Friday, February 29, 2008

Friday in the 3rd Week of Lent
How Long?

Readings: Hosea 14:2-10; Psalm 81:6c-8a, 8bc-9, 10-11ab, 14 and 17; Mark 12:28-34

It’s a long road to freedom, a winding steep and high.
But when you walk in love with the wind on your wing;
And cover the earth with the songs you sing;
The miles fly by…

So goes an old hymn that we used to sing in church. Indeed, it’s a long road to freedom. Just ask anyone addicted to alcohol or drugs, pornography or sex, gambling or work… And we can probably substitute freedom with many other things, too, things like peace and justice, wisdom and virtue. But how long exactly is the road? That seems to be question that our readings invite us to consider today. How long is the road to the end of poverty and hunger and environmental degradation? How long is the road to the day when people will be able to live together as brothers and sisters? How long is the road to the Kingdom of God?

On the one hand, the road does often seem too long to contemplate without losing hope. Can the distance be any greater than that between the developed and underdeveloped, the conservative and the liberal, the saint and the sinner? But isn’t there also another side to the issue? Recall, for example, the parable that we heard at Mass not too long ago, the story of Lazarus and the rich man. What distance could be longer than that between the rich man’s prosperity and Lazarus’ destitution? And yet, for the rich man at least, the road was as short as the distance to his own front door.

Isn’t this the message of our readings today? Straight are the paths of the Lord, in them the just walk, but sinners stumble in them. The way to the Kingdom is as long and as short as our willingness to repent, to change our ways, to return to the Lord, to center our lives no longer on selfishness but on love. Isn’t this why Jesus is able to tell the scribe that he is not far from the Kingdom of God? As suspicious as he might at first have been of the Lord’s apparently unorthodox teachings and actions, he was willing to recognize truth when he heard it. As long as the road may seem, it is really as short as acknowledging and committing ourselves to following Christ, the Way, the Truth and the Life.

How much further do we have to go today?

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Thursday in the 3rd Week of Lent
Composite Picture

Readings: Jeremiah 7:23-28; Psalm 95:1-2, 6-7, 8-9; Luke 11:14-23

We’re probably all familiar and in agreement with the phrase, a picture is worth a thousand words. And isn’t it also true that several pictures can often be worth more than one? Think, for example, of the person who wishes to take a picture of the panoramic view from the top of a tall building or mountain, but doesn’t have a wide-angled lens. One way out is simply to take several photos and then merge them to form a composite. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but several pictures are better than one.

This seems to be a good metaphor for what our readings offer us today: a composite picture of our situation before God. The first image is a rather bleak one. It captures what our relationship often tends to look like, and is poignantly expressed in God’s words through the prophet concerning his people: they… turned their backs, not their faces, to me… We might imagine a loving father calling out to his children, warning them of the pitfalls of life and teaching them the way they should walk. Instead of listening carefully, however, the children turn and run away. And this picture of children running away from their father is complemented by another one, a snapshot, this time, of their interior condition: they walked in the hardness of their hearts.

As if this combination of images were not gloomy enough, the gospel adds yet another, one that helps us to delve deeper into what is happening to these fugitives, the reason for their flight. Quite paradoxically, their running away is a sign not of freedom but of captivity. The children turn their backs on their father because they have been captured by Satan, the strong man fully armed who stands guard over all his possessions. At this point, the resulting image is bleak indeed. But, thankfully, it remains incomplete.

The good news comes in the form of two further images from the gospel. As stubborn as the children may be in continuing to put as much distance as possible between themselves and their father, on his part, the father simply refuses to let them go. The Kingdom of God has come among you, says Jesus. Or, in another translation, has overtaken you. In Christ, the persistent love of the father pursues and overtakes his wayward children. By his life, death and resurrection, the champion runner, sent by the father, succeeds in catching up with the children. He melts their hardened hearts, defeats and binds up the strong man, and seizes his stolen possessions.

This is the composite image that our readings present. It is a powerful picture, one that is calculated to bring about in us, exactly what they portray. But for that to happen, we must do what the amazed crowds are unwilling to do in the gospel. We must first be able to identify ourselves in the image: to recognize the ways in which we continue to flee from God, to locate the portions of our heart that remain hardened and held hostage by the strong man, and, most importantly, to welcome the different ways in which God is overtaking us. This is what we must do to truly experience the value of this composite image.

Several pictures are indeed worth more than one, but how much are they worth to you today?

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Wednesday in the 3rd Week of Lent
At the Frontier

Readings: Deuteronomy 4:1, 5-9; Psalm 147:12-13, 15-16, 19-20; Matthew 5:17-19

Dear brothers, don’t you find it striking how closely our readings today mirror the Pope’s address to GC35? On the 21st of February, with words both inspiring and encouraging, the Holy Father affirmed who we are as Jesuits by reminding us of where we are called to be. As his predecessors did before him, he placed us at the crossroads of conflicting ideologies, at the frontiers of faith and reason, of religion and culture, of spirituality and justice. And, quite coincidentally, in today’s first reading, we also find the Israelites at the frontiers of the Promised Land. But, as exciting as it may seem, we dare not forget that the frontier is often a very uncomfortable place to be. It is at once a place of opportunity as well as danger, of promise as well as risk. Like the Israelites, we find ourselves on the threshold of a new destination. Yet, as many of our brothers have experienced first hand, this can also be a place of deep suffering, where we can very easily lose our way.

Faced with this distressing prospect, both the Holy Father and Moses seem to offer similar advice. Both issue a call to fidelity. The Holy Father reminds us to loyally fulfill the fundamental duty of the Church, of fully adhering to the word of God… Similarly, Moses exhorts the Israelites to observe and take care not to forget the decrees and statutes of the Lord. Remembrance and observance: these are to be our safeguards against danger, our rudder and compass in stormy seas.

Even so, don’t our readings also invite us to reflect more deeply upon what this means for us? For what did the scribes and the Pharisees of Jesus’ day do if not carefully remember and observe the law? Didn’t they expend much time and effort in searching the scriptures, and in teaching the law to others? And yet, their actions were found to be contrary to those of Jesus, the one who comes not to abolish but to fulfill the law and the prophets. What does this tell us if not that there is a kind of remembrance and observance of the law, a kind of apparent fidelity to doctrine, that leads to death? Isn’t this the kind that tends to treat the law as a dead letter, the kind that ends up entombing the divine Lawgiver in a distant past? In contrast, Jesus practices and teaches a different kind of remembering.

I think I recently caught a glimpse of what this can look like while anointing a dying man at the Philippine General Hospital. The patient was already comatose when I arrived, and several members of his family were in tears. Feeling rather inadequate, I began tentatively by simply reminding us of our shared belief in the Lord’s presence and in his power to save. Gazing briefly at the faces of those gathered around the patient, I thought I sensed a subtle change in the atmosphere. Some nodded silently to signal their agreement with what I had said. Others closed their eyes in fervent prayer. It was as though the simple act of remembering had led us to recognize the Lord’s presence at this difficult time, when a loved one was struggling to negotiate the crucial frontier between life and death.

Isn’t this the kind of remembering that we need, the kind that helps us to recognize the presence of Christ, the same Christ who died and was raised to life at the crossroads of human and divine existence? And isn’t this precisely the kind of remembering that we are engaged in at this Eucharist as well, the kind that mediates God’s ongoing presence to God’s people, the kind that leads us to exclaim, together with the Israelites of the first reading: what great nation is there that has gods so close to it as the Lord, our God, is to us whenever we call upon him.

Brothers, even as we may find ourselves being called to negotiate the frontiers of human existence, how are we also being invited to remember unto recognition today?

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Tuesday in the 3rd Week of Lent
Connecting the Dots

Readings: Daniel 3:25, 34-43; Psalm 25:4-5ab, 6 and 7bc, 8-9; Matthew 18:21-35

Few will disagree that forgiveness is among the most difficult of gifts that one human being can offer another. It probably ranks up there with laying down one’s life. Indeed, the process of forgiving someone can even feel like a form of martyrdom. Something in us has to die in order that we might live anew. Mercy doesn’t seem to come naturally to us. The most obvious difficulty has to do with resisting the urge to seek revenge. And, of course, vengeance can be both active as well as passive aggressive.

But even if we do succeed in resisting the urge, there are yet other hurdles to cross. Part of the problem lies in the fact that some of these obstacles can masquerade as true forgiveness. A good example is the apathy that refuses or simply fails to acknowledge, and so ends up condoning and perpetuating, wrongdoing. Witness the battered spouse who has yet to find the courage to stand up to his/ her abuser, or the benighted populace in some countries, that continues to elect crooks to high office simply because it doesn’t know any better. In contrast, true forgiveness is neither ignorance nor self-deception. Rather does it involve a possibly long and complex process of seeing ever more clearly the full extent of the damage done to us – and possibly taking appropriate steps to protect ourselves – but then also letting go both of the hurt, as well as the desire for vengeance.

True forgiveness is not easy. Which is why our readings today are so precious. More than simply imposing upon us the unbearable obligation to forgive, they actually invite us to reflect upon the way that needs to be walked by all who earnestly desire to grow in the ability to offer this gift. This path is a process of remembering. It looks somewhat like a favorite pastime of some children: the exercise of connecting the dots.

Consider Jesus’ parable in the gospel. The king punishes the wicked servant for a very specific reason. Failing to forgive his fellow servant is only part of it. The full extent of his offense can perhaps be described quite simply as a failure of memory, a failure to connect the dots. More specifically, it is the failure to connect the experience of two relationships: the wicked servant’s relationship with God and with his fellow servant. It is the failure to remember that one is a forgiven debtor, and to allow that experience to flow naturally into a desire to write off another’s debt.

The first reading provides a striking contrast to this image of disconnected dots. Consider Azariah’s situation. He is praying in a furnace because he has defied the king of Babylon, bravely choosing to remain faithful to the traditions of his ancestors. Yet, instead of judging those who might be less faithful, Azariah offers a prayer for mercy. He begs for forgiveness because, faithful Jew though he may be, he realizes that he remains connected to his people, and is somehow implicated in their sins. We are reduced… brought low everywhere in the world this day because of our sins… He realizes that God relates to us not just personally but also communally. And his ability to connect the dots in this way is not without benefit. For, in asking forgiveness for his people’s sins, he is also able to rely upon God’s promises to their ancestors. Do not take away your mercy from us, for the sake of Abraham, your beloved, Isaac your servant, and Israel your holy one… Unlike the wicked servant in the gospel, Azariah is able to ask God to remember your mercies, O Lord, because he himself is not forgetful that he is part of a sinful people. He is able to connect the dots.

How might we be helped to do the same today?

Monday, February 25, 2008

Monday in the 3rd Week of Lent
Interdepartmental Shopping

Readings: 2 Kings 5:1-15ab; Psalm 42:2, 3; 43:3, 4; Luke 4:24-30

We often hear it said that God works in mysterious ways. Indeed, in Isaiah 55: 8-9, we find these words: For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways… As high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are my ways above your ways and my thoughts above your thoughts. How, we may wonder, does God’s thoughts differ from ours? Perhaps it goes something like this.

Human thought often proceeds like someone shopping in a huge department store. The goods are all neatly organized: men’s wear on one floor, for example, and ladies’ accessories on another. Convenient as this is, it also means that you can’t buy everything you want on the same floor. To shop for your wife or your mom, you have to first leave the floor where the stuff for your husband or your dad is found. In contrast, perhaps God’s thoughts and action are mysterious in that they are capable of holding very different, even apparently contradictory things, on the same floor. Consider what is happening in the readings today.

God does something truly extraordinary in the first reading. God heals Naaman of his leprosy. And Naaman takes extraordinary measures to receive this healing. He travels from Aram to Israel, bringing with him great riches to present to the foreign king. But notice also how God carries out this extraordinary healing. Not only does God work through an ordinary slave-girl, but, through the prophet Elisha, God also works the healing by having Naaman perform the very mundane act of bathing in a river. In fact, it is precisely because the request is so ordinary that Naaman is at first unwilling to do it.

Likewise, in the gospel, God is undertaking a radically new project: nothing less than the salvation of the whole universe. And yet, this novel initiative is undertaken in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, who is so familiar to his own townsfolk that they find it impossible to accept him, and even go to the extent of seeking to kill him. What sets them apart from Naaman, the foreigner, is that they are unwilling to consider the possibility of entertaining the new in the familiar. They are resistant to entertaining two seemingly contradictory ideas. They refuse to consider the possibility of shopping for different things on the same floor.

Undertaking the extraordinary in the ordinary, initiating the new in the familiar: aren’t these striking examples of how mysterious are the ways of God?

And if this is how God thinks and acts in the scripture, perhaps it might do us good, especially in the season of Lent, to reflect more deeply upon how God might be doing the same in our lives. How, for example, does God work not just in church on Sundays, but also in our homes and offices and schools on the other days of the week? How are we being invited to respond to and cooperate with God’s initiatives in extraordinary events as well as in ordinary ones, in the familiar as well as in the new?

How is God inviting us to learn to shop across departments today?

Saturday, February 23, 2008

3rd Sunday in Lent (A)
Running The Amazing Race

Readings: Exodus 17:3-7; Psalm 95:1-2, 6-7, 8-9; Romans 5:1-2, 5-8; John 4:5-42 or 4:5-15, 19b-26, 39a, 40-42

Recently, I managed to catch parts of the last episode of The Amazing Race Asia. It featured snippets from earlier segments of the popular TV show. What I found amazing was the fact that even though the contestants were well aware that cameras were constantly being trained on them, there were many occasions when they still couldn’t help revealing something of their inner selves.

I’m reminded, for example, of the pair of mothers, who were described by their fellow contestants as always being in game mode. Yet, even though they were obviously very serious about the race, they couldn’t help being moved to tears by the joyful reaction of the African orphans and their caregivers when they presented them with a check for US$5,000 after having helped to paint their school. The tears were still flowing even as the pair drove away. And fresh tears where shed at the interview after the race.

The stresses and strains of the race also uncovered negative feelings that tested relationships to breaking point. One contestant, for example, blew up at her teammate, once for not being able to climb a wall, and again for misreading a map and sending them more than a hundred miles in the wrong direction. I can’t trust you anymore, she told her friend. And they were not the only ones who had problems. Another pair of contestants, a couple married for thirteen years, had such a big fight when they got lost that the husband couldn’t keep from breaking down at the post-race interview.

As exciting as it was to watch the different teams competing in so many exotic countries, what was perhaps most amazing about the race was the way it showed how difficulties and trials can often reveal our deeper dispositions and motivations, those parts of us that we usually keep safely concealed under a veneer of common courtesy. Sometimes what is uncovered can be soft and soothing. But it can also be hard and hostile.

Although we are only halfway through the season of Lent, like that final episode of The Amazing Race, our readings today offer us an opportunity to take a closer look at the kind of race we are running over these Forty Days. They do this by presenting us with two stories, which are really different versions of a single story. This is a story that speaks to us of a desert and a rock, of a people and their God.

In the first reading, God has freed his people from slavery in Egypt and is leading them on an amazing race to the Promised Land, where milk and honey flow. But they have first to undergo the trials and tribulations of the desert. They arrive at Mount Horeb, where they are parched with thirst. But here there is only sand and the rock-hard face of the mountain. The people begin to buckle under the pressure.

It is not just Moses that they question. They are really grumbling against God. Why did you make us leave Egypt? Was it to have us die here of thirst? The stresses and strains of their race through the desert lay bare the solid surface of their hardened hearts. They thirst for water more than they thirst for their God.

We see something similar in the story of the Samaritan woman in the gospel. She too has been running a race. But hers is the race of ordinary human living. And she too has been undergoing the trials of the desert, trials that are expressed so poignantly in Jesus’ words to her: you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. It is probably because of this painfully difficult marital situation that she chooses to go to the well to draw water at the hottest part of the day, when no one else will be there. She hardens her heart to avoid being hurt by the merciless gossip of others.

But while hardening may protect us from experiencing hurt and further disappointment, it also hinders us from experiencing the touch of God. Isn’t this why God tells Moses to strike the rock with his staff? Isn’t this a sign of what we must all undergo in order to experience the healing waters of God’s mercy? Doesn’t the striking of the rock remind us of how some of us still strike our breast when we pray the I Confess at the beginning of Mass? I have sinned through my own fault… For the Israelites, this invitation to be struck is found in the words of the responsorial psalm: Oh, that today you would hear his voice: ‘harden not your hearts as… in the desert’ For the Samaritan woman, it is found in Jesus’ apparently innocent request: go call your husband and come back… Here is a gentle summons to allow God to penetrate our defenses, to submit to God’s healing touch.

This is, of course, not an easy invitation to accept. Our thirst for ordinary water can be too great. The hurt we have suffered can be too deep, our desire to protect ourselves too strong. Thankfully, the rock that is struck in the desert is not only an image of our interior condition. It also calls to mind another scene, one that has the power to move us, to soften and even to melt our hardened hearts.

The rock in the desert points also to Christ, the Rock of our salvation. He is the One who freely enters the desert of our earthly exile and offers to us the waters of eternal life. And, on the Cross, Christ the Rock is struck by a soldier’s lance so that from his side flows blood and water. The second reading reminds us of the significance of this crucifixion scene. It is in this way that God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us. Through Christ's sacrifice, the love of God has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit. The Rock is struck so that our thirsty hearts might enjoy the living waters of the Holy Spirit, the same waters into which we have been baptized, and for which the catechumens are preparing this Lent.

Even so, this is not the end of our race. Amazingly, the waters of God’s love quench our thirst only to replace it with a new hunger. Jesus speaks about this in today’s gospel, when his disciples offer him something to eat. My food is to do the will of the one who sent me, says Jesus, and to finish his work. It is this same hunger to do his Father’s will that prompts Jesus to call his disciples' attention to the fields ripe for the harvest. For this yearning for God is also a hunger for souls, a hunger to share God’s love with others. It is this same hunger that moves the Samaritan woman to leave her pitcher at the well, and to run off into town, to the very people she had been avoiding, in order to tell them about Jesus.

This, then, is what our Lenten race is all about. It is a race to rediscover the heart of what it means to be a Christian. It is a race into the desert of our trials and tribulations, where the hardness of our hearts can be uncovered and pierced with the staff of contrition. It is a race to discover anew the tender mercies of God in the sacrifice of his Son and the outpouring of the Spirit. It is a race away from the all-consuming thirst of selfishness into the joyful hunger to share the love of God with others.

My sisters and brothers, how are we being invited to continue running this amazing race today?

Friday, February 22, 2008

Feast of the Chair of St. Peter, Apostle
Attracted and Attractive

Readings: 1 Peter 5:1-4; Psalm 23:1-3a, 4, 5, 6; Matthew 16:13-19

Our Mass texts for today are rich in imagery that helps us to reflect more deeply on the ministry of Peter and his successors. For example, the feast itself is named the Chair of St. Peter. In the prayer over the gifts, Peter is referred to as our shepherd. In the gospel, Jesus calls Peter the rock upon which I will build my Church. In the first reading, Peter describes himself and his fellow presbyters as witnesses to the sufferings of Christ… A seat of authority and a guardian of flocks, a firm foundation for building and one who testifies in a court of law: these are among the different images that our texts for Mass present today.

And they remind me of yet another image, one from my own past. It’s an image from science class, when the teacher poured some iron filings onto a piece of paper. They all ended up in a messy heap, until a magnet was placed underneath the paper. And then, quite marvelously, the filings came together to form a pattern, which shifted with each move of the magnet. The mass of filings became a blueprint of attractive forces. Thanks to the magnet’s power, a loose pile of metal became an integrated whole, a mess was transformed into a map.

Isn’t this too, a useful image of the purpose of the Petrine ministry in the Church? As we prayed in the opening prayer, its role is to ensure that nothing divides or weakens our unity in faith and love. It shepherds straying sheep into a single fold. It firmly grounds stones of uneven shape to form a solid shelter. Its purpose is to bring together seemingly disparate pieces of metal to form an effective indicator of the power of God’s love at work in the world.

But perhaps even more important than knowing its purpose, we need also to appreciate the source of its power. How does Peter come to unite the Church? How does he serve his sisters and brothers? Is it not by first experiencing the Lord strengthening him in his weakness? I have prayed that your faith may not fail; and you in your turn must strengthen your brothers. As we heard in the opening prayer, the Church is founded not so much on Peter himself, as it is on the rock of his confession of faith, a confession not revealed byflesh and blood... but my heavenly father, the same confession he makes at Caesarea Philippi: you are the Christ, the Son of the living God. Peter is able to care for the sheep only because he first acknowledges and trusts in the Chief Shepherd. He is able to hold up the Church only because he himself remains firmly founded on the Rock of our salvation. He can attract others only because he himself is transfixed by the attractiveness of Christ the Lord.

And the experience of Peter is also meant to be an example for the rest of us. For just as the universal Church is made up of smaller local churches and domestic churches, dioceses and parishes, communities and families, so too does the ministry of Peter require the cooperation of many others, each exercising some form of leadership at the appropriate level. Even if few of us are called to be bishops and parish priests, isn’t it true that we are all invited to be shepherds as much as sheep, to support loads as much as to be supported, to attract others as much as to be attracted? And, as it is with Peter, we are each able to do this only to the extent that we remain connected to Christ. We are attractive to others only insofar as we remained attracted to the Lord.

What role are we each being invited to play in the Church today?

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Thursday in the 2nd Week of Lent
Reach Out and Touch…

Readings: Jeremiah 17:5-10; Psalm 1:1-2, 3, 4 and 6; Luke 16:19-31

Today, our readings prompted me to search YouTube for Diana Ross’ song, Reach Out and Touch Somebody’s Hand. The search turned up a video that puts together many different photos of people holding hands. There was, for instance, a husband holding the hand of his pregnant wife, a white person holding the hand of a black person, an adult holding the hand of an infant… It was a heartwarming display. But it also served to accentuate the heartrending tragedy that is the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man.

This is a tragedy of the failure to reach out. Here is a story of two people who lived so close to each other, and yet never touched. What separated them? Most obviously, of course, they lived at two extremes of the social and economic spectrum. One was not just wealthy, but filthy rich. He dressed in purple garments and fine linen and dined sumptuously every day. And the other was not just poor, but utterly destitute. Dogs even used to come and lick his sores. Even so, as far apart as they may have been socially and economically, they are presented to us as living practically side by side with each other. Jesus tells us that Lazarus was lying at the door of the rich man. We could call them next-door neighbors, if only Lazarus had a door to call his own. The point is that, at least on earth, there was a distinct possibility of their lives touching at some point. How easy it must have been for the rich man to reach out to Lazarus. But he doesn’t even seem to have noticed the poor man at all.

The tragedy of their separation becomes even more painful upon death. For now, the door that could so easily have been opened on earth becomes a deep chasm impossible to cross. And – what is probably the most surprising thing about the story – there is now a radical reversal. The destitute enjoys life, while the filthy rich is in torment.

The story itself doesn’t explain why this is so. That is not its concern. For a hint at a possible explanation, we need to consider the rest of our readings. Here, we are also presented with two different types of people. These are distinguished not so much by their material condition as by the state of their souls. The difference between them hinges on the respective resources upon which each draws. Once again, it has something to do with reaching out. Like a shrub with shallow roots, one places his trust only in human beings, and so enjoys no change of season. In contrast, the other is like a tree whose roots reach deep. Stretching out ultimately to the stream of God’s love, this one continues to trust and to hope even in difficult times.

The connection we are invited to make is clear. For isn’t it true that reliance on God often seems to come more easily to the Lazarus’s of this world, those who have no one else on whom to depend? In contrast, don’t those who have everything going their way often seem to forget their need for a higher power? Could it be that the difference between Lazarus and the rich man lies also in the depths to which their respective spiritual roots reach?

Although these depths are largely interior, there are exterior signs as well. The first reading tells us that the people who trust ultimately in God continue to bear fruit even in the year of drought. What does this mean in the concrete? Could it be that such people are able, even (or especially) when times are hard, to continue reaching out to help others in need? Could it be that, unlike the rich man in the parable, these people are continually on the lookout for those who may be lying destitute at the doors of their homes and communities and nations?

The final scene in the YouTube video we mentioned at the beginning is a photo of clouds in the shape of two hands reaching out to each other. For me, they point us to one more insight from Jesus’ parable. Not only does the story encourage us to reach out to one another, but it also reminds us of how God continually reaches out to us on this side of eternity. Whether it is the scriptures, through Moses and the prophets, or the different people and situations we encounter daily, in the mystery of Christ’s life, death and resurrection, God is continually stretching out to us his hand of love and mercy and friendship.

How are we being invited to do the same today?

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Wednesday in the 2nd Week of Lent
Against The Flow

Readings: Jeremiah 18:18-20; Psalm 31:5-6, 14, 15-16; Matthew 20:17-28

Sci-fi flicks often seek to defy the notion that time and tide wait for no man. In Déjà Vu, for example, Denzel Washington is a detective who travels back in time to save a boatload of men, women and children, including a beautiful young lady, from being blown up by a terrorist in New Orleans. The movie plays up Denzel’s dedication to his job, as well as the mysterious chemistry between him and the damsel in distress. So passionate is Denzel that he goes far beyond the call of duty, and daringly defies the flow of time and tide, at the risk of his own life. In the process, he does indeed lose his life. And yet all is not lost. We’ll spare you the details about how and why, in case there are some who have yet to watch the movie.

We encounter something of the same scenario in each of the readings today. In dangerous times, both Jeremiah and Jesus share a similar passion for the word and will of God. Both are passionate enough to run counter to the direction in which everyone else is going.

Jeremiah lives and ministers in a time of exile, when even the great city of Jerusalem is destroyed by the Babylonians. Yet he refuses to preach only what the people wish to hear. Rather, he urges them on to the repentance that the Lord desires. Not even when his detractors persecute him and plot to kill him does he cease or desist. He continues to swim against the tide at the risk of his life.

Jesus, too, lives in a dangerous time. Politically, his people are again living under foreign occupation. And, not too far into the future, the great city of Jerusalem will once more be destroyed, this time by the Romans. But the danger that Jesus braves is of a far greater depth and scope. He seeks to save the whole universe from the consequences of sin. And, in contrast to the disciples, who continue, in a time of crisis, to run in the direction of selfish ambition, Jesus instead undertakes a death-defying journey to Jerusalem. By thus choosing to serve instead of to be served, by giving his life as a ransom for many, Jesus runs counter to the direction in which the rest of the world is moving. And, in so doing, although he loses his life on the cross, he also ultimately regains it for the life of the world.

For us, too, who profess to be followers of Christ, are we not also called to do the same? When we look carefully around and within us, especially with eyes purified by our Lenten discipline, do we not see that, like Jeremiah and Jesus, we too live in dangerous times? Do we not see that we too are called to swim against the tide, to run counter to the direction in which everyone else is going, to give of ourselves in humble service to our neighbor?

In the respective crises, in which each of us may find ourselves, how are we being invited to go against the flow today?

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Tuesday in the 2nd Week of Lent
Lightening Loads

Readings: Isaiah 1:10, 16-20; Psalm 50:8-9, 16bc-17, 21 and 23; Matthew 23:1-12

We began Mass today with a prayer for ourselves as members of the Church. We asked the Lord to protect us from what could harm us and lead us to what could save us. And our readings today help us to focus our attention and reflection precisely on the contrast between these two groups of things: those that could harm and those that could save us.

The first reading marks the theoretical boundaries between these two groups quite clearly: cease to do evil; learn to do good. But we ourselves know well that, in practice, the boundaries are often as clear as mud. However much theoretical knowledge we may think we have, we also know how difficult it can be to translate theory into practice, to connect Law with Life. Isn’t this why Jesus is so hard on the scribes and the Pharisees in the gospel? For they are able to make things sound so easy, probably because they don’t try very hard themselves. They preach but they do not practice… Theirs is a religion that ties up heavy burdens hard to carry and lays them on people’s shoulders.

Of course, in a sense, the scribes and Pharisees do try hard, indeed, much harder than others. But their efforts are primarily directed towards keeping up the appearance of meticulous ritual observance for the sake of being honored in the sight of others. This kind of empty religion contrasts quite starkly with what Jesus represents. The former lays burdens, while the latter liberates. The first delights only in telling you what to do. The second actually cares enough to help you to do it. For Jesus follows in the line of the prophets, who insist on the need for religious observance to be matched by works of mercy. Make justice your aim: redress the wronged, hear the orphan’s plea, defend the widow. Although this may sound to us like just another heavy burden being laid on our tired shoulders, it is rather a liberating truth.

For Jesus helps us to show mercy to others, by first showing mercy to us. Jesus helps us to lighten the load of others -- the wronged and orphans and widows of our day -- by lightening our own. Jesus frees us from the burden of sin so that we might in turn reach out to help others. Here, at last, is the teaching that saves. Here, at last, is the religion that removes burdens. Here, at last, is the way to life.

Which is why it’s perhaps appropriate to end our reflection the way we started, by recalling our opening prayer. In that earnest appeal to the Lord for help, we acknowledged that without you we are bound to fail. And isn’t this also the disposition that we are trying to cultivate in these Forty Days? Through our Lenten discipline, we are seeking to humble ourselves in the hope that the Lord might raise us up, and help us to raise others.

How is the Lord lightening our load and inviting us to do the same for others today?

Monday, February 18, 2008

Monday in the 2nd Week of Lent
Emptying Our Cups

Readings: Daniel 9:4b-10; Psalm 79:8, 9, 11 and 13; Luke 6:36-38

Our readings bring to mind that well-known story of the person who visits a famous monk to learn the ways of enlightenment. The monk welcomes him warmly and pours him a cup of tea. But even when the cup is already full, the monk continues pouring, such that the tea overflows the cup and spills all over the table. In response to the visitor’s puzzlement, the monk explains: you’ve come seeking to be filled with the wisdom that leads to enlightenment. But how can I fill you when you are already full of so many other things?

Every one of us, whether we’re aware of it or not, is born with a hole in the heart. We’re like an empty cup that has a very distinctive shape. We’re all designed to be filled with the presence of God. And the good news that we find in the gospel today is that God wants to fill us even more than we want to be filled. God’s generosity is likened to that of someone pouring a container of grain in another’s lap, who goes to the extent not only of filling the container, but also of shaking it and pressing down its contents, so that it can be filled to its absolute capacity.

But there is a problem. We each have a tendency to fill the hole in our hearts with many different things. Sometimes these can be bad or immoral activities. But they can just as easily be things that are, in themselves, wholesome – good activities and relationships. The trouble is that we try to fill our cups with things that are of the wrong shape. And, often, these misguided attempts at self-satisfaction give rise to the undesirable results: self-righteousness and judgment instead of mercy and compassion, self-centered competition instead of selfless service…

Which is why we need to learn from Daniel. In the first reading, we hear the saintly prophet offering a heartfelt prayer of contrition on behalf of his people who are living in exile. He attributes the people’s troubles to their own waywardness. We have sinned, been wicked and done evil… Yours, O Lord, our God, are compassion and forgiveness! Yet we rebelled against you and paid no heed to your command… What is Daniel doing if not engaging in a process of personal and corporate self-emptying? He is acknowledging guilt, his own and that of his people, so that all can receive the mercy of God. He is emptying the cup, so that it can be filled with the divine brew of God’s forgiveness and love. And, for us too, isn’t this what these Forty Days of Lent are all about?

Sisters and brothers, I am only an ignorant foreigner. But as I witness the hearings and debates, the investigations and rallies, that are filling the local news, I wonder to myself what it is that attracts so many people to the person at the center of this media storm. And I suspect that it is perhaps the perception that here, at last, is someone who is doing what many people wish they had the courage to do themselves. This is a person who is not just pointing fingers at others. Here is a person who is willing first to empty himself, who first acknowledges that he is part of a corrupt system, but who has also decided to stand up and say, enough is enough. It is time to speak the truth…

As we continue to make our way through these days of Lent, how are we being invited to empty ourselves so that we can be filled with the gifts of God?

Saturday, February 16, 2008

2nd Sunday in Lent (A)
Zooming In and Out

Readings: Genesis 12:1-4a; Psalm 33:4-5, 18-19, 20, 22; 2 Timothy 1:8b-10; Matthew 17:1-9

Many people own cameras these days. Some cameras can be as simple as the ones found on many cellphones, where you only have to point and shoot. Others can be very sophisticated with many different attachments to adjust and buttons to press. I’m not a photographer, but if there’s one function on a camera that I like best, it’s the one that allows you to zoom in and out.

I find it fascinating that you can change the view so easily. At one moment, you can enlarge the object you're photographing so that you can see all the details. Then, at the next moment, you can shrink it so that you can also see the background, the big picture. And this function is not just for fun. It serves an important purpose. Let’s say, for example, that you’re taking the picture of a child. Zooming in allows you to focus on the child’s face in detail. It gives you a close-up view of the warmth of the child’s smile, the white of the teeth, the twinkle in the eyes. But it is only in zooming out that you also begin to appreciate the reason for the child’s joy. Now, although you can’t see the child in detail, you can see its surroundings, the birthday cake, for example, topped with lit candles, the other happy children with party hats on their heads, the presents in the corner waiting to be opened…

If you really want to understand something, not just to take its picture, zooming in and out is the way to go.

And doesn’t the same hold true for everything else in life? If we wish, for example, to understand the meaning of something that has happened to us, not just what has happened and why, but also how best we are to respond to it, don’t we also need to learn how to zoom in and out? We need to zoom in, to look at things closely so that we can study the details. But we also need to zoom out to see the big picture, so that we can better appreciate why something might be happening, to see it in its wider context.

Could this have something to do with what is happening to the disciples in our readings today? For some time now, they have been happy to follow Jesus. They have enjoyed his popularity, looked on proudly as the crowds flocked to him. They have witnessed his great deeds of power, seen how he healed the sick and cast out demons. They have listened to his profound words, especially those spoken in the Sermon on the Mount. They even have some sense that he is the One chosen by God to save his people.

But, all this while, something else has also been happening. Jesus has reached a turning point in his ministry, because, for all his popularity, he has also been making powerful enemies. And this opposition has been growing in strength. Soon Jesus will be arrested and tortured and condemned to a cruel death on a cross. What are the disciples to do now? How are they to understand all that is happening? How are they to respond? In spite of the danger, will they continue to follow Jesus? Will they give up?

They didn’t have cameras in Jesus’ day, much less zoom lenses. So, in order to help the disciples to zoom out and zoom in on their situation, Jesus takes three of them up a high mountain. Anyone who has ever climbed a mountain will know why. Not only does the mountaintop allow one to zoom out and to see the big picture, but the very process of climbing often also enables one to zoom in on oneself, to see in detail what is going on within. And isn’t this what happens to the disciples?

Just when they are faced with the terrifying prospect of Jesus’ approaching Passion and Death, the camera zooms out to give them a wider view of who Jesus really is. He was transfigured before them; his face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light… This worker of miracles and preacher of wisdom, who was raised in Nazareth and ministered in Galilee, is now revealed before their eyes as the beloved Son of the Eternal God who lives in unapproachable light. He is the fulfillment of everything written in the Law and the Prophets. Quite understandably, faced with this remarkable sight, Peter immediately offers to make arrangements for them to remain on the mountain. I will make three tents here…, he says.

But that is not to be. For the camera zooms back in to give them a glimpse of what this means for them. Having seen the awesome glory of Jesus’ true identity, they hear a Voice telling them to listen to him. To better understand what is implied in these three little words, we need to zoom back out for a moment. We need to step back from our focus on today’s gospel, to consider also the first and second readings. For here we find an indication of what is being asked of the disciples. Like Abram, they are being invited to go forth from the land of your kinsfolk… to a land that I will show you… Up till now they had been expecting a glorious political Messiah to free them from the oppression of Roman rule. Instead, they are now being asked to descend the Mountain of Transfiguration and to accompany the Suffering Servant to Mount Calvary. In the words of Paul to Timothy, they are being invited to bear your share of hardship for the gospel with the strength that comes from God…

Is it any wonder, then, that they fall to the ground in fear? We are told that the command to follow Jesus comes from a bright cloud. This is, of course, the presence of God. But, interestingly enough, we are also told that bright though this cloud may be, it casts a shadow over the disciples, just as their Master’s impending Passion and Death will soon darken their lives.

But a remedy for their fear is found in the comforting approach and the tender touch of the Lord. Rise, and do not be afraid… Here, then, is the strength that comes from God about which Paul writes. It lies in connecting the two views that one gets from zooming out and in. For the Suffering Servant is also the glorious Messiah. To follow the One in his pain is also to share in the joy of the Other. Isn’t this the grace that is offered on the Mount of Transfiguration? Isn’t this the great blessing that is being offered the disciples: that they might be given the strength to follow Christ in his sufferings so as to share in his glory? And in receiving this blessing, like Abram, won't they then become blessings for others?

And what about us, the present-day disciples of Christ? How do we respond to the various things that happen in our lives: the prospect of a serious illness, for example, or of a death in the family, or a new job, or a promotion? How do we respond to the things that happen to us as a community or as a nation? How do we evaluate, for example, the recent hearings and investigations and rallies that have been filling the local news?

Faced with all the various opportunities and challenges in our lives, how might we follow Jesus up a high mountain in order to better appreciate what is being asked of us? How might we learn to study things in detail while also considering the big picture? How might we obtain the strength we need, especially during this great season of Lent, to bear our share of hardship for the gospel so as to become a blessing to others?

Sisters and brothers, how are we being taught to zoom in and out today?

Friday, February 15, 2008

Friday in the 1st Week of Lent
Measuring Up To Mercy

Readings: Ezekiel 18:21-28; Psalm 130:1-2, 3-4, 5-7a, 7bc-8; Matthew 5:20-26

Some time ago, I was hospitalized for Dengue Hemorrhagic Fever. During that time, a nurse would come to measure my temperature, heart rate and blood pressure several times a day. And sometimes, someone would also come to draw out some of my blood for testing. I didn’t enjoy having all these things done to me, not when the measurements continued even into the night, and especially not when a needle was stuck into my arm to suck out the red stuff. But I didn’t complain. What other way is there to tell if I was getting better or worse? How else to discern the state of one’s physical wellbeing except by way of measurement?

This seems also to be the approach of the scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ time to determining a person’s spiritual health. They rely exclusively on the law. And, as we know, like medicine, the law also operates primarily by way of measurement. In order to pass an appropriate sentence for an offence, for example, a judge needs to consider its seriousness as well as the number of times it was committed. Such that, all other things being equal, a person who has committed the same offence more times than another, would probably be given a heavier sentence.

But, even though the scribes and Pharisees were held up as paragons of virtue in Jesus’ day, in the gospel, Jesus jolts his listeners with a shocking statement: unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter into the Kingdom of Heaven. We may leave aside for now the question, where then will you go? Evidently, when it comes to our spiritual wellbeing, the way of measurement is painfully inadequate. It is insufficient merely to rely on counting the number of times one does the right thing and avoids the wrong, important though this may be.

Instead, Jesus insists that our exterior actions be matched by our interior attitudes. It is not enough simply to avoid harming another, but we are actually expected to want so badly to reconcile with someone, who may have something against us, as to interrupt our worship to seek out that person. Why this emphasis on attitudes, if not because, for Jesus, holiness or spiritual health is less a matter of legalism than it is of right relationship. And right relationship requires not measurement but mercy. Even so, we may be excused for raising a protest. Difficult enough to keep the externals of the Law, how can we be expected to meet Jesus’ high standard of interior virtue?

The first reading points the way by reminding us that mercy is not just something that is expected from us. It is, first and most important of all, something that we ourselves receive from God on a daily basis. For if God were truly to take a strict account of all of our interior and exterior shortcomings, all our sins of action and omission, all the different ways in which we fail to measure up, who among us would survive? If you, O Lord, mark our iniquities, who can stand? But, through the prophet Ezekiel, we are reminded that God derives no pleasure in the death of the wicked but instead rejoices when he turns from his evil way that he may live. God operates more on the level of relationship than of the law. God delights more in showing mercy than in passing judgment.

And is it not true that we are truly able to be merciful to others only to the extent that we ourselves experience the tender mercies of God? Isn’t this what these Forty Days of Lent are about? As important as it is to acknowledge our sinfulness, in Lent, we especially ask God to help us to experience the mercy shown to us in the life, death and resurrection of Christ. We ask to experience God’s mercy anew, so that we too can be merciful.

How are we being invited to move from measurement to mercy today?

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Thursday in the 1st Week of Lent
Knocking On Heaven's Door

Readings: Esther C:12, 14-16, 23-25; Psalm 138:1-2ab, 2cde-3, 7c-8; Matthew 7:7-12

Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you…

What is our reaction, what are our thoughts and feelings, as we listen to these words of Jesus in the gospel today? Perhaps some of us will feel consoled. Perhaps we will be reminded of times in the past when our prayers were answered, and feel encouraged to keep praying for what we need in the present. But do we really know what we need? Or have we reached a place in our life’s journey when we seem to have everything already, where there’s nothing left for us to seek from God.

And then perhaps there may be some of us who will react with some skepticism. We may remember occasions when we have indeed asked, and sought, and knocked, but did not seem to receive that for which we were looking. As a result, we may have all but given up. We may think that it’s better not to ask than to be disappointed. Whatever may be our reactions to Jesus’ words, perhaps it will do us good to reflect on the extent to which they continue to hold true for us today. How are we to understand them? What does effective knocking look like?

Here’s where the story in the first reading comes in handy. Esther shows us at least three important characteristics of effective knocking. The first is faith. We have a striking image of this in the description of the queen lying prostrate on the ground from morning until evening. She does this because she firmly believes what we told God earlier in our opening prayer: without you we can do nothing. In her prayer, Esther confesses to God that I have no help but you… From where does her confidence come? It is rooted in the traditions of her people: As a child I used to hear from the books of my forefathers that you… always free those who are pleasing to you. This early training has taught her what Jesus continues to teach us today: that our God is a heavenly Father who gives good things to those who ask him. Do we dare to continue believing this today?

But Esther’s prayer is not just one of faith. It is also a prayer of hope. Although we are told that she is seized with mortal anguish, although hers is a desperate situation, Esther is not content simply to remain passively lying on the ground. If we were to read on in the story, we will find that her prayer leads her to hope-filled action. We already find hints of this in her prayer, when she tells God, I am taking my life in my hand, and also when she asks that God put persuasive words in her mouth so that she can change the king’s mind, so that she can turn his heart from his plan to massacre her people. Esther doesn’t only pray, she prays in order to act. Isn’t this also what we were asking God for earlier, when we prayed that God’s spirit might help us to know what is right and to be eager in doing God’s will? To what extent do we pray in order to do God’s will?

There’s a final characteristic of the prayer of Esther that makes it so effective. It is a prayer of love. This becomes clear to us especially when we realize the reason for Esther’s anguish. As we noted earlier, she is at her wits end not so much for herself, but because her whole people is in danger of being wiped out by evil men. Esther prays not just for herself but especially for those whose lives are in peril. And that hers is a prayer of love is perhaps also demonstrated in how she prays. She does not lie prostrate alone, but together with her handmaids. Hers is a prayer for and with others. How loving is our prayer?

A queen prostrating herself with her handmaids for the sake of her people, taking her life in her hands, and speaking boldly in the face of death: these are images of the kind of prayer that opens doors, the prayer of faith and hope and love. This, too, is what we are trying to learn in these Forty Days of Lent.

How are you being encouraged to knock on heaven's door today?

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Wednesday in the 1st Week of Lent
Rising From Our Thrones

Readings: Jon 3:1-10; Psalm 51:3-4, 12-13, 18-19; Luke 11:29-32

Two groups of people are presented to us in the readings of today. One is likely to be historical, while the other is probably mythical. One belongs to the story of Jesus, the other to the fable of Jonah. One is part of the Chosen race of Israel, the other to the gentile nation of Nineveh. Here we have two different groups of people from very distinct contexts.

But there is something more that separates and distinguishes them, something far more significant than time and race and context. One group is praised by Jesus, while the other is sharply criticized. And the surprising thing is that Jesus seems to favor the gentiles over the Jews, the outsiders over the insiders, the sinners over the saved. This generation is an evil generation… At the judgment the men of Nineveh will arise with this generation and condemn it… Why?

What gives the gentile sinners of Nineveh the right, what makes them worthy to arise and to condemn the exalted and chosen Jewish generation of Jesus? Is it not because they have all first done what their king is described as doing in the first reading? Royal ruler though he was, the king of Nineveh rose from his throne, laid aside his robe, covered himself in sackcloth, and sat in ashes. Jesus finds the Ninevites worthy to arise in righteous condemnation only because, following their king’s example, they have first arisen from the thrones of their own sinfulness and repented in humility and contrition. Like the prodigal son of Luke’s gospel, they have first made the difficult decision to admit their guilt, to arise and go to my father (Luke 15:18). As a result, God does not spurn their contrite and humbled hearts. God listens to their plea and repents of his plan to destroy their city.

In contrast, the people of Jesus’ generation continue to sit stubbornly on the thrones of their arrogance. They take pride in their own status as the Chosen people. They seek a sign. But it is not just any sign that they seek. They seek only that sign which will confirm them in their feeling of superiority. They are willing only to recognize a sign that allows them to remain enthroned in their own self-righteousness. They are unwilling even to entertain the possibility that they may be wrong. Although Jesus has performed numerous signs of power, and even when Jesus manifests himself, on the Cross, as the ultimate sign of God’s love and compassion, they will not recognize him. They will refuse to acknowledge Jesus because, even more than Jonah, he is the sign that calls to repentance. He is the sign that requires all first to rise from their thrones in humility and contrition.

And this too is the sign that we are trying to heed in this great season of Lent. We, whose foreheads have been signed with ashes, are spending these forty days praying for the grace truly to arise and return to our Father, who will not spurn a heart contrite and humbled…

From what thrones are we being invited to arise today?

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Tuesday in the 1st Week of Lent
Speaking For Effect

Readings: Isaiah 55:10-11; Psalm 34:4-5, 6-7, 16-17, 18-19; Matthew 6:7-15

On a cable news program yesterday, a former candidate for presidential nomination in the US – he has since dropped out of the race – was described as something of a shape-shifter. By this was meant that he seems to change his message to suit his own purposes, which tends to raise doubts about the reliability of the words that come out of his mouth. Of course, some might say that this is a talent that every politician needs to have. How else is one to garner the necessary support to get things done? Even so, we might perhaps be forgiven for wondering at how effective someone’s words can be if they are essentially empty, only sound and fury signifying nothing, and containing nothing of the one who is speaking.

And, apparently, this kind of thing is not only to be found in the world of politics. Yesterday’s edition of the local newspapers, in a nation wherein divorce is not a legal possibility, carried a report to the effect that the rate of marital annulments was rising rapidly in the country. Again – even while we might try to appreciate the difficulties of married life – one wonders if this trend doesn’t point to a growing lack of effectiveness of the human word. Do we believe anymore in the value of saying what we mean and of meaning what we say? Did we ever?

In radical contrast to this apparent impotence of the human word, our first reading today emphasizes the effectiveness of the word that goes forth from the mouth of God. It shall not return to me void, but shall do my will, achieving the end for which I sent it. And the scriptures testify further to this power. God has only to speak a creative word, and the whole cosmos comes into being. God has only to speak a liberating word and, with signs and wonders, the chosen people are freed from slavery in Egypt. Most impressive of all, God has only to speak a compassionate and saving word, and the divine becomes human, embraces all of human reality, even enters the depths of human suffering and death, and lifts it up to the heights of eternal life.

What is the secret behind the power of God’s word? Could it be that it effects God’s will precisely because it so perfectly expresses it? Could it be that God’s word always brings about God’s will, because God always knows exactly what God wants, God always says exactly what God means, and always means exactly what God says?

This is not something that comes easily to us. Nor is it always desirable. It is not always a virtue to speak the brutal truth without thought of the consequences. Sometimes a certain tact is necessary, as when a doctor has to inform a patient of his/ her terminal condition. But what is perhaps more of a problem for us is the fact that we often do not know what we really want. How can we express what is within us if we ourselves are not sure what it is?

Isn’t this why Jesus’ lesson on prayer in today’s gospel is so important? More than just a magical formula of words, perhaps the Our Father is primarily a lesson in getting in touch with what are the most basic and universal of human desires: the desire to experience good and to be delivered from evil, the desire for reconciliation with one another and with God, the desire to have our daily needs provided for, and, above all, the desire for God. Could this be the secret, not only to effective prayer, but also to our receiving from God the capacity to speak words of power, words that do not return to us void, but actually go some way towards achieving the end for which we send them?

If so, then perhaps Lent is a more privileged time than we at first imagined. For it is a time for us to reconnect with our deepest unmet desires and to express them to God. It is a time for speaking words that spring from contrition and so receive a hearing from the One who is close to the brokenhearted, who saves those whose spirit is crushed.

How are we being taught to speak more effectively today?

Monday, February 11, 2008

Monday in the 1st Week of Lent
Remembering Why

Readings: Leviticus 19:1-2, 11-18; Psalm 19:8, 9, 10, 15; Matthew 25:31-46

Lent is a good time to remember what we should and should not do as Christians. It is a good time to examine our conscience to see how well we are keeping the commandments. And today’s readings help us to do this by recalling for us some of the key dos and don’ts of our faith. You shall not act dishonestly… You shall not go around spreading slander… You shall not stand by idly when your neighbor’s life is at stake… You shall not bear hatred for your brother in your heart… You shall love your neighbor as yourself… Feed the hungry… Clothe the naked… Welcome the stranger…. Visit the prisoner... Of course, we already know all this. Even so, from time to time, it’s good to be reminded, so that we can check ourselves.

But this is only one part of what our readings are telling us today. Even more important than the details of what we should and should not do, our readings help us to remember why. They recall for us the reason for keeping the commandments. We find this, for example, in the same sentence that occurs no less than four times in the brief first reading: I am the Lord. For the people of Israel, these four words are loaded with meaning. They remind them not only of why they should obey, but also of whom they are obeying. For this Lord who is giving them all these commandments is the same One who has freed them from slavery in Egypt, accompanied them through their years of wandering in the wilderness, and is now leading them into the Promised Land. This is the Lord their God, who has shown himself to be as powerful as he is merciful, slow to anger and abounding in love. This is the One who has their best interests at heart. This is the One who is teaching them the way to true happiness. Be holy, for I, the Lord, your God, am holy.

And, for us who are Christian, our readings give us even more reason to obey. For they remind us that, in Christ, the God of the Israelites has become one of us, even to the point of accepting death on a cross. And, of course, every one of us has his or her own personal memories of how the Lord has freed us and saved us, of how the Lord has been faithful to us and is continually showing us the way to happiness and fullness of life. How then can we not listen to the voice of the Lord? How can we not show mercy to those most in need, when Jesus clearly reminds us that any kindness shown to others is shown to him? Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me…

Lent is indeed a good time to remember what we should and should not do. But, perhaps even more than that, it is also primarily a time for remembering why and whom it is we obey.

What memories do the readings evoke in you today?

Saturday, February 09, 2008

1st Sunday in Lent (A)
Before and After

Readings: Genesis 2:7-9; 3:1-7; Psalm 51:3-4, 5-6, 12-13, 17; Romans 5:12-19 or 5:12, 17-19; Matthew 4:1-11

Sisters and brothers, since coming here, I’ve noticed that the newspapers often carry a type of advertisement that we also have back home. I call them the before and after advertisements. You know the kind I mean. Usually they are advertisements for spas or weight-loss programs. And, typically, celebrities are employed to endorse the program and to encourage people to sign up.

Most of these advertisements show us two photographs. The first one shows the celebrity before joining the program. This picture is carefully taken to highlight all the bulges, in all the wrong places, on the celebrity’s body. Sometimes we’re also given the celebrity’s weight – maybe 180 lbs, for example. The next picture shows the celebrity after joining the program. It too is carefully taken. But, this time, it shows us all the curves, in all the right places. And the weight has dropped drastically too – from 180 to maybe 130 lbs.

Before and after advertisements: this is the image that comes to my mind when I listen to our Mass readings on this 1st Sunday of Lent. For what is Lent if not a kind of spiritual weight-loss program? During these Forty Days we pray and fast and give alms in order that we might be purified from our sinfulness, so that we can enter more fully into the joy of Easter. In the words of our opening prayer today, through our Lenten discipline, we’re asking God to help us to understand the meaning of the Son’s death and resurrection and to teach us to reflect it in our lives…

But, as with any weight-loss program, in order to experience the benefits of Lent, we need to be encouraged to put our heart into it. And our readings give us just the encouragement we need by providing us with a kind of before and after advertisement. The before picture is found in the first reading. The after picture is found in the gospel. And the second reading helps us to connect them.

Let us look closely at the pictures, one by one. In each one there are two main things to look at: the context and the characters. What is the context of the before picture? It shows us a beautiful garden, planted by God, in which God lovingly places the man and the woman he created. And in the center of the garden is the tree of life. Here we have the picture of a marvelous place, a place of contentment, a place where people are provided with everything they need to be happy.

But look also at the characters in this picture. Although God has provided them with everything, the man and the woman are not satisfied. Tempted by the serpent, they begin to suspect that God might be keeping something from them. Instead of humbly obeying God, instead of gratefully receiving everything they need from God’s hand, they decide to disobey God. They choose to follow the serpent’s suggestion and stretch out their hands to grab that which is forbidden. As a result they are no longer comfortable being naked in the presence of others. They experience shame and separation.

Grabbing hands in a beautiful garden, leading to shame and separation: in our Lenten advertisement, this is what the first picture, the before picture, looks like.

And we know, of course, that this is not just a picture of the first man and the first woman. It is also a picture of us, of our situation, before we accept Christ into our lives. As the second reading tells us, death came to all people inasmuch as all sinned. As we enter into the season of Lent, we are reminded that we are often very much like that man and woman. Discontented with what God provides for us, we often stretch out disobedient hands to grab what is forbidden. A child snatches his sister’s toy. A married person seduces the spouse of a friend. Rich businessmen grab the land that belongs to the poor. Crooked politicians pocket large sums of money meant for the welfare of the people. And the result of all this? Separation and shame in place of contentment.

But look now at the gospel. This is the after picture of our Lenten advertisement. Notice how the context has changed. No longer are we in a beautiful garden. Because of what happened in the first picture, we now find ourselves in a desolate desert. This is the wilderness that results from our sin and shame. And just as God lovingly placed the man and woman in the beautiful garden to make them happy, so now the Holy Spirit mercifully leads Jesus into the desert to rescue us, to undo the terrible result of our sin.

Notice also what Jesus, the main character in this picture, is doing. Before, the man and woman fell into temptation, and stretched out their disobedient hands to grab. Now, after, Jesus succeeds in resisting the devil. Instead of grabbing, he obediently opens his heart to humbly accept everything from his Father’s hands. And he will continue to do this even when his hands are finally nailed to the Cross on Mount Calvary. As a result, the angels come and minister to him. Because of Jesus’ obedience, God once again comes close to his people. We are once again reconciled to God.

An open heart in a desolate desert, leading to joyful reconciliation and fullness of life: this is what the second picture, the after picture, of our Lenten advertisement, looks like.

And this is also the picture of what we hope to experience after the discipline of these Forty Days. In the words of the second reading, we hope to receive the abundance of grace, the righteousness and reconciliation with God that results from the obedience of Christ our Lord. In the words that were spoken to us when we had ashes imposed on us on Wednesday, we hope to truly turn away from sin and be faithful to the gospel.

My sisters and brothers, we have seen the advertisement for Lent. We have carefully examined the pictures that show us the before and the after. What is there left for us to do, but to sign up for the program, to put our whole heart into it, so as to experience its benefits?

My sisters and brothers, as individuals and as a people, what kind of weight is the Lord inviting us to lose this Lent?

Friday, February 08, 2008

Friday after Ash Wednesday
Enjoying Your Coffee

Readings: Isaiah 58:1-9a; Psalm 51:3-4, 5-6ab, 18-19; Matthew 9:14-15

Today being a Friday in Lent, many of us will be abstaining from meat. Some will even be fasting in some way. Which is why our Mass readings are so appropriate. They help us to reflect more deeply on what we are doing. They invite us to examine carefully the meaning behind our Lenten discipline.

Shortly, as we begin the Liturgy of the Eucharist, we will be using the first Preface for Lent. In this prayer, Lent is described as a joyful season. What do you think about that? Is Lent really joyful? How so? How can it be joyful to forgo the things that we like and even to go hungry? To answer these questions, it might be helpful to consider something someone once told me. Some of you may already know this. Do you know what is the meaning of joy? J-O-Y means to put Jesus first, others second, and yourself last. Perhaps this sounds too simplistic. Perhaps it needs more explanation. But still, it does express a deep truth, at least if today’s readings are anything to go by.

Probably the first striking thing about our readings today is how the people in the first reading are scolded for their fasting, while those in the second are defended in their failure to fast. Let us consider the second group first. Why does Jesus defend his disciples when they fail to fast? Clearly fasting is not an end in itself. Fasting is meant to achieve a specific purpose, one that Jesus is careful to point out to his opponents. The disciples do not have to fast because Jesus is with them, just as wedding guests do not fast when the bridegroom is with them. This implies that fasting is meant to help us to meet Jesus, to recognize him, to love him and to follow him closely as he takes the road toward Good Friday and Easter Sunday. To fast is learn to put Jesus first.

And why, on the other hand, are the people in the first reading scolded for fasting? Again, the reason is clear. They are scolded because their fasting is more an exercise of self-seeking than of self-denial. Lo, on your fast day you carry out your own pursuits… your fast ends in quarreling and fighting… They put themselves first and forget the needs of others. Instead, through the prophet, God urges them to put others first by engaging in acts of justice and mercy, releasing those bound unjustly… setting free the oppressed… sharing your bread with the hungry, sheltering the… homeless; clothing the naked… Only when they learn to fast in this way, will they experience the glory of the Lord. Only when they learn to deny themselves and to consider first the needs of others, will they come to experience true joy.

J-O-Y means putting Jesus first, others second, and yourself last.

The story is told of someone who went to many doctors but could not find relief from his ailment. Although he loved to drink coffee, he could not really enjoy it as much as he wished because every time he tried to drink it he experienced a sharp pain in his eye. Then one day he met someone who was able to diagnose the source of his problem. The next time you drink your cup of coffee, she told him, first be sure to remove the spoon.

Perhaps this is what Lent is about. Through our discipline of prayer and fasting and almsgiving, we are trying to allow God to remove the spoon of selfishness from the cup of our lives, we are trying to learn to put Jesus and others ahead of ourselves, so that we may truly learn to experience the Easter joy that is the gift of the Crucified and Risen Christ.

How does the Lord wish to help you remove your spoon today?

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Thursday after Ash Wednesday
As Easy As Pulling the Plug?

Readings: Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Psalm 1:1-2, 3, 4 and 6; Luke 9:22-25

Moses does make it sound very simple, doesn’t he? After about forty years wandering in the wilderness the people of Israel have finally arrived at the threshold of the Promised Land. Here they will meet many different peoples, each worshipping its own particular god. And, like a devoted parent, familiar with a little child’s tendency to stray, Moses is careful to lay things out in very simple terms. There are only two ways to go: the people can either obey the commandments of the Lord, or disobey them and choose to follow other gods. The first option will bring blessings and long life. The second will bring a curse and lead to death. Life or death. Nothing could be clearer. But clarity in theory doesn’t always translate into ease of practice.

Yesterday I was called to anoint someone in the Acute Care Unit of the Emergency Room. The patient had been admitted early in the morning after suffering a heart attack. He had subsequently been placed on a ventilator and the family was informed that nothing more could be done for him, as he was already comatose. Now came the difficult decision: whether and when to pull the plug. The eldest son was present when I arrived. It was heartrending to watch him struggle with the decision. He told me that both his parents had been planning to emigrate to the USA in less than a fortnight’s time. Why did this have to happen now? I don’t want to lose him, he said. Through tears of pain and anguish, even though he knew quite well what the doctors had said, he tried in vain to revive his father. Life or death. The choices were clear. But could anything be more difficult?

Although obedience to God is ultimately the life-giving option, it’s not always clear what this choice implies. And neither is it easy to put it into practice even when things may seem clear. Which is why the first reading needs to be complemented by Jesus’ words in the gospel of today. The Son of Man must suffer greatly… If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself… For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it…

In the Emergency Room, after we had anointed his sick father, the elder son did eventually come to a decision. It was obviously very painful, but he said he had decided to do what would make his father most happy. He was willing to let his father go. It was indeed a great leap that he was making, a major shift in outlook. From a grief-stricken child anxious to keep his beloved father by his side at all costs, he had finally chosen to relieve his father’s suffering, to allow his father go to his heavenly reward, to let his father die. And the dying was not the father’s alone. The son too was dying to himself, to his own need to cling to his beloved father. He was courageously taking up the cross that was being presented to him that day. Neither a simple nor an easy thing to do

Of course, we don’t face such major decisions everyday. Perhaps some of us don’t even face them once in a lifetime. And yet, isn’t it true that, on a daily basis, we are somehow asked to choose between right and wrong, between life and death? And isn’t it also true that it’s not always clear what is the right thing to do, just as it’s seldom easy do it? Isn’t this why, in the opening prayer today, we asked that everything we do might begin with God’s inspiration, continue with God’s help, and reach perfection under God’s guidance? Isn’t this why we need this great season of Lent, to better attune our heart to God and to beg for the courage to walk in God’s ways?

How are we being invited to choose life today?

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Ash Wednesday
Through the Doorway

Readings: Joel 2:12-18; Psalm 51:3-4, 5-6ab, 12-13, 14 and 17; 2 Corinthians 5:20—6:2; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18

Some time ago, I took a series of psychological tests. In one of these tests I was presented with several pictures in black and white and asked to write a short story about each of them. Today I’m reminded especially of one of those pictures. See if you can imagine it as I describe it to you. The whole background of the picture is dark, except for what looks like a doorway that is lit. And, entering through this doorway is the figure of a person, someone who looks to be passing out of the darkness and into the light. As we begin our great season of Lent with this celebration of Ash Wednesday, I wonder if this same picture might not help us to write a story about the meaning of our celebration. As you know, most stories have a beginning, a middle and an end. Perhaps our Lenten story will be the same.

Our story begins with our presence here today. We have come here for Mass and, shortly, we will have ashes imposed on our foreheads. This is how Lent begins. It begins with God’s people performing certain right actions. These actions include the three traditional practices that we heard Jesus talk about in the gospel: prayer and fasting and almsgiving. And, as we know, there are different ways of performing these actions. We can, for example, pray in many different ways: with the rosary or with scripture, in song or in silence, accompanied or alone. There is also a wide variety of ways in which to fast and to give alms. We can curb our appetites for food or for entertainment, just as we can give of our money or our time and attention. The important thing is that we do these actions in ways that enable us to renew our relationships to God, to ourselves and to one another.

Which brings us to the middle of our Lenten story. As Jesus reminds us in the gospel today, it is possible to do all the right actions for all the wrong reasons. Having begun our Lenten story with right actions, we need now to move on to an appropriate middle. Right actions must be motivated by the right intention. As we heard in the first reading: rend your hearts and not your garments… In order for our Lenten discipline to bear the desired fruit, we need to have broken hearts. And the readings also tell us how. Not only do they remind us of our deep need for God – why should they say among the peoples, ‘Where is their God?’ – but they also convict us of our sinfulness – against you only have I sinned… And, most importantly, they remind us too of the full extent of God’s mercy toward us, his wayward children: for our sake (God) made him to be sin who did not know sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him…

Moved by these considerations of God’s love in the face of our own sinfulness, we hope that our prayer and fasting and almsgiving will help us write a fitting ending to our story. We hope that, motivated by the right intention, our right actions will ultimately lead us to the right destination. As our opening prayer expressed it so well, we are hoping that God will bestow sight to the darkness of sinful eyes so that, with hearts broken by contrition, we can see more clearly the way to the place we wish to go. What is this destination? What is this happy ending? We heard it described in the second reading, in Paul’s words of exhortation: we implore you… to be reconciled with God… For now is the day of salvation.

Right actions, the right motivation and the right destination: collectively, might these not provide us with a possible format for writing our own Lenten story? In addition, there is yet another consideration that might help us. Recalling the picture with which we began, perhaps we might see that Lent is not just a question of our walking out of darkness and into the light, but also of our opening the doors of our hearts and our lives, so that the God of Light might enter and illumine our darkness. Isn’t this the reason why God made him to be sin who did not know sin?

How do you intend to write your Lenten story today?