Saturday, March 31, 2007

Saturday in the 5th Week of Lent
Gathering the Scattered

Readings: Ezekiel 37:21-28; Jeremiah 31:10, 11-12abcd, 13; John 11:45-56

Many of us have probably heard the story of the person (we shan’t say whether it’s a man or a woman) who often confessed the sin of gossiping. Finally, the pastor had had enough and asked the person to climb a hill on a windy day carrying a pillow filled with goose feathers. Once at the top, the pillow was to be ripped open so that the contents would be carried away by the wind. The following day the person was to return to the hill-top and attempt to retrieve all the scattered feathers and return them to the pillow. An impossible task, of course!

But no more impossible than what God is doing in the readings of today. It’s quite striking how the same word appears in both readings as well as the psalm. We will also hear it later in the communion antiphon. It's the verb, to gather. I shall gather them together from everywhere and bring them home to their own soil… He who scattered Israel will gather him and guard him as a shepherd guards his flock… Jesus was to die… to gather together in unity the scattered children of God…
The immensity of this task of gathering all who have been scattered should be quite plain to us. We may consider, for example, the recent happenings in the Middle East, specifically the detention of those British sailors by the Iranian government. The Iranians claim that the British vessel had strayed into Iranian waters. The British claim that it had remained in Iraqi waters. Who to believe? How to resolve the dispute? Along the same lines, I remember listening to a recent convert share with me the pain of being a Catholic child of staunchly anti-Catholic parents. Child and parents love one another dearly. Yet they simply cannot see eye-to-eye. They only want what is best for one another. Yet they continue to cause one another much pain and heartache. And their experience is but a tiny fragment of the wider scandal of a divided Christianity. Even as we consider these examples, more likely than not, each of us will also recall our own particular experiences of being scattered and disunited. Like those feathers blown away by the wind, it seems impossible that we will ever be gathered together again.

Even so, it is precisely this impossible task that God undertakes. And we must be attentive to how God gathers. Often, in the midst of differences and disputes, the natural first reaction is to try to exert one’s own will, to flex one’s own muscles, to pressure others to do that which they are not quite willing to do, to bend them to our point of view. And we continue to do this even when we know that it often leads to further scattering. God’s tack is quite different however. God gathers not by self-assertion but by self-emptying.

In the face of division, God dies.

And it is this divine act of gathering by dying that we will be paying close attention to as we begin Holy Week, as we accompany Jesus into Jerusalem. And even as we witness how God dies so as to gather the scattered into unity, we will be praying for the grace to do the same.

How does the God who dies wish to gather the scattered parts of your life today?

Friday, March 30, 2007

Friday in the 5th Week of Lent
Keeping in Touch

Readings: Jeremiah 20:10-13; Psalm 18:2-7; John 10:31-42

Even if you refuse to believe in me, at least believe in the work I do…

When saying goodbye to friends we often use the phrase keep in touch. And it is this same phrase that comes to mind today as we ponder once again the difference between Jesus and Jeremiah, on the one hand, and their adversaries on the other. What is it that enables Jesus and Jeremiah to remain so steadfast in their mission? What is it, for example, that enables Jesus to make neither change nor compromise in his message and ministry, even when people are stoning him. And what is it, on the other hand, that makes their persecutors so stubborn in opposing them and all that they stand for?

Jesus’ words in the gospel give us a good indication. When people refuse to believe that he is who he claims to be, namely the Son of God, Jesus quickly invites them to look at all that he does. That Jesus can do this indicates that whatever Jesus says and does flows quite naturally from his sense of who he is. In all that he does, Jesus always remains in touch with who he is. We may say that for Jesus, as well as for Jeremiah, doing is always closely connected with being. In contrast, Jesus’ opponents are unable to see the connection between what Jesus says and does and who he is because their own lives are out of touch. The things that they say and do, their religious beliefs and practices, are somehow out of touch with who they are.

And we know how easy it is to fall out of touch. When we first start working, for example, we may have the idea of making a good living to support our family. But as time goes on, the work can gradually take on a life of its own. And we lose touch with the original reason for working. Gradually, the family might even become sacrificed to the work. The same can probably be said for our worship. Isn’t it possible for our relationship with God to become sacrificed to our religious practices instead of the other way around?

Isn’t this another reason for our Lenten discipline? More than simply adding more things for us to do, it’s really a time for us to get back in touch with our identity as baptized daughters and sons of the Father, and to let everything we say and do flow from this renewed sense of who we are. Lent is a time for reconnecting our doing with our being.

One is reminded of a story you probably know well, a story told by Anthony de Mello, SJ:

The rich industrialist from the North was horrified to find the Southern fisherman lying lazily beside his boat, smoking a pipe. ‘Why aren’t you out fishing?’ said the industrialist. ‘Because I have caught enough fish for the day,’ said the fisherman. ‘Why don’t you catch more than you need?’ said the industrialist. ‘What would I do with it?’ asked the fisherman. ‘You could earn more money,’ was the reply. ‘With that you could have a motor fixed to your boat. Then you could go into deeper waters and catch more fish. Then you would make enough to buy nylon nets. These would bring you more fish and more money. Soon you would have enough money to own two boats… maybe even a fleet of boats. Then you would be a rich man like me.’ ‘What would I do then?’ asked the fisherman. ‘Then you could sit down and enjoy life,’ said the industrialist. ‘What do you think I am doing right now?’ said the contented fisherman.

How do you remain in touch with who you are? Why do you do what you do?

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Thursday in the 5th Week of Lent
Fluttering unto Life

Readings: Genesis 17: 3-9;; Psalm 105:4-9; ; John 8:51-59

Whoever keeps my word will never see death…

We’ve often had occasion to comment on the many changes that beset us. Some are more major than others, but together they often tend to confuse and disorientate us. At one moment, for example, we may be confessing to a priest that we failed to abstain from meat the previous Friday. And then, at the next moment, we’re told that abstinence is actually optional. It all seems quite confusing. How to negotiate the winds of change?

Jesus’ comments in the gospel today on death and life provide us with guidance. But first, we might consider what eternal life looks like in the midst of rapid and frequent change. An image comes readily to mind, one that we’ve used before. It’s the image of a kite fluttering gracefully in the breeze. It is able to negotiate the winds of change so beautifully because it’s at once firmly anchored and yet also able to go with the flow of the wind currents. If only we could all be like that. But it’s not easy. There are at least two risks involved. The kite might simply lose its anchor and be blown away by the wind and so get lost. Or, like those with whom Jesus is speaking in the gospel today, it might cling so tightly to the earth that it forever remains grounded, never quite takes off. In both these cases, the kite fails to fulfill the reason for its existence. In a sense it remains dead. Until, of course, someone like Jesus comes along. His concern is to gather the lost and to free the grounded, to help all to enjoy the fullness of life. And he does this by rooting us in his word, in the Father’s covenant.

On our part, this takes place through an act of remembering. As the psalmist tells us: remember the wonders the Lord has done. These memories include, of course, our memory as a Christian community of all that God has done for us throughout our history. But they also include the very particular and personal memories of how God has been caring for each of us in the past. When we do this, when we recall these memories, we actually find ourselves becoming firmly rooted in God’s memory, which is a very powerful thing. For the Lord remembers his covenant for ever, his promise for a thousand generations… Securely anchored in the knowledge that God never forgets us, we can then allow this kite of ours to fly, even in the midst of uncertainty and change. We can, for example, learn to discern an appropriate penance to undertake on Fridays, even when the law seems to have been relaxed and it’s no longer compulsory to abstain from meat.

Sisters and brothers, who is flying your kite today?

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Wednesday in the 5th Week of Lent
Freedom in the Flames

Readings: Daniel 3:14-20, 91-92, 95; Daniel 3:52, 53, 54, 55, 56; John 8:31-42

None of us are slaves in the literal sense of the word. Neither are those with whom Jesus is conversing in the gospel today. Yet, like them, we find ourselves invited to meditate more deeply on what it really means to be free. According to Jesus, freedom has to do with the truth. And the truth has to do with a relationship with the Son as well as the Father. It has to do with making the Son’s word our home, so as to have an assured place in the Father’s house, and so that, like Jesus, we can continue to obey all that the Father wants of us.

All this sounds quite abstract, until we consider the story in the first reading. Here there are literal slaves and free persons. The Babylonian king is apparently free. He is in a position of great power, able to order his subjects to worship a golden statue on pain of death. The three Israelite boys are apparent slaves. They are prisoners of the king and subject to his will. Yet, as it turns out, the story leads us to see a deeper truth. Even when they find themselves in exile and far from their earthly home, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego continue to make their home in the word of God. Even when in captivity and when faced with torture and execution, they refuse to worship a false god. Even when thrown into the fiery furnace they continue to praise and worship the only true God and no other. To you glory and praise forevermore. And their fidelity is rewarded. Isn’t this an illustration of what Jesus speaks about in the gospel, a striking image of true freedom? And doesn’t this also point to what awaits Jesus’ as he continues to remain faithful to His Father even unto the fire of the cross?

Again, none of us are slaves in the literal sense of the word. But how many of us are truly free? How many of us are able to continue praising the one true God of our Lord Jesus Christ even when the fires of our lives threaten to engulf and to consume us? Sometimes these fires are quite easily put out. Stressful jobs can be changed, drugs can cure a minor illness, and a close friend can lend a listening ear. But there are also fires that rage beyond our control, and times when the temptation is strong to give in to despair and to worship false gods. Especially at times like these we realize our own weakness, our own need for God. We realize why we need this season of Lent and the great celebration of Easter to which it leads. We need to allow God to strengthen us once again in the mystery of the cross of Christ, so that we may truly make His word our home, and so come to know the truth that alone can set us free.

What are the fires in your life? Where is your home?

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Tuesday in the 5th Week of Lent
It Matters Where You Look

Readings: Numbers 21:4-9; Psalm 102:2-3, 16-18, 19-21; John 8:21-30

There is a principle that has long guided the Church’s interpretation of scripture but which has sometimes been neglected in more modern approaches. The principle goes: the New Testament is hidden in the Old, the Old is made manifest in the New (Novum Testamentum in Vetere latet, Vetus in Novo patet). Our Mass readings today provide us with an especially good occasion to see this principle in action.

The first reading presents us with a highly curious, even strange, incident in the experience of the Israelites journeying through the desert. They are suffering. God has freed them from slavery in Egypt and led them into the desert, where they suffer hunger and thirst. And because they complain, their suffering is aggravated. They are killed off by fiery serpents. In desperation they cry out to God through Moses and God responds in a highly curious fashion. Instead of removing the serpents or killing them, God effects healing by making those who have been bitten gaze at a raised up symbol of the very thing which they fear, that which has brought them pain and suffering. This is not what one would expect. This is not how one naturally reacts to suffering. As the experts tell us, the usual first reaction is denial. Try to look on the bright side. Think happy thoughts. Go to a happy place. How to understand what God is doing?

The Old Testament is made manifest in the New

In the Gospel, Jesus refers to himself as the One who will be raised up: when you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am He… And here we begin to see the significance of the bronze serpent. We begin to understand God’s chosen response to the sufferings in the world and in our lives. In a shocking way, God chooses to submit to the suffering, to be raised up on an instrument of torture and death, so as to become a channel of healing and life to all. Here too we learn the proper Christian response to suffering. Instead of looking away, instead of seeking an escape route, instead of distracting oneself through the power of positive thinking, one gazes into the darkness and cries out as the psalmist does: O Lord, listen to my prayer and let my cry for help reach you. And just as God answered the prayer of Moses in the desert, the one who prays in this way experiences a new vision, a vision of the Crucified One and all that He represents: God’s undying love for us even to the point of death and beyond. And the power of that vision is such that one might even be led from mourning to mission. One might be led to ask the questions that St. Ignatius of Loyola recommends to retreatants as they gaze upon Christ on the Cross: what have I done for Christ, what am I doing for Christ, what ought I to do for Christ

Isn’t this what we’re about especially in this great season of Lent? We are preparing for Easter not by avoiding the dark reality of sin and death, but by gazing long and hard at it and allowing it to be enlightened by the mind-boggling symbol of Christ’s Cross. In this way, we hope to be led from darkness to light, from death to life, from pain to the fullness of joy.

But first we must look and we must pray…

When you encounter suffering, what do you do? Where do you look?

Monday, March 26, 2007

Solemnity of The Annunciation of the Lord
The Nature of Giving

Readings: Isaiah 7:10-14; 8:10; Psalm 40:7-8a, 8b-9, 10, 11; Hebrews 10:4-10; Luke 1:26-38

You may recall that today is only our second interruption in this great season of purple. The first was when we wore white in honour of St. Joseph. We do so again today to celebrate the Annunciation. These are happy interruptions. They help us to enter more deeply into the spirit of the season. Even as we continue our Lenten discipline of prayer, fasting and almsgiving, even as we concentrate our efforts on giving up and giving away, our readings today invite us to consider the true nature of giving. And it’s important for us to pay attention because, as Jesus tells us in John 14:27, I do not give as the world gives. Yet it’s all too possible for us, even in Lent, to remain only at the level of the world.

When the world gives, the focus is often only on things and nothing more. When someone comes to the door of our house asking for alms, for example, I may give the person $10 or $20 or $30 dollars, but all the while I may be hoping that the person will leave as soon as possible. The money really becomes an obstacle that keeps us apart instead of drawing us closer. The same thing can happen even if the giving is mutual, even if there is an exchange of things. I may scratch your back and then let you scratch mine. But all too often the focus is still on the back-scratching. People still have their backs to each other, rather than face-to-face. When the world gives, the focus is also often on me, on us, on the ones doing the giving. We carefully calculate what, when and how much to give. We sometimes even consider if there’s anything in it for me. A tax-break perhaps? Or a plenary indulgence?

In contrast, our readings for the Annunciation help us to meditate more deeply on the true nature of giving. Perhaps what strikes us first is the refrain that runs throughout. Here I am, Lord! I come to do your will. How different from, Here is $10, please leave as soon you can. True giving is not just a matter of things, but an exchange of selves. As the second reading reminds us, it is not the offering of things, of sacrifices or oblations that God wants, as much as an offering of the self. Here I am, Lord. I come to do your will! Even so, this giving of the self is not really focused on the self at all. Instead it is rooted in a prior gift, the total self-gift of God. As the prophecy in the first reading reminds us, the Lord himself… will give you a sign… Emmanuel… ‘God-is-with-us. In Christ, God empties God’s very self. God gives all that God has and all that God is for the life of the world. Emmanuel!

It is really this total self-gift of God that gives meaning to Mary’s own gift. I am the handmaid of the Lord, let what you have said be done to me. Mary’s gift of herself actually helps her to receive God’s prior gift of the Emmanuel. God’s generosity finds completion only when it meets with Mary’s willing reception. And that reception benefits not just Mary but the whole of creation. Mary’s generosity enables God to find a home among us so that we might all find a home in God.

We began Mass with the Prayer of St. Francis (it is in giving that we receive, it is in dying that we are born to eternal life). Let us end this homily with a prayer of St. Ignatius.
Lord, teach me to be generous;
Teach me to serve you as you deserve;
To give and not to count the cost;
To fight and not to heed the wounds;
To toil and not to seek for rest;
To labour and to ask not for reward;
Save that of knowing I do your will.
How are we being invited to give of ourselves today?

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Saturday in the 4th Week of Lent
The Importance of Listening

Readings: Jeremiah 11:18-20; Psalm 7:2-3, 9bc-10, 11-12; John 7:40-53

The story of Jesus is fast reaching its terrible climax. If this was a Jaws movie, it would be around this time that the scary music is played… As we heard in the first reading, the Good Shepherd is fast being transformed into a trustful lamb being led to the slaughterhouse. But not all are slaughterers in the story. As we heard in the gospel, Jesus also has his supporters. And it’s beneficial for us to focus our meditation today on the difference between these two groups of people.

Quite clearly, the slaughterers, the scribes and Pharisees are the knowledgeable ones. They have all the necessary information and are very sure of themselves. Not only do they think they know, with absolute certainty, who Jesus is and where he comes from, but there is also no doubt in their minds that prophets to not come out of Galilee. They have no qualms about slaughtering the lamb. In contrast, there are others in the gospel who are not so sure. It’s likely that they too have heard the ancient prophecies, but they are beginning to have their doubts. They are beginning to suspect the unthinkable: Jesus is the Christ. Gradually they become supporters of the Shepherd.

The gospel makes the reason for this difference in response very clear. Those who become supporters of the Shepherd are led to do so simply because they have taken the trouble actually to listen to Jesus. They have allowed themselves to encounter the truth of Jesus’ words, the tone of his voice, the sincerity of his demeanor, the force of his personality. And they have been transformed by the encounter. Not only have they been given new insight into who Jesus is, but more important, they have been given the power to change and so to join the ranks of Jesus’ supporters.

In contrast, the slaughterers refuse to listen. They are too well-defended in their prejudice. As Nicodemus says, they prefer to pass judgment on a man without giving him a hearing and discovering what he is about. They are too resistant to change, to consider new ways of thinking and acting and relating to God and to one another. Although they may have heard Jesus, they don’t allow themselves to truly listen, to truly encounter the person behind the preaching. And because of their refusal to listen and to change, it is the Shepherd who will instead be transformed into a lamb and then be slaughtered at their hands.

This comparison is also an image of our own situation. All too often, we know quite well what is expected of us. But we can’t seem to carry it out. Yet we refuse to bring our resistance before the Lord and to listen to him. What’s the point? We already know what he will say. But we know it only as information, not yet as a powerful potentially life-changing Word. In such situations we have a choice. On the one hand, we can allow ourselves to listen to Jesus. We can allow him to give us the wisdom to understand and the strength to carry out what is expected of us and, in so doing, become true supporters of the Shepherd. Or we can elect to cling stubbornly to our prejudices, to continue operating only on the level of information, to refuse to truly listen to and be transformed by Jesus. Rather than being changed ourselves, we can instead choose to turn the Shepherd who wishes only to lead us to green pastures into a lamb led by us to the slaughterhouse. It’s around this time that the music from Jaws will start playing…

Which are we then: slaughterers or supporters? How well do we listen?

Friday, March 23, 2007

Friday in the 4th Week of Lent
Heart Condition

Readings: Wisdom 2:1a, 12-22; Psalm 34:17-18, 19-20, 21 and 23; John 7:1-2, 10, 25-30

There’s an obvious contrast between two sets of characters in our readings today: the virtuous person and Jesus on the one hand, and the godless and those out to kill Jesus on the other. The virtuous one is being opposed and persecuted, even to the point of death. The godless are the ones doing the opposing and the persecuting and the plotting to murder. The reason for all this is quite obvious. The virtuous is persecuted for no reason other than that his/her way of life is a rebuke to the godless. And on the surface, it is the godless who have the upper hand. They are the ones in an apparent position of strength. They have the capacity to inflict suffering. The virtuous can only submit and suffer and succumb.

But the contrast runs deeper than appearances might suggest. If the virtuous lives differently, it is because s/he listens to a different voice and responds to a different hand guiding the course of world events. And more than any virtue of his/her own, it is this connection with a deeper reality that gives the virtuous the strength to persevere, to remain steadfast, even in the face of death. As Jesus says, there is one who sent me and I really come from him. In contrast, something prevents the godless from having access to this hidden reality. As we heard in the first reading, they do not know the hidden things of God, they have no hope that holiness will be rewarded… They cling stubbornly to their convictions, even to the point of murder, because they operate only on the level of appearances.

But, if there is a fundamental difference between the virtuous and the godless, it is to be found in the state of their hearts. For various reasons, the hearts of the godless have been hardened such that they are unable to see the hand and hear the voice of God, especially in the life-style of the virtuous. Their consciousness is filled with resentment. And their malice makes them blind. In contrast, the virtuous operates from a position of weakness and of total dependence on the God who, as the psalm tells us, is close to the broken-hearted and who saves those whose spirit is crushed.

This contrast between the virtuous and the godless is not just to be found in the scriptures. We find it in the world around us as well. But, perhaps more importantly, we find it in ourselves. There is something of the virtuous as well as the godless person within each of us. There are areas of our hearts that are soft and pliable and responsive to God. Often, these are also areas that are vulnerable to suffering. And although there is in suffering the danger of becoming hardened, our readings offer consolation. Many are the trials of the just but from them all the Lord will rescue you. Then there are also areas that, for whatever reason, remain hard and resistant and blind to the overtures of a loving God. To these areas, our readings offer a challenge and the encouragement to change. The way back lies in honestly acknowledging our affliction and in patiently and gently struggling with it before God. In this way, we may be led to experience the fear beneath the anger, the softness beneath the hardness, the brokenness and weakness beneath the appearance of wholeness and strength. Above all we may be led to experience the compassionate presence of the God who delights in replacing hearts of stone with hearts of flesh.

What is the state of your heart today?

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Thursday in the 4th Week of Lent
Long-Distance Love

Readings: Exodus 32:7-14; Psalm 106:19-20, 21-22, 23; John 5:31-47

We know how difficult long-distance relationships are to maintain, even in this present age of instant communication. The loved one is far away, physically absent. Yet one’s longing for intimacy and companionship often feels stronger than ever. And in such a difficult situation, the danger is well expressed in the phrase: out of sight, out of mind. It’s easy to forget the ties that bind, the commitments that oblige. It’s easy, especially in times of loneliness and trial, to reach out to others who are nearer, more visible, more convenient. It’s tempting to seek instant gratification even if doing so may damage the existing relationship.

The situation in our readings today is quite similar. The Israelites find themselves suddenly very much alone. Not only does the God who freed them from slavery seem painfully absent, but so does Moses, their leader and constant companion in the desert. And they do not have what it takes to carry on this long-distance relationship. In the desperation of their longing, they fashion an idol for themselves and worship it. The situation of the Jews in the gospel is not much different. They too are involved in a long-distance relationship with their God. Before the arrival of John the Baptist, the prophetic voice had not been heard for some time. And they too turn to idolatry. They worship the letter of the Law and look to one another for approval. They fail to recognize God’s voice in the ministries of John and of Jesus. In both readings the long-distance relationship crumbles under the strain of separation.

The causes of the failure are highlighted quite clearly by Jesus. If the Jews fail to recognize God in Jesus, if they fail to have faith in him, it is only because they have never really understood the scriptures, neither the Law nor the Prophets. What they excel in is merely the knowledge of the head but not of the heart. Jesus rightly questions whether they actually have a relationship with God in the first place: you have no love of God in you.

Yet, in the face of human forgetfulness and infidelity, God remains mindful of God’s covenantal commitment to God’s people. Like someone who ties a thread to a finger to keep from forgetting something important, God goes to great lengths to keep us in mind. God appoints Moses to recall the covenant with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. And – as we noted yesterday – in the crucifixion of Jesus, the new Moses, the thin thread of memory is replaced with an eternal inscription of our names upon the hands and heart of God. There is now no possibility of God every forgetting us.

But still, it takes two parties for a relationship to work. Isn’t this the reason for this season of Lent? Conscious of our tendency to forget, we intensify our efforts to allow the Lord to remind us of God’s commitment to us in Christ. We focus our attention more keenly on the price paid by Christ for our freedom, so that our hearts might once again be inflamed with love. We search more keenly for the many signs of God’s love for us in the everyday, so that we might be inspired to remain steadfastly committed to this long-distance relationship with an ever-present God.

Today, what do we need to jog our memory? What do we need to sharpen the vision of our faith, to inflame the fire of our love and to strengthen the perseverance of our hope?

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Wednesday in the 4th Week of Lent
Whose Work?

Readings: Isaiah 49:8-15; Psalm 145:8-9, 13cd-14, 17-18; John 5:17-30

Before we begin, it’s useful to notice that yesterday we started a semi-continuous reading of John’s gospel which will carry us through to Holy Week.

My Father goes on working and so do I…

These words of Jesus must hold a special significance for us who belong to a culture that seems especially hard-working. Isn’t it consoling to know even as we continue to slog for our daily bread that God is also working in and alongside us? Even so, we must not be too quick to find comfort. Instead, at least in this instance, it is important to see that God's word comforts by first challenging and convicting us. Our readings once again provide us an opportunity to examine our work and to compare it with God’s. We’ve had occasion before to highlight the differences between the work of the world and the work of the Father. These differences become especially clear when we consider their respective beginnings, middles and endings.

The work of the world often begins with greed. It is often born of the need to grasp and to hoard resources for ourselves. We look at the world in terms of a zero-sum game. If there’s more for you then there’ll be less for me. So better grab what I want as soon as I can. Given these beginnings, it’s not surprising that the work of the world is carried out in anxiety and competition. Even when one has more than one needs the fear always remains that it’ll all very quickly be taken away, or that others may have even more. And so we are driven to work ever harder, to move ever faster, to grab ever more. All this feverish activity quite naturally ends in forgetfulness. Not only do we forget God and others, but we also end up forgetting who we are. We lose touch with our dignity as children of God and become slaves of the very things for which we work. And this whole process is not only to be found in the corporate world. Can we not find the work of the world being carried out in church as well? Do some of us not approach even the spiritual life in much the same way?

The work of the Father is quite different. It begins not with grasping but with love. It is rooted in God’s desire to give and to share what God has and who God is who those whom God loves. As such, it is carried out not in anxiety and competition but with trust and compassion. As we were reminded in the response to the psalm today: the Lord is kind and full of compassion. And when our work is rooted in the compassion of God, then we can learn to trust that God will strengthen us in our weakness and lead us to feel for others without having to compete with them. All this ends quite naturally not in forgetfulness but in a deeper remembering. As we heard in the first reading, even if a woman forgets her baby at the breast, God will never forget us. And Isaiah goes on to tell us that God has inscribed us on the palms of his hands. We witness this taking place in the life and ministry of Jesus. As he continues to do the will of the Father, he is led to mount the cross on Calvary, where his hands will be marked with nails so that we might forever be inscribed on the Father’s heart. When we immerse ourselves in the work of God, we too are led into God’s remembering of us and so are led to remember our true identity in the God's sight.

The time is here already, says Jesus today, when the dead will leave their graves at the sound of God’s voice and rise to life. Isn't this voice an invitation to allow God to move us from the work of the world to the work of the Father?

Whose work do you do?

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Tuesday in the 4th Week of Lent
Making the Connection

Readings: Ezekiel 47:1-9, 12; Psalm 46:2-3, 5-6, 8-9 ; John 5:1-16

We all know how much life depends upon meaning. However materially wealthy and physically healthy one is, life can still be torturous if one finds no meaning in what one does. We also know that meaning depends upon the ability to make connections. Why, for example, do many find the Mass boring if not because they fail to see any connection between the liturgy and their lives. Life depends upon meaning and meaning depends upon connections.

Our readings today help us to experience this truth. At first glance, there seems to be little in common between the two readings. Yet, it is when we discover the deep connection between them that we have access to their deeper meaning. As is often the case, imagery helps us.

The first reading tells of a deep river flowing into the Arabah. We know that the latter is desert country. And the sea spoken of here is none other than the Dead Sea. Nothing can grow in this dry and salt-saturated waste-land. There is only barrenness and death. But everything changes radically with the advent of the waters flowing from the Temple in Jerusalem. Life of great variety begins to flourish. The once dead sea teems with fish and evergreen trees thrive on the banks of the river, providing medicinal leaves and tasty fruit to all.

A parallel image is found in the gospel. In place of the Dead Sea of the Arabah, we find the Sheep Pool at Bethzatha. The environment looks just as bleak. Crowds of sick people gather here hoping for a cure but find none. Then Jesus comes. And things begin to change. Sickness gives way to health, immobility to vitality. Pick up your mat and walk.

There is one other important connection to notice: between the healing that Jesus brings and the persecution that he attracts. This is a reminder to us of the central mystery we celebrate: eternal life comes to us only in the face of death. This is the paschal mystery that we begged God for the grace to embrace in the opening prayer earlier. But the connection, the mystery, is not just to be found in the readings and in the liturgy. It is also to be found in our own lives.

This is the final connection that needs to be made. We need to see, in our own lives, the ways in which the living waters from the pierced side of Christ are inundating our pools of sickness and barrenness and death. We need somehow to appreciate and to embrace the ways in which Christ continues to call us to follow him on the way to Calvary and beyond, bringing us to wholeness and fertility and life. We need to realize the extent of our own spiritual paralysis – our inability to truly let God take first place in our lives – and to heed Christ’s call to get up pick up your mat and walk. This is the crucial connection that needs to be made if we are to embrace the profound mystery – the one true thing – that gives our lives ultimate meaning.

On what meaning does your life depend? What connections do you need to make today?

Monday, March 19, 2007

Solemnity of St. Joseph, Husband of the BVM
The Blood that Binds

Readings: 2 Samuel 7:4-5a, 12-14a, 16; Psalm 89:2-3, 4-5, 27 and 29; Romans 4:13, 16-18, 22; Matthew 1:16, 18-21, 24a or Lk 2:41-51a

Today we interrupt our season of purple to put on white in honour of St. Joseph. It’s a feast that we are all happy to celebrate, especially since so many of us delight in praying before the statue of St. Joseph. But what are we really celebrating? As with all the other saints, our attention is focused on something more than just the heroic virtues of Joseph. More than his hard work for the sake of his family, his protection of Mary and Jesus, and his obedience to God, we wish to consider why he does all these things. We wish especially to consider his connection with Jesus Christ our crucified and risen Lord.

We often hear people say, blood is thicker than water! and charity begins at home! Perhaps we have even used these lines ourselves. And there is some truth in them. We won’t be too happy, for example, with someone who spends all his/ her time in church or doing social work, but neglects his/ her spouse and children. Even so, it’s perhaps good to remember that these words are not found in the bible. And we must be careful to examine what we mean by them.

Indeed, there is no blood connection between Joseph and Jesus, at least not in the ordinary sense. They share no direct genetic link. If Joseph is a good guardian to Jesus it is for a reason other than blood relations. Our readings today highlight for us what this reason is. Two aspects stand out. The first has to do with the God who promises. The connection between Joseph and Jesus is rooted in the generosity of a God who wishes only to bless. And God’s promise to bless was made long before Jesus or even Joseph came to be born. The readings remind us that it was made to David and to Abraham. We may even go further back to Noah with whom God covenants after the Flood. And God keeps God’s promises. God is true to God’s word, even to the point of sending Jesus to be the Lamb in whose blood our sins are washed away.

Powerful as God’s promise is, however, at least one more thing is necessary for that power to become effective in the world. What is needed is a person of faith, a person who believes. Isn’t this why we celebrate Joseph today? Like his ancestors David and Abraham, Joseph believes in God’s promises. And he does this in very concrete and practical ways. As we heard in the gospel today, on the basis of a dream, an inexplicable inner conviction of what God wants of him, Joseph changes his original decision to divorce Mary. He accepts as his wife someone pregnant with a child that is not his own. And he fulfills the responsibilities that come with that acceptance. He protects his family even when it means having to move from one place to another. He continues to care for Mary and Jesus even through times when he doesn’t understand what is going on. Joseph does all this primarily because he is a person of faith, a person who believes that God’s promises always come to pass even when everything seems to indicate otherwise. And it is precisely through his faith that God actually builds an eternal household for his ancestor David.

So even if blood is indeed thicker than water, in the experience of Joseph we see that it is the blood of the Lamb that is thickest of all, so thick that it brings together all of creation into the household of God. This is the same blood that connects Joseph to Jesus. This is the same home that Joseph laboured to protect. And even as we celebrate the virtues of Joseph today, perhaps we too might consider what it is that connects us to Jesus.
In what or in whom do we place our trust? Into which household do we hope to enter and to remain?

Saturday, March 17, 2007

4th Sunday in Lent (C)
What Are You Doing?

Readings: Joshua 5:9a, 10-12; Psalm 34:2-3, 4-5, 6-7; 2 Corinthians 5:17-21; Luke 15:1-3, 11-32

Sisters and brothers, you’ve probably heard that well-known story about the reporter who visits a construction site to interview some of the workers. She approaches the nearest worker and asks him: what are you doing? Drenched in his own sweat and covered in dust from head to toe, the man turns to her with a resentful look on his face and says, can’t you see? I’m breaking up these stones. The next worker she approaches with the very same question reacts quite differently. This one gives her a weary smile of resignation and says, oh, it’s hard work, but I’m feeding my family. But it’s the response of the third worker that moves her most of all. Although he looks pretty much the same as the other two, and although he too is busy breaking stones, he turns to her enthusiastically, with a grin on his face and a sparkle in his eye, and exclaims, I’m building a basilica!

The point of the story is quite clear, isn’t it? The things that we do everyday and the way in which we do them depend very much upon the meaning we attach to them. Very much depends upon our being able to see the bigger picture, our ability to make the connection between breaking stones and building a basilica.

This, of course, is not an easy thing to do, especially when the work is plentiful and tiring. When we’re stressed out with juggling two thousand and one things, including the demands of parents and children, of bosses and employees, of God and church, it’s really difficult to connect with the bigger picture. It’s so easy to be caught up instead in the daily grind and then to find our energy gradually draining away. Joy gives way to depression, enthusiasm to resentment. Even the discipline of Lent itself can be experienced as yet another unwelcome demand placed on an already packed schedule.

Isn’t this why we need to listen carefully to the message being presented to us in the readings of today? In the midst of our busyness, in the midst of our prayer, fasting and almsgiving, the readings invite us to raise our heads from our preoccupation with breaking stones in order to look at the brand new basilica that is taking shape. We are invited to consider the big picture that gives meaning to our struggles and so recharges and renews us.

This big picture, this brand new basilica, is not really about what we are doing, as much as it is about what God is doing for us in Christ. As Paul tells us in the second reading: For anyone who is in Christ, there is a new creation… God in Christ was reconciling the world to himself… and he has entrusted to us the news that they are reconciled. This is the marvelous construction project of which we are a part. In Christ, God is bringing together all the scattered fragments of creation into a single whole. To paraphrase St. Francis of Assisi, where there is hatred, God sows love, where there is injury, pardon, where there is doubt, faith, where there is despair, hope, where there is darkness, light, and where there is sadness, joy.

But reconciliation is a very big word. It’s difficult enough to pronounce it, let alone to imagine what it looks like. Thankfully our readings present us with three images of how God is reconciling the world to himself in Jesus Christ, three images that are as beautiful as they are powerful.

In the gospel, we find the image of two people embracing. The wayward younger son has been very foolish and selfish and irresponsible. By asking for his inheritance before the death of his father he was actually saying that it didn’t matter to him whether his father was alive or dead. So he is indeed right to say that he no longer deserves to be called his father’s son. Yet, even when he is a long way off, his father, forgetful of his own dignity, joyfully rushes out to embrace him. And we know, of course, what this embrace signifies. This is really an image of the reconciliation that God effects in Jesus Christ. Especially by stretching out his arms on the cross, Christ becomes the way in which the Father gathers all of us into his loving embrace. This is an image of the brand new basilica that we are helping to build. By the little things we do everyday to reach out to the different people in our lives – people who may be lost and alone – we too are allowing ourselves to be the arms by which the Father gathers others into the warmth of his embrace.

Then, in the first reading and in the gospel, we find an image that is especially familiar and consoling for Singaporeans. It is the picture of people eating. Both the Israelites in the first reading and the younger son in the gospel are treated to a big makan – a wonderful feast. After a long journey through the desert, the Israelites are fed by God with the produce of the Promised Land. Similarly, to celebrate his younger son’s return, the Father throws a party in his honour and feeds the one who had hungered for the husks that the pigs were eating.

This too is an image of how God is reconciling the world to himself. Through his life, death and resurrection, Christ becomes the bread broken and the wine poured out for the life of the world. And we participate in this sacrifice not only through our presence at the Eucharistic table. In addition, through the daily sacrifices that we make for the sake of others, like Christ, we allow ourselves to become bread that is broken and wine that is poured out, so that the hungry and the thirsty might find food and drink.

The final image is that of homecoming, of entering the place where we truly belong. Just as God leads the Israelites into the Promised Land, so too does the Father invite both his sons to enter his house for the celebration. Once again, this is a powerful image of what reconciliation looks like. God gathers God’s scattered children into the hospitality of his heavenly home. We are reminded of the assurance that Jesus gives his disciples in John’s gospel (14:1-2): Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God still, and trust in me. There are many rooms in my Father’s house; I am going now to prepare a place for you...

Isn’t this also what we are about? Through our Lenten activities, we are not only asking to see more clearly the way to God's house, but we are also committing ourselves to lighting up the way for others. As Jesus tells us in the Sermon on the Mount, no one lights a lamp to put it under a tub; they put it on a lamp-stand where it shines for everyone in the house (Matthew 5:15).

This is what reconciliation looks like. It looks like people embracing and eating and entering into the Father’s house. But, just like the elder son in the gospel parable, we have a choice whether or not to participate. We have a choice whether or not to embrace and to be embraced, whether or not to join in the feast, whether or not to enjoy the Father’s hospitality. We have a choice whether to help to build the basilica or simply to continue breaking stones.

Sisters and brothers, on this fourth Sunday of Lent, if a reporter were to ask you, what are you doing? how would you respond?
Saturday in the 3rd Week of Lent
The Value of Misery

Readings: Hosea 6:1-6; Psalm 51:3-4, 18-19, 20-21ab; Luke 18:9-14

They will search for me in their misery…

We all seek comfort and contentment. And we live in a go-getting culture that values self-confidence and self-esteem. These are good things, of course. But it’s possible to have too much of a good thing, isn’t it? It’s possible to be so focused on these things, so full of our own needs and our own considerable capacities to fulfill them that we forget the One True Source of Life.

Isn’t this what sets the Pharisee and the tax collector apart? The former is as self-assured as the latter is shy. Yet, ironically, it is the latter who went home again at rights with God. His difficult situation has somehow led him to realize his own need for God. He experiences on a daily basis his own helplessness, his own failure to do what is required by the Law, his own inability to make himself worthy of approaching his God. And it is out of this sense of his own weakness, his own neediness and unworthiness that he continues to reach out to God. In his misery, he searches for God, and receives a hearing.

This is a striking image of what our Lenten project is about. Whatever people may think or say, Lent is not really about doing difficult things so that we can somehow make ourselves worthy of God, or prove our love for God. Instead, it’s really about first allowing ourselves to be disillusioned. It is about letting go of our false sense of self-confidence, our false image of who we are and what we can accomplish before God. It’s about allowing God to convict us of our misery, our absolute need for God’s mercy. And out of that realization, to cry out to the God who does not spurn a humbled, contrite heart.

Where might we find a place for misery in our ongoing walk with God?
Friday in the 3rd Week of Lent
Boarding the Right Bus

Readings: Hosea 14:2-10; Psalm 81:6c-8a, 8bc-9, 10-11ab, 14 and 17; Mark 12:28-34

You are not far from the kingdom of God…

What a remarkable thing for Jesus to say to the wise scribe! Imagine that: to be told that you’re near to experiencing the fullness of love, joy, justice and peace of the kingdom of God! Can the scribe believe his ears? Can he truly be near the kingdom of God when everything around him seems to remain exactly the same – especially when his small but proud nation remains under Roman occupation?

I’m reminded of the bus-trip I took this week to Malaysia and back. At the bus station and at the immigration check point there were sometimes many different buses waiting for passengers to board them. As long as you boarded the right bus, it would take you where you needed to go, even if your destination was very far away. But, if you were a little sleepy or just plain blur, and happened to board the wrong bus, it could take you very far from where you needed to go.

Could this be similar to what Jesus means in the gospel today? Sure, there may still be a distance for the scribe to travel to get to the kingdom of God, but could Jesus be congratulating him for identifying and trying to get on the right bus? If so, what is this bus? How do we recognize it?

Its markings are well-known to us. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength… (and) your neighbour as yourself. Clearly, the operative word here is all. Love God with every fibre of your being. Place your trust in God alone. And let that love overflow to others. This is the bus that we need to board in order to arrive safely at our destination. But it’s easier said than done, isn’t it? Too often we’re in the habit of boarding other buses. Sure, we may love God. We may put our trust in God. We may even work for God in many different ways. But do we love God with all? Do we trust in God alone? Or, like the Israelites in the first reading, do we not rather tend to have backup plans? In a time of national crisis, the Israelites relied on the horses of the Assyrians. In times when their God seem absent and silent, they constructed their own gods out of wood and stone. We are not that much different. Whether it be in the stock market or the internet, at the workplace or the shopping mall, we too have idols of our own, the things and the people that prevent us from loving God with all. Very often we board the wrong bus.

Isn’t this why we need this great season of Lent? We need to allow God to wake us up and to help us to see more clearly which bus we are on. We need to hear the divine conductor beckon to us: come back to the Lord your God… all your fruitfulness comes from me… If you wish to get to your true destination, get on the right bus.

What bus are you on?

Monday, March 12, 2007

Monday in the 3rd Week of Lent
Increasing our Bandwidth

Readings: 2 Kings 5:1-15ab; Psalm 42:2, 3; 43:3, 4; Luke 4:24-30

No prophet is ever accepted in his own country…

If there is one thing that our readings highlight today it’s the limits of our receptivity to the promptings of God. Doesn’t the reaction of the people at Nazara to the preaching of Jesus reflect our own tendencies? Not every message from God is equally likely to receive a hearing among us. We have very specific requirements. To find a welcome among us, God’s word must first be new enough to be interesting. Like the Nazareans, we don’t want to listen to the same old thing, said by the same old person, packaged in the same old way. Never mind if it’s true. It’s too familiar. We want something fresh and exciting, something that can rouse us from the habitual boredom that marks our daily existence. Invite a speaker from far away, the further and the more exotic the better. Thrill us with novelty!

But – and it’s a very big but – we don’t want the message to be too different. More important, we don’t want it to challenge us. Even as we continually hanker after something new, we want it only to confirm what we already know and do. We don’t want it to rock the boat of our fragile existence. We wish to be entertained but not enlightened. Enlightenment is too much work. It’s too tiring. Our lives are stressful enough. Who has the energy, let alone the inclination, to welcome the challenge to change? What we want is familiarity in novelty. Thrill us, entertain us, but leave us alone!

Aren’t these, all too often, the limits of our receptivity to God? It’s a very limited bandwidth. If we were radios, I doubt many people would buy us. And who can blame them?

And yet, if we pay attention to how God operates, both in the scriptures and in our lives, we find that often God chooses precisely to address us beyond the bandwidths of our receptivity. We look for comfort in novelty. But God often chooses to challenge us through familiarity. God often chooses to make us see and relate to the same old people and the same old things in our lives in refreshingly new and life-giving ways. Isn’t this what conversion and repentance means? Isn’t this also what Lent is about?

How then can we increase the narrow bandwidths of our receptivity? What can we learn from our readings today? Both Naaman and the Nazareans are just as scandalized by the familiar and the ordinary. Instead of doing something spectacular, Elishah merely asks Naaman to bathe in a river. And the Nazareans reject Jesus because they think they know everything about him. Who is he to question their faith? Yet, something moves Naaman to accede to the prophet’s request, even as the Nazareans seek to kill Jesus. What is it that sets them apart? More than their nationality, there is one crucial difference between them. The Nazareans feel secure in their self-sufficiency. They don’t really need a prophet. They don’t need this familiar son of a carpenter. But Naaman has traveled a long way precisely because he knows the depth and urgency of his need. He knows of no one else who can cure him of his disease. He follows the prophet’s instructions because he wants to be healed.

Isn’t this also the grace that we seek in our long Lenten trek of forty days? Through our discipline and self-denial we wish to allow God to show us the depth of our need, to convince us of the truth contained in the opening prayer today – we cannot be saved without you. And in this way, we hope to broaden the bandwidth of our receptivity.

What is the depth of your need? What is your bandwidth of receptivity?

Saturday, March 10, 2007

3rd Sunday in Lent (A)
Before The Rock that Thirsts

Readings: Micah 7:14-15, 18-20; Psalm 103:1-2, 3-4, 9-10, 11-12; Luke 15:1-3, 11-32

Sisters and brothers, have you ever experienced being in between a rock and a hard place? According to an online dictionary, to be between a rock and a hard place is to be in difficulty, faced with a choice between two unsatisfactory options. Quite obviously, the experience the phrase describes is not a pleasant one. It’s not something that we would wish upon anyone, let alone ourselves.

And yet, especially if we have been attentive and diligent, we may notice that our journey through Lent has brought us to just such an uncomfortable place. We know that Lent is a time of preparation, a time when the elect prepare more intensely to receive the sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation and the Holy Eucharist, and when the baptized also prepare to renew our baptismal promises at Easter. Lent is a sort of training programme. And we also know training is never comfortable. In fact, at some point, good training often makes the trainee feel like quitting.

Consider what we have been through so far. On the first Sunday of Lent we meditated upon the temptation of Jesus in the desert. We were reminded quite bluntly then that this Lenten journey is not a picnic. As it was for Christ, so it is for us. Like Christ, we too have to do battle with the powers of darkness. We too have to identify and turn away from all the sinful areas of our lives and to cling to God alone. We have to look seriously, for example, at our relationships to things and to people. Do we use things and love people? Or do we instead love things and use people, people like our colleagues, our friends and family, our domestic help?

Then, just last week, we were given two important pieces of information about this One whom we are committed to follow. We were given a glimpse of the glory of Christ at the Transfiguration. But we were also told that this same Christ had first to travel to Jerusalem and to Calvary. He had first to suffer and to die. And we have to follow him, carrying our own personal crosses daily. For example, we have to continue to forgive and even to love the colleague who is stabbing us in the back, or the family member who, knowingly or unknowingly, is causing us such heartbreak at home. We have to continue to look beyond satisfying our own selfish desires in order to help those most in need.

In the face of this kind of training, it won’t be too surprising if, after the last two Sundays, we find ourselves beginning to have mixed feelings about this whole Lenten project. Its seriousness is finally beginning to sink in. This is not just fun and games. It’s difficult to do what we were told to do when we were signed with ashes on our foreheads about three weeks ago. It’s difficult to keep trying to turn away from sin and to believe in the Good News. It is indeed true, what Jesus tells us in the Sermon on the Mount, the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction… (but) the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life (Mt 7:13-14). We should not be surprised then if, on this 3rd Sunday of our Lenten training, whether we are baptized or elect, we find ourselves feeling unsure whether we wish to continue going forward or whether we wish to turn back. It’s quite understandable if we feel as though we are squeezed between a rock and a hard place.

Isn’t this the experience of the Israelites in the first reading today? With mighty hand and outstretched arm, the Lord has rescued them from slavery in Egypt and brought them on a journey to a land where milk and honey flow. But they have not reached there yet. Instead, today they find themselves quite literally between a rock and hard place. They arrive at a spot in the desert called Rephidim where they are tormented by thirst. What should they do? To go back is to return to slavery and possibly even death at the hands of the Egyptians. But how to keep going forward when they are so thirsty and when all that they see before them is the hard rock-face of Mount Horeb. Can we blame them for complaining? Can we not see ourselves in their predicament? If so, what should we do?

As we might expect, the way out of our difficulty lies not in turning back, but in continuing to look ahead. Strange as it may sound, like the Israelites, we are invited to come before this rock in the desert, bringing with us all our doubts, our pain, our weakness, and most of all our thirst. And when we do this something remarkable begins to happen. We begin to see that this is no ordinary rock. This rock is special because this Rock is Jesus Christ himself.

And, like the Samaritan woman at the well, when we bring our thirst to this Rock who is Christ, we actually begin to see that this is a Rock that seeks and that speaks. We realize that it is not really we who have come to Christ, but rather that it is Christ who has been seeking us out. It is Christ who has gone out of his way to meet us, as he does with the Samaritan woman. It is Christ who wants to engage us in conversation. And what power is to be found in that conversation! Notice how Jesus gradually leads the woman at the well to acknowledge him as the Anointed One, the one who can give her the living water she needs to quench her inner thirst. How does he do this? What is this water?

To ponder upon these questions is also to begin to realize that not only does this Rock who is Christ seek us out and speak to us, but it also bleeds. For just as the rock in the desert is struck by a staff to produce water for the people, so too is the Rock who is Christ pierced by a soldier’s lance as he hangs on the cross on Calvary. And out of the wound flows blood and water for the life of the world (see Jn 19:34). This is the only thing that can truly quench our thirsty hearts. This is what St. Paul is talking about in the second reading, when he says that the love of God has been poured into our hearts. This is the living water offered to us by this Rock who is struck, this Christ who died for us while we were still sinners. And these are also the living waters into which we are all baptized.

It is also when we are immersed into these waters that, together with St. Paul, we realize how immense is God’s love for us in Christ. It is in these waters that we experience the reason why Christ the Rock seeks us out, why He speaks to us, and why He bleeds to save us. It is quite simply because, remarkable as it may sound, this Rock actually thirsts for our love. As Jesus tells the Samaritan woman: Give me a drink. Give me a drink…

For us to listen and to respond to this plea is also to find the way out of our predicament. It is to see that this spot between a rock and a hard place is really a fruitful place. For this is where we experience the love of Christ being poured into our hearts. And this is the also the place where we receive the strength to share that same love with others, just as the Samaritan woman did, when she brought the people of her town to meet Jesus. And today, we are given the opportunity to share Christ with others in a very concrete way by contributing generously to the Catholic Charities Week campaign. This is one way of responding to the Rock who thirsts, the Rock who continues to say to us: give me a drink…

Sisters and brothers, on this 3rd Sunday of our Lenten training, how is Christ meeting us and quenching our thirst? And how might we respond to Him by extending a helping hand to others who may also be finding themselves between a rock and a hard place?
Saturday in the 2nd Week of Lent
The Father’s House

Readings: Micah 7:14-15, 18-20; Psalm 103:1-2, 3-4, 9-10, 11-12; Luke 15:1-3, 11-32

Today’s gospel parable is well-known and there’s probably little I can say that will be new to us. Still, we know that the parable offers us an image of repentance. And it’s important for us to ponder upon this image especially as we continue our pilgrimage through Lent. Furthermore, familiar as we are with the parable, it’s probably true that when we listen or read it, our attention is usually focused almost exclusively on the first part, the part that deals with the departure and return of the younger son. But there is more to the parable than that. So today, we will try to consider both sons and their relationship to their father.

The difference between the two sons is quite clear. The younger is the rebel. He asks his father for his inheritance, then leaves home and squanders it. The older, on the other hand, is the apparently obedient one. He remains at home, works hard, and never even asks his father for a kid to celebrate with his friends. One asks for everything, the other never asks. Could they be any more different?

And yet, isn’t this difference really rooted in a fundamental similarity. Why does one ask for everything and the other for nothing? Why does one run away while the other remains to slog quietly but resentfully? Isn’t it because neither realizes how much the father loves him? Isn’t it because they both fail to realize the truth in the father’s words to the elder son: you are with me always and all that I have is yours? There is no need to run. Neither is there need to be resentful or envious. All that I have is yours… What a staggering thought! Especially when we transpose it to our own situation. The parable is an image of the way in which our heavenly Father relates to each one of us. To think that everything the Father has is ours… Dare we even believe it?

Doesn’t this give us a better picture of what it means to sin and to repent? Sin is really a consequence of the failure to realize the extent of the Father’s love for us his children. And, as portrayed in the parable, to sin is to choose to remain outside the Father’s house. Notice how frantically and even pathetically the Father keeps rushing out to meet and coax first the younger and then the elder son to enter his house, to enjoy more fully his love for them, and so to also be at peace with each other. To repent then is not just a matter of refraining from doing bad things. Ultimately it’s a matter of coming to recognize and to accept the love that the Father has for each of us, and to let that love be the foundation of our very existence. It is to enter and to remain, with our sisters and brothers, in our Father’s house.

The parable ends quite abruptly, without telling us if the elder son actually goes in for the celebration.

Do we?

Friday, March 09, 2007

Friday in the 2nd Week of Lent
They’re Talking about Me

Readings: Genesis 37:3-4, 12-13a, 17b-28a; Psalm 105:16-17, 18-19, 20-21; Matthew 21:33-43, 45-46

When they heard his parables, the chief priests and the scribes realized that he was speaking about them…

Have you ever had this experience? You happen to overhear, perhaps unintentionally, some people talking. They’re talking about some other person. And immediately you become interested. Perhaps there’s some juicy piece of information here. Perhaps there’s something you yourself can throw into the pot. But as the conversation goes on, you come to the sudden realization: Hey, they’re actually talking about me… What do you do?

To draw fruit from our readings today much depends upon us realizing who is being spoken about. In the first place, we need to see the obvious parallel being drawn between Joseph in the first reading and Jesus in the gospel. Both of them are victims. Joseph is a victim of his brothers’ jealousy. He is sold to foreigners, sold into slavery, for twenty pieces of silver. Jesus too will be sold by one of his own disciples for thirty pieces of silver and handed over to foreigners. The only difference is Jesus will actually be put to death. The reason for their being victimized is also similar. Joseph suffers because he is a dreamer who enjoys his father’s favour. He dreams about how, not just his brothers, but his whole family will bow down before him, acknowledging him as their Lord. Similarly, Jesus enjoys the favour of his Father in heaven. And, as we see in the gospel today, he too is a dreamer. He provokes people by telling parables suggesting that he is the rightful heir to the owner of the vineyard. The others are only tenants who must acknowledge his authority. Finally, and quite ironically, it is precisely their victimization that makes their dreams come true. It is through their sufferings that both Joseph and Jesus become saviours. In a time of famine, Joseph will provide food for his family. And, in the midst of spiritual famine, a famine of the word of God, Jesus comes as the Word made flesh, the One who becomes the heavenly bread broken for the life of the world.

But more than just stories about Joseph and his brothers, or about Jesus and his listeners, like the chief priests and the scribes in the gospel today, we need to realize that these are stories about us. We are the ones being spoken about. Perhaps we may find ourselves portrayed in the tenants of Jesus’ parable. Like them, we may labour under the mistaken notion that we are the rightful owners of all we possess, including our careers, our families and perhaps even our faith. We may think we are the masters and mistresses of our own destiny. And then along comes the heir, the rightful owner of everything we’re clinging to, inviting us to acknowledge his lordship, inviting us to hand over everything to him. Or perhaps we may find ourselves mirrored in the servants of the parable, or even in Joseph or Jesus. Perhaps we too have known victimization or suffering. And, quite ironically, perhaps it’s precisely in our own pain that we have come to recognize how much like those tenants we are, how much we are clinging to things which do not belong to us. In either case, the invitation is the same: we need to allow that stone rejected by the builders to become the keystone, the only firm foundation, of our lives. We need to acknowledge the Lordship of Jesus, the victim, the dreamer, and the saviour, so that in the process, others too may be saved.

Whatever our situation today, the scriptures are indeed speaking about us.

What is our response?

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Thursday in the 2nd Week of Lent
The Water is for the Fire

Readings: Jeremiah 17:5-10; Psalm 1:1-2, 3, 4 and 6; Luke 16:19-31

A blessing on the man who puts his trust in the Lord… He is like a tree by the waterside…

There is an approach to religion and spirituality that would interpret this text in a very materialistic and even self-centred way. If only I put my trust in the Lord, if only I make the law of the Lord my delight, if only I keep all the rules and say all my prayers, then God will bless me with material success. God will make my business and my career prosper. God will grant me an attractive spouse and intelligent and healthy children. Perhaps God may even let me strike the lottery. I’m not sure if it’s true, but I’ve been told that there are some groups in Singapore that actually promote such a 4-D spirituality.

The pairing of our first reading today with the parable of Lazarus helps us to see how misguided is this approach. Read together, the scriptures today confirm and deepen our meditation of yesterday. The building is on fire. Many are in peril. And if we put our trust in the Lord, then we will be given the strength to rush into the building, in whatever way we can, to help those who might still be trapped in the flames. In other words, to evoke the alternative imagery of the first reading and the psalm, the water by which the tree is planted is meant not only for the tree’s own nourishment, but so that the tree might then bear fruit for the sustenance of others.
The water is for the fire.

We are blessed in order that we might be blessings to others. Our resources are meant for the needy person sitting at our gate. This is the urgent call that is addressed to all, especially those who claim to put their trust in God and who delight in the Law of the Lord. In the gospel parable, this urgency is highlighted by two shocking developments that take place when this world finally gives way to the next. The first is the great chasm that develops between Lazarus and the rich man. Before death, it was still possible for the rich man to reach out beyond his gate. It was still possible for him to take on the role of a firefighter, channeling the water of his God-given resources to save Lazarus from the flames of poverty. But after death, such a crossing is no longer possible. All that separated them in this life – especially the apathy and self-centredness of the rich – become a permanent obstacle to their coming together in the next. And perhaps what’s even more frightening is that, along with the great chasm, there is also a great reversal: the person who was once at risk is now comforted, while the person who once enjoyed safety and comfort is now in flames.

Again, our meditation serves to focus our Lenten discipline. To repent and return to the Lord is also to reach out to others, especially those sitting by our gate, those in need, those endangered by the flames. The nourishing waters of devotion that we may obtain through our Lenten observance needs to be channeled to help quench the flames of their thirst.

The water is for the fire…
Who are the ones sitting at our gate today?

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Wednesday in the 2nd Week of Lent
Into the Fire

Readings: Jeremiah 18:18-20; Psalm 31:5-6, 14, 15-16; Matthew 20:17-28

There was a movie about firefighters on TV last night. It was a rather unabashed tribute to their bravery. But it did have its moments. In one memorable scene, two firefighters were rushing up the stairs in a two-storey house to put out a fire on the top floor. And a whole horde of panic-stricken rats -- the human occupants had probably already been evacuated -- came streaming down the stairs, desperately trying to escape the danger. It was every rat for itself. The central question posed by the story was this: What is it that makes a firefighter run into a burning building when everyone else – even the rats – are running out?

Our readings today somehow bring to mind that scene from the movie. In both readings, there is, figuratively speaking, a building on fire. The first reading is probably set in a time of exile, when people are not only in physical and political danger, but also in danger of losing hope. In the gospel, of course, the fire is on a much larger, cosmic scale. The whole of creation is under threat, caught in the snare of sin. And, in the face of these dangers, into these burning buildings, God sends his appointed firefighters. Both Jeremiah and Jesus are sent on rescue missions of their own. And, ironically, both have to face mortal danger from the very people whom they are trying to save. Yet Jeremiah continues to struggle to remain steadfast, even as Jesus continues to journey to Jerusalem. In contrast, like the rats in the movie, the apostles are jockeying for power, looking out for number one, even as the building burns. What is it that enables these two divinely appointed firefighters to rush into danger while others are rushing out?

The psalmist gives us an indication today: but as for me, I trust in you, Lord, I say: ‘You are my God. My life is in your hands, deliver me from the hands of those who hate me.’ Even in the face of certain death, Jeremiah and Jesus continue to put their trust in God. Both of them are able to rush into the burning building because they have entrusted their lives into God’s hands. Even when everything seems to indicate otherwise, they cling onto the hope that their God will somehow save them, will somehow vindicate them. Indeed, Jesus clings onto this hope even at the point when he is crying out on the cross: My God, my God why have you forsaken me?

Isn’t this the kind of scene that our Lenten discipline is designed to help us to discern in the concrete situations of our own lives? Whatever others may tell us, the building is on fire. There are people around us who are in danger, people in need of our help – physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Offering help will often mean for us a death-defying dash into the heart of the fire, even when everyone else may be rushing out, even when everyone else may seem to be too engrossed in the rat race to care. This is no easy task. We know what we need – the grace to commit our lives to God, to put our trust in God alone.

The building is indeed on fire. The question is: in which direction are we running?

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Tuesday in the 2nd Week of Lent
The God Who Moves

Readings: Isaiah 1:10, 16-20; Psalm 50:8-9, 16bc-17, 21 and 23; Matthew 23:1-12

It’s a basic scientific principle that nature abhors a vacuum. Something similar applies in the spiritual life as well. So even as we try to rid our hearts and our lives of sin and darkness during this season of Lent, we may quite spontaneously experience pressures to fill it with something else. But we must be careful.

Jesus’ critique of the scribes and the Pharisees in today’s gospel may be seen as a warning about what not to fill our hearts with. Of course, Jesus is not just talking about the people of his time. In a certain sense there continue to be scribes and Pharisees among us today, even among those of us who consider ourselves Christian. Theirs is a religion of high ideals. High ideals are important of course, which is why Jesus says we should listen to what the scribes and Pharisees say. Unfortunately that’s as far as this religion goes. It only sets out the ideal. It only lays down the Law. But it leaves us to struggle on our own to do what needs to be done. For this is a religion of a stationary god, a god that remains at the level of ideals, a god that lays burdens but does nothing to move them. And it is possible even to read the first reading as yet another address from this stationary god, imposing upon us yet more obligations – to do good, search for justice, help the oppressed, be just to the orphan, plead for the widow… – without lifting a finger to help us to fulfill them. But, if we’re honest, we'll have to admit that, left to our own devices, none of us really has the strength and courage to do what needs to be done, to get to where we need to go. Quite naturally, then, this religion often leads to a disturbing disconnect between belief and practice. It often leads to hypocrisy and scandal, to disillusionment and despair.

In contrast the God of Jesus Christ is a dynamic God, a God who moves. This is a God who leaves the realm of ideals and comes to meet us in the midst of our daily struggles with sin. This is a God who actually enters our chaos to save us. This is a God who even submits to humiliation. This God dies so that we might have life. Before this God we can truly be ourselves without any pretence, because this God accepts and loves us as we are, sinful and struggling. And in this experience of acceptance, this God actually lifts our burdens, actually helps us to traverse the unbridgeable gap between the scarlet red of our sinfulness and the white wool of God’s goodness. Isn’t this part of the significance of doing what the first reading tells us to do today? In helping the oppressed, in being just to the orphan, and in pleading for the widow, we begin to see how our God actually does the same for us: reaches out to free us from the oppression of sin and energizes us to reach out to help others.

Isn’t this also the process of Lent? By our spiritual practices we try to make space in our hearts and in our lives so that we can be filled more and more by the God who continues to move among us, who continues to lifts our burdens, and who takes us where we need to go.

Sisters and brothers, which God do you worship?

Monday, March 05, 2007

Monday in the 2nd Week of Lent
We’re in It Together

Readings: Daniel 9:4b-10; Psalm 79:8, 9, 11 and 13; Luke 6:36-38

It’s useful to begin our meditation by recalling the opening prayer for today. In it we asked God the Father to teach us to find new life through penance. This is an important petition to make, especially as we continue our Lenten discipline. It is important because, as we know so well, not all penance leads to new life. Not all penance leads us into a deeper relationship of love with God and with others. Quite to the contrary, it is possible to do penance, and any other spiritual exercise for that matter, in such a way that we begin to take pride in our own efforts, to think of ourselves as being somehow better than the common person, and to even become judgmental and condemnatory of others. It is possible to do penance in a way that leads to death.

Isn’t this what the Lord is trying to warn us against in the gospel today? Be compassionate… do not judge… do not condemn… grant pardon…

How, we may wonder, do we do this? How do we avoid the great risk that is faced especially by the pious? We need a special grace from God, the same grace that we find operating in the first reading. Perhaps what one finds most striking in Daniel’s confession of guilt – which he makes after having put himself through various penitential practices – is the number of times the word we is used. We have sinned, we have done wrong, we have acted wickedly… Daniel’s is not just a confession of his own personal sin. Rather, Daniel makes a general confession of the sins of his whole nation. Pious and holy though he may be, Daniel finds himself implicated in the sins of his people. Rather than making him judgmental, Daniel’s prayer and penance helps him receive the grace to see how the sins of others are also his sins. And it is out of this sense of corporate sinfulness that Daniel cries out to God for forgiveness and mercy.

Isn’t this the same grace that we need especially as we continue to make our way through Lent? For example, although I may not be a murderer like that One-Eyed Dragon who was arrested and tried not so long ago, don’t I engage, from time to time, in character assassination? Even though I may not embezzle money like that big-time lawyer who fled the country, am I not part of a global economy that often tends to keep the poor and destitute firmly in their state of oppression, even as it makes the rich ever richer? Isn’t this the whole reason for the slew of relief measures that our latest national budget is trying to put into place? And even though I may not visit those massage parlours that offer extra services, don't I have the tendency to disregard the dignity of others by making use of them, every so often, for my own selfish purposes?

It is this consciousness of being in it together, off being in the same sinking ship of sinfulness, that we need to ask for even as we continue the penitential practices of Lent. For it is especially when we receive this grace that, like Daniel, we can experience the compassion and the mercy of the God who responds to sin not so much with judgment as with a powerfully compassionate act of mercy. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:21).

Through our penitential practice, how is God teaching us the way that leads to life?

Friday, March 02, 2007

Friday in the 1st Week of Lent
What’s Your Pleasure?

Readings: Ezekiel 18:21-28; Psalm 130:1-2, 3-4, 5-7a, 7bc-8; Matthew 5:20-26

If your virtue goes no deeper than that of the scribes and Pharisees...

Recently someone asked me whether God treats everyone equally. What do you think? To be honest, I was hesitant to give a straight answer. Quite apart from the fact that God is Infinite Mystery – far beyond our feeble definitions – there is also the difficulty of pinpointing what we mean by equal. It does sound like a rhetorical question. We have been taught from an early age to think of equality and fairness as virtues. So, of course, God must treat everyone equally, otherwise how can God be considered a virtuous God. Yet, we may wonder whether God really conforms to our ideas of virtue. Or does God not instead challenge us to go beyond them? If your virtue goes no deeper than that of the scribes and Pharisees…

The virtue of the scribes and the Pharisees consists in following an external legal code. Everyone must follow this code or face the consequences. Under this code, equal treatment is given for equal performance. That is the code’s idea of fairness. But Jesus challenges this understanding by leading his listeners inward. It’s not just killing that’s objectionable, for example, but the ill-feeling that one might harbour towards another. And, as we know so well, ill-feeling can be expressed in many different ways short of murder. Hasn’t modern psychology taught us all about passive aggression?

External performance is meaningless then, if it doesn’t flow from the wellspring of a loving heart – or at least a heart that is trying to love. Performance without love leads to hypocrisy. Doesn’t Paul say something similar in 1 Corinthians 13?

And in case we may think that Jesus’ critique only applies to the scribes and the Pharisees, we may consider our spontaneous reaction to the first reading today. If you’re like me, you’ll find it easy to sympathize with those who object to God’s dealings with the upright and the wicked. We feel uneasy at the thought of God showing mercy to the one who lives a dissolute life and then suddenly repents just before death. Does this person really deserve to be given the same treatment as those who die after spending a lifetime trying to be good and kind and charitable? Is God being fair? Yet, doesn’t our discomfort demonstrate the extent to which we’re still immersed in the virtue of the scribes and Pharisees? We’re still concerned with measuring performance according to an external code.

But, as with Jesus in the gospel, God takes things onto another plane. The emphasis is not on calculating how many years of virtuous living to credit to each person’s account. Rather, God’s focus is quite simply on that which gives God pleasure. Am I likely to take pleasure in the death of a wicked man…? God takes pleasure in doing what God always does – God wishes only to save. Like the sun that shines on all, and the rain that falls on all, God wishes only what is best for all, good and bad alike. God rejoices in the repentance of the wicked person as much as God grieves at the sin of the virtuous.

If this is the true measure of virtue, then where do we stand? Difficult enough to conform our performance to an external code. How can we be expected to conform our desires to the very heart of God? Isn’t this why we need the season of Lent? We need to allow God gradually to transform us, so that we too may learn to take pleasure only in love and light and life.

What’s your pleasure?

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Thursday in the 1st Week of Lent
There is No One Else…

Readings: Esther C:12, 14-16, 23-25; Psalm 138:1-2ab, 2cde-3, 7c-8; Matthew 7:7-12

Come to my help, for I am alone and have no one but you, Lord…

Those who have experienced it will testify to this truth: probably nothing does more to improve our prayer than the awareness of one's own utter and total helplessness. Prior to this realization, prayer often feels like something extra, something that one can choose to do at one’s leisure, when there’s time left over from the other more urgent things that need one's attention. Of course, we’ve all been told how important prayer is. And at some level we may even believe it. But often our practice belies our supposed belief.

And then, at some point, something happens, something which jolts us out of our complacency, something which forces us to realize that no earthly power can give us the help we need. It is at this point that prayer becomes for us something as important as the air we breathe. Prayer becomes a matter of survival. This is Queen Esther’s situation in the first reading today. Her predicament takes the form of the impending destruction of her kinsfolk by their Persian conquerors. In her distress, she addresses a heartrending cry to God: I am alone and have no one but you, Lord… And God answers her. God saves her people from certain death. For it is as Jesus tells us in the gospel: if you… who are evil, know how to give your children what is good, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!

Whether we realize it or not, our journey through the season of Lent is designed precisely to bring us to a deeper awareness that we are all in a predicament similar to Esther’s. We are all, individually and communally, in mortal danger. We are all faced with a choice between life and death, good and evil. And we don’t have what it takes to choose life without reservation. At most we choose it only half-heartedly. We continue to cling in some way to our favourite little fragments of darkness. And in the clinging, we nurture death and destruction, for ourselves and for others as well.

If, then, there is one great grace that our Lenten discipline disposes us to receive, it is the realization of our own utter and total helplessness in the face of sin. We cannot help ourselves out of our predicament.

Rather, like Esther, we are alone and have no one but the Lord. And it is out of this realization that our hearts can begin truly to turn to God, to seek, to knock and to ask for that which we truly need. More than the food we eat, more than the water we drink, more even than the air we breathe, we need the Lord to free us from the sin that holds us captive. And it is when we turn wholeheartedly to God in our need that we can share Esther’s experience, the same experience out of which the psalmist writes: on the day I called, you answered me, O Lord.
What are you praying for this Lent? What do you need from the Lord today?