversion was thus not so much a turning to God as an embrace of a new vision of God in Jesus Christ and his Body, the church. How did this happen?

Saul was struck to the ground by a light that came from heaven.

God disrupted his journey – derailed his plans – even as he was doing what he thought was his God-given duty. God surprised him. And where Saul at first thought that he could clearly see what God wanted of him, he was now blinded by the bright light of God’s new intervention. He needed others to help him to see again, to help him embrace this new vision of God in his life.

Doesn’t something similar also happen to us sometimes? For a time, we may be happily, even enthusiastically, praying to God and working for God and then something happens. God invites us to see things differently. We may be struck down, surprised, even blinded for a while, because our eyes need time to adjust to the bright light of God’s new presence. This could happen in our work, in our prayer, in our relationships. God invites us to see something new, to relate with him and his people in a new way. And it doesn’t just happen once in a person’s life, does it? Consider the experience of Ananias.

Like Saul, he too was surprised by the Lord. He too was invited to see things differently. How might he have felt when the Lord called him to go to Saul to lay hands on him and instruct him in the faith? He protests, Saul has only come here… to arrest everybody who invokes your name. But the Lord offers him a new vision of who Saul will be. You must go all the same, because this man is my chosen instrument…

Quite clearly, it isn’t Saul alone who is converted in this story. In a sense, so too are Ananias and the rest of the Christian community. And it is only when they all allow themselves to be converted, to be continually surprised by God that the Good News comes to be proclaimed to the whole world with great signs and wonders.

In our own journeys, how might the Lord be surprising us today?

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Wednesday in the 3rd Week of Ordinary Time (I)
The Seed that Tills the Soil

Readings: Hebrews 10:11-18; Psalm 110:1, 2, 3, 4; Mark 4:1-20

The parable in today’s gospel is well-known to us. Perhaps too well-known. How do we understand it? How do we apply it to our situation today? What enters our minds and hearts as we hear about the sower going out to sow?

There is a tendency that may be common among some of us, especially those who, like me, try to take our faith seriously. When we hear Jesus telling us to imagine a sower going out to sow, we immediately notice, and quite rightly, how the size of the harvest depends on the type of soil. We quickly realize that it is only the good soil that yields a rich harvest, thirty and sixty and a hundredfold. What then is the logical thing for us to do? We resolve to become good soil. We tell ourselves that we must take our faith more seriously. We must pray more, be more active in church, do more charitable work. Perhaps even take time off to go on a mission trip… and so on… All these resolutions are, of course, very laudable. And we are probably right to think that it is crucially important to till the soil of our hearts so that it can better receive the seed that is God’s word?

But isn’t it true that all too often these resolutions tend to fizzle out rather quickly? Isn’t it true that, when we take this approach to the parable, we find ourselves actually living out in our own lives what Jesus says about the seed that fell on rocky ground and into thorns? The soil of our own resolutions and will-power is too shallow to yield a good harvest. The seed may spring up straightaway, but then quickly becomes scorched in the heat of the noonday sun. We can’t quite sustain the effort needed to continue fulfilling all our resolutions. We may also begin to realize that the soil of our resolutions is really filled with the thorns of many mixed motives. We may, for example, be doing what we do, mainly because we wish to enjoy a sense of accomplishment, or so that people may think well of us. All these thorns can choke the seed of God’s word. And we yield no harvest.

Could there perhaps be another approach? Could it be that rather than focusing first and only on the soil, and on our own efforts to till it, we need instead to remain ever focused on the seed that is sown? For this seed that is God’s Word to us in Christ is truly extraordinary. What ordinary seed could yield a hundredfold harvest? And this seed was once again sown in our hearts when the first reading was proclaimed just now: I will put my laws into their hearts and write them on their minds. I will never call their sins to mind, or their offences. Isn’t this the mind-blowing message that God has for us in the life, death and resurrection of Christ? I will put my laws into their hearts… I will never call their sins to mind… And isn’t it true that something happens to us when we continue to listen carefully to this powerful Word of God? By first humbly receiving the wonder-working power of this seed of God’s Word, by letting it find a home in us, we actually allow it to do for us what we are unable to do for ourselves. We allow it to thoroughly till the soil of our hearts, to transform us, and to give us the strength and wisdom we need to yield a rich harvest in our lives. We may then perhaps be led to make resolutions, even the same resolutions we mentioned earlier. But rather than our own efforts, we will be relying instead on the power of God. And that makes all the difference.

How is the seed of God’s Word tilling the soil of our hearts today?

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Tuesday in the 3rd Week of Ordinary Time (I)
The Basis of True Unity

Readings: Hebrews 10:1-10; Psalm 40:2 and 4ab, 7-8a, 10, 11; Mark 3:31-35

In the midst of the divisions that we continue to experience, both among and within ourselves – even as we pray so fervently this week for Christian unity – our readings today invite us to reflect more deeply upon what is the only secure foundation for true, lasting and universal peace and harmony.

There are many different things that have the power to bring people together. Shared interests and hobbies, for example – most of us have probably experienced the joys of enjoying time with friends at places such as the golf course or around the mahjong table. Then, there is, of course, the pursuit of money and economic development, one of the main forces driving the globalization of our world. Even a traumatic experience, like September the 11th or the Asian Tsunami, can evoke great compassion that cuts across races and religions.

But many of the different things that bring us together often also very quickly drive us apart don’t they? The shared pain and outrage of victims can turn into ugly disputes over how and whether or not to continue a war on terror. The desire to help those who suffer can also turn into disillusionment because others are not doing enough. The friendly mahjong table, as much as the promising business venture, or even the new church project, can very quickly become a battle-field on which egos clash. Indeed, as Jesus implies today, not even blood relations can serve as a true and lasting basis for the kind of unity we are seeking. We all know how fragile family ties can be. And we also know how families that are too closely-knit can actually stifle the growth of their members.

Our readings today point us instead to the one thing that can bring us true and lasting unity and peace for us all. Jesus says, in the gospel, Anyone who does the will of God… is my brother and sister and mother. We only become united to God and to one another when we are united in Christ. And we can only be united in Christ when we seek to do the Father’s will as he did. But isn’t this also part of the problem? Even among those who seek to do the Father’s will there can be much disagreement over what that will is and how to carry it out, as well as competition over who is doing a better job.

What to do when this happens? What does our meditation on the experience of Christ teach us? Sometimes, of course, the divisions that occur are signs that we are not really seeking God’s will but our own. Our egos continue to get in the way. We need to refocus our hearts and allow the Lord to purify us. At other times, even when our motives may be pure enough, divisions continue to arise. But wasn’t this also the experience of Christ? And wasn’t it precisely through his endurance of misunderstanding and opposition, even from those closest to him, and even unto death, that he accomplished the lasting unity of God and creation? For, as we heard in the first reading, the Father’s will was for us to be made holy by the offering of his body made once and for all by Jesus Christ.

How might we imitate Christ more closely? Where is the Father’s will leading us today?

Monday, January 22, 2007

Monday in the 3rd Week of Ordinary Time (I)
Antidote for Anxiety

Readings: Hebrews 9:15, 24-28; Psalm 98:1, 2-3ab, 3cd-4, 5-6; Mark 3:22-30

It’s quite likely that our attention will be held captive today by Jesus’ mention, in the gospel, of an eternal sin. What could be more frightening and anxiety-producing, especially for those who wish to be saved, than the thought of a sin that will never have forgiveness? What kind of sin is Jesus referring to anyway? How does one blaspheme against the Holy Spirit? Am I, perhaps even unknowingly, guilty of such a sin?

And yet, our readings today are really more of a source of assurance than anxiety, more a cause for hope than for despair. For powerful though the devil – the strong man – is, Jesus has proven himself the stronger. As we heard in the first reading: Christ has made his appearance once and for all... to do away with sin by sacrificing himself… and when he appears a second time, it will not be to deal with sin but to reward with salvation those who are waiting for him. That’s quite an amazing thought, isn’t it – that Christ has done away with sin once and for all?

The only thing, then, that can come between us and this saving grace that Christ brings is a refusal, in one form or another, to accept it. We see this, for example, in the scribes of today’s gospel. In accusing Jesus of resorting to demonic powers, they effectively utter a firm no to God’s gracious offer of wholeness and healing. They refuse the forgiveness that is freely offered them. And such refusal can be expressed in various other ways too can it not? Could we not, for example, be somehow refusing to accept the awesome power of Christ’s sacrifice when we over-emphasize – as some are wont to do – the power of the demonic that may or may not be present among and even within us? Important as it is to guard ourselves against all manifestations of evil, isn’t it also possible to go to such extremes as to forget that those we are so desperately guarding against are really part of a defeated enemy, members of an army in retreat – that through his self-sacrifice, Christ has already tied up the strong man and we have nothing to fear except our own anxiety?

Part of the trouble is that our experience often seems to contradict this truth. Do we not continue to struggle with our own sinful tendencies? When we look around our world, do we not continue to witness much evil, much pain and suffering? Do we not continue to encounter people who hurt us and our loved ones, sometimes out of malice, but often simply out of ignorance? Even if Christ has indeed won the victory once and for all, we often don’t feel like that is really the case. Isn’t this why it’s so important for us to attend to the way in which the first reading speaks also of the reward that comes to those who are waiting for him? Christ’s victory is already, once and for all, yet we still have to wait. We wait for that victory to break through even those places of our hearts that may continue to resist the healing powers of grace, those anxious areas that still find it difficult to believe in and to entrust everything to the One who has already burgled the strong man’s house.

Today, even as we continue to wait for the antidote to our anxiety to take its full effect, how are we being invited to trust more deeply in the Lord’s victory?

Friday, January 19, 2007

Saturday in the 2nd Week of Ordinary Time (I)
The Passion of Christ

Readings: Hebrews 9:2-3, 11-14; Psalm 47:2-3, 6-7, 8-9; Mark 3:20-21

It’s probably quite clear to most of us that religious fanatics have given and continue to give religion a bad name. We continue to be saddened and distressed by the almost daily news reports of the handiwork of jihadists and suicide-bombers, even as we smile with a mixture of pity and irritation at the bible-thumping Christian who might occasionally accost us in school or on the street.

And we may well congratulate ourselves for not being fanatics. No, we are far more level-headed, prudent and moderate in the ways in which we express our faith. We’re far more respectful of others. We don’t wear our religion on our sleeves. We’re not crazy like some others are. We have far better things to do with our time. There’s no danger of people thinking of us as over-zealous, let alone fanatical. And that’s a good thing, right?

Perhaps. And yet, do we not also have to be cautious not to slide too far towards the other extreme? Do we not need to avoid simply going through the motions of our faith, professing a pale and bloodless Christianity that never ruffles any feathers? After all, is it really possible to live an authentic Christian life without passion? On the contrary, isn’t it written somewhere in the bible that God will spit us out of his mouth if we are lukewarm (see Revelations 3:16)?

But surely Jesus was no fanatic, was he? Probably not in the way we might think. And yet, in the very brief gospel passage of today, we are reminded that Jesus was so taken up by his ministry that his family actually thought he was out of his mind. Indeed, Jesus was nothing if not passionate about fulfilling the mission for which he had been sent. It was this Spirit-inspired passion that saw him walking resolutely on the road to his passion, death and resurrection. It was this same passion which saw him penetrating the veil of which the first reading speaks, bringing with him his very own blood, passionately poured out for the salvation of us all.

Obviously, especially in the highly volatile climate of our day, we need to be extra vigilant against even the tiniest hint of fanaticism. We need to go out of our way to respect the beliefs of others. Inter-religious understanding, dialogue and collaboration require our closest attention. But can we really achieve all this by being indifferent to our own faith and its implications for our lives? Or rather is it not only to the extent that we are passionate as Jesus was passionate that we can find the motivation and the guidance that we need to combat the scourge of fanaticism?
How is our Lord leading us through the veil of his passion today?
From the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius, #22:


To assure better cooperation between the one who is giving the Exercises and the exercitant, and more beneficial results for both, it is necessary to suppose that every good Christian is more ready to put a good interpretation on another's statement than to condemn it as false. If an orthodox construction cannot be put on a proposition, the one who made it should be asked how he understands it. If he is in error, he should be corrected with all kindness. If this does not suffice, all appropriate means should be used to bring him to a correct interpretation, and so defend the proposition from error.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Friday in the 2nd Week of Ordinary Time (I)
They Will All Know Me…

Readings: Hebrews 8:6-13; Psalms 85:8 and 10, 11-12, 13-14; Mark 3:13-19

Reflecting on developments in our world some knowledgeable people have noted the ever-increasing degree of specialization in the various fields of learning. Take medicine for example. Whenever anyone gets seriously ill these days, it’s no longer enough just to see the friendly neighborhood general practitioner. You need to consult a specialist or even a few specialists if the ailment involves multiple areas of the body. The ongoing increase in the degree of specialization thus goes hand in hand with the multiplication of, and growing dependency upon, experts. We have no choice but to put our trust in those whose knowledge in their particular field of expertise far exceeds our own.

So when we hear, in today’s gospel, of Jesus appointing the Twelve, it won’t be too surprising if we quite naturally think of them also as experts in religion, specialists in the faith. And it’s also quite understandable if we extend the same opinion that we have of them to those whom we may consider their successors, namely the bishops of today, as well as to the priests and religious, the religious professionals. In a sense, we will be right, because bishops, priests and religious do devote years to the study of the faith and are also expected to cultivate a vibrant life of prayer. But are they really experts in the same way in which a neurosurgeon is an expert? Such that when it comes to matters concerning our salvation we cannot think for ourselves – what do we know? – but must always consult and defer to them? Is Jesus really appointing experts for us because we don’t have the capacity to grasp what he came to teach? Because, on our own, we are unable to receive the saving grace that he has to offer?

It would seem not, especially if we take seriously what we heard in the first reading today. We will recall that the writer has been engaged in an extended meditation on how Christ brings about a development in the notion of priesthood. Today, this development that Christ brings about is referred to as a new covenant. And, quoting from Jeremiah 31:31-34, the writer highlights a crucial way in which this covenant is new. I will put my laws into their minds and write them on their hearts… There will be no further need for neighbor to try to teach neighbor… No, they will all know me, the least no less than the greatest… In stark contrast to the specialization we have been considering, the new covenant brings about a radical democratization of the knowledge of God. When it comes to matters of salvation people are no longer at the mercy of experts. In Christ, each person has free access to their God. Of course, this in no way means that we don’t continue to need people with expert knowledge in the faith, people such as scripture scholars and moral theologians for example. Neither does it mean that bishops, priests and religious do not continue to have a role, even a crucial role, to play in the hierarchical church. What it does mean, however, is that the kind of knowledge that is crucial for salvation is no longer the exclusive domain of a select and privileged few. In Christ, God freely offers to all the knowledge that leads to life.

To truly take this teaching to heart is to receive an awesome power, to experience a new freedom. And, as our friendly neighborhood Spiderman knows so well, with great power comes great responsibility. How are we wielding this power, how are we living out this responsibility today?
Thursday in the 2nd Week of Ordinary Time (I)
Reflection or Reality?

Readings: Hebrews 7:25—8:6; Psalm 40:7-8a, 8b-9, 10, 17; Mark 3:7-12

But he warned them strongly not to make him known…

Why, we may wonder, did Jesus not want the unclean spirits to make him known? Isn’t it true, what they say in media circles, that any publicity is good publicity? This is a question even the scholars continue to puzzle over. Did Jesus simply wish to shun publicity? Why then did he not avoid the great crowds who kept coming to him? Did he not wish to be known as a wonder-worker? Why then did he continue to work miracles and to heal? As we ponder this question and consider its relevance for us today, we might turn to the first reading for insights that might help us.

Here the focus continues to remain, as it has for the past few days, on the priesthood of Christ. Today the writer introduces a useful metaphor to help us compare the ritual sacrifices offered by the priests of the Law and the one sacrifice offered by Christ. The former, he says, only maintain the service of a model or a reflection of the heavenly realities. The metaphor used is that of a reflection in a mirror versus the reality it images. For the writer, the reality that these rituals reflect, the true sacrifice that brings salvation is that of Christ who was obedient even to the extent of becoming a human person, teaching and healing, dying and rising, and now continually interceding for us before the Father. Important then that the ritual sacrifices are, it is important not to mistake the reflection for the reality. Could this provide us with some possible indication of the meaning behind Jesus’ actions in the gospel today?

Could Jesus’ reluctance to let the unclean spirits reveal his identity have something to do with the ease with which people often mistake the reflection for the reality? Could it be that the wonders Jesus was working were meant to point to something deeper – something about who he is and how he frees us and leads us to salvation? Could it be that to let the unclean spirits reveal him as the Son of God at this point in his ministry could lead people to miss out on this more profound aspect of the mystery? Could it be that the meaning behind the miracles he was working could only be grasped when seen in the light of what was going to happen to him further down the road?

Even as we continue, along with the scholars, to ponder this question, we might also reflect upon ourselves. What is our current experience and understanding of who Jesus is and what he does for us? To what extent does it match the reality of the Jesus portrayed in the gospels? And how are we faithfully reflecting this reality to the people around us today?

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Wednesday in the 2nd Week of Ordinary Time (I)
The New Priesthood

Readings: Hebrew 7:1-3, 15-17; Psalm 110:1, 2, 3, 4; Mark 3:1-6

Following upon our meditations of the past two days, our readings continue to help us deepen our understanding of who Jesus is and what he does for us. If Jesus is the only sure anchor of salvation for us, it is because he is the supreme high priest of the order of Melchizedek, and for ever. What does this mean for us today?

A priest is primarily one who mediates between God and humanity. Traditionally this was done by a specific tribe of men set apart by the Law to offer prayers and sacrifices to God on behalf of the people. However, as we have seen earlier, the letter to the Hebrews invites us to stretch our understanding of priesthood beyond that of a law about physical descent, beyond even that of sacrifices offered in the Temple. What then does the priestly mediation of Christ look like?

It looks like what we see in the gospel today. The way in which Christ reconciles God and humanity is not primarily the way of the Law, as important as the Law is. For, like anything else, the Law can be made into an idol, a false God. Like the Pharisees, we can choose to continue clinging obstinately to the Law even when it causes and condones great suffering. Making the Law an idol leads to oppression rather than freedom, continued division rather than reconciliation. We see, for example, the continued division not only between the Pharisees and the man with the withered hand, but also within the hearts of the Pharisees themselves, such that they are prevented from experiencing compassion for a brother who is suffering. The obstinacy of the Pharisees becomes a formidable obstacle barring their way to God.

In contrast, Jesus’ priestly ministry demonstrates, by contrast, the proper place of the Law. The Law is not an end in itself. It is useful only to the extent that it facilitates true human flourishing. The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath…. Is it against the law on the Sabbath day to do good or to do evil; to save life, or to kill? Indeed, Jesus shows that the way to reconciliation with God passes through everything that is authentically human, especially the qualities of mercy and compassion that he himself experiences in the gospel today.

Of course, we no longer observe the same Law that the Pharisees did. But do we not also experience the temptation to put other things, other laws, before human flourishing? Whether it is the laws of warfare or finance, the laws of social order or even those of the church, our idols are many and various. We know them by their fruit – hardness of heart instead of compassion, alienation instead of reconciliation...

Faced with these idols we Christians are called to the same priestly ministry that Christ continued to exercise even when people began to plot against him, discussing how to destroy him. And, as we know from the experience of Christ, the power of this ministry is irresistible. Its power is so great that even the very destruction of Christ on the cross becomes the effective means by which the reconciliation of God and humanity is achieved.

How are we being called to be priests today?

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Tuesday in the 2nd Week of Ordinary Time (I)
Our Anchor in Tumultuous Times

Readings: Hebrews 6:10-20; Psalm 111:1-2, 4-5, 9 and 10c; Mark 2:23-28

Perhaps it has always been this way. Still, few can deny that we live in tumultuous times. Just yesterday the papers reported that nearby Kota Tinggi was submerged under 3 meters of flood-water. And, of course, there is more to worry about than natural disasters and changing climate patterns. There are also storms of other kinds that are even more directly the result of our own folly: wars and conflicts, erratic economic trends, political instability, cultural confusion. Indeed, the world can often seem a frightfully uncertain and dangerous place.

In the midst of these very choppy waters, it’s not surprising that many should seek a firm anchor. There are those, for example, who in various ways try to find security in themselves. Some do it through immediate self-gratification. Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die (see 1 Corinthians 15:33). Others through healthier psychological or even spiritual pursuits like positive thinking, exercise and meditation. Not to say that these are bad or wrong. But, in themselves, how firm an anchor do they provide?

Then, of course, there are those who try to find stability in certain external absolutes. Some seek it in ideals such as the free-market or nationalism. Others seek it in an overly literal reading of the bible or other religious texts. Yet others, like the Pharisees in today’s gospel, seek it in a moral or religious code of conduct, usually narrowly conceived and stringently enforced. Again, while the need to find a secure footing in the shifting sands of our time is understandable, we might question the firmness of these things to which many cling. We might also wonder if such a search for security doesn’t actually make things worse. Is it possible that such efforts can have detrimental effects on us, can actually damage something in us that is deeply human? Isn’t this why Jesus is quick to remind the Pharisees that the sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath?

For us who are Christian, there really is only one sure anchor for our soul. Our only true security in uncertain times – indeed, at all times – is in our relationship with the one who calls himself the Master of the Sabbath, the same one who though he was God emptied himself to become one like us in all things but sin. Our anchor is in Christ, who is both fully God and fully human.

If we are to persevere through the difficulties of our time, it is only by continuing to cultivate this relationship with Christ, by putting all our hope in the Lord who always keeps his covenant ever in mind.

How is this Lord inviting us to anchor our lives more firmly in him today?

Monday, January 15, 2007

Monday in the 2nd Week of Ordinary Time (I)
Stretching Our Skins

Readings: Hebrews 5:1-10; Psalm 110:1, 2, 3, 4; Mark 2:18-22

I’ve begun noticing how it now costs a little more to da bao food from the hawker centre or foodcourt. We’re being charged for the container as well as the contents. It’s not unlike how in some countries supermarkets charge more for the use of their plastic bags. It’s a laudable effort to “go green,” to save the environment. Whatever the reason for the extra charge, the point is that we now have to consider the container as well as the contents.

Isn’t this what’s happening in our readings today? Just a day after we joyfully considered how Jesus changes the ordinary water of our everyday lives into the new wine of salvation, our readings remind us that it’s also important to consider the containers we use to receive this precious gift.

However, what’s at stake here is much more than the twenty cents extra that the hawker charges, more important even than saving the environment. Nobody puts new wine into old wineskins; if he does, the wine will burst the skins, and wine is lost and the skins too. No! New wine, fresh skins! Using the wrong container can actually result in the loss of the contents.

But what does this mean for us in practical terms? What does it mean to use new as opposed to old wineskins? Clearly the advantage of the former over the latter is flexibility. Just as new wineskins have the ability to stretch to contain the still-fermenting new wine, so too is Jesus inviting the Pharisees and all of us to allow our religious practices, our ideas, our attitudes, our hearts to be flexible enough to welcome the new and often surprising ways in which God comes to meet us everyday.

This is not easy, especially because it’s perhaps much less frightening to think only in straight lines and right angles. Isn’t this why we tend to prefer clear-cut definitions and unchanging answers to the questions of life? Thinking in this way, there is also less danger of going astray, greater likelihood of remaining faithful to what we have received, or so we might think. But isn't there also the danger of hampering the fermentation of the new wine, of stifling the dynamism of the Spirit? What to do?

The first reading provides a good illustration of what we are talking about. Meditating on who Jesus is and what he accomplishes for us, the writer uses the idea of priesthood. Jesus is the Supreme High Priest who has offered the final and only truly effective sacrifice for our sins. There are problems with this description, however, and the writer is aware of them. For priests were drawn only from the tribe of Levi, and Jesus was not of that tribe. Neither did Jesus offer sacrifice in the Temple the way the Levites did.

If we were to cling then to the prevailing idea and definition of priesthood, we would have to say that the first reading is mistaken. But the writer is not ignorant. He is carefully stretching our understanding of priesthood in light of what Jesus does for us. Jesus is priest not of the order of Levi, but of Melchizedek, whose origin cannot be pinned down definitively but who is nonetheless described in the Old Testament as priest of God Most High (see Genesis 14:18). And although Jesus could not offer sacrifices in the Jerusalem Temple, he learnt obedience through suffering even unto death. The sacrifice he offers is in the temple of his own body, in the submission of his own will to the Father.

The new wine of our salvation, the same salvation that we welcomed at Christmas, needs to be received in supple minds and flexible hearts. The stretching that is necessary will often be uncomfortable, disorientating and even frightening. But isn’t this a small price to pay when compared with the immensity of the gift to be received?

How is the Lord stretching us today?

Sunday, January 14, 2007

2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)
The Wine is for the Wedding

Readings: Isaiah 62:1-5; Psalm 96:1-2, 2-3, 7-8, 9-10; 1 Corinthians 12:4-11; John 2:1-11

Sisters and brothers, the people who go for retreats or seminars for spiritual renewal– and I include myself among them – sometimes have the following experience. During the retreat or seminar we may experience what some call a spiritual high because, I suppose, it’s not unlike the buzz that you might get from a glass or two of wine. It feels great! It’s like you’ve been taken to the top of a mountain where you enjoy the cool breeze and a bird’s-eye view of your whole life. From way up here the problems and difficulties that you were struggling with not so long ago seem so small and insignificant, or at least they seem much more manageable and bearable. There’s peace and joy in your heart. There’s new hope for the future. It seems like you’re in love with everyone on the whole wide earth. It’s exhilarating!

How long this feeling lasts varies from person to person. For days or even months after the retreat, we may continue to feel as though we were still high up on a mountain-top. But there also inevitably comes a time when our feet seem finally to return to ground zero. And the landing can sometimes be quite rough, especially if we had been expecting the high to last forever. To borrow the imagery from our gospel today, the heady wine that was making everything seem so light and easy seems finally to run out and all that we are left with is the plain bland water of our ordinary everyday routine. It feels like we’re back to square one, if not worse. Did we really go on retreat? Or were we just dreaming?

Of course, not all of us here will have gone for retreats or spiritual seminars before. Nor do we have to. But haven’t we all just been through five or six weeks of the Advent and Christmas seasons? And wasn’t this time a retreat of sorts for us? Didn’t many of us experience something of a high then, whether it was the exhilaration or the quiet contentment that often comes to those who prepare for, welcome and then gaze in awe upon the face of the infant Jesus lying in the manger?

But of course the Christmas and New Year holidays very quickly come to an end. And then, as a line from an old pop song goes, it’s back to life, back to reality. Or so it may seem. And especially in the midst of the beginning-of-the-year rush to work and to school we may find ourselves feeling as though the wine of the Christmas season has indeed run out. Or worse, we might even doubt if we actually tasted any wine to begin with. Maybe ordinary water is the only drink available to us. After all, doesn’t even the Church refer to this period as Ordinary Time?

Our readings on this 2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time do much to help us negotiate this change of altitude. They help us to reflect more deeply on the significance of what we celebrated on the mountain-top of the Christmas season and to connect it with the apparent ground zero experience of Ordinary Time.

Although the festive high may have worn off, the gospel story reminds us that not only is the one whom we welcomed at Christmas still very much with us, but that he is able to change the water of our ordinary everyday routine into wine. For isn’t Jesus’ miracle at Cana an expression of the same mystery that we celebrated at Christmas? By his coming to us as a human person, Jesus, the only begotten Son of God, makes ordinary things and ordinary time extraordinary. But how does he do this, we might wonder? And what assurance do we have that he will continue to do this for us everyday? Isn’t the problem precisely that the wine the child Jesus provided us at Christmas has run out?

To answer these questions we need to see that the focus of today’s readings is not really the changing of water into wine. Marvelous as this miracle is, the gospel refers to it as the first of the signs given by Jesus. The wine, the high we may experience at Christmas or at any other time, is important not in and of itself. It points us to something far more significant. In the gospel, just as the wine is important only for the wedding, so too is the miracle itself important only because it signifies, it points out, who Jesus is and what he does for us.

More than a miracle-worker, Jesus is the one through whom God binds himself to us in a bond that can never be broken. The wine is really only for the wedding. And the wedding is really our very own. We heard as much in the first reading today: As the bridegroom rejoices in his bride, so will your God rejoice over you. This is our assurance that the festivities of Christmas really have lasting value even when the high may seem to have worn off, even when we seem to have been left to struggle with the mundane challenges of daily living. Because in Christ God has pledged himself to us for all eternity.

And we might consider the wine that Jesus provides in the gospel also as a sign of a wondrous wedding gift by which God seals his pledge of eternal fidelity to us. This gift is a far stronger spirit than any wine we can buy, whatever the vintage. For this gift is nothing less than the Spirit whom we heard about in the second reading today. Although we may not be able actually to see this Spirit, we can experience the gifts that the Spirit brings, including the gifts that are described in the second reading from the first letter to the Corinthians, gifts that help us to find new meaning in, and new energy to live, our everyday routine.

But in order to do this, in order to enjoy the power of this wedding gift who is the Spirit, we need to live out the implications of a life wedded to God. We need to live according to the new name that God has given us. We are no longer to be called forsaken, no longer left to live for ourselves alone. Rather, we are now called wedded. Our lives are to be centered upon our Divine Spouse and his plans for establishing his kingdom on earth. As we heard in the second reading, the variety of gifts given by one and the same Spirit are not only for our own personal enjoyment but for the service and building up of God’s people. It is only when we make this purpose our own, it is only when we heed Mary’s advice and do whatever Jesus tells us, that we can continue to experience the true meaning of Christ’s coming not just on the mountain-top of the holiday season but also at the ground-zero of Ordinary Time. For whatever the altitude, whether we may be feeling high or low, nothing can change the fact that we are God’s beloved. We are precious in God’s sight. We are those whom God has called by name.

Yes, sisters and brothers, the wine is indeed only for the wedding and the Spirit for the Kingdom. And although the high of the holiday season may have passed, our new name and our new status as beloved spouse of God remain unchanged.

How might we continue to live our lives wedded to and centered on our Divine Spouse today?

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Saturday in the First Week of Ordinary Time (I)
Submitting to the Surgeon

Readings: Hebrews 4:12-16; Psalm 19:8, 9, 10, 15; Mark 2:13-17

The word of God is something alive and active…

The first reading and the gospel, read so closely one after the other, bring a particular image to my mind. In the first reading the word of God is compared to a double-edged sword so sharp that it can even slip through the place where the joints are divided from the marrow. And in the gospel, Jesus compares himself to a doctor who is needed only by those who are sick. These two images – the sharp sword and the doctor – merge in my mind to form the picture of a surgeon performing surgery with a very sharp scalpel. And this is no ordinary surgeon. Nor is it a minor routine day-surgery that he performs. This surgeon is the very Word-of-God-made-flesh and what is at stake in the surgery is nothing less than eternal life. For isn’t this yet another image of what we have been considering this whole week: how the God who comes to us at Christmas leads us to life? Yes, this is an image of what we proclaimed in the response to the psalm today: your words are spirit Lord, and they are life.

But what do I do with this image of a surgeon? What are my reactions to it? And how can I relate to it in such a way that I too might be brought to life?

I need first to consider what I should not do, a temptation I need to avoid. Too often, and too easily, whenever I encounter the Word of God, I too quickly think of myself as the surgeon wielding the scalpel. I too easily try to apply what I’m hearing to others, to judge their secret emotions and thoughts. And I do this mostly by focusing on their perceived shortcomings and failings, much like the scribes of the Pharisee party do in the gospel today. When they encounter Jesus, the Word-of-God-made-flesh their first reaction is to judge others. Not only do they judge the tax-collectors and sinners, but they even presume to judge Jesus himself. I’m reminded of the story of the person who approaches the preacher to congratulate him. That was a wonderful sermon Father, she said, practically everything you said applies to someone else whom I know.

I know I need to avoid this reaction, because when I use the double-edged sword that is the Word-of-God to judge others not only do I harm them, but I also harm myself. I deprive others and myself of the life-saving surgery that we need. Indeed, isn’t this why I judge in the first place? Isn’t my judging often a defense mechanism, something I use to resist undergoing the surgery that I need?

Instead of thinking of myself as a surgeon, when I do encounter the Lord I need first to play the role of patient. I am the one who is sick. I am the one in need of medical attention. I need to allow the surgical Word of God to cut into me, to judge my secret emotions and thoughts. And when I do this, I discover what Levi discovers in the gospel today. The divine surgeon comes not so much to scold me for my failings but to set free and to call out the good that is in me, especially when it’s trapped in my own sinfulness and the bad opinions others may have of me. Let us be confident, then, in approaching the throne of grace, that we shall have mercy from him and find grace when we are in need of help.

Sisters and brothers, as we come to the end of this first week in Ordinary Time, how does the divine surgeon wish to save us today?

Friday, January 12, 2007

Friday in the First Week of Ordinary Time (I)
Our Place of Rest

Readings: Hebrews 4:1-5, 11; Psalm 78:3 and 4bc, 6c-7, 8; Mark 2:1-12

Our first reading continues yesterday’s meditation on psalm 95 by focusing on the verse that speaks of the place of rest that God has prepared for all the faithful. The reading equates this place to God’s rest on the seventh day of the creation story as told in the book of Genesis. This heavenly rest is the awesome destiny that awaits all the faithful. The reading then concludes with the exhortation: we must therefore do everything we can to reach the place of rest…

This is a message that many of us need and desire to hear, especially because we live in an age of great busyness. In addition to the busyness of external activity which frequently burdens us with so much stress that many of us can hardly breathe, there is also the busyness of heart – the various worries and anxieties – that afflicts many, both young and old, working or retired alike. Do we not desire the consolation offered by our readings, as they assure us that we are destined to enjoy eternal rest. But what might this place of rest mean for us? What do we need to do to get there? And do we necessarily have to wait till we get to heaven?

It’s important that we first avoid misunderstanding. This place of rest is not a place that we can get to on our own steam. To try to do so would only be to add yet another unbearable burden on our own shoulders, much like the pharisees and scribes did. Although we are called to do everything to get to where we wish to go, the focus – as we heard in the response to the psalm – is not really on our own efforts but on the deeds of the Lord. For isn’t there some truth to what the scribes were thinking in today’s gospel: who can forgive sins but God alone?

Yet God has already done something. God has already sent us Christ the Son, in whom our heavenly rest has actually come to us. We notice, for example, what Jesus does for the paralytic. Jesus heals him physically and spiritually and bids him go off home. Through the ministry of Jesus, the paralytic is helped to rise from his stretcher and to find his way to his true place of rest, his heavenly home. In the experience of the paralytic we see how what we cannot do for ourselves God does for us in Christ. What we need to do, then, is not so much to save ourselves or our loved ones – we cannot, however hard we may try – but to come to Jesus and to remain in Him. We need to be willing – as the four friends of the paralytic were – even to strip the roofs off houses, to vacate or let go of those transitory places and things in which we may be trying to find fulfillment and rest. We need to spare no effort to put Christ at the center of our lives, to make Him and his values our number one priority. So that even in the midst of our everyday preoccupations we might already experience in Christ an anticipation of our final heavenly resting place.

Today, what are we being invited to do to find our place of rest?

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Thursday in the First Week of Ordinary Time (I)
Affairs of the Heart

Readings: Hebrews 3:7-14; Psalm 95:6-7c, 8-9, 10-11; Mark 1:40-45

O that today you would listen to his voice! ‘Harden not your hearts’…

For the last couple of days we have been attending to how Jesus experiences and responds to different temptations. To the temptation to escape the messiness of human life, Jesus responds by embracing the fullness of human existence. To the temptation of clinging to the gifts of God, Jesus responds by clinging to his heavenly Father, the giver of all good gifts. Today, our readings focus our attention on the heart.

Harden not you hearts… But what does this mean? Surely we are respectable people. We don’t have hardened hearts

Yet we know there are different ways of being hardened. Sometimes it’s a matter of taste. It’s like how the person who is used to drinking tea with sugar will find unsweetened tea tasteless. Or how a person who is used to very salty food finds anything less salty bland. Similarly, we can coarsen or even deaden our taste for the things of God by over-indulging in material, secular, even sinful things. There is also the hardening that results from trauma. It’s sort of like when we get a cut and a scab forms over the injury to protect it. But the scab also has no feeling. Similarly the pains and disappointments of life can cause us to form scabs over our hearts that prevent us from feeling the touch of others and of God. Then there is the hardening that comes with prejudice. For example, we may grow up being taught that all Malays are lazy, such that even when we are grown up, our eyes are blind to the diligence that any Malay might exhibit. Or, because of what’s going on in the world around us, we may think that Islam is a religion that only teaches violence, and that all Muslims are violent fanatics. And our hearts are hardened to the good that is found in the Islamic faith and its adherents.

In contrast, Jesus shows us in the gospel what it’s like to have a heart of flesh. By any account, he should have rebuffed the leper’s request. People were taught in Jesus’ day, even by the Law, to treat a leper as an outcaste . Yet Jesus is moved with pity for him and even touches him.

But we must not be mistaken. The gospel is not just presenting Jesus as a model for us to follow. Indeed, how many of us will find Jesus’ example easy to emulate? Rather, I am that leper. Just as the leper’s affliction affects his capacity to experience sensations, so too does my hardened heart disable me and prevent me from exercising my spiritual senses. Like the leper, I need humbly to kneel before the Lord and beg him for help. And we are confident that Jesus will heal us, that he will replace our hearts of stone with hearts of flesh. After all, does his compassion not lead him to take upon himself the consequences of the leper’s illness? While the leper is re-integrated into society, Jesus could no longer go openly into any town. We need to throw ourselves before the mercy of the Lord. We need to ask him for hearts capable of hearing God and feeling compassion for others.

How is God healing our hardened hearts today?

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Wednesday in the First Week of Ordinary Time (I)
From Clinging to Letting Go

Readings: Hebrews 2:14-18; Psalm 105:1-2, 3-4, 6-7, 8-9; Mark 1:29-39

Because he himself has been through temptation he is able to help others who are tempted…

We continue to meditate upon how the God who comes to us at Christmas brings us out of darkness into the light of new and eternal life. Just as yesterday we saw Jesus counteracting the tendency to escape the messiness of daily living by fully embracing all the implications of human existence, so today we find him dealing with yet another temptation.

Early in his public ministry, Jesus enjoys much success and popularity. In the words of his disciples: Everyone is looking for you. Is it not likely then that he who embraced the life of a human being might also have experienced the temptation to cling to his newfound success? Could he not have struggled with the tendency to remain where he was in Capernaum and to build up his own reputation and career as a preacher and miraculous healer?

And yet, we see Jesus counteracting this temptation by going off to a lonely place to pray. And in his prayer he finds strength to do that for which he came. His prayer helps him to recall his true purpose and identity. And with this as his focus, Jesus is enabled to let go of all other attachments, even attachments to very good things – such as the wonderful work he has been doing and the friends that he has made in Capernaum. He moves on to preach all through Galilee.

Of course, this kind of letting go is not easy. In a very real way, it involves a dying to oneself and all one’s ambitions and needs for success and affirmation. But it is also a dying that leads to life. And in submitting to it, Jesus is doing what is written in the first reading today: he sets free all of us who are held in slavery by the fear of death.

As we continue to look at Jesus, as we continue to allow him to show us the way to the Father, how are we being called to let go all that we are clinging to so as to enter more fully into the Father’s embrace?

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Tuesday in the First Week of Ordinary Time (I)
Angels and Humans

Readings: Hebrews 2:5-12; Psalm 8:2ab and 5, 6-7, 8-9; Mark 1:21-28

Jesus our savior has already been born for us. The Light of Christ has already come to dispel the darkness of our hearts and our world. In the next six weeks of Ordinary Time, we will allow our weekday readings from the Letter to the Hebrews and the gospel of Mark to focus our attention on this One who is our Light and our salvation. We will allow ourselves to reflect more deeply on the way in which Christ brings us to share in the eternal life of the Father.

And perhaps the first thing that strikes us about Jesus in the gospel of today is the power and authority that he wields. Here is a teaching that is new, the people exclaim, and with authority behind it… even… unclean spirits obey him. This is a power and an authority that we too might desire for ourselves. And, as baptized Christians, we are indeed called to wield it. But we need first to be clear about what this power and authority might be.

I myself tend very easily to think of it as the power of angels, because I am sometimes attracted to the many obvious advantages to being an angel. An angel has no body, and so an angel could probably be in more than one place at the same time, would not be limited to 24 hours in a day, wouldn’t need to sleep, wouldn’t suffer from any illnesses, wouldn’t have to deal with all the messy practical details of daily living…

But is this the kind of authority that Jesus exercises in the gospel? Is Jesus powerful because he is able to escape the inevitable limitations of everyday human life? Obviously, Jesus’ authority flows from who he is – the only begotten Son of the Father. But this is not an angelic authority. For as we heard in the first reading: God did not appoint angels to be rulers of the world to come… No, the power and authority that Jesus wields is that of one who embraces the fullness of human life. Again, as the letter to the Hebrews reminds us: the one who sanctifies, and the ones who are sanctified, are of the same stock. Jesus was glorified by the Father not by escaping but by embracing the messiness of our human existence. His power comes through a loving and humble submission to powerlessness. He allows himself to be made perfect through suffering even to the point of death.

If this is so, then, like that man in the synagogue today, I too need to allow Jesus to cast out from me the unclean spirit that tempts me to crave the life of an angel. I need to allow Jesus to teach and share with me the power to embrace my own humanity as the only sure Way to the Father.

Today, how are we being invited to embrace our humanity more firmly, so as to share more fully in Christ’s divinity?

Monday, January 08, 2007

Baptism of the Lord
New Beginnings

Readings: Titus 2:22-14; 3:4-7; Psalm 104:1b-2, 3-4, 24-25, 27-28, 29-30; Luke 3:15-16, 21-22

Today the Christmas season comes to an end with our celebration of the feast of the Baptism of the Lord. This feast provides an occasion for us to look back upon the past two weeks of Christmas and to see how it has truly been a celebration of new beginnings.

Of course, to some of us, it may seem a little jarring. Just yesterday we were celebrating the Epiphany and Jesus was still a newborn babe lying in the manger, being adored by the Magi. But today, quite suddenly, this baby has become a grown man and is being baptized by John in the Jordan.

Yet it is really still the same mystery that we are contemplating. We are still celebrating the beginning of a new liturgical year as well as the beginning of our salvation with the coming of God’s light to dispel the darkness of our hearts and our world. And just as yesterday we marveled at the how this new light shines out to all the nations through the babe in the manger, so today we continue to contemplate how this light shines out anew in the public ministry of Christ beginning at his baptism in the Jordan.

Yes, Christmas is indeed a celebration of new beginnings. And even as we bring the season to a close, we are invited to reflect also on our own beginnings as Christians, on our own baptism and the meaning it has for us.

For just as Jesus’ baptism marks the beginning of his public ministry, so too is our baptism meant to mark the beginning of our role as bearers of Christ’s light to others. Like Jesus, we too are called to continually let our lives revolve solely around doing the will of the Father and proclaiming the coming of God’s Kingdom.

And just as the power of Jesus’ ministry flows from an awareness of his own identity as beloved Son upon whom the Father’s favor rests, so too is the authenticity of our Christian living conditioned upon our own awareness of who we are. Ordinary though many of us may seem to be, in water and the Holy Spirit, we have all been baptized into an extraordinary calling. In Christ we are all adopted daughters and sons of the Father. In Christ, we have become those upon whom the Father’s favor rests.

Yet, in order to continue making new beginnings, we need also to hear the Father’s ongoing affirmation of us in the Holy Spirit. We need to spend time everyday in prayer as Jesus does after his own baptism. We need to give our hearts the time and space to listen to the words that have the power to mould and transform each one of us, the words that are spoken in ways that the Father alone knows how to speak: you are my daughter/ you are my son. You are my beloved. My favor rests on you.

My sisters and brothers, even as we bring our Christmas celebrations to a close today, how are we being invited to continue making new beginnings ?

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Note: The following homily was preached in 2006.

Bearers and Seekers of the Light

Readings: Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72:1-2, 7-8, 10-11, 12-13; Ephesians 3:2-3a, 5-6; Matthew 2:1-12

Sisters and brothers, for some strange reason, today’s readings remind me of a game that we used to play in childhood. It was a game of make-believe where each of us would pretend to be a character from the comic-strip Batman and Robin. What we did in the game depended on the particular role we chose. I don’t remember exactly what each of us actually did, but I do remember that after a while, it got a bit boring, and we stopped playing the game. On hindsight, this was probably because each of us always ended up playing the same part. Come to think of it, part of the problem for me may have been the fact that I always ended up playing the Joker. I suspect that the game would have survived a little longer if, just once or twice, I could have played Batman, or even Robin.

What bizarre connection could these stray memories of mine have to our readings today, as we celebrate the Solemnity of the Epiphany of our Lord? As we know, today’s feast celebrates the manifestation of Christ the Light to all the peoples of the world represented today by the Wise Men in the gospel story. The question we might ask is, so what? What implications does the Light’s coming have in my life? What ought I to do? I think this is where we might draw on the Batman-game analogy. Our proper response to the Epiphany, what we ought to do, depends upon the role that we choose to play. In particular the readings present us with two main roles. What are they?

First, we should notice that when the Light comes, it doesn’t come to everyone in every place. Instead, God seems to delight in choosing very particular places and people. The Light comes to them. They receive it. But it is meant not just for them but for all. The Light is only entrusted to them. They are called to be bearers of the Light for others. So, in the first reading, Jerusalem is described as the privileged location of the Light’s coming. And all peoples will stream to her. What she is told to do is not to be bashful but to arise and shine out because above you the Lord now rises and above you his glory appears.

In the gospel, Jerusalem is replaced by the insignificant town of Bethlehem in Judaea, which becomes the honored birthplace of Christ the Messiah. And it is to Bethlehem that the Wise Foreigners come in search of the Light.

In the second reading, the privileged place becomes a privileged person. For Paul describes himself as having been entrusted by God with the grace… meant for the Ephesians. He sees it as his mission and responsibility to bear witness to the Ephesians that God’s love and compassion in Christ is meant also for them, and for all the pagans.

Clearly, then, to celebrate Epiphany well, we Christians must accept our role as privileged bearers of the Light. We must allow the Light who is Christ to shine out in us, so as to illuminate the night (that) still covers the earth and the darkness (that still covers) the peoples – the darkness of poverty and disease, of loneliness and anxiety, of sin and unbelief. For this is what the light comes to do. As we heard in the responsorial psalm, he shall save the poor when they cry and the needy who are helpless. He will have pity on the weak and save the lives of the poor. If we wish to remain in the Light, if we wish to really experience the effects of His coming, we must be bearers of the Light for others. In particular, we might ask ourselves how conscious we are of our responsibility to help bring others to Christ, to speak to them about Christ, or at least to bear witness to Christ through the way in which we live and work.

But isn’t there also another side to the story? Just as my childhood playmates and I got stuck in playing the same roles all the time, is it not also possible to become too caught up in the role of being a privileged bearer of the Light? Is it not tempting to think that we, either as individual Christians, or as a Church, are in full and absolute possession of the Light, such that our sole mission in life is to lead others into the light, to teach them the truth, to give them the answers to every conceivable question that life might pose? Of course, it is an essential tenet of our faith that in Christ we have the fullness of revelation. But the question we might ask is whether or not, at any given moment in time, we can truly claim to be in absolute possession of the fullness of Christ? Or is it not also true that we remain a pilgrim Church, a people still very much on the way into the full brilliance of the Light? Is it not also true that there remains much for us to learn, and many more questions for us to ask and ponder? And is it not the case that when we become fixated on our role as bearers of the Light, we run the risk of becoming like Herod in the gospel? He and his scribes possessed the knowledge to predict where the Light was to be born, but not the humility to venture forth and worship Him themselves.

If this is conceded, then, it becomes important to consider yet another role presented to us in the readings of today: the role played by the Wise Men in the gospel, the role of seeker of the Light. And to play this role well, we need to notice its characteristics. We need to see the wisdom and humility which allows the Wise Men to recognize and seek the Light in a foreign land, to ask directions from foreign scribes, and to follow the instructions of a foreign king, even as they discerned and guarded against his treachery. We need to see the generosity that prompted them to bring gifts – gifts precious not just in themselves, but in the way in which they expressed so eloquently, what the Light meant to those who brought them. We need also to see the courage and commitment which sustained the Wise Men on their long journey from the East and back again.

But what does it mean for us to be seekers of the Light? To consider this question is also to consider where the Light might be found in our world today. Could it be that the Light is recognizable even in those whom we generally consider to be in the dark? Could we find the Light – if even only a ray of it – in those of other religions, for example, or, God forbid, even in the Protestants?! If that is indeed true, we might ask ourselves what we are doing, as individuals and as a community, to actively seek out the Light that might be found elsewhere than in what is most familiar. I am reminded, for example, that the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is only slightly more than a week away. How will we be taking advantage of that time to seek out the Light in our fellow Christians of other denominations?

My sisters and brothers, could it be possible that to celebrate Epiphany well we require something that would have made my childhood game of Batman and Robin more interesting: the skill that enables us simultaneously to play and balance between the dual roles of bearer and seeker of the Light? Could it even be the case that we really become better bearers of the Light to the extent that we are also good seekers? My childhood game of Batman and Robin did not survive very long, but the drama of our life of faith continues. In this drama, which role do we play well? Which role do we need to play better? How can we become better bearers and seekers of the Light?

Saturday, January 06, 2007

6 January
God’s Testimony

Readings: 1 John 5:5-13; Psalm 147:12-13, 14-15, 19-20; Mark 1:7-11 or Lk 3:23-38 or Lk 3:23, 31-34, 36, 38

Our meditations on the first letter of John have brought us full circle. We may recall that we began, on 2 Jan, by having our attention focused on the distinction between those who acknowledge and those who deny God’s coming in the flesh. We then spent some days reflecting on what it means to believe. Today we are brought back to consider the basis upon which our belief rests. How do we know that Jesus is indeed the Son of God?

In part, much of our faith is based on external events in the life of Christ: on his birth, his baptism – which we heard described in the gospel of today, his public ministry, and most of all in his passion, death and resurrection. But we also know that while many were acquainted with, and even witnessed, these events, not all came to believe. Obviously something more is required.

It is only when seen with the eyes of faith that these events take on their true significance as nothing less than the testimony of God himself. It is only when seen through the eyes of faith that Christmas takes on its true meaning. It is only through the eyes faith that we see – as much in the babe in the manger as in the man baptized in the Jordan, as much in the wonder-worker in Galilee and Jerusalem as in the one crucified on the cross – the water, the blood and the Spirit by which the Almighty God professes his undying love for his people to the extent of becoming one like us even unto death.

This then is the basis of our belief in the God-made-flesh. And perhaps what’s even more important, this testimony of God is found within us – as individuals and as a community. Indeed it is into this testimony that we have all been baptized and confirmed, and in which we partake at the Eucharistic Table. So that it is not only in the external events of Christ’s life two thousand years ago, not only in the bible, that we encounter God. Rather God continues to come to us in the flesh in each event and person that we encounter everyday in our lives. Here too – as much in the joy and the laughter as in the blood, sweat, and tears of our daily living – we can see and follow the Christ who is continually being born, and who is continually dying and rising to new life.

This is the testimony, this is the awesome mystery, that we have been celebrating in these days of the Christmas season. And although the season will soon come to a close on Monday, we will continue to rejoice in the mystery because God continues to testify to his great love for us by coming to meet us each day.

How might we continue to welcome this God who comes?

Friday, January 05, 2007

5 January
The Love that Goes Looking…

Readings: 1 John 3:11-21; Psalm 100:1b-2, 3, 4, 5; John 1:43-51

The first reading continues to shock us with its stark contrasts and sharp distinctions. What is it that sets the children of God apart from the children of the Evil One? The first live in love, but the second commit murder. And to love is not just to have nice warm feelings. Love is not mere words but is something real and active. It is nothing less than to lay down one’s life for others just as Christ did. But what is perhaps even more striking is that there is only one other alternative: either we lay down our lives in love or we cut our sisters’ or brothers’ throats. There is no middle ground.

The first reading equates the failure to love, the failure to do good, the failure to lay down one’s life for another, with the active taking of that other’s life. Shocking as this may be, it is not something we haven’t heard before. Doesn’t Jesus imply the same when, upon healing the man with the withered hand, he challenges the Pharisees with the question: Is it against the law on the Sabbath day to do good, or to do evil; to save life, or to kill? (Mark 3:4) Not to save life when we can is to kill – there is no middle ground.

How this love, this laying down of one’s life, looks like in practice is illustrated by the gospel story. There is much movement here. Jesus decides to leave for Galilee, in search of others to whom he might minister. He finds Philip. And having himself been found, Philip finds Nathanael. And this movement today is but a continuation of yesterday’s story, wherein we saw the first two disciples seeking Jesus out. And having found Jesus, Andrew sought out his brother Simon Peter. Is this not a good illustration of the active love that the first reading speaks about? To love is to lay down one’s life by seeking others out. Isn’t this what we celebrate at Christmas – the love that brings God down to earth as one of us, the love that goes looking for the lost, the love that spends itself in search of the beloved.

Even as we continue to celebrate Christ’s coming, even as we continue to allow the immensity of God’s love in Christ to overwhelm us, perhaps we might also consider how we, in our turn, are being called to seek out and lay down our lives in the service of others. For some, this will quite literally involve traveling far and wide to preach the good news. But for many of us it will also involve simply being a loving presence to those with whom we live and work, simply being patient and kind to those who are difficult (cf. 1 Corinthians 13:4). And we learn to do this only to the extent that we ourselves continue to experience the love and patience of God for us in Christ, the same love that we celebrate at Christmas.

Today, how are we being invited to love?

Thursday, January 04, 2007

4 January
Sin and the Children of God

Readings: 1 John 3:7-10; Psalm 98:1, 7-8, 9; John 1:35-42

No one who has been begotten by God sins… (1Jn 3:9)

Our first reading continues to deepen our reflection on the distinction between those who acknowledge and those who deny Christ’s coming in the flesh. In very strong language, the former are described as children of God and the latter as children of the devil. The lives of the former are holy, just as the latter are sinful. And this is as it should be, since those who follow Jesus, those who remain with him, as the first disciples do in today’s gospel, have already found what they are looking for. They have already been called out of darkness into the light of God’s only begotten Son, just as it is our belief that those who have been baptized have already been irrevocably marked with the sign of faith.

Yet we must not let this important already aspect of the story of our salvation lead us to neglect the no less important ongoing aspect. Do not, for example, even the great saints continue to speak of their own sinfulness? Do not even very holy people continue to participate regularly and frequently in the sacrament of reconciliation? Did not the first disciples of today’s gospel continue to struggle with their own weaknesses even in the days following their initial calling? And earlier in the very same letter of John do we not also find the following?

If we say we have no sin in us, we are deceiving ourselves and refusing to acknowledge the truth… (1 Jn 1:8)

Clearly, although we are already the children of God, this is not something that we can take for granted. To be a child of God is also a continual process, an ongoing journey out of darkness into the light. It is a continuing struggle against the sinfulness that is within us as much as with that which is without.

If this is true, what is important for us is not so much where we are on this journey – whether we have only just been converted to Christ, or whether we have been traveling with him for a long time – but the direction in which we are going. What is more important is that we continue to stay with Jesus, as the first disciples did, even when the road leads into a dark valley, even when we find the going strenuous, even when thick fog might obscure our vision. And as long as we keep on going, our salvation is as secure as the rock after which Peter is named. And not only our salvation, but also the salvation of those whom we bring to Jesus as Andrew does today. For this Rock is none other than Christ, the stone rejected by the builders which has become the corner-stone of our salvation (cf. Mark 12:10).

This Christmas, how are we being called to persevere in following Christ, in staying with Him, as the first disciples did?