Friday, May 30, 2008

Solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus (A)
Dog Story

Readings: Deuteronomy 7:6-11; Psalms 103:1-2, 3-4, 6-7, 8, 10; 1 John 4:7-16; Matthew 11:25-30
Picture: CC Phil Roman

What are we celebrating today? What is this feast all about? Perhaps we might begin with a story.

Once upon a time, in a faraway land, there was a kingdom ruled by a king and his son. They were both very kindhearted and they loved each other very much. In fact, their love for each other was so strong and so powerful that even a drop of this love, flowing out from their hearts, could make the trees grow and the flowers bloom. Living in the warm glow of this love, both father and son had everything that they needed and were very happy. Except for one thing.

Their kingdom was facing a serious problem. The dogs in the kingdom had become very cruel and fierce. For some time now, they had been attacking the other animals, bullying the weaker ones, and even fighting among themselves and killing each other. This made the king and his son very sad. They thought of sending some soldiers to capture all the dogs and have them thrown in jail. But although that would stop the violence it wouldn’t help the dogs very much. You see there was a reason why they were acting in this way. Some enemy had cast a magic spell on them, changing their hearts into stone. There was only one cure for this curse. And that was the love between the king and his son. Only that love had the power to melt the dogs’ hearts, changing them back into flesh. But how were they to get close enough to the dogs to give them the medicine?

Together, the king and his son decided that the son should leave the palace and live among the dogs for a time to see if a solution could be found. So that was what he did. But every time the dogs saw the son approaching, they would run away from him. So, finally, using the only power he had, the power of love, the son transformed himself into a dog. He then chose the smallest and weakest dog he could find and made friends with it. Through their friendship the son hoped to find out what the life of a dog was really like so that he could help them. He began to talk to his new friend about his father and how the great love between them had the power to save all dogs from their hardness of heart. The son’s new friend then introduced him to other dogs, so that he could share the good news with them too. Some accepted his message and began to follow him. But others became angry with him for trying to change things.

One day, some of these angry dogs got together and decided to punish the son’s friend for introducing the son to the other dogs. Seeing this, the son tried to reason with them. But they would not listen. They attacked the son instead, and killed him. Not only that, but they also cruelly tore out his heart and left it, beside his body, by the side of the road, as a lesson to the other dogs. The followers of the son, who had earlier run away in fear, were very sad when we they saw what had happened. They were afraid to move the body, so they simply sat around it, looking at it with tear-filled eyes. They stayed there for two whole days. And by the night of the second day, they were so tired that all fell asleep.

Then suddenly, as the sun was rising on the morning of the third day, they awoke to find the son standing before them, alive and well. And they were all amazed. The son then told them how the love between his father and him was so powerful that it had even raised him from the dead. As they listened in wonder, the dogs became aware of a strange sensation in their bodies. It felt like their hearts were burning within them, giving them a strength that they hadn’t experienced before. And they did not understand what was happening until the son explained it to them. As they had been sitting around his lifeless body, and his torn and tattered heart that had laid beside it, the love that was within that heart had seeped into their bodies, changing their hearts of stone into hearts of flesh once more. They were now cured.

Having completed his mission, the son turned to leave. But before leaving he told his friends that they didn’t have to be sad or afraid, because the power of his love would remain in them. He also told them that they had to use this power to do two things. First, they had to guard their own hearts from ever being turned into stone again. Second, they had to share this power with those whose hearts were still hardened. In order to do all this, the son shared with them a secret. Although he was leaving to go back to his father, his friends could continue to feel his presence every time they came together to tell the story of how he had saved them. Every time they remembered, especially, the sight of his broken heart, they would once again find their own hearts burning with energy, the energy of love. And so, that was what they did.

And this is also what we are doing today. Like those dogs in the story, we are gathered to remember how our King loved us so much that he sent us his only Son. We remember how, this same Son chose to make friends with the weakest among us, how he died for us, and how he had his heart pierced by a soldier’s lance as he hung lifeless on the cross. Especially today, we remember the sight of the heart of the Son, the Sacred Heart, because to remember it is to remember him and what he did for us. And remembering him, we enjoy once again the warmth of his presence. We allow his love to flow into us and among us. We experience it softening our hearts again, giving us the energy to share this same love among ourselves and with others.

This is what we are celebrating today. This is the powerful meaning of our feast.

Are our hearts burning within us yet?

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Thursday in the 8th Week of Ordinary Time (II)
New Sight New Life

Readings: 1 Peter 2:2-5, 9-12; Psalms 100:2, 3, 4, 5; Mark 10:46-52
Picture: CC Melting Mama

It’s no coincidence that a day after reflecting upon the image of dazed disciples on the road to Jerusalem, blinded and transfixed by the brilliance of the Word-Made-Flesh, we are told about the healing of the blind Bartimaeus. For we may well remember that this is not the first blind man whose sight Jesus restores. The blind man of Bethsaida was the first. Together, these two miracles serve to bracket the crucial middle section of Mark’s gospel, the part where Jesus speaks repeatedly to his clueless disciples about his impending Passion. But they don’t get it. Unlike the blind men who are restored to sight, they remain incapable of seeing Jesus for who he really is, what he really stands for, and what it means to follow him.

The contrast between blindness and sight is significant. Before Bartimaeus receives his sight, he remains pitifully stranded by the side of the road. Like the deer we spoke about yesterday, he is unable to move even to save his own life. In like manner, although the disciples enjoy physical sight and seem already to be accompanying Jesus along the way, their spiritual blindness renders them incapable of truly being his disciples. As is clear from the request of James and John and the reactions of the other ten apostles, they remain stuck in worldly perspectives, mired in earthly desires. Allow us to sit one at your right hand and the other at your left in your glory. They are unable to appreciate the great mystery that the Son of Man has to suffer and so enter into his glory. They are incapable of being true disciples.

But we are told that upon receiving his sight, Bartimaeus followed Jesus on the road. Having received the grace to appreciate the deeper and awesome significance of the Word-Made-Flesh, Bartimaeus is able to become a true disciple. And the first reading highlights for us something of what this entails by bringing to mind several images. First, new sight implies new birth. And just as newborn babies require special food, so do new disciples need to ensure that they continually nourish themselves with the spiritual honesty modeled for us by Jesus himself. Next, new sight also implies new affiliations. New sight leads disciples to associate themselves ever more closely to Christ so as to become living stones making a spiritual house. And finally, new sight also leads to a new identity and mission. You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a consecrated nation, a people set apart to sing the praises of God who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.

New birth and new building, new identity and new mission: all these follow from the new sight that Jesus brings. Together, they constitute a whole new way of life. But to enjoy this newness, we must first realize the extent of our blindness. We must first acknowledge the different ways in which we remain stranded along the road, dazed and transfixed by the brilliant scandal of a God who deigns to suffer. And, like Bartimaeus, we must receive the courage to cry out with all our might, even when other voices might seek to silence us. We need continually to beg the only One who can save us: Master, let me see again… Grant me new sight that I might live a new life in you…

How might we continue to do this today?

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Wednesday in the 8th Week of Ordinary Time (II)
Dazed By the Headlights

Readings: 1 Peter 1:18-25; Psalms 147:12-13, 14-15, 19-20; Mark 10:32-45
Picture: CC halfninja

People who drive at night along highways in the country sometimes encounter deer crossing the road. It can be dangerous because instead of dashing across to safety, the animal sometimes gets dazed and paralyzed by the brilliance of the headlights. And serious accidents have been known to happen as a result.

In like manner, as Jesus presses on, in today’s gospel, along the highway to Jerusalem, we’re told that the disciples were in a daze, and those who followed were apprehensive. Like deer caught in the headlights, these people were transfixed by the brilliance of the One in whose company they were traveling, the glory of the only Son of Father, full of grace and truth (see John 1:14). To understand how this could happen, we need to ponder a little on what this brilliance, what this glory is like. And it is to the first reading that we need to turn.

For here, we are presented with a striking contrast between two things. We are told that all flesh is grass and its glory like the wild flower’s. The grass withers, the flower falls, but the word of the Lord remains for ever. Flesh and Word. The first is subject to change and suffering and death. The second endures to eternity. It’s natural then that having experienced the pain and suffering of the first, we find ourselves yearning for the glorious longevity of the second. We want to escape the impermanence of the flesh, so as to enjoy the eternity of the Word. Isn’t this what brings many of us to church? Or, if not the church, then at least to spirituality of some sort? Like James and John, we wish to be granted special seats by the side of the Eternal Word, privileged places that will guarantee us immunity from the struggles of fleshly existence.

But this is precisely where we end up becoming dazed and transfixed. For, in the person of Jesus, the Word becomes flesh and dwells among us. In Christ, Eternity deigns to undergo suffering and death. The Word willingly walks the hard road to Jerusalem. And the coming together of flesh and Word, these apparently opposite poles, causes a spark so brilliant, a light so bright, that all become dazed in its splendor.

How might we be saved from our paralysis? How might we be brought to our senses?

Like the first disciples, we need to listen and listen again to the words of Jesus. We need to hear him speak to us, again and again, of the necessity of his Passion. We need to look intently upon the true brilliance of his glory, the glory that bows and bends in service to all, and then stretches itself out in love on the wood of the Cross. We need to accept the mind-blowing truth that in Christ, life is now to be found even in dying, the Eternal Word even in fragile flesh.

How does God wish to rouse us from our reverie today?

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Tuesday in the 8th Week of Ordinary Time (II)
Eyes on the Prize

Readings: 1 Peter 1:10-16; Psalms 98:1, 2-3ab, 3cd-4; Mark 10:28-31
Picture: CC Scott MacCleod Liddle

Imagine someone who has only recently made what might be called a big-ticket purchase. Perhaps it’s a new car or condominium, an insurance policy or investment portfolio. The signature has been inscribed on the dotted line. In the midst of the excitement, however, the person can’t help but experience reservations. For hard-earned money is even now being deducted from the bank account. Perhaps a loan has been taken and needs to be serviced. Installments have to be paid in a timely fashion. Although some say it’s a good buy, it’s undeniable that the price is steep. The commitment is ongoing. And what adds to the difficulty is the fact that the thing purchased is not quite in hand. Perhaps the new car is still being imported. Or the condominium has yet to be constructed. The benefits of the policy, the dividends on the investment, are still in the future. At this point, one can only vaguely imagine the full measure of the expected pay-off. What is easier, much more tempting, is to fixate on the high price that is being paid. Was the purchase really wise? Or was it all a big mistake?

It’s an experience not unlike this one that both our readings address today. Commentators tell us that 1 Peter was written to comfort Christians, who because of their new situation (as followers of Christ), are no longer acceptable to their cultural world (Harper Collins Bible Commentary, Revised Edition). They are facing subtle forms of persecution because of their faith. They’re paying a high price for their belief. In like manner, Peter highlights the sacrifice that he and the rest of the disciples are making in order to follow Jesus. We have left everything. And what makes the situation more difficult is that the full extent of the pay-off is not immediately apparent. Neither is it easy to imagine. For the prize mentioned in both the gospel and the first reading is nothing less than eternal life. Who knows for sure what this looks like? As it is written: What eye has not seen, and ear has not heard, and what has not entered the human heart, what God has prepared for those who love him (1 Corinthians 2:9).

Even so, both Jesus and the writer of the first reading insist that Christians shift their attention from the price they are paying to the prize that awaits them. And difficult though it may be to imagine, some hints are given for keeping the prize in view. We notice, for example, how Jesus’ description of the dimensions of the reward in this present time is measured largely in terms of right relationship, not just with property, but more so with brothers, sisters, mothers and children. Imagine a situation in which all creation exists in harmony and peace. A second invaluable indication is to be found in the first reading, where the brilliant glory of this prize is described as something for which even the angels long. Might we, in our turn, not imitate the angels by striving to remain in touch with the deep authentic desires of our own hearts, the thirsts that remain unquenched by earthly passions and possessions? Is it not too far-fetched to expect that the vacant space in our hearts has the very same shape as the prize for which it is waiting to be filled?

And isn’t this also the advice that the first reading gives? Free your minds… of encumbrances; control them... put your trust in nothing but the grace that will be given you when Jesus Christ is revealed… make a habit of obedience…

Even as we might continue to pay the price of discipleship, how might we also remain focused on the prize today?

Monday, May 26, 2008

Monday in the 8th Week of Ordinary Time (II)
Memorial of St. Philip Neri, Priest
The Furnace of Divine Possibility

Readings: 1 Peter 1:3-9; Psalms 111:1-2, 5-6, 9 and 10c; Mark 10:17-27
Picture: CC Uiruriamu

Today’s Straits Times carries a picture of a man in a wheelchair struggling up a very steep slope. The image may, at first, evoke sympathy for the poor paraplegic, until you realize that it’s part of an advertisement for a local university, and is meant to illustrate the institution’s desire and ability to help its students achieve the impossible. At that point, the feelings change. Sympathy is replaced by admiration.

Perhaps something of the same dynamic is intended by our readings today. The image that is first presented to us is that of a fearsome fiery furnace, representing all the terrible trials and tribulations that we might have to encounter on life’s journey. The negative feelings evoked by such an image, especially when we connect it with our own experiences of suffering, will likely be varied: pain, sadness, anger, resentment…

But, like that wheelchair warrior from today’s paper, the furnace needs to be seen as part of a larger whole. It’s deeper significance comes to light especially when it’s placed against the background of the gospel reading, where we find the moving account of Jesus’ call of the rich young man. Notice the substance and motivation of the call. Although Jesus seems, at first, to be sadistically beckoning the young man to a life of hardship and deprivation, the invitation is really a generous offer of fullness of life. And Jesus’ motivation is made quite explicit in the reading’s description of how he looked at the young man and loved him. But, in spite of all this, the call remains too difficult for the young man to take up, precisely because he is so rich. Even so, all is not lost. The passage ends on a hopeful note. For men it is impossible, but not for God…

It is against this background of a powerful divine response to human impossibility that the fearsome furnace is situated. The fires of the furnace are the effective means by which God renders the impossible possible. For, as the first reading tells us, the furnace serves only to purify the gold of our heart’s deepest desires. The heat of our sufferings can help to burn away our inordinate attachment to our riches, in whatever forms these might take. The impurities are stripped away, leaving behind the pure gold of a heart humble and submissive to the will of God, a heart that is able, finally, to hear and heed the call of Christ to follow him unto the fullness of life. In the fearsome fiery furnace, human impossibilities are rendered divinely doable.

Seen against this wider context, perhaps the feelings evoked in us by the furnace might change. It may not happen today or tomorrow. But perhaps, as we heed the advice in the first reading and continually ask God for the grace to see the searing heat of our present sufferings in the brilliant light of eternal glory, we might gradually come to accept God’s gifts of courage and strength, so as to heed the call of Christ.

What feelings does the furnace evoke in you today?

Friday, May 23, 2008

Friday in the 7th Week of Ordinary Time (II)
O Heart Patient and Pierced

Readings: James 5:9-12; Psalms 103:1-2, 3-4, 8-9, 11-12; Mark 10:1-12
Picture: CC Bomb Rosa

What is your usual reaction to difficult situations, situations involving some form of wrongdoing or injustice perhaps even directed at yourself? Let’s imagine for a moment, for example, that you’re a woman whom her husband has deserted for another person. And after the requisite time has elapsed, your wayward spouse files for a divorce. What would you do? How might you react? One possibility is to fight your husband every inch of the way. Bitterly contest the divorce in the courts. And even if the decree is granted, fight over the distribution of the matrimonial assets, the custody of the children. Fight him even out of court. Smear his reputation before his friends and family, his colleagues and acquaintances. In short, harden your heart to stone. Turn yourself into a big stick with which to beat up your tormentor.

Another possibility is to take the opposite route. Give in to the voices, both within and around you, that lay the blame for the difficult situation solely on your own shoulders. If only you had been a better wife, or if you hadn’t gone to work, or such and such, he wouldn’t have left. And give in also to every conceivable demand your soon-to-be ex-husband might make of you. After all, you’re at fault. You deserve it. In other words, soften you heart to mush. Turn yourself into a doormat for others to walk all over.

But, however attractive these options might seem, our readings today show us quite clearly that neither is the truly Christian one. It’s probably more apparent that the first option falls short. As the first reading tells us, do not make complaints against one another… so as not to be brought to judgement yourselves. That much is clear. But doesn’t the patience enjoined by the first reading seem to imply the mushiness of the second option? Not quite. Although the word used does indicate long-suffering, the image evoked by Christian patience is not that of a doormat. For the first reading cites Job as our model. And we all know Job’s story. When everything in his life – his property, family and health – was destroyed, Job’s friends encouraged him to confess his guilt to God and to accept his fate. But Job resisted. He maintained his innocence. He was convinced that he hadn’t done anything to deserve his misfortune. Instead of confessing an uncommitted sin, he chose instead to persevere in bringing his grievance before God. He kept shouting to God for a hearing, even to the extent of wanting to bring God to court. And, in the end, God answered and vindicated him.

The gospel presents us with yet another model of patience. Jesus finds himself in a difficult situation of a different sort. In Jesus's day, a divorce was quite easily obtained under Jewish law, but only by the men. All that was necessary was for a writ to be drawn up and handed to the woman, and she could then be lawfully dismissed. The legal disputes were not over whether divorce should be allowed, but over what constituted sufficient grounds. And it is into this legal minefield that the Pharisees seek to draw Jesus today. What will he say? Will he pick up a big stick and insist on a strict interpretation of the Law? Or will he turn himself and the Law into a doormat for everyone to walk over?

Jesus does neither. Instead he probably recognizes quite well that all the prevailing legal positions actually miss the point. For underlying this Jewish practice is an unjust perspective that tends to view women as possessions that can be freely acquired and disposed off on a whim. Instead of siding with any one of the prevailing views, Jesus instead speaks of the beginning of creation. He reminds his listeners that over and above their own opinions, there is God’s vision of what constitutes true marital bliss. They are no longer two… but one body… Amidst a cacophony of conflicting voices, Jesus, like Job, chooses to turn continually to God. And because he chooses to do so, he will end up paying the ultimate price. He will be killed, but only to be raised up again on the third day.

Quite clearly, the patience that our readings propose to us today is neither like a big stick nor a doormat. The image evoked is instead the very same one we’re recalling at this Mass on this Friday morning. It is the image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, pierced through in its patience, and pouring out upon us the blood and water of divine compassion and love.

In the various difficult situations that we might encounter how are we being invited to imitate this pierced and patient heart today?

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Thursday in the 7th Week of Ordinary Time (II)
Support or Skandalon?

Readings: James 5:1-6; Psalms 49:14-15ab, 15cd-16, 17-18, 19-20; Mark 9:41-50
Picture: CC Melting Mama

Have you ever seen one child tripping another? Perhaps a friend is walking round a corner and the kid simply sticks out a foot causing the other one to stumble. Of course, I myself have conveniently forgotten whether I’ve ever done something like that before. There’s probably more mischief than any real malice in the action. And perhaps even the adults who may be standing around might not think too much of it. But how different things would be if the victim were a child with a handicap of some sort, perhaps someone walking with the aid of crutches. If that were the case, then the culprit probably deserves something more than an amused smile.

This image of someone being tripped up is what is brought to mind by our readings today. The gospel speaks of the terrible fate that awaits the one who is an obstacle to bring down one of these little ones who have faith. The Greek word for obstacle (skandalon) denotes something that causes another to stumble. The immediate context refers to how Christians who jostle with one another for power will tend to scandalize others, causing them to stumble in the faith. But the pairing of the gospel with the first reading for today also leads us to consider yet another possible perspective. The warning given, in the gospel, to the power-hungry, is directed, in the first reading, to those who are rich.

Apart from the undeniable fact that riches do not last, a more serious difficulty is their tendency, like power, to trip others up, especially the poor and the vulnerable. Labourers mowed your fields and you cheated them. That sounds pretty serious. But lest we congratulate ourselves too quickly for being innocent of such blatant wrongdoing, it’s important to acknowledge that one can trip up the poor indirectly as well as directly, by inaction as much as action. We may consider for example, the low wages and poor working conditions of many migrant workers. The issue of global poverty also comes easily to mind. Although, in the year 2000, 189 countries of the UN signed an agreement to work towards eradicating abject poverty by 2015, to date, none of the signatories are anywhere near fulfilling the Millennium Development Goals that that agreement included. On earth you have had a life of comfort and luxury; in the time of slaughter you went on eating to your heart’s content… The nett result is that people who could be helped, continue to suffer.

Not only do riches cause the poor to stumble, but they also tend to trip up those who own them. Riches tend to possess their owners, who then lose touch with their deepest identity, their own high calling as sons and daughters of God. The gospel speaks of this eventuality in terms of salt. Not only is salt meant to enhance the taste of food, it also serves to preserve it. Similarly, Christians are called to help preserve others, to give aid to those in need. In this we are called to be like our God, who continually reaches out his hand to raise up those who are bowed down. But by sticking out their feet to make others stumble instead of reaching out a hand to raise them up, the rich lose their sense of self. The salt loses its taste and is fit only to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. The only remedy at this point is to heed the harsh-sounding words of the gospel: if your foot should cause you to sin, cut it off; it is better for you to enter into life lame, than to have two feet and be thrown into hell.

What are we offering the needy in our midst today? A hand in support, or a foot to make them stumble?

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Wednesday in the 7th Week of Ordinary Time (II)
Farm or Mist?

Readings: James 4:13-17; Psalms 49:2-3, 6-7, 8-10, 11; Mark 9:38-40
Picture: CC stuart100

I’ve just finished reading a novel. It tells the story of an American farmer, owner of a large and successful farm in Iowa. Just before his retirement, in an effort to avoid having to pay a large sum in estate duty, the farmer decides to sign over ownership of his farm to his three daughters and two sons-in-law. But, from the moment the transaction is finalized, the story begins a slow and painful descent into darkness. The youngest daughter is unhappy with the arrangement and becomes estranged from the family. The father comes to regret his actions, even as he begins to slide into senility. He brings a lawsuit against his two elder daughters and their husbands. The suit fails and the farmer later dies of a heart attack. The second daughter succumbs to cancer, but not before watching her husband drink himself into a watery grave. The farm itself becomes saddled by debt, forcing the husband of the eldest daughter to leave for Texas to find work, but only after his wife decides to leave him for a waitressing job in town. Finally, the farm itself is sold at a loss, and the two remaining daughters end up having to fork out money to cover the balance in taxes.

It’s only a novel, a fictional story. But isn’t there truth in it too? Quite coincidentally, doesn’t it resonate with the message that we find in our readings today? Continuing from where we left off yesterday, the first reading speaks to us about the problem of pride. Another translation uses the word arrogance. This is the attitude that presumes, erroneously, that our lives are completely within our control. It is the tendency to look at life as a farm that we can possess and partition at will. Such an attitude gives rise to difficulties, such as the ambition that we heard about yesterday. Which in turn gives rise to the wars and battles that we often see around and among us. Even our ministerial life is not spared, as can be seen from today’s gospel. No less a disciple than John complains to Jesus about someone who seems to be encroaching on the Master’s ministerial territory, on his farm. Perhaps they should drive this usurper away. What we see here is also how the tendency to view our life as a farm generates not just ambition, but anxiety too. We worry and fret over things that are not within our control.

What then are we to do when we find ourselves struggling with such troublesome anxieties and ambitions? Perhaps we need to continue doing what we observed yesterday. Perhaps we need to entrust our cares to the Lord. And how might the Lord support us, if not by uncovering our erroneous assumptions and proposing to us a more accurate perspective on life, the same perspective that the first reading presents us today. When seen from the viewpoint of faith, in the power of the Spirit, life appears less like an imposing farm than it does the morning mist, a passing haze, which lingers but for a moment and then dissipates in the heat of the rising sun. Which of us would bother to claim ownership over such a thing? And yet, as ephemeral as it is, the mist remains precious in the sight of God.

Mightn't such a change in perception be the much needed solution to the conflicts and competitiveness, the ambitions and anxieties that afflict us? When we contemplate the different aspects of our life today, what do we see? A farm to be anxiously possessed and partitioned? Or a morning mist, to be gratefully cherished in the sight of a loving God?

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Tuesday in the 7th Week of Ordinary Time (II)
He Will Carry You

Readings: James 4:1-10; Psalms 55:7-8, 9-10a, 10b-11a, 23; Mark 9:30-37
Picture: CC teemu_fi

Imagine a young couple with twin children, perhaps 2 or 3 years old. Although born on the same date, the kids are as different as night and day. One of them is often crying and clinging to the parents. It is often stretching out its arms, begging to be carried. In contrast, the other is a cheerful child, always eager to run about by itself, even to the extent of refusing to be held. Which child do you think the parents will favor? Which one will you prefer? I suspect that many of us, myself included, will favor the more independent one. Nobody really likes a crybaby, right?

Which is why it’s important for us to pay attention to something in our readings today that is deeply surprising, even shocking and unsettling. Our readings present us with a contrast that they describe in various ways. In the first reading, the contrast is first referred to as a contrast in friendshipfriendship with God versus friendship with the world. The former is associated with humility, while the latter is associated with pride. Thus far, nothing out of the ordinary. But then the reading goes on to say that to be a friend of God is to be miserable instead of laughing, because of one’s wretched condition. So the surprise begins. But the message still seems a little too abstract. It’s still not very clear what these two friendships might look like. The gospel helps by further illustrating the contrast. And, in the process, it deepens our surprise.

The contrast in friendship referred to in the first reading is illustrated by the speech and conduct of Jesus and the disciples, respectively. Jesus walks humbly, obediently, to his Passion. He is entrusting his life into the hands of his Father. And he shares with his disciples what he expects will happen to him. He will be arrested, put to death, and raised to life on the third day. The disciples fail to understand. And neither do they bring their confusion to the Lord. Instead, they argue about which of them is the greatest. Jesus responds by placing a child in their midst. And the gospel is careful to tell us that he also puts his arms round the child. What is the lesson being taught?

Commentators tell us that it isn’t really the innocence of the child that is being highlighted. As those who have spent much time with them will probably testify, children can be devious too. What Jesus is drawing attention to is instead the powerlessness of the child. The child needs to be cared for. To welcome a child in the Lord’s name is to imitate him in entrusting one’s life to the Father, even to the extend of being willing to walk to Calvary, clinging to the hope of being raised on the third day. This is what being a friend of God is like. In contrast to the world’s incessant quest for self-sufficiency and independence, the friend of God is humble enough to acknowledge dependence. S/he is willing to beg to be carried. And the good news is, that God delights in putting his arms around us and lifting us up. Entrust your cares to the Lord and he will support you…

That this kind of friendship with God doesn’t come too easily to us is evident in the ministry of spiritual direction. Often people come and speak as though everything in their lives is under control. But as the conversation continues, the struggles begin to surface, very real struggles. Tears may begin to flow. And if the director asks how much of these struggles have been brought to God in prayer, there is sometimes a rather surprised look on the person’s face. It’s as though we think that we have first to get our act together, to learn to walk on our own, before we can approach God. Nobody likes a crybaby, right? But what if to be a friend of God is precisely to be willing to lay bare our struggles before him, to beg him to carry us in his arms? Indeed, what if, on his part, God is desperately waiting for the opportunity to lift us up? Entrust your cares to the Lord and he will support you…

How does our heavenly Father desire to put his arms around you today?

Monday, May 19, 2008

Monday in the 7th Week of Ordinary Time (II)
Soil and Sower

Readings: James 3:13-18; Psalms 19:8, 9, 10, 15; Mark 9:14-29
Picture: CC ICCI images

This is the kind that can only be driven out by prayer…

I believe that many of us who come to daily Mass will probably have some kind of regular commitment to prayer. Of course, different people will prefer to pray in different ways, at different times and in different places. But what actually happens when we pray? Or what can we expect to happen in our prayer? Our readings today offer us one perspective on the process. A useful image that they evoke is one from a well-known parable of Jesus’, the parable of the sower going out to sow.

For at least one important thing that we can expect to happen when we settle into prayer is to have a precious seed sown into the soil of our hearts. This is the seed of God’s Word, the seed that the first reading describes as the wisdom that comes down from heaven. As we allow ourselves to become conscious of our immediate concerns and emotions, and as we humbly present these before God, we gradually become more receptive to what God has to say. We begin to see the connections between our prayer and the concrete situations – perhaps even difficult situations – of our lives. We begin to recognize God’s guiding hand. We begin to yield to God’s healing touch. What this can look like is very strikingly illustrated in the gospel.

Here, Jesus, the Wisdom of God, descends from the heights of Mount Tabor, and enters a chaotic situation. A noisy crowd is gathered, a teeming mass of bodies jostling one another, curious to see what’s going on. Everyone is speaking at once, but nobody is saying anything really helpful. And, at the center of the commotion, are the distraught father and his possessed son. I do have faith. Help the little faith I have!

Probably none of us here is possessed, at least not in the strict sense of the word, least of all by a spirit of dumbness. It’s quite undeniable that, for all its shortcomings, our society never runs short of words. Whether it is on the computer or on TV, through the cellphone or Ipod, at home or even on the bus, in print, speech or song, we are constantly being bombarded by words of some sort. But might we not wonder how many of these words really help? How much of what is spoken truly expresses the wisdom that comes from above? Or is it not the case that the noisy sea of our useless words often only serves to drown out the quiet promptings of Wisdom? Even if we may not be possessed, aren’t we sometimes held captive by unclean spirits of some sort, spirits that render us capable only of engaging in idle chatter instead of uttering words of wisdom? Two of these spirits are named in the first reading: jealousy and self-seeking ambition. We can probably think of others. Not only do these spirits render us dumb, but they also make us do things that bring harm to others and to ourselves. It has often thrown him into the fire and into the water.

One of the crucial things that should happen in our prayer, then, is the sowing of the seed of God’s Wisdom into the chaotic soil of our hearts. And the power of God’s wisdom rebukes and expels the unclean spirits. The seeds of God’s word gladden the heart by restoring to it the peace that God alone can give. These seeds germinate and grow, yielding a harvest of wisdom that can then be shared with others. Those who, through prayer, have received God’s word into the soil of their hearts, are then called to be sowers themselves. Peacemakers, when they work for peace, sow the seeds which will bear fruit in holiness.

How are we being invited to be both soil and sower in the world today?

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Solemnity of The Most Holy Trinity (A)
Boots On!

Readings: Exodus 34:4b-6, 8-9; Daniel 3:52, 53, 54, 55, 56; 2 Corinthians 13:11-13; John 3:16-18
Picture: CC ilselieve

Sisters and brothers, have you ever had an experience like this? Let’s say you’re a student in a classroom or a lecture hall waiting for a lesson to begin. Or maybe you’re at work waiting for a meeting to start. You’ve brought all the required textbooks or reference materials. You’ve even done some reading beforehand. You’re confident. You’re eager to get started. But when the class or the meeting finally begins you realize that something is dreadfully wrong. Perhaps you’ve misread the timetable, or the agenda. You’ve prepared for the wrong class. You’ve brought the wrong materials. Frustrated, you sit quietly and struggle to follow what’s going on but it’s difficult because you were all geared up for something very different. Ever have an experience like that?

Sometimes I wonder whether we go through something similar each year on this solemn feast of the Holy Trinity. We know very well what this feast is about. We know we are celebrating God. But because ours is a God who is one in three Persons, we find ourselves facing a problem, don’t we? All this one-in-three and three-in-one business sounds very confusing. And, very often, our attention remains focused only on the numbers. It’s as though we come to the celebration prepared for some kind of mathematics lesson. We hope to understand how something or someone can be both one and three at the same time. We come expecting to learn how to solve a problem in arithmetic. And, let’s face it, after so many annual celebrations of this feast, which of us can really say that we’ve fully understood? Which of us can claim to have solved the puzzle? On the contrary, we can be forgiven if we sometimes feel a little frustrated or disappointed at the end of the feast.

But what if our celebration today is not really about numbers? What if it is not really a mathematics lesson? What if our celebration is more like an orienteering or map-reading exercise? What if our agenda today requires us not so much to solve a difficult problem in arithmetic, as to locate and travel to a particular place? If that’s the case, then maybe we need to be ready to leave the classroom or meeting room and to step out together into the open. We need to be willing to exchange our pens and textbooks for a sturdy pair of hiking boots and a good map.

And a good map is precisely what our readings provide for us today. This is a very special kind of map. It points us to a very privileged place, a spiritual place. We have probably noticed by now what all our three readings have in common today. Each of them speaks to us of the presence and action of God among God’s people. Today, our readings show us not only what our God is like, but also where God is to be found. Together they sketch for us a reliable map of the place where we encounter God.

In the first reading, this place is described as the mountain of Sinai. Only Moses is allowed to climb this mountain. Only he is privileged to have a close personal encounter with God. He is then asked to share his mountaintop experience with those who await him below. And it is important to notice what this encounter with God is like. Remember that this is not the first meeting. Neither are those the first pair of stone tablets. Today’s reading is from Exodus 34. Earlier, in Exodus 20, God had already given Moses the Ten Commandments or Ten Words, inscribed on two earlier tablets. But, as we know, Moses was so angry at the people’s idolatry – their worship of the golden calf – that he smashed the tablets. It is against this background of betrayal that God speaks those moving words we hear today: Lord, Lord, a God of tenderness and compassion, slow to anger, rich in kindness and faithfulness. In spite of the people’s infidelity, God continues to remain faithful. God is willing to take them back, to guide them, to care for them, and to not let them die of hunger and thirst in the wilderness.

Probably not many of us will have been to Mount Sinai. I haven’t. Even so, have we not had similar experiences of the love and mercy of God? Experiences of having our sins forgiven, for example, or of being somehow guided by God’s hand when we were lost? Whether it was at a retreat, or a prayer or penitential service, or some other special occasion, each of us can recall our own personal encounters with the tender and compassionate God, the One who is slow to anger, rich in kindness and faithfulness. Aren’t these, for us, the spiritual places, the holy mountains, on which we have met the loving God whom we celebrate today?

But, like the Israelites of the first reading, we cannot remain encamped at Mount Sinai forever. We cannot be on retreat, or at a penitential service, or in church, at every moment of our lives. We have to keep moving. How and where then to locate God? Like Moses, we may find ourselves asking God to accompany us on our way. Let my Lord come with us, I beg. And the answer to this prayer of ours is found in today’s gospel.

The love of God for us is so great that God cannot bear to let us journey on alone. Instead, God descends from the mountain and pitches tent among us. God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not be lost but may have eternal life. In the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, it is now possible for everyone, not just Moses, to have a close encounter with God. And we don’t necessarily have to climb a holy mountain. For in Christ Jesus the mountain has come to the people. In Him every truly human experience, even the most terrible suffering, even death itself, becomes a place in which God can be found. I’m reminded, for example, of the report on p. 8 of Saturday’s Straits Times. It tells of how, in the midst of the horrendous suffering caused by cyclone Nargis, and in spite of the government’s neglect, the people of Myanmar are heroically helping one another to recover and to rebuild. 49 year-old Mya Win, for example, has been cooking huge vats of porridge everyday to feed the homeless. In Christ Jesus, God remains with us even in the dark valleys of difficulty and despair. In Him, our meeting place with God has become a human person, the second person of the Trinity.

But some of us might object. Jesus is no longer with us as he was with the first disciples two thousand years ago. Hasn’t He already ascended to the right hand of the Father? How then are we to find and to recognize Him? Where and how are we to meet God, now that Jesus is gone?

Again, God’s tender and compassionate love provides for us. What we cannot see with the naked eye, we are taught to recognize with tender hearts. Jesus remains present among us in the power of the Holy Spirit, the same Spirit whom, in a few moments, we will invoke both on the Eucharistic gifts of bread and wine as well as on ourselves. It is in the power of this Spirit that we are able to see Christ. For it is by this Spirit that we are able to do what Paul asks of the Corinthians in today’s second reading, the same thing Mr. Mya Win is doing in Myanmar. Try to grow perfect; help one another. Be united; live in peace, and the God of love and peace will be with you…

Sisters and brothers, isn’t this place of unity and peace where we are all gathered now at this Eucharist? Isn’t it also in this place that we are invited to remain, even after we leave this church, after we are told to go in peace to love and serve the Lord? Isn’t this, sisters and brothers, the agenda for us today? More than a mental struggle with a numerical problem, it is a spiritual challenge to embark on a journey. It is an invitation for us to set out, to find, and to remain in that privileged place where we experience the ongoing presence and saving action of our God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Sisters and brothers, do you have your boots on yet?

Friday, May 16, 2008

Friday in the 6th Week of Ordinary Time (II)
Supplements Or The Complete Meal

Readings: James 5:9-12; Psalms 103:1-2, 3-4, 8-9, 11-12; Mark 10:1-12
Picture: CC Ayres no graces

Blood donors are often offered iron tablets after making a donation. As I understand it, the pills are meant to help their bodies to replenish the blood that has been drawn. They are offered only as supplements. No donor in his/ her right mind will view them as a complete meal. Imagine what would happen if someone decided to live solely on iron tablets and nothing else! Quite unthinkable, not to say laughable!

And yet doesn’t something similar seem to happen in discussions over spiritual matters? It’s quite undeniable, for example, that we live in a culture that is too much focused on the practical and the functional, to the extent that people often lose touch with who they are and why they do what they do. The danger in such a mentality becomes obvious, for example, when questions arise over how to deal with the aged and infirm, those who don’t seem able any longer to contribute to society in any practically useful way. In such a context, it’s quite understandable that many spiritual advisors have taken to reminding us of the distinction between being and doing. The idea is that we must not forget our inherent human dignity, our identity as daughters and sons of a loving heavenly Father. Surely this is a valid and even crucially important reminder. But it’s also important to remember that this advice is a supplement offered to repair a perceived deficiency. It would be quite ridiculous for anyone to think that we are meant only to be and so try to stop acting altogether. After all, as St. Thomas Aquinas tells us, acting follows upon being (agere sequitur esse).

This too appears to be the problem that the author of the first reading is facing today. The polemical tone of the reading is quite obvious. This is the way to talk to people of that kind, that is, people who emphasize faith as an adequate substitute for good deeds. Don’t such people bring to mind the foolish blood donor who tries to subsist on a diet of iron tablets alone? No, the point being made in the first reading is that one shouldn’t treat a supplement as a complete meal. Faith without good works is dead.

But that’s not all. Isn’t James’ argument itself also a supplement prescribed for a perceived deficiency? Shouldn’t we be careful about interpreting the reading in such a way as to treat good deeds as a complete meal? Consider, for example, someone who might be very busy with all sorts of charitable activities, but whose personal and familial life is in shambles. No doubt, for such a one, there may indeed be many good deeds to show, but might we not be forgiven for wondering at the extent to which they are truly manifestations of faith?

Clearly the same principle applies in the spiritual realm as in the medical: supplements are not meant to substitute for the complete meal. And it’s providential that, in the gospel today, Jesus reminds us what this meal is, the same meal in which we are partaking at this Eucharist. If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself take up his cross and follow me… For… anyone who loses his life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it… Calling oneself a faith-filled Christian is insufficient if one isn’t willing to lose one’s life. Just as losing one’s life is inadequate if it’s not done for the sake of Christ and the gospel.

How are we being invited to continue feasting on the complete meal today?

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Thursday in the 6th Week of Ordinary Time (II)
Love is Clear-Sighted

Readings: James 2:1-9; Psalm 34:2-3, 4-5, 6-7; Mark 8:27-33
Picture: CC ul_Marga

Love is blind… At first sight, this may seem to be the lesson to be found in the first reading for today. For here James tells us that the right thing to do is to keep the supreme law of scripture: you must love your neighbour as yourself; but as soon as you make distinctions between classes of people, you are committing sin, and under condemnation for breaking the Law. It would seem then, that to love is to be blind to the distinctions between classes of people, especially those between the poor and the wealthy.

There will likely be those who will delight in taking this teaching against distinctions to its apparent logical extreme and argue for a kind of radical equality of persons and roles. If love is blind to all distinctions then how can we justify having people in positions of authority, whether secular or ecclesiastical? How can we continue, for example, to distinguish between clergy and lay, the governors and the governed? Shouldn’t love blind us even to distinctions such as these?

And yet, at least in the Catholic tradition, we continue to speak of a hierarchical church, i.e., a church that is ordered according to distinctive roles, just as the human body is made up of various parts. How to justify such distinctions except to realize that rather than blinding us, true love should help us to see more clearly the reality that is before us. And an important aspect of this reality is that we are many parts that make up one body (1 Corinthians 12). We are each blessed with distinctive gifts and are called to fulfill various roles for the common good. Love is not blind. Quite the contrary, love should make us more clear-sighted and desirous of facilitating the flourishing of the diverse manifestations of the Spirit’s powerful presence in our midst.

Even so, we cannot deny that there are ways of making distinctions that blind us to the common dignity that we are all meant to enjoy before God. The bias against the poor is but one of these. We might think also of the tendency – often all too unconscious – to consider the hierarchical church only in terms of honour and privilege. In our exercise of and deference toward authority, for example, how well do we truly appreciate that ours is a hierarchy of humble service and of obedient self-emptying? How deeply are we imbued with the Spirit of the crucified and risen Lord who, in the gospel today, speaks of being destined to suffer grievously…? To what extent do leaders listen as much as they teach? How much of our activity is truly motivated by service rather than self-seeking?

Clearly, what’s at stake in the readings today goes far beyond equal treatment for the poor and the rich. At root, it’s about the extent to which we live out the commandment of love. It’s about how we think and about how we see. Especially important for us is to listen anew to Jesus’ rebuke of Peter in the gospel of today: the way you think is not God’s way but man’s…

How clear-sighted is our love today?

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Feast of St. Matthias, Apostle
Worms, Blood and Friendship

Readings: Acts 1:15-17, 20-26; Psalm 113:1-2, 3-4, 5-6, 7-8; John 15:9-17

Nobody likes me. Everybody hates me. I’m gonna eat some worms...

These words from a popular children’s song sound pretty innocuous, if a little ridiculous. Who would go to the extent of eating worms simply because nobody seems to like him/ her. Still, don’t they resonate with things that go on around us? In order to get ahead in this world, one often has to expend much effort. The world doesn’t owe us a living. Even those born with silver spoons in their mouths need to be careful lest the nest egg that is their parents’ legacy end up rotting in their hands. Hard work is the order of the day. But there is a danger here, especially if this diligence is born of anxiety, if it springs from the feeling of being disconnected, of being unaccepted, the feeling that nobody likes me, everybody hates me, and so I need to work hard to prove myself, to carve out my own niche. The danger is that when such anxiety is one’s primary motivation, diligence so easily turns into greed and obsession, and one might well end up eating worms.

The process is vividly illustrated in the critically acclaimed movie There Will Be Blood. The film opens with the main character, played by Daniel Day Lewis, digging alone in a deep tunnel out in the middle of nowhere. He is an oilman. The work is backbreaking and dangerous. He falls and breaks his leg, but finds something valuable. By sheer grit, he somehow manages to drag himself into town with his precious find. Yet, although by the end of the movie the oilman has done so well that he even has a bowling alley in his own home, he remains very much alone and disconnected. His is a pathetic, even repulsive, portrait. Nobody likes me… I’m gonna eat some worms. And it’s important to note too that, in the movie, the oilman’s degeneration finds a parallel in that of the preacher. The former carves out his niche in industry, the latter in religion. But both seem motivated by the same anxiety and greed. Both end up eating (or being eaten by) worms.

In striking contrast, our feast for today, and its prescribed readings, invite us to meditate deeply upon the starting point of Christian effort, the primary motivation of Christian work. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends… It was not you who chose me, but I who chose you… Christian work and effort springs not from anxiety and greed, whether it be of the secular or religious kind, but from a sense of being unconditionally loved and accepted for who one is. It is rooted in an abiding appreciation for the fact that Someone loves me enough to have laid down his life for me, and that this same Someone calls me His friend. The aim then is not so much to carve a niche for myself, as it is to fill the role to which I have been chosen and called, as Matthias and the rest of the apostles were.

The children’s song with which we began actually ends like this: Everybody likes me. Nobody hates me. Why did I eat those worms? This, of course, may not be very realistic. We can’t really expect everybody to like us. But perhaps it’s enough that somebody does, especially if it’s the right Somebody.

Why settle for worms?

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Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Tuesday in the 6th Week of Ordinary Time (II)
Who’s Got The Remote?

Readings: James 1:12-18; Psalm 94:12-13a, 14-15, 18-19; Mark 8:14-21
Picture: CC LabGP & SigOther

When you walk into an air-conditioned room, what temperature is it inside? When the TV is on, what channel is playing on the screen? The short answer to these questions is, of course, that it depends. And one of the things upon which it depends is who’s got the remote. Often, it’s the one with the remote who gets to decide these things. That’s the guy with the power, the one in control.

We live in an uncertain world, a world where natural disasters seem to sprout like mushrooms in a rainforest, and the price of something as basic as food fluctuates to the great detriment of the poor. And it is those in power who get to determine who receives what forms of aid and at what time. It is those with the money to invest who are able to influence the rise and fall of commodities prices. In such a climate of uncertainty and change, the common response is to somehow cling to certainty of some sort, to seek to establish control, to try to get hold of the remote.

And yet, this is also the kind of response that the Pharisees and Herod of today’s gospel take to the extreme. Scripture scholars tell us that today’s gospel passage is a difficult one. It’s unclear, for example, what is meant by the yeast of the Pharisees and of Herod. Still, we might be justified in thinking of their inordinate desire for control. For it is the Pharisees who insist on a sign from Jesus before they will believe in him. It is they who orchestrate his eventual demise. And it is Herod who seeks to curb the unpredictable yet prophetic tongue of John the Baptist. It is Herod who arrests John, imprisons him, and has him beheaded. Beware the yeast of the Pharisees and of Herod… Beware of the need to wrest control of the remote. One might end up sending God to the gallows in the process.

This warning is one that we need to hear in this fast-paced society of ours, where many of our difficulties seem related in some way to stress, where workaholism seems to be everyone’s favorite sin, where counselors and psychologists are increasingly in demand, and where many have lost the taste for God. These are symptoms of something gone awry. And it isn’t easy to see the root of the problem, let alone to address it. Our need for control – and the anxiety that results when we fail to achieve it – often clouds our judgment. Like the disciples in today’s gospel, we just don’t get what the Lord is talking about. He warns them of a dangerous heart condition that alienates people from God, from their deepest selves, and from one another. But they fret over their failure to bring food. In the presence of the Bread of Life – who fed five thousand with five loaves, leaving twelve baskets of scraps – they worry about their daily bread. Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod…

This is not to say, of course, that one should do nothing. But isn’t there a difference between working for one’s daily bread and trying to wrest control of the remote? Don’t our readings today remind us that, ultimately, the remote is in the hand of God? Make no mistake about this… it is all that is good, everything that is perfect, which is given to us from above… The Lord will not abandon his people nor forsake those who are his own… When cares increase in my heart your consolation calms my soul…

In an uncertain and fast-changing world, perhaps what we need most is first to let God be God, to ask for a deeper awareness of, and the desire to cooperate with, the Divine Providence.

How are we being invited to relinquish control of the remote today?

Monday, May 12, 2008

Monday in the 6th Week of Ordinary Time (II)
Choosing The Right Boat

Readings: James 1:1-11; Psalm 119:67, 68, 71, 72, 75, 76; Mark 8:11-13
Picture: CC noprayer4dying

After the fifty days of the Easter season, we recommence Ordinary Time today by beginning the letter of James and by resuming our earlier reading of Mark’s gospel, which had been interrupted by the start of Lent. And, quite coincidentally, a day after our celebration of Pentecost, our readings today invite us to meditate upon what is required of us if we wish to receive the Spirit’s gift of wisdom. At first glance, it may seem difficult to reconcile two aspects in the first reading’s description of the process by which the gift of wisdom is offered and received. On the one hand, God is described as one who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly. And yet, on the other hand, this same God seems to set conditions on the recipients of God’s gift. Only the one who asks in faith gets what is desired. The doubter receives nothing. If God is really so generous, why the apparent bias against the doubter? And what has faith to do with wisdom?

Two aspects need to be considered in pondering this apparent contradiction. The first is the nature of the gift. And the second is the process of reception. We live in an information age and take for granted our own amazing ability to manipulate electronic data. Using a wide array of different technologies, we can now upload, download, store, transmit and reconfigure information in many different ways. So it is quite understandable if, consciously or not, we tend to think of the gift of wisdom in terms of bits and bytes. But wisdom is not to be equated with information. While the latter may yield to manipulation, the former requires humble submission. To invoke another image, while information might be likened to the cargo that one wishes to transport, wisdom is more like the ship that transports it. The first is stationery until moved, but the second tends to move in a very specific direction.

If this is the case, then in order to receive the gift of wisdom, one must be willing to jump aboard ship. One must be willing to change one’s course to match the direction in which the ship is moving. And if one has already boarded another ship moving in a different direction, one must choose between the two. This, of course, is where the doubter runs into difficulties. Such a person is unwilling to choose. In the words of the popular local Chinese aphorism s/he prefers to remain standing on two boats at once (脚蹋两条船), even when they begin to move in different directions. It’s not difficult to see why wisdom remains beyond the reach of such a one.

But there is yet another class of people with whom it is even more difficult to deal. Whereas the doubter might perhaps still be persuaded eventually to choose between the two boats, this latter group has actually already chosen. The Pharisees in the gospel are an obvious example. Their request for a sign from Jesus is only an excuse, a deviously contrived ruse to hide their own stubbornness. They have actually already made up their minds as to the particular kind of Messiah they are willing to accept – someone who matches their own strongly held prejudices. They have already chosen their boat and wish only to arm-twist others, even God, into joining them. Is it any wonder that Jesus’ response is simply to get into his own boat and to sail off to the other shore?

All this is simply a rather long-winded way of describing what St. Ignatius of Loyola offers as the prerequisite, the Principle and Foundation of discernment. In all things, our one desire and choice should be what is more conducive to the end for which we are created, which is the glory of God and our own salvation (SpEx #23). It is this detachment, this Ignatian indifference, for which we need first to pray if we are indeed to receive God's gift of wisdom.

Which boat will we choose today?

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Pentecost Sunday Vigil Mass
The Gift of Groaning

Readings: Genesis 11:1-9; Psalm 104:1-2, 24, 35, 27-28, 29, 30; Romans 8:22-27; John 7:37-39
Picture: CC aturkus

Dear sisters and brothers, on this great feast of Pentecost, have you given a thought to what exactly it is you want from the Holy Spirit? What do you want the Spirit to do for you today? And what do you think the Spirit wants to do for you? What does the Spirit want to do for us and for the whole world? Do you know what are the gifts that the Spirit brings? Are you ready to receive these gifts and to use them? Do you really want them?

As you know, the scriptures provide several lists of the gifts of the Spirit. In Isaiah 11, for example, we hear of the spirit of wisdom and understanding… counsel and might… knowledge and the fear of the Lord (Is 11:2, RSV). And in 1 Corinthians 12, Paul speaks of the utterance of wisdom… the utterance of knowledge… faith… gifts of healing… the working of miracles… prophecy... and so on (vv. 8-10). But, as important as all these gifts are, our readings at this evening’s Mass do not really mention them specifically, at least not under the same names. Instead, our readings highlight two things, in particular, that the Spirit does for us. Have you noticed what these two things are?

One of them is mentioned quite obviously in the gospel. Jesus says: If any one is thirsty, let him come to me! Let the one come and drink who believes in me! And the drink that Jesus offers is the Holy Spirit, who flows onto us as the blood and water pour out from the pierced side of Christ while he hangs on the cross (John 19:34). The more obvious gift that the Spirit brings us in today’s readings is the quenching of our thirst for God.

And Jesus also makes it very clear what we have to do to receive this gift. In order to have our thirst quenched, we need to come to him. We need to believe in the power of his Dying and Rising, and to live accordingly. But, as we all know, coming to Jesus is not always an easy thing to do, especially not when he hangs on the cross. It is not easy to continue to follow Jesus when the way leads through a dark valley. To be able to do that, we must actually feel very thirsty. And that is precisely the problem, isn’t it? We don’t always realize how thirsty we really are. Even though we may know that we cannot live without God, we don’t always feel our need for God, do we?

Often, our situation is something like those cases that are reported in the news from time to time. You know those cases where people sit in a stationery car with the engine and the air-conditioner running, not realizing that the exhaust gases may be leaking into the car. Haven’t we heard of people who have died of carbon monoxide poisoning in this way? The deadly gas suffocates them, and they die without even realizing their need for oxygen. The same thing can also happen with our need for God.

Isn’t this what we see in the first reading? Earlier, in the first chapter of the book of Genesis (1:28), God had commanded the human beings to be fruitful and multiply, and fill the whole earth and subdue it. But here, in chapter eleven, instead of obeying God and allowing themselves to be scattered over the whole earth, the people settle down in the land of Shinar. It’s as though, rather than obediently going where God wants them to go, they prefer to lock themselves up in an air-conditioned car. They are so preoccupied with making a name for themselves, they’re so proud of their own achievements, that they are oblivious to their own thirst for God. They fail to realize that they are gradually being poisoned by their own pride, suffocated by their own stubbornness.

And don’t we see similar things going on around us today? Don’t we know of people who may be so engrossed in making money, for example, that they don’t realize the damage they are doing to their own health, or to their family’s well being, or to their own relationship with God? And on an international level, don’t we also see countries that are so focused on increasing their wealth and power that they fail to realize how their own welfare is closely connected to that of the poorer countries that they are exploiting and refusing to help, not to mention the damage that they are causing to the environment? Aren’t these examples similar to people who are suffocating in an air-conditioned car and yet do not know enough to step out for some fresh air? They are dying of thirst and still do not think to stop for a drink.

What do these people need, if not the gift of realizing their own thirst, of feeling their own pain, so that they can reach out to God for help? And this is exactly the gift that the Spirit brings. As Paul tells us in the second reading, we who possess the first-fruits of the Spirit… grown inwardly for our bodies to be set free. A sure sign of the Spirit’s presence is a keen awareness that things are not right in our lives and in the world, a world where the rich get richer and the poor get exploited, where Jews and Muslims kill each other, even as Christians continue to be split into so many different groups, where cyclones can kill more than a hundred thousand people in a single country largely because of governmental neglect. In the face of all these difficult situations, one important gift that the Spirit brings us at Pentecost is the ability to groan in pain.

But this is not the groaning of a terminally ill patient. It is not the despairing cry that precedes a painful death. Instead, as Paul tells us, it is more like the groaning of an expectant mother in the painful yet joyful process of giving birth. It is the groaning of hope, hope for a better tomorrow. It is also the groaning of prayer, which the Spirit himself expresses… in a way that could never be put into words. And in the strength of that prayer, it is also the groaning of action, by which we each contribute what we can to help in delivering the baby of God’s healing presence to a hurting world.

Sisters and brothers, today the Spirit wishes to quench our thirst and to ease our pain. And not just our own, but also that of all the world. But in order to receive this precious gift, we need first to realize how thirsty we really are, how painful it really feels to be separated from God. What we need is first to receive the gift of groaning.

How might we better receive this gift from the Spirit today?

Friday, May 09, 2008

Friday in the 7th Week of Easter
How Old Are You?

Readings: Acts 25:13b-21; Psalm 103:1-2, 11-12, 19-20ab; John 21:15-19
Picture: CC dark_ghetto28

This may sound like a silly question, but if given a choice, which would you prefer to be, young or old? We are probably well aware of the pros and cons, of course. We know about the vigor of youth and the gradual diminishment that comes inevitably with advancing age. And, although there are probably notable exceptions to the rule, we are likely to have witnessed the idealism and naiveté of the young, in contrast with the wisdom and experience of the elderly. So, if given a choice, which would you prefer to be?

Before we answer the question, however, it is important to realize that it is the conversation between Peter and Jesus in today’s gospel that proposes it for our consideration. I tell you most solemnly, says Jesus, when you were young you put on your own belt and walked where you liked; but when you grow old you will stretch out your hands, and somebody else will put a belt around you and take you where you would rather not go. Jesus is speaking of something beyond chronological age. Even so, what is our reaction to his words? What feelings are evoked in us? What images are brought to our minds?

We may think first of some biblical images. We may think of Paul in his youth, when he was still known as Saul, riding zealously to Damascus on horseback, convinced that he was serving God by persecuting Christians (e.g., Acts 22:3-5). When you were young… you walked where you liked. In contrast, there is the Paul of today’s first reading, already far advanced in the years of the Lord, imprisoned by the governor at Caesarea and waiting to be sent to eventual martyrdom in Rome. We may think also of the still youthful Peter at the Last Supper, brimming with self-confidence as he declares before his friends that he will lay down his life for his Master (e.g., Jn 13:37). And, in striking contrast, there is the Peter of today’s gospel. It’s probably only been a matter of days since the Last Supper, but already the experience of the Easter Triduum has aged Peter beyond his years. Lord, you know everything… And, as tradition has it, like Paul, Peter too will be martyred in Rome. And can we not think also of Jesus, the One who was already aged – or, to be more accurate, already eternal – even from his mother’s womb? Are we not reminded of him praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, asking that the cup of suffering be taken away from him, but only if it be the Father’s will (e.g., Matthew 26:39)? When you grow old... somebody else will take you where you would rather not go.

And, pondering these images from the scriptures, might we not also recall images from our daily lives? How about the person who leaves spouse and children in order to pursue apparent personal fulfillment? Or, in contrast, how about the person who continues to care for a chronically ill spouse even when there are possibilities of starting a new life with someone else? No doubt, yet other images will quite easily be brought to mind, images of youth as well as images of age.

But what is significant about these images is not just the fact that the aged are led where they would rather not go. Far more important is what it is that leads them, the very same thing that forms the crux of Jesus’ conversation with Peter today. Simon son of John, do you love me more than these others do? And to understand the power of this question, we must also consider the context in which it is asked, the context of Jesus’ Dying and Rising, as well as of Peter’s denial and resultant remorse. For it is only through his experience of this Mystery that Peter is able not only to give Jesus the right reply but also to answer in the right way, in a way that opens him to receive the power to live out the implications of Christ’s love for him. This same power is what we have been praying for in these days. It is the gift of the Holy Spirit, the love that exists between the Father and the Son. It is the love that matures us in the Father's service. If you love me… Feed my lambs… Look after my sheep… Feed my sheep… If you love me, be willing to grow old for my sake… even to the extent of being led where you’d rather not go…

How old in the Spirit are we today?

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Wednesday in the 7th Week of Easter
Inner Compass

Readings: Acts 20:28-38; Psalm 68:29-30, 33-35a, 35bc-36ab; John 17:11b-19
Picture: CC alexia *

Today the BBC carried a news report about the partial demolition of a wall in South India. Apparently, the higher caste residents of Uthapuram, a village in Tamil Nadu state, had put up the wall after an outbreak of inter-caste violence in the late 1980s. The wall had served to keep out the Dalits (or untouchables) from the main parts of the village.

The construction of such a wall to guard against undesirable influences might seem to be the first image that comes to mind as we continue to ponder the power of the Holy Spirit in the light of our Mass readings for today. This is especially because both Paul, in the first reading, and Jesus, in the gospel, express a concern for the ongoing protection of those they are leaving behind. I know quite well, says Paul, that when I am gone fierce wolves will invade you and will have no mercy on the flock… So be on your guard. And, in his prayer to his heavenly Father, Jesus highlights the world’s hatred for those who belong to him.

We modern-day Christians can probably identify quite well with this desire for protection, this sense of being besieged by the seductive temptations, the fierce wolves, of the world around us. We are concerned, for example, to protect our children against the insidious influences of the Internet and the Mass Media. We censor our films and filter our email in an effort to screen out unwanted content. Like those high-caste residents of Uthapuram, our first response to undesirable influences often seems to be that of separation. We build a wall.

And yet, we might well wonder if wall building is the only proper Christian response. Of course, we are not necessarily arguing here for the total abolition of censorship, or the tearing down of walls of all kinds. I don’t know what I’d do without a junk email folder. And we cannot fail to acknowledge the importance of shielding children, for example, if only for a time, from the harsh realities of life. But neither can we ignore the fact that God’s approach to a sinful world was not to shun it, but to send the Second Person of the Holy Trinity into it. The Word was made flesh… And, in his earthly ministry, doesn’t Jesus seem to delight in associating with sinners and tax collectors? Wasn’t this partly the reason why he was put to death? Also, in today’s gospel, although Jesus prays for the protection of those who belong to him, he presupposes that they, that we, are called to remain in the world, and not apart from it. Finally, we might well question the effectiveness of a wall for protection, given what Paul says to the elders in the first reading, that even from your own ranks there will be people coming forward with a travesty of the truth on their lips to induce the disciples to follow them.

What then is the protection envisioned by Paul and Jesus, if not a wall to shield us from harm? In a world filled with misleading voices, how do they propose to keep those they are leaving behind faithfully walking along the straight and narrow? The strategy is the same. Paul commends his friends to God, and to the word of his grace… And Jesus asks his Father to keep those you have given true to your name, so that they may be one like us. Instead of an external wall of separation, what Paul and Jesus offer for the disciples’ protection is an inner compass for guidance. And how does this compass work, this unerring pointer to the Truth of God’s Word, if not by the power of the Spirit, who teaches us all things, and reminds us of everything that the Lord has said to us (John 14:26)? The very same Spirit we are praying to experience anew in these days.

How might we grow in following the guidance of this Inner Compass today?