Sunday, September 30, 2007

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

Friday, September 28, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, September 27, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How much do you need the information booth today?

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

What new beginnings are we being called to make today?

Monday, September 24, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, September 22, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

How are you running the race today?

Friday, September 21, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, September 20, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How are we being called to do this today?

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, September 17, 2007

Monday in the 24th Week of Ordinary Time (I)
Memorial of St. Robert Bellarmine, Bishop and Doctor of the Church
God’s Ordinary Will

Readings: 1 Timothy 2:1-8; Psalms 28:2, 7, 8-9; Luke 7:1-10

At least in my own experience, there are two main situations when the term God's will is most used. God’s will is often actively sought when someone is discerning the possibility of a vocation to the priesthood or religious life. And it is also invoked when something bad happens: What to do? It’s God’s will. What this seems to indicate, at least implicitly, is that for many of us God’s will has to do with the extraordinary. It is most often used to refer to the source of an extraordinary vocation – the proportion of priests and religious to the general Christian population is small – or as a handy explanation for extraordinarily severe misfortune.

And yet, what we find in our readings today is an understanding of God’s will that is really quite ordinary. Consider, for example, the advice given in the first reading: first of all, there should be prayers offered for everyone – petitions, intercessions and thanksgiving – and especially for kings and others in authority, so that we may be able to live religious and reverent lives in peace and quiet… Prayers offered for everyone… so that we may be able to live… in peace and quiet… What could be more mundane? What could be more ordinary? And what’s more important to consider is the faith on which such prayers are based. We confidently pray in this way because we believe that God is interested to hear our very ordinary prayers for very ordinary things and people. Whatever may happen to us and whatever may be our respective vocations, we believe that God wants nothing else than that everyone be saved and reach full knowledge of the truth…

Indeed, God wants this so much that God does what Jesus is asked not to do in the gospel today: God takes the trouble. In Jesus, God takes the trouble to experience new things for our sake: the experience of becoming human, of being born, of growing up, of suffering and dying, of rising to new life. Above all else, this is the way in which God manifests God’s will to save. God takes the trouble to reach out to ordinary people in the ordinary circumstances of their lives.

And, like the devout centurion, in the gospel, we too are called to share in God’s will to save. Even as we continue to benefit from the trouble that God takes on our behalf, we too are invited to take the trouble to reach out to others, to be signs pointing to the healing and saving presence of Christ in our midst today. This too is God’s will, God’s ordinary will, for us all…

How are we being invited to carry this out today?

Saturday, September 15, 2007

23rd Saturday in Ordinary Time (I)
Memorial of Our Lady of Sorrows
Blessings At the Foot of the Cros

Readings: 1 Timothy 1:15-17; Psalms 113:1b-2, 3-4, 5 and 6-7; John 19:25-27 or Luke 2:33-35

Yesterday the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross presented us with the opportunity to reflect upon our use of sacramentals. We considered the manner in which holy objects can help us to experience God’s saving and healing love for us if only we approach them with the right disposition, if we only we gaze upon them in faith. But, as useful as they are, we do not access the mystery of the Cross solely, or even primarily, by looking at holy objects. Isn’t it true that the gaze that we cast on a cross, for example, is only an expression of something at once more significant and profound? Isn’t it true that we access the saving power of the Cross of Christ primarily through the way in which we take up our own daily crosses: the little but no less real sufferings and persecutions, the difficulties and struggles that we encounter in our own lives?

And to do this is hard. Which is why, most of us are better able, I believe, to identify with those who are absent from today’s gospel passage than those who are present. Speaking for myself, I can easily place myself in the shoes of Jesus’ disciples, those who deserted him. I myself find it difficult to do what we find Mary and the beloved disciple doing in the gospel of today. When the going gets tough in my own life, my first impulse is to run away, to avoid a difficult person, for example, or to postpone a painful decision.

Yet, perhaps more than being simply another occasion to praise the virtues of Mary, today’s feast is also a reminder to us of the blessings that come from remaining at the foot of the Cross. Although this is a difficult and painful place to be, it is also the place where we truly receive the grace of God. Here, we receive the same grace that Paul speaks about in the first reading: the grace of knowing that we are sinners who have been mercifully treated. Here too, we receive the precious grace that the beloved disciple received. Here we become children of Mary. In the painful desolation of this place, we find we are not truly alone. For here we receive the care of a sorrowful but compassionate Mother.

And that is not all. There is something else that we receive here. Yesterday some of us were brought on a brief tour of a school of theology. At the entrance we found a mural depicting a local religious custom. Every year, on Easter morning, the locals practice what is called the Salubong. They divide themselves into two groups and engage in a procession. One group carries the statue of the sorrowful Mother and the other carries the Risen Christ. They begin at separate ends of the town and meet in front of the church. The procession expresses the traditional Catholic belief that the Risen Christ appeared first to Mary his mother, consoling her and rewarding her for her steadfast faith. In the mural at the entrance of the school, the two groups are only just meeting, Mary’s statue on the left and the Risen Christ on the right. The sky on left side is dark and cloudy. The people’s facial expressions are somber. In contrast, over on the right side, all is bright, the people are smiling broadly. And the one who gazes upon the painting is filled with anticipation of that moment when the two groups will finally meet, when all darkness and sorrow will finally give way to fullness of joy…

Isn’t this the ultimate grace we anticipate, even as we struggle to remain with Mary at the foot of the cross? How are we being invited to enter into this experience, how are we being called to share it with others today?

Friday, September 14, 2007

Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross
The Gaze that Brings Life

Reading: Numbers 21:4b-9; Psalms 78:1bc-2, 34-35, 36-37, 38; Philippians 2:6-11; John 3:13-17

How did it work? How did it come about that the Israelites in the first reading were saved when they gazed upon the bronze serpent? Your guess is probably as good as mine. Still, although we may not understand the exact mechanics of it, many of us will probably have had some experience of how an object like a bronze serpent can be relied upon to bring healing or good luck or protection against evil spirits. The practice is prevalent in many other religions. Some of the Chinese among us, for example, will have encountered the practice of wearing amulets – perhaps containing something blessed by a temple medium – for the same purposes. Taoist families, for example, also sometimes hang an octagonal shaped mirror above the front door. And many Catholics do the same with crucifixes and images of the Sacred Heart. We use medals, religious images and other sacramentals as they are called. In my own personal devotions, I too make use of sacred images and statues, rosary beads and crucifixes, candles and even incense.

But isn’t it interesting to ponder over how such objects work? Do they actually repel evil spirits? Do they actually bring healing to the sick, prosperity and good fortune to the needy? If so, how? And how do we use them? How do we avail of their power? Do they serve as talismans for us, the way they seem to do for others? Is it sufficient simply to hang a blessed object around one’s neck or above the front door or around the rearview mirror of one’s car?

Thankfully, at least for those of us who are Christian, today’s feast and its accompanying readings help us to deepen our reflection on how sacramentals are meant to work – from where their power comes, and how we avail ourselves of it. Clearly, however finely crafted or precious its material, the power does not come from the object itself. And even though it probably does make a difference to our sense of devotion, neither does the holy object’s efficacy depend so much on how holy is the person who blesses it or how many prayers are said or how much holy water is used. For us who are Christian, all power for our salvation comes to us from God through the Cross of Christ. That is the meaning of the feast we celebrate today: the exaltation of the Holy Cross. To be more precise, the power comes not so much from the cross itself, as it does from what it symbolizes, from the meaning, the event, to which it points. The power comes from the fact that he who shared God’s nature actually emptied himself, humbled himself by accepting death, and as a result, was raised by God, and given the name that is above every name. God sent his Son into the world… so that through him the world might be saved.

What happens then, when we gaze upon a crucifix or the image of the Sacred Heart, or finger a rosary bead, or light a candle before a statue of a saint? Are we not somehow accessing the power of Christ’s dying and rising, appropriating it for ourselves as well as for those for whom we pray? And in order to do this, a kind of submission needs to take place in us, a kind of faith-inspired trusting in the power of Christ, the power signified and mediated by the holy object. This submission is expressed not only in the use of the object, but also in the way in which we live our lives from day to day. In other words, whether or not a sacred object works depends also on how we use it, on the faith with which we gaze upon it.

How do we gaze upon the cross today?

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Thursday in the 23rd Week of Ordinary Time (I)
Memorial of St. John Chrysostom, Bishop and Doctor of the Church
Loving the Enemies Within

Readings: Colossians 3:12-17; Psalms 150:1b-2, 3-4, 5-6; Luke 6:27-38

If love is the one sure standard by which we can gauge the level of our commitment to Christ, then how we treat our enemies is the test of the authenticity of our love. This is perhaps the most difficult aspect of being Christian. Yet, it is also the very thing that should set us apart from sinners. As Jesus says in the gospel today: if you love those who love you, what thanks can you expect? …

Part of the difficulty, at least for me, lies in first identifying one’s enemies. Otherwise, how to love them? Sometimes, the tendency is perhaps to think of one’s enemies in rather extreme terms. So we may think that an enemy must be someone who actually sets out, with malicious motives, to harm us, or those whom we love. Of course, there is no shortage of such people in our world. And yet, isn’t it possible, and even likely, that there will be some of us who have been fortunate enough never to have met someone like that? There are some of us who may never have been cheated, or mugged, or backstabbed, or sabotaged. Even if we were to take as our model the crucified Christ, forgiving his persecutors even as he hangs on the cross, we might think that we have never quite been crucified so terribly, and so never been called upon to forgive our enemies the way he did, and continues to do.

But, even if we don’t have enemies who actually crucify us, are there not people in our lives who nail us to crosses of different kinds: crosses of boredom and monotony, of fatigue and neglect, of misunderstanding and indifference, of ingratitude and lack of support? Even if the thought never quite enters our minds that they may be our enemies, doesn’t it often seem just as challenging to continue loving them, as it does to forgive someone who has actually done us harm?

Indeed, doesn’t it sometimes seem even more difficult to love such people because – unlike those enemies in the strict sense, whom we might see only seldom – they are likely to be people whom we meet regularly. They may even be members of our immediate family, the one sharing the same room, the people living next door, the person seated at the adjacent desk, the parishioner in the next pew, the very ones we are trying to help…

Faced with people such as these, especially people within our own circle, it is truly difficult to continue living up to our vocation as Christians, to continue to bear with one another, to continue to forgive each other, to teach each other and learn from each other... And yet, that is what we are called to do. And that is what St. John Chrysostom, the saint we commemorate today, continued to do, despite being twice exiled by the Emperor for his troubles. And, as we are reminded in the first reading, the way to do this is first to recall that the Lord has forgiven you. Again, even though we did not actually and maliciously nail Christ to the cross, by our sins, we were included among his enemies. Yet he loved us, even unto death, and freed us to become members of his Body. It is in this way, in recalling this experience of being forgiven, that we allow ourselves to be moved with gratitude, and to seek the grace of loving even our enemies.

How are we being called to do this today?

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Wednesday in the 23rd Week of Ordinary Time (I)
Blessed Poverty

Readings: Colossians 3:1-11; Psalms 145:2-3, 10-11, 12-13ab; Luke 6:20-26

Once again I find myself in a country where poverty is too real to ignore, where street children accost you on the streets as you emerge from a restaurant or bookstore. Just as real too is the high crime rate. Just yesterday, we were reminded not to resist if we were ever unfortunate enough to encounter a mugger. Of course, crime is not restricted to those who are poor, not by a long stretch. Today’s front page of the local newspaper carries the picture of a former president, already an ex-convict, who currently faces the specter of having to spend more time in prison. Still, one cannot deny the close relationship between poverty and crime.

How then to make sense of Jesus’ words in the gospel of today? Blessed are you who are poor… you who are now hungry… you who are now weeping… Can one really be considered blessed even when driven by poverty to commit armed robbery? What exactly is the poverty that is being commended? It's not an easy question to answer, not least because while the equivalent passage in Matthew’s gospel includes a qualification -- blessed are the poor in spirit… -- Luke’s version is more blunt. Yet, we may well wonder if it then follows that everyone who is materially poor is necessarily blessed.

The first reading comes to our aid. What is the kind of poverty – whether material or spiritual – that attracts God’s blessing? What are its characteristics and effects? From the letter to the Colossians, we might infer that blessed poverty helps to put to death the parts of us that are earthly: immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and the greed that is idolatry. Blessed poverty leads us – in our all our thoughts, words and actions – to seek what is above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God, even if we have to suffer as a result. Blessed poverty leads us to work towards true communion: Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcision and uncircumcision, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all and in all.

Is it easier to acquire this kind of blessed poverty if one were actually materially poor? Perhaps. Is it far more difficult if one were materially wealthy? Probably. Doesn’t Jesus say as much (see Luke 18:25)? Still, whatever our financial situation, each and all of us are called to the same blessed poverty, the kind that enables us continually to move away from the discord born of greed to the communion that comes from hearts centered on Christ.

How blessedly poor are we today?

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Tuesday in the 23rd Week of Ordinary Time (I)
Which Gospel?

Readings: Colossians 2:6-15; Psalms 145:1b-2, 8-9, 10-11; Luke 6:12-19

The twelve apostles chosen by Jesus are not always portrayed in a positive light in the gospels. Especially in Mark’s gospel, for example, they are presented as rather slow and even dimwitted. They simply cannot grasp the truth and significance of the One who had called them. In particular, they cannot comprehend that Jesus, the Christ, the Anointed One, the Messiah, had to suffer (Luke 24:26). All of Jesus’ predictions of his Passion seem to fall upon death ears. Even so, in spite of their lack of understanding, we know that of the twelve apostles, only one actually betrayed Jesus, only one, Judas Iscariot, actually makes a definitive break from the Way marked out for them by Jesus. Although Peter denies Jesus three times, and although all the others, except perhaps for John, run away, they somehow come back to the Lord.

We don’t really know for sure what prompted Judas to become a traitor. The scholars have different opinions. Recently, for example, the controversy surrounding the so-called Gospel of Judas has fueled the argument that Judas was actually the privileged one among the apostles. He was actually asked by Jesus to help him fulfill his mission by betraying him. But this must surely be an unorthodox view, at least in the church, not least because it runs counter to what we find in the NT. Even so, the scriptures don’t quite settle the issue of Judas' motivations. Within limits, different opinions are possible. In one movie on the life of Christ, for example, Judas is portrayed as being disillusioned with Jesus for not being more militant, for not organizing an uprising to drive out the Romans and to restore the land to the Jewish people.

Whatever the particular reason might be, it is not unlikely that it had something to do with what we are warned against in the first reading today: Make sure that no one traps you and deprives you of your freedom by some second-hand, empty, rational philosophy based on the principles of this world instead of on Christ. It’s not too far fetched to imagine that Judas was so scandalized by Jesus’ preaching of the centrality of the cross that he actually responded with betrayal. Of course, the specific philosophy that the writer to the Colossians is referring to is a matter for the scholars to determine. But even if we are not scholars, can we not still identify the various empty, rational philosophies based on the principles of this world that are prevalent in our own day and that are still so capable of leading us to betray Christ?

Isn’t it tempting to believe, for example, in the so-called prosperity gospel that is being popularized in certain Christian circles today? Especially when one gazes with admiration and even envy at the many people getting rich in a booming economy, isn’t it easy to be seduced by the notion that following Christ will necessarily bring us the same kind of wealth that they enjoy? Isn’t it tempting to ignore Jesus’ words regarding the blessing that is due to the poor and the need to deny oneself, to take up one’s cross and to follow him?

Whatever the specific reason for Judas’ betrayal of Jesus, the issue highlights for us the need to remain true to the gospel of Christ, and to be wary of any other gospel, especially those that seem to offer us a way to happiness that bypasses the cross.

Which gospel do we believe in?

Monday, September 10, 2007

Monday in the 23rd Week of Ordinary Time (I)
Joyful Effort

Readings: Colossians 1:24–2:3; Psalms 62:6-7, 9; Luke 6:6-11

Love is effortful
. So says the late M. Scott Peck, the psychiatrist and author of the best-selling book The Road Less Traveled. I’m not sure what you think of this insight. But I wouldn’t be surprised if many of us were to respond with a collective groan or sigh. Of course, love is indeed effortful. Who can deny it? Love is less about romance than it is about commitment. To love is to commit one’s time and resources, and indeed one’s very self, to the beloved. We know that.

And our readings for today confirm the insight. We notice, for example, what the author of the letter to the Colossians goes through in order to achieve his aim of binding his readers together in love. He speaks frequently of having to struggle and to struggle wearily on… Jesus doesn’t seem to have it any easier in the gospel. His healing love for the man with the withered hand as well as for the scribes and Pharisees is met with misunderstanding and furious rejection. Yes, in the scriptures too, love is effortful.

But does being reminded of this fact make it any easier to love? Does it provide us with the energy we need, for example, to remain faithful to a spouse who is consistently absent – physically and emotionally – from the family home? Does it lighten the burden of the one who silently bears the implicit responsibility of caring for aged and ailing parents while her siblings raise their own respective families?

Which is why it’s important to notice something else about our readings and how love is portrayed in them today. For in addition to highlighting the effortful character of love, the readings also speak to us of love’s mysterious power. Quite amazingly, for example, in the midst of his struggles, the author of the first reading can actually write these stunning words: it makes me happy to suffer for you, as I am suffering now… Strangely, although love clearly places a burden on him, it is equally undeniable that love also provides him with the energy he needs to bear this burden with joy. And the source of strength by which he struggles wearily on is nothing less than the power of Christ driving him irresistibly. Moreover, not only is this the same power that Jesus manifested in the synagogue two thousand years ago, but it is also the same power that the crucified and risen One makes available to us even today. As we are reminded in the first reading: the mystery is Christ among you…

Our readings today do not simply remind us once again of our obligations and commitments. More importantly, they also encourage us to keep searching for and to remain connected to the power of Christ among us, the same power that helps us bear the burden of love with hearts filled with joy.

How might we seek and find this power today?

Sunday, September 09, 2007

23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)
Mellowing unto Renunciation and Discipleship

Readings: Wisdom 9:13-18b; Psalm 90:3-4, 5-6, 12-13, 14-17; Phmn 9-10, 12-17; Luke 14:25-33

Someone commented at breakfast this morning that these are difficult readings today. And indeed they are. Especially in a modern Asian context, where the family is as much valued as it is under threat, how are we to understand Jesus’ stunning declaration in the gospel: if anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple? Do we really have to renounce all earthly ties in order to follow Jesus?

As is often the case, the other readings come to our aid by helping to give some direction to our reflection. And the aid comes through an old man. To be more specific, we refer to Paul in the second reading. Here he is trying to engineer the freedom of a slave, Onesimus, who also happens to be a fellow Christian. But here is a Paul who adopts a noticeably different tone than what we may be used to hearing from him. In contrast to some other places in his letters, here is a Paul who actually begs more than he scolds. Could he be mellowing with age? And not just with age, but perhaps also with the experience of being a prisoner for Christ?

I’m reminded of another recent mealtime conversation, in this case, over dinner. Among those at table was an eighty-year-old priest, who also happens to be a famous theologian. At one point he spoke of how, when he was younger, he had been an ardent preacher and supporter of the social gospel. He shared that he had even gone onto the streets in his cassock to be with the people as together they protested the dictatorship that was then in power. And they had succeeded. The dictator had eventually been overthrown – a wonderful triumph of and for the people, one that the church had helped to engineer. But, sadly, he did not think that things were that much different now. He spoke painfully of how, although the personalities might have changed, the unjust structures remained. Indeed, he thinks that injustice and corruption are present now on a scale even greater than before.

What are we to make of our elderly friend’s sharing? Are we to think that perhaps the passing of the years without any perceived improvement in the state of his beloved nation has led to disillusionment? Or is there not rather a certain mellowing that age, experience and sacrifice have brought about, a mellowing not unlike that which we see in the Paul of the second reading?

For the point of the theologian’s sharing is not that the church should renounce all attempts at battling injustice, at changing social structures, at working for the good of others. No. All that work is, of course, important, and must go on. But the point our wise friend was making was, I believe, two-fold. First, although it is important to work for social justice, the church’s primary mission has to do less with the change of structures than with the transformation of hearts. Without the latter, any external changes can only be temporary and cosmetic. And this leads on to a second point.

Which of us, on our own, has the necessary resources and talents and skills to bring about the required interior transformation? In undertaking such a project, do we not instead need to remember those poignant and profound words of Christ in the gospel of John (15:5): without me you can do nothing? As Christians, even as we might rely on every possible earthly resource at our disposal, our trust and our hope must ultimately be in the One who not only preached and healed, but also suffered and died, so that our hearts might be changed and so that we might all have the fullness of life.

As precious and important as our earthly resources and relationships, and even our dreams of an earthly heaven are, they all find their true value only in Christ who must come first, above all dreams and things and people. Such that, if given a choice between Christ and father or mother, wife or child, our answer must be the former, even if we have somehow to suffer as a result. Isn’t this what Jesus means in the gospel, when he says whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple?

Of course, such a renunciation of all that we hold dear with an accompanying embrace of the cross is far from easy. It calls for a wisdom that often seems to come to us only very gradually. Is it any accident that these insights are those of an aged theologian who has mellowed with the passing of the years? When we are younger do we not tend to have greater confidence, whether or not it is rightly placed, in our own ability to change things and people? Doesn’t this make renunciation that much more difficult?

And yet, the determining factor is perhaps not so much age as it is an openness to the wisdom that comes from God. As we heard in the first reading today, who ever knew your counsel, except you had given wisdom, and sent your holy spirit from on high? And thus were the paths of those on earth made straight. It is only with this wisdom that we can grasp the true value of all that we do. It is only with this wisdom that we can see how central is Christ and his Cross, more so even than our closest relatives, our dearest possessions, our deepest desires and dreams…

Which is why our psalm today is so appropriate. It gives us the words with which to pray for what we need: Lord teach us to number our days aright -- to see things in proper perspective -- that we may gain wisdom of heart…

Today, sisters and brothers, we pray that through our respective life experiences God might also cause us to mellow unto a true discipleship of Christ.

How is God bringing this about in us today?

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary
Out of Murky Waters

Readings: Micah 5:1-4a or Romans 8:28-30; Psalms 13:6ab, 6c; Matthew 1:1-16, 18-23 or 1:18-23

Recently, while on retreat, I found myself sitting on a bench by a pond in the Botanic Gardens. Several photographers came by, one after another. They all looked quite professional, with bulky camera bags slung over their shoulders and carrying sophisticated-looking equipment, including telephoto lenses and tripods. As they passed, each of them took some time to carefully photograph something in the pond. When they had gone, I walked over for a closer look. It turned out to be a flower, a lily of some sort, I think. It was very pretty. Quite a contrast to the murky waters out of which it grew.

This is the image that comes to mind as we celebrate Mary's birthday today. Most of us, especially those who are Catholic, will need little reminder about who Mary is and her importance in our life of faith. Her appearances in the scriptures are as few as they are significant. In particular, it is her yes at the Annunciation (Luke 1:26ff.) that allows the Divine Word to take flesh and dwell among us. All this we know. Yet, our readings for this feast focus not so much on the beauty and purity of Mary as they do upon the shadowy background with which she is associated and out of which was born for us the great Saviour who is Christ the Lord.

Consider the long genealogy in the gospel. No doubt, we will recognize the names of many heroic and saintly figures of the OT, names such as Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, Ruth and David and Solomon. But this family history is far from pristine. It also includes, for example, those who, prompted by jealousy, sold their own brother into slavery. It includes the one who murdered a loyal general in order to conceal his own adultery. It includes kings who became idolaters and even a prostitute. No, the waters of the pond that is the genealogy of Christ are far from clear. And yet, out of these murky waters, blooming like a lily that attracts many to gaze in wonder at her beauty, we find Mary and her Son.

This marvellous sight speaks to us of the power of God who, as Paul reminds us in the letter to the Romans, is able to make all things work for good for those who love him, God who is able to bring light out of darkness and beauty out of disfigurement, who is able to write straight with crooked lines. It is this powerful compassion of God that we celebrate today, as we remember the birth of the one whom Wordsworth called our tainted nature's solitary boast.

I find this a most consoling thought. For doesn't the chequered past of Christ's family remind us too of the often shadowy aspects of our own lives: the ongoing tensions in our world and our communities, the deep dark secrets hidden in our respective family closets, our own ongoing struggles with sinful tendencies...? Our celebration today offers us reassurance that the pain and embarrassment that these might cause us need not lead us to despair. It reminds us not to give up but to keep on struggling, to keep on hoping, to keep on trusting in the one who delights in making lilies grow out of murky waters...

How might we continue to do this today?

Friday, September 07, 2007

Friday in the 22nd Week of Ordinary Time (I)
He Da Man!

Readings: Colossians 1:15-20; Psalms 100:1b-2, 3, 4, 5; Luke 5:33-39

It may just be a sign of having reached a certain age (sort of like when one starts needing reading glasses), but some time ago I began having trouble understanding some modern colloquial usages in the English language. For instance, take the phrase You da man! Or another variation: You da main man! What does it mean? Is it meant to be derogatory or a compliment? According to Wikipedia, while the term the man can be used with both good and bad connotations, in more modern usage, it can be a superlative compliment indicating that the subject is currently standing out amongst his peers even though they have (sic) no special designation or rank...

We preface our reflection today with this brief note on slang, because the phrase in question summarizes very aptly what today's readings are all about. As we have had occasion to note in the past, our daily existence in this world can be filled with much struggle. Whereas we seek tranquility and peace, we often find only pain and suffering. And, especially for us who profess belief in a God who is all-powerful and all-loving, these experiences provoke the painful and angst-filled question: why?! Why does God allow these things to happen? Various answers are possible, answers which can then become the different ways we use to cope with painful reality.

If, for example, we believe that the fault lies in us, that we suffer because we have been bad, then we may cope with the pain by remaining in a perpetual state of guilt. And we may try our best to do things to assuage our guilt, to purify ourselves, to make ourselves more worthy of God's love. Like the scribes and Pharisees of today's gospel, our whole spiritual life can centre around the pious practices -- including prayer and fasting -- that we undertake to achieve this. Or, we may also react by trying not to think too deeply, but just to focus on getting on with our lives, on moving continually from one task to another. Different though they may be, these responses are similar in that, in each of them, the focus remains only on us and on our own efforts.

But our readings today offer a radically different approach. They remind us that to the question why?! God really only offers one answer. Ultimately, for us who are Christian, Jesus is the only adequate response -- God's response -- to all the difficulties that beset us, all the questions that trouble us. For, in the beautiful words of the letter to the Colossians, in him all the fullness was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile all things for him, making peace by the Blood of his cross through him, whether those on earth or those in heaven.

If this is true, then the Christian's first reaction to the questions that this world might provoke in us is to look to Jesus, da man. And can we not but be reminded here of that poignant scene in John 19:5? After Jesus has been scourged and mocked, Pontius Pilate exhorts the onlookers in these words: ecce homo (behold the man!). Are our readings not inviting us to do the same? Do they not invite us, in good times and in bad, to continually gaze upon Jesus, to contemplate his life, death and rising? Instead of letting Jesus be only a peripheral concern in our life, like a piece of scrap sown onto patchwork quilt, are we not being exhorted to acknowledge Jesus as da main man, the bridegroom, the one who makes all things new (see Rev. 21:5)?

How might we continue to allow Jesus to be da man for us today?

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Wednesday in the 22nd Week of Ordinary Time (I)
What We Were Sent to Do…

Readings: Colossians 1:1-8; Psalms 52:10, 11; Luke 4:38-44

Probably not too many of us will have experienced having crowds of people clamouring for our attention the way Jesus does in the gospel. We are told that at sunset all those who had friends suffering from diseases… brought them to him… And even at the crack of dawn, the crowds went to look for him… Whether it was day or night, people couldn’t seem to leave Jesus alone.

But even if we may not have to face the same crowds as Jesus did, it’s probably more than likely that each one of us will have the experience of having the various people in our lives make different demands upon us, upon our limited resources of time and energy. And one cannot meet all these demands at once. To say yes to one often means having to say no or later to another. And the simple policy of first come first served doesn’t always work either. What if the one who comes second has a more urgent need than the first? Or what if the one who comes third is a close relative? Amidst the chaos of daily living, one often has to choose among the different demands that others make upon us, as Jesus does today. How Jesus does this is instructive.

As is often highlighted in Luke’s gospel, Jesus goes to a lonely place and prays. Even (especially?) when the crowds are large and the needs are many, Jesus takes a time out. For him, prayer is clearly less of an obligation than it is a necessity. The gospel makes this clear to us because not only does it tell us about the fact that Jesus prays, but it also gives us some insight into the effect of his prayer, as well as its likely content. Jesus’ prayer helps him to decide what to do in the midst of the various demands that others are placing upon him. Finally, he decides to leave, even though the crowds urge him to stay. But what Jesus decides is probably less important than the criterion he invokes: that is what I was sent to do. In order to make a decision about how to respond to the needs of others, Jesus takes time to converse with the Father, and to recall who he is and what he was sent to do. And this time out results in a decision that is as wise as it is difficult. As a result, we see the beginnings of the process described in the first reading and that continues today: the Good News… is spreading all over the world…

In the hurly burly of our own daily existence, it is too easy to be distressed and distracted by the various demands that others place upon us. What steps do we take to recall, at least from time to time, who we are and what we were sent to do?

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Tuesday in the 22nd Week of Ordinary Time (I)
Shining to Avoid the Final Overtaking

Readings: 1 Thessalonians 5:1-6, 9-11; Psalms 27:1, 4, 13-14; Luke 4:31-37

It’s not usually a good feeling to be overtaken suddenly while driving, especially not if the culprit cuts in too close for comfort. Your heart skips a beat. You feel the impulse to slam on the brakes to avoid an accident, and perhaps even to sound the horn. But your reactions are often far too late. The cause of your distress has already sped on to who knows where, oblivious to your pounding heart and cursing lips. All you can do, as you slowly recover from the shock, is to wonder angrily to yourself why people can’t signal their intentions well in advance before filtering into another lane.

This type of experience gives us some indication of what it might feel like when the Day of the Lord comes. As Paul reminds the Thessalonians, it will be sudden and shocking, like a thief in the night, worse than being overtaken on the highway. But Paul also offers some important words of consolation. Sudden though it may be, the Lord’s second coming need not overtake us like a thief. For unlike those inconsiderate drivers who cause us so much grief on the roads, God’s intention is not to scare and harass us. In Paul’s words, God never meant us to experience the Retribution, but to win salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ…

And this insight is borne out in the gospel. Here, if there is indeed one who has the unpleasant experience of being overtaken, it’s the spirit of the unclean devil that Jesus casts out. We notice the anguished shouting: have you come to destroy us? In contrast, the possessed man benefits from Jesus’ ministry. We are told that the devil went out of him without hurting him at all. Jesus rescues the man out of darkness and brings him into the light. And this too is our experience as Christians. Again, as Paul reminds the Thessalonians, and us as well: You are sons of light and daughters of day…

If we have indeed already allowed Jesus to enlighten us, and if we continue to remain in His light, then there is no danger of being overtaken. But first, we must live like children of the light. We must allow the light that has been entrusted to us in Christ to shine out in all its brilliance, so that others too might share in the warmth of its radiance and escape the terror of that final overtaking. For the same authority that was the Lord’s, with which he impressed so many in the gospel, has also been entrusted to us (see Matthew 28:18-20).

How are we being called to shine out today?

Monday, September 03, 2007

Monday in the 22nd Week of Ordinary Time (I)
Memorial of St. Gregory the Great, Pope and Doctor of the Church
The Poverty that Accepts Good News

Readings: 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; Psalms 96:1 and 3, 4-5, 11-12, 13; Luke 4:16-30

Do you want the good news first or the bad news? We’ve probably heard this question being asked either of us or of others. Whichever way it’s answered the obvious implication is that it’s easier to receive the good news than the bad. The only question is whether you wish to do the easy thing first or the difficult. But is it really that easy to accept good news? Not if today’s readings are anything to go by.

We notice that words of consolation are spoken in both readings. To the Thessalonians, Paul shares an insight into the glorious fate that awaits all those who have died in Jesus. So that instead of despairing, those left behind should comfort one another with the thought that they will all finally be reunited and will stay with the lord forever. Likewise, to the Nazarenes in the gospel, Jesus proclaims a moving passage from the prophet Isaiah (61:1ff.), one that offers good news to the poor, news of how God will free all from the bondage of sin and death, news of the Lord’s year of favour, when God will forgive all and accept all into God’s kingdom. And this proclamation comes to its climax when, after the reading, Jesus says: this text is being fulfilled today…

We don’t know for sure how Paul’s message was received. But the gospel makes it clear that Jesus’ words infuriated his listeners so much that they actually tried to kill him. Why was it so difficult for the Nazarenes to receive Jesus’ message, to accept the good news of God’s acceptance of them? Obviously, Jesus’ familiarity seems to have presented a problem. Could such an ordinary person, whose background they all knew, really be God’s messenger? Even so, it does seem that the Nazarenes would probably still have accepted Jesus if he had chosen to play by their rules, if he had spoken only about things that they wished to hear. But Jesus did otherwise. He chose instead to scandalize his listeners by speaking of a God who accepts all, Jew and Gentile alike. No special treatment for the people of Israel, let alone for the fellow townsfolk of Jesus. Aren’t these the things that made the good news so difficult to accept? Not only was the messenger too ordinary, but the scope of the message itself was also too shockingly wide to be true.

Is it any easier for us to accept the good news of Christ? Not just the good news of what God has done for us in the past or will do in the future, but also especially what God is doing today? Don’t God’s chosen messengers often seem too ordinary to be authentic? And isn’t the message of God’s merciful and compassionate acceptance of all people often too radical to accept? Could God really welcome that problematic relative, or that unreasonable boss? To receive such good news is hard. For it necessitates that we learn to accept not only the sinfulness of others, but also our own. It requires that we be ready to revise our opinions, surrender our prejudices. It means that we have to learn, in some sense, to be poor. For it is to such as these that the good news is addressed.

Which do you prefer, the good news or the bad?

Sunday, September 02, 2007

22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)
Preparing for the Party

Readings: Sirach 3:17-18, 20, 28-29; Psalm 68:4-5, 6-7, 10-11; Hebrews 12:18-19, 22-24a; Luke 14:1, 7-14

Sisters and brothers, it’s quite easy to miss the point of today’s readings. Certainly, we will not be too far off the mark if we were to think that it has something to do with humility. As we heard in the first reading just now: the greater you are the more you should behave humbly. And Jesus reinforces this message in the gospel, when he speaks about the importance of taking the lowest place.

But isn’t it possible to follow Jesus’ instructions literally, but for less than honourable reasons? For example, isn’t it possible for us to choose to sit at an inconspicuous spot at a party simply because we don’t really want to talk to the other people who are there, or because we don’t want to be called upon to help in the serving? Worse still, isn’t it also possible for us to deliberately choose the lowest place only so that we can enjoy the feeling of having others see us promoted? Is this subtly manipulative sort of behaviour really what humility is all about? Or is this not rather a thinly veiled egotism, a false humility that seeks to draw attention to itself through reverse psychology?

What then is Jesus talking about? What does he mean? Here is where we need to pay attention to the setting of the gospel story. Finding himself at a party on the Sabbath day, Jesus uses what he sees in his physical surroundings to speak about spiritual realities. His words about the proper conduct at a feast are not meant to be taken literally. As the gospel tells us, they are meant as a parable.

Despite all appearances to the contrary, Jesus is not a self-help guru. He is not a writer of those ever-popular how-to books. You know, books such as that old classic: How to Win Friends and Influence People. Jesus’ concern in the gospel is not to teach his listeners how to secure places of honour for themselves at every party they attend. Instead, his desire is that everyone might be able to find a place at the most important party of all, the final wedding feast thrown in his honour in the kingdom of his Father. In the words of the second reading, this party into which Jesus is teaching his listeners to gain entry is nothing known to the senses. Instead, he is teaching them, and he is teaching us, the way to Mount Zion and the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem where millions of angels have gathered for the festival… Jesus is teaching us how to get into the heavenly banquet.

The first thing to realize, and this is probably where humility begins, is that there is really nothing we can do to make ourselves worthy of being invited to this party. Our attendance here is a privilege that God our Divine Host delights in according us. Here, unlike even some of the major celebrations and processions in church, we don’t need to jostle with others for the best places. Neither do we need to camp out in the rain for several days to get in. For, again, as the second reading tells us, here every one of us is a first-born son and a citizen of heaven. Here we do not perfect ourselves. Here we simply need to humbly accept God’s invitation to join the ranks of the saints who have been made perfect. And Jesus teaches us the way to do this, the way to gain entry, the way to accept the invitation. We become honoured guests at this heavenly party by taking the lowest place. But what does this mean?

Again, the second reading is instructive. It tells us that this party is a celebration of a new covenant of which Jesus is the mediator. If we want to know what it means to take the lowest place, we need to look to him. We need to follow him. We need to imitate him. And, in the gospels, Jesus teaches us not only through his words but, more importantly, also through his actions. Jesus himself takes the lowest place, the place of the suffering servant. He does this by preaching and also by healing. We notice, for example, how in the passage left out of the gospel story for today, Jesus heals a man with dropsy on the Sabbath, and suffers the consequences of his actions. But even more significantly, we need to remember too that Jesus’ work of healing is only an expression of a deeper reconciliation that he is in the process of bringing about in the gospel today, and at great cost to himself. We need to remember, for example, that the gospel story takes place while Jesus is journeying to Jerusalem and all that awaits him there. So that when he speaks about taking the lowest place, Jesus is also referring to what he himself is doing. He, the beloved and only-begotten Son of the Father, humbles himself even unto death, so that we might all be granted seats of honour at his party.

How then are we to imitate Jesus? How then are we to be humble and to take the lowest place? The answer will be different for each one of us. As we said at the beginning, the first reading tells us that the greater you are, the more you should behave humbly. And Jesus gives us some indication of what this might mean in each case. One becomes an honoured guest at the final feast in the Father’s kingdom by first learning to be a good host here in this world. One must take the lowest place by serving those who are least able to return the favour. For Jesus, these are the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind… In other words, these are the people on the margins of society, the people who most need our help. Again, exactly who we help and how we help them will depend on our particular circumstances. We may be called to reach out to people as far away as Africa or as nearby as the room next door in our own home. But in each case, it will involve us learning to lower ourselves in humble service, learning to be generous hosts to those most in need, as Jesus did for our sakes.

This then, sisters and brothers, is the meaning of humility that our readings present to us today. This is the way for us to secure our respective places in the heavenly kingdom. This is what we need to do to prepare for the party.

How prepared are you?