Thursday, January 31, 2008

Thursday in the 3rd Week of Ordinary Time (II)
Memorial of St. John Bosco, Priest
Revealing Love

Readings: 2 Samuel 7:18-19, 24-29; Psalm 132:1-2, 3-5, 11, 12, 13-14; Mark 4:21-25

For there is nothing hidden except to be made visible; nothing is secret except to come to light…

I’m reminded today of a brief encounter between two characters on a TV series, a man and a woman. The woman comes across a photograph of the man, taken by a well-known photographer. The shot is so well taken that she is moved to exclaim: wow, she really got you to glow! What were you doing at the time? The man hesitates to answer because, at the time the shot was taken, he’d been admiring a photo that the same photographer had taken of the woman. And, of course, he’s secretly in love with her. What I find interesting in the scene is the parallel between the talent of the photographer and the power of love. What defines the latter is its capacity to cause a person to glow, just as what defines the former is his or her ability to reveal that glow and capture it for posterity. I’m reminded here of Jean Vanier’s definition of love. To love someone, according to Vanier, is to reveal to that person his or her inner beauty.

I wonder if these thoughts might not help us to make sense of what Jesus is telling us in the gospel today. When we hear Jesus speak about the lamp that is meant to be placed on a lampstand, it is usual for us to hear it first as a moral obligation. We are that lamp and so we need to let our light shine out for all the world to see. We need to go out and do things. That is, of course, true. Even so, I wonder if there might not be more to it than that, especially when we consider that these words of Jesus follow immediately upon his explanation of the parable of the sower. In that parable, while there is mention of the bearing of a rich harvest, this seems to come more as the result of our receptivity than activity. The power of the seed that is God’s Word, is such that it always bears fruit, if only the soil is right.

And it stands to reason that this should be so, especially when we consider that God’s Word is also a word spoken in love. Indeed, as John the Evangelist reminds us, God is love (1 John 4:8). Thus, to be good soil, to be receptive to God’s Word, is first to allow the love of God to reveal to us our own inner beauty. Isn’t this how the lamp comes to be placed on the lampstand, so as to shine its light for all the world to see?

Isn’t this, also, what we see happening in the first reading? We may recall from yesterday that King David has just received a word from God through the prophet Samuel. We may think, at first, that it is bad news, for it thwarts his plan of building a temple. But David is so receptive to the word that he is able to go beyond the apparent bad news to hear the loving promise that is extended to him, to his household, and to the whole people of Israel. And, in today’s first reading, we have his response: a beautiful prayer of praise and thanksgiving to God. Not only does his receptivity to God’s word evoke a prayer of great beauty, but through his leadership, the kingdom of Israel becomes a light to the nations. This is the result of receptivity to the power of God’s love, which reveals inner beauty to a waiting world…

How does God, the divine photographer, wish to love us into light today?

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Wednesday in the 3rd Week of Ordinary Time (II)
Preparing the Ground

Readings: 2 Samuel 7:4-17; Psalm 89:4-5, 27-28, 29-30; Mark 4:1-20

Disappointments and setbacks are difficult to endure. When our plans are thwarted, when our dreams fail to come true, we are often left feeling sad and angry and confused. And, if we are religious, we may even blame God for not helping us to succeed. One will not be surprised if these might have been among the first reactions of King David when the prophet Samuel relayed to him the message that we hear in today’s first reading. Why does God not allow David to build a temple? It’s a worthwhile project, isn’t it? Why must it be Solomon who builds it and not David himself?

A story comes to mind about two children who used to walk by a large field on their way to school. They loved the field because of the green grass and the beautiful wild flowers that grew there. Sometimes, on their way home, they would even stop to play on the field. Then, one day, to their great dismay, they found that someone had dug up the field. All the grass and wildflowers that they loved so dearly had been killed. The ground was instead scarred with ugly furrows and mounds of freshly upturned earth. At this point, you can probably already predict the story’s ending. What at first appears to be a foolish, even cruel, and inexplicable act of destruction turns out to be only the first stage of a necessary process of preparation. The ground is tilled to receive the seed that will be sown. And the result is a rich harvest.

This story resonates with Jesus’ parable in the gospel. The power of the seed that is God’s word is such that, if it only falls into good soil, it is capable of bearing fruit to an unbelievable degree: even thirty, sixty and a hundredfold. But first, on its part, the soil must be receptive. Otherwise, even if the plants seem to spring up quickly, they may be too vulnerable to survive, let alone to bear fruit. Could this gospel lesson perhaps shed some light on David’s predicament (and our own)?

Whatever might have been the exact historical context behind the story, one wonders if what God is doing is precisely tilling the soil of David’s heart (and that of the people of Israel). And notice how God seems to be doing this. Through Samuel, God helps David to put his proposed project into the right perspective. In spite of the grand scale of David’s construction plans, God reminds him that God doesn’t really need a house. More than that, God invites David to remember all the marvels that God has performed thus far, for him and through him. And God also promises continued fidelity in the future, even after David is no more. In short, God reminds David who is boss. It is God who will establish a house for you. One can only imagine how humbling it must have been for David to hear this message and to have his plans apparently thwarted by God. And yet, like the farmer scoring ugly furrows into a beautiful field, perhaps God is simply doing what is necessary for preparing David and the people of Israel to receive the fullness of God’s designs.

And what of us? How receptive is the soil of our hearts? How willing are we to have our plans thwarted, to have our fields dug up in preparation for all that God desires for us?

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Tuesday in the 3rd Week of Ordinary Time (II)
Outside/ Inside

Readings: 2 Samuel 6:12b-15, 17-19; Psalm 24:7, 8, 9, 10; Mark 3:31-35

Those familiar with the clubbing scene will probably know what it feels like to be outside a club late on a Saturday night. You can probably hear the sounds of music and revelry emanating from the interior of the club, just as you can feel the excitement and anticipation welling up from within yourself. You simply can’t wait to join in the fun. That is, of course, if you can first find a way to get in…

This is the image that our readings bring to mind today. Commentators point out to us, for example, the clear distinction that is drawn in the gospel between the crowd seated around Jesus inside the house, and the group that is waiting outside. Although there will be those whose minds will, at this point, immediately turn to questions surrounding the proper role of the Mother of Jesus, this doesn’t seem to be the immediate issue here. Rather, what Jesus seems to be doing is using a concrete situation – two groups of people each in a distinct location – as an opportunity to illustrate a spiritual point. And the point is clear. Just as a distinction can be drawn in the secular world between family members and strangers, so too, in the spiritual realm, a distinction can be drawn between those who are counted among Jesus’ inner circle and those who are outsiders, between those gaining entry into the revelry of God’s kingdom and those who are still outside looking in.

The key criterion for distinguishing these two groups is also clear. It is stated in the words of Jesus in the gospel: whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother. And it is also illustrated in the scene presented to us in the first reading. In order to gain entry into Jesus’ inner circle, in order to become a member of the kingdom of God, one must first strive to imitate David, who brought the ark of the Lord into Jerusalem and enthroned the presence of God at the very heart of his own kingdom. And can we fail to notice the way in which David does this? Not only does David enthrone the Lord in his kingdom, but he also does so as only a besotted lover can. Clad only in a linen apron he dances with joyful abandon and performs generous animal sacrifices in the Lord’s honor.

In like manner, in order to be counted among the members of the Lord’s spiritual family, we are called to admit the presence of God into our lives, to allow God to sit upon the throne of our hearts. That’s the way to gain entry into the eternal dance-club of God’s kingdom.

Shall we go clubbing today?

Monday, January 28, 2008

Monday in the 3rd Week of Ordinary Time (II)
Memorial of St. Thomas Aquinas, Priest and Doctor of the Church
Backing the Right Candidate

Readings: 2 Samuel 5:1-7, 10; Psalm 89:20, 21-22, 25-26; Mark 3:22-30

I’ve been reading CNN online and, of course, much of the news centers on the recently completed primaries in South Carolina. One thing I find striking about the videos and photos from those stories is the passionate enthusiasm with which some people support their chosen candidate. In one photo a woman is depicted braving winter temperatures, standing by the side of a street, holding up a sign with her candidate’s name on it. And then of course there is all the shouting and cheering and dancing when the candidate actually wins and makes his/ her acceptance speech. What, I wonder, makes people so sure that they are backing the right candidate?

Something similar seems to be happening in the first reading today. It begins with all the tribes of Israel enthusiastically acknowledging David as their king. And their choice turns out to be a wise one. David proves himself a worthy king. Not only does he lead their armies to victory over the stronghold of Zion, but he also ushers in a golden age in the history of Israel. Don’t we have here a classic example of backing the right candidate? But, once again, we might well wonder how the people come to choose rightly.

And it’s not just in the political sphere that we can observe the importance of backing the right candidate. Everyday we are faced with elections of a perhaps more mundane but no less significant sort. We need to choose from different points of view regarding how we want to live our lives. More or less consciously, we are faced with decisions regarding how we wish to relate with others, how to raise our children, what careers to choose, which friends to keep… How sure are we that we’re backing the right candidate?

Perhaps more than anything else, the readings offer us a spiritual perspective on the question. Consider how the people of Israel come to be convinced that David is the right candidate. From a plain reading of the text, the people do two things. In the days past… it was you who led the children of Israel out and brought them back. And the Lord said to you, ‘You shall shepherd my people Israel…’ Attending carefully to David’s conduct thus far the people conclude that God has chosen him to be their king. What we have here is an example of spiritual discernment carried out on a national scale.

But it’s not always easy to discern God’s wishes. In the gospel, for example, although Jesus has been attracting huge crowds, the scribes reject him as one who relies on diabolical powers. Through his ministry, Jesus – not unlike David – has been bringing the children of Israel back to their heavenly Father. Yet the scribes somehow misinterpret his efforts. They accuse him of being possessed by Beelzebul. What seems to be lacking in the scribes is the crucial disposition for spiritual discernment, something that St. Ignatius of Loyola refers to as indifference. Part of this disposition is the resolve not to prejudge an issue but to be open to the truth wherever it may lead. Without indifference, we remain trapped by our own prejudices, unable to recognize what is right. Consequently, as long as we remain so trapped, we may end up not only backing the wrong candidate but even committing an everlasting sin.

What do we need from God in order to back the right candidate today?

Friday, January 25, 2008

Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul, Apostle
The Orbit of Conversion

Readings: Acts 22:3-16 or Acts 9:1-22; Psalm 117:1bc, 2; Mark 16:15-18

One of our theology professors used to tell us that when speaking about the Holy Trinity the prepositions are all important. For example, we often speak of going to the Father through the Son in the Holy Spirit. As we celebrate this feast of the Conversion of St. Paul today, our readings lead me to wonder whether we might not say the same thing about the process of conversion. Those familiar with biblical Greek (which I’m not) will no doubt recall that metanoia – meaning repentance – refers to a reorientation, a change of mind. To repent is to change the direction of one’s life. It is to turn over a new leaf. There we have our first preposition. But how does this happen? And what happens after that? Are there other prepositions to consider?

Indeed there are, if Paul’s conversion story is anything to go by. Saul, as he was then called, had a very good, even compelling, reason for turning around. Something dramatic happened to him. He was first struck down and then raised up again. That was the turning point for him, the point at which his life changed. Can at least some of us not resonate with this experience? Even if we may not all experience the same dramatic encounter with the Risen Christ, might we not remember a time when Christ became real for us, a time when our life changed, if only gradually? But that’s not all. The process was to continue for Saul. And we can trace it by again considering the prepositions.

After being raised up, we’re told that he was led by the hand by his companions and entered Damascus. And in Damascus, he met Ananias. In other words, after being struck down and then raised up Saul was led into the Christian community, where he regained new sight and was told about everything appointed for him to do. Isn’t this also an essential direction in the process of repentance? One is initiated into the Body of Christ and then begins fulfilling one’s responsibilities within it.

Even so, to be a Christian is not only about being inside. More so is it about being sent out. Isn’t this the meaning of the word apostle? And what do we find the Risen Christ doing in today’s gospel if not sending the Eleven out into the whole world?

There is yet one more preposition to consider. It’s perhaps not a very obvious one. But it’s probably the most essential one of all. For here we find the foundation, the center of gravity, of all that has gone before. We get a hint of what this is when we consider the fact that, in the Acts of Apostles alone, the story of Paul’s conversion is recounted no less than three times. No doubt this is because it is such a singularly important event in the history of the church. But what about for Saul/ Paul? Isn't this also the singularly most important event in his life too? Hereafter, wherever his journeys might take him, whatever activities he might be engaged in, he will have but a single focus. After this fateful day on the road to Damascus, Christ becomes for Paul the Sun around which the planet of his life orbits. In all his comings and goings, Paul will now strive to live no longer for himself but for the One who died and was raised to life for him (see 2 Corinthians 5:15).

And what of us? What is our experience of conversion? What prepositions feature most prominently? Around what or whom do our lives orbit?

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Thursday in the 2nd Week of Ordinary Time (II)
Memorial of St. Francis de Sales, Bishop and Doctor of the Church
Children & Peacemakers

Readings: 1 Samuel 18:6-9; 19:1-7; Psalm 56:2-3, 9-10a, 10b-11, 12-13; Mark 3:7-12

In today’s gospel, we once again find Jesus doing something he has been doing earlier. He enjoins silence about himself. Especially in Mark’s gospel, Jesus regularly seems reluctant to broadcast his status as Messiah or Son of God. The exact reason for and significance of this so-called Messianic Secret continues to be an issue for scholarly debate. One possible reason to consider is the likelihood of misunderstanding. Even if people were to address Jesus by the right title, even if they were to apply to him an appropriate label, what difference would it make if they did not really understand what it all meant? Worse still, what if their understanding was less than accurate, or even warped? Isn’t it sometimes even dangerous to have the right answers but not know what they mean?

What then might it mean that Jesus is Son of God? To find the answer, at least the answer in the gospel of Mark, we’ll need to continue paying close attention to our readings each day. Even so, perhaps attention to the first reading might help us in our meditation on this very question. Here, the person of the moment must surely be Jonathan. There are several noteworthy things about him. In particular, he is the king’s son and he is also very fond of David. Jonathan is both son and friend. These two aspects of his identity put him in the best place to do what we see him doing in the reading. Jonathan intercedes with Saul on David’s behalf. And it’s also important to notice how the process is described in Jonathan’s own words: I will go out and stand beside my father in the countryside where you are, and will speak to him about you… The result? Saul has a change of heart, and the son and friend becomes a peacemaker.

As we listen to the story of Jonathan the peacemaker, do we not find ourselves reminded of the story of Jesus? He who was Son did not cling to his equality with His Father, but freely chose to stand with us in the countryside of our exile. The only difference, albeit a crucial difference, is that the one in need of a change of heart is less the Father than those to whom Jesus is sent. Jesus comes to urge us to turn again to the Father. And isn’t this what he is doing in the gospel? Isn’t this the deeper significance of all his preaching and healing and exorcizing? As Jonathan speaks with Saul about David, so does Jesus speak to us about His Father, urging us to a change of heart. Isn’t this how Jesus shows us what it means to be Son of God? To be Son is also to be friend and peacemaker.

There is perhaps one other important similarity, and difference, between the stories of Jonathan and Jesus. After their reconciliation, we are told that Jonathan brought David to Saul and David served him. Isn’t this also what Jesus does for us too? After our change of heart, Jesus ushers us into the service of His Father. The difference is that the relationship is a much closer one than that between David and Saul. For, as we are told in the Beatitudes of Matthew’s gospel: blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called children of God (Matthew 5:10). As we enter into the Father’s service, Jesus’ identity becomes ours by adoption. We become peacemakers and friends and children of God.

What opportunities for peacemaking are there for the children of God today?

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Wednesday in the 2nd Week of Ordinary Time (II)
Aged Heroes

Readings: 1 Samuel 17:32-33, 37, 40-51; Psalm 144:1b, 2, 9-10; Mark 3:1-6

If there’s one striking feature in both our readings today, it is heroism. With nothing but a staff, a slingshot and a bagful of stones, the shepherd boy bravely confronts the mighty Philistine champion and slays him. And, as we will see tomorrow, the risks run by David do not end with the death of Goliath. Success in battle doesn’t automatically translate into a trouble-free life. On the contrary, his heroic behavior will win for David a far more dangerous enemy in Saul, the king himself. What is the source of David’s courage?

Similarly, in the gospel, Jesus refuses to be cowed by the presence of the Pharisees in the synagogue. Although he could easily ignore the man with the withered hand, or even heal him in secret, Jesus deliberately makes him the center of attention. In so doing, Jesus seeks to transform a dangerous situation into a valuable teaching moment. He wagers on the capacity of his enemies to feel pity for a fellow human being in need. And it is a wager that Jesus loses. Although the healing is successful, the teaching is a failure. We’re told that Jesus is angered and grieved at their hardness of heart. Even so, where did Jesus find the courage to gamble in the first place?

Quite obviously the urgency of both situations had something to do with it. Israel needed a champion and the man with the withered hand needed a healer. Someone had to step up to the plate, someone whose heart was soft enough to feel compassion, and whose will was strong enough to make a commitment. But, again, from where did the courage come?

Perhaps age has something to do with it. In the first reading, Saul raises only one objection to David’s offer to fight. You are only a youth… David is too young. And so, presumably, he suffers from all the liabilities of youth: lack of expertise and experience, impetuosity, naivete… But as the story unfolds, we find that it is also his age that swings the battle in David’s favor, albeit age of a different sort. For, although David is young in years, he is old in another sense. Consider his reply to Saul’s objection: The Lord who delivered me from the claws of the lion and the bear, will also keep me safe from the clutches of this Philistine. David is slight in years but aged in the knowledge of God. He trusts that God will come to his aid now, just as God had done so in the past.

In the gospel too, we might imagine that Jesus is also young in years, at least in relation to his enemies. And yet, Jesus is also older by far – more so even than David – in the knowledge of God. For, as we may recall, Jesus is the Word who was with God and was God from the very beginning (see John 1:1). Is it any wonder then that Jesus’ trust in his Father is so strong that he will find the courage to submit himself even to the apparent hopelessness of death?

And what of us? Is it not likely that, like David and Jesus, we too will encounter circumstances that require us to act with compassion? From where will our courage come? How aged are we?

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Tuesday in the 2nd Week of Ordinary Time (II)
Good Grief

Readings: 1 Samuel 16:1-13; Psalm 89:20, 21-22, 27-28; Mark 2:23-28

Why, I wonder, did Samuel do what he did in the first reading today? Why did he assume so readily that Eliab, because of his lofty stature was the Lord’s anointed? The answer seems clear from a plain reading of the text. Samuel was content, at least initially, with judging from appearances. He restricted himself to seeing as man sees. While that is probably the case, perhaps we could reflect a little more deeply on the mechanics of Samuel’s initial choice and what might have prompted it. To begin with, might the description of Eliab in today’s first reading not evoke in us a memory of another biblical figure? On Saturday, didn’t we hear of how handsome was Saul and how he stood head and shoulders above the people? Isn’t it likely that Samuel chose Eliab because he saw in him another Saul? Far-fetched? Perhaps. And yet, we cannot fail to notice that the first reading begins with the Lord questioning Samuel, how long will you grieve for Saul?

Any one of us who has loved and lost will know, first hand, the importance of grief. To grieve is healthy. It allows us the time and the space to say our own personal goodbye to the person or thing to whom or to which we are attached. To grieve is to respect our own feelings for what has been lost and to honor what is now past. Whatever might have been lost – whether a person or a thing, an idea or an era – the grieving process allows us to do what God prompts Samuel to do: without forgetting our loved one, grieving helps us get over our loss and to be on our way.

But there are good and bad forms of grief. As it was for Samuel, grief is good when it helps us to move on with our lives and to engage ourselves fully in all that God wishes us to do in God’s service. On the contrary, grief becomes a problem when we get stuck, when we cling to the past such that we are not able or willing to welcome new expressions of God’s presence in our lives. Isn’t this something like the experience of the Pharisees in the gospel of today? Their desperate clinging to their own strict interpretation of the Law prevents them from recognizing and acknowledging the presence in their midst of the Law’s Fulfillment and only true Interpreter. The Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.

How might the Lord be inviting us to be one our way today?

Monday, January 21, 2008

Monday in the 2nd Week of Ordinary Time (II)
Memorial of St. Agnes, Virgin and Martyr
Of Healthy Trees and Spiritual Growth

Readings: 1 Samuel 15:16-23; Psalm 50:8-9, 16bc-17, 21 and 23; Mark 2:18-22

Over these past months that I’ve spent in a foreign country undergoing formal training as a Jesuit, I’ve enjoyed the view from my room. Although I can see neither very much nor very far because my field of vision is obstructed, the obstruction itself has been a source of delight. Planted just next to the building where I live is a tall tree. From my window I can see little else but its branches and leaves and a few patches of blue sky. And today this same obstruction offers some insight into the Mass readings and how they relate to what my companions and I are doing at this stage of our formation. The question that comes to mind is this: could the signs of a healthy spiritual life bear some resemblance to those that point to a healthy tree? If so, what are they? In the light of our experience over these past months, I can think of several.

The first, of course, is a happy coincidence of favorable conditions. Like the tree outside my room, this is something that my companions and I have experienced, sometimes even to an astonishing degree. God’s providence has somehow arranged things in such a way that, for the most part, each of us has been conscious of encountering the kinds of experiences that each one needs for our personal growth. Today’s readings offer just one more example of providence at work. Just when our studies of Jesuit documents have reached the subject of our vow of obedience, we hear these words spoken to us in the first reading: obedience is better than sacrifice…

The second aspect of healthy growth is rather less obvious. Put simplistically, a tree grows in essentially two directions. The trunk grows upward and the roots downward. A healthy tree is thus a tree in tension. It has to allow itself to be pulled in both these directions. And, in a way, isn’t this true too of the spiritual life? Consider again our readings today. If Saul is rebuked for his disobedience in the first reading, the Pharisees of the gospel get into trouble with Jesus apparently because they are too obedient. They want to continue following the custom of fasting even while the bridegroom is with them. Of course, from another perspective, there really is no contradiction here. The key to the difficulty is in realizing what or whom it is we are ultimately called to obey. Not so much the laws and customs, but the Son who incarnates them and the Spirit who inspires them. Still, we only come to appreciate this by allowing ourselves to live, with creative fidelity, the tensions between letter and spirit, tradition and experience.

Which brings us to the third aspect of a healthy spiritual life. Depending on its particular species, a healthy tree is one that somehow renews itself. Have you ever noticed, for example, the number of leaves some trees shed in a single day? And renewal, of course, implies death. A healthy tree is thus a tree that dies and rises. Isn’t this what is required of Saul and the Pharisees in our readings today? In order to obey God, Saul must die to that part of himself that takes pride in offering a glorious sacrifice. Similarly, in order to obey the Word made flesh, the Pharisees must die to their pride in their own adherence to the custom of fasting. And need we mention that, quite coincidentally, we also celebrate the memory of a martyr today? The operative word here is mortification (latin mortificare = to kill). As St. Ignatius tells us: in all spiritual matters, the more one divests oneself of self-love, self-will, and self-interests, the more progress one will make (SpEx 189).

There is, actually, something else that I can see from my window. Not just tree branches but also the birds that delight in perching on them. The healthy tree exists not just for itself but also for the birds. Doesn’t Jesus say something similar about the kingdom of God? It is like a mustard seed that, when it is sown in the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on the earth. But once it is sown, it springs up and becomes the largest of plants and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the sky can dwell in its shade (Mark 4:31-32).

How might God be helping us to nurture the tree of our spiritual life today?

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Saturday in the 1st Week of Ordinary Time (II)
I Still Haven’t Found…

Readings: 1 Samuel 9:1-4, 17-19; 10:1; Psalm 21:2-3, 4-5, 6-7; Mark 2:13-17

If homilies or reflections are permitted to have theme songs, then the one I’d choose for today is probably U2’s I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For. The choice seems obvious, especially when we consider Saul’s experience in the first half of the first reading. We’re told that he sets out to find his father Kish’s lost asses, but despite scouring the hill country of Ephraim, the land of Shalishah, and the land of Benjamin, (yes, please sing it with me) they still didn’t find what they were looking for.

But the fruitless search is only half the story. The other half is really about finding. Saul sets out in search of asses, and ends up finding a kingdom. The handsome herdsman stumbles upon his destiny and becomes a kingly hero. For in him Samuel and the people of Israel discover the ruler they’d been looking for. What at first sight appears to be a fruitless search thus bears fruit in a surprising way.

Something similar is waiting to happen in the gospel, at least for the Pharisees who were watching Jesus in order to find something to criticize. Jesus goes out along the sea looking for disciples, but ends up eating with tax collectors and sinners. Another failed search? Not quite. At least not for Jesus. For he did not come to call the righteous but sinners. Instead of Jesus, it is the Pharisees who haven’t found what they’d been looking for. They are disappointed in Jesus. They are hoping for a Messiah, but Jesus doesn’t seem to fit the bill. To really find that for which they are searching, something in them must change. But what?

We get a hint of an answer from the story of Saul. But being only an excerpt, the first reading doesn’t quite give us the whole picture. We need to refer to the Bible. There we witness two interior shifts. The first takes place in the heart of Kish, Saul’s father, and it is expressed in these words addressed to his son: The asses which you went to seek are found, and now your father has ceased to care about the asses and is anxious about you (1 Samuel 10:2 (RSV)). Understandably, when his son fails to return, Kish comes to see that he values his son over his asses. What we have here is a shift in desire, or rather a realization of a deeper desire. The second interior shift is similar and even more crucial to the story. It takes place in Saul himself. It is expressed in the following words, which Samuel uses to help Saul to shift his desires from the asses to the kingship of Israel: As for your asses that were lost three days ago, do not set your mind on them, for they have been found. And for whom is all that is desirable in Israel? Is it not for you and for all your father’s house? (9:20). And this shift in Saul is perhaps even better expressed in 10:9, where we are told that God gave him another heart.

Isn’t this the kind of shift that needs to take place also in the Pharisees? In order to find what they are looking for, truly looking for, they need first to examine and reassess their desires, and to consider carefully who Jesus is and what he is offering them. They need to be willing to allow their hearts to be changed.

And what about us? What shifts do we need to undergo in order to find what we are looking for?

Friday, January 18, 2008

Friday in the 1st Week of Ordinary Time (II)
Crowning the King

Readings: 1 Samuel 8:4-7, 10-22a; Psalm 89:16-17, 18-19; Mark 2:1-12

At a time when many eyes around the world are turned with interest to the United States of America and the long and complicated process that will result in the election of a new occupant of the White House, our first reading today speaks to us about the appointment of a king for the people of Israel. Of course, a democracy is not a monarchy, and a president is not a king. Even so, what we have in both cases is the eventual choice of, and submission to, an earthly authority. And it may be useful to consider one interesting aspect of this process.

Some scholars tell us that the first reading probably presents one perspective on the development of the monarchy as an institution in Israel. Quite obviously, this is a view that emphasizes the disadvantages of submitting to a king. Kingship will mean taxation and national service: he will take your sons… he will use your daughters… he will tithe your flocks and you yourselves will become his slaves… Worse still, submitting to an earthly ruler seems to imply the rejection of God. It is not you they reject, they are rejecting me as their king. And yet, in spite of all these disadvantages, the people are adamant. The reading tells us why: we too must be like other nations, with a king to rule us and to lead us in warfare and fight our battles. In the mind of the people, having a king brings certain advantages that outweigh the considerable disadvantages. And they are willing to take the good with bad. They are willing to pay the price.

At least among Christians today, few, if any, will dispute the need for political leadership of some sort. Theocracy is no longer a viable option. Even so, isn’t there something we can learn from Israel’s experience of appointing a king? Like Israel, in choosing and submitting to our leaders, don’t we routinely endure what might be seen as disadvantages for the sake of perceived benefits? Don’t we quite naturally accept the bad for the sake of the greater good?

And yet, isn’t it also true that we tend to find it far more difficult to do the same in the spiritual realm? How difficult it is to accept from God, our King of kings and Lord of lords, the bad along with the good. How difficult it is to pay the price of discipleship. Our complaints can vary, ranging from the trivial to the traumatic. Some may chafe at simply having to go to church every Sunday, perhaps the only day of the week when they can sleep in. Others may be led by the experience of terminal illness to seek solace in the teachings of another religion, in the power of some other god. Whatever our particular complaint, don’t we sometimes find ourselves stubbornly refusing to take the bad with the good? Like the scribes of today’s gospel, don’t we also wonder to ourselves, why does this man speak that way? Don’t we sometimes find it difficult to accept that God might actually be revealing God’s self to us in the difficult situation at hand?

Which is why the experience of the paralytic and his friends can be as instructive as that of the people of Israel. In contrast to the scribes, they are willing to go to great lengths to present themselves before the Lord, to submit to his divine authority, even to the extent of climbing walls and stripping roofs. Could their eagerness be because they realize, at some deep level, the immensity of the good that Jesus brings? Child, your sins are forgiven…

How are we being invited to accept Christ as our Lord and King today?

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Thursday in the 1st Week of Ordinary Time (II)
Memorial of St. Anthony, Abbot
Turning the World Upside Down

Readings: 1 Samuel 4:1-11; Psalm 44:10-11, 14-15, 24-25; Mark 1:40-45

Have you ever done a handstand or a headstand before? It’s not really a pleasant experience. The blood rushes to your head, and the world looks disconcertingly different. But then, there are some who claim that there are health benefits to the practice. I bring this up because our readings today call to mind the following verse from another part of the bible. In the Revised Standard Version of Acts 17:6, we find this accusation leveled against Paul and Silas by the Jews of Thessalonica: These men who have turned the world upside down have come here also…

If our readings today have anything in common, this seems to be it. In the first reading, the Israelites are used to experiencing God fighting on their side, especially when the ark is with them. Isn’t this why they raise a mighty shout at the arrival of the ark from Shiloh? They are confident that God will fight on their side and lead them to a great victory against their enemies the Philistines. But their world is turned upside down when they are made to suffer two disastrous defeats. Their feelings are poignantly expressed in their question: why has the Lord permitted us to be defeated today by the Philistines?

At least in the context of the first book of Samuel, the answer seems clear. God has forsaken them because they have first forsaken God. In particular, the priestly family comprising Eli and his two sons has been unfaithful to God. As such, in handing the people of Israel over to the Philistines, God is, in effect, fighting for them against a far more dangerous enemy. God turns their world upside down only so that they might acknowledge the error of their ways and turn back to God.

Doesn’t Jesus do something similar in the gospel? In a culture wherein lepers are shunned, Jesus turns the world upside down by allowing his compassion to move him to heal a leper by touching him. But that’s not all. Isn’t Jesus turning the world upside down in even deeper ways? In a culture that places great emphasis on honor and shame, Jesus shuns apparently positive publicity because he judges it to be contrary to his mission. His compassionate touch quickly turns into a stern warning: see that you tell no one anything… In a culture that considers suffering as a punishment for sin, or otherwise as a curse from God, Jesus willingly suffers for the sake of love. Not only does he touch and heal the leper, he actually ends up taking the leper’s place at the margins of society. We’re told that he remained outside in deserted places. Does this miracle story not turn our minds to the bigger picture of what Jesus comes to do? Does it not remind us of how, by his Passion, Death and Resurrection, Jesus comes to turn our world upside down so that our hearts might be turned back to the Father? And is this not the same mission that we are invited to share, as Paul and Silas were?

As we reflect over our Mass readings today, perhaps we might consider the different ways in which God might be nudging us into a handstand.

How does God wish to turn our world upside down today?

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Wednesday in the 1st Week of Ordinary Time (II)

Readings: 1 Samuel 3:1-10, 19-20; Psalm 40:2 and 5, 7-8a, 8b-9, 10; Mark 1:29-39

There’s something I had to learn back in the days when computer programs, and computers in general, were far less user friendly. Whenever I had problems getting the machine to do what I wanted it to do, I often jumped to the conclusion that there was something wrong with either the software or the hardware or both. That was until someone reminded me that computers are built in such a way that what you get out of them depends in large measure on what you put in. As such the first thing to do when faced with a problem is to consider what you might be doing wrong. Output varies with input.

I recently had an experience of the truth of this principle while on vacation. I was enjoying some quiet time reading, when the tranquil surroundings were shattered by the sudden arrival of a group of children. They started playing near me and shouting at the top of their lungs. Two of the grown-ups in attendance looked at me apologetically and said – rather redundantly, I thought – that the children were making too much noise. A little later, however, I noticed that those same adults spoke to one another at a volume that wasn’t much lower than that of the children. A classic case of output varying with input?

Indeed, the principle of considering both input and output is so basic that we enshrine it in our approach to education. Traditionally, for example, didn’t we use to speak of acquiring the three R’s: Reading, wRiting, and aRithmetic? The first R is focused on input, the second on output, and the third on both.

And, if our readings today are anything to go by, the same basic principle holds true in spiritual formation as well. Consider how the output of the various personalities in both readings is determined by a prior input: Simon’s mother-in-law waits on Jesus and his disciples, but only after he first heals her of her illness. Jesus goes from town to town, entering their synagogues, preaching and driving out demons throughout the whole of Galilee, but only after having spent time praying in a deserted place. Samuel becomes an accredited prophet of the Lord in all of Israel from Dan to Beersheba, but only after he has learnt from Eli the art of hearing God’s voice – speak Lord, for your servant is listening. In contrast, the demons driven out by Jesus are not permitted to speak, presumably because their purposes run counter to the Lord’s God-given mission. They are not allowed any output because they receive no input from God.

If all this is true, then it might be helpful to reflect a little on our approach to fostering spiritual growth – both our own and that of those entrusted to our care. More likely than not, there will already be some emphasis on morality, on learning what are the proper things to think and say and do, as well as on what should be avoided. But, important as it is to focus, in this way, on output, isn’t it as important, if not more so, to consider how we are also learning to receive input from God? Amidst a cacophony of the many different sounds – internal and external – to which we are all exposed on a daily basis, how are we learning and helping others to learn the crucial art of recognizing and heeding the voice of God?

How balanced is our approach to input and output?

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Tuesday in the 1st Week of Ordinary Time (II)
Questioning Authority

Readings: 1 Samuel 1:9-20; 1 Samuel 2:1, 4-5, 6-7, 8abcd; Mark 1:21-28

What is this? A new teaching with authority. He commands even the unclean spirits and they obey him…

Today I’m reminded of two anecdotes from different places told to me at different times by different people. The first has to do with the distribution of communion at Mass. Most of us have probably noticed how there are some who prefer to receive communion from the hands of an ordained priest even when it means having to join a longer queue. Well, it seems that the priest at a certain church, noticing this phenomenon, has taken to waiting for the communion queue to form in front of him and then quickly switching places with a communion minister…

The second anecdote has to do with the appointment of a lay person to take charge of the day-to-day running of an important diocesan organization. It seems that although one or two members of the local clergy have been given responsibility to oversee the organization, they pretty much let the lay person have a free reign. Some feel it’s because this person was a corporate big-wig in a past life and so the priests defer to his/ her experience. But what seems to have been forgotten is that, despite the good intentions and expertise of the one concerned, s/he is relatively new to religious affairs and still requires guidance in matters of the spirit…

I don’t know how true these stories are. But, even taken at face value, I believe they invite us to reflect on an issue that presents itself also in our readings today. They invite us, so to speak, to question authority. Why do Mass-goers prefer to receive communion from an ordained priest? Why do ordained priests with the responsibility of oversight defer so totally to a lay leader? How is authority being recognized and exercised?

The readings lead us to question authority in this way also by way of two stories. Something surprising happens in both, something that results from a particular exercise of authority. In the gospel, people are amazed when the unclean spirit is exorcized. And ought we not to be surprised too by the experience of Hannah in the first reading? Even though she had yet to conceive, we’re told that, upon leaving the temple, she no longer appeared downcast. The deep sorrow and misery that afflicted her earlier had been driven out of her.

But what is perhaps even more surprising than these effects of authority being exercised is its unlikely source. In the gospel, instead of any of the synagogue officials, it is Jesus who exorcizes. And although Eli is the priest in the first reading, the lifting of Hannah’s spirits seems more the result of her own impassioned plea to God than Eli’s ministrations. Indeed, doesn’t Eli initially mistake her prayer for drunkenness? In both cases, authority flows unexpectedly from each person’s relationship with God. Hannah is helped when she lays bare her needs before the Lord, just as Jesus receives his identity and affirmation from his heavenly father, especially at the moment when he humbly submits to baptism by John in the Jordan.

Are these scripture stories not inviting us to reflect upon the manner in which we recognize and exercise authority? Do they not, for example, challenge us to examine the extent to which we submit unquestioningly to authority without giving thought to its source? Do they not also call us to account for the times when we might be tempted to shirk our own responsibility to exercise our God-given authority as baptized sons and daughters of a loving Father?

How are we being called to question authority today?

Monday, January 14, 2008

Monday in the 1st Week of Ordinary Time (II)
Telling the Time

Readings: 1 Samuel 1:1-8; Psalm 116:12-13, 14-17, 18-19; Mark 1:14-20

Celebrating Mass in rural areas has been an interesting experience. For one thing, the scheduled time for Mass tends to be nothing more than a guideline. Everyone knows and understands that the actual time Mass begins depends on at least two factors. First, of course, the priest has to make his appearance. And who can predict if he’ll be on time, since he’s most likely coming from an earlier Mass in another area. Also, once the bell is rung to signal Father’s arrival, people must be given time to drop whatever they’re doing and to make their way to the place of gathering. Some, of course, are already there, ready and waiting. Others come as soon as they hear the bell. Yet others take a little longer to tear themselves away from their chores. And then, of course, there are those who don’t show up at all. So the time at which Mass actually begins depends on the speed of people’s response. But on what then, we may wonder, does their response depend?

The gospel story for today presents us with a somewhat similar question for reflection. Jesus passes by the Sea of Galilee and calls four fishermen. And we’re told that all four immediately left their nets – two even left their father – and followed him. What made them do that? On what did their response depend?

We probably cannot say for sure how it actually happened. But it does seem highly probable that their response had something to do with their ability to tell time. The gospel makes it clear that they were all busy when Jesus showed up. Simon and Andrew were casting their nets into the sea. And James and John were mending their nets. So the Lord’s arrival might so easily have been dismissed as an unwelcome distraction, a time of disturbance. But something led them not only to stop what they were doing, but also to listen and to respond to Jesus with incredible generosity. What made the difference?

Perhaps Hannah’s experience in the first reading offers us some insight into the question. Although hers is a life of privilege – she is the favorite wife of her husband, who dotes on her and gives her a double portion of the sacrificial offering – Hannah remains deeply depressed. All the benefits that she enjoys do not fulfill her. Something essential remains missing. She is barren. And it is out of her experience of being thus unfulfilled that she will be led to beg God for help.

Might this tell us something of the experience of the fishermen of Galilee? And of the people who finally do show up at Mass in the barrios? Could the generosity of their response be born of their own experience of barrenness in the midst of busy-ness? Could their willingness to drop whatever they are doing and to follow Christ be because they are hoping that the Lord will lead them to that which is essential? Could it be because they realize what time it is – that it is, in Jesus own words, the time of fulfillment?

And what about us, we who are entering the period of the Church’s calendar known as Ordinary Time? How keenly aware are we of the time in which we live? How conscious are we that, because of Christ’s coming among us as a human being, every moment of every day is now potentially a sacred time, a time of fulfillment? How ready are we to drop whatever it is we are doing, in order to listen and respond generously to whatever the Lord is telling us to do?

What time is it for us today?

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Saturday After Epiphany
The Ladder Left Behind

Readings: 1 John 5:14-21; Psalm 149:1-2, 3-4, 5-6a and 9b; John 3:22-30

Yesterday, we were led by our readings to reflect on how Christmas is an occasion for us to receive God’s testimony of love for us in Christ Jesus. And we did not simply stop there. For a sure sign of our reception of God’s testimony is that we, in our turn, are moved to offer our own unique testimony to the world. Providentially, today’s Mass readings help us to consider more deeply something of what it’s like to testify in this way, what it’s like to be a witness.

We begin by considering what might be considered a common occupational hazard of bearing witness. I recently heard a homily by a Jesuit in his eighties who spoke about how, in his own experience, guarding against this same temptation is a life-long task, especially for those who minister to others, those who heed the call to testify. The danger is the same one that John the Baptist faces in the gospel today. Despite opposition from some quarters, John has experienced some success in his ministry. He has attracted followers. But this success brings with it an accompanying danger. The members of the John the Baptist fan club complain to him that Jesus is baptizing and everyone is coming to him. John is thus faced with the danger of actually competing with the very One on whose behalf he has been laboring to testify.

I suspect that it is not too difficult for many of us to identify with John’s situation. At least it’s not for me. Whoever we are, isn’t it all too easy to allow our witness to become centered on ourselves rather than on the Lord? We may begin by testifying on Christ’s behalf, but as we gather more people around us to hear the Good News, how tempting it is to want to keep them by our side, even when it may be time for them to move on. However subtly or gradually, what might have started out as a simple coffee-stand, we develop into a restaurant, and then a five-star hotel, and even a palatial villa. Whatever it takes to keep people with us.

Which is why John’s example is so invaluable. How does he avoid succumbing to the temptation to lead people to himself? He continually remembers who he is and what he was sent to do. His personal relationship with God enables him to never lose sight of the fact that I am not the Christ… Instead he sees himself as the best man who rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice… We might be reminded here of that famous metaphor used by the philosopher Wittgenstein. He spoke of his philosophy as steps on a ladder. Rather than clinging onto the ladder, you leave it behind after you have climbed it. Doesn’t this sound a lot like John’s attitude towards his own ministry when he says of Jesus, he must increase; I must decrease? Indeed, John was willing to decrease to the extent of suffering martyrdom at the hands of Herod. And, of course, we shouldn’t forget that the word martyr also means witness.

As we come to the end of the Christmas season, perhaps it will do us good to reflect upon our own efforts at bearing witness to Christ. Do we try to build comfortable villas to keep people by our side at all costs? Or are we willing instead to submit to the martyrdom of being discarded like a ladder that has been climbed?

Friday, January 11, 2008

Friday After Epiphany
The Testimony of Heart and Hand

Readings: 1 John 5:5-13; Psalm 147:12-13, 14-15, 19-20; Luke 5:12-16

The testimony of God is this, that he has testified on behalf of his Son. Whoever believes in the Son of God has this testimony within himself…

What do you think of when you hear the word testimony? I know one particular image quickly comes to my mind. It is that of someone speaking from a witness box in a court of law. Isn’t this what it means to testify? You speak in support of someone or something so that others might believe. And often the testimony of a witness can be crucial. In capital cases it can even mean the difference between life and death. This is also the significance of the testimony referred to in the first reading. For what is at stake is belief in the Son of God. And, as we heard, whoever possesses the Son has life; whoever does not possess the Son of God does not have life. What is at stake here is nothing less than eternal life for the salvation of the world.

Again, what do you think of when you hear the word testimony? When it becomes clear that we’re speaking in the realm of faith, another image comes to my mind. It is that of what is sometimes referred to as the bible-thumping Christian. Whether it is on the street or going from door-to-door, this person is also giving testimony. S/he is speaking about the Son of God so that people might believe in Him and have life. Whatever may be our reactions to this image, we cannot deny that, as Christians, we all have the responsibility to, in some way, testify to Christ by word of mouth. But even before considering what might be our responsibility, the Mass readings for today invite us to linger over other images.

What do you think of when you hear the word testimony? In the gospel, we are presented with an image of Jesus’ testimony to the Father’s love for us. In addition to the testimony of the word, his is also a testimony of the hand. When confronted with the pitiful but revolting sight of a leper, we are told that Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him… This testimony is also a symbolic action. It points us to the true identity and mission of Jesus. In him God the Father stretches out a hand of compassion to gather us into the warmth of the divine embrace. Which is why there is more to the testimony that Jesus gives in the gospel. His outstretched hand is also a testimony of the heart, a heart moved with pity at the plight of others, at our plight.

What do you think of when you hear the word testimony? The first reading hints at yet another image. Here, we see the full extent of the testimony of heart and hand that Jesus offers us. We are told that Jesus Christ came not by water alone, but by water and blood. What comes to mind is, of course, that scene in John 19:34 where the crucified Christ has his side pierced by a soldier’s lance, and at once there came out blood and water… What we find here is a testimony of the broken heart and the broken hand.

These are the scenes that our readings bring to our attention as the Christmas season gradually draws to a close. They are primarily images that testify to the love that the season celebrates. Not so much our love for God, but God’s love for us. As we continue to contemplate these images, perhaps we might pray that they will move us to offer our own unique testimony to a waiting world.

How are we being called to do this today?

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Wednesday After Epiphany
It’s About Heart

Readings: 1 John 4:11-18; Psalm 72:1-2, 10, 12-13; Matthew 6:45-52

Yesterday we compared the coming of Christ to the cracking of a joke. We know we get it only when we are moved by amazement to love as Jesus loves. But, as is always the case when we delve into the realm of mystery, there is something more to be said, isn’t there? While the experience of Christ’s coming might very well feel as pleasant as that of listening to a side-splitting story, it can also evoke other feelings that are not as welcome. Consider the experience of the various characters in the Christmas story. What was the Virgin Mary’s first reaction to the angel’s greeting? What was Joseph’s reaction to the news of Mary’s pregnancy? What was Herod’s reaction to the advent of the Magi?

Perhaps amazement was part of the mix of emotions these people experienced. But wasn’t there also a significant amount of fear and distress? And isn’t this reaction understandable given the significance of what was happening? Once the innocent little life was conceived, he would unsettle the lives of all those with whom he came into contact. The Virgin had to become a mother… The honorable carpenter, a father to a child not his own… The ruler, a subject of a greater King… As was the experience of the disciples in the gospel of today, Christ’s coming can often disturb as much as it can console.

Even so, don’t we feel some discomfort at hearing the names of Mary, Joseph and Herod mentioned in the same breath? For, although all three may have been distressed in the beginning, only the king chooses to remain a captive to his own fear. Like the disciples in the gospel, he fails or refuses to grasp the significance of what is happening. He chooses to rely on his own resources in dealing with the terrors of the night. He hardens his own heart and arranges for the slaughter of the innocents. In contrast, even in their distress, Mary and Joseph remain open to the promptings of God, who reassures them as Jesus does the disciples in the gospel. Take courage, it is I, do not be afraid! And because their hearts remain soft and vulnerable, they experience the truth of the words in the first reading: there is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear…

Indeed, Christ’s coming is not always a pleasant experience, at least not initially. Like that ghostly specter in today’s gospel, Christ can often choose to intrude into the calm of our daily existence in various unsettling ways. And a fearful reaction is probably as unavoidable for us as it was for the disciples. What is possible, and necessary, is that we keep the communication channels open. We need to keep bringing our concerns to the Lord, to keep listening to his words of reassurance, to allow his perfect love to cast out our fear. But for this to happen we need to let him replace our hearts of stone with hearts of flesh.

What is our reaction to Christ’s coming today?

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Tuesday After Epiphany
I Stand Amazed

Readings: 1 John 4:7-10; Psalm 72:1-2, 3-4, 7-8; Matthew 6:34-44

Over Christmas, I often found myself among people speaking in a foreign language. And there were occasions when everyone would suddenly break into laughter. Everyone, that is, except me. Not understanding what had just been said, I was left looking around blankly, waiting for someone to explain the joke to me in a language I could understand. And, of course, one can have the same experience even when one understands the language being spoken but doesn’t know the context that makes what is said funny. Whatever the case may be, we know how to tell whether or not we understand something humorous. If we get it, we will be moved to laughter.

Perhaps something similar happens at Christmas too. How do we know whether we get it? How do we know whether we are beginning to grasp the profound mystery of Christ’s coming among us? Of course, the first reading gives us the final answer in no uncertain terms: everyone who loves is begotten by God and knows God… If we truly grasp the mystery of God’s love for us in Christ, we will find ourselves moved to love, and to love in a very specific way. In the words of the opening prayer, we will become more like him who became like us.

But that’s not all. Just as we only truly laugh when we react to something funny, so too do we only truly love when we are moved by a particular reaction to God’s love for us made manifest in Christ. One such reaction is amazement, the same amazement that the people experienced when the shepherds shared with them the good news of Christ’s birth on Christmas night.

Indeed, the story in our gospel today helps us to consider aspects of the Christmas mystery that could amaze us. For one, like Jesus’ miraculous feeding of the five thousand, Christmas is also God’s response to a specific situation of difficulty. In the words of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, God gazed on the whole surface… of the world, full of people... going down into hell and decides that the Second Person should become a human being, in order to save the human race… (SpEx 102). The amazing thing about both these responses is their radical disproportion to the difficulty at hand. In the gospel, the hungry number no less than five thousand, and Jesus chooses to feed them with five loaves and two fish. In the Spiritual Exercises, the whole world is engulfed in the darkness of sin and death, and God chooses to be born as a helpless infant. The typical Singaporean might be forgiven for wondering whether other more effective, efficient, or impressive responses might not have been made.

But God’s response follows a different logic, the logic of love. Isn’t this precisely what makes it so amazing? For this is a logic of compassion: his heart was moved with pity for them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd… It is also a logic of collaboration. Jesus saves by challenging the sheep to shepherd one another: give them some food yourselves… And the abundance that results after Jesus has taken and blessed, broken and shared, is perhaps what brings our amazement to its climax: they picked up twelve wicker baskets full of fragments…

How does the Lord wish to amaze us with his love today?

Monday, January 07, 2008

Monday After Epiphany
Light and Shadow

Readings: 1 John 3:22–4:6; Psalm 2:7bc-8, 10-12a; Matthew 4:12-17, 23-25

Test the spirits to see whether they belong to God…

In the wake of the solemn feast of the Epiphany, the Mass readings and prayers for today contain many references to the Light. Most notably, the gospel contains a quotation from Isaiah (8:23-9:1): the people who sit in darkness have seen a great light… The congregation to which I was sent to minister over Christmas had a quite literal experience of this verse shortly before the beginning of one of the dawn Masses. There was, apparently, a problem with the overhead projector, which caused the circuit-breaker to trip. For several long minutes, the whole church was plunged into pitch darkness. You can imagine the cheers when the lights finally came on…

But joy is not the only result of the Light’s coming. The beginning of Jesus’ public ministry in the gospel also brings with it another crucial benefit. In the words of Psalm 36:9, with you is the fountain of life, and in your light we see light… The light of Christ enables us to distinguish more clearly light from shadow. Or, in the words of the first reading, Christ helps us to test the spirits that are at work in the world, to see whether they belong to God

To do this, we need to contemplate the effects of the Light’s presence. We need to consider the words and works of Jesus. In today’s gospel, the most obvious and comforting of these is, of course, healing. We’re told that great crowds gathered from all over the country and followed Jesus because he cured every disease and illness among the people. But physical and emotional healing is not the only sign of the Light’s presence. The gospel also tells us that Jesus preached the challenging message of repentance and reconciliation. Repent for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand. Among the great crowds who flocked to him, we may wonder how many actually heard this deeper message. How many actually correctly read the miracles worked by the Lord as signs of a deeper truth, a more urgent calling…

There is yet another aspect to the Light’s coming that is just as demanding and no less essential. We find a hint of this at the beginning of today’s gospel, which speaks of the arrest of John the Baptist. Not only does the Light come to heal and to reconcile, but the Light also brings this about in a very distinctive way, by submitting, in love, to the humiliation of the Cross

Like the community to whom the first reading is addressed, we too live our lives in the midst of a diversity of spirits, voices that prompt us to think, feel and act in very distinctive ways. And doesn’t it also remain true that there continue to be false prophets among us? Isn’t it crucial for us to be able to distinguish light from shadow, to continue to test the spirits against the Light who is Christ?

How are we being called to do this today?

Saturday, January 05, 2008

5 January
Under the Fig Tree

Readings: 1 John 3:11-21; Psalm 100:1b-2, 3, 4, 5; John 1:43-51

Our readings today remind me of scenes from two movies. In The Human Stain, a young African-American man, whose skin is fair enough to allow him to pass for a Caucasian, decides to assume the identity of a white-man. He does so because this is the only way to get ahead in a severely bigoted society. And he is willing to do this even though it requires him to sever all ties with his family. In the poignant scene where he finally reveals his plan to his mother, she responds by calling him a murderer. But why a murderer? Unlike Cain of the first reading, he hasn’t cut anybody’s throat. And yet, by choosing to deny their very existence, hasn't he, in a sense, killed every member of his family? Once he puts his plan into action, they will be as good as dead to him.

Indeed, there are many different ways to take another’s life. We can do it with a sharp knife. But we can also just as easily do it with a sharp tongue, as well as with the dull edge of willful neglect. And, as the movie shows us, we can do it also by choosing not to acknowledge the reality of another’s dignity as a human being. All this makes the message of the first reading all the more significant for us. For it presents us with only two alternatives. We can either be murderers or lovers. We can either choose to live for ourselves or we can lay down our lives for God and for others. There is no middle ground. How then to avoid the first alternative and embrace the second.

The gospel shows us the way by describing the encounter between Jesus and Nathanael. What indication do we have of Nathanael’s initial murderous tendencies? Is it not in his response to Philip? Can anything good come out of Nazareth? In one sentence, Nathanael seeks to dismiss the existence of Jesus. He is from Nazareth, and I know all about the people of Nazareth. No need to see him. But, with the help of Philip, Jesus helps Nathanael to see. The journey begins under the fig tree. But what exactly happens there?

In the movie adaptation of Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club, a mother is conversing with her daughter as they clear the dinner table after some guests have left. The daughter is upset because her mother seems to have been comparing her to the more attractive and successful daughter of a family friend. But the mother responds by continually repeating the words, I see you! She reassures her daughter that the latter’s kindness has not escaped her attention. She has seen how her daughter chooses the less appetizing pieces of food at the dinner table so that others can have the best. She has seen beyond appearances and found goodness by looking into her daughter’s heart. I see you…

Isn’t this also how Jesus leads Nathanael from death to life, from blindness to sight? Before Philip called you, I saw you under the fig tree… In other words, I have chosen to look beyond what others have told me about you, beyond my own preconceived notions of who you might be, beyond even your own self-estimation. I have looked into your heart with the eyes of my own and seen your goodness. There is no duplicity in him…

The impossible journey from selfishness to love, from the taking of others’ lives to the laying down of one’s own, begins under the fig tree. It begins when we experience ourselves being seen by the Lord, being known by him for who we really are. In this way, we are given courage to see for ourselves, to witness the angels of God ascending and descending upon the reality we might at first wish to deny, upon the people whom we might at first be tempted to kill. And in seeing, we are moved to love...

Where might we find our fig tree today?

Friday, January 04, 2008

4 January
Children Born of Searching

Readings: 1 John 3:7-10; Psalm 98:1, 7-8, 9; John 1:35-42

In this way, the children of God and the children of the Devil are made plain…

As we continue to celebrate the birth of the child who comes to save his people, the first reading invites us to consider the stark contrast that his coming among us uncovers. It tells us how to distinguish between the children of God and the children of the Devil. We are familiar with the words used to describe the criteria involved: No one who is begotten by God commits sin… No one who fails to act in righteousness belongs to God, nor anyone who does not love his brother… Sin, righteousness, love – these are words we have heard many times in the past. Yet, isn’t it true that apparent familiarity can often also hide great ignorance? Isn’t this the experience of the Pharisees of Jesus’ day?

Which is why the gospel today is so useful. Here we find a story that depicts the process by which people become children of God. It is helpful first to notice that the characters in the story are all engrossed in different expressions of a single action. What were the two disciples of John the Baptist doing when they followed Jesus? They were searching for something or someone. And so engrossed were they in this search that they were willing even to leave behind their first master. They were willing to forsake the familiar for the novel. And they were able to do this because they believed that while the first was the promise, the second was its fulfillment.

And they are aided in this first search by a second one. Jesus leads them to ransack their own hearts for the answer to his question: what are you looking for? And in the process, they come to see that, in truth, their search has led them to the One who has traveled from all eternity in search of them. We have found the Messiah… Isn’t this a useful picture of the righteousness that escapes the snare of sin? Rather than being obsessed simply with avoiding wrongdoing, the children of God are instead engrossed in seeking the One who is the very embodiment of righteousness, the One who emptied himself even unto death, the Lamb of God himself.

There is yet a third search in this process, one that makes concrete the commandment of love. What does Andrew do after finding Jesus? He seeks out his brother Peter and brings him to the Lord...

As we continue to deepen our appreciation of the mystery of Christmas, the great feast by which we celebrate our becoming and remaining children of God, perhaps we can consider how we being called to search.

What are you looking for?

Thursday, January 03, 2008

3 January
Seeing Unto Song

Readings: 1 John 2:29–3:6; Psalm 98:1, 3cd-4, 5-6; John 1:29-34

Have you ever closely followed a drama series on television? It can be highly addictive. The viewing of one episode simply makes you want to watch the next… and the next… until you reach the grand finale. Isn’t this why some people decide to buy the whole series on VCD or DVD? So that they can watch the whole series at their own pace and leisure? Indeed, I know some who find these serials so compelling that they will even have their meals and do their housework in front of the TV.

This eagerness to see more probably captures something of the disposition that our readings present to us today. What happens to people who truly experience the mystery of Christ’s coming among us? What happens, for example, to people such as Mary and Joseph, the shepherds and the wise men? Having seen the episode where the baby appears in a manger, do they simply go back to their lives as if nothing has changed? On the contrary, once they have caught sight of the love the Father has bestowed on us that we may be called the children of God, they hunger for more. They are impelled to look out for further sightings of God’s love in their daily lives.

And seeing is not all that they do, for there’s another aspect to this happy addiction that parallels what happens to those who watch TV serials. If the serial is good enough, not only do you want to keep seeing it for yourself, but you are also driven to sing its praises to others, to share with others what you like about it. Isn’t this why people form appreciation clubs? They can’t keep the experience to themselves. We see something similar in the readings too. The psalmist exhorts us, for example, to sing to the Lord a new song because all the ends of the earth have seen the salvation by our God. And this too is the experience of John the Baptist in the gospel. Having seen Jesus, having baptized him and witnessed the Spirit come down like a dove from the sky and remain upon him, John exclaims: now I have seen and testified that he is the Son of God.

And where does this seeing and singing lead? How does this serial end? What will be its Grand Finale? In the words of the first reading: what we shall be has not yet been revealed… when it is revealed we shall see him as he is… This is what we can all look forward to: beholding the beauty of God as he is, and singing his praises for all eternity.

But that is in the future. For now everyone who has this hope… makes himself pure. Turning aside from every distraction, we need to keep striving to catch sight of Christ in the here and now, to see him in a way that moves us to sing of him in the sight of others.

How are we being invited to do this today?

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

2 January
Memorial of Ss. Basil the Great and Gregory Nazianzen
Celebrating By Remaining

Readings: 1 John 2:22-28; Psalm 98:1, 2-3ab, 3cd-4; John 1:19-28

On the second day of the new year I find myself in a culture that revels in its ability to celebrate. Christmas has been a rather prolonged and intense period of caroling in homes and liturgies in church. For nine days before Christmas, I’ve witnessed hordes of people flocking to the dawn Masses (beginning at 4:30am) and been moved and inspired by their devotion. The New Year was heralded with similar fervor. Fireworks and feasting probably preoccupied many, even the poor. In a way, it’s a refreshing contrast to the culture back home, which is still learning how to let its hair down once in a while. There’s much to learn here.

But there is also a shadow side to all this. According to locals, many who flocked to the dawn Masses and who filled the churches on Christmas Day will probably only be seen again next Christmas. And the revelry that rang in the New Year also resulted in fingers being blown off by misfired rockets. Further, and even more significantly, the festive cheer will most likely have little if any impact on the social ills – such as endemic corruption and ongoing marginalization of the poor – that continue to plague the nation. From what I gather, the celebratory spirit that I find so impressive will be as short-lived as it was spontaneous.

It will be so, I suspect, because this kind of celebration often resembles one of two things. Many of those who go to church only at Christmas probably liken their annual celebrations to the buying of insurance. All you have to do is pay your premiums periodically and then you can rest assured that your security will be provided for the rest of the time. And for those who celebrate the New Year by igniting fireworks and shooting guns, celebration has to do with letting off steam. The pressures and frustrations of daily existence are so great that they require some outlet every so often. But little thought is given to why there is a build-up of steam in the first place and how it might be alleviated.

In contrast, our readings on this second day of the New Year present us with a quite different approach to celebration. It is expressed, quite strikingly, in a word that appears no less than six times in the first reading. The scriptures teach us that to celebrate means to remain. It means remaining in Christ, and allowing Christ to remain in us. And the gospel shows us the implications of this kind of celebration by reminding us of the experience of John the Baptist. He who was visited by the newly conceived Son of God, even while he was in his mother’s womb, remained in communion with Christ by spending his life preparing the way for Him. Even to the extent of literally losing his head.

Today is already the 2nd of January. Christmas Day and New Year’s Day are past. Yet, in a sense, our celebrations need to continue.

How are we being called to remain in Christ today?