Friday, December 26, 2008

Christmas Day (Readings for Mass at Midnight)
The Cavalry in the Child

Readings: Isaiah 9:1-6; Psalm 96: 1-2, 2-3, 11-12, 13; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-14
Picture: CC luvsbooks

Sisters and brothers, just before the 8:30 Mass last night, I received an email from a relative, asking for prayers for her father. He’s in the hospital with internal bleeding. And the doctors have yet to discover the source of the bleed. My relative said that she is both worried and scared. She also said that somehow it doesn’t feel like Christmas even though it is. Have you ever had a similar experience: that it doesn’t feel like Christmas even though it is? I suspect that the feeling is more common than we might think. And, with the global economy in its current state, we might expect the experience to be even more common this year.

But what does Christmas really feel like? What situations and emotions do we usually – habitually, and almost unconsciously – associate with Christmas? One of the things that come to my mind, of course, is a childhood memory of desperately waiting for Midnight Mass to be over so that I could rush home to open the presents under the tree. Of course, we will all have our own cherished memories of Christmas, of family and friends, of church and carols. And, for the most part, these will be pleasant memories, warm and cozy memories, memories that fill our hearts with song. But is that really all there is to Christmas? When we listen to our scripture readings today, for example, what kind of experiences, what sort of images do we find?

I don’t know about you, but the image that our readings bring to my mind today is one from the old Westerns. You’re probably familiar with it. The pioneers are happily moving west in their wagons, when they are suddenly attacked by Indians – or, to be more politically correct, Native Americans. Immediately, they circle their wagons and try to hold off the fierce aggressors. But, being both outnumbered and outgunned, they don’t stand a chance. The casualties mount. Resistance seems useless. The end is imminent. Then, just in the nick of time, they hear the welcome sound of a bugle call. The cavalry is here! The attackers are driven off. The pioneers are rescued. There is great relief and much rejoicing all round.

We find a similar situation in our readings don’t we? There is an initial experience of oppression, danger and despair. The first reading tells us of a people who walked in darkness. And this situation is mirrored in the gospel, where Joseph and Mary are among those laboring under foreign occupation. Even though Mary is with child, they have to undertake an arduous journey for the sake of a census. But then something happens. Much more than a bugle call, we find instead a wondrous angelic proclamation, a multitude of the heavenly host… praising God and announcing that a savior has been born for you who is Christ the Lord... The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light… And as a result, there is much relief and great rejoicing. The cavalry is here!

What does this tell us about Christmas, sisters and brothers? What do we learn, if not that the true feeling of Christmas, the great joy that the Christ-child brings, is something that is rescued from the jaws of danger and despair. The joy of Christmas is meant precisely for those who, like my relative, find themselves worried and scared. It is to people such as these that God sends a message of rescue and of hope.

But still, the image of the cavalry’s arrival only gets us so far, doesn’t it? How are we to hear the bugle call when a loved one is desperately ill in hospital and the doctors can’t seem to find the cause? How are we to catch sight of the cavalry when our 401(K) investments are besieged by market forces and there is no rescue in sight? How are we to lift our spirits in joy and excitement when all we feel is the dull weight of anxiety and apprehension?

We have to admit that these are difficult questions, without easy answers. Even so, on this Christmas day, could our readings have something more to say about all this? Indeed they do. But we need to look more closely at the picture that they paint for us. For, although this picture is very similar, in some respects, to the one in the old Westerns, it is also different in very significant ways. And it is to these differences that we need to pay close attention.

First, notice what happens to the shepherds upon receiving the angelic proclamation. Quite unlike the pioneers’ immediate positive response to the bugle call, we are told that the shepherds were struck with great fear, a feeling with which we can all identify. It is a natural reaction to strange and unexpected events, events not unlike a sudden illness, whether physical or financial. Yet, to their credit, although the shepherds are afraid, they do not run away. They remain in conversation with the angel, at the precise location of their fear. And in doing this they find reassurance and guidance. They are told what to do. They are taught how to recognize the cavalry: this will be a sign for you… an infant… lying in a manger… Could this be what we are invited to do too, when we find ourselves feeling fearful at Christmas?

Which brings us to the second significant difference. This is something we know all too well. But often familiarity breeds ignorance. So we need to allow our readings to remind us yet again: the rescue we need so desperately, comes not so much as a deadly cavalry charge but rather in the form of a helpless infant, sharing a bed with animals in a cave, because there was no room for them in the inn. Could it be that to experience the true feeling of Christmas, we need to spend time gazing upon this infant – to see, in this child, not just the valiant charge of the cavalry, but also, especially, the selfless giving on the cross at Calvary?

There is also at least one more difference to consider. In the Westerns, what is highlighted is usually the dramatic and lightning-quick rescue brought about by the cavalry. The pioneers themselves don’t need to do too much. But the situation in our readings is rather different. Notice what we heard in the second reading about the effects of Christ’s coming. The grace of God has appeared, saving all and training us to reject godless ways and worldly desires… to cleanse for himself a people as his own, eager to do what is good. The cavalry rescues the pioneers all but instantaneously. But the child in the manger saves us by putting us through rigorous training. Could this training be what we need to experience the true joy of Christmas?

Of course, all this requires time. The move from fear to joy requires time. The recognition of the cavalry in the child requires time. The training that molds a people eager to do what is good requires time. Are we not fortunate, then, that Christmas doesn’t end with Christmas day, but continues throughout the Christmas season, until we celebrate the Baptism of the Lord on January 11? Won’t we need all this time to learn to experience the true feeling of Christmas?

Sisters and brothers, the bugle has indeed sounded! The cavalry is here! How are we being invited to deepen our Christmas joy today?

A blessed Christmas to one and all!

Sunday, December 21, 2008

4th Sunday of Advent (B)
Getting the Right Idea

Readings: 2 Samuel 7:1-5, 8b-12, 14a, 16; Psalm 89:2-3, 4-5, 27, 29; Romans 16:25-27; Luke 1:26-38

Sisters and brothers, I’m reminded today of a person, whom we will call Sam. Sam was browsing in Borders Bookstore one day, when a perfect stranger approached and said, Hi Honey! Now, there was no one else along that particular aisle at the time. What do you think was Sam’s reaction? What do you think went through Sam’s mind? Perhaps Sam remembered having heard or read somewhere that people don’t go to Borders simply to shop for books, but also to hook up with other people. And perhaps Sam was indignant at being accosted in this way. Perhaps Sam was even ready to turn around and give the bold stranger a telling off for being so forward. Thankfully, however, Sam took a moment to first look more closely at the offender. For it was only then that Sam noticed the little gadget sticking out of one of the stranger’s ears. Of course! The person wasn’t being rude. The person wasn’t even speaking to Sam. The person was greeting someone else, on the phone.

Have you ever had a similar experience? Isn’t it amazing how easy it is to get the wrong idea, how easy it is to allow what we see and hear to lead us to make certain wrong assumptions about what’s actually going on?

And isn’t it easy too to get the wrong idea about what Advent and Christmas are all about? Many of us find ourselves much busier than usual during this holiday season. There are gifts to be bought, trees to be trimmed, food to be prepared, decorations to be hung, cookies to be baked, cards to be written and sent… Where I live, for example, there are three Christmas trees – one in the reception area, one in the dining hall, and another in the living room. With all this busyness going on around us, it’s easy to go through the season thinking that Advent and Christmas are all about filling up space – space in our homes and on our streets, on our mantles and in our stockings.

To be fair, of course, not all of these activities are for our own enjoyment. There are those of us who also make a special effort, during this season, to give to charity. But still, don’t even worthy actions such as these often remain just another thing that we do, at Christmas, simply to fill up the spaces in our lives? I’m reminded of hearing, for example, a member of a charitable organization lamenting on National Public Radio the other day, that while there is a typical spike in contributions during the holiday season, in contrast, February and March are particularly difficult months, when the poor seem all but forgotten.

But if Advent and Christmas are not really about us filling up space, then what is it about? And if we are, indeed, so prone to getting the wrong idea, what can we do about it?

Perhaps we need to follow Sam’s example, and take a closer look. In particular, we need to examine carefully what the scriptures are telling us today. For in our first reading, we find someone else who is also prone to getting the wrong idea, someone no less than King David himself. Prior to the events of today’s reading, David has been very busy fighting wars and struggling and scheming for his own political survival. And, finally, we meet him today at the pinnacle of his power. We are told that he has settled into his house. He has subdued all his enemies and his seat on the throne is secure. He now has time on his hands. We might say that, after all the busyness, he suddenly finds an opening in his schedule. And how does he react? Rather quickly, he tries to find something else to do to fill up that empty space. He wants to be a master-builder. He proposes to construct a house for his God.

But God has other ideas. Instead of allowing David simply to continue engaging in yet another activity, even an activity for God’s benefit, God invites David to reflect more deeply on the true significance of all that has happened and is happening to him. God reminds David that it was never really only about him, about what he was doing for God, but it was instead about what God was doing for him, and through him, for the rest of the people. It wasn’t David who was filling up space, as much as it was God who was preparing a place for God’s people. It was God who was the divine Master-Builder.

It was I who took you from the pasture… to be commander of my people Israel…. I will fix a place for my people Israel; I will plant them so that they may dwell in their place without further disturbance…

And if it is God who is the Master-Builder, if it is God who seeks to fix a place for us in God’s kingdom, then what is our proper role? What is our proper response? What is the true significance of Advent and Christmas for us? More than simply a time for us to fill up space, this is primarily a season in which we make space – space in our hearts and in our lives – for God. And if, ultimately, it is God who is the one who builds, then the appropriate response for us is not that of King David in the first reading, but that of Mary in the gospel. Our proper role is not that of master-builder but that of handmaid.

Of course, Mary’s is not an easy role to play. The master-builder calls the shots. The handmaid only listens and obeys. The master-builder may enjoy the limelight and the acclaim. The handmaid is happy simply to remain in the background. As Paul tells the Romans in the second reading, not to us, but to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ be glory forever and ever.

And there is a further difference between the builder and the handmaid that makes the latter role a far more difficult one to play. Like those who contribute to charity only at Christmas, the builders among us can choose to give only particular portions of our time and resources. We can be satisfied with offering only whatever is convenient, whenever it’s convenient. But the handmaid is different. To be a handmaid is to give not just what one has, some of the time, but also all of who one is, all of the time. As we said of the Virgin Mary in the opening prayer, she placed her life at the service of God’s plan.

Isn’t this why we need this season of preparation? Like Mary, who took time to converse with the angel, and like Sam who took time to look closely at the stranger, we too need this season to consider carefully what is expected of us, to surface our doubts and anxieties, and to experience God reassuring and strengthening us. We need to do this so that we may obtain the courage and generosity to dedicate our lives ever more completely to God’s great construction project. We need this time to make space – in our hearts, in our lives, and in our world – so that Christ, the Living Temple of God, may once again be born among us.

Sisters and brothers, it is indeed easy to get the wrong idea. But how is God inviting us to look more carefully, and to make space more generously, for the Christ-child today?

Monday, December 15, 2008

3rd Sunday of Advent
Stay in Touch with the Light

Readings: Isaiah 61:1-2a, 10-11; Luke 1:46-48, 49-50, 53-54; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8, 19-28
Picture: LATimes Print Edition

Sisters and brothers, something about the main section of Friday’s LA Times caught my eye. You probably noticed it too. It was quite difficult to miss. A quick glance at the paper brought to view the usual slew of bad news. On the front page there was a report about how the recent Metrolink train crash was probably the result of bad decisions made by the company two decades ago that had gambled with passenger safety. On the same page, there was also news about how, in China, economic woes have led to increasing outbreaks of rioting and unrest. And, of course, the auto bailout had died in the Senate. Further on, on page 16, there was news that a meter reader in Orlando, Florida had found the grisly remains of a toddler, suspected to be those of 2 year old Caylee Marie Anthony, missing since June 15, and alleged to have been murdered by her very own mother. Like I said, it was the usual slew of bad news.

But in the midst of all this darkness, what caught my eye was the lone colored photograph on the front page. It was a photograph of an elderly Jewish man, planting a kiss on the cheek of a younger black man. It was the picture of 86-year old Marty Biegel, former history teacher and basketball coach at Fairfax High School in LA. And the man he was kissing was Darryl Brooks, a former player in Marty’s team. In the paper, Marty’s story took up the whole of page 20. It told of how, in a dark time of racial desegregation in the schools of LA, Marty had helped to build bridges between the races by welcoming black athletes into his gym. It was also about how these players had since become his friends for life, such that even to this day, Marty and his former players, black and white, continue to have regular get-togethers. It was a story of how one person was able to make a difference in the lives of others. It was a heartwarming story. You could feel your spirits lifting even as you read it. You felt happy. You felt like life was worth living, even in the face a slew of bad news. You noticed how the story in the paper ended with Marty telling his friends to please stay in touch. And you found yourself wishing you too could stay in touch with this person who had let his light shine out so brightly, yet so unobtrusively, in the midst of the darkness.

But what I found so amazing was that one could actually feel that way simply by reading the story of one person, even a person such as Marty Biegel. How marvelous it was that even a single story of someone who had let his light shine out in the darkness could actually lighten my heart on a Friday morning, when the rest of the news was threatening to plunge it into the depths of darkness.

And isn’t this very much like what our prayers and readings at today’s Mass are seeking to do for us today? We all know very well that times are bad – perhaps worse for some than for others. Everyone has their own story of woe, their own burdens to carry. Yet, in the midst of our experiences of darkness, both personal and communal, our attention is being drawn to a particular figure. It is a figure that we already met last Sunday. It is the figure of the voice crying out in the desert, make straight the way of the Lord.

As we may remember, last Sunday, what was emphasized in the message proclaimed by this voice was the call to repentance. We were invited to level the mountains and to fill in the valleys of our hearts, so that a smooth highway might be paved for the Lord’s coming.

Today, the message remains the same, but the emphasis has shifted. Even as we continue to heed the call to repentance, today the voice beckons us also to rejoice. As Paul tells the Thessalonians in the second reading: Rejoice always…. for this is the will of God for you…

But how are we to heed this call? How are we to rejoice, especially if we find ourselves engulfed in darkness of one form or another?

Much like Friday’s paper did with the story of Marty Biegel, our readings invite us, not just to listen to what the voice is telling us to do, but also to what it tells us about itself. We are invited to listen to its story. For not only does this voice tell us to rejoice, it also speaks to us of its own experience of rejoicing. As it tells us in the first reading, I rejoice heartily in the Lord, in my God is the joy of my soul; for he has clothed me with a robe of salvation and wrapped me in a mantle of justice…

Here, we find the first answer to our problem. The first secret to rejoicing in the darkness is to continue to look to the Lord for our joy, to recall the many things that the Lord has done and continues to do for us, not least the gift to us of Christ the only begotten Son, both in the stable at Bethlehem and on the mount of Calvary. Again, as Paul tells the Thessalonians in the second reading: in all circumstances give thanks…

But that is not all. Notice also what the voice says at the beginning of the first reading. Notice the strong sense of purpose. The spirit of the Lord God is upon me; he has sent me to bring glad tidings to the poor… And notice too, how, in the gospel, this same sense of purpose fills the mind and heart of John the Baptist. Like the one in the first reading, John also comes to testify to the light. And notice how this sense of purpose, this mission of testimony, gives John an enduring appreciation of his own proper identity. He is quite happy to tell the religious authorities that he is not the Christ. Indeed, he is quite happy to say that he is not worthy even to untie the sandal strap of Christ. Isn’t there something deeply liberating in this realization – that one is not the Christ? Knowing who we’re not frees us to be who we are meant to be, and to do that which we are called to do, to testify to the light.

The scriptures go on to show us at least one other secret to the art of rejoicing in the darkness. We caught a glimpse of it in the first reading, which speaks of how just as the earth brings forth its plants, and a garden makes its growth spring up, so will the Lord God make justice and praise spring up before all the nations. We saw it too in the second reading, where Paul assures the Thessalonians that the God of peace will keep them blameless for the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ. The secret is a firm hope in the fidelity of God – trusting that God will always remember God’s promise of mercy.

Gratitude, testimony and hope – these are some of the things we find when we listen carefully to the voice crying out in the desert. These are the means by which the voice rejoices, even as it continues to proclaim a message of consolation in the desolate wastelands of the desert.

And if, in this season of Advent, we were to continue to focus our attention on this voice, might it not happen, as it did with Marty Biegel and the LA Times, that we will find ourselves caught up in its joy, the same joy that endures even in the most desolate of deserts? Might we not find ourselves illuminated by the light that shines even in the darkest of nights? Might we not find ourselves desiring to heed Marty Biegel's parting words to us, to stay in touch with the light?

My sisters and brothers, on this 3rd Sunday of Advent, what reasons might we have to rejoice in the Lord today?

Sunday, December 07, 2008

2nd Sunday of Advent (B)
Cleaning the Coffee Machine

Readings: Isaiah 40:1-5, 9-11; Psalm 85:9-10-11-12, 13-14; 2 Peter 3:8-14; Mark 1:1-8
Picture: CC psd

My sisters and brothers, do you like coffee? I know many people do. Isn’t it a great feeling, when you find yourself stumbling sleepily, reluctantly, out of a warm bed, early in the morning, to have your senses pleasantly jolted awake by the fragrance of freshly brewed coffee? Have you ever felt that way? Or maybe it’s the middle of what is turning out to be a long and tiring day. There’s still much more to do, but already, you find your concentration drifting, your eyelids drooping. Again, isn’t it such a relief, isn’t it such a comfort, to be rescued from drowsiness by a steaming cup of coffee? Have you ever had a similar experience?

And yet, sisters and brothers, as much as many of us might enjoy our precious cup of joe, how many of us actually like to be the one to prepare it? I didn’t think so. As consoling as it is to be greeted by freshly brewed coffee, it’s often difficult to find the motivation to make it, especially if it’s the first pot of the day – that usually involves having to be the first one out of bed. And then, of course, you can’t make coffee without first cleaning out the coffee machine. Not only do you have to empty the coffee pot and wash it, you also have to throw out the used filter along with the damp and tired coffee grains contained in it. Not a very pleasant thing to do. Is it any wonder that Starbucks is still doing a roaring business even in the midst of a recession?

Still, whether we like it or not, it remains true that you can’t enjoy the consolation of coffee unless there’s someone willing to prepare it. And you can’t make a fresh batch of coffee without first cleaning out the coffee machine. Imagine how ridiculous it would be if someone were to try to make coffee using an un-cleaned machine – with some of the old coffee still in the pot, and the used grains in the filter? No, we all know this well: when it comes to coffee, the consolation comes only after the cleaning.

And the same principle applies in the spiritual life as well. Isn’t this what our Mass readings are reminding us? Isn’t this what the voice crying out in the desert is saying to us? Notice how all three readings today offer us the assurance that a great consolation is coming. In the first reading, we find this in the moving image of the shepherd, feeding his hungry flock, and tenderly gathering the weak and defenseless lambs into the warmth and security of his powerful but gentle arms. In the gospel, John the Baptist takes the place of the voice crying in the desert. And the One who is mightier than John fills the shoes of the shepherd. Just as in the first reading the shepherd comforts his sheep, so here in the gospel, we’re told that this mighty One who is coming will baptize with the Holy Spirit, the same Spirit that we received at our baptism. This is the Spirit who comforts the afflicted and nourishes the starving, who enlightens the ignorant and strengthens those who are weak. In the second reading too, we hear the wonderful news that the coming day of God will bring with it new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells, a situation where there will be no more suffering and no more pain, no more lives devastated by recessions and no more homes destroyed by wildfires, where the hungry will be fed, the lonely cared for, and every tear will be wiped away.

This then is the awesome consolation that our readings speak to us about on this second Sunday of Advent. And, like the smell of freshly brewed coffee, this is a message that brings us comfort in our troubles, consolation in our distress. This is the same Good News that we are preparing ourselves to receive more deeply during this season of Advent. And even as we listen to this message, do we not find our hearts being moved? Do we not experience our lips beginning to mouth the words of today’s psalm response? If this is indeed what the Lord’s coming will bring, then Lord, let us see your kindness and grant us your salvation!

But that is not all that the voice in the desert speaks to us about. For in order to welcome the One who is coming and the consolation that He brings, there is something that needs to be done. As it is with coffee, so too is it with the Coming of the Lord. Before the consolation there must first be a cleansing. The first reading speaks of this in terms of valleys being filled in and mountains being leveled, so that a straight road might be paved for the One who is coming.

What does this mean for us today? What might it mean to level mountains, to fill in valleys, and to build roads? During this difficult time of economic recession, when there is much talk about financial bailouts, perhaps road building might have something to do with examining and correcting the way in which financial institutions have been doing business up till now. Perhaps it has something to do with taking initial steps at reforming the way in which Wall Street, and indeed the whole global economy, operates. Perhaps it also has something to do with getting rid of those attitudes and actions that caused the death of 34 year-old Jdimytai Damour, in the stampede at a Long Island Walmart on Black Friday. We can’t make fresh coffee without first cleaning out the coffee machine.

But the machine that needs cleaning is not just in the world outside. It is also within us. We, who have already been baptized in the Holy Spirit, are called, each in our own way, to be voices crying out in the desert, brewers of fresh coffee for a drowsy world. And, to do this, doesn’t each of us need to examine the coffee machine that is our own spiritual life? Changes in the world require prior changes within each of our hearts. Like the people of the Judean countryside, who flocked to John in response to his preaching of repentance, we too are invited to allow the mountains of our sinful habits to be leveled, and the valleys of our selfish attitudes to be filled in. Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths. We cannot enjoy and share the fresh coffee of Christ’s coming without first cleaning out the tired coffee grains and the used filters of our hearts.

And for this to happen, we need the Lord’s help. Isn’t this why, in our opening prayer just now, we asked God to remove the things that hinder us from receiving Christ with joy? We – you and I – need the Lord to show us the sinful tendencies within us that need to be reformed. Perhaps it is a hurt or a grudge that we haven’t quite been able to get over, or a prejudice that we have only been vaguely aware of till now. Perhaps it’s the tendency to live beyond our means, or to desire to keep up with the Jonses. Whatever it may be, the season of Advent is a golden opportunity for us, as individuals and as a community, to pray for and to receive the grace to clean out our hearts and our lives so that we can not only receive God’s consolation, but also share it with a waiting world.

On this second Sunday of Advent, a voice cries out in the desert: prepare for the Consolation that is coming.

But, my dear sisters and brothers, how ready are we to clean out the coffee machine?

Sunday, October 26, 2008

30th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Readings: Exodus 22:20-26; Psalm 18:2-3, 3-4, 47, 51; 1 Thessalonians 1:5c-10; Matthew 22:34-40
Picture: CC tuchodi

My sisters and brothers, there are two words on my mind today. And, if you permit me, I’d like to share them with you. The first word I learned in school many years ago, and had all but forgotten. But recent circumstances have led me to recall it. You see, shortly after having relocated to Santa Barbara, I bought a couple of small potted plants to decorate my room. I’m not sure what you call it here, but one of them is what we call in our part of the world a money plant. The other is a pot of thyme. What attracted me to each of these plants was their tendency to overflow their containers. I was hoping that, as they grew, they would drape over the surface on which I’d placed them, thus giving an attractive waterfall-like appearance.

But only a few days after I’d bought and installed them by the window in my room, something began to happen. Instead of cascading in the desired fashion, both plants began to veer sharply – and rather unattractively, I thought – in the opposite direction, toward the window. As though their very lives depended upon it, both plants were turning desperately toward the light. That was when I remembered the first word that I want to talk about today. Here was an example of what I’d learned in biology class so many years ago. This is phototropism. The shoots of plants tend to grow toward the light. And their lives do depend upon this turning. For they need the light to survive.

And, as our Mass readings remind us today, like those plants, a similar turning needs to characterize the lives of Christians too. Speaking approvingly of his Thessalonian friends, Paul tells of how they turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God and to await his Son from heaven… And, indeed, to be a Christian is constantly to negotiate such a turning away from false gods who entrap us, toward the One True God who gives us the fullness of life. Like a healthy plant, a practicing Christian needs constantly to turn toward the Light, for upon this depends our very lives in the Spirit.

As Jesus tells us in the gospel, upon the two great commandments of love of God and love of neighbor the whole law and the prophets depend. What’s more, the life-and-death implications of turning to God in this way are strikingly highlighted for us in the first reading. Here, we are reminded of how love manifests itself by showing compassion towards the most unfortunate in society – the aliens, the widows and orphans, as well as our poor neighbors. If ever you wrong them, God says, and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry. My wrath will flare up, and I will kill you with the sword… Harsh and scary words perhaps, but important to remember nonetheless, if for no other reason than to help us to keep turning toward the Light. But it’s not always easy to do this. Often it’s far more comfortable, far more attractive, simply to keep going in the direction in which we are already heading.

Which brings me to the second word I want to talk about today. It’s a word that I only just learned some days ago, from one of the people with whom I live. Although it’s a word I learned here in the US, it applies very well to something that happened in my home country some months ago.

Especially in recent years, Singapore has become very cosmopolitan. More and more, foreigners are arriving on our shores, mostly for work. Some of these people are pretty well off materially. They are professors and company directors, bankers and lawyers. But the majority of them are at the other end of the economic spectrum. Most perform menial tasks that few Singaporeans want to do. They become construction workers, domestic help, cleaners and the like. It was to benefit a segment of these alien laborers that the local government announced a plan to build a workers’ hostel. Which sounded like a good idea, except that the hostel was to be located in a well-established residential area.

As you may well expect, people were up in arms. They protested the project vehemently. For them, not only would such a hostel affect the property prices in the locality, but it would also put the safety of the residents and their children on the line. Important as it was to find housing for foreign workers, a more appropriate location should be found. And here’s where the word I learned becomes applicable. What the residents were saying was, in effect, nimby – N-I-M-B-Y – not in my backyard.

Of course, we shouldn’t be too quick to criticize. It’s important to acknowledge the legitimacy of the protests. It is probably true that the project might well adversely affect property prices and the security of residents. Not only is building a hostel for foreign workers in a residential area far from the sexy thing to do, it could be downright dangerous.

Which underscores the radicality of the love commandments that Jesus is talking about in the gospel today. To be a Christian, to love God and neighbor, often means having to do things that seem unattractive and uncomfortable. It means, for example, showing mercy to aliens, not least because, as the first reading tells us, we were once aliens ourselves – even if not us personally, then at least our forefathers and mothers, and even if not in a legal sense, then surely in a spiritual sense. For it is only by the life, death and resurrection of Christ, that we were all given a place, not just in the backyard, but even in the very household, and at the very dining table of God. Isn’t this what we are celebrating at this Mass?

To continue being a Christian, then, means being continually willing to negotiate a sharp turn away from the prevailing idols of comfort and expedience, in the direction of the Light of God’s love and compassion. On this turning depends the very authenticity and integrity of our lives as followers of Christ.

Sisters and brothers, even as this great nation continues to negotiate the financial crisis in which it, and the rest of the world, is mired, even as it prepares to elect its next president, perhaps it’s useful for us Christians to continue to examine ourselves. When we look at how we live our lives – when others look at us – what is it that we see? Is ours merely an attractive, comfortable, but ultimately self-centered existence? Or is there rather an ongoing effort to turn towards the Light?

Sisters and brothers, how are we – you and I – being invited to reject the attitude of nimby, so as to live the reality of phototropism today?

Monday, October 20, 2008

Monday in the 29th Week of Ordinary Time
The Cupboard Was Bare

Readings: Ephesians 2:1-10; Psalm 100:1b-2, 3, 4ab, 4c-5; Luke 12:13-21
Picture: CC frazgo

Old Mother Hubbard
Went to the cupboard,
To fetch her poor dog a bone.
But when she got there,
The cupboard was bare,
And so the poor dog had none.

Some of us may still remember this nursery rhyme. It expresses the disappointment of having one’s expectations dashed. Both Old Mother Hubbard and her dog were counting on there being something in the cupboard for the eating. But the cupboard was bare… Some of us may have similar experiences of such disappointment and misplaced expectations. We may be cooking, for example, thinking all the while that a particularly crucial ingredient or spice can be found in the cupboard. But just when we reach the stage in the cooking process when the ingredient is needed, we open the cupboard and find it bare… Or think of what’s been happening recently in the world of finance. We invest our hard-earned savings in a particular portfolio, hoping for a return substantial enough to provide for our retirement. And, overnight, what we thought to be a well-stocked cupboard suddenly appears so painfully empty, so tragically bare…

Today’s readings tell us that something similar can happen in the spiritual life too. Here too, it is possible to be deceived by the apparently well-stocked but ultimately empty cupboard. Such is the experience of the rich man in the gospel, who spent so much energy accumulating possessions that he forgot to stock up on the one thing that is truly essential. In his obsession with material things, he had forgotten what Jesus reminds us of today, that one’s life does not consist of possessions. So that when the time came to cash out on his investments, he found the cupboard of his life woefully bare.

In contrast, the first reading invites us to consider well life’s true location. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not from you; it is the gift of God; it is not from works, so no one may boast… Life is to be found not so much in the various cupboards of our anxious striving for self-preservation, as it is to be received as a precious gift bestowed upon us by a loving God. Even so, to receive this gift, to enjoy the contents of God’s generosity, there is something we need to do, something in which we need to invest. Again, as the first reading reminds us, we are his handiwork, created in Christ Jesus for good works that God has prepared in advance, that we should live in them. We find life by performing the good works inspired by the Spirit of Christ, in whom we have become the possessions of God. In the words of the psalm: the Lord made us, we belong to him…

Especially in this time when the cupboards of many are bare, how might we be called to perform good works in Christ today?

Sunday, October 12, 2008

28th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)
Eating In/Out

Readings: Isaiah 25:6-10a; Psalm 23:1-3a, 3b-4, 5, 6; Philippians 4:12-14, 19-20; Matthew 22:1-14 or 22:1-10
Picture: CC soham_pablo

My sisters and brothers, which do you prefer? When given a choice, do you like to go out for a meal, or do you much rather eat at home? If you’re like me, your answer will probably be, well… it depends… Sometimes I prefer one and sometimes the other… It depends because, of course, there are pros and cons on both sides, aren’t there?

Whether it is to a restaurant or to a friend’s place, going out can be quite pleasant. Not only does it offer a break from routine, but it also means you don’t have to cook for yourself. You don’t have to spend much time and energy in the store and then in the kitchen assembling something resembling a meal. You’re also spared from having to clear up afterwards. No need to fill and empty the dishwasher. No need to clear the table and mop the kitchen floor.

Even so, although you do have to work a little harder, eating in does have its attractions too. Quite apart from the money you might save, cooking your own meal also means you have a better control over what you eat and drink. You’re limited neither by the breadth of the restaurant’s menu or the culinary skills of your host. And, just as important, eating at home usually means you don’t really have to bother with dress codes. Not only don’t you have to dress up, but you’re also spared from having to put on your going-out-face. No need to make too much of an effort to be pleasant and charming, if you’re not really up to it. You can simply relax and be yourself. After all, you're at home.

Yes, there are pros and cons either way. So, for me, it depends. Sometimes I like to go out, and sometimes I prefer to stay home. It depends on my mood.

And there are no prizes for guessing the prevailing mood of those to whom Jesus is speaking in the gospel today. For the chief priests and elders of the people, there really is no question about it. They much rather eat at home than go out. So attached are they to their own cooking, that they refuse to budge even when invited by no less than the king himself. So stubbornly do they cling to their own favorite recipes that they turn up their noses even on a delicious wedding feast, a joyous celebration, in which they need do no work. Indeed, according to Jesus' parable, so scornful are they of the king’s invitation that they even go to the extent of killing the servants sent by him.

This behavior sounds almost too farfetched and unreasonable to be believed. Until, that is, we reflect a little further on our readings. For although the banquet of the king has already been prepared, something is yet required of those invited. Consider first that the banquet is held in a very definite location. To attend it, one has to leave home and proceed to this appointed venue. And notice too, how this special location is described in the first reading. There we’re told that the feast is laid out on the mountain of the Lord. Which seems to imply that, to attend this feast, to accept this invitation, not only must one leave the familiar comforts of home, but one also needs to climb a great height! Not only that, consider also how the parable ends. Even after people have accepted the invitation, they are expected to follow a strict dress code. They must put on a wedding garment, or face expulsion. Many are invited, but few are chosen.

Can we blame the chief priests and the elders for not being in the mood? Would we not make the same choice if we found ourselves in their shoes? Faced with such fearsome inconvenience, wouldn’t we much rather eat in than go out? Indeed, don’t we often face similar difficulties ourselves?

When, for example, God beckons us to savor the sumptuous feast of reconciliation with our enemies, how many of us will jump at the chance, and joyfully accept the invitation? How many of us will respond immediately to such a summons, by leaving the familiar confines of our own, often petty, grievances and hurt feelings, in order to climb the high mountain of forgiveness? How many of us will willingly put on the garment of Christ’s example, that saw him praying for his persecutors even as he hung upon the cross?

Or when we might hear God inviting us to join in the banquet of fraternal love and concern, how many of us will leave the comforts of our sheltered and often self-centered lives, in order to reach out to those in need, whether near or far away? How many of us will bother to climb the high mountain of mercy and compassion and put on the same garment worn by Paul in the second reading? How many of us can say with Paul, that we have learned the secret of being well fed and of going hungry, of living in abundance and of being in need? How many of us can be like the Philippians in seeking to share in the distress of others?

Are we all then doomed to a similar fate as the man without the wedding garment? Are we inescapably destined to be bound hand and foot and cast into the darkness where there will be weeping and grinding of teeth? How are we to find the strength to accept God’s invitation in the face of such formidable obstacles?

Even as we beg God for help, perhaps we might also ponder over two further considerations. The first is found in our scripture readings, the second, wherever we may care to look. From a closer reading of today’s scripture, we find something crucially important about God’s invitation. Despite appearances to the contrary, it is not really an invitation to eat out. For, as we are told in the responsorial psalm, God spreads this feast for us not just in any restaurant, however posh, but in the house of the Lord itself. And it is in this house that we are all destined to live all the days of our lives. This is where we can be most completely relaxed, most fully the persons we are meant to be. For in the Lord’s house we find our true and ultimate home.

Even so, we do need to dress up to go home. We do need to put on Christ. And to discover how this looks like, how this could feel like, we have only to look at the many examples around us. I think, for instance, of 25-year old John Hancock, who was featured in a news report on MSNBC some days ago. John has left the comforts of his California home and devoted a year of his life to volunteering with a non-profit organization dedicated to disaster relief. His work has brought him to Peru, Bangladesh, China and, most recently, to Haiti. In Haiti, he was filmed knee deep in mud, laboring to help the locals recover from the terrible devastation wrought by a recent cyclone. This is what John said about his work: I get so much out of it for myself that I worry I don’t give enough back.

Of course, we don’t all have to do exactly what John is doing. Not many of us can. But what we can do is to allow his example to strike a chord within us, to inspire us to put on Christ and so, in our own way, to respond to the Lord’s invitation.

Sisters and brothers, today how is the Lord inviting us to dress up and to go home?

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Wednesday in the 27th Week of Ordinary Time
Creatures of Habit

Readings: Galatians 2:1-2, 7-14; Psalm 117:1bc, 2; Luke 11:1-4
Picture: CC FaceMePLS

It is said that the human being is a creature of habit. I don’t know exactly how or whether this is true of everyone. But I do often find its truth in my own behavior. I am aware, for example, of how I seem always to gravitate towards a certain pew whenever I go to church. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If something works, why change it. And, after all, some say that the cultivation of good habits is actually a means to becoming a person of character, a moral person, a good person. Even so, there are dangers to clinging too rigidly to the routine and the habitual, aren’t there? Clinging to what works may well may prevent me from experimenting with and discovering something that works better. And while my habit of choosing a particular spot in church may seem quite harmless, alarm bells should ring if I find myself becoming irritated when someone else occupies my seat ahead of me.

In contrast to such rigidity, what we find in our readings today is perhaps something quite different. Notice how, in the first reading, Paul seems to manifest two rather contrasting ways of proceeding. On the one hand, he is concerned with being accountable and submissive to the apostles in Jerusalem, so that I might not be running… in vain. On the other hand, however, Paul is also not averse to opposing Cephas to his face because he clearly was wrong. Also, as Paul tells us, the church in his time confines its ministry neither to the circumcised nor to the uncircumcised, but reaches out to both. And, in the gospel, while we find Jesus engaging as usual in his habit of prayer, this does not preclude him from sharing his experience with others. While he enjoys moments of solitude, these do not exclude moments spent with his disciples as well.

There is a further reflection we might make, one that perhaps explains why and how these different behaviors and habits are held in tension in the experiences of Jesus, Paul and the early church. A clue to an answer is provided by Paul’s statement that he went up to Jerusalem… in accord with a revelation… What keeps our habits from falling into the rut of dull routine is the cultivation of yet another, more fundamental practice. It is the habit of ever trying to discover and be open to the voice of Revelation, the face of the Lord, in whatever new circumstance – however unsettling – might come our way. Yes, even the person who might have taken my seat in church…

For to do this is also to receive the daily bread with which our heavenly Father delights in feeding us.

What habits are we being invited to cultivate today?

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Friday in the 26th Week of Ordinary Time
Children Who Listen

Readings: Job 38:1, 12-21; 40:3-5; Psalm 139:1-3, 7-8, 9-10, 13-14ab; Luke 10:13-16
Picture: CC Leonid Mamchenkov

Among the many heartrending experiences in human experience is the sight of a parent desperately trying to reach out to a wayward child. It’s painful for any parent, but the struggle is perhaps all the more marked in the case of one who enjoys some kind of authority outside the family. Isn’t it pitiful to witness how, for example, a successful businessperson, or respected politician, or revered professor– for all his/her expertise and skill – may still fail miserably to keep his/her child on the straight and narrow?

We experience something of the same pathos as we listen to Jesus’ speech to the wayward inhabitants of Chorazin and Bethsaida and Capernaum. This is the Christ, the Anointed One, who has moved hearts with his message and mended bodies with his miracles. This is the Eternal Word that comes from the mouth of the Father, the One through whom all things were made. And we know the power of the Word in the Bible. God’s Word makes things happen. When God speaks, creation comes into being. When God speaks, the rain falls, or ceases. When God speaks, the Israelites are freed from slavery in Egypt… And yet, all the same, when God speaks to God’s children, often enough, nothing happens, no change is made. Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida!

Even so, that’s not always the case. There are children who do listen – children who actually come to experience the power of God’s Word to change minds, to move hearts, and to mold lives. We find an example of one such child in Job. We cannot fail to notice the radical change that takes place in him. In the first reading we witness something of his transformation. Quite marvelously, he who was angry and grieving is finally able to come to terms with his situation. He who had previously encountered only the painful silence of the dark night comes to experience the healing power of God’s voice. How did this come about? What is Job’s secret? What can we learn from his experience?

At least two points come to mind. The first is has to do with the location from which God speaks. We’re told that God addresses Job from out of the storm. God encounters Job in the very midst of the tumultuous waters of his painful situation. God speaks to Job from out of the storm of his grief. This is something at once consoling and challenging – consoling because it tells us that pain can be productive, but also challenging because it implies the need to resist our spontaneous desire to anesthetize ourselves whenever we suffer discomfort. It implies a willingness to imitate Job, who continued to cry out to God in the midst of his difficulty, waiting for God to answer him. It implies a readiness to meet and to accompany the One who Rose only because he was first Crucified.

The second point has to do with the content of God’s address to Job. To be honest, from the perspective of an onlooker, God’s words don’t sound very convincing. For a long time Job has been asking God to tell him why he who had been faithful, he who had done nothing wrong, had to suffer so terribly. And God responds not so much with an answer, as with more questions, not so much with an explanation as a challenge. Have you comprehended the breadth of the earth? Tell me, if you know all… Even so, the amazing thing is that not only is Job convinced, he is also comforted. What can I answer you? I put my hand over my mouth. Though I have spoken once, I will not do so again; though twice, I will do so no more. Could it be because while an outsider might be looking for an explanation, more so does Job desire a relation? Could it be because while we may focus only on solutions to our problems, Job is open to the incomprehensible mystery of God’s providence? There really is only one way to find out…

How might the Word of God be addressing us today?

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Wednesday in the 26th Week of Ordinary Time
Memorial of St. Therese of the Child Jesus, Virgin & Doctor of the Church
Looking Ahead

Readings: Jb 9:1-12, 14-16; Ps 88:10bc-11, 12-13, 14-15; Lk 9:57-62
Pictures: CC terriseesthings

No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what is left behind is fit for the Kingdom of God.

I’m neither a mountain climber nor a track athlete, but I seem to recall a piece of advice that’s applicable just as well to either of these activities. If you’re climbing a mountain, don’t look down. And if you’re running a race, don’t turn back. Seems like common sense. Looking back can be distracting, not to mention dangerous. And yet, isn’t there something about the human condition that makes this advice truly difficult to follow?

Of course, we’re not speaking of just any mountain, or race. We’re not referring to trivial matters like changing one’s mind about going shopping or watching a movie. Neither are we talking about obviously wrong or evil choices that require reversal. A drug addict does well to go to rehab, just as a thief ought to return the loot. What our readings invite us to consider is the wholehearted commitment that is required of anyone who wishes to be fit for the Kingdom of God. And this is often easier said than done.

For isn’t there something about us that makes looking back seem like such a natural thing to do? Sometimes we do it out of a sense of nostalgia. We hanker after the good ole’ days. At other times, perhaps especially in times of trial, we find ourselves wondering if we had made the right decision in the first place. Or we may wish we had done things differently. If only… And while there is a kind of remembering that strengthens our commitment – much like our celebration of the Eucharist does – there’s also a kind of retrospection that actually undermines our resolve. By yielding to the temptation of looking to what was left behind we sabotage ourselves. We become mired in a pool of self-pity and regret, and so leave the mountain unclimbed, the race un-run.

In contrast, today’s readings present us with the examples of Jesus and Job. Both have committed themselves to a climb. Both are running a race. Job is as God-fearing as Jesus is faithful to his Father’s will. And, to use the language of the marathon, both have hit the wall. Jesus is proceeding on the journey that will bring him to a cruel death on the cross. Job’s fidelity to God seems to gain him nothing but the loss of his possessions, his family, and even his health. And yet, neither one looks back. Quite to the contrary, both of them keep looking ahead.

And it is in looking ahead that both find the strength they need to press on. Jesus can keep his hand firmly on the plow, only because he has placed his life in the hands of the One who sent him. He can speak of having nowhere to rest his head only because his heart rests in the bosom of his Father’s will. Likewise, within the dark night that enshrouds him, Job continues to contemplate the face of the One he professes to serve. The whole of the first reading is a description of the awesome, even terrible, transcendence of God. How can a man be justified before God? ... He does great things past finding out, marvelous things beyond reckoning. And Job does this without repressing his own grief and pain. Here, the cry of the psalmist could not be more apt: Why, O Lord, do you reject me; why hide from me your face? Quite incredibly, even in the midst of his affliction, Job continues to look forward and upward.

Someone once said that when we are turned away from the light – when we look back – the shadows are long. But when we continue to face the light, when we insist on traveling in its direction, even when its brilliance takes on the forbidding aspect of darkness, the shadows disappear from sight.

How are we being strengthened to continue climbing and running and plowing today?

Monday, September 29, 2008

Friday, September 26, 2008

Friday in the 25th Week of Ordinary Time
Telling Time

Readings: Ecclesiastes 3:1-11; Psalms 144:1b and 2abc, 3-4; Luke 9:18-22
Picture: CC littledan77

Have you ever had the following experience? For some reason you suddenly awaken with a jolt after a good night’s sleep. Still a little drowsy, you reach for the bedside clock and find that you’re already 15 to 30 minutes behind your usual schedule. Hurriedly you scramble out of bed and proceed with the routine morning ablutions. But when you’re done and finally get a chance to look at the clock again, you realize that you’re actually a whole hour ahead of schedule. You’d earlier misread the time. Feeling rather bemused and even a little foolish and embarrassed, you wonder what you’re going to do now.

Ever had a similar experience? Or some other experience of getting the time wrong?

I wonder if the disciples found themselves in a similar situation in our gospel today. The incident described is probably very familiar to us. It is found also in the gospels of Matthew (16:13ff.) and Mark (8:27ff.). But notice how, in Luke’s version, Jesus’ immediate response to the disciples’ declaration that he is the Christ of God is to rebuke them. Unlike Matthew’s version, there is no praise of Peter for getting the answer right. But didn’t they get the answer right? Isn’t Jesus indeed the Christ, the anointed one, of God? Why the rebuke? And why so soon? Perhaps it had something to do with timing. Perhaps the disciples were jumping the gun in thinking only about the glory of the anointed one, without giving due consideration to the lesson that Jesus goes on to teach them – that the Christ must first endure a time of trial.

But, what next? After having gotten the time wrong, what are the disciples to do now? What are we to do when we find ourselves getting the time wrong? How do we learn to get the time right next time?

Some indication of an answer is found in both the first reading and the gospel. In the former, Qoheleth tells us that it is God who has made everything appropriate to its time. And, more importantly, he goes on to say that God has also put the timeless into (our) hearts. In other words, it is possible to get some sense of what the right time – God’s time – may be at any given moment in our lives. And isn’t this what we find Jesus doing at the beginning of the gospel? We’re told that, before summoning his disciples, Jesus was praying in solitude. He was looking into his heart. He was seeking the timeless. He was consulting his Father. He was telling the time.

What time is it for us today?

Thursday in the 25th Week of Ordinary Time
The Crucial Hinge

Readings: Ecclesiastes 1:2-11; Psalms 90:3-4, 5-6, 12-13, 14 and 17bc; Luke 9:7-9
Picture: CC Wm Chamberlain

You are not alone!

Today, I can’t help but recall these words, uttered repeatedly by a presenter at one of a series of orientation events that I had to attend over the last several days.

You are not alone!

For me, those words seem like a hinge around which two significant interior movements were (and probably still are) taking place in me as I begin yet another new stage in my life. The first of these movements was occasioned by the massive information overload that my fellow incoming graduate students and I were experiencing. There was just so much to do and to become familiar with in such a short time. It was quite overwhelming. Have we bitten off much more than we can ever hope to chew? And yet, even in the midst of the growing realization of the immensity of the task ahead of us, I also found myself quite consoled by the sincerity and genuine concern expressed by those whose responsibility it is to welcome us and to ease our transition into graduate study, as well as by the considerable resources to which we have access.

You are not alone!

This sharing of my orientation experience is occasioned by our readings today, which also present us with two (possible) movements centered upon a hinge. We find the first movement expressed in both the first reading and the gospel. In the latter, for all his despotic power, Herod finds himself greatly perplexed by the reports concerning Jesus. And in the former, for all his obvious intellectual acumen, Qoheleth comes to the conclusion that, especially when seen from the vast perspective of history, all human effort is vain. There is nothing new under the sun… Here we find a movement from the arrogance born of a false sense of mastery and self-sufficiency to the perplexity that springs from a realization that, whatever appearances might suggest, we don’t really have a handle on the world.

But, even if this is true, we are not doomed to perpetual anxiety and despair. For our readings also speak to us of a second possible movement – one that invites us to see beyond the historical to the eternal. And, not unlike my experience at orientation, this movement also takes place around a hinge. We find this hinge in the response to the psalm:

In every age, O Lord, you have been our refuge…

Even as crisis situations – such as the one that Wall Street is facing at the moment, for example – may force us to acknowledge how small we are, and how insignificant are our efforts when viewed against the immensity of creation stretched out in time and space, the psalm prompts us to make the following prayer: Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain wisdom of heart…

Teach us to realize that we are not alone. Teach us to move not only from arrogance to perplexity, but also from perplexity to trust. Help us continue hoping in the One who is always there for us. Give us the wisdom and courage to act even when situations seem to overwhelm our meager abilities to respond…

How might the Lord be reminding us today that we are not alone?

Sunday, September 21, 2008

25th Ordinary Sunday (A)
Passing the Driving Test

Readings: Isaiah 55:6-9; Psalm 145:2-3, 8-9, 17-18; Philippians 1:20c-24, 27a; Matthew 20:1-16a
Picture: CC Ruth L

My sisters and brothers, many of you drive, don’t you? Do you like it? I do. Of course, we all know that it’s not good for the environment. And, especially with today’s gas prices, many of us are probably trying to lessen the amount of time we spend in our cars. But still, we can’t deny the fact that, for the most part, driving is an enjoyable experience. There’s something about being free to roam about wherever you want, without being constrained by bus schedules or someone else’s routine. And what with the wonderful weather and the beautiful scenery here in Southern California – driving is invigorating!

But not everyone is fit to drive. To obtain a license, not only must you be old enough, you also have to pass several tests. There’s a theory test, a test of eyesight and a road test. You need to pass them all before being given your license. You need to demonstrate your knowledge of local traffic rules and basic driving skills, before being granted the freedom to roam about freely in your car.

There’s a somewhat similar situation in the spiritual life as well. In a way, the Christian life is a quest for freedom. This is not just any kind of freedom. It’s not just the ability to do whatever we want whenever we feel like it. What Christian freedom looks like is illustrated by St. Paul in the second reading. For him, it's a matter of life and death.

Most of us value our own lives very much. Whatever we may say in polite conversation, we don’t really want to die. We cling to life like a stubborn stain to a white shirt. But, on the other hand, we probably also know of others who may actually be looking forward to death. Perhaps their lives are filled with terrible disappointments and suffering. Perhaps they’re lonely and find no meaning in their earthly existence. Whatever their exact situation, they long for release. They see death as a way to escape from their troubles. In either of these cases, whether one desires to live or to die, one remains limited and confined by the circumstances of one’s life. One isn’t free.

In contrast, notice what Paul says in the second reading. Notice the tension he experiences. I do not know which I shall choose, he says, life or death. And the reason for his dilemma is because either option offers him the possibility to love. Death means being with Christ in a most intimate way. And life means being able to serve those entrusted to his care. Paul experiences a tension because he is free. Like a licensed driver on the road, he experiences the invigorating freedom to choose the loving thing in every situation. He is free to conduct himself in a way worthy of the gospel of Christ.

And isn’t this the same freedom that we – the daughters and sons of God, the citizens of God’s Kingdom – are meant to enjoy? Isn’t this the divine driver’s license that we all want to receive? But what do we need to be ready to roam freely in God’s Kingdom? Drivers need to know the roads. We need to know our God.

And our readings today provide us with two tests by which we can gauge our knowledge of God. Both are practical tests. Each one is targeted at people in different situations. The test in the first reading is meant for those who have fallen away from God. The language used is quite strong: let the scoundrel forsake his way, and the wicked his thoughts, let him turn to the Lord for mercy…

Although we may not be scoundrels in the true sense of the word, don’t we all have experiences of being in the wrong, of having sinned in some way? And sometimes it is precisely because we are not really out and out scoundrels that we find it difficult to turn back to God. We wonder how we could have done such a terrible or stupid thing. We are embarrassed to admit our failure to ourselves, let alone to our God. It is precisely at such times that we face a tough challenge. We face a difficult test. It is a test of how well we know our God. It is a test of how deeply we realize what our readings are reminding us today: that our God is generous and forgiving, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and of great kindness… To pass the test is to take advantage of the Lord’s mercy, to turn back and to be reconciled with God.

But sinful though we all are, we don’t always find ourselves in a situation of having fallen. Sometimes, we may actually feel that we are on reasonably good terms with God. Like those people in the gospel, who have been working all day in the vineyard, we may be conscientiously fulfilling all our God-given responsibilities. We go to church. We say our prayers. We give to charity. We care for others. But are we truly free? Again, there is a test for us, a test of how well we know our God. It consists in how we react to situations wherein God shows mercy to others, especially those others whom – whether consciously or not – we may consider to be less holy or less spiritual than ourselves.

To take a rather mundane example, let us say that Mary is a highly respected member of her parish, where, for many years she has been the leader of the lectors. Then, one day, someone else is chosen to replace her. Not only is this person a far less experienced lector than Mary is, but she is also known to be a single parent – the result of a youthful indiscretion. Doesn’t Mary face a test in a situation like this? How will she react to being replaced by such a person? Will she complain as the people in the gospel do? Like those laborers who had worked hard all day, will she also grumble to herself that someone who had previously committed the sin of fornication has now been made her equal? Or will she instead rejoice at the marvelous generosity of her God, who offers to all comers, the fullness of love and life? Will her knowledge of God be such that she is willing to graciously be last who once was first?

Sisters and brothers, I have a secret to share with you. I only recently received my California driver’s license, having only just relocated here from Singapore. And to get that license, I had to take the theory test at the DMV office in downtown Santa Barbara. Here’s the secret. Being already a licensed driver in Singapore for many years, I was rather overconfident and, to my utter embarrassment, I failed the test the first time I took it. Thankfully, after sitting at the DMV and studying the Driver Handbook for a couple of hours, I was able to pass the test the second time round.

Whether it is at the first or second try (or even the third or the fourth) what is important is for us to pass the test -- to realize ever more deeply with each passing day, the tremendous depth of God's love for us -- and so to enjoy the freedom of the sons and daughters of God, the freedom to love as God loves. For, as St. John tells us, everyone who loves is begotten by God and knows God… for God is love (1 John 4:7-8).

Sisters and brothers, how might God be testing us today?

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Friday in the 24th Week of Ordinary Time
Accepting Our Traveling Companion

Readings: 1 Corinthians 15:12-20; Psalm 17:1bcd, 6-7, 8b and 15; Luke 8:1-3
Picture: CC dontdothisathome

Those who have done it before sometimes tell us that going on a trip with a friend typically has one of two consequences. It either reinforces or ruins the relationship. This has probably to do both with the sudden decrease in space between each person, as well as the sudden increase in time spent together. Especially if you’re sharing a hotel room, there’s nothing like a trip to highlight every little idiosyncrasy, every little behavioral quirk in another person. Little things – such as snoring, or noisy bathroom habits, or taking too much time over a meal – things that may often escape notice in the usual interaction between friends, suddenly seem to take center stage. The question one is faced with then is how much one values the relationship – enough to accept these new, and perhaps less than desirable, discoveries about the other?

Listening to our gospel reading today, we may well wonder if something of the same process took place among the traveling companions described there. Jesus journeyed from one town and village to another, we are told. And accompanying him were the Twelve and some women… What was it like for these followers of Jesus as they followed him on his journey? What was it like to be in such close physical and emotional proximity to the Lord, and to his other followers? We may well surmise that in addition to the geographical itinerary that they all traversed in common, there was also a spiritual journey that each one had to make, a passage into deeper relationship with the Lord.

Consider, for example, how some of them came to be followers of Jesus. Some of the women, we’re told, had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities. And it is at least probable that many others were hoping that Jesus might liberate the Jews from foreign rule. And yet, we also know well the destination towards which Jesus was heading – Calvary and the Cross. What was it like for those first disciples, as their journey progressed? What was it like to see their initial hopes gradually fade away with the diminishment and death of their chosen Master?

Quite likely, each disciple faced a similar daunting challenge. It is the same challenge that Paul writes about in the first reading. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are the most pitiable people of all… It is the awesome project of allowing our hopes in Christ to be deepened (and not destroyed) by his Passion and Death. It is the difficult task of receiving the grace to believe in the Resurrection of the Lord. This doesn’t mean, of course, that we should give up our work in this world. Quite to the contrary, it means allowing our otherworldly hope inform and strengthen our earthly efforts.

Journeying together with this traveling companion of ours – so human and also so divine – we find ourselves led to the boundaries of our hope. The question we face is whether or not we are willing to cross those boundaries, whether or not we are ready to accept the peculiar idiosyncrasies of our traveling companion, and move with him into the peace and joy of the Kingdom.

Care for a vacation together anyone?

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Thursday in the 24th Week of Ordinary Time
Avoiding Abuse

Readings: 1 Corinthians 15:1-11; Psalm 118:1b-2, 16ab-17, 28; Luke 7:36-50
Picture: CC chefranden

Have you ever had the experience of needing a tool, a screwdriver perhaps, but could not find one? Have you ever been driven to improvise, for example by using a coin or a fingernail instead? Or maybe what was needed was a Philips-head screwdriver and all you had was a flat one. What happened? Sometimes the improvisation works well, but often enough, something goes awry. The fingernail may break. The coin may bend. Or either the screw or the flat-headed screwdriver may get damaged. That, of course, is the result of abuse. Using something for a purpose other than that for which it was made can lead to highly undesired consequences.

The same can be said about people too. Consider some of the ways in which people abuse themselves and others: various addictions (to work and alcohol, to shopping and sex), providing poor and inhumane working conditions, melamine in milk, unwarranted curtailment of religious freedom. Could we not say that these abuses are often rooted in a fundamental lack of awareness of and respect for the proper identity and dignity of the human person? And, as a result, much damage is done, both to individuals and to society as a whole.

In contrast, our Mass readings for today present us with examples of what happens when people come to a profound awareness of who they are in the sight of God. Let us look first at the results. Notice Paul’s description of the fruitfulness of his ministry. He takes pride in his grace-empowered work among the early Christians. We preach and so you believed. Notice also the moving scene provided for us by the woman who, in contrast to the neglectful Pharisee, ministers so tenderly to Jesus. How did both she and Paul come to love and to serve others with such energy and passion?

Paul attributes it to grace, which enables him to fulfill his true destiny as a disciple of Christ: by the grace of God I am what I am. It is by this grace that Paul realizes his own unworthiness: I am… not fit to be called an Apostle… because I persecuted the Church of God… And in this realization, he submits to the grace that empowers him to love and to serve. Something similar happens to the woman in the gospel too. As Jesus tells us: her many sins have been forgiven; hence, she has shown great love… We come to fulfill our destiny only to the extent that we first realize our identity as sinners who are forgiven and loved. Your faith has saved you. Go in peace…

Isn’t this why Paul tells us that the gospel he preaches is of first importance: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures…? For how do we come to realize more deeply our true identity except by encountering the one who died and rose for our sins? It was so for Paul and the unnamed woman. It is so for us as well.

How might the Lord be reminding us of who and what we are today?

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Tuesday in the 24th Week of Ordinary Time
Memorial of St. Cornelius, Pope & Martyr, & St. Cyprian, Bishop & Martyr
Healing Broken Bodies

Readings: 1 Corinthians 12:12-14, 27-31a; Psalm 10:1b-2, 3, 4, 5; Luke 7:11-17
Picture: CC Brian Ledgard

Bodies have been very much in the news over the past week – broken bodies to be exact. Just two examples will suffice. The horrific Chatsworth train-crash – the worst in the US in the last 15 years – left 25 dead and 135 injured. Further to the east, the so-called China milk scandal has thus far claimed the lives of two infants, and sickened more than a thousand other little ones. We will likely hear of more victims in the days ahead.

Investigations are ongoing in each of these disasters. And perhaps we shouldn’t preempt the findings. Even so, we cannot help but ask questions. Why, we may wonder, does the world’s sole remaining superpower continue to operate a railway that has trains running on the same track in opposite directions? Why had better safety mechanisms not been put in place earlier (see LA Times Editorial)? How could people bring themselves to contaminate infant formula with plastic, only so as to deceive others as to the formula’s actual protein content? Why weren’t remedial measures taken earlier? Whatever the answers, it does look as though, in both cases, cost considerations have been allowed to override those of public safety. In both cases, what has resulted are broken bodies.

And broken bodies of different sorts are also what we find in our liturgy today. In the gospel Jesus encounters the corpse of a young man who had been the sole security and support of his widowed mother. In the first reading, Paul’s concern is to heal the broken body that is the Christian community at Corinth – divided by competition and conflict. And in the time of the two saints we celebrate today, the Christian community was suffering both from external persecution as well as internal doctrinal disagreements. Perhaps in reflecting upon what we find here, we might obtain some guidance as to what it takes to mend broken bodies of whatever sort.

Paul offers us the first useful tip by highlighting the diversity that exists in the body that is the church. The body is not a single part, but many. In itself, this realization is already an essential step towards holding the body together. What we seek is unity rather than uniformity. But Paul goes further. The integrity of the body depends also upon the integrity of each individual part. The unity of the whole depends upon each part recognizing and playing its own assigned role, without trying to usurp the roles of others. Individual and communal integrity is essential to the healing of broken bodies.

And, as Jesus shows us in the gospel, so too is compassion. Although we need to focus on our own work, although we need to play our own assigned role, we are not to go to the opposite extreme of seeking only to mind our own business. Both as individuals and as a community, we need to be very much in touch with all that goes on in the world around us. Like Jesus, we need to allow ourselves to be affected by the many broken bodies – physical, social, spiritual… – that surround us. When the Lord saw the widowed mother, he was moved with pity for her…

But, as the lives of both Cornelius and Cyprian show us, efforts at mending broken bodies often incur terrible costs. Both saints suffered much, and ultimately gave their lives for the sake of unity. Like Jesus before them, they allowed their own bodies to be broken for others. Even so, this is a cost that yields an infinitely incomparable return – life eternal in the kingdom of God.

What and where are the broken bodies seeking to attract our attention today?