Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Tuesday in the 17th Week of Ordinary Time (I)
Memorial of St. Ignatius of Loyola, Priest
Awaiting that Final Clarity

Readings: Ex 33:7-11; 34:5b-9, 28; Ps 103:6-7, 8-9, 10-11, 12-13; Mt 13:36-43

Do you sometimes envy the characters in the bible? I know I do. Especially today, I envy Moses and the disciples of Jesus. I envy them for the way in which they are set apart from the others. Moses is privileged to enter the Tent of Meeting, while the people have to wait in the camp, a distance away. The disciples are privileged to enter the house with Jesus, while the crowds have to remain outside. I envy them for their intimacy with the Lord and the clarity with which the divine mysteries are revealed to them. Moses speaks with God face to face, as a man speaks to his friend. The disciples have Jesus to explain the parable of the darnel to them, even as the crowds are left to puzzle over its meaning. There are mysteries in my life too. There are things I don’t quite understand: Why this and that has to happen… Why such and such hasn’t happened yet… If only the Lord would offer me the same clarity that Moses and the disciples seem to enjoy.

And yet, aren’t I a disciple too? Aren’t I set apart as well? Having been baptized into the Lord’s death, am I not blessed to share in his resurrection? Aren’t I numbered among his friends? Don’t I sometimes experience moments of clarity and vision, when things suddenly fall into place? Isn’t it true that the same intimacy that Moses and the disciples enjoyed is also regularly being offered to me? Could it be that, in order to savour the Lord’s friendship, I have only to pay more attention to the different ways in which the Lord continues to call me into the Tent of Meeting, to be alert to those privileged times when the Lord invites me into his house?

Even so, perhaps I also need to be more realistic in my expectations. Perhaps I need to consider the degree of clarity that is open to us on this side of eternity. After all, even though they have Jesus to explain the parables to them, don’t the disciples still have a way to go before they are able fully to plumb the depths of their mystery? And isn’t this clarity in obscurity they experience part of the lesson of the parable of the darnel? The last judgment, the final vision will come at the end of time. For now even the disciple and friend has to wait in faith and hope and love…

How might we wait more gracefully today?

Monday, July 30, 2007

Monday in the 17th Week of Ordinary Time (I)
Your Kingdom Come…

Readings: Exodus 32:15-24, 30-34; Psalm 106:19-20, 21-22, 23; Matthew 13:31-35

Regularly, in the Our Father, we pray for the coming of God’s kingdom on earth as in heaven. But what does this coming kingdom look like? When I was little I used to imagine a huge piece of real estate – with trees and buildings on top and soil-covered roots dangling beneath – descending upon the earth from out of the clouds. Then more learned people told me that God’s kingdom wasn’t really about a physical location as much as it was about people acknowledging God’s lordship, God’s reign. Even so, we might continue to ask ourselves the same question. What does this coming kingdom look like? How do we recognize it when we see it?

And it is this same question that Jesus seeks to answer through the two parables in today’s gospel. The kingdom is like a tiny mustard seed that grows into a tree that gives shelter. The kingdom is like yeast that permeates the dough causing it to rise. But how to relate these parables to our everyday experience? How to recognize the mustard seed and the dough? The story in the first reading provides some guidance especially in the contrast that is seen between the respective reactions of Aaron and Moses.

What does it look like when God’s kingship, God’s reign is ignored? We see the effects in Aaron’s response to the angry interrogation of Moses. What has this people done to you for you to bring such a great sin on them? To which Aaron responds: You know yourself how prone this people is to evil…. I threw the gold into the fire and out came this calf… Aaron quickly seeks to distance himself not just from their sin but from the people as well. They are the ones prone to evil. He merely threw gold into the furnace at their bidding.

In contrast, even though he had no direct part in their sin – he was up on the mountain conversing with God and receiving the Ten Commandments – Moses refuses to dissociate himself from the people. Although he is livid with rage, although he fiercely rebukes them, the very next day, we find him coming before the Lord to make atonement on the people’s behalf. Isn’t this what the coming kingdom looks like? Isn’t this what it looks like when people begin to acknowledge God’s kingship? In his fidelity to God and to the wayward people, Moses becomes a branch in which the people find shelter. With his own hands, he kneads and leavens the chosen people entrusted to his care with the yeast of God’s mercy and compassion. And in his actions, we are reminded of Jesus, the new Moses, the One who, though innocent and without sin, submits himself to the terrible consequences of our treachery, so that out of his sacrifice, the tree of life in its fullness might provide shelter for us all.

What does the coming kingdom look like in our lives? How might we cooperate in sowing the seed and kneading the dough today?

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Solemnity of St. Ignatius of Loyola (Anticipated),
Priest, Religious, Founder of the Society of Jesus
Of Ronin & Samurai

Readings: Isaiah 43:1-5; Psalm 1; Ephesians 3:14-20; John 1:35-39

Sisters and brothers, do you like action-movies? Today I’m reminded of one that was released in 1998. It has all the standard ingredients of a good action-movie: fight-scenes, car-chases, shootings, murders and even some romance. It also has a pretty interesting storyline and its cast includes Robert De Niro. But what I find most intriguing about this movie is its title. It’s called Ronin.

As you probably already know, ronin is a Japanese word that literally means drifter. According to Wikipedia, ronin were masterless samurai who lived in feudal Japan (1185–1868). Samurai became masterless either when they fell out of favour with their Lord or when their Lord was ruined or killed. Once that happened, samurai were supposed to commit ritual suicide. But some chose to become ronin instead, wandering mercenaries, selling their services to the highest bidder. Some even became bandits in order to survive.

But no, this is not a Japanese movie. Neither is it set in feudal Japan. But it does tell the story of a band of modern-day ronin of a different sort. Most of them are ex-employees of various secret service agencies, the CIA, the French Secret Service, the KGB, and so on. No longer employed by their respective masters they choose to free-lance. They sell their services to all the wrong people, to terrorist organizations mostly. And the movie highlights the pain and suffering that results. Sadly, most of them end up dead.

But what has an apparently depressing action-movie like that got to do with us, especially as we celebrate this solemn feast of St. Ignatius of Loyola, the patron of our parish and founder of the Society of Jesus? I think quite a lot, actually. Although St. Ignatius, or Inigo, if you prefer, was not Japanese, like the ronin and the samurai, he was born into a feudal society. Much of his early life was spent searching for a Lord worthy of his allegiance. Although he was not a tall man – I’m told that the height of that statue in our Gathering Space is probably not too far off the mark – he had dreams and desires of immense proportions. He wanted to spend his life as a gallant knight performing glorious and heroic deeds. He served various Dukes and even fought bravely for Spain against the French at a place called Pamplona. But it was only while recovering from the wounds that he sustained in that battle that Ignatius eventually encountered the One he had been searching for all his life, the only One truly worthy of his loyal service, the One he later referred to as the eternal Lord of all things. I’m not sure if others will agree with me, but I think St. Ignatius was something of a samurai.

We, of course, no longer live in a feudal society. We are modern people who value our individual freedom. We don’t like people to tell us what to do. In this day and age, it is not unheard of even for children to bring their parents to court. In many ways, it often seems like we prefer to live the lives of ronin. We wish to be free to travel wherever we like and to sell our services to the highest bidder. We want to be answerable to nobody but ourselves. In the latest issue of Time magazine, for example, we find the following quote from Wang Ning, a 27-year-old Chinese national and owner of an advertising company: We are more self-centered. We live for ourselves, and that’s good. We contribute to the economy. That’s our power.

And yet, we may wonder how truly free and independent we actually are. Isn’t it striking, for example, how young people may get into heated arguments with their parents about the style of their clothes and the length of their hair only to end up looking pretty much the same as their friends? And, of course, we can say this of grown-ups too. Ever notice how people in the business district dress more or less the same? And on a daily basis, don’t we find ourselves listening to what various advertisements tell us are the things that we just have to acquire: a faster internet connection, a snazzier cell-phone, high-definition TV, better complexion, no split ends… The list is endless.

Even as we may dream about and try to live the lives of ronin, don’t we often find ourselves submitting to very unworthy Lords, who use and abuse us, and who can make us very unhappy? Don’t we often find ourselves struggling to measure up to what society expects of us? Don’t we find ourselves scared to death of failure, afraid that we might be found unacceptable and be looked down upon and laughed at by everyone, or at least by the people who matter?

What does all this tell us about us? Could it be that, although we may seem to enjoy the apparent freedom of ronin, deep down in our hearts, we all long for the life of the samurai? Could it be that although we no longer live in a feudal age, like St. Ignatius, there remains in each of us a deep desire to spend our lives in the service of someone truly worthy of our loyalty?

Instead of the different lords of this age, who stress us out with all kinds of unreasonable demands, don’t we long to encounter the eternal Lord of all things whom Ignatius encountered while recovering from his wounds? Especially when we feel lost and afraid, don’t we long to hear this same Lord speak to us those words from the first reading today: do not be afraid… I have called you by your name, you are mine… you are precious in my eyes… and I love you?

Instead of continuing to listen to the masters of this world tell us what we need, don’t we yearn instead to hear the Divine Master ask us the same question that he asks the first disciples in the gospel today? What do you want? Don’t we dream of meeting Jesus and having him help us to discover the answer to this question? And when we do finally encounter him, will he not lead us onto the path that Ignatius walked so many years ago, the same path we heard about in today’s psalm, the path of the one who ponders God’s law day and night, the path that leads us to appreciate more and more, the breadth and the length, the height and the depth… of the love of Christ for us?

Sisters and brothers, isn’t this what we are celebrating today? As we remember the patron of our parish, aren’t we also celebrating the fact that the same Lord whom he encountered and served in the 16th century, continues to console us and to call us into his service in the 21st? Even if we may still be unsure of what we really want, in this Mass, the eternal Lord of all things is asking us to give him a chance. He’s inviting us to come and see, to come and see if he is indeed the One we are looking for, the One truly worthy of our loyalty and our service.

Sisters and brothers, which do you prefer to be, ronin or samurai? Whom do you serve?

Friday, July 27, 2007

Friday in the 16th Week of Ordinary Time (I)
The Soil, the Seed and the Sower

Readings: Exodus 20:1-17; Psalms 19:8, 9, 10, 11; Matthew 13:18-23

There is great power in the word of God. Like the seed in today’s gospel, it has the potential to yield even a hundredfold harvest. Quite incredible! But whether or not that actually happens depends to a large extent on the receptivity of the soil. Today’s gospel makes it quite clear that however powerful the seed might be, it can still be prevented from reaching its full potential by resistance on the part of the soil. Good seed but poor soil still result in a poor harvest. We seem then to find ourselves grappling with the same issue we faced yesterday. What to do when, for some reason, we find ourselves resistant to God’s word? What to do when, perhaps because of bad experiences in the past, our hearts have become coated with a thick layer of doubt or despair, of skepticism or cynicism, making it difficult to listen to and to trust in the power of God’s word? What to do, when the powerful seed seems to be rendered impotent by the stubborn soil?

Perhaps at such times, we might benefit by extending our attention beyond the seed to the sower. Consider the first reading today. We are all familiar with the Ten Commandments. How do we feel when we listen to them? Taken on their own, they can sound quite off-putting, especially to ears conditioned by the modern emphasis on individual freedom. Why must we be told what to do and what not to do? Why should we listen? And yet, it’s important to appreciate when and by whom these words are spoken. It’s important to remember that the Ten Commandments do not stand in isolation. We have been listening to a story, the story of the Exodus, a story of how a people in slavery were liberated by a God as powerful as God is loving, a story of how this same God wishes to form these one-time slaves into a glorious nation, set apart for eternal happiness in God’s sight, a God who wants nothing but what is best for the people. Isn’t this why the first reading begins with this reminder: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery…? And this is our story too. We are the ones enslaved by various forces, both without and within us. And God desires to free and form us. God is the prodigal sower who flings the precious seed to the mercy of the different types of soil. God is the powerful, all-compassionate One, the Creator of all things, who humbly begs entrance into our hearts.

What difference might it make for us if, even for a brief moment, we might ponder the wonder-working presence not just of the seed but also of the sower today?

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Thursday in the 16th Week of Ordinary Time (I)
Memorial of Ss. Joachim and Anne, Parents of the Blessed Virgin Mary
Facing the Wall

Readings: Exodus 19:1-2, 9-11, 16-20b; Daniel 3:52, 53, 54, 55, 56; Matthew 13:10-17

Someone said to me recently that spending time in prayer felt like sitting before a brick wall. Ever have that kind of feeling? At some level you know you need God, you have some desire to encounter God. But when you do try to pray, nothing seems to happen. God seems to remain stubbornly silent, painfully absent. It’s not an uncommon experience. The reasons are various. But what, we might wonder, can we do about it? The experiences of the people in today’s readings offer some suggestions…

Led by Moses, the people of Israel arrive at the foot of Mount Sinai. We are told that they pitched their camp facing the mountain. In other words, quite literally, they find themselves facing a wall, not of brick but of stone. And yet, the cool impassive mountain face soon becomes for them a privileged place of encounter. There is fire and smoke, the blasting of trumpet and the rumbling of thunder, as God descends on the mountain to meet and speak with the people. But before this happens, before the wall of stone becomes a place of meeting, isn’t it striking how the people are told to prepare themselves? Let them wash their clothing and hold themselves in readiness… They are to make space for the Lord and then they are to wait, to wait for the third day, for God’s own appointed time to make an appearance.

The lesson is clear. When we find ourselves facing the wall of God’s silence, perhaps what we need to do is to prepare, to make space, to wait… And this waiting is not just for God to appear. Sometimes (always?) it is also for us to learn to recognize God’s ongoing presence. Consider, for example, the people in the gospel reading. Here is Jesus, the Emmanuel, the God-with-us, walking among them, teaching the ignorant, healing the sick. And yet there are those who refuse to recognize him. They listen and listen again, but not understand, see and see again, but not perceive. The wall that hinders them is the solid surface of their own hardened hearts.

And what does God do? When more direct speech evokes resistance, Jesus responds by speaking in parables. He uses metaphors. He tells stories. He does this because, as we all know from experience, such indirect speech has the power to catch us unawares. It can suddenly slip through our defenses and pierce our hardened hearts with unexpected meaning. An important lesson for the times when we might find ourselves resisting God. When it’s difficult to gaze upon the radiance of God, when for whatever reason we prefer to linger in a place of darkness, perhaps we can yet carry and ponder some of the Lord’s parables in our hearts. And these helpful stories are to be found not just in the bible, but everywhere around us – in the newspapers, in the cinema, in the people we meet… Perhaps these can keep us company even as we await the dawning of the third day.

How might we prepare to encounter God at the wall today?

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Feast of St. James the Apostle
Seeking the Foolishness of God

Readings: 2 Corinthians 4:7-15; Psalms 126:1bc-2ab, 2cd-3, 4-5, 6; Matthew 20:20-28

What is it you want? Perhaps this question, which Jesus asks of the mother of James and John, might start us off on our meditation today. As we come before the Lord in this Eucharistic celebration, as we continue to seek God throughout the course of this day, throughout the course of our lives, what is it we want?

The images presented in the readings today may somehow resonate with what we want. To sit gloriously by the Lord’s side as he triumphantly rules his kingdom – to rule without being ruled over by someone else… To reap a bountiful harvest while my mouth is filled with a joyful song… To hold and savour a priceless treasure all for myself… At some level of consciousness, these are the things for which I dream. These are the things I would probably ask God for, if I trusted enough in God’s love for me.

And, indeed, these are the presents that God wishes to give to us: kingly glory, bountiful harvest, priceless treasure… But as important as these presents are, isn’t it just as important to consider the process by which God wishes to bestow them upon us? The process I often have in mind is that of escape, escape from all the difficulties that come with a normal human life, escape from pain and suffering and death. In contrast, through Jesus, God invites us to undertake a process of loving embrace. The glorious kingdom comes to those who share in the cup of the Lord’s suffering and death… The bountiful harvest is reaped by those who first sow in tears… The priceless treasure is held in earthen vessels

There is perhaps a certain disappointment and disillusionment that befalls those who come to this realization, those who come to see the necessary process by which the presents are bestowed. Why would anyone want to do something so foolish? And yet, isn’t it precisely by embracing these difficult feelings that one encounters the One who embraces us? Isn’t it in drinking the cup, in sowing in tears, in being an earthen vessel, that one allows oneself to be embraced by the One who humbled himself for our sakes? Isn’t it by becoming foolish and weak that one gains the true wisdom and strength of God?

I’m reminded of the following words from a song by Michael Card:

When we in our foolishness thought we were wise.
He played the fool and he opened our eyes.
When we in our weakness believed we were strong.
He became helpless to show we were wrong.
And so we follow God’s own fool…

What is it that you want today?

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Tuesday in the 16th Week of Ordinary Time (I)
Distinction Without Exclusion

Readings: Exodus 14:21—15:1; Exodus 15:8-9, 10 and 12, 17; Matthew 12:46-50

It is possible to listen to the gospel reading for today as a message of exclusion. After all, a clear distinction seems to be made between those on the inside – the people to whom Jesus is speaking – and those on the outside – Jesus’ mother and brothers, who were anxious to have a word with him. This distinction even calls to mind the violent demarcation that is drawn in the first reading between the Egyptians and the people of Israel. The returning waters overwhelmed… Pharaoh’s whole army… But the sons of Israel… marched through the sea on dry ground. Listening to the readings in this way, we may then be tempted to make it our business to go about trying to distinguish and to judge between those who make it across the sea and those who are engulfed by it.

And isn’t it true that such a reading can occasion much needless anxiety and unhappiness, even within families and among friends? Consider what sometimes happens when, for example, a child of Buddhist parents converts to Christianity. Don’t the Buddhist parents sometimes worry that they might be separated from their child in the next world? And worse, doesn’t the young, freshly minted Christian sometimes feel obliged to pass negative judgments on the idolatry and paganism of the parents?

And yet, although we cannot deny the distinction that is being made, aren’t the readings today more about inclusion than about exclusion? Isn’t Jesus trying to help his listeners to extend the too-narrow horizons of their sense of community? In the realm of the Spirit, in the kingdom of God, people are brought together by something far more intimate and far-reaching than commonalities in language, or race, or genetic code. Anyone who does the will of my Father in heaven… is my brother and sister and mother…

And, as we are reminded in another passage of scripture, the Father’s will is that everyone… be saved and reach full knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:4). God wants to bring everyone safely across the often tumultuous and treacherous waters of daily living to the opposite shore of life in its fullness. For us who are Christian, this crossing recalls our own baptism into Christ. And we are right to wish that others might join us in crossing the waters of baptism. We do have a responsibility to share our faith with others.

Even so, isn’t it also true that among those who might not have crossed the baptismal waters, and who for various reasons might not even wish to, we can still see and recognize the face and hands of Christ, who is the Way, the Truth and the Life (John 14:6)? Could it be that, in some mysterious way, these people are also being brought safely across the waters, without our being aware of it? Can we discount this possibility and still claim to be doing the will of my Father in heaven? And if we were indeed to entertain this possibility, if we were to adopt an inclusive rather than an exclusive reading of today’s scripture, what difference would it make to how we view and relate to others?

Monday, July 23, 2007

Monday in the 16th Week of Ordinary Time (I)
You Have Only to Keep Still…

Readings: Exodus 14:5-18; Exodus 15:1bc-2, 3-4, 5-6; Matthew 12:38-42

There’s an advertisement that one often sees in some cinemas. Various letters of the alphabet are mingling on the screen when a fire suddenly breaks out. Screams are heard and all the letters rush for the exit, which gets jammed in the process, until someone whistles and gets everyone to file through the exit in an orderly fashion. The message is clear enough. When there is an emergency, do not panic! Keep calm… Do what is necessary… Easier said than done, of course.

We encounter a similar situation in the first reading today. Here there is a serious emergency of another sort. Imagine what it must be like for the poor defenseless Israelites, waking up one morning to find a horde of bloodthirsty Egyptian charioteers, horsemen and soldiers descending upon them. Is it any wonder that they begin to panic? They blame Moses for rescuing them from slavery. Better to work for the Egyptians than die in the wilderness! Yet, in the midst of their panic, God offers a word of encouragement so incredible as to seem almost ridiculous. In the face of certain death, God actually tells the people to have no fear, to keep still, to do what is necessary… Which is what Moses does. He follows God’s instructions to the letter and pioneers for the Israelites a way across the waters of the Red Sea.

There are no Egyptians breathing down our necks. But we do, from time to time, have to face various emergencies of our own. Sometimes there are people making difficult demands on us. At other times the struggle is with painful feelings that might suddenly ensnare us. Whatever the crisis, don’t we sometimes find ourselves reacting with the same panic that afflicts the Israelites? And isn’t God’s response often the same? Don’t panic… Keep calm… Do what is necessary…

We know it’s far from easy to put this advice into practice: when things go very wrong, to do what we can and to trust that God has the situation under control, even if we don’t. Perhaps what might help us to do so is to recall and to recognize the signs of God’s presence and action in our lives, the very signs that the Pharisees in today’s gospel seem so oblivious to. We should like to see a sign from you, they ask Jesus, thus demonstrating their blindness to the One who, by his life, death and rising, becomes the sign of God’s undying love for us.

Who are the Egyptians in our lives? How are we being invited to keep still today?

Sunday, July 22, 2007

The Pope on Biblical Interpretation

Here is the Preface from the Pope's recently published book, Jesus of Nazareth.

For a lengthier and more scholarly (read "cheem") exposition of the pope's earlier views on biblical interpretation, click here for the text of Biblical Interpretation in Crisis, a lecture given by then Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger in 1988.
16th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)
The Messiah is Among You

Readings: Genesis 18:1-10a; Psalm 15:2-3, 3-4, 5; Colossians 1:24-28; Luke 10:38-42

Sisters and brothers, do you ever find yourself wishing you could hear God’s voice, or see God’s face, or sense God’s presence in some way? Is it possible to do this? If so, how? And what difference would it make anyway?

I’m reminded of that well-known story about a monastery that had fallen on hard times because of persecution. It used to be a large and thriving order with a central monastery and many branch houses. But now only five monks were left living in a crumbling building: the abbot and four others, all over seventy years of age.

In the forest surrounding the monastery there was a little hut that a Jewish rabbi occasionally used for a hermitage. One day the abbot decided to visit the rabbi to seek his advice on how the monastery could be saved. The rabbi welcomed the abbot, but could only say, "I know what it’s like. The spirit has gone out of the people. It is the same in my town. Almost no one comes to the synagogue anymore." And the two old men wept together. But just as the abbot was about to leave, the rabbi said to him: "I am sorry I have no advice to give. But I can tell you this: the Messiah is among you."

When the abbot returned to the monastery his fellow monks gathered around him to ask, "Well what did he say?" “The rabbi said something very mysterious. I don't know what he meant. He said that the Messiah is among us."

In the days that followed, the old monks continued to puzzle over what the rabbi could have meant. The Messiah is among us? Could he possibly have meant one of us monks? If so, which one? Could it be the abbot? Yes, if he had been referring to one of us, then it would be Father Abbot. He has been our leader for many years. On the other hand, he might have meant Brother Thomas. Everyone knows he is a very holy man. But he certainly could not have meant Brother John! John gets moody and grumpy at times. But then he is also always right. Maybe the rabbi did mean Brother John. But surely not Brother Phillip. Phillip is so passive, a real nobody. But then, he has a strange gift for always being there when you need him. He just magically appears. Maybe Phillip is the Messiah. Of course, the rabbi didn't mean me. He couldn't possibly have meant me. I'm just an ordinary person. Yet supposing he did? Suppose I am the Messiah? But that’s too much to expect. Or is it?

As they continued to ponder in this way, the old monks began to pay more attention to one another. They began to treat one another, and even themselves, with greater respect. After all, what if one of them was indeed the Messiah?

And the few people who still visited the monastery occasionally also began to sense a difference in the atmosphere of the place. They sensed the aura of respect that began to surround the five old monks and seemed to radiate out from them. Without quite knowing why, they began to come more often, to pray, or to talk to the monks, or simply to walk around and to picnic on the grounds. They brought their friends, who brought their friends. Some young men even began to ask about joining the monastery. Within a few years it once again began to thrive. It soon became a vibrant center of light and spirituality in the country. All thanks to the rabbi’s words: the messiah is among you. (Adapted from here)

The messiah is among you… Sisters and brothers, what do you think these words mean? Was the rabbi lying? Was he only trying to get the monks to change? Or wasn’t he referring to a very deep mystery, the same mystery that we heard about in the second reading today? This is the message which was a mystery hidden for generations… and has now been revealed to the saints… The mystery is Christ among you, your hope of glory…

The mystery is Christ among you…Isn’t this what we are being reminded of today? That even though we may not seem to be able to see or hear or touch him, the Messiah is among us. Christ is among us. God is among us. And notice what happens when people become aware of God’s presence. The dying monastery becomes a life-giving oasis for the whole country. Abraham and Sarah, who are old and barren, receive the blessing of a long-awaited child, who becomes a blessing not just for his parents but for us as well. And the author of the second reading can even rejoice in his sufferings. It makes me happy to suffer for you, as I am suffering now.

This is the difference that God’s presence makes. But to experience this presence we must first learn to recognize and to receive the God who comes among us. We must learn to be good hosts to Christ our guest. Here we can learn much from the experiences of Martha and Mary and Abraham.

We know the gospel story well. Probably the first thing that strikes us is what Jesus says to Martha when she complains about her sister. Mary has chosen the better part… Does he mean that, in order to encounter God, it is better for us to pray quietly than to busy ourselves with work? Does he mean that we must all stop whatever we are doing and enter the Carmelite monastery? But surely this is not very practical. How are we to survive if no one works? How are we to eat if no one cooks?

No, the problem with Martha is not that she is busy, but that she allows herself to be distracted with all the serving. She becomes too focused on herself and on what she is doing. She begins to compare herself with her sister. She forgets the real reason for her busyness. She forgets to attend to the Lord.

That this is true becomes even clearer when we consider Abraham’s experience in the first reading. We are told that the Lord appears to him during the hottest part of the day. Yet isn’t it striking how busy Abraham becomes, how fast he moves? He runs from his tent to meet the three men. He hastens back to the tent to find Sarah, and tells her to hurry to make bread. He then runs to pick a tender calf and hands it to the servant who hurries to prepare it. But unlike Martha, Abraham’s busyness doesn’t distract him. His attention, his focus, is always on his guests. Isn’t this precisely the reason why he rushes about, so that he can quickly return to wait on them? As we are told in the reading, after all the food and drink have been prepared, he remains standing near them, watching them as they eat.

In our lives too, God often comes as an unexpected guest arriving during the hottest part of the day. Sometimes God comes to us in an irritating family member or colleague. Sometimes God comes to us through various disappointments we may encounter. Whatever the case may be, it’s not always easy to keep paying attention to our guest. We may become distracted by our anger at him for not coming at the appointed time, or we may try to impress him with our cooking skills, or the beautiful things we own. And in being so distracted, we miss the blessing that God offers us.

But even so, all is not lost. When we find ourselves busy to the point of losing focus, perhaps we can learn from Martha, who even in her distraction, turns to the Lord. And although her complaint is misguided, in turning to Jesus, she receives a blessing from him. Jesus guides her back on the right path. Isn’t this also the wonderful and joyful result of that great mystery we are celebrating in this Eucharist? It is Christ among us, the divine guest, our hope of glory

Sisters and brothers, truly Christ is among us. How might we better receive him today?

Friday, July 20, 2007

Friday in the 15th Week of Ordinary Time (I)
Wanted Alive Not Dead

Readings: Exodus 11:10—12:14; Psalm 116:12-13, 15 and 16bc, 17-18; Mathew 12:1-8

One needs to be a doctor to certify whether someone is alive or dead. But even a layperson can recognize certain telltale signs of death. People who are alive generally move around and do things, because they breathe. Dead bodies, on the other hand, cannot. They can only lie there, doing nothing, because there is no breath in them. And isn’t it also true that not just people but actions too can be alive or dead? Just as a body is dead when it no longer has breath, an action is dead when the meaning behind it is lost or forgotten.

Take the irreverence and boredom manifested in the conduct of some Mass-goers and that continue to be the subject of much discussion, even in the latest issue of the Catholic News. Are these not possible signs that the liturgical actions being performed by these people are more dead than alive? And yet, on the other hand, don’t those of us who find ourselves easily upset by such behaviour, those of us moved to push for more stringent enforcement of codes of appropriate dress and conduct at Mass, also need to be careful? For, as today’s gospel reminds us, not just boredom, but rigidity too can be a sign of dead actions. As Jesus tells the Pharisees: if you had understood the meaning of the words: What I want is mercy, not sacrifice, you would not have condemned the blameless.

Yes, actions can be dead or alive. And when there are signs that actions are indeed dying, that they are losing their connection with the deeper meaning that should motivate them, how helpful is it simply and solely to keep insisting on more stringent compliance? Should we not, in addition, expend some effort in finding creative ways to help people to recover the meaning behind the actions? Isn’t this what the whole first reading is about? We find here a long list of actions prescribed by God for the Passover. But these actions are dead without the meaning that goes along with them, a meaning that the actions themselves are designed to recall. This day is to be a day of remembrance for you, and you must celebrate it as a feast in the Lord’s honour… The rituals of the Passover call to mind and make present for the Israelites how their God freed them from slavery in Egypt with mighty hand and outstretched arm. And in the psalm too, we find a similar connection between actions and their meaning. The cup of salvation I will raise… Why? In order to repay the Lord for his goodness to me…

Whether it be at Mass or in daily living, actions live to the extent that their meaning is recalled, at least periodically. Otherwise they begin to lose their vitality. They die.

How might we keep our various actions alive today?

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Thursday in the 15th Week of Ordinary Time (I)
The Yoke of a Second Childhood

Readings: Exodus 3:13-20; Psalm 105:1 and 5, 8-9, 24-25, 26-27; Mathew 11:28-30

Yesterday our readings led us to reflect upon what we referred to as a second childhood. What does this mean? What difference is there between a second childhood and the first one? How does one enter into this second childhood? Our readings today offer us an opportunity to reflect a little more deeply upon these questions.

To begin with, we might consider the very consoling words of today’s gospel as the Lord’s invitation to us to enter into a second childhood. We find this a plausible conclusion to draw especially when we consider whom Jesus is addressing. He isn’t speaking to those who are blissfully free from responsibilities, those who might still be in their first childhood. His concern, at least in this passage, is for all you who labour and are overburdened. His invitation is for all those of us who might be anxious and stressed out to come to me… shoulder my yoke and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart…

Does this mean we are to return to the bliss of a first childhood? Does this mean that we are to relinquish all our responsibilities and be freed from every yoke? Or are we not being invited instead to shoulder the yoke of Christ? And let us be honest. Doesn’t this yoke often seem a much larger one? Consider what Moses is being called to do in the first reading. He too is being called to enter a second childhood, to trust in the God who encounters him in the burning bush. And in this call is also an invitation to take upon himself the responsibility, the yoke, not only of confronting Pharaoh and demanding the release of the Hebrew people, but also of seeing them safely into a land where milk and honey flow. How does this new responsibility compare with tending his father-in-law’s flock in Midian?

Even so, Jesus reassures us that my yoke is easy and my burden light. And God does the same for Moses in the first reading. Large as this new yoke might seem, God promises Moses that he will not have to bear it alone. I shall show my power, says the Lord, and strike Egypt with all the wonders I am going to work there. Incredible as these words might seem, God invites Moses to trust that they will indeed come to past, because of who God is, this I AM who is calling and sending him. This is none other than the Lord, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. In other words, this is a God with an impeccable track record. This is a God who has always been steadfast in showing mercy and compassion to their forefathers, a God who has always kept God's promises. This is the One whose yoke we are invited to shoulder, the Divine Parent, into whose gentle arms we are invited to enter.

How might we respond to this invitation to come to Christ and shoulder his yoke today?

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Wednesday in the 15th Week of Ordinary Time (I)
Growing into Childhood

Readings: Exodus 3:1-6, 9-12; Psalm 103:1b-2, 3-4, 6-7; Mathew 11:25-27

What do you want to be when you grow up? Many of us were probably asked this question as children. It’s an important question to reflect upon, not least because it invites dreams of the future and inspires efforts to make them come through. As children, we look forward to growing up. Which is why Jesus’ words in today’s gospel sound so surprising and puzzling to us. Jesus blesses his heavenly Father for hiding the mysteries of God from the learned and the clever and revealing them to mere children. Are we then to strive, in some way, never to grow up, to remain as perpetual children? Or are we not instead being called precisely to grow up into children.

Isn’t this the experience of Moses, in the first reading? At this stage in the story, he is no longer a child in years. He is already a married man, tending his father-in-law’s flock. And yet, God reveals God’s self to him in the wilderness. So if we are to believe what Jesus says in the gospel then Moses must be a child in some way. Otherwise, how could he experience the God who reveals God’s self to mere children? And we have only to remember how his story has progressed thus far to see that this is true. We may recall, for example, how Moses comes to be in Midian. He is in self-imposed exile, after killing an Egyptian, and being rejected even by his own fellow Hebrews. Who appointed you, to be prince over us, and judge? And it is this experience of failure and exile that has prepared Moses to encounter God. He has gradually come to see his own neediness and helplessness in the sight of God. His heart has gradually been opened to receive God’s call. He has grown up into childhood.

And it is in this second childhood, so to speak, that Moses sees the burning bush. But as extraordinary a sight as this may seem to be, it’s important also to note that Moses sees it whilst in the midst of his everyday routine of pasturing the flock. The extraordinary call from God comes to him in the ordinariness of daily life. And although the call is addressed to him most intimately and personally – Moses, Moses! – its significance extends to the whole Hebrew people. I send you to Pharaoh to bring… my people out of Egypt.

If the call of Moses is indeed a pattern of how God calls and reveals God’s self to God’s people, then it’s clearly important for us to consider how open we are to receiving this call in the ordinary circumstances of our own lives. How open are we to be called and sent for the benefit of others? To ask these questions of ourselves is also to consider where we stand in the Christian life. Are we growing enough into childhood to receive the call of God? Where and how might we encounter our burning bushes ?

What would you like to be when you grown up?

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Tuesday in the 15th Week of Ordinary Time (I)
The Way of Repentance

Readings: Exodus 2:1-15a; Psalm 69:3, 14, 30-31, 33-34; Mathew 11:20-24

We all know what a towering figure Moses will become, what a prominent role he will play, not just in the history of the Hebrew people, but also in the whole history of salvation. We know he is the one God will appoint to free his people from slavery in Egypt. We know he will hear God’s voice whilst in exile in Midian. But in order for all that to happen, he must first enter the wilderness. And today we see both why and how he is led there. The flight of Moses is prompted by a question that he cannot yet answer in a satisfactory manner: who appointed you? It’s a valid question, one that shakes Moses up. For although he seems to enjoy a privileged status in the royal court, Moses’ attempt to help his fellow Hebrews backfires on him.

Indeed, the first reading offers us a very stark contrast between his actions and the actions of the women who figured prominently at his birth. We notice how the latter are prompted primarily by love and compassion. His mother cannot bear to have him put to death, and so she places him among the reeds at the river’s edge. And his sister watches over him. Pharaoh’s daughter feels sorry for him, even though she knows he is a male child of the Hebrews, one who is marked for death. She rescues him and arranges for him to be cared for. The compassion and resourcefulness of these women illustrate for us how hearts of flesh can draw life out of the waters of death.

In contrast, the sight of his people being ill-treated leads Moses to strike out in anger against their tormentors. But this does little to help the situation. Instead, the cycle of violence and death is perpetuated. Pharaoh, whose daughter had treated Moses like a son, now wants to kill him. Isn’t this the result of the actions of a hardened heart, a heart of stone? Isn’t this why Moses must flee? Not just to avoid capital punishment, but also to escape the death that results from a hardened heart, the death that is the consequence of sin. Moses flees. And in his flight we see the beginnings of repentance. Moses sets out on a road that will transform his heart from a heart of stone to a heart of flesh.

And isn’t this the very same road that Jesus reproaches the people of Chorazin and Bethsaida for refusing to travel? What the miracles of Jesus fail to do for those towns, the question of a fellow Hebrew does for Moses: who appointed you? It leads him out into the wilderness, but only so that God can find him, give him his appointment, and send him back into Egypt to do what needs to be done. As his mother did for him at his birth, his brother's question leads him once more into the wild waters of rebirth so that God might again draw him out into newness of life, not just for him but for all the people.

Sisters and brothers, who appointed us to do all that we will do today? How many of our actions will spring from a heart of flesh? How many from a heart of stone? How are we being invited to repent today?

Monday, July 16, 2007

Monday in the 15th Week of Ordinary Time (I)
The Importance of Remembering

Readings: Exodus 1:8-14, 22; Psalm 124:1b-3, 4-6, 7-8; Mathew 10:34—11:1

One main reason is given for the sufferings of the Israelites at the hands of the Egyptians in the first reading today: there came to power in Egypt a new king who knew nothing of Joseph. In other words, with the passage of time, the Egyptians forgot Joseph. They forgot how he had fed all the people, Egyptians and Hebrews alike, in a time of famine. They forgot all that Joseph had done to bring the two races together. And with this forgetting comes jealousy and suspicion and undue anxiety: if war should break out, they might add to the number of our enemies…

And forgetting doesn’t just result from the passage of time. It can happen for other reasons as well. The goodwill between neighbours or fellow citizens of different races can quickly be forgotten as a result of traumatic events like Pearl Harbour and September 11th. Seeds of discord can also be sown because some suddenly become much richer than others, or when there is perceived inequity in the way different people are treated. Whatever its cause, forgetting often leads to a shift in perspective. Close relations are frayed to breaking point. Friends become enemies. Harmony degenerates into violence.

Something like this can happen too in our relationship with God. With the passage of time, or through the unhealthy influence of a secular and materialistic society, or through fear of persecution, we can gradually forget all that God has done for us in Jesus Christ. We can lose our focus. Isn’t this why it’s so important to listen carefully to what Jesus is saying to us in the gospel today? What is he doing if not urging us to remember, to remember him, his life, his death and his resurrection? And not just to remember but also courageously to proclaim him in word and deed. Isn’t this what we’re doing in this, and in every, Eucharistic celebration? We remember how he loved us to his death, and so we celebrate… we believe…

How might we continue to remember and declare ourselves for the Lord in the presence of others today?

Sunday, July 15, 2007

15th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)
Ignorance Is No Excuse…

Readings: Deuteronomy 30:10-14; Psalm 69:14, 17, 30-31, 33-34, 36, 37 or Psalm 19:8, 9, 10, 11; Colossians 1:15-20; Luke 10:25-37

Sisters and brothers, ignorance of the law is no excuse. We all know this, don’t we? For example, if I dash across Farrer Road, climbing over the road divider, so as to get from the market to the bus-stop on the other side, and if a policeman happens to catch me doing it, it wouldn’t help very much if I were to protest that I didn’t know jay-walking was an offence. Ignorance is no excuse. Similarly, suppose I’m running late for Mass and the car-park is full, and I park my car along a street with a single white line painted down the middle. If, after Mass, I return to find a summons on the windscreen of my car, it probably won’t do me much good to write in to the authorities to say that I didn’t see the white line. Ignorance is no excuse.

We all know this principle quite well. We all know that we each have the responsibility to familiarize ourselves with the law. We each need to find out what we can and cannot, what we should and should not, do. And we quite naturally apply this to our lives as Christians as well. So we all know, for example, that we have an obligation to come to Mass every Sunday, and that we have to go to confession if we are conscious of having committed a mortal sin. And isn’t this also the reason why we are so concerned to find out if it’s still compulsory for us to abstain from meat on Fridays? We make it a point to know these things, because if it’s true that ignorance is no excuse, then better to find out. Better to be safe than sorry. And, for the most part, we do know what we need to do, don’t we? We are familiar with the law. But are we, really?

Consider that man in the gospel today, the one who questions Jesus, the one who asks Jesus, What must I do? This is a very legitimate question to ask, isn’t it? Especially if ignorance is no excuse. And also especially because of what is at stake: not just what must I do to avoid paying a fine, but what must I do to inherit eternal life. This has to do with our eternal happiness. It’s nothing less than a matter of life and death. If there is one important question to ask, this must surely be it. Except that we are told two things about this man. We are told both that he is a lawyer and that his aim is to disconcert Jesus. In other words he isn’t really asking the question to get an answer. All he wants to do is to embarrass Jesus by posing a difficult legal question. Being an expert in the law, he thinks that he already knows the law well enough. But does he, really?

Well, of course he does. He is a lawyer, after all. He is an expert. Even so, we may wonder which law he is expert in. For it would seem from what Moses tells us in the first reading, that there are at least two kinds of law. There is the law that is very far away, the law that always seems beyond your reach, the law that seems to always remain high up in heaven or far beyond the seas. But the law that God lays down for the people, through Moses, is not like that. This law is very near to you, it is in your mouth and in your heart for your observance.

The difference then is between a law in the heavens and a law of the heart. And doesn’t the parable of the Good Samaritan help us to see more clearly just how different these two laws are? Of the people in the story, it is quite clear who is keeping which law. The priest and the Levite do not ignore the injured man out of cruelty or indifference. From a distance the man probably looked like a corpse, so it was only right that they should be careful to stay far away, for fear of being rendered unclean by touching a dead body. They were following the law, the law in the heavens. And in doing so, they failed to do what was necessary for eternal life. In contrast, it is the much-hated foreigner, the Samaritan, who does what is necessary. We are told that, at the sight of the injured man, he was moved with compassion. He went out of his way to help him. This is what following the law of the heart looks like. The difference between the two laws could not be clearer.

But how does one come to know this second law? How does one come to follow the law of the heart? I believe it has something to do with the questions we ask. Isn’t it true that when we are following only the law in heaven we are often preoccupied with only one question? This is the same question that the lawyer asks Jesus: what must I do? It’s an important question to ask, of course. But isn’t it also true that in order to follow the law of the heart, in order to imitate the Good Samaritan, we need to ask another question first.

For as the early Christian writer Origen tells us, the parable of the Good Samaritan is not just about what we must do, it is also about what has been done for us. That man who was set upon by brigands and left for dead is really an image of us. We are the ones who have been crippled by our sins. We are the ones who are unable to save ourselves. And no on can help us, especially not those who follow some faraway law. To save us, God actually comes down from heaven. Like the Good Samaritan, God is moved with compassion. God goes out of God’s way, becoming a human person, so as to reach out and care for us. And as we are reminded in the second reading, in Christ, God’s compassion extends even to submitting to death. For it is in this way that Christ heals us. It was by his death on the cross that Christ reconciled everything, everything in heaven and everything on earth.

And it is only as we ponder ever more deeply upon what has been done for us that we can then put into practice all that we need to do to inherit eternal life. It is only when we allow ourselves to realize how much we are loved that we can then learn to love God and our neighbour. Isn’t this why we come to Mass every Sunday? Isn’t this why many of us make time for personal prayer and scripture reading? Isn’t this why people sign up for worthwhile programs like the parish’s week of guided prayer?

Sisters and brothers, as Christians we have all been baptized into Christ. In water and in blood, Christ our Good Samaritan has washed us of our sins. And God’s law has been placed in our mouths and inscribed upon our hearts. Do we really have any excuse to remain ignorant?

How might we continue to grow in our knowledge of God’s law today?

Friday, July 13, 2007

Friday in the 14th Week of Ordinary Time (I)
Resisting the Short Cuts

Readings: Genesis 46:1-7, 28-30; Psalms 37:3-4, 18-19, 27-28, 39-40; Matthew 10:16-23

Today I’m reminded of an experience of mine whilst in school. During a road run, a classmate and I were caught trying to take a short cut. The teacher who caught us was none too pleased. After receiving a stern reprimand we were made to do some push-ups by the side of the road and then sent on our way – the long way. Isn’t it really tempting, sometimes, as we proceed on life’s journey, to try to take a short cut, or even to give up and refuse to move another inch? The road just gets too long, or the terrain too difficult, or our traveling companions too trying… Why not cut corners or settle down somewhere for good?

This is the kind of temptation that our readings help us to resist today. In both readings we find groups of people being prepared to set out. And in both situations the journey is not an easy one. In the first reading, we are nearing the end of the story of Abraham and his offspring. It’s been a story filled with much movement, with uprooting and re-settling. And even now, when Jacob is already well on in years, God invites him to set out on one final journey. In his old age, with all his family and possessions, he is to depart from Canaan in order to settle in Egypt. At a time when most would be contemplating a life of tranquil retirement, spent relaxing and enjoying one’s grandchildren and even great-grandchildren, Jacob is asked to emigrate. And, in keeping with the story as it has unfolded thus far, the only assurance he receives is God’s promise to be with him: Do not be afraid… I myself will go down with you… I myself will bring you back again… Placing his trust in God, Jacob moves. And the story arrives at its happy ending. Jacob is reunited with his favourite son Joseph: Now I can die, now that I have seen you…

In the gospel, too, even as Jesus sends out the Twelve, he prepares them as Jacob was prepared. He doesn’t try to fool them. He invites them first to remember that the way will be difficult and even treacherous: Remember, I am sending you out like sheep among wolves… Beware… Yet they are not to worry, because God will be with them: the Spirit of your Father will be speaking in you. And, as with Jacob, their endurance will lead them to a happy ending: the man who stands firm to the end will be saved…

To expect difficulties on the way, to trust in God’s ongoing presence and guidance, to look forward in hope to a happy ending – are these not the means by which the Lord helps us resist the temptation to quit? Are these not the exercises, the push-ups, through which the Lord strengthens us to travel on till journey’s end? And there is also one more crucial consideration. As contented as Jacob might have been in Canaan, there was one thing that he lacked: he longed to set eyes again on his long-lost son Joseph. Isn’t this an image of the kind of holy restlessness that motivates the Christian to repeatedly set out on the way? As with the Twelve in the gospel, we are impelled to persevere, to refrain from quitting or taking short cuts, to keep moving, because we all look forward to the second coming of the Son of Man. We all yearn for that day when every tear will be wiped away and God’s kingdom will be established in its fullness. Until then, we remain on the move…

How are we being invited to persevere today?

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Thursday in the 14th Week of Ordinary Time (I)
Come Closer to Me

Readings: Genesis 44:18-21, 23b-29; 45:1-5; Psalms 105:16-17, 18-19, 20-21; Matthew 10:7-15

The gospel story of Jesus sending out his twelve disciples is one that we know well. Just this past Sunday we heard a similar account in Luke’s gospel of the sending of seventy-two others. But it’s perhaps not so easy to recognize the ways in which Jesus wishes to send us. The disciples were given power to cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers… What powers have we? They were able to travel in poverty, taking not even a few coppers for their purses. That’s a hard act for us to follow, isn’t it? Might we not be easily embarrassed by the contents of our wallets – by those credit cards and cash cards and discount cards of different colours. And, perhaps what’s most difficult to imitate is the kind of serenity that Jesus advises his disciples to adopt in the face of rejection. Can the Lord really be sending us? And, even if he is, is it really possible for us to respond?

Here’s where the story of Joseph might serve as a bridge to our own experience. Joseph has clearly been given power. At this point in the story he has the authority to distribute Pharoah’s grain, to feed the starving people. And yet, we know that even before this power was given him, God had already bestowed upon him the gift of interpreting dreams. And it was by exercising this gift for the benefit of others that Joseph came to possess his current powers in service of a greater number. We may not all have the power to actually raise the dead or to heal the sick or to distribute tons of cash, but have we not each been entrusted with unique gifts and talents meant to help others – such as the ability to listen, to make someone laugh, to do a job well? Are we not called simply to begin by using these gifts, exercising these powers for the good of others, in whichever way we can?

Also, at this point in the story, it’s interesting to see that, even though Joseph has become the second most powerful person in Egypt, he remains humbly reliant upon his God. His past experiences, especially his trials and tribulations prior to his enjoyment of Pharoah’s favour, have helped to cultivate in him a poverty of spirit. He has learnt to trust in God’s care for him, the same God who has brought him to his current position. He knows that things could so easily have turned out differently. Yet God had seen fit to write straight with crooked lines. And so Joseph wears his status lightly. He remembers his brothers, even as he forgets not his God. He forgives them their jealousy and cruelty for he sees God’s hand in all that has gone before. God sent me before you to preserve your lives… And with this insight comes serenity.

Admittedly, probably few of us will dare claim to already be like Joseph. But isn’t this because we are listening to the story when it is already nearing its end? Things were not always so easy for Joseph. And even at this point in the story, Joseph's brothers do not yet see things from God’s perspective. They are dismayed to discover that the one who has power to determine their fate is the half-brother whom they had grievously wronged so many years ago. They need a change of perspective so that they might allow themselves to rejoice in Joseph's good fortune and to be sent to convey the good news to their father. To do this, they must first heed Joseph’s invitation to them to come closer to me. And is this not the Lord’s invitation to us as well? Come closer to me. Let me help you to change your perspective. Let me help you recognize my presence in your life, so that I may send you out to help others...

How might we come closer to him today?

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Wednesday in the 14th Week of Ordinary Time (I)
Memorial of St. Benedict, Abbot
The Authority of the Shepherd

Readings: Genesis 41:55-57; 42:5-7a, 17-24a; Psalms 33:2-3, 10-11, 18-19; Matthew 10:1-7

We come to this Eucharistic celebration as people who wear different hats. We are teachers and students, parents and children, leaders and led… In other words we come as people who both exercise and submit to authority. But from where does this authority come? For what is it given? And how is it supposed to be exercised? These are among the questions that our readings help us to ponder today. For in both readings we see the bestowal and exercise of authority. In the first reading, Pharoah makes Joseph the man in authority over all of Egypt. And in the gospel, Jesus gives the twelve apostles authority over unclean spirits.

Even so, the true source of this authority becomes clear to us upon deeper reflection. We know, for example, how the circumstances of Joseph’s life – the jealousy of his brothers, his being sold into slavery, his interpretation of Pharoah’s dreams – become the means by which God raises him to his current position. His authority actually comes from God. The same can be said for the Twelve. Jesus summons them and lets them participate in the mission entrusted to him by his heavenly Father. The authority they receive is a sharing in the authority that comes ultimately from God. Can we not say the same for the authority that we exercise and to which we submit?

And this divine authority is given for a very specific reason. In a time of famine, Joseph is tasked to feed the starving people. Similarly, the apostles are sent to gather and feed the lost sheep of the House of Israel. God gives authority so that God’s people can be fed. Of course, none of us here is lacking in food to eat. More likely our difficulty is that we have too much. Famines are the problem of people who live far away. Still, do we not live among people who suffer famines of a different sort? Do we not know of lonely people, for example, who continually endure a famine of the heart? Or are we not familiar with those who suffer from a famine of the spirit, those who are so busy with so many things yet don’t quite know why? Doesn’t God bestow authority so that these might be fed as well?

Finally, there is also a very distinctive way in which the authority that comes from God is exercised. In the first reading, we see this expressed especially in the weeping of Joseph. In spite of all that he has endured at the hands of his brothers, Joseph not only recognizes them as his own kin, but he also allows his heart to be moved by their plight. Although he has the prerogative to reject their plea for help, Joseph exercises his authority with compassion. He acts as Jesus acts when, for example, he weeps at the tomb of his friend Lazarus (see John 11:36), or when he takes pity on the people who seem like sheep without a shepherd (e.g., Mark 6:34). And it is with this same compassion of Christ that the apostles are invited to minister in the gospel.

This then is what true authority looks like. It has its source in the Divine Shepherd who bestows it so that the sheep might be fed with compassion.

How does this image compare with our own experience of authority today?

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Tuesday in the 14th Week of Ordinary Time (I)
Bow Your Heads and Pray for God’s Blessing…

Readings: Genesis 32:23-33; Psalms 17:1b, 2-3, 6-7ab, 8b and 15; Matthew 9:32-38

Many people receive a blessing in our readings today. The dumb demoniac is blessed with speech. The harassed and dejected crowds are blessed in the preaching and healing of Jesus who felt sorry for them. And even in Jesus’ invitation to pray for more labourers for the Lord’s harvest there is an implied blessing of vocation. Such an impressive and awe-inspiring array of different expressions of God’s compassion! It seems as though the people have only to open wide their hearts and hands to receive from God’s bounty.

And yet, not all are able to receive the blessings that are offered. We are told, for example, that the Pharisees said, ‘It is through the prince of devils that he casts out devils.’ As generous as God is to all, not all have what it takes to receive that which is freely bestowed on them. Not all are able and willing to bow their heads to receive God’s blessing.

Indeed, if the experience of Jacob in the first reading is anything to go by, receiving a blessing from God can often be something of an ordeal. The most striking characteristic of the story is probably the wrestling match between Jacob and God. And although it might at first seem strange, at some level, most of us can probably identify with Jacob’s experience, especially those of us who have been through crises of some sort, those who have struggled to come to terms with various situations or circumstances in our own lives.

There are also at least two other noteworthy characteristics to the story. First, we might notice how Jacob comes to wrestle with God. We are told that Jacob had taken his wives and slave-girls and children and all his possessions and sent them across the stream. And Jacob was left alone. It was in this solitude, after Jacob had voluntarily allowed himself to be stripped of all his material possessions, that Jacob comes face-to-face with himself and with his God. And it is out of this terrible face-off that a blessing is received. Wasn’t this the main reason why the Pharisees found it so difficult to recognize, let alone to receive, God’s blessing in the ministry of Jesus? Were they not too full of themselves and of their possessions? Were they not unwilling to face the solitude that each one must endure in order to meet God?

Also, isn’t it significant that Jacob did not emerge from his ordeal unscathed? The encounter leaves a mark on him. His hip is dislocated and he walks with a limp. Are we then to imagine that God wishes to maim us even as God blesses us? Or isn’t it rather the case that any authentic encounter with God transforms us and renders us ever more aware of our total dependence on God. Isn’t this part of the blessing God offers us: that we can no longer pretend to walk wherever we wish, relying only on our own strength? As Jesus tells Peter in John 21:18: when you were young, you girded yourself and walked where you would; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish to go (RSV). God’s blessing enables us to hand over our lives to God, to follow and lean on the One who guides us on our way and who strengthens us to labour in the harvest of the Lord.

How might we bow our heads and pray for God’s blessing today?

Monday, July 09, 2007

Monday in the 14th Week of Ordinary Time (I)
Memorial of St. Augustine Zhao Rong & Companions, Martyrs of China
Awakening to Faith

Readings: Genesis 28:10-22a; Psalms 91:1-2, 3-4, 14-15ab; Matthew 9:18-26

More likely than not many of us know how difficult it is to find God. It is also likely that we might envy the various characters in the bible – in both Old and New Testament alike – for whom finding and speaking with God seems to come so naturally. Take the characters in today’s readings, for example. Jacob has only to sleep on a stone pillow in a special place, and he experiences God making wonderful promises to him in a dream. The synagogue official has only to tell Jesus about his dead daughter, and immediately Jesus sets out with his disciples and raises her to life. The woman with the haemorrhage has only to touch the fringe of his cloak and she is healed of her affliction. It all seems so easy. But is it really?

On the one hand, we can truly say, yes. Yes, it is easy to find God. It’s easy because, as these bible stories show us, God wishes to be found. Indeed, it is God who constantly seeks us out. It is God who seeks out Jacob even as he flees from his family home after stealing the blessing that was meant for his brother Esau. And, in Jesus, God continues to seek out the descendants of Jacob. In Jesus, God enters into their lives to free them from the bonds of sin and death. Yes, it is easy to find God, simply because it is actually God who is looking for us.

Even so, there is also another side to the story, isn’t there? We know this from our own experience. Is it really all that easy to find God in a particular place – even if it is a particularly holy place? Isn’t it possible, for example, to be bored rather than inspired when one enters a church or when one witnesses a beautiful sunset? Is it really easy to recognize God’s voice and trust in God’s promises, especially when it comes to us in a dream? Do we find it all that easy, for example, to recognize the presence of God in the story of Jesus, a story that we hear and re-enact each time we celebrate Mass? Do we find it any easier to recognize this same Jesus in the people who cross our paths daily?

To do this something more is needed. Something enabled Jacob, in his time of need, not only to remember his dream, but to place his trust in and to commit his life to the God who spoke to him in it. Something enabled the synagogue official, in his time of need, to humble himself before a wandering preacher, even when his daughter was already dead. Something enabled the woman, in her time of need, to believe that touching Jesus’ cloak could do for her what doctors had failed to do in the previous twelve years. Jesus himself identifies what this something is. Courage, he says, your faith has saved you. More than anything else, this is what we need to find God. This is what we need to recognize our respective Bethels and to reach out and touch the fringe of the Lord’s cloak as he passes by.

Which is why it’s quite striking that there is in each of the readings today an awakening. Jacob awakens from his dream with a renewed sense of God’s presence. The little girl awakens from the sleep of death to find Jesus taking her by the hand and helping her to stand up. Isn’t this the very thing that we need too? In our own attempts at finding God, each of us needs to be awakened to the faith that enables us both to recognize and to reach out to the Lord.

How is the Lord awakening us today?

Sunday, July 08, 2007

14th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)
Bible Sunday
Listening to the Cry and the Lullaby

Readings: Isaiah 66:10-14c; Psalm 66:1-3, 4-5, 6-7, 16, 20; Galatians 6:14-18; Luke 10:1-12, 17-20 or 10:1-9

Sisters and brothers, can you hear it? Can you hear the sound? Just keep very quiet for a moment and listen. It’s quite audible, but only if we listen carefully. Can you hear it now? Doesn’t it sound like a baby crying? Yes, somewhere there’s a baby crying. And we’ve all probably heard a baby cry before. We know how distressing the sound can be. We may not know where the baby is or to whom it belongs, but the sound can still move our hearts, even to the point of breaking. But only if we listen carefully and not let it be drowned out by the many other noises that compete for our attention, only if we let it pierce our minds and hearts, only if we allow it to affect us. Yes, somewhere there is a baby crying. Can we hear it? Let’s be still and listen together for a moment...

Perhaps the sound seems at first to come from far away. Perhaps it sounds like the loud lamentation of the many victims of war and violence in places like the Middle East and the Sudan. Perhaps it’s the muffled cry of malnourished children and their anguished parents trying to scratch out an existence in the poverty stricken parts of the African continent. Perhaps it’s the voiceless cries of undocumented migrant workers many of whom are victimized by unscrupulous employment agents. Perhaps it’s the wheezing of AIDS patients struggling to draw their last breath…

And even as we listen more carefully, doesn’t it seem as though the baby’s cries are also coming from closer to home? Doesn’t it sound like the angry voices of couples newly married but already heading down the road to divorce? Doesn’t it sound like the despair of students who have not made it into the ranks of the elite, who have been labeled mediocre or problematic or simply normal tech? Doesn’t the sound seem to emanate from the cyber-cafĂ©’s they frequent, where they try to numb the pain of boredom, and to achieve some sense of accomplishment in the World of Warcraft? Or doesn’t it sound like the stressed-out sighs of those heading home after a tiring day spent in a tiny cubicle in the Central Business District? Don’t these cries sound more familiar? Perhaps some of them are coming from the house, or even the room, next door…

And if we listen even more carefully, we may even be surprised to discover that the cries we are hearing are also our own. Perhaps we are the ones crying out, we are the ones groaning from the sting of past hurts or the burden of present illness or the pain of ongoing loneliness. Or perhaps we can’t quite identify where or why it’s hurting, except that we feel within us a vague sense of restlessness and unease that makes us cry out for comfort.

Whatever might be its source, sisters and brothers, can we not hear it now? Can we not hear the baby crying? It’s important that we do. Otherwise, our readings today make little sense. After all, what sense is there for a mother to sing a lullaby if her baby is already sleeping soundly? It’s the crying baby, the troubled infant, who needs comforting. And isn’t this what God is doing in our readings today? Isn’t God mothering us, singing us a lullaby?

Today, even as we allow our hearts to be moved by the baby’s cries, even as we find ourselves crying out in our distress, God proclaims to us a joyful message of hope and of peace. Today God assures us that, as a mother does her crying child, God will carry us at the breast and fondle us on the lap. Like a son comforted by his mother will I comfort you, says the Lord.

And this isn’t simply empty talk spoken to calm a noisy baby. For hasn’t God fulfilled God’s promise to us? Hasn’t God carried and fondled us in the arms of Christ the Son, the same arms that were stretched out and nailed to a cross? And, in baptism and confirmation, have we not all nursed at the breast of Christ, the side that was opened by the soldier's lance and out of which poured blood and water? Even now, at this Eucharistic celebration, is Christ not nourishing us in Word and Sacrament? Indeed, do we not all share in Paul’s boast in the second reading? Can we all not boast about the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ?

Such is the joyful lullaby with which God is comforting us today. But just as the baby’s cries do not come only from us, so too is the lullaby meant also for ears other than our own. Even as we allow ourselves to be mothered and consoled by our God, like the seventy-two in today’s gospel, are we not also being appointed and sent out to all the towns and places that Jesus himself is to visit? Are we not also being called to proclaim to others, both in word and in work, that the kingdom of God is very near to you? Are we not being invited to share God’s lullaby with others?

But in order to respond generously to this call, we must first have had the experience of being comforted ourselves. Only then can we learn to hear the cries of others, as well as the lullaby with which God wishes to comfort them. Which is why it’s so appropriate that we should be doing two special things today. First, we are celebrating Bible Sunday. And isn’t the Bible important precisely because it is here that we find Christ, God’s comforting Word to a troubled world? Isn’t it in the Bible that we hear God’s lullaby?

But the Bible isn’t just another book to be read from cover to cover. We can only truly appreciate its contents when we learn how to listen to what is being said, to listen prayerfully. Which is why it’s a happy coincidence that at the end of today’s Mass we will also be announcing the Week of Guided Prayer, which will be conducted in our parish from the 15th to the 22nd of this month. This is an excellent opportunity for us to listen even more carefully both the baby’s cries and to God’s lullaby.

And even as we consider how we might take advantage of Bible Sunday and the Week of Guided Prayer, it seems appropriate to end our meditation today with this prayer:

Teach me to listen, O God, to those nearest me,
my family, my friends, my co-workers.
Help me to be aware that
no matter what words I hear,
the message is,
"Accept the person I am. Listen to me."

Teach me to listen, my caring God, to those far from me--
the whisper of the hopeless,
the plea of the forgotten,
the cry of the anguished.

Teach me to listen, O God my Mother, to myself.
Help me to be less afraid
to trust the voice inside--
in the deepest part of me.

Teach me to listen, Holy Spirit, for your voice --
in busyness and in boredom,
in certainty and in doubt,
in noise and in silence.

Teach me, Lord, to listen. Amen. (Adapted by John Veltri, S.J.)

Sisters and brothers, the baby is still crying, even as God continues to hum a comforting lullaby. How might we listen more carefully and respond more generously today?

Friday, July 06, 2007

Friday in the 13th Week of Ordinary Time (I)
Memorial of St. Maria Goretti, Virgin and Martyr
Choosing the Weak and Making Them Strong

Readings: Genesis 23:1-4, 19; 24:1-8, 62-67; Psalm 106:1b-2, 3-4a, 4b-5; Matthew 9:9-13

There’s a well-known principle (if we can call it that) of the spiritual life that’s not easy for many of us to accept. The reason being that it contrasts so sharply with our everyday experience. In the world, we are often conditioned to make ourselves strong so that we might be chosen. We study hard to qualify for scholarships, or simply to be promoted to the next grade. We undergo training and try to build up impressive resumes so that we can be chosen for the jobs that we want. Such is the way of the world. One has to make oneself strong so as to be chosen. And such is also the way in which some approach the spiritual life. Such is the approach, for example, of the Pharisees in the today’s gospel. They try to strengthen themselves, to make themselves holy, so that God might choose them. They pride themselves in their spiritual discipline.

Which explains why they are so surprised and even scandalized by Jesus’ actions. Not only does Jesus mix and eat with tax collectors and sinners but he also calls them, chooses them to follow him, to share in his life and mission. Jesus comes to call not the virtuous but sinners. In the words of the preface for martyrs, which we will be using today, God chooses the weak and makes them strong. And we see this also in the experience of the martyr we celebrate today. Twelve-year-old Maria Goretti was a mere child. Yet she was given the grace of martyrdom when she died resisting rape. But not before she had forgiven the one who had stabbed her. God chooses the weak and makes them strong.

And, in Maria Goretti’s experience, we also see just how God strengthens the weak. Unlike what we might expect, God doesn’t quite do this by shielding the chosen ones from life’s hurts, or by making them invulnerable to pain. Consider Abraham and Isaac in the first reading. Though chosen and blessed so richly by God, they are not spared the pain of Sarah’s passing. But even in their grief God consoles them. The departure of Sarah also marks the entrance of Rebekah into their lives. God chooses the weak and makes them strong.

How is this true in our own experience? How does God choose and strengthen us today?