Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Wednesday in the 6th Week of Easter
Designers or Tailors

Readings: Acts 17:15, 22-18:1; Psalm 148:1-2, 11-12, 13, 14; John 16:12-15
Pictures: CC Lawrence Sinclair

I know next to nothing about the fashion industry. But an occasional cursory glance at such programs as Project Runway and America’s Next Top Model sometimes leads me to wonder at the exact aim of those who operate in the rarefied atmosphere of high fashion. To my uninitiated eyes, it often seems that instead of trying to make clothes that fit people – real people – the goal is instead to choose the right people – the right models, the right buyers – to fit the clothes. How different is this scene from the far more down-to-earth one found in the humble tailor shop (if we still remember what that looks like), where much energy is spent on taking the right measurements to ensure a comfortable fit. Such seems to be the contrast between designers and tailors. The former moulds models to match the material, while the latter cuts the cloth to fit the customer.

This contrast is a useful one to keep in mind when reflecting on our relationship with God. For the approach of the fashion designer is precisely the one that Paul is speaking against in his address to the Athenians in the first reading. Rather than humbly receiving the divine revelation as to what God is like and how God acts, people with the designer mentality seek instead to mould God according to their own whims and fancies. As a result, however faithful they may seem to be in performing routine rituals of worship, they end up merely paying homage to false gods, products of their own design, idols of their own making. The One True God remains unknown to them. Which is a very serious situation, since eternal life consists in knowing the one true God and Jesus Christ whom God has sent (see John 17:3).

It is this serious situation that the Holy Spirit and Paul are sent to redress. As Jesus tells us in the gospel, the Spirit of truth… will guide you to all truth. And it is this truth about God that Paul proclaims in the first reading. In contrast to the designer mentality, Paul demonstrates a tailor’s sensitivity. Even when speaking about the One True God, Paul tries to measure and fit his words to his listeners. He makes reference to their prevailing practices of devotion. He praises them for being very religious. He argues reasonably, as one of their philosophers might. He couches his message in terms that they can understand. In particular, he emphasizes the otherness of God (the Lord… does not dwell in sanctuaries made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands…), as much as God's nearness to us (in him we live and move and have our being). He also stresses God’s desire to be found by his wayward children (for we too are his offspring).

But however much Paul tries to tailor his message to his audience, there is one crucial non-negotiable aspect that he cannot, and dare not, water down. For this is the crux of the matter. This is the central aspect of the Mystery: God has given all authority to Jesus the Christ, who died and was raised to life for us. And this is something that the designers cannot accept. They are unwilling to tailor their own viewpoints – they are unwilling to cut the cloth of their own lives – to fit the contours of this mind blowing Mystery.

And doesn’t Paul’s experience at Athens present us with a mirror? Doesn’t it invite us to reflect upon our own worship and our own lives? In our relationships with God and with one another, to what extent are we willing to acknowledge the truth of what is before us? Or to what extent do we seek to mould God and others into our own image and likeness? The former is the way to truth and the fullness of life. The latter leads to the relegation of the One True God to the status of an unknown god.

How are we being challenged to forsake the designer in favor of the humble tailor today?

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Tuesday in the 6th Week of Easter
Memorial of St. Catherine of Siena, Virgin and Doctor
Parting’s Sweet Sorrow

Readings: Acts 16:22-34; Psalm 138:1-2ab, 2cde-3, 7c-8; John 16:5-11
Pictures: CC lanier67

It is better for you that I go…

Whatever Shakespeare might have written about parting being such sweet sorrow, it does seem that, for the disciples in today’s gospel, to whom Jesus has been bidding farewell, it is the pain of parting that is much more keenly felt. As Jesus observes concerning them: grief has filled your hearts. It is probably not difficult for us to empathize with the disciples. Saying goodbye to a loved one is never easy, especially not if the parting is painfully premature. And those of us who have grown attached to our Lord will also know how painful it can be when he occasionally chooses to let us feel the weight of his absence. What do we do during these times? How do we cope?

Even as we might be tempted to sink too deeply into depression, perhaps we might learn to heed the Lord’s call to consider carefully where he is going. At first, this might seem a cruel sadomasochistic joke. Of course we know where he is going! We are quite aware of the horror towards which he is walking. Are such considerations not more likely to further shatter our already broken hearts? Are they not more likely to paralyze us with even greater fears of the terrors of the night?

And yet, we mustn’t forget what the gospels tell us about the soldier who stood guard at Jesus’ execution: When the centurion who stood facing him saw how he breathed his last he said, "Truly this man was the Son of God!" (Mark 15:39). Quite amazingly, it is precisely in witnessing the terrible suffering and humiliating death of Christ that the centurion comes to profess what even the apostles hadn’t yet quite fully grasped.

Isn’t this also what we find in the first reading today? What is it that moves the jailer to accept baptism, himself and all his family? Is it really the fearsome might of the earthquake that shook the jail and loosened the prisoners’ chains? Or is it not rather the quiet power of the faith that enabled Paul and Silas to remain in their cell even when they had already been set free? Although Peter and Silas may, at first, seem to be doing the opposite of what Jesus does in the gospel – they stay, but Jesus goes – they are actually imitating their Master in their willingness to embrace the pain and ignominy of the Cross. And the powerful effects of their actions are seen in the jailer’s conversion. It is in witnessing their willingness to go to Calvary that the jailer’s heart is moved.

It is better for you that I go…

Here we see something that the saint we are commemorating today knew well. As we prayed in the opening prayer, in meditating on the sufferings of your Son and in serving your Church, St. Catherine was filled with the fervor of your love…

It is better for you that I go…

How is the Lord inviting us to meditate more deeply and to identify more closely with his going today?

Monday, April 28, 2008

Monday in the 6th Week of Easter
Deeds of Delight

Readings: Acts 16:11-15; Psalm 149:1b-2, 3-4, 5-6a and 9b; John 15:26—16:4a
Pictures: CC Lab 2112

The season of Easter is fast coming to a close. The great feast of Pentecost is only two weeks away. Throughout this time we have been immersing ourselves in the awesome Mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection. We’ve been reflecting on its implications for our daily living. And to help us to do this, we have been meditating upon the Acts of the Apostles, Luke’s account of the deeds of the early Christian community after the Resurrection.

In the gospel today, Jesus offers us a useful summary of what we have been considering. As he bids farewell to his disciples, he tells them that they will soon testify to him. And this is precisely what we have seen the early Christians doing. This is precisely the crux of the acts of the apostles. They testify. They bear witness to the power of Christ’s death and resurrection. In today’s first reading, Paul and companions extend this work of witnessing even to the territories of Macedonia. As we continue to meditate upon these acts of the early church, we should, of course, find ourselves challenged to do the same in our own particular circumstances.

Even so, the activity of the early Christians is only one part of the story. This is made clear especially in our readings today. For, in the gospel, Jesus speaks not only of the testimony of the disciples, but primarily of the testimony of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father, he will testify to me… And, in the first reading, we see the marvelous effects of the Spirit’s testimony in Philippi, when the hearts of Lydia and her family are opened to receive Paul’s message. Evidently, the book upon which we have been meditating, as our first reading at Mass, might just as well have been titled the Acts of the Spirit.

But what practical difference does this make? Whether or not the Spirit is active or not, aren’t we still duty-bound to testify to the Crucified and Risen Lord in our daily lives? Perhaps. However, while a deeper appreciation of the acts of the Spirit may not change what we are called to do, might it not change the manner in which we do it, not to mention the atmosphere in which it is done?

Realizing that the work of witnessing to Christ is primarily the Spirit’s initiative, does it not imply that our calling to do the same cannot be carried out in exactly the same way a corporation might arrive at a five-year plan for its own development? For, if it is indeed true that the Spirit calls the shots, then isn’t the challenge for us first to discern the Spirit’s intentions, as Paul and companions have been doing, so as to better collaborate in the Spirits efforts?

And even more than prompting a change in tactics, might not a deeper appreciation for the Spirit’s activity not also effect a change in attitude? For example, not for us is the perspective that emphasizes doing one’s duty in a purely functional and legalistic way. Not for us is the approach that often mires people in painful feelings of guilt at having fallen short of an abstract ideal. Not for us is the anxiety-producing notion that God is constantly looking down judgmentally upon us, ready to find fault with our performance. Aren’t these perspectives more likely to lead us to fall away than to persevere?

Instead, seeing our work of witnessing to the Lord as primarily a collaboration in the Spirit’s enterprise, might our witnessing not be carried out from an experience of the very thing that we proclaimed in the psalm response today? The Lord takes delight in his people. To testify to the Lord is to revel in that delight, and to share it with others. And this same delight fosters perseverance even in the face of persecution. As Jesus tells his disciples: I have told you this so that you may not fall away…

How truly Spirit-filled, how deeply delightful, is our experience of testifying to Christ in the world today?

Sunday, April 27, 2008

6th Sunday of Easter (A)
Cultivating the Harvest of Hope

Readings: Acts 8:5-8, 14-17; Psalm 66:1-3, 4-5, 6-7, 16, 20; 1 Peter 3:15-18; John 14:15-21
Picture: CC World Bank Photo Collection

Always have your answer ready for people who ask you for the reason for the hope that you all have…

Dear sisters and brothers, what do you make of these words from our second reason today? Do you have a ready answer for those who ask for the reason for your hope? Hearing these words on this 6th Sunday of Easter two things are brought to mind. The first is the front page of the Home section of yesterday’s Straits Times. It carried two stories side by side. The one on the left told of how some conmen managed to cheat no less than eighty people of a total of $1.13 million dollars by promising them winning 4-D numbers. The story on the right reported that two men have died and five others are severely ill as a result of taking illegal sexual enhancement drugs. These are stories about quite different things. Greed and gambling on the left, and drugs and sex on the right. But they are also very similar. They are both stories of hope, or rather what often passes itself off for hope in our world today. These are stories of false hope, of hope misplaced, misguided and cruelly manipulated. They are stories of how the greedy are made gullible, of how the impotent are made ill.

Of course, these are not stories that we can easily identify with, we who are more respectable, more religious, better educated. We are wise enough not to hand over our hard-earned money to cunning crooks. We know better than to rely on cheap counterfeit drugs. Even so, don’t we also place our hope in the financial and property markets? And don’t we also pursue counterfeit forms of happiness, often at great cost to ourselves and those who love us? Don’t these stories invite us, above all, to examine the genuineness of our own hope? In what or whom do we place our hope? What does authentic Christian hope look and feel like?

The second thing that’s brought to mind is a talk I heard last Friday evening. A religious sister was sharing her long experience of accompanying condemned prisoners. The stories she told were as moving as they were incredible. She spoke of how one can sense a powerful aura of God’s love on death row. She told of how ruthless murderers and hardened drug traffickers come to accept Christ during their time in jail. And the proof of the genuineness of their conversion is seen in the way in which they face their deaths – many with a song of praise to God on their lips. Experiencing the love of God among condemned criminals? Singing a song of praise at the end of a hangman’s noose? Isn’t this all but unbelievable? And yet, don’t sister’s stories bring out for us a key characteristic of genuine hope?

Authentic Christian hope miraculously brings together ideas and experiences that at first seem contradictory: love in the midst of condemnation, new life in the face of death. This really shouldn’t surprise us. For isn’t this a crucial aspect of the Mystery we are celebrating in this Mass, and especially in this season of Easter? Isn’t this coming together of opposites what we find in Jesus Christ our Lord? As we proclaimed in our opening prayer today, he is the Son of Man born of woman, but without beginning; he suffered for us but lives for ever. Isn’t this the incredible miracle, isn’t this the awesome power, of Christian hope?

How then does one come to experience this miracle? How does one receive this power? If we see the experience of authentic Christian hope, the experience of the condemned yet converted inmates of death row for example, as a field of grain ripe for the harvest, then how do we cultivate this plentiful crop? What is the secret behind its growth? What are the steps in the process?

Being in Singapore, we might be forgiven if our first response is hard work. But the harvest of hope is not produced chiefly through the sweat of our brow. When we are struggling without much success to forgive someone, for example, the strength to keep trying does not really come from us. It is produced neither by the gritting of our teeth nor by the making of solemn resolutions, as helpful as these may be. The harvest of authentic Christian hope is ultimately the work of God. It is produced in us by the One about whom Jesus speaks in the gospel today, the Advocate… that Spirit of truth whom the world can never receive since it neither sees nor knows him… This is also the One whom the Samaritan converts received in the first reading when Peter and John laid hands on them, the same One in whom we have all been baptized and confirmed. As Jesus reminds us in the gospel: you know him, because he is with you, he is in you…

If this is true, then part of the secret to letting hope flourish in and among us is first to acknowledge and to accept our own hopelessness, our own weakness, our own impotence, and to beg for the Spirit’s help. This is one request that our loving Father never denies. For if we know how to give good gifts to our children, how much more will our heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him (see Luke 11:13).

But it is only meaningful to have the power to make things grow if there is something to grow in the first place. Which is why Jesus tells us that the Spirit is received by us to the extent that we accept the seed that God the Father sows into the soil of our hearts, the seed who is Christ himself. If you love me you will keep my commandments. I shall ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate. Isn’t this what we see in the first reading? The Samaritans are able to welcome the Spirit through the prayer of Peter and John only because they have first received the seed sown by Philip, who proclaimed the Christ to them. Before the growing, there must first be a sowing.

But how then does the soil become receptive enough to receive the seed? How do hardened hearts come to embrace God’s Word in its fullness, even to the extent of accepting both Christ’s dying and his rising? Often this happens because the sowing has been preceded by a plowing, a time when the soil of our hearts is painfully churned up to soften it for the seed. Isn’t this what the inmates of death row experience? In the apparent hopelessness of their condemned state, even as the final appeal for clemency has been rejected, their hearts are tenderly pried open to receive the Good News of God’s inexhaustible love.

We, of course, are not on death row. And neither should we go out of our way to do wrong so that our hearts can be plowed. As we are told in the second reading: it is better to suffer for doing right than for doing wrong. Still, don’t we each have our own fair share of painful experiences, times when we have had our hearts plowed by the trials and tribulations of life? The Good News is that, whether these experiences are the result of right- or wrongdoing, whether on our part or on the part of others, they can all be used for plowing. They can all serve to prepare our hearts to receive the seed of God’s Word. The pain of our suffering can be the first step in the cultivation of a rich harvest of hope, a harvest that we can then share with others, such that the cycle continues unto the fullness of life in God’s kingdom.

Sisters and brothers, as Christians we are all called to be cultivators of God’s great harvest of hope.

But how truly Christian are we?

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Thursday in the 5th Week of Easter
Freeing the Burdened or Burdening the Free?

Readings: Acts 15:7-21; Psalm 96:1-2a, 2b-3, 10; John 15:9-11
Picture: CC jenchungee

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Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Wednesday in the 5th Week of Easter
Clinging to the True Vine

Readings: Acts 15:1-6; Psalm 122:1-2, 3-4ab, 4cd-5; John 15:1-8
Picture: CC

Whereas the image of the Shepherd loomed large in our gospel readings for last week, today we see a shift to that of the Vine. Most if not all of us are probably so familiar with the image of the Vine that this change is not likely to unsettle us, not in the least. Which is not such a good thing, since such complacency might well lead us to overlook at least one strikingly significant characteristic of the Vine, an aspect that subtly sets it apart from the Shepherd.

Recalling our meditations on the tenth chapter of John, we will see that the Shepherd is essentially portrayed as one who acts. He enters the sheepfold. He gathers his sheep, calling them by name. He leads them out to find pasture and onward into the fullness of life. Relating to one such as he, we are challenged to learn to recognize the Shepherd’s voice, to follow him closely, and to imitate his pastoral qualities in our dealings with those entrusted to our care.

Consider now the image of Christ as the True Vine. In contrast to the One who acts, we are presented instead with One who is acted upon. I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower. He takes away every branch in me that does not bear fruit, and everyone that does he prunes so that it bears more fruit… How does one relate to the Vine? Jesus leaves us in no doubt. Remain in me… Just as a branch cannot bear fruit on its own unless it remains on the vine, so neither can you unless you remain in me… And it is perhaps important, at this point, to render explicit something that remains only implicit in the Lord’s words. If Christ is the True Vine who submits to the Father’s pruning, and if we are to remain in Christ, then aren’t we also challenged to allow ourselves to be acted upon by the Father? Aren’t we challenged to submit ourselves to pruning? If this may sound a little too abstract, the first reading conveniently illustrates the point for us.

Here, the Vine that is Christ present in the early Christian community has reached a major developmental stage in its growth. The question that arises is whether or not Christians should be required to undergo circumcision as prescribed in the Mosaic Law. The issue provokes intense controversy and heated debate, culminating in the so-called Council of Jerusalem. Ultimately, as we well know, the Council decides in the negative. And the passing of time confirms the wisdom of that decision. The branch of circumcision is eventually excised from the Vine that is Christ’s Body the church. What then, we may wonder, becomes of all those who had argued so strenuously on the opposite side of the issue? Will they continue to cling to their preference, their branch, even when it becomes clear that the Vine is growing in a different direction? Will they remain so tied to their opinions that they are willing to separate themselves from the Vine?

One is reminded of a cartoon in which someone saws a branch while sitting in a tree. The humorous thing about the cartoon is that the person is sawing the very branch upon which s/he is sitting. It’s funny for us who are looking on, but not for the one on the branch, especially not after it has been sawn through.

Faced with the image of Christ as the True Vine, perhaps we might reflect today upon the ways in which we are being invited to submit to the Father’s pruning.

To what are we clinging, our preferred branch or the One True Vine?

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Tuesday in the 5th Week of Easter
Bu Dao Weng

Readings: Acts 14:19-28; Psalm 145:10-11, 12-13ab, 21; John 14:27-31a
Pictures: CC *betenoir*

The readings and prayers converge today to bring to mind yet another image from childhood. It’s that type of self-righting toy called bu dao weng in Mandarin. It’s quite an amazing thing, because whatever you do to try to make it topple over, the toy somehow always manages to right itself. A perhaps similar amazement and awe-inspiring feeling is evoked as we listen, in today’s first reading, to the continuing saga of the missionary journey of Paul and Barnabas.

Whereas, in earlier days, vain attempts were made to do them harm, today the attempts meet with considerable success. Paul is stoned, dragged out of the city, and left for dead. But what is even more incredible than the cruel violence inflicted on him is Paul’s response to it. A lesser person would have simply moved on to another city. Instead, Paul dusts himself off and actually reenters Lystra. The lions have just chewed him up and spat him out, and yet back into the den he goes. Not only that, together with Barnabas, he also makes a return-tour of the places visited earlier, including Iconium, where they had almost been stoned. Their aim is not to taunt their persecutors but to continue encouraging their brethren to persevere in the faith. Knocked down more than once, even to the point of almost toppling over, these early missionaries simply refuse to stay down. What could be more incredible? What, we may wonder, is the secret behind their strength?

In the case of the bu dao weng, the secret lies in its center of gravity. Most of its weight is centered at its base. The rest of it weighs next to nothing. Can we not surmise that something similar is happening in Paul and Barnabas as well? How do they continue to persevere in the face of persecution if not for the fact that the whole weight of their hope, their faith, their love, is centered on the One who, in the gospel today, tells us: do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid… I am going away and I will come back to you…

And isn’t it also striking how this grace to remain centered on Christ, even in the face of trial, is nourished in community? As we noted above, encouragement is the precious gift offered by Paul and Barnabas to the communities they revisit. And Paul himself benefits from the ministry of others. We’re told that, after Paul was left for dead outside Lystra, the disciples gathered around him, (and) he got up and entered the city...

We are afflicted in every way, but not constrained; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our body (2 Corinthians 4:8-10). These are the words that come to mind as we listen to the edifying witness of Paul and Barnabas. They inspire us to continue seeking, for ourselves and our community, the grace that they received and lived, the same grace for which we asked in our opening prayer: Father… make our faith strong and our hope sure. May we never doubt that you will fulfill the promises you have made…

In what or whom is our center of gravity located?

How is God answering our prayer today?

Monday, April 21, 2008

Monday in the 5th Week of Easter
Seeking the Eternal

Readings: Acts 14:5-18; Psalm 115:1-2, 3-4, 15-16; John 14:21-2614:1-12
Pictures: CC RomulusRueda

Father, help us to seek the values that will bring us eternal joy in this changing world…

These are the words with which we began our opening prayer at Mass today. They also present us with a useful starting point for our reflection on the readings. To begin with, they invite us to ask ourselves what is our instinctive reaction to novel situations in this changing world of ours. And how do our reactions compare with what we find in the first reading? Whatever may have been the actual situations in Iconium and Lystra, it’s quite clear that Paul and Barnabas represent change. They offer a new teaching that’s as provocative as it is powerful. And it’s very striking how diametrically opposed are the reactions they evoke in each of these cities respectively. They are almost stoned in Iconium and literally idolized in Lystra. What is it that prompts these two populations to react to change in such apparently opposite ways? One resists it to the point of violence, while the other embraces it to the point of worship. What is it that prompts these two extreme reactions, neither of which is adequate from a Christian perspective?

Is it not likely that opposite though these reactions may be, they actually spring from a very similar way of looking at things in our changing world? This is a perspective that tends to delight in fashioning false gods out of worldly things. Quite obviously, for those in Iconium, their preferred gods are threatened by the words and activities of Paul and Barbabas, just as those in Lystra have theirs confirmed. So, naturally, the former persecute while the latter worship. What is lacking in both these populations is the ability to see things not as gods in themselves, but as signs pointing to the One True God. As Paul says to the Lystrans concerning the marvels of nature: God did not leave himself without witness, for he gave you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons… What we find lacking, as much in Iconium as in Lystra, is the ability, and the resolve, not to cling to the merely transitory, but to seek in it what is truly eternal. But how does one do this?

The process involves a meeting of two movements. We find a reference to the first in our opening prayer, where we spoke of our desire for what (the Father promises). And the second is found, of course, in the gospel, where Jesus speaks of how he and the Father will make their dwelling with us. For us who are Christian, the process of learning to see the eternal in the changing involves an experience of how our deep desire for God finds fulfillment only in Jesus the Lord. Whoever loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and reveal myself to him… This love is expressed in keeping Jesus’ word, in clinging to him who is the Eternal Word Made Flesh, rather than to any other transitory thing. It is not always an easy thing to do as it will often require us to release our grip on things that pass away. Yet, we are not left to our own devices. For, as Jesus reminds us, our love for him is lived in the power and wisdom of the Holy Spirit.

How is this same Spirit empowering and enlightening us to continue clinging to Christ alone, and so to seek the Eternal in our changing world today?

5th Sunday of Easter (A)
Singing A New Song

Readings: Acts 6:1-7; Psalm Ps 33:1-2, 4-5, 18-19; 1 Peter 2:4-9; John 14:1-12
Picture: CC charles chan *

Sisters and brothers, have you ever experienced having your song taken away from you? I’m reminded of someone blessed with a talent for singing. From a young age he was trained in classical piano. He later obtained a graduate degree in music, majoring in voice, and has experience in performing as well as in teaching and in directing choirs. Not only is he blessed with a beautiful voice, but he has also been given the desire to share it with others. And he hasn’t let his gift go to his head. He sees it as a vocation, a way by which he can contribute to the building up of the kingdom of God, a pathway to holiness, for himself and for others.

But then, one day, disaster strikes. Something happens to his voice. He opens his mouth to speak and nothing comes out. He has difficulty making himself heard, let alone trying to sing. When he finally manages to say something, his once-beautiful and powerful voice sounds so thin and rough and hoarse. He waits, but the problem doesn’t go away. He sees the best doctors, and they all tell him the same thing. His is a chronic condition. They are able to give him a name for it, something long and difficult to pronounce. But they cannot give him a cure. He can no longer sing, at least not like he used to before. It’s as if someone has stretched out a cruel hand, clamped it around his throat and snuffed out his voice before it could leave his mouth. His song has been taken away from him. What is he to do now?

Sisters and brothers, have you ever had a similar experience? Have you ever had your song taken away from you? I know, of course, that not all of us have my friend’s talent. Not everyone can sing. But don’t all of us have a song, something we cherish, something that gives meaning and beauty to our lives? Maybe it’s our health or our career, our family or a loved one, our intelligence or some other treasured possession. We may not all be able to sing, but don’t we all have a song? Or, to put it another way, don’t all of us have a building that we call home, or a chosen pathway on which to walk through life?

But what are we to do if, one day, whether it is through illness or betrayal, a freak accident or our own negligence, our song is taken away from us? Where will we live if, one day, the house that we have so carefully constructed for ourselves is torn down? How will we continue on if, one day, the road that we have chosen is somehow obstructed? What do we do then?

The question arises because we find similar situations in our readings today. We reach chapter 14 of John’s gospel, the beginning of Jesus’ farewell discourse. Later, in chapter 18, he will be arrested and tried. And what are the disciples to do then? Over time, they have come to focus all their hopes and dreams on Jesus. They have made him their song. What will they do when he is so cruelly snatched from their side? Thus far, they have followed Jesus on his way. How will they go on once this chosen road of theirs is obstructed by the Lord’s Cross?

We find a similar situation in the second reading too. The people to whom this letter was originally addressed are converts to Christianity. Before their conversion, they had enjoyed full participation in the social and cultural life of their local communities. But since their conversion to Christ, others have begun to avoid them and even to say bad things about them. They find themselves being sidelined and verbally abused, victims of subtle religious persecution. The home that they had made for themselves in their local communities is being demolished by the prejudice of their neighbors. Like the disciples in the gospel, their song is in danger of being taken away.

And isn’t this also the danger that we find in the first reading? Till now, the Acts of the Apostles has presented us with inspiring descriptions of how united the early Christian communities were. But today this song of unity is threatened. For some reason, perhaps again out of prejudice, the widows of the Greek-speaking Jewish Christians are being neglected. What are the community and its leaders to do?

The usual initial reaction to such disasters and dangers is very understandable and even necessary. When our song is being taken away from us, all we want is quickly, and at all costs, to get it back. When the road ahead is blocked, all our energies are poured into trying to find a detour, a way to bypass the obstacle. We try to get a handle on the situation, to find a quick solution to the problem. Isn’t this what is happening in the gospel? Finding his way obstructed by the rock of his Master’s Cross Thomas indirectly asks Jesus to draw him a map. Perhaps he can find an alternative route. And Philip goes one better, not content with a map, he wishes for Jesus to bring him straightaway to their destination. Lord, let us see the Father.

But God often has other ideas. Instead of simply restoring to us our old song, God wishes instead give us a new one. Rather than removing the obstacle along the road, God forges for us a path through it. When our house is demolished, God actually transforms the wrecking ball into a foundation stone upon which a new home can be built.

Isn’t this what Jesus means, when he tells the disciples to trust him because: I am the Way, the Truth and the Life… No one can come to the Father except through me? Isn’t he saying that the way to the Father cannot bypass the Cross? The building of the kingdom cannot but be founded on the cornerstone of Jesus’ Death and Resurrection. Exactly what this means for us will depend, of course, on the circumstances. For the disciples in the gospel, it implies walking with Jesus to Calvary. For the Christian converts of the second reading, it means holding firm to their faith in the Lord, despite the pain and the inconvenience, the initial feeling of homelessness. For those in the first reading, it means being willing to thrash out their differences in a big meeting and then having the leaders delegate some of their authority to Greek-speaking Christians.

The actual details may vary from case to case, but the essentials remain the same. Three of these essentials are highlighted for us today. Whether it be at the meal table or at the table of the Lord’s Word, the first reading reminds us that the Way of Christ is a way of humble service, just as the second reading reminds us that it is also a way of obedient sacrifice. And it is only in following this way that the kingdom is built up, that a way is forged from death to life. It is then that we find ourselves receiving the very thing we prayed for in our opening prayer just now. There we said that the Father has filled all ages with the words of a new song. And we asked him to give us voice to sing his praise throughout this season of joy.

Service, sacrifice and joy: these are the characteristics of the Way of the Lord. These are God’s marvelous gifts to us especially when our song is taken away from us. And this is also the reason why we continue to celebrate Easter.

Sisters and brothers, how are we being invited to sing a new song today?

Friday, April 18, 2008

Friday in the 4th Week of Easter
From Street Directory to Guiding Hands

Readings: Acts 13:26-33; Psalm 2:6-7, 8-9, 10-11ab; John 14:1-6
Picture: CC Mundozeli

I’m thankful for street directories. Especially for those of us who don’t yet have the luxury of GPS, street directories are an invaluable aid for getting to new and unfamiliar places. Even when someone who knows the way volunteers to sit next to me in the car, I usually can’t resist having a peek at the directory before we set out. I prefer to know the way, to have the route mapped out, in advance. All this is fine and good, except when I try to transpose this preference into how I live my life. For isn’t it true that there aren’t really any reliable roadmaps, any detailed directories, for life? In choosing a spouse, for example, can we really say for sure what a particular person will be like ten or twenty years down the road? Do we even have that sort of certainty about ourselves? On the road of life, if we were willing only to make choices on the basis of information that was street-directory-like in accuracy, would we set off from home at all?

Which is why it is perhaps not difficult to understand the conversation that we find in the gospel today. Here we have the beginning of Jesus’ farewell discourse in the gospel of John. And even as Jesus says goodbye to his friends, Thomas indirectly requests a street directory, a sneak preview of the way ahead. We do not know where you are going; how can we know the way? But rather than drawing him a detailed roadmap, Jesus points to himself. I am the way… Instead of giving him the latest edition of the local street directory, Jesus offers himself, the Father’s tender Hand of companionship and guidance on the journey of life.

It’s not easy, of course, to take this Hand. Not if, like me, you prefer the greater clarity and certainty of a street directory. And especially not when we recall where this Hand is headed. Jesus’ farewell discourse is a prelude to the Passion. We’re now in the fourteenth chapter of John’s gospel. In chapter eighteen Jesus will be arrested and tried. Should we be surprised if, like Thomas and the disciples, we too experience some hesitation in accepting this Hand that the Father offers, in following the Way that Jesus both walks and is?

Even so, we see in the first reading what happens when people do, however tentatively, actually accept this guiding Hand. We know, of course, that most of the disciples will falter, and yet the hand of the Lord will continue to uphold them. In the midst of their disappointment and grief, their confusion and shame, the One who was crucified will once more walk among them, urging them onward. And, as Paul professes in the first reading today, the companions then become witnesses. They testify to the reliability of God’s guiding Hand. They proclaim to the world that although this Way leads inevitably through the darkness of death, it also winds ultimately onward into the brilliance of life in its fullness. But to walk this Way, to take this Hand, one needs first to forsake the desire for a directory.

How is the Lord offering us his Hand today?

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Thursday in the 4th Week of Easter
Weaving An Exhortation

Readings: Acts 13:13-25; Psalm 89:2-3, 21-22, 25 and 27; John 13:16-20
Picture: CC N creatures

If one of you has a word of exhortation for the people, please speak…

Anyone who’s ever tried it will testify to the fact that it’s not easy to convince others to do the right thing. Difficult enough to summon up the willpower to do what we ourselves know to be right, let alone to convince others. After all, isn’t it true that many of us can resonate with these words of Paul in the letter to the Romans? I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate… (Romans 7:15) How then do we deal with this difficulty? How do we receive and offer exhortation in ways that have some chance at success?

Our readings help to shed some light on this difficult question, since both Paul – in the first reading – and Jesus – in the gospel – are engaged precisely in the task of exhortation, or (in another translation) encouragement. Paul’s aim is to move his listeners to repent and to entrust their lives to the Crucified and Risen Christ, just as Jesus’ preoccupation is with encouraging his disciples to copy his example in earlier washing their feet. How do Paul and Jesus go about exhorting their listeners?

They do so in ways that are at once starkly different and yet deeply similar. Consider first the difference. Notice the method Paul adopts. He doesn’t begin by shouting at the people and telling them what to do. Instead, he actually launches into what seems to be a rather long speech – long enough that we will have to continue listening to it at Mass tomorrow. And notice what he says. His is not so much a speech as it is a story, a story that includes Israel’s experience of God in Egypt. In contrast, while Paul relies more on the spoken word, Jesus chooses a method that emphasizes ritual action. He washes his disciples’ feet. At least in today's readings, whereas Paul adopts the way of the storyteller, Jesus chooses the way of the servant.

Still, different though these approaches may seem at first, they actually share something in common. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that the similarity is not so much in something as it is in someone. For Paul’s storytelling is more than a fanciful narration of tall tales or an imaginative spinning of fantastic yarns. What he is doing is weaving together several crucial strands into a tight tapestry. Through his words, the personal stories of each listener, as well as the communal story of Israel and her God, are being skillfully woven together with the crucial narrative of the life, death and resurrection of Christ. The hope is that, in experiencing their own story so intimately intertwined with that of the Crucified and Risen One, each listener will be moved to act.

Likewise, isn’t Jesus’ washing of his disciples’ feet a means by which he seeks to draw them more closely into an intimate relationship with himself? Isn’t this why he can tell Peter that unless he washes him, Peter can have nothing in common with him (see John 13:8)? Isn’t this close association to the point of identification also what lies behind Jesus’ closing words in today’s gospel? Whoever receives the one I send receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me. What Paul weaves together through the spoken word, Jesus seeks to unite through ritual action. And it also becomes clear, at this point, how closely this process of exhortation mirrors what should be our experience at each Eucharist. Here, through spoken word and ritual action, we open ourselves to being more closely identified with Christ, and so begin to find strength to do what needs to be done. Again in the words of the Letter to the Romans: who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! (Romans 7:24-25)

How are we being called to accept and to weave the tapestry of exhortation today?

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Wednesday in the 4th Week of Easter
Learning to Read and Write

Readings: Acts 12:24—13:5a; Psalm 67:2-3, 5, 6 and 8; John 12:44-50
Picture: CC cambodia4kidsorg

Do you remember when you first started learning to read and write? Delving back into the mists of time, I recall that fateful day – my first in the neighborhood kindergarten – when I was asked to go to the blackboard and write my name in Chinese. I couldn’t, of course, so the teacher taught me how. We all probably have our own memories of how or when we started. But perhaps the more important question is whether or not we’re still learning. Or have we already stopped? Have we already learnt all there is to know about reading and writing?

The question is not as ridiculous as it may sound at first. For aren’t there various levels to these very basic skills? Don’t reading and writing involve more than just being able to recognize letters of the alphabet and then to reproduce and rearrange them in an orderly and intelligible fashion? Consider those Harry Potter books and films for example. At one level, they’re all about wizards and witches and magic. But on another level, aren’t they also about courage and love and friendship? Perhaps there are also things in them that are worthy of critique, but then, we’ll only know if we are able to read them, right? And, of course, it’s not just books and movies. Don’t we also read people and events? Even more important, as Christians, don’t we also have to learn to recognize the signs of the times, and what these are saying to the churches (see, e.g., Revelations 2:7)? Furthermore, when it comes to writing, don’t we require skills that go far beyond our dexterity with pen and PC? Consciously or not, don’t we write also with our daily actions and our very lives?

Which is why it’s important to pay attention to what Jesus continues to do in the gospel today. Faced with people who remain caught up in the superficial and the obvious, Jesus continues to point them beyond. He continues to teach them to read between the lines, as it were, to see beyond the thought-provoking and wonder-working prophet, to the Eternal One who sent him. Anyone who believes in me believes not in me but also in the one who sent me, and whoever sees me sees the one who sent me… It’s only when the people are able to read this deeper reality, it’s only when they are able to recognize and accept the extraordinary divine presence and action in that ordinary human life that they will then be able to write, with their own lives, a fitting response to God in the sight of the world.

And isn’t this dynamic also operative in the first reading? At one level, what we have is an account of how Barnabas and Saul return to Antioch after completing their task of fundraising in Jerusalem, after which they are both numbered among the teachers in the Antiochene church. But the reading also renders explicit something that would not otherwise be so obvious. For beyond the details regarding tasks and teachers, there broods the invisible influence of the Holy Spirit, who both calls and missions, who both assigns tasks and inspires teaching. And it is only because the church is learning to read this deeper reality that it is also growing in its ability to respond by writing, with the very lives of its members, a living testimony of praise to God. O God, let all the nations praise you!

How well, then, do we read and write? And how is the Lord helping to improve these skills of ours today?

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Tuesday in the 4th Week of Easter
Hearing and Heeding the Shepherd

Readings: Acts 11:19-26; Psalm 87:1b-3, 4-5, 6-7; John 10:22-30
Picture: CC hans s

My sheep know my voice; I know them and they follow me…

Today we approach the end of the beautifully inspiring Good Shepherd discourse in the tenth chapter of John’s gospel. In it Jesus has spoken movingly about the Good Shepherd’s relationship with his sheep. He has painted a poignant picture of how the Good Shepherd calls and cares for those entrusted to his care by his Father, even to the extent of laying down his life for them. And, more than once, he has also indicated the distinguishing mark of those who belong to his flock. Recognizing his voice as he calls them by name, they steadfastly follow in his steps. As moving, however, as this metaphor is, we might perhaps ask ourselves what the process looks like in the concrete. How does the Shepherd call his sheep? And how do they listen and respond? Our readings help us to meditate upon these questions by presenting us with two illustrations.

That the so-called Jews in the gospel provide a negative example is clear from the question that they pose to Jesus. In spite of all the signs that he has worked thus far, as well as all the explicit teaching that he has given, they continue to beg him to speak plainly. The Shepherd has been calling his sheep all this time. Quite obviously, these have neither recognized his voice, nor the names by which he calls them. They are too busy with their own respective agendas. They respond to names other than those that the Lord has for them. So, instead of following the Shepherd, they will ultimately reject him. As we will see in the continuation of the reading in the bible, they will even go to the extent of trying to stone him.

In contrast, the situation in the first reading provides us with a positive example of how the shepherd’s voice is heard and heeded. We might begin by first inquiring into the reason why Barnabas was sent to the new Christian community in Antioch. What was he sent there to do? To the more practical-minded and task-oriented among us, the answer seems quite clearly stated in the closing lines of the first reading: for a whole year they met with the Church and taught a large number of people… And yet, should we not be careful also to pay attention to the earlier actions of Barnabas?

Upon arrival in Antioch, the first thing we are told about Barnabas is that he saw the grace of God… He who was sent as a shepherd to the Antiochene flock begins not by teaching but by first listening and recognizing the voice of the Chief Shepherd speaking through and from within his flock. And what does Barnabas hear if not his own true name? For we are told that apart from rejoicing with the people, he also encouraged them all. He was, after all, named Joseph, but called Barnabas, which means son of encouragement (see Acts 4:36). And, having heard the Chief Shepherd calling him by name, Barnabas proceeds to follow in the Shepherd’s steps. Rather than carefully carving out a niche for himself in the community, instead of possessively claiming a portion of the flock for his own, he goes to Tarsus to find Saul. And, together, they minister to the Lord’s sheep in Antioch.

What of us? By what names are we being called? How are we being invited to follow in the steps of the Shepherd today?

Monday, April 14, 2008

Monday in the 4th Week of Easter
Two Faces of the Shepherd

Readings: Acts 11:1-18; Psalm 42:2-3; 43:3, 4; John 10:11-18
Picture: CC babasteve

It’s a very delicate situation that we find in the first reading today, one that could so easily have turned very ugly. We reach, at this point in the Acts of the Apostles, the beginnings of what was to become a major watershed in the life of the early church, the spread of the gospel beyond its original Jewish context. So much depends on this meeting, this dialogue, between Peter and the Jewish Christians of Jerusalem. And, at the same time, so many things could so easily have gone wrong. The conversation could so easily have been disrupted, or have veered off in a very different and far less desirable direction.

We notice, for example, how the exchange begins with what appears to be an argumentative confrontation: You entered the house of uncircumcised people and ate with them. To which, Peter could so easily have responded by saying something like: So what?! I am Peter. I know what I’m doing. You listen to me… Thankfully, he chooses instead to patiently explain the reasons for his actions.

On their part, after Peter’s sharing, the Jewish Christians could also have chosen to respond like this: So what?! What does it matter what vision you saw, what words you heard, what experience you had? According to the law we must not have anything to do with the uncircumcised… Instead, surprisingly perhaps, after listening carefully to Peter and finding his reasoning convincing they actually allow their minds to be changed. What was at first considered taboo, an unthinkable proposition, is seen as a precious God-given opportunity. And the result is a more generous collaboration in the ongoing project of sharing with the world the divine life in all its fullness. When they heard this, they stopped objecting and glorified God…

What is perhaps most striking about this story is how two equally legitimate, yet apparently opposite, tendencies come together in a most helpful way. If we see the faith as a fountain of living water, then the Jewish Christians represent the important task of defending that life-giving source from external contamination. And isn’t this a task that remains especially important today, faced as we are with so many different experiences just as, if not more, risky and challenging than the prospect of admitting uncircumcised pagans to the faith? Peter, on the other hand, represents that aspect of the faith that is not content simply to remain at home jealously guarding a familiar font. Rather does it thirstily continue to seek the face of God in ongoing engagement with the world: Athirst is my soul for the living God…

Defending and seeking: are these not two equally important and legitimate tendencies in the life of the church? And do they not constitute two faces, as it were, of the gospel’s image of the Good Shepherd, who both protects his flock from ravenous wolves, and also leaves the ninety-nine to go in search of the lost one (see Luke 15:4)? And isn't it striking and enlightening how these two tendencies come together in the life of the church? The process involves an open dialogue, a mutual laying down of one’s cards on the table of communal discernment. Even more important is the focus of the parties. More than merely clinging stubbornly to preconceived positions, the emphasis is instead on seeking together, in the apparently novel, the already familiar hand of God. In the reading, this is found in these words of Peter: ...the Holy Spirit fell upon them as it had upon us at the beginning, and I remembered the word of the Lord…

How are we being called to embody the two faces of the Good Shepherd in the world today?

Friday, April 11, 2008

Friday in the 3rd Week of Easter
Blinded Unto Revolution

Readings: Acts 9:1-20; Psalm 117:1bc, 2; John 6:52-59
Picture: CC Meffi

There was a time when people believed that the earth was flat, just as there was a time when the earth was thought to be the center of the universe around which all other heavenly bodies revolved. How did we come to believe differently? In his classic but controversial book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), the late historian and philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn describes the process in terms of what he calls paradigm shifts. A prevailing theory, used to explain the way things are, becomes more and more inadequate. There is then a sudden shift to another theory, another paradigm or way of looking at the world, which explains things better. The idea, for example, that the earth is the center of the universe is replaced by one favoring the sun. Of course, not everyone will welcome this radical change of perspective. Some will continue to cling stubbornly to the former theory, however inadequate. Indeed, Kuhn himself seemed to think that scientific revolutions could take place only when those who subscribed to the old theory died out and were replaced by those who preferred the new.

So much for the field of science. But aren’t there also similar revolutions to be negotiated in the realm of the spirit, paradigm shifts that we know as conversions? And don’t we see some of these taking place in our readings today? In the gospel, Jesus continues to present a radically provocative and scandalous teaching: unless you eat the Flesh of the Son of Man and drink his Blood, you shall not have life within you… Even to begin to comprehend this shocking teaching, let alone to put it into practice, requires that Jesus’ listeners first put into question their prevailing understandings of flesh and blood, of nourishment and life.

And is the revolution that is taking place in the life of Saul in the first reading any less radical? At one moment, he is mounted on a horse, zealously upholding the law, fearlessly fighting on the side of God, or so he thinks. Then, in a blinding flash, he is lying in the dust, accused of persecuting the One who is the embodiment of the law, the Son of God himself. And what of Ananias? Isn’t he also being asked to negotiate a paradigm shift of sorts? To the dangerous demon from whom he and his fellow Christians are anxious to flee, he is sent as a ministering angel. Go, for this man is a chosen instrument of mine…

How, if at all, might such spiritual revolutions, such pastoral paradigm shifts, truly be negotiated? Unlike Kuhn, our readings don’t seem to require that we wait for some people to die and be replaced by others. But they do call for a dying of a different sort. To negotiate the revolution, to undergo the conversion, to which they are called, Jesus’ listeners must first die to their prevailing prejudices regarding who Jesus is and what he says. And, even if to different degrees, both Saul and Ananias must forsake their respective understandings of where God is to be found. Part of this dying process will involve a willingness to submit to being blinded, if only for a time, and to entrusting oneself into the guiding hands of Another.

What revolutions are we being invited to negotiate today?

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Thursday in the 3rd Week of Easter
Without Missing the Forest for the Trees

Readings: Acts 8:26-40; Psalm 66:8-9, 16-17, 20; John 6:44-51
Picture: CC Shayan (USA)

It’s easy to miss the forest for the trees. I vaguely remember reading somewhere about a scripture scholar who often found it difficult to pray with the scriptures. The difficulty was due not to a lack of knowledge – this was a scholar! – but rather to an excess. Fully conversant with the historical background as well as the issues of interpretation surrounding each scripture text, the scholar often found it difficult to get past such considerations in order to encounter the One to whom all prayer is addressed. Bogged down by various details of information, the scholar couldn’t quite access the deeper concerns and feelings that needed to be expressed. It’s easy to miss the forest for the trees, especially if one is a tree-expert.

The people with whom Jesus is speaking in today’s gospel are probably not experts, but it’s quite clear that they have a good knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures. They know enough to cite the example of Moses feeding the people with manna in the desert as a precedent, in the hope of convincing Jesus to continue doing something similar. It’s probably not difficult to empathize with them, especially not at the present time, when the price of rice is escalating and many are already starting to hoard. In the desert of their hunger and need, wouldn’t it be handy to have a one-man bread/ rice-producing machine? Yet the people’s knowledge of scripture presents more of a hindrance than a help to their relationship with God. Caught up in their own immediate concerns, they miss the deeper significance of the very scriptures that they are citing. They miss the forest for the trees.

Isn’t this why Jesus has carefully been refocusing their attention? As we heard on Tuesday: it was not Moses who gave the bread from heaven; my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. And today: I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the desert, but they died; this is the bread that comes down from heaven so that one may eat it and not die. Jesus is doing for the people the very same thing that we see Philip doing for the Ethiopian eunuch on the desert route in the first reading. In the desert of their obsession with material things, Jesus shows them how all of scripture points to the marvelous deeds that the Father performs, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit. Through the Filial Lamb led to the slaughter, the Word Made Flesh and Splendor of the Father, the True Bread come down from heaven, the people are being led into the fullness of life. And the measure of their appreciation of the scriptures lies less in how much they know than in how open they are in approaching this One whom the Father sends. Everyone who listens to my Father and learns from him comes to me… It’s important to study the scriptures. But do not miss the forest for the trees.

And what of us? In the respective deserts of our own existence, what are the trees to which we might be tempted to cling? What are the hindrances that prevent us from deepening our relationship with the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit?

How is God inviting us to refocus our attention from the trees to the forest today?

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Wednesday in the 3rd Week of Easter
The Joy is in The Rain

Readings: Acts 8:1b-8; Psalm 66:1-3a, 4-5, 6-7a; John 6:35-40
Picture: CC carf

Every cloud has a silver lining… This is perhaps the first thought that comes to mind as we listen to the readings at Mass today. We are well aware, of course, that we remain in the exuberance of Easter. How can we forget, when we find this joyful shout in the response to the psalm: Let all the earth cry out to God with joy… And yet, we cannot help but notice that the first reading begins with these ominous words: there broke out a severe persecution of the Church in Jerusalem, and all were scattered… Even so, the same reading ends on an unexpectedly lighthearted note. Forced dispersal results in wider dissemination of the gospel, even to Samaria. And there was great joy in that city. From behind the terrible thundercloud of persecution peeps the silver lining of growth in fervor and in number.

But we might perhaps reflect still a little further, question a little deeper. Is it enough for us to remain with the image of a tiny silver lining around every ominous cloud? Is that truly the full extent of our Easter joy? When our ears are deafened by loud peals of thunder, when our eyes are blinded by bright flashes of lightning, or our homes inundated by torrential sheets of rain, is our comfort only to be found after we have weathered the storm? Does our joy come only after the rains have ceased and we have managed to catch sight of the sun shyly peeping out from behind the stubborn clouds that remain?

Or is there not something more to the gift of faith that we spoke of in the opening prayer? As a result of Christ’s Passion, Death and Resurrection, is it not rather the case that even in the midst of the storm, however terrible and torrential it may be, we are never abandoned. Rather than waiting desperately to catch sight of a silver lining, is it not rather the case that, because of Christ, every cloud is now shot through with silver? This doesn’t mean, of course, that we will not have occasion to suffer, and even to make a loud lament, as the Christians of Jerusalem do in the first reading. What it does mean is that even in the midst of our pain, Christ can yet be found. For as he himself tells us in the gospel, this is the will of the one who sent me, that I should not lose anything of what he gave me, but that I should raise it up on the last day…

Isn’t this the all but unbelievable mystery that we are celebrating, and into which we are continually immersing ourselves in this Easter season? Isn’t this the crux of the tremendous deeds of God that we earlier acclaimed in the responsorial psalm, that God has changed the sea into dry land, and that the joy is in the rain?

How are being invited to enter more fully into this joy today?

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Tuesday in the 3rd Week of Easter
Stones and Bread

Readings: Acts 7:51—8:1a; Psalm 31:3cd-4, 6 and 7b and 8a, 17 and 21ab; John 6:30-35
: CC kevsunblush

As is often the case, our readings today lead us to recall other passages of scripture. Two in particular are brought to mind. And each is connected with the three central themes that we find in today’s readings: signs, stones and bread.

It’s quite puzzling, isn’t it, that so shortly after having been fed miraculously, the people in the gospel ask Jesus for a sign in order that they might believe in him? Obviously, what Jesus says of them in yesterday’s reading is accurate: you are looking for me not because you saw signs but because you ate the loaves and were filled. This gives their request for yet another sign a certain manipulative, even demonic, ring to it. We say demonic, because their request brings to mind the first passage of scripture mentioned above. In the synoptic gospels, the devil first tempts Jesus in the desert with the following words: If you are the Son of God, command that these stones become loaves of bread (Matthew 4:3). Which can perhaps be paraphrased as follows: If you want me to believe in you, to commit my life to you, then first satisfy my hunger, first pay my mortgage, or find me a job, or heal my illness…

The gospel makes plain for us the difficulty with this approach. To all the questions and problems that the world has to offer, God responds with only one answer, only one sign. As Jesus tells the tempter in the desert: One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God (Matthew 4:4). The only all-sufficient, all-satisfying sign that God offers hungry humanity is Jesus himself, the bread of life. But their obsession with superficial sustenance prevents the people in the gospel from partaking in the true bread that satisfies our deepest yearning. Sadly for them, the bread of God… which comes down from heaven is transformed instead into a stone, the same stone spoken about in the second of the scripture passages mentioned above. For those without faith: "The stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone, and "A stone that will make people stumble, and a rock that will make them fall." They stumble by disobeying the word (1 Peter 2:7-8).

In contrast, in today’s first reading, we see an opposing dynamic. We see instead the fulfillment of Jesus’ words in the gospel. Steadfast in faith even while being stoned to death, Stephen is strengthened to such a degree that he is able to continue entrusting himself to God and to pray even for his executioners. Here, in the experience of Stephen, we see taking place the very miracle that Jesus refused the tempter in the desert. In Stephen’s dedication and commitment to the Lord, the stones hurled at him in hatred are transformed into spiritual sustenance not only for himself, but also for the whole world. For, in the Acts of the Apostles, the martyrdom of Stephen also heralds the beginnings of the conversion and ministry of the man called Saul, soon to be renamed Paul…

Bread into stone, or stone into bread? That seems to be the question presented to us today. And, as we might expect, the direction in which our answer takes depends upon how we relate to the One who embodies, in himself, both Stone and Bread. In the words of the psalmist: Into your hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit.

Into whose hands do we commend ours today?

Monday, April 07, 2008

Monday in the 3rd Week of Easter
Memorial of St. John Baptist de la Salle, Priest
Paschal Pattern and Person

Readings: Acts 6:8-15; Psalm 119:23-24, 26-27, 29-30; John 6:22-29
Picture: CC USRodeoSupply

Coincidentally, on a day when we celebrate the memory of the great educationist St. John Baptist de la Salle, our readings present us with what may be seen as a teacher’s problem. Consider first the situation of the psalmist. Faced with persecution, he asks the Lord to teach him to recognize and to remain faithful to the demands of God’s law. He asks to be taught to distinguish between two paths. Make me understand the way of your precepts, he begs. Remove from me the way of falsehood and favor me with your law. The way of truth I have chosen; I have set your ordinances before me. Learning to distinguish the way of truth from the way of falsehood, isn’t the concern of every Christian? How then does God go about answering such a prayer? How does God teach us to walk the way of truth?

Given the reference to the law, it is perhaps tempting to think immediately of a code, of a list of prescriptions or guidelines that seek to cover as many situations as it’s possible to conceive. It’s perhaps tempting to fall back on a model of education that emphasizes pure rote learning and regurgitation, whether of a set of prayers or scripture verses. Although there surely is a place for such forms of learning – we do at least need to know how to say our prayers, for example – God’s approach seems to have a different emphasis. Instead of focusing on the law as expressed in a code, God fulfills the law by embodying it in a person. As Jesus says in the gospel: Do not work for the food that perishes but for the food that endures for eternal life… This is the work of God, that you believe in the one he sent. To walk the way of truth has less to do with studying a code than with getting to know and to love a person.

This, however, doesn’t quite take us out of the woods, for Jesus no longer walks the earth the way he did before his passion, death and resurrection. We can’t see and hear, touch and interact with him the way the people in the gospel could. How then are we to get to know and love him? Especially for Catholics, a ready answer should probably spring easily to mind. As source and summit of our faith, the Eucharist is the privileged place where, as a people assembled by God, we encounter and interact with our crucified and risen Lord. But caution is still necessary, isn’t it? For isn’t it possible to come to the Eucharist with dispositions similar to those of the people in the gospel, who sought Jesus only because he could solve their problems? Or what about Stephen’s opponents in the first reading? Isn’t it possible to approach the Eucharist with a kind of obsession over trivial minutiae, which parallels their clinging to the customs that Moses handed down? We are, of course, far from advocating that anything goes. Even so, something else seems to be primary. We find a distinguishing mark of the Eucharist in the gospel reading for Holy Thursday, at the Mass of the Lord’s Supper. After washing his disciples’ feet, Jesus tells them: I have given you a model to follow… Or, in another translation, I have given you an example so that you may copy… (John 13:15) Isn’t this model of the suffering servant the key distinguishing mark of the way of truth? Isn’t this also the paschal pattern that we see reproduced in the experience of Stephen in the first reading? And isn’t this the true challenge of Christian faith-formation? Like a tailor working with a dress stencil, or a blogger constructing a website with a blogskin or template, aren’t we called to learn to walk the way of truth by reproducing in our own lives the pattern and person of the One who suffered, died and was raised to life for us?

How are we being taught to do the same today?

Friday, April 04, 2008

Friday in the 2nd Week of Easter

Readings: Acts 5:34-42; Psalm 27:1, 4, 13-14; John 6:1-15
Picture: CC valentinapowers

Counterintuitive. This is a word that I learnt not too long ago. According to the Merriam-Webster Online dictionary it refers to that which is contrary to what one would intuitively expect. Expectedly or otherwise, this is the word that springs to mind as we listen to the readings for today. Counterintuitive. Many of the things that we find people saying and doing in today’s readings are counterintuitive.

Probably the most obvious example is the reaction of the Apostles to the treatment meted out to them by the Sanhedrin. After having been flogged and ordered to stop speaking in the name of Jesus, they leave rejoicing that they had been found worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of the name. Not only that, but we’re told that they did not stop teaching and proclaiming the Christ. And no less counterintuitive is the Sanhedrin’s chosen course of action. Here, before it, is a band of subversives, people whose words and actions will plainly undermine the stable order of the status quo. In another time and place, these people would be considered deserving of execution, as was Jesus. In our own local context, they at least cry out for detention without trial. And yet, Gamaliel counsels release. Have nothing to do with these men, he says, and let them go. A serious problem arises calling for urgent action. But the Sanhedrin accepts Gamaliel’s counsel and chooses to wait.

And what of the gospel? Don’t we find the counterintuitive here too? Five thousand hungry people are gathered. Yet, even before discovering what meager resources are available to meet their need, Jesus initiates preparations to feed them. And counterintuitive too is the reaction of the people. A hungry boy with a lunch-box of five loaves and two fish is willing to part with it, and for what? Did he really expect to feed a crowd so huge that two hundred days’ wages worth of food would not be enough for each… to have a little? One would expect too that, finding themselves far from the nearest restaurant or hawker-center, five thousand hungry people would leave hurriedly to search for food. Instead, calmly and obediently, they recline on the grass. Stomachs rumbling, with no reasonable source of satisfaction in sight, yet still they choose to wait.

Counterintuitive? Indeed! But, then again, much depends on one’s intuition doesn’t it? What might be considered counterintuitive for some may well be intuitive for others. Which is why our responsorial psalm is so important, especially today. Here we find the context out of which the apparently counterintuitive might be considered otherwise. For, as in the readings, we find here someone who chooses to wait. Wait for the Lord with courage; be stouthearted, and wait for the Lord. We know, of course, that waiting upon the Lord doesn't imply total passivity. In the gospel, for example, isn't it through Andrew's efforts that the boy with the loaves and fish is discovered? Nonetheless, waiting still seems counterintuitive, except that, for the psalmist, two things make it the appropriate thing to do: a profound desire and a heartfelt belief. The reason why waiting on the Lord is intuitive for the psalmist is because more than any craving for material things, he is conscious and lives out of that one yearning that characterizes every human heart: one thing I ask of the Lord; this I seek: to dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life… And he knows too that it is only God who can satisfy this hunger, and indeed God’s desire to satisfy it is greater even than the hunger itself. Which is why the psalmist is able to say: I believe that I shall see the bounty of the Lord in the land of the living… Which is why he asks for the courage to wait…

And what of us? In the daily problems that beset us, what do we want? What do we believe? How and for whom do we wait? …

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Wednesday in the 2nd Week of Easter

Readings: Acts 5:17-26; Psalm 34:2-3, 4-5, 6-7, 8-9; John 3:16-21
Picture: CC bsamp

It’s quite plain to see that at the center of the prayers and readings for Mass today is an awesome miracle. But what is perhaps far less obvious is the true nature, the concrete implications, of this extraordinary event. It’s tempting to let our gaze rest and remain focused only on the surface, since the details that we find there are already so fascinating. At one moment, the apostles are locked up in the public jail, their message muzzled, their fate uncertain. But then, just as the darkness of night engulfs them, an angel ushers them out of captivity and commands them to take your place in the temple area, and tell the people about this life… Amazing!

And yet, there is something even more mind-blowing here, something that we begin to appreciate only when we probe beneath the surface. For the wonderful miracle experienced by the apostles actually points beyond itself to the marvelous mystery that we ourselves continue to celebrate, especially in this season of Easter. More than just an interesting historical account, the story in the first reading is really an invitation to us to penetrate more deeply into the effects of Jesus’ death and resurrection, and the difference it can make in our own lives. We might begin to respond to this invitation by pondering several key aspects of the miracle.

Consider first that public jail in which the Apostles are held. Is it only by accident that it is described as public? Or does this place not rather signify the many different dark dungeons into which we sometimes find ourselves thrown as helpless captives? The first reading shows us what one of these places looks like by speaking of the jealousy that fills the Sadducees, prompting them to reject the Good News and to place the Apostles under arrest. And we have probably only to look within our own experience to find other examples, other places of darkness, in which we tend to be imprisoned, jails such as greed or grief, anxiety or ambition.

But the Good News proclaimed by Jesus and the Apostles, both in word and in work, is that God has set us free. Through the death and resurrection of Jesus, the dark doors of our respective prisons are now thrown open and there is a possibility for us to step out into the light. The opening prayer speaks of this new freedom in terms of a restoration of humanity to its original dignity. If this sounds too abstract, Jesus helps us to understand better by speaking about stepping out of darkness into the light. But what is this light? What is this dignity? What is this new freedom? Here we reach what is perhaps the most mind-blowing aspect of all. The light into which Christ’s resurrection draws us is nothing less than that love by which God refused to condemn the world, but instead gave to it – to us – his only-begotten Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life. This is the original dignity that is being restored to us: a share in the very nature of the God who is love.

And isn’t this what we see too in the actions of the Apostles after their release? Fearlessly they proclaim to all a message not of condemnation but of love and hope. They speak of what they themselves have experienced, that the Lord does indeed hear the cry of the poor, that he does indeed deliver us from all our fears. On our part, what we need to do is to believe in the miracle of the Lord's death and resurrection, to step out into the light.

How are we experiencing this same miracle in our own lives today?