Monday, April 30, 2007

Monday in the 4th Week of Easter
The yeses in the YES

Readings: Acts 11:1-18; Psalm 42:2-3; 43:3, 4; John 10:1-10

What might it mean for us today when Jesus says he is the gate of the sheepfold, and that anyone who does not enter… through the gate… is a thief and a brigand? Quite obviously, we are being asked to say YES to following Jesus, to becoming his disciple. We may be reminded, for example, of that moving moment at the Easter Vigil, when the candidates for baptism renounced sin and professed their faith. This year, their numbers allowed them to do it one at a time. Do you reject Satan… Do you believe in God the Father almighty…? I do, I do, I do… They were each saying a big YES to entering the sheepfold of life in all its fullness through the gate who is Christ. But, admirable and inspiring as that moment was, isn’t it true that their big YESes imply a commitment to making many more little yeses in the days that follow? And isn’t it also true that those little yeses are not always easy to make?

This past weekend, I was at a retreat organized by a group which included some married couples and their children. We were in a large hall and I was happily watching several of the children amusing themselves, running around and playing in that big space. One of the parents came up to me and asked: They look very cute don’t they? I agreed enthusiastically. At which she went on to say: Yes, but don’t be fooled! I guess what she was telling me was that, cute as the kids might seem to an innocent bystander, they were actually quite a handful to care for. I’m reminded of a former classmate of mine who, I’m told, has a pet name for her son. She calls him monster. Isn’t it true that saying a big YES to having cute children also implies many little yeses to the monster as well? Just like saying a big YES to the spouse who may look so dashing or beautiful or who may make us laugh, might also mean having to say yes to the same one who snores or who has bad breath? Or like saying a big YES to religious life may also imply many little yeses to living and working with fellow religious who might have views and temperaments different from our own?

And isn’t it precisely at times when we are faced with the challenge of living out these little yeses, that we are likely to feel tempted to enter the sheepfold by some other way? What to do? The experience of the early church in the first reading is instructive. We notice how everyone in the reading has already accepted Christ. But today they are beginning to see that their big YES to Christ implies a smaller, but no less important, yes to the uncircumcised as well. This is a daunting challenge for them, who have been raised to believe that the Jews are the chosen people of God. What helps them to meet this challenge, to say this yes? They are helped by Peter’s experience. Led by the Spirit, Peter actually visits and gets to know some of the very people whom the Jews might have at first considered unclean. And in the experience, Peter sees with his own eyes the Spirit moving powerfully among them. In his experience, he sees the connection between saying YES to Christ and yes to the uncircumcised. And he is able to convince the others to do the unthinkable, to continue entering into the sheepfold of life in its fullness through Christ the only true gate, by accepting pagan believers into their midst. Isn’t this what we are called to do as well? When the yes seems especially difficult to force out through our lips, aren’t we also being invited to pray for the grace to see Christ in the uncircumcised -- to see the connection between our earlier YES to Christ and the particular yes to the people or the situation at hand?

How are we being invited to do this today?

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Saturday in the 3rd Week of Easter
Hang in There!

Readings: Acts 9:31-42; Psalm 116:12-13, 14-15, 16-17; John 6:60-69

Do you ever have someone with a problem come to you for help or advice? Perhaps it’s a close friend or a relative, a colleague or an acquaintance. But after listening to the person, you realize that the problem is really beyond you, that there is really nothing you can do except to lend a listening ear and a supporting shoulder. And much as you wish you could do something to make the difficulty go away, you find yourself simply saying, Hang in there! I’ll pray for you. Or some other words like that. I don’t know about you, but sometimes I find myself feeling a little embarrassed that that’s all that one has to offer. Yet, inadequate as these words may seem, isn’t it true that they are often exactly the message that one needs to hear when in trouble?

Consider the disciples in the gospel today. Jesus has been offering them a truly shocking and incomprehensible doctrine. You must eat my flesh and drink my blood. Is it any surprise that many of his disciples left him and stopped going with him? But what’s even more surprising is that Peter and the other disciples actually decide to stay. They stay not because they understand and agree with what Jesus teaches. They hang in there, even when things seems dark and confusing, only because they continue to cling to the belief that Jesus is the Holy One of God. They trust that things will somehow become clear in the future, if only they remain with Jesus in the present.

In Peter’s words and actions we see a concrete illustration of something which St. Ignatius of Loyola teaches in his Spiritual Exercises. When one is in desolation, he should strive to persevere in patience… Let him consider… that consolation will soon return… And indeed, we see the truth in such considerations in the first reading from the Acts of the Apostles. As we may recall from our readings earlier in the week, the early church was facing a very difficult and desolate time of persecution beginning with the martyrdom of St. Stephen. But today, we see how its fortunes are changing after the conversion of Saul. We are told that the churches… were now left in peace, building themselves up, living in the fear of the Lord, and filled with the consolation of the Holy Spirit. In a way, just as Tabitha is raised from death to life, so too is the Christian community raised from a time of darkness and desolation into a period of consolation and light. The church’s perseverance under persecution, its steadfastness in a time of trial, has borne fruit in a renewed sense of the Spirit’s presence. Consolation has returned. Difficult as it was hanging in there has finally paid off.

Isn’t this why we are praying at this Mass for the grace to do what Peter does in the gospel? In the opening prayer, we asked God our Father to help us to remain true to your gift of life. And in the prayer over the gifts we will be asking for the grace to hold fast to the life you have given us. We do this because we realize the importance of perseverance, of hanging in there.

Do you know anyone who needs encouragement to hang in there today?

Friday, April 27, 2007

Friday in the 3rd Week of Easter
Called through Blindness and Death

Readings: Acts 9:1-20; Psalm 117:1bc, 2; John 6:52-59

We are all quite naturally attracted to the Christ who brings light and life, the One who raises the dead to life and who makes the blind to see. And that is as it should be. After all, that is what we are celebrating especially in this season of Easter. Indeed, in the gospel today, Jesus speaks of himself as the bread of life. While in the first reading, we hear of how Saul is given new sight. Still, it is important to notice also how this new life and new sight is given.

It’s quite startling, isn’t it, that when the light from heaven strikes Saul to the ground, Saul is blinded for a time? His new sight comes only later, after he first loses his initial ability to see. And although, in the gospel, Jesus does refer to himself as the bread of life, he does so in a way that throws his listeners into confusion. How can this man give us his flesh to eat? In a way, not unlike Saul, the eyes of their understanding are also blinded. In order for Saul and Jesus’ listeners to gain new sight, they must first die to their earlier way of seeing things. The same can also be said about the disciple Ananias. He too is called to die to his initial opinion and judgment of Saul – Lord, several people have told me about this man and all the harm he has been doing to your saints in Jerusalem – so that God might use him to be the instrument of Saul’s healing and conversion. It seems clear that the Lord brings people into the fullness of life and light by first calling them into darkness and death.

Strange as this might seem, we actually have similar experiences, do we not? When some of us have to undergo surgery, for example, we often have to be put under general anesthesia, so that we can be made well again. We are put to sleep so that we can awake to a more wholesome life. Something similar happens in human relationships too. Sometimes, we may think we know someone even before we have had a chance to talk to the person. But our knowledge might be based solely on what others may have told us, or worse, on the color of the person’s skin, or the faith that the person professes. Whatever the case may be, as it was with Ananias, we often only get to know the other better when we are willing first die to our prejudices. In the same way, the relationships between parent and children must also keep changing to remain truly alive. We all know what can happen when a parent insists on relating to adult children in the same way as when they were toddlers. In a real way, the earlier relationship must die, so that a new and more life-giving one can be born.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran pastor and theologian who was killed by the Nazis in the Second World War, once wrote: when Christ calls a man (woman) he bids him (her) come and die… But, as we are reminded by our readings today, this is a dying that leads to a fuller life, and a blinding that leads to keener sight.

How is the Crucified and Risen Christ calling us today?

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Thursday in the 3rd Week of Easter
Readiness for the Drawn

Readings: Acts 8:26-40; Psalm 66:8-9, 16-17, 20; John 6:44-51

Coincidentally, our readings today help us to continue our reflection on evangelization that we began yesterday. Apart from it being a long word, and difficult to pronounce, we sometimes find ourselves shying away from evangelization because it poses a considerable challenge to us. As a senior priest told some of us the other day, when commenting on the difficulties of preaching a homily, not only must you have something to say, but you must also know how to say it. And we might add that when sharing our faith, we need also to know when to do it. Aren’t we sometimes afraid that if we were to say the wrong thing, or in the wrong way, or at the wrong time, instead of converting people to the faith, we might turn them off forever?

All this is true, of course. When we consider the story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch in the first reading, for example, it’s quite clear that the eunuch’s conversion is aided in no small measure by Philip’s ability to say the right thing at the right time and in the right way. Not only does Philip appear just when the eunuch has a question concerning a passage of scripture, but Philip is also able to respond in such a way that the eunuch is led to ask for baptism. It does seem like a tough act for us to follow, doesn’t it?

And yet, the thing that stands out most in the story is not really the considerable ability of Philip. Neither is it the obvious openness of the Ethiopian eunuch to receive the Good News. What stands out most is the truth of Jesus’ words in the gospel: no one can come to me unless he is drawn by the Father who sent me. More than any human capability and talent, what stands out most in the readings is the desire and power of God to draw people to God’s self. It is God’s Spirit who draws the Ethiopian eunuch to ponder over the scriptures and to seek instruction. Just as it is God’s Spirit who leads Philip to offer guidance to the eunuch. It is God who, through the death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ, continually draws people to God’s self, in the power of the Holy Spirit.

To evangelize, then, is really to participate in this ongoing work of God. Ultimately we are not really the ones who convert others. That would be a burden too much for us to bear. Instead, we are called to do what the angel tells Philip to do in the first reading: be ready to set out… Be ready to share your faith when the opportunity presents itself. Be ready to be led by the Spirit to those being drawn by the Father to the Son. Be ready…

Are we?

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Feast of Saint Mark, Evangelist
No White Elephants

Readings: 1 Peter 5:5b-14; Psalm 89:2-3, 6-7, 16-17; Mark 16:15-20

It’s just two Sundays ago when we all renewed our baptismal promises. And our readings on this feast of St. Mark the evangelist invite us to reflect a little more deeply upon the significance of baptism, on what it means to be a believer.

Perhaps the first and most striking aspect is what the gospel refers to as the signs that will be associated with believers: in my name they will… pick up snakes in their hands, and be unharmed should they drink deadly poison… When was the last time any of us believers picked up a snake or drank deadly poison in the name of Jesus? How to understand these words? There are some, of course, who interpret them literally. We know, for example, that there are groups of Christians, in the southern part of the US, who actually continue to handle poisonous snakes. And then there are those who think that even if these signs existed in the past, they are no longer relevant now.

I’m not sure if they were meant to be interpreted literally. But when we hear about snakes might we not be reminded of the serpent in the book of Genesis, the one that seduces the first man and woman to stray from the path marked out for them by God? And isn’t our world still filled with such voices today? And when we hear about deadly poison, might we not think of all the things that the world values, things that poison the Christian life, things like the desire to get ahead at all cost, things like materialism and consumerism? Aren’t believers called to enter and engage this world in the name of Christ without being bitten or poisoned?

But in order to do this, we need also to attend to two other things. The first is the purpose of these signs. As the gospel tells us, they are meant not so much to draw attention to ourselves but so that the good news might be proclaimed to all creation. They are meant for evangelization. And Christians evangelize not by a power that is not our own. As Peter tells us in the first reading, more important than any wisdom of our own, more crucial than any skills or knowledge that we may acquire, what is most important is for us believers continually to bow down before the power of God, whose power lasts for ever and ever. Amen.

We may remember how, not so long ago, some wise guy put up several cardboard cut-outs of white elephants around a new unopened MRT station. The point he was making was that the unopened MRT station was not fulfilling the purpose for its existence. We may also remember the following words of the late Pope Paul VI: the church exists to evangelize. And we, all the baptized, are the church. Just as an MRT station exists for people to board and alight from the train, so too do we, as church, exist to evangelize.

Are we true evangelizers or white elephants?

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Tuesday in the 3rd Week of Easter
Open Our Eyes…

Readings: Acts 7:51—8:1a; Psalm 31:3cd-4, 6 and 7b and 8a, 17 and 21ab; John 6:30-35

As is often the case, there’s much for us to learn when we compare the conduct of the various people in our readings today, especially how they respond to Jesus. In particular, the figure of Stephen rises head and shoulders above the others and provides a sharp contrast especially to the people who come to seek Jesus out in the gospel. In badgering Jesus for a sign so that they might believe in him, the latter demonstrate how blind they are to the Sign above all other signs, Jesus himself, who had only recently worked a miracle for them, filling their stomachs with all the bread that they could eat. Stephen, on the other hand, finds himself in a far less comfortable position. In fact, he is staring death in the face. Yet, even in his perilous situation, he sees the glory of God and Jesus sitting at God’s right hand. What might account for this difference?

Stephen himself gives us an indication. The difference between Stephen and the people in the gospel lies first in their relationship with the Holy Spirit. The latter resist the spirit, even as Stephen is filled with the Spirit’s power. But what does the Spirit do? What difference does the Spirit’s presence make? One obvious difference is in the way that people relate to the present and the past. Consider the people in the gospel. Quite clearly they are driven by their hungers of the present. They come to Jesus only because they think he can continue providing them with all the bread that they can eat. They are also clinging to their experiences of the past. They are too attached to the story of how, through Moses, God had fed their ancestors with manna in the desert, and so are blind to the way that God is feeding them now, in Jesus, the bread of life.

In contrast, Stephen’s openness to the Spirit enables him to see the deep connection between the past and his situation in the present. He is able to see that his difficulties were also the lot of the long line of prophets before him. Above all, even in the face of death, he is able to see the face of Jesus. And the sight fills him with the courage he needs to embrace his destiny as Jesus did before him, even to the extent of praying for the very people who are putting him to death. All this is the effect of the Holy Spirit’s enlightening and empowering presence in Stephen’s life.

And what of us? More likely than not, we too have our hungers in the present. Just as we probably also have things in the past to which we may still be clinging. How might we be more open to workings of the Spirit? How might we see more clearly the presence of the Risen Christ in our midst?

I’m reminded of the words of an old hymn:
Open our eyes Lord, we want to see Jesus.
To reach out and touch him, and say that we love him.
Open our ears Lord, and help us to listen.
Open our eyes Lord, we want to see Jesus.
How is the Risen Christ revealing himself to us today?

Monday, April 23, 2007

Monday in the 3rd Week of Easter
Shopping for Eternal Life

Readings: Acts 6:8-15; Psalm 119:23-24, 26-27, 29-30; John 6:22-29

We often laugh when we hear people say that their hobby is shopping. It’s funny because who really takes shopping seriously? How can we really consider it a proper hobby? A means to while away the time, or an antidote for boredom, or even a bad habit, perhaps, but not quite a hobby. Yet, is it really so easy to shop? I don’t mean the kind of mindless and impulsive buying that we sometimes indulge in; the kind where we come home with a whole bag – or even a carload – of stuff we don’t really need. I mean the kind where you set out purposefully to get the best possible bargain on something truly essential. That’s not easy. It’s not just a matter of picking something off the shelf in the first shop that one enters. To do that kind of shopping, one must know not only what one really needs, but also what’s on offer. And then, with that knowledge in hand, one must also be willing to pay the price.

Isn’t this why Jesus seems to unexpectedly upset in the gospel today? We might think that if Jesus were a shopkeeper, he’d be very happy to see so many prospective customers flocking to his store. But he’s very well aware that these people neither know what they really need, nor do they know what’s on offer. They are looking for food that cannot last, even when the divine shopkeeper is offering them food that endures to eternal life. So Jesus tries to enlighten them. And in his sales pitch Jesus even goes on to tell them the cost of what’s on offer – this is working for God: you must believe in the one he has sent. Are they willing to pay this price?

Quite clearly, the people in the first reading are not. The message that Stephen preaches is simply too much for them. To believe in the Crucified and Risen Jesus and to hand over total control of their lives to him is simply too much to ask. The transformation that is required of them is too great, such that they react not just by walking away, but by arguing with Stephen and finally by persecuting him to death. It’s almost as though they have to remove him completely from their sight so that they will not be reminded of what might have been.

In contrast, both Jesus and Stephen are proud and powerful possessors of the very life that they are offering to others. They are both filled with grace and power that are the gifts of the Spirit. They continue to do the will and to speak the words of God even when people misunderstand, even when they are verbally abused and treated badly, even to the point of death. As we heard in the psalm, God’s will is their delight, and they have chosen the way of truth. Filled with a profound knowledge of the eternal life that God offers, they willingly pay the price to purchase it. Consummate shoppers are they.

Are we?

Sunday, April 22, 2007

3rd Sunday of Easter
Locating Easter Joy

Readings: Acts 5:27-32, 40b-41; Psalm 30:2, 4, 5-6, 11-12, 13; Revelations 5:11-14; John 21:1-19 or 21:1-14

Sisters and brothers, we all know from experience the importance of location. It’s one of the key factors we have to consider when we are house-hunting, for example, or when we are choosing a school for our kids, or an office for our business. Indeed – at the risk of sounding morbid – location is a crucial consideration even when we are choosing a final resting place for a loved one or for ourselves. In a columbarium, for example, aren’t the niches at eye-level usually more costly than those at the very bottom or at the very top?

I’m reminded also of a recently concluded debate in a certain religious community over the choice of a suitable holiday destination. Should the community go to a remote island famous for its breathtakingly clear waters and exciting opportunities for water-sports, but which is almost 12 hours from Singapore by land and sea? Or should they settle for a more ordinary, less exotic option, just a hop, a skip and a jump across the Causeway? Location, location, location. The course of battles and the fate of nations have turned on questions of location. And, it would seem, the fates of religious communities as well.

It is not surprising then if, on this 3rd Sunday of Easter, we are also led by our readings to focus our attention on questions of location. As we heard in our opening prayer just now, Easter is the time when we celebrate God restoring to us the joy of our youth. But where exactly must we go to experience this Easter joy? Or does location matter at all in the spiritual life?

At one level, it would seem not. Notice how our readings today are all descriptions of Easter joy. Yet, the action in each of them takes place in a very different physical location: the council room of the Sanhedrin in the first reading, the island of Patmos in the second reading, and the Sea of Tiberias in the gospel. A room, an island and a lake – three very different localities, but the same Easter joy is experienced at each of them. Aren’t we being reminded then that, when it comes to the experience of Easter, our physical location matters little? Whether we are in a posh penthouse suite or a shabby shack in a slum, whether we’re in an air-conditioned office or a chaotic construction site, in a quiet chapel or a noisy market-place, the joy that is God’s gift to us at Easter can still be ours to experience.

Because the Word of God was made flesh and lived among us, because the Lamb of God was sacrificed and then raised to life for us, every nook and cranny of human existence is now capable of revealing to us the joy-producing face of God. In this sense, location doesn’t really matter.

Even so, there’s something about the three places in our readings today that invites deeper reflection. When we look at them a little more carefully, we see that they have more in common than we at first thought. To begin with, all three localities are places of trial and even of humiliation. The council room where the Sanhedrin meets is also the interrogation room for the apostles, the place where their faith is put to the test. The island of Patmos, in the second reading, is also the place of exile for John the visionary. As we were told last week, he was sent there in a time of persecution for having preached God’s word and witnessed for Jesus. And, of course, the Sea of Tiberias is also the lake of luckless fishermen. The boat that bears the apostles upon the waters contains no fish. Apart from the apostles themselves, it carries only their barren nets and their broken dreams.

But, fortunately, that’s not all. Apart from being places of trial, the room, the island, and the lake are also places of vision. It is on the Sea of Tiberias, that the disappointed and disillusioned apostles see and recognize the Crucified and Risen Christ. It is on Patmos, his island of exile, that John is blessed with a vision in which he hears a host of angels and saints and everything that lives singing the praises of the lamb that was sacrificed. It is before the Sanhedrin that the apostles cling steadfastly to their vision of the death and resurrection of Jesus their Lord. You had him executed, they exclaim, but God has now raised him up.

And because they are places of vision, these three localities are also places of power and mission. It is by the lake that we find Peter being strengthened and commissioned through his conversation with Jesus. Do you love me? Lord, you know everything; you know I love you. Feed my sheep. And, as we heard last week, it is on the island of Patmos that John receives instructions to write down all he sees so that the Christian community might find renewed courage to continue living and proclaiming the gospel even in the face of persecution. It is also before the Sanhedrin that the apostles fearlessly testify to the Crucified and Risen Christ with great conviction even to the extent of being glad to have had the honour of suffering humiliation for the sake of the name.

Clearly, even if the room, the island and the lake are very different physical locations, they share these crucially important characteristics. They are all places of trial, of vision & of mission. And, for the apostles, it is at locations such as these that Easter joy is experienced.

What about us, then? Where might we experience Easter joy? Clearly, our physical location doesn’t really matter. What’s more important is our spiritual location. Crazy as it may sound, Easter joy is experienced precisely at those places in our hearts and in our lives where we are enduring a trial or an ordeal of some sort. For isn’t this is what Easter is about? Isn’t this what our readings have to teach us? Above all, Easter is a celebration of how, through the dying and rising of Christ, God continually transforms our places of trial into localities of vision and power and mission. At Easter, we celebrate the ways in which, even in our difficulties, God enables our eyes to gaze upon a vision full of hope, and our hearts to be filled with a peace that the world cannot give. At Easter, God restores to us the joy of our youth, so that we might in turn share it with others.

Sisters and brothers, at what location are you being offered God’s gift of Easter joy?

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Saturday in the 2nd Week of Easter
The Friendly Ghost

Readings: Acts 6:1-7; Psalm 33:1-2, 4-5, 18-19; John 6:16-21

Today, I’m reminded of a comic character from childhood days: Caspar, the friendly ghost. The reason will hopefully become clear as we go along.

Rowing a boat on a dark night over rough waters and against strong winds – difficult, but still shouldn’t be an unsettling experience for the disciples, familiar as they are with conditions on the lake. The thing that scares them is not so much the physical conditions as it is the sight of someone walking on the water. That is radically new and strange. That is confusing and deeply disturbing. Yet, when the disciples offer hospitality to the ghostly figure, after being reassured of who it is – It is I. Do not be afraid – they reach their destination in no time.

Perhaps the situation in the first reading is not much different. Here the rough waters and strong winds are of a different sort. The Hellenists made a complaint against the Hebrews. And the ghostly figure walking on the water? A novel suggestion: select from among yourselves seven men. Might this move not cause some consternation in the community? Probably no more or no less than the kind of consternation that is still provoked among us, for example, by the presence of lay ministers of communion, and more recently female lay ministers of communion. Even so, as they say, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. The strange idea proves to be a good one when the word of the Lord continues to spread.

A lesson is being offered us perhaps? The Lord in whom we place all our hope can often show himself to us in ways that might unsettle and even frighten us at first. In the midst of our distress, we need to listen out for his voice, allow him to reassure us, and then be willing to welcome him into our boats, so that he might show us the way to our proper destination.

How are we being greeted by Christ the friendly ghost today?

Friday, April 20, 2007

Friday in the 2nd Week of Easter
There is One Thing I Ask…

Readings: Acts 5:34-42; Psalm 27:1, 4, 13-14; John 6:1-15

At first glance it would seem that if there’s one thing that both readings have in common, it’s probably the unexpected way in which things turn out. On the one hand, one would have expected the apostles to meet their end at the hands of the Sanhedrin. Yet they find an unlikely ally in Gamaliel. And even though they have to suffer the pain of being flogged, their experience rejuvenates them. After their release their proclamation of the Good News was never interrupted. On the other hand, we would probably have expected those who were fed by Jesus in the gospel to aid him in him in his mission. After all, don’t they sound like the ancient equivalent of a modern day fan-club? Instead, by wanting to take him by force and make him king, they become an obstacle in his path. Faced with their obstinacy, Jesus has no choice but to flee into the hills.

Still, a deeper connection between the readings can perhaps be found when we consider what sets these two groups of people apart. What is it that makes Gamaliel and the Sanhedrin an unlikely help and the Jesus fan-club an unexpected hindrance to the spread of the gospel? What is it that leads the former to release the apostles and the latter to cling inordinately to Jesus? A likely answer is to be found in the response to our psalm today: there is one thing I ask of the Lord, to live in the house of the Lord…

It is likely that these two groups of people can be distinguished by their primary desire. Gamaliel argues for the apostles’ release because he doesn’t want to end up fighting against God. Even though the apostles’ preaching is a thorn in his flesh, Gamaliel is willing to let them go because they might actually be carrying out the will of God. Even if he is still unsure whether the apostles are actually sent by God, Gamaliel demonstrates through his words and actions that his overriding desire is to be on the side of God. He truly wishes to live in the house of the Lord. In contrast, even though the fan-club seems to be acting in Jesus’ best interests, they’re really looking out only for themselves. The purposes of God do not figure in their decision-making processes. In clinging to Jesus, their only concern is to fill their own stomachs. That is the one thing they would ask of the Lord.

Faced with these two starkly contrasting sets of attitudes, both Jesus and the apostles demonstrate a similar wisdom and steadfastness of purpose. Even though the thought of being king might well be a tempting prospect Jesus hides himself. And intimidating though the threats of the Sanhedrin might be, especially after having been flogged, the apostles proclaim the gospel with greater zeal than ever. Their primary motivation is thus made clear. There truly is one thing they ask of the Lord, to live in the house of the Lord all the days of their lives…

What is it that we ask of the Lord today?

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Thursday in the 2nd Week of Easter
Blinders for the Straight and Narrow

Readings: Acts 5:27-33; Psalm 34:2 and 9, 17-18, 19-20; John 3:31-36

Some years ago I happened to ask a senior priest of the Archdiocese to pray for me in my vocation. His reply was that I should be okay if only I remained focused. He used the analogy of a horse with blinders on. It’s kept on the straight and narrow because its eyes are only focused straight ahead. It’s never distracted by what’s happening to right or left. I remember reacting with mixed feelings to his words. I was grateful for the advice, but also not too sure if I fully agreed with him. What he said seemed to imply a desire to escape from the world. And yet surely even priests and religious need to know what is happening in the world around them. Wouldn’t blinders be a hindrance to effective ministry?

Several years hence, I’m beginning to see the wisdom of his words when properly understood. Perhaps what he was saying was not so much that one should ignore what is happening in the world, but that one should strive to do what we hear Jesus and the apostles doing in the readings of today. Amidst the considerable distractions around them, they remain ever steadfast in their calling. When under immense pressure to give up preaching about the resurrection, the apostles give voice to their deepest conviction: obedience to God comes before obedience to men… In this they are merely following in the footsteps of Christ their Lord and Master who, as we are told by John the Baptist today, bears witness to the things he has seen and heard, even if his testimony is not accepted. As Jesus did before them, the apostles are able to do this because they continually keep before them the primary motivation for what they say and do. Their eyes are focused on their Crucified and Risen Lord, ever ready to hear and to carry out his bidding. And they are empowered to do this by the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him.

And isn’t it also true that one doesn’t need to be a priest or a religious to experience being pressured to stray from the straight and narrow? Of course, our individualistic, materialistic and consumeristic culture is an obvious source of distractions. But isn’t it also true that sometimes distractions and subtle pressures may come from the most unlikely of sources – sometimes even from those closest to us, those whose views we respect, those whose affection we treasure? Isn’t it true that such distractions might even be motivated by the best of intentions? And yet, in our moments of clarity, we may see that they are somehow competing with God for that privileged place on the throne of our hearts.

If and when we find ourselves in that position, the prayer of the psalmist offers some measure of comfort and guidance. The Lord turns his eyes to the just and his ears to their appeal… Many are the trials of the just man but from them all the Lord will rescue him.

What are our distractions? How focused are we?

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Wednesday in the 2nd Week of Easter
From the Common Jail to the Temple

Readings: Acts 5:17-26; Psalm 34:2-3, 4-5, 6-7, 8-9; John 3:16-21

The thing that catches our attention in the readings today is the stark contrast between how each reading begins. The first reading begins: prompted by jealousy, they arrested the apostles and had them placed in the common jail… The gospel begins: God loved the world so much that he gave his only son… On the part of the high priest and his associates, we hear of jealousy giving rise to captivity and condemnation and the darkness of the dungeon. While on the part of God, we hear of love inspiring a precious gift of Self and the fullness of life lived in the brilliant light of God's presence.

The interplay of these two forces is something that we probably all experience in our own lives and in our own hearts. On the one hand, to varying degrees, we probably know what it is like to be held captive by various obsessions and compulsions. Sometimes it may be a deep loneliness that prompts us to enter into inappropriate and destructive relationships with other people or with things. At other times it may be a profound insecurity making us succumb to workoholism or competition. Whatever may be the inner demons that enslave us, isn’t it true that one good indication of their presence lies in the conscious or unconscious desire to ensnare others as well? Could this be what is happening, for example, when some parents relentlessly push their children to excel in as many disciplines as possible, even at the cost of their children’s mental and emotional well-being? Like the villains in the first reading, something goads us into forcing others to join us in the common jail of our enslavement to all that is less than God.

And yet, God refuses to leave us in this miserable state. Even when, filled with shame at our own weakness, we may be moved to give up on ourselves and on others, God refuses to give us up. God refuses to condemn. Instead, God reaches out to save. Isn’t this the experience out of which the psalmist is writing today, when he proclaims: this poor man called and the Lord heard him and rescues him from all his distress? And once we experience that liberation, like the apostles, we too are moved to tell others all about this new Life, in word and in deed. For this is what God delights in doing. God frees us from the common jail so as to usher us into the Temple where we might tell of the wonders that God has done.

In the common jail or in the Temple – where do we find ourselves today?

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Tuesday in the 2nd Week of Easter
Gossiping the Gospel

Readings: Acts 4:32-37; Psalm 93:1ab, 1cd-2, 5; John 3:7b-15

We speak only of what we know and witness only to what we have seen…

Many of us Catholics are reticent about sharing our faith with others, even though we know how important it is to do so. Often we are shy because we don’t think we know enough. We’re not sure about what we believe in. We feel we need some kind of re-fresher course – or perhaps even a fresh course – before we can actually speak to anyone about our faith. But who has the time or the energy to do this? Or so we may think. If what Jesus says to Nicodemus in the gospel today is true – if we are really only to speak of what we know – then we feel we cannot speak at all because we do not know. But is that really true?

Perhaps it is, at least to some extent. It is true that we could probably do a better job sharing our faith if we had all our facts at our fingertips. But we may wonder if that is the kind of knowledge that Jesus is speaking of. After all, isn’t it striking that in both readings today, the people who are speaking probably never had formal lessons in religion? And yet, in the gospel Jesus presumes to teach Nicodemus, who was probably an expert in the Law. While in the first reading we are told that the apostles speak with great power and were given great respect. Quite clearly, the kind of knowledge that they were drawing upon was not simply the kind one could read off a book. They were testifying to things they had experienced. Jesus was speaking out of his own vibrant relationship with his heavenly Father. The apostles were speaking out of their own experience of the Crucified and Risen Christ who continued to be present to them in the life that they shared in common. As we heard in the first reading, the whole group of believers was united, heart and soul.

If this is true, then perhaps we need to re-examine our response to the call to share our faith. Important as it is to bone-up on the Catechism, perhaps it’s just as important, if not more so, to find some way in which we can become more conscious of the ways in which God continues to grace us everyday with experiences of God’s love. And wherever these experiences are to be found – in prayer or work, in solitude or community – perhaps sharing our faith is really as simple as speaking about what we have seen and heard, of how, all around us, Christ continues to change hearts, to transform lives and to build communities.

I’m reminded of a book I’m reading, according to which the primary way that the gospel was spread in the second and third centuries was through the casual, informal witness of ordinary Christians. These went everywhere gossiping the gospel; they did it naturally, enthusiastically, and with the conviction of those who are not paid to say that sort of thing. Consequently, they were taken seriously, and the movement spread, notably among the lower classes.

How are we being called to gossip the gospel today?

Monday, April 16, 2007

The Homily

The homily, as a liturgical act, is symbolic speaking done in the Christian community. As such it works effectively not at the level of cognition, where information is exchanged and ideas are explored, but at the level of recognition, where the speaking touches us 'to the quick,' revealing us to ourselves. Because we are vulnerable at the quick, symbolic speech has the power to move us. By contrast, speech that is deliberately inauthentic, but also everyday patterns of language, work to mask, protect and manipulate that living core, offering us instead a familiar and orderly world to live in. Even conventionalized uses of once-powerful religious language can deliberately shield us from the presence of the saving mystery. These two -- the public rhetoric of our secular, technological, consumer society and conventionalized God-talk -- both aim to get us to settle for less than fullness of life in Christ Jesus, which is unavoidably paschal, requiring transformation through conversion.

-- Mary Collins, O.S.B
Monday in the 2nd Week of Easter
Born Again… & Again…

Readings: Acts 4:23-31; Psalm 2:1-3, 4-7a, 7b-9; John 3:1-8

At some level, it’s really quite easy to identify with Nicodemus in his perplexity. What Jesus is saying simply does not compute. It defies logic. How can a grown man be born? Can he go back into his mother’s womb and be born again? But Jesus challenges Nicodemus to look at things in a new way.

As we well know, Jesus is speaking not so much of a physical birth as a spiritual rejuvenation. Unless a man is born through water and the Spirit he cannot enter the kingdom of God. And, as Christians, we quite naturally equate this rebirth of which Jesus speaks to the sacrament of Baptism. Thus isn’t it true that Jesus’ words in today’s gospel no longer hold any surprises for us? After all, have we not already been baptized in water and the spirit? And doesn’t the Church teach us that baptism is once and for all? Once we have been imprinted with the baptismal character we cannot be baptized again. What other significance does this passage have for us then, except to provide us with a reason to congratulate ourselves and perhaps a slogan for persuading others to accept baptism?

And yet, could such an approach to Jesus’ words actually lead us to defeat their purpose? I’m reminded of an exchange some friends of mine once had in the days when I was actively involved in a charismatic prayer group. We had just concluded a meeting to discuss prayer group matters, when along came a much-respected person in church circles, who challenged us with the following question. If we believe that the Holy Spirit is poured out upon those who are baptized, and if we have all already been baptized, then why do we pray for the Spirit to come into us again? Isn’t the Spirit already within us? A very logical question, isn’t it? Why indeed? Can someone who has already been baptized be re-baptized? Echoes of the Nicodemus affair in a new key.

Still, logical as the challenge may sound, it does belie the experience of the early church in the first reading of today. In the Acts of the Apostles, this episode takes place after Pentecost, that is, after the Spirit had already descended upon the disciples. Yet, when faced with persecution, the community gathers to pray. And even though we might imagine that God already knows everything, they continue to present to God all that they are undergoing, especially their trials and tribulations. Lord, take note of their threats and help your servants to proclaim your message with boldness… And even though the Spirit already dwells in them, we are told that the disciples are once again filled with the Holy Spirit. Jesus’ words to Nicodemus are thus again fulfilled in their experience. They are spiritually rejuvenated and begin to proclaim the word of God boldly, as Jesus did before them.

Clearly, to understand Jesus’ words to Nicodemus and to continue to claim their power, we must not only transpose them into strictly sacramental terms, important as this may be, but we must also be willing continually to allow Jesus to challenge our way of looking at things, to move us beyond the strictly logical to the truly spiritual. For, as we proclaimed in the response to the psalm, it is not so much logic as it is God in whom we put our trust.

How is the Crucified and Risen One inviting us to be born again today?

Saturday, April 14, 2007

2nd Sunday of Easter
Divine Mercy Sunday
Mercy that Penetrates

Readings: Acts 5:12-16; Psalm 118:2-4, 13-15, 22-24; Revelations 1:9-11a, 12-13, 17-19; John 20:19-31

Sisters and brothers, there’s a well-known holy picture – you’ve probably seen it or heard of it – of Jesus standing by a closed door. With one hand, he is holding a lighted lamp – it is night – and with the other he is knocking on the door. And if you look closely, you will see that there is no doorknob on the outside. The door can only be opened from the inside. And that’s probably the whole point of the picture. If we want to be with Jesus, if we want to enjoy his company and receive the blessings that he brings, we must first be willing to open the doors of our hearts and our lives so that he can enter. After all, can we expect him to open the door for us if there is no doorknob on the outside? What do you think of this picture?

There is some truth to it, of course. There are times in the gospels, for example, when we are told that Jesus could work no miracle at a particular place because the people there had no faith. The doors of their hearts were firmly closed to him. So Jesus could not enter. And a scene like the one in the holy picture is also described in Revelation 3:20. Here the Lord says, Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me. Clearly, then, if we want Jesus to help us, we must first open the door to him, right?

And yet, isn’t it also true that many of us here, myself included, have probably experienced how difficult it is sometimes just to unlock the door of our hearts, let alone to open it fully? Take for example when we are badly hurt by someone, perhaps a friend or a relative. We know we are supposed to forgive. We know that not only is it unchristian to continue to bear a grudge, but that it is also bad for us. We become sour and unhappy people. We become slaves of our own anger and resentment. We may even get tension headaches or ulcers as a result. But still, much as we want to, we can’t seem to forgive. Every time we look at the scars left by our enemy we are overwhelmed by a fresh wave of anger and self-pity and perhaps even the desire for revenge. What to do? Can even the Lord who rose from the dead at Easter help us if the doors of our hearts seem to be so firmly shut and locked? And if the Lord can’t help us and we can’t help ourselves are we doomed? Should we simply give up our struggle?

If we are to believe the message in our readings today, then the answer is a loud and resounding, No! Consider the experience of the first disciples in the gospel today. This story of the doubting Thomas is one that we know well. We often use it to congratulate ourselves for being the ones who are blessed because we have not seen and yet believe. But what if we do find it hard to believe? What if, try as we might, we can’t seem to open the doors of our own hearts? What happens then? This very same story provides us with guidance and reassurance.

Perhaps the first thing that jumps out at us is how the risen Jesus appears to the disciples. On two occasions we are told that the doors were closed in the room where the disciples were and yet the power of Christ was such that he was still able to come in and stand among them. And isn’t it true that the closed doors of the room are only external signs of the disciples’ closed hearts? We’re told that they had hid themselves in the room for fear of the Jews. They had lost hope in the message and mission of Christ their Master. Fear had closed their hearts to hope. And yet, Jesus comes among them, he enters their hearts and transforms them.

To the fearful and the distressed, Jesus speaks a word of reassurance and calm. Peace be with you. To the doubting Thomas, he offers his wounds and scars as proof of his rising. The same wounds that caused so much pain and suffering and even death, now take on a new meaning. They become the way by which faith and hope and love are strengthened. Doubt no longer but believe!

And Thomas does believe. As do all the other disciples. Empowered by the Spirit that the risen Jesus breathes onto them, their belief leads them to do what they were unable to do before. They fling open the doors of their prison and throw themselves into the mission that Jesus gives them. As the Father has sent me, so am I sending you. They go out to preach and to heal in the name of Christ. And, as we heard in the first reading, many signs and wonders were worked at the hands of the apostles. This is a stunning demonstration of the awesome power of the risen Christ. This is a power that is able even to penetrate closed doors and to transform fear into courage, weakness into strength, doubt into faith.

Are we not being reminded then that the power and the faith that we need even to open the doors of our own hearts is not something we can produce for ourselves? Isn’t this why it’s so appropriate that we celebrate Divine Mercy Sunday today? This power that we see in our readings and that we need to experience in our own lives is nothing less than the mercy of God for us in Jesus Christ. It is this mercy that moves God to reach out to us in our need. It is this mercy that penetrates the closed doors of our hearts so that we too may learn to show mercy to others. It is this power for which we must all pray even as we may continue to struggle to open our hearts to the Lord and to one another.

Sisters and brothers, how is God’s mercy penetrating us today?

Friday, April 13, 2007

Friday in the Octave of Easter
The Return of the Rejected Stone

The stone which the builders rejected has become the corner stone…

This verse from Psalm 118 (v. 22) is well known to us. And we know very well what it means and to whom it refers. Perhaps we know it too well. We know, for example, that the stone refers to Jesus. We also know that the builders are the people who are interrogating Peter and John in the first reading today. They are the ones who rejected Jesus by having him tortured, crucified and then buried, only to have him rise unexpectedly from the dead. Yes, we know this verse very well. But is this all there is to it? If so, what relevance might it have for us except to offer us an example of what not to do? We should not reject Jesus as the Jewish authorities did. But what does this mean? And what if we have rejected him? What then? What difference does Easter make?

The gospel story offers us a possible direction in which to deepen our reflection. Here we see that perhaps the Jewish authorities are not the only people who reject the One who was to become the corner stone. We see that after the death of Jesus, even his closest companions seem to have given up on him. We see Simon Peter and some others going fishing. Even though the word reject is probably too strong to apply to them, since they did not actually put Jesus to death, it does seem at least likely that these disciples are effectively abandoning the calling they received from the Lord. They have lost faith in the power of Jesus to save and are turning to other means of making a living. If asked, they would probably not admit that they are rejecting Jesus himself. Yet, aren’t they abandoning the particular Way that the Lord chose to bring us to the fullness of life? Aren’t they forsaking the Road to Calvary?

But, fortunately for them and for us, here ends the similarity between the disciples and the Jewish authorities. For Jesus appears to them even in their despair. And in the light of his presence, they are led to see the stark contrast between fishing alone and fishing with and for Christ. When Jesus is with them barren nets are filled to overflowing. And in the company of this One who feeds them with food for body and soul, they are given the strength to take up their calling once more. As we heard in the first reading, in the power of the Spirit, they fearlessly do what Jesus did. They spend themselves for others. They heal and preach even to the point of suffering persecution. They embrace in their own lives the Way of Christ’s Cross. And in their experience we see the fulfillment of the response to our psalm. The stone that they originally abandoned has indeed become the corner stone of their lives.

This Easter, how is this passage of scripture being fulfilled in our lives?
Who or what is our corner stone?

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Thursday in the Octave of Easter
From Agitation to Mission

Readings: Acts 3:11-26; Psalm 8:2ab and 5, 6-7, 8-9; Luke 24:35-48

Consciously or not, I think I often expect myself to greet Easter as I would a much-anticipated holiday destination. You know, sort of like how you would be quite spontaneously happy when, after a long bus ride, you finally set eyes on the sandy beaches of Batu Ferringhi in Penang or Club Med Cherating in Kuantan. Yipee! We have arrived! After all, haven’t we spent more than forty days journeying through the discipline of Lent? And now, is it too much to expect that we should be happy to have finally arrived at Easter? Isn’t this a natural and spontaneous reaction?

And yet, if there’s one surprising thing in the scriptures, it’s how people greet the resurrection and its aftermath not so much with relief and joy but with surprise and even agitation. Notice the reaction of the people to the healing of the cripple in the first reading. Why are you so surprised?, asks Peter. Of course, Peter is only using the question as an introduction to the main point of his speech. Peter is saying that the people should not be surprised, because the man’s healing is a only the natural result of faith in the name of Jesus, whose suffering and death had already been foretold in the same scriptures that are read in the synagogues each week. All the prophets that have ever spoken… have predicted these days.

Still, aren’t Peter and the disciples themselves surprised when they first encounter the Crucified and Risen Christ? Not only are they surprised, but the gospel tells us that they are actually in a state of alarm and fright. It is only after hearing Jesus’ greeting of peace and his reassurance that he is not a ghost, that their shock and surprise is gradually transformed into joy. Even then they still could not believe it. They need to watch Jesus eat with them and remind them of the very thing that Peter reminds the people of in the first reading: how it is written that the Christ would suffer and on the third day rise from the dead.

And what about me? What about us? If this is how the disciples react to the risen Christ, is it reasonable or even desirable for us to expect to bypass the surprise of Easter and simply to enter spontaneously into its joy? Of course, we may indeed be privileged to have such an experience. But then, isn’t it also possible that we’re just too used to celebrating Easter every year? Could our lack of surprise be due to fact that we haven’t quite grasped the awesome implications of Christ’s rising for our own lives today? By consciously or unconsciously shielding ourselves from the shock of Easter, could we also be depriving ourselves of the true joy that is ours to experience? After all, is it not likely that, like the first disciples, we too need to allow ourselves to experience the shock of the resurrection and then to allow Jesus to reassure us by opening the scriptures to us and breaking the bread for us? Isn’t this why we are here this evening?

But how will we know whether our joy is authentic or not? Jesus presents us with an indication at the end of today’s gospel. An essential part of the Easter experience is when, as it is written in the scriptures, in Christ’s name, repentance for the forgiveness of sins is preached to all nations. This is what we see happening in the Acts of the Apostles. And this is what we expect to happen to and through us as well. We expect to be moved from agitation and fright to commitment and mission. For it is only through the fruit that it bears in our own lives that we will know whether we’ve truly reached our Easter destination.

Have we?

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Wednesday in the Octave of Easter
The Reason for Our Name

Readings: Acts 3:1-10; Psalm 105:1-2, 3-4, 6-7, 8-9; Luke 24:13-35

Today’s readings remind me of a scene from a movie that’s still playing in town. Entitled The Namesake, it’s based on a best-selling novel of the same name, written by the Pulitzer prize winning Bengali writer Jhumpa Lahiri. In the story, a man names his son Gogol, after an obscure Russian writer. But, as the boy grows up, he becomes embarrassed and ashamed of his name, not just because people make fun of it, but also because he learns that his namesake was a very strange and eccentric person whose talent was only recognized after his death. So he decides to change his name. Then one day, his father tells him why he was given that strange name. Many years ago, before Gogol was born, the father had been the sole survivor in a tragic train accident. And, while on that train, the father had been reading a book written by his namesake. In fact, he was still clutching pages from the book when he was found by his rescuers. After hearing his father’s explanation, Gogol is even more confused, and asks him: Is this what I remind you of? A painfully tragic train wreck? To which his father smiles and replies: No, you remind me that everything after that accident has been a gift.

Isn’t Jesus doing something similar in the well-known gospel story that we just heard today. The two disciples on the road to Emmaus are not just leaving Jerusalem. They’re really running away from all that has happened there. They’re running away from the pain and disappointment, the shame and the embarrassment of the Cross of Christ. We have only to replace the word Gogol with the word Cross, to see that, like the boy in the movie, the two disciples are really running away from their past. They are trying to change their name. But the risen Christ helps them to understand the significance of all that has happened. He shows them that it was ordained that the Christ should suffer and so enter into his glory. He helps to transform for them a painfully tragic memory, into a reason to rejoice. He helps them to see how, even through the shame and the disappointment, God has been blessing them with the gift of salvation. And like the crippled man in the first reading, these two disciples are healed. They are freed from their depression. They are able once again to rejoice in the Lord. They are given the ability to run back to Jerusalem and to praise God for all that has happened to them.

Isn’t this the wondrous grace that is being offered to us as well? Not just at Easter, but every time we come together to celebrate the Eucharist, every time we gather to Break the Word and the Bread, we are being offered the grace to see new meaning in the train wrecks of our lives. We are being empowered by the Lord to return to our own personal Jerusalems and to rejoice in the Lord calling us by name. For truly, after the Lord’s dying and rising, everything is gift.
How is the Crucified and Risen Lord convincing us of this today?

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Tuesday in the Octave of Easter
Talk that Cuts to the Heart

Readings: Acts 2:36-41; Psalm 33:4-5, 18-19, 20 and 22; John 20:11-18

We probably all know what coffee-shop talk is. It’s the kind of conversation that one has, for example, with one’s kakis on a lazy Sunday afternoon, sitting at the neighbourhood kopitiam, chatting over a cuppa. Sometimes one complains about things that may affect us directly, such as the impending rise in the Civil Service pay-packet or the higher GST or the latest COE prices. Other times one just exchanges comments about things in general, like the war in Iraq, or the murder of the Pakistani cricket coach. These days, of course, the venue for these conversations is changing. Even as old neighbourhood kopitiams are vanishing, coffee-shop talk continues, at hawker centres in the Heartland, at Starbucks outlets in hipper parts of town, and especially on blogs and online forums over the internet. And it’s important that such conversations continue, because they are such a good way to relax, to let off steam, and especially to exchange ideas as to how the world can be made a better place.

Yet, isn’t it true that much of such talk is carried out in ways that are often less than conducive for uncovering the Truth? Isn’t it true that sometimes, if not often, we carry out such conversations simply to reaffirm our own prejudices and biases, or worse, to try to force others to think the same way we do? And what happens when we fail? Instead of politely agreeing to disagree, some of us resort to personal attacks on the conversation partner. Isn’t this why there is now a call in some quarters for regulating such conversations on the internet?

What a contrast to the conversations that we overhear in our readings today. You will remember that yesterday, the readings focused on the sense of sight, on the importance of keeping the Crucified and Risen Lord ever in our sight. Today, the focus is on the sense of hearing. What is the kind of hearing that leads people deeper into the life of the Risen One? It’s the kind that Mary Magdalene and Peter’s listeners are engaged in today. Mary is crying at the tomb because Jesus’ body is missing. But she hears the Risen Christ calling her by name. And everything changes. She rushes off to do all that he tells her. Something similar happens in the first reading. In the power of the Spirit, Peter tells a large crowd of people quite plainly that God has made this Jesus whom you crucified both Lord and Christ. And instead of denying or arguing or hurling insults, the people are cut to the heart. They realize the truth of their own involvement in what has happened. Listening to Peter, they realize that they have just been called by name. And they are anxious to know what they must do.

Isn’t this openness to Truth, this responsiveness to being called by name, this willingness to being cut to the heart, just the kind of thing that we need for our conversations, wherever and however they are carried out, to lead us more deeply into the resurrected life? Isn't this something for which we need to pray?
Today, how is the Crucified and Risen One cutting us to the heart? How is He calling us by our name?

Monday, April 09, 2007

Monday in the Octave of Easter
Keeping Him In Our Sights

Readings: Acts 2:14, 22-33; Psalm 16:1-2a and 5, 7-8, 9-10, 11; Matthew 28:8-15

Tell us, Mary: say what thou didst see upon the way…

The rigours of Lent are finally over. The intensity of the Easter Triduum has all but dissipated. And there’s a part of me that heaves a sigh of relief. But we bid farewell to the six Sundays of Lent only to plunge into seven Sundays of Easter. Even though the Triduum is over, we remain in the Octave of Easter. We continue to celebrate Easter Day, the first day of the week for us Christians. And truly, I need all this time to allow myself to enter more deeply into the reality of the resurrected life of the Crucified and Risen Christ.

The texts for Mass help us to do this today by reminding us about the importance of sight. In the first reading, Peter quotes King David as saying: I saw the Lord before me always, for with him at my right hand nothing can shake me. And in the psalm, we made these words our own: I keep the Lord ever in my sight: since with him at my right hand, I shall stand firm. How then are we – who want so much to experience the joy of Easter more deeply – to keep the Lord in our sights?

We begin, as we did in the sequence, by questioning Mary Magdalene, asking her to tell us what she saw. What did she and her female companions see? At the tomb, they saw the same things that the guards saw. There was an earthquake and an angel rolled the stone away from the tomb’s entrance. And guards and women alike were stricken with fear. But here the similarity ends. The guards run off to report to the authorities who are just as fearful, and all become party to a cooked-up story. Their fear blinds them, and they see no longer.

Things are different for the women. Even in their fear, their faith in and love for the Lord moves them not only to remain at the tomb, but also to converse with the fearsome angel, who calms their fear and tells them what to do. They are to go and tell the other disciples that the Lord is risen. At once fearful and yet filled with great joy, they obey. And in their obedience they see the risen Christ, who gives them further instructions. How are they and the disciples to continuing seeing Christ? How are they to keep the Lord ever in their sights? They must leave for Galilee. They must return to the place where Jesus began his mission. They must remember all that the Lord had done and taught. They must continue the work that saw their Lord walking the road to Calvary and beyond. And they must do all this in memory of Him. This is how they can experience the resurrected life. This is the way for them to continue to see the Lord.

Sisters and brothers, how is the Crucified and Risen Lord inviting us to keep him ever in our sight? Where is our Galilee?

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Easter Sunday (Mass of the Day)
Terminals to Interchanges

Readings: Acts 10:34a, 37-43; Psalm 118:1-2, 16-17, 22-23; Colossians 3:1-4; John 20:1-9

Sisters and brothers, many of us here, myself included, are probably old enough to remember a significant development in the history of public transport in Singapore. There was a time when, if you fell fast asleep on the bus and didn’t wake up until it reached its destination, you would find yourself at a bus terminal. Often, this was a lonely, God-forsaken place, without even a shelter for you to stand under. This secluded spot was where the bus route terminated. This was where people were expected simply to end their journey.

Then (was it sometime in the eighties?) things began to change. Many old terminals were renovated and rebuilt into posh new interchanges. And the difference was not just in the label and in the look, but also in travel habits. People no longer stopped abruptly at a terminal. They arrived at an interchange and then continued on the next stage of their journey by transferring to another feeder or trunk service. More recently, we can even transfer to the MRT or the LRT. These changes reflect a radical transformation in public transportation in Singapore. The many different and disconnected bus routes of the past are now being integrated with other modes of transport into a single transit system. All this so that people are better able to get to where they need to go. And it all began with the transformation of terminals into interchanges.

This significant development provides us with a good image of what we are celebrating on this Easter Day. It indicates to us the reason for our joy. The action in our readings today revolves around the tomb of the crucified Christ. This is the place where the disciples had left the bruised and battered body of their Master. This is also the place where they had laid to rest all their hopes and dreams for an earthly Messiah. This is the secluded spot where their journey with Jesus had come to an abrupt and tragic end. The tomb was their terminal.

Yet, even though the tomb is a desolate place – full of painful memories – something prevents the disciples of Jesus, especially the women, from simply abandoning it altogether. Something draws them to revisit it. And it is in the revisiting that an impossible transformation happens. The place of darkness and death, the place of desolation and despair, is changed into a place of light and life, of consolation and hope. The tomb that once held the corpse of Christ is found to be empty. Not only are the linen cloths that once wrapped Jesus tightly in an embrace of death loosened, but to the eyes of faith they now become signs of a new and indestructible life.

Where once the disciples were fearfully wrapped up in their own grief, gradually they are given the courage and the energy to do what we hear Peter doing in the first reading. They reach out to others, bearing witness to all that Jesus had done and taught. Most of all, they proclaim to everyone they meet the wondrous story of his dying and rising. This outward change in their behavior is the result of an inward transformation in their attitude and perception. They are gazing upon the world with new eyes. They are now able to do what we heard about in the second reading from the letter to the Colossians. Having seen eternal life in a few linen burial cloths lying in an empty tomb, their thoughts are now on heavenly things. Although they appear as they did before – very ordinary people, walking this earth like everyone else – their lives are now hidden with Christ in God. And for them this radical transformation begins when the secluded spot of journey’s end is changed into the starting point of an exciting new adventure. It all begins today at the empty tomb where the terminal is transformed into an interchange.

This is the event we are celebrating today. This is the cause of our joy. And we are joyful not only because of what happened to the disciples. We rejoice because this is also what continues to happen to us even now. On our own life’s journey, perhaps we too have sometimes been brought to an abrupt halt. Perhaps we too have experienced disappointment and despair. Perhaps we too have known the feeling of falling into darkness, of being wrapped in death’s embrace, of being sealed in a cold and clammy tomb.

And like the disciples, whether it is in our memories, our conversations, or in our prayer, we too may have somehow been drawn to revisit the places of our pain, even as we continued to cry out to God in our desolation. Only to discover – as Mary does, so early in the morning on that first Easter Day – that the stone has been rolled away and the tomb is now empty. There is no longer any reason for us to remain trapped within our own loneliness and pain. Although we may still not be able see the face of the Resurrected One, we can already glimpse signs of his rising. Like the beloved disciple gazing upon those linen cloths, we can, with the eyes of faith, already discern Christ’s call to a new life. We can hear his invitation to forsake our preoccupation with the things of earth so as to set our minds on the things of heaven. And in this new vision, we find the courage and the strength to rise again and to continue on our way, reaching out to others and proclaiming to them all that the Lord has done for us. We bear witness so that others too may find themselves closely connected to the One who is the source of life, so that we may all be brought to where we need to go.

Sisters and brothers, how is the Risen Lord transforming the terminals of our lives into interchanges today?

Friday, April 06, 2007

Good Friday
The Action in the Passion

Readings: Isaiah 52:13—53:12; Psalm 31:2, 6, 12-13, 15-16, 17, 25; Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-9; John 18:1—19:42

Sisters and brothers, don’t you think it is a very strange and surprising thing that we are doing this afternoon? Have you noticed the title given to our liturgy today? This is no ordinary prayer service. It is not just a commemoration, or a reflection, or a meditation. No, what we are doing today is nothing less than a celebration, a Celebration of the Lord’s Passion. And, as the dictionary tells us, the word passion comes from the Latin root passio, meaning to be acted upon. Don’t you find this strange?

We live in a world that celebrates and values action, being in control, having the strength to take one’s life into one’s own hands, having the freedom to do whatever one wants. Isn’t that what we spend much of our lives doing – preparing and training ourselves to act? And here we are celebrating the Lord’s weakness and suffering, his handing over control of his life into the hands of his enemies, his submission to being acted upon by others, his Passion. Don’t you find it strange, if not bizarre? Do we really appreciate what we are doing here? Do we really know what it is we are celebrating?

You will remember that we already heard an account of the Lord’s Passion on Palm Sunday. That reading is always taken from one of the first three gospels, from Matthew, or Mark, or Luke. And you may have noticed, how in these three gospels, Jesus does seem to a large extent as one who meekly accepts all that befalls him. Like a lamb led to the slaughter, he is silent and submissive. And perhaps this is not far from how it actually happened two thousand years ago.

But things are a little different in the account of the Passion that we just heard. This reading on Good Friday is always taken from the gospel of John. And here, even though he endures essentially the same sufferings, we see a Jesus who always seems to be in control. At the garden across the Kedron valley, Jesus causes his captors to fall to the ground simply by saying, I am he. At the high priest’s palace, Jesus challenges the guard who strikes him. At the Praetorium, he turns the tables on the one interrogating him, leading Pilate to examine his own relationship to Truth. On the cross, he gives his Mother Mary and the disciple whom he loves to each other. In this account of the Passion, it is very clear that no one takes Jesus’ life from him. He freely lays it down on his own accord (see John 10:18).

What are we to make of this apparent difference? Rather than feeling like we have to choose between this account and the one we heard on Palm Sunday, are we not instead being invited to reflect more deeply on what is really happening to Jesus, on what Jesus is really doing? Isn’t John’s account of the Passion trying to lead us to see Jesus’ strength in his apparent weakness, to see his freedom in his submission, to see his action in his passion?

As we heard in the first reading today, the lamb led to the slaughter-house is also the one who freely chooses to bear our sufferings and carry our sorrows. The disfigured and humiliated one is also the one exalted to great heights. And this is the One in whom we profess our faith, the faith of which the second reading speaks. Even as we find ourselves living in a culture that values action, especially action on behalf of self, we dare to profess faith in the One who humbly submits to the will of the Father and learns obedience through suffering. We do this because we believe that this is what true strength and true freedom and true action looks like. We can joyfully celebrate Christ’s suffering and death, because we are led to see the action in his Passion.

Sisters and brothers, as we well know, our celebrations are meant to have an effect on our lives. Where is the action in our passion? Where is the passion in our action?
Holy Thursday (Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper)
Moving and Remembering – Washing and Being Washed

Readings: Exodus 12:1-8, 11-14; Psalm 116:12-13, 15-16bc, 17-18; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26

(NB: The following reflection was submitted to Shalom. Permission to publish it here is presumed.)
I often find it easy and consoling to identify with the way in which Peter is portrayed in the gospels. I can, for example, empathize with his reaction in the gospel today. You shall never wash my feet. Like Peter, I too sometimes tend to think that it is I who should be doing things for the Lord and not the other way around. After all, doesn’t Jesus ask us to copy what I have done for you?

Yet isn’t it also true that we can only imitate Jesus to the extent that we have first experienced and continue to experience him washing our feet? If I do not wash you, you can have nothing in common with me. And isn’t it only when I continually remain present to the memory of what Christ does for me, for us, that I receive the strength and wisdom to move out and do likewise for others? Isn’t this what the Eucharist is all about? And isn’t this also the experience of the Exodus? The people were told to be ready to move – you shall eat hastily – but they were also told to rememberthis day is to be a day of remembrance for you?

We can move only when we first remember. We can wash others only when we allow ourselves to be washed.
How is Christ washing us today? How is he inviting us to wash others?

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Wednesday in Holy Week
Accepting the Truth that Sets Us Free

Readings: Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 69:8-10, 21-22, 31 and 33-34; Matthew 26:14-25

For my part, I made no resistance…

As is sometimes the case, our opening prayer today gives us a useful perspective on the readings. Father, in your plan of salvation your Son Jesus Christ accepted the cross and freed us from the power of the enemy. Jesus’ acceptance of the cross brings freedom. And the readings help us to meditate more deeply upon the significance of these words, especially upon the connection between acceptance and freedom.

In the first reading, the servant of God makes no resistance to the sufferings that befall him/her. But this acceptance of abuse is not a sign of weakness. It is the result neither of timidity nor of the lack of self-esteem. Instead, it springs from a basic disposition of openness and receptivity to the Truth, to all that God has to say. Each morning he wakes me to hear, to listen like a disciple. Rather than a symptom of masochism or self-hate, the servant’s submission to suffering is the fruit only of a willingness to face and acknowledge the Truth in every circumstance, and to bear the full consequences of this radical openness to Reality. And, of course, we see this disposition of the suffering servant mirrored in the way in which Jesus sets his face like flint to meet his Passion. In the face of certain death, he freely chooses not to escape, but to remain faithful to his Father, even to the extent of voluntarily journeying to Jerusalem when his time is near. In so doing, Jesus demonstrates for us the meaning of his words in John 8:32: If you keep my word, you will be my disciples, you will know the truth and the truth will make you free.

In contrast, Judas – and, to some extent, the other disciples as well – is unreceptive to the Truth. Unable to accept the course that Jesus has chosen, he betrays his Master. And his allergy to the Truth is such that he even seems unable to accept that he will be the one who will betray Jesus. Not I, Rabbi, surely? And in succumbing to allergy instead of choosing to accept the Truth, Judas remains a slave to the power of the enemy who, as the Lord tells us, is the father of lies (John 8:44).

Presented with this liturgical meditation, perhaps we might be led to reflect on our own relationship to Truth. To what extent are we aware and accepting of God’s voice in all that life presents to us, whether it be in the situations we encounter, or the people we meet, or our own reactions to these? To what extent are we allergic? These are important questions to ponder, for upon them depends our freedom, and that of the rest of our world.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Tuesday in Holy Week
Treading into the Night

Readings: Isaiah 49:1-6; Psalm 71:1-2, 3-4a, 5ab-6ab, 15 and 17; John 13:21-33, 36-38

Night had fallen… Now has the Son of Man been glorified…

Can the paradox be any sharper? Just at the moment when the wheels are set in motion that will take him down the road of humiliation, Jesus speaks of glory. In the midst of the darkest of nights, Jesus sets his sights on the Light that never fades. This is not something we ourselves find easy to do when we face our own dark nights. How is Jesus able to do this? What, we may wonder, might be going through his mind and heart at this time?
One is reminded of the game or spiritual exercise – depending on your point of view – that is often played at youth camps. You know – the one where someone is blindfolded and is then taken by the hand and led on a stroll by someone else. At the end of the stroll everyone shares their experience. I think some call it a faith walk. It’s an appropriate name, because the one who is blindfolded has to trust, has to have faith, in the hand that leads. Otherwise, s/he will either have to stumble around blindly or remain stationary. In either case, s/he will be crippled by the darkness.

Isn’t this a good image of what Jesus is going through in the gospel today? Isn’t this what enables him to somehow see glory in defeat? When the blindfold of his Passion begins to be wrapped tightly around his eyes, Jesus clings ever more firmly to his heavenly Father. Jesus trusts that even now the Father continues to hide him in the shadow of his hand, giving him the strength he needs to walk bravely into the night.
The first stanza of a poem by Minnie Louise Haskins comes to mind, the same words quoted by King George VI in his Christmas broadcast of 1939:

I said to the Man at the gate of the year ‘Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.’ And he replied, ‘Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the hand of God. That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way!’ So I went forth and finding the Hand of God, trod gladly into the night. And He led me towards the hills and the breaking of day in the lone East.

What is your blindfold? How do you face the darkness of the night?

Monday, April 02, 2007

Monday in Holy Week
Nurturing the Crushed and the Wavering

Readings: Isaiah 42:1-7; Psalm 27:1, 2, 3, 13-14; John 12:1-11

He does not break the crushed reed, nor quench the wavering flame…

We may not be too impressed by this description of the suffering servant. Isn’t it quite natural that when one comes across a crushed reed – barely hanging on to life by a flimsy strip of plant material – one should refrain from breaking it off? And when one sees a wavering flame, isn’t it obvious that one should try to shield it from the draft instead of blowing it out? Who, we may think, would be so cruel and heartless as to do the opposite?

And yet, don’t we live in a society in which ex-convicts often find it difficult to start life anew? Don’t we take pride in belonging to a culture that, for all its benefits, sometimes so emphasizes the pursuit of efficiency and excellence that it overlooks effort? Don’t we sometimes cling so tightly to objective standards of perfection that we fail to notice the sweat dripping from the brows of those who try and try but still fail to measure up?

At some level, don’t I secretly agree with Judas’ objection in the gospel of today? How impractical and insensitive of Mary to present such an embarrassingly public display of affection! Couldn’t she have simply shaken Jesus’ hand or something? Couldn’t she have waited till they were alone? Yes, it’s not unlikely that had I been at Bethany that day, I would have simply broken the crushed reed, and quenched the wavering flame. It would have been the practical thing to do.

But, as we have had occasion to note before, Jesus sees far beyond appearances. He is not only concerned with the practical and the perfect. Beyond the awkwardness, he sees affection. Beyond the apparent waste of costly ointment, he sees an embrace of his own impending suffering. Beyond a simple act of anointing, he sees a preparation for his sojourn among the dead. He sees and he accepts. And miraculously the crushed reed is made whole, the wavering flame burns more brightly. Through the gentle ministrations of the suffering servant the captives are freed to enjoy a new life, a life to the fullest.

What are the crushed reeds and wavering flames in your life?