Monday, June 30, 2008

Monday in the 13th Week of Ordinary Time (II)
Disruptions and Disordered Attachments

Readings: Amos 2:6-10, 13-16; Psalms 50:16bc-17, 18-19, 20-21, 22-23; Matthew 8:18-22
Picture: CC Qole Pejorian

Nobody likes disruptions. Just imagine the last time your water or electrical supply was cut, or your bus or car broke down, or your broadband line was disconnected. Just try to recall what it felt like when that happened, especially if you were in the middle of something important (and don’t we always seem to be in the midst of something important?). Even if we may sometimes (often?) complain about how boringly routine our lives are, we don’t spontaneously jump for joy when business-as-usual is interrupted. There seems to be something within us that tends to cling to the routine and the familiar, the smooth and the convenient, the tried and the true.

And yet, if there’s one thing that our Mass readings have in common today, it’s disruption. Consider what we find in the first reading. Into the people’s regular routine of buying and selling, eating and drinking, the prophet descends like an unwelcome power outage. And his words point to an even more terrifying disruption. God intends to shatter the distracted concentration of their busy lives. See then how I am going to crush you into the ground… In the gospel too, Jesus seems to delight in disrupting the lives of would-be disciples, even to the extent of tearing them away from fulfilling important filial obligations. Leave the dead to bury their dead. Not only that, Jesus’ own life is filled with disruptions: foxes have holes… but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head… What’s going on?

Deeper reflection leads us to see that the disruptions are there for a purpose. Whether they come in the form of the prophet’s disturbing words, or Jesus’ apparently unreasonable demands, the disruptions serve to reveal something hidden. To better appreciate what’s going on, we might consider for a moment how, for example, someone first comes to realize that s/he is addicted to caffeine. Such a person will not know this as long as s/he continues to enjoy an uninterrupted supply of the stuff. But once the flow is stopped for some reason, the effects become apparent. The hidden addiction is revealed.

The same goes for disordered attachments, whether these are to business and trade (as in the first reading), or to familial responsibilities (as in the second). It’s not easy to realize our addictions and obsessions. Not even when they begin to take priority over God, and not even when they cause harm to others. We don’t ask, for example, if the subsidies that might render goods cheap in one country, might not somehow be hurting the poor elsewhere. It’s all too easy simply to remain focused on business-as-usual. Until, that is, God mercifully allows a disruption into our routine. We don’t realize we have been working too hard until we suddenly fall ill. We don’t realize we haven’t been paying enough attention to our spouse, until we return one day to find an empty house, a cleared-out closet and a goodbye-note taped to the mirror. Disruptions are there for a purpose. They show us when we’re neglecting the more essential things.

Seen in this context, Jesus’ apparently bohemian lifestyle seems more understandable, if not appealing. What we find here is a single-minded focus on what’s truly important, such that one is willing to live a life that engages without clinging, and that enjoys without claiming. This willingness to be continually disrupted is born of the consciousness that our one true home is in the Father’s house, and our one dearest attachment should be to rest in His embrace.

What is the place of disruption in our lives today?

Note: Breaking the Word will be disrupted for the next couple of weeks for a retreat. Blessings to all...

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Solemnity of Ss. Peter and Paul, Apostles
Keys to the Kingdom

Readings: Acts 12:1-11; Psalms 34:2-3, 4-5, 6-7, 8-9; 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 17-18; Matthew 16:13-19
Picture: CC jordiCORE

Sisters and brothers, it is a custom in some places for parents to present their child with a key to the front door when s/he reaches the age of 21. Even here, in Singapore, it is not uncommon to see key-shaped birthday cakes. The key symbolizes a significant turning point in the life of the young person. In making a present of it to their child, the parents acknowledge that s/he has come of age. S/he is now old enough to take full responsibility for his/her own life. As a young adult s/he can now come and go as s/he pleases.

The image of this 21st birthday key is what comes to mind today, as we celebrate the solemn feast of the two great apostles Peter and Paul. And the reason for this is quite obvious. In today’s gospel, Jesus gives Peter the keys to the kingdom of heaven. But what is the true meaning of this gift? Who is it from? And what is it for? Is it meant only for Peter and the popes who come after him? Or is it not also meant for us? And if it is also for us, then how are meant to use it?

We begin our reflection with the opening prayer that we offered just now. Here we find an indication of what this key signifies. In that prayer, we said that it was through (Peter and Paul) that the Church first received the faith. And it is this same faith that we are celebrating today. More than just the feast day of two great saints, we are celebrating the precious gift of faith that comes down to us from the apostles. It is this faith that is the key that opens for us the gates of heaven. It is this same key of faith that Peter receives in the gospel today. Consider the circumstances in which Peter receives his gift.

Just as a 21st birthday is an important occasion in the life of a young adult, so too do we find a significant turning point in the gospel today. This turning point is to be found especially in the two questions that Jesus asks his disciples. First: Who do people say the Son of Man is? And then: But you, who do you say I am? It’s as though Jesus was saying to his disciples, When you were still children in the faith, you could be satisfied with what others told you about me. But now that you’re grown up, now that you’re adults, you need to take responsibility for you own faith. You need to tell me who I am for you. What I mean to you...

To come of age in the faith then is to move beyond what others have told us about Jesus and to enter into a loving personal relationship with him. It is to be able to say for ourselves who Jesus is for us. It is to acknowledge him as our Lord and Savior. And it is when Peter is able to give the accurate answer that Jesus rewards him with the keys to the kingdom of heaven. But haven’t we all received this same gift of the keys of faith through baptism? Whether we are lay people or priests or religious, aren’t we all called to be adult Christians? Aren’t we all called to enter and to remain in a loving personal relationship with Jesus our Lord and Savior? And, when we do this, isn’t the same power of binding and loosing that Jesus gives to Peter, also given to us (see Matthew 18:18)?

Notice also where this faith comes from. Notice how Jesus tells Peter that it was not flesh and blood that revealed it to him, but the Father in heaven. The key of faith is not something that we can produce for ourselves. It comes to us as a gift. Although we do receive it through the hands of others – through the apostles, the saints, our parents and grandparents and teachers – it comes ultimately from the hand of God. Just as it is the parents who present the key to the front door to their grownup child, so too does God the Father give the keys to the kingdom to those who are growing up in the faith.

And this is what the keys of faith are for. They enable us to enter into the kingdom of heaven. Isn’t this what they do for Peter and Paul in our readings today? What does it mean to enter into the kingdom if not to be set free from all our terrors, as Peter was set free from Herod’s dungeon? What does it mean to enter into the kingdom, if not to receive the crown of righteousness that Paul speaks about in the second reading? Freedom and kingship, these are among the things we hope to receive in the Father’s kingdom. These are the treasures that the keys of faith open for us.

But having the keys doesn’t always mean that we know how to use them. These days especially, keys can be quite sophisticated. And the same can also be said for the keys of faith. Didn’t Peter and Paul also need time to learn how to use them? We know, for example, that shortly after being praised by his Master in the gospel passage that we heard just now, Peter also received a stinging rebuke: Get behind me, Satan! (Mt 16:23). We also know how, when he was still named Saul, Paul thought that the way to the kingdom was to persecute Christians. What both Peter and Paul, and the rest of the apostles, had to learn was that the power to use the keys of the kingdom, the power to bind and to loose, can only be exercised by someone who is willing first to be bound by the love of Christ. For Jesus himself became our Lord and Savior not so much by the powerful miracles that he worked, nor by the eloquent sermons that he preached, as much as it was by the painful Passion that he endured. One can bind and loose only if one is first willing to be bound.

And this is also true of Peter’s experience in the first reading, where we are told that he was fastened with double chains. We also find something similar in Paul’s experience too. In the second reading, Paul can lay claim to the crown of righteousness only because he has first poured away his life as a libation, only because he has kept the faith. And, of course, we know that both Peter and Paul died martyrs’ deaths. Peter was crucified and Paul was beheaded. Their lives and their deaths demonstrate for us the only proper way in which to turn the keys of faith so as to gain access to the kingdom. Together they model for us what an effective grownup faith looks like.

And isn’t this faith something which our world still needs so desperately? Despite all our technological advances, we live in a world where millions remain bound by the chains of poverty and oppression. In some places so-called democratic elections are held with only one candidate running for office because the would-be challenger has been intimidated into backing down. In other places, people have no choice but to board overloaded ferries and are drowned when those same ferries sink in a typhoon. In yet other places, the poor are tempted to sell their kidneys and other organs to make a quick buck. Are the keys of faith not what is needed in such a world? But which of us is generous enough to do our part? Which of us is courageous enough to allow ourselves to be bound, first to Jesus our Lord, and then, through him, to the brothers and sisters who might need our help, whether near or far?

Sisters and brothers, earlier in the opening prayer, we asked God our Father to keep us true to the teaching of Peter and Paul. Through these words, we were really asking God to present us anew with the keys of faith, so that we might share them with others and together gain access to the kingdom of heaven.

How might we better prepare our hearts to receive and to use this precious gift?

How might we turn the keys of our faith today?

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Solemnity of Ss. Peter and Paul, Apostles
Vigil Mass
Repairing the Damage

Readings: Acts 3:1-10; Psalm 19:2-3, 4-5; Gal 1:11-20; Jn 21:15-19
Picture: CC Mahatma4711

Sisters and brothers, on this solemn feast of the apostles Peter and Paul, it might be useful to begin our reflection by asking why we honor these two saints. What is it about them that we find so attractive? What can we learn from them?

Permit me first to share a personal memory with you. Before joining religious life, I was a member of a prayer group. And one of the things we did as a group was to hold meetings or seminars in which some of us would occasionally be asked to give a talk or a sharing, even though we had no formal religious training. Sometimes, on such occasions, we were fortunate enough to have our spiritual director with us. And, after we had said our piece, we’d ask him if he had something to add. He usually obliged, but not without first prefacing his presentation with the following remark: I am here, he would say, with a straight face and a twinkle in his eye, and in a charming French accent, I am here to repair the damage!

To repair the damage… That seems to be an accurate summary of what we find in our Mass readings today. In the first reading the damaged feet and ankles of the man who was a cripple from birth are made firm. At first he could not walk. He needed to be carried. He spent his days pitifully lying by the Temple entrance begging. Then, in the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene, Peter takes him by the hand and helps him to stand up. Here we see something of the greatness of the two saints and apostles whom we remember today. Here, in this moving image of a broken person – someone damaged in body and in spirit –being lifted up to health and wholeness, we see the answer to our questions. Here we find the reason why we honor Peter and Paul. For, after their respective conversions, this is what each of them spent their lives doing: repairing the damage. Paul did this through his travels among the gentiles. And Peter through his ministry among the circumcised.

But this is not the whole story. There is much more that needs to be said. There is a deeper reason why we find Peter and Paul attractive. For the image of the cripple being healed at the Beautiful Gate reminds us not only of how Peter and Paul were repairers of the damaged. It also invites us to reflect on how they were each able to do this only because they themselves were first repaired.

Isn’t this what Paul is speaking about in the second reading? You must have heard of my career, he tells the Galatians, how merciless I was in persecuting the Church of God, how much damage I did to it… But Paul’s persecution of the Church was not the only damage that needed repairing. His cruel and misplaced zeal was rooted in a deeper affliction. Paul was crippled by his own self-righteousness and overconfidence. Proud of his own status and learning as a Pharisee, he never once entertained the thought that he might be wrong.

Then came that fateful day on the road to Damascus, when the crucified Jesus was revealed to him. Then came that dramatic turning point in his life when he was struck off his horse and led to see how blind, how damaged, he actually was. That was the new beginning. That was how the damaged Paul was gradually repaired, so that he might then introduce others to Christ, the one great Repairer of sin and death.

We find something similar in the story of Peter. The gospel reading is a passage that we all know well. We know that, through his threefold questioning, Jesus is repairing the relationship that was damaged by Peter’s earlier threefold denial during the Lord’s Passion. But, as it was in the case of Paul, so too is it with Peter. There is something deeper here. The damage being repaired goes beyond Peter’s denial. We get a hint of what this damage is by comparing Peter’s responses in today’s gospel with what he says to Jesus at the Last Supper. There, Jesus tells him: Where I am going you cannot follow me now; you will follow me later. To which Peter quickly replies: Why can’t I follow you now? I will lay down my life for you (John 13:36-37). Compare this earlier self-confidence with what Peter says today: Lord, you know everything; you know I love you.

As with Paul, what we find here is a new beginning. And more than a new beginning, this is a radical transplanting. Peter’s life is uprooted from its earlier reliance on the self and its achievements and then re-rooted in the merciful self-sacrificing love of his Master, a love that invites a response. Do you love me? Feed my sheep…

Sisters and brothers, isn’t this experience of Peter and Paul – this grace of being repaired and then being called to be repairers – isn’t this what is being offered to us as well? And isn’t this a grace that is so much needed in our world today? We live in a time when, perhaps more than ever before, we human beings have so much to be proud of. Our technological advances allow us to explore the farthest reaches of space and the deepest recesses of our world. Medical science is helping us to live longer and more comfortable lives. In an instant we can communicate with people halfway across the globe.

And yet, just when we might let these marvelous achievements go to our heads, we continue to encounter painful reminders of how vulnerable and how damaged we are. Earthquakes and typhoons, starving people and brutal conflicts, rising prices and meaningless lives, disasters both natural and manufactured: all these serve to strike us off the high horses of our arrogance and complacency.

Today, our damaged world continues to require repair. And it is in order to do this that Jesus the Lord continues to call and send out his disciples, as he did Peter and Paul. But to truly hear and answer his call, to truly be generous in going forth, it is necessary that we first realize the damage we ourselves suffer. We must first submit our broken hearts to the divine Healer for repair. We must first allow ourselves to be firmly rooted in the love of the Good Shepherd for his sheep.

Sisters and brothers, how does the Lord desire to repair the damage both in and through us today?

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Wednesday in the 12th Week of Ordinary Time (II)
Channel Surfing?

Readings: 2 Kings 22:8-13; 23:1-3; Psalms 119:33, 34, 35, 36, 37, 40; Matthew 7:15-20
Picture: CC Pascal-P

Do you ever have trouble with the remote? Let’s say that, after a long day, you’re finally settling down to some moments of relaxation in front of the TV. But the remote doesn’t seem to work. You try all the buttons but the TV doesn’t respond. Pressing harder and longer doesn’t seem to make any difference. What could be wrong? It could be, of course, that the batteries are dead and need to be changed. But that’s not the only possible explanation. It may also be that you’re holding the wrong remote! Which is not unthinkable given the number of such gadgets an average household might have (unless you’re rich enough to have one of those universal ones). In addition to the one for the TV, there’s probably one for the DVD player, the CD player, the air-con, the fan… Even so, the reasonable thing to do after you realize you’ve got the wrong remote is to find the right one. How silly it’d be to continue pressing the buttons when they obviously don’t work.

Which is why it’s not too difficult to understand the king’s agitation in the first reading today. After generations of idol worship, an ancient book of the law is found in the Temple. And the king is cut to the heart. He realizes the implications of the find. It’s as though for the last tens and hundreds of years his people have been stubbornly pressing the buttons on the wrong remote. No wonder they never to get to watch the program they like. No wonder the Lord has abandoned them to the mercy of foreign armies. They have been trying to build their happiness on idolatrous practices. But now, thankfully, the right remote has been found. The king acts immediately. He consecrates himself and the nation to keeping the law of God. The other false remotes are forsaken.

The connection with our situation is not too difficult to make. It is at once a blessing and a curse that our society and our generation is often faced with a myriad of choices. Everyone wants, of course, to be happy. That’s the program we all want to tune into. But there are also so many different voices in the world telling us how to go about it: what to eat and how to dress, where to live and who to know, which schools to go to and what careers to pick. There are so many remotes to choose from. Is it any wonder that we often get hold of the wrong one? Even so, what seems difficult to understand is how some of us continue stubbornly to press the wrong buttons even when we begin to realize that the picture isn’t really changing. One reason this can happen is that, although we know the title of the program we want to watch – happiness – we often have a warped or otherwise inaccurate idea of what it looks like, or who’s starring in it. We don’t really know what this program is about, whether it’s a comedy, perhaps, or a documentary, a tragedy, or a reality show…

This is why it’s important to recall what our faith teaches us. As Christians, the program we are invited to watch – and indeed to participate in – is really a drama. It’s the drama of the life, death and resurrection of Christ, a drama that is so poignantly symbolized in the crucifix. Christ is at once our program and our remote. It is by the standard that he has set for us that we are to judge between the true and false prophets of our world, the latter to forsake, and the former to embrace.

What program are we watching? What buttons are we pushing? Which remote are we using, today?

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Solemnity of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist
Welcoming the Dawn

Readings: Jeremiah 1:4-10; Psalms 71:1-2, 3-4a, 5-6ab, 15ab and 17; 1 Peter 1:8-12; Luke 1:5-17
Picture: CC Koshyk

Few things are more thrilling and truly awesome than a new birth. Even if we are merely watching a television documentary of an animal – wild or domesticated – going into labor, we somehow cannot help but be drawn into the excitement and the wonder of it. Our attention is captured. We are held in thrall. Perhaps it has something to do with the new possibilities that this event holds, possibilities that extend far beyond the mother and her newborn child. It’s as though we were faced with the poignant spectacle of the dawn breaking, a promising start to a marvelous new day. We find our hearts filled with expectation and hope, the full contours of which we are not yet fully aware. The words of the neighbors of Zechariah and Elizabeth in today’s gospel come quickly to mind: What will this child turn out to be?

But we cannot fail to acknowledge that there is also a shadow side to this experience. It’s not always easy to recognize, let alone to welcome the breaking of the dawn. For one thing, it is not without reason that birth is associated with labor. Pain is part of it. More than that, there are also other things that can stand in the way of a full and joyful acceptance of new life. Perhaps the parents are not ready. Either they are too young or too immature, too poor or too self-absorbed. Perhaps they want a boy, but it is girl who is asking to be born. Perhaps they are only willing to accept a perfectly normal child. But the one knocking on the door is blind or mongoloid or missing a few digits on one hand. In such situations, the temptation can be great to reject what is offered, to draw the curtains on the day that is breaking, to deny a space to the new life that is begging entrance into our world.

And let us, if only for a moment, broaden the horizons of our reflection. Isn’t it true that the new dawn of which we are speaking points beyond the literal birth of a baby? For isn’t there such a thing as being born again (see John 3)? And here we are not necessarily referring only to water baptism. Isn’t it also the case that in the midst of the various trials and tribulations that we may have to undergo from time to time – when we might be tempted to think that we have toiled in vain and have exhausted ourselves for nothing – we often find ourselves being invited to accept the coming to birth of new possibilities? When a beloved child decides to leave home, for example, along with the pain of separation, isn’t there also the promise of a more mature relationship between parents and offspring? And yet, which of us finds such labor pains easy to bear? Who among us truly finds it easy to accept the breaking of such a dawn, especially when it also involves the breaking of our hearts?

Which is why the grace that is being offered to us on this feast – the grace of the birth of St. John the Baptist – is so precious. For Zechariah and Elizabeth could so easily have desired that their newborn son should take on the role of the Messiah, just as John himself could very easily have come to covet that same honor for himself. And they might well have allowed such prideful cravings to cause them to reject the new life that was being offered to them. Instead what we find is a humble and grateful acceptance of all that is coming to birth. In spite of pressure from their neighbors, the parents name their son John (Yohanan = God shows favor). And John himself demonstrates his acceptance of the role marked out for him by proclaiming: I am not the one you imagine me to be… one is coming after me and I am not fit to undo his sandal. And he will courageously live out this role even when it thrusts him into the dark dungeons of Herod and beneath the sharp sword of the executioner.

As our reflection draws to a close, this brief dialogue from the Lord of the Rings comes to mind:

Frodo: I wish the ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened.
Gandalf: So do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us. There are other forces at work in this world Frodo, besides the will of evil. Bilbo was meant to find the Ring. In which case, you were also meant to have it. And that is an encouraging thought.

How are we being invited to recognize and welcome the dawn today?

Monday, June 23, 2008

Monday in the 12th Week of Ordinary Time (II)
Facing the Opponent Within

Readings: 2 Kings 17:5-8, 13-15a, 18; Psalms 60:3, 4-5, 12-13; Matthew 7:1-5
Picture: CC malakins

Most of us are familiar with the name Maria Sharapova. But probably not so many will know who Robert Lansdorp is. I myself only found the second name by googling. Lansdorp is the coach of the famous women’s tennis champion. But why, we may wonder, does an ace like Sharapova need a coach at all? At this point in her career, wouldn’t she already know all there is to know about the game? We can all probably answer the question quite easily. Being a good player doesn’t necessary mean that one knows everything about the game. There’s always more to learn. Also, a coach can help to assess and exploit the strength and weaknesses of one’s opponent, something that is not easy to do when the player is in the thick of the action. And, perhaps even more importantly, the person on other side of the net is not the only opponent that the player has to face. A more formidable foe than the one across the court is the one who resides within the player’s own mind and heart. Isn’t this, in large part, what the coach is for – to help the player to face and to overcome this inner opponent?

The situation in the first reading is similar but far more serious. Here we find not the intensity of a tennis match but the violent clamor of war. At this point in their history, the people of Israel are divided not only into twelve tribes but also two nations, Israel and Judah. And the first reading tells of the defeat of Israel at the hands of the Assyrians. The capital city is sacked and the people taken into exile. Of two nations only one is left standing. Of twelve tribes only one survives. But who, we may ask, is the one responsible for this terrible defeat? Who is the enemy in this war? Is it the Assyrians? Or is it God who has forsaken the people? The reading lays the blame primarily on another foe: This happened because the Israelites had sinned against the Lord their God… They worshipped other gods…

The reading also gives the reason for the shameful defeat at the hands of this interior opponent. Too preoccupied with the external situations and challenges facing them, they lost sight of the foe within. They forgot the very thing that Jesus speaks about in the gospel today, that one needs to take the plank out of one’s own eye first in order to see more clearly and deal more effectively with the splinters without. And although the Lord had warned the people repeatedly through all the prophets and all the seers… they would not listen, they were more stubborn than their ancestors had been… Refusing to heed the advice of their Coach and his assistants, they were made to taste the bitter agonies of defeat.

Probably few of us who read this blog have to face the exertions of professional tennis, let alone the brutalities of war. But don’t we all encounter various difficult challenges and formidable opponents on the tennis courts and battlefields of daily human living? And in our efforts to train ourselves to meet and defeat our foes, don’t we need to give attention to the most formidable foe of all, the one who resides between our ears and within our breasts? And, in this effort, don’t we all need to rely on the help and guidance of those who love and care for us, those who serve to communicate to us the warnings of our heavenly Father?

Today, how willing are we heed the Coach’s advice?

How ready are we to face the foe within?

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Sunday in the 12th Week of Ordinary Time (A)
Making Murukku

Readings: Jeremiah 20:10-13; Psalms 69:8-10, 14, 17, 33-35; Romans 5:12-15; Matthew 10:26-33
Picture: CC Ujwala Prabhu

Sisters and brothers, I visited some friends the other day and saw something I’d never seen before. The object looked like it was made of cast-iron. It had a long and very slender stem connected to a thick base, which was wrought in a sort of floral design. At first glance, from a distance, I thought it looked a little like one of those spikes that people use to pin their receipts on. But, according to my host, it was really a mould for making murukku. You know, that crispy snack from South India? A murukku mould: that was what it was.

My ignorance leads me to wonder what it would be like if, without any explanation, someone had earlier given me such a thing as a present. I’d have had no idea what it was for and might very well have used it as a receipt pin. Imagine the embarrassment if the one who gave it to me were to catch me doing that: using a murukku mould as a receipt pin. Worse, imagine what could happen if such an object were given to someone with violent tendencies. It might well be used to hurt other people – such as the domestic help for example. It could be used to bash others on the head or poke their eyes out. It sounds rather far-fetched, of course – a murukku mould as a deadly weapon. But still, isn’t it striking how embarrassing and even dangerous it can be when a precious gift is abused at the hands of the ignorant? Not only will there not be any delicious murukku to enjoy, but much pain and suffering can result instead.

Which brings us to our Mass readings for today. Quite clearly, what we find in them is a precious gift that God is offering us. More than once in today’s gospel, Jesus speaks those four words that we all need so much to hear: Do not be afraid… And don’t we know well what fear feels like? We live in what might be called a world of posts. You know: post September 11th, post South Asian Tsunami, post Asian Financial Crisis. And these are, of course, the more obvious ones. In addition, the mind-boggling advances of science and technology have led to a rapidly shrinking but highly complex world, where the pressing questions far outnumber the available answers. What can and ought we to do about global poverty, for example, or stem-cell research, or AIDS, or global-warming? How should we treat migrants? What will I do when my business fails or when my company winds up? What if I suspect that I might be gay? These are just some of the things that contribute to the great uncertainty that plagues us today, the same uncertainty that we mentioned in our opening prayer. Is it any wonder that so many of us often find ourselves tired and anxious and afraid? Is it any wonder that we yearn for security?

Yet it is also because we crave it so much that God’s gift can so easily be misunderstood and abused. The image that so quickly comes to mind as we hear Jesus’ words today is that of a parent comforting a frightened child at bedtime. There there, do not be afraid… And isn’t this all that our faith looks like to some, if not many, of us. Too often ours is purely a religion of comfort. We seek a secure haven from the struggles of life. And we make it our concern to construct such a safe space for ourselves, a comfortable air-conditioned place where we are snugly sheltered from the cruel uncertainties of the world outside. We expend much effort regulating the atmosphere within this comfort zone of ours. We surround it with high walls and strive to draw clear legal and moral boundaries of behaviour that we expect everyone to respect, or risk expulsion. We tell them how they should dress and what they can or cannot say. Everything is clearly spelled out in black and white. There are no shades of gray. The temperature is always as we like it. And if anyone doesn’t like it, well, they can jolly well leave. Those of us who do remain, however, can confidently tell ourselves: Do not be afraid! You’re forever safe if you but remain in this secure space.

Which is fine. Except that we might well wonder if this is truly the kind of security that God wishes us to enjoy. Or rather, by thus seeking to manufacture a suspiciously artificial comfort zone for ourselves, do we not forget the very thing that Paul is reminding us about in the second reading today? Do we not fail to acknowledge that in effectively dealing with sin and death the law is powerless, since sin predates the law? Do we not forget that, at least for us Christians, the certainties that are accessible to us on this side of eternity are rooted not so much in absolutely clear boundaries as in the belief that divine grace coming through… Jesus Christ, came to so many as an abundant free gift? Do we not forget that our enduring security is to be found not so much through our own obsessive efforts but by virtue of the fact that the Father has counted every hair on our heads, and that we are precious in God’s sight?

More importantly, when we seek to make our faith purely a religion of comfort, do we not fail to use God’s gift of security as God intends? We fail to recognize the wider context of Jesus’ reassuring words in the gospel today. Notice how the passage begins with this invitation: what I say to you in the dark, tell in the daylight; what you hear in whispers, proclaim from the housetops. And notice too how it ends with this exhortation: if anyone declares himself for me in the presence of men, I will declare myself for him in the presence of my Father.

Tell in the daylight… Proclaim from the housetops… Declare yourself for me… Clearly, like my friend’s murukku mould, God’s gift of security is intended for a very specific purpose. Consoled by Jesus’ words and secure in the realization that we are precious in the sight of God we are called to put out into the deep waters of this uncertain world (see Luke 5:4). We are sent to courageously engage the world’s problems, to compassionately share in its pain, in its hopes and dreams, its anxieties and fears (see Gaudium et spes n.1).

Do not be afraid… Even if these words of Jesus can indeed serve to comfort frightened children at bedtime, are they not primarily intended to console and to challenge those who may be tired and anxious, thus empowering them to continue to toil diligently in the Father's vineyard? Do not be afraid… When Jesus speaks these words to us, he is inviting us, not only to proclaim him in word and deed, but also to be signs of His loving presence among the nations. This is the murukku that we Christians are being asked to prepare with the mould of God’s security.

Doubtless, if we truly accept this challenge, if we generously use God’s gift of security as God intends it to be used, we will experience suffering and perhaps even persecution. Others will misunderstand us, oppose us, speak ill of us, as they did the prophet Jeremiah in the first reading. The waters of life will often seem muddy instead of clear, turbulent instead of calm. But the good news for us today is that, if only we imitate the prophet, if only we truly commit our cause to the Lord, God’s mysteriously consoling presence will continue to sustain us when we need it most.

Do not be afraid… What I say to you in the dark, tell in the daylight…

My sister and brothers, in this highly uncertain world of ours – filled with so many who are anxious and hungry – are we ready and willing to make murukku today?

Friday, June 20, 2008

Friday in the 11th Week of Ordinary Time (II)
Return of the King

Readings: 2 Kings 11:1-4, 9-18, 20; Psalms 132:11, 12, 13-14, 17-18; Matthew 6:19-23

There’s good news for Singaporean fans of JRR Tolkien. The first installment of the film version of his epic novel The Lord of the Rings will be screened on Channel 5 tomorrow evening. As most of us know, there are three parts to the classic story: The Fellowship of the Ring, The Twin Towers and The Return of the King. Although the story is a fantasy, it has attracted such a great following because it speaks to something deep within the human heart. Such that someone has even said that the English-speaking world can be divided in those who have read The Lord of the Rings and those who have not.

Coincidentally, the rather long and confusing story presented to us in the first reading today also involves the return or, to be more precise, the revelation of a king. Here too, the story can be divided into three parts. What we find in the first part is a usurpation of power. Upon the death of King Jehoiada, Athaliah, the King’s mother seizes the throne and murders all who could challenge her. All except Jehoash (or Joash), the king’s son and rightful heir, who is saved and protected by his aunt. Between this Usurpation and the final Revelation (and Coronation) or Jehoash, there is a middle part of the story that lasts for six years. These are the years of Hidden Struggle, a time when loyalists such as Jehoiada the priest had to prudently protect the young ruler-in-exile, while carefully cultivating support for him among those with political and military power. While this story is probably much more rooted in history that The Lord of the Rings, we can’t say for sure to what extent things actually happened the way they are written. Even so, we might wonder what relevance the story might possibly have for us.

The gospel points us in a useful direction. Here Jesus draws a distinction between heaven and earth. And one key difference between these two realms is, of course, who seems to be in charge. In heaven, God is the undisputed ruler. But things are not so clear on earth. Although we Christians believe that Jesus has already been crowned Lord of all creation, isn’t it true that things often look very different here on earth? Doesn’t it often seem as though such things as money and military might, pleasure and sex have all but usurped God’s rightful place on the throne of this earth? Isn’t this why we continue to look forward to Christ’s Second Coming as King? Don't we find ourselves living in an in-between state that requires us to engage in a hidden struggle such as Jehoiada did? We find ourselves in a situation that requires us to commit to and work for those heavenly values that alone endure to eternity. Values that we have been hearing Jesus preach about in his Sermon on the Mount. And, as Jesus again reminds us today, in order to do this, we need to have the healthy eyes, so as to recognize the presence of our one true leader, our only rightful king, Jesus the crucified and risen Christ.

How does the Lord wish to purify our vision today?

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Thursday in the 11th Week of Ordinary Time (II)
Effective Christian Living

Readings: Sirach 48:1-14; Psalms 97:1-2, 3-4, 5-6, 7; Matthew 6:7-15
Picture: CC Michael Cowan

Quite some years ago, someone wrote a self-help book that became something of a classic. It spawned numerous conferences and seminars, and its popularity continues on even till today. 7 Habits of Highly Effective People made its author, Stephen Covey, world-famous. Recently Covey has written yet another book – The 8th Habit: from effectiveness to greatness. But what, we might wonder, does it mean to be effective? What does effectiveness look like? Whatever it might mean in the secular realm, our readings today invite us to contemplate what effectiveness looks like in the scriptures.

After having listened, over the past few days, to key episodes in the story of Elijah, our first reading today offers us a summary of the prophet’s life. It’s quite indisputable that what we find here is an effective life. But what makes it effective? What does effectiveness look like? At first glance, what may strike us is how busy Elijah was. His was clearly a life filled with activity. He shut up the heavens and proclaimed a famine. He called down rain. He raised the dead. He anointed prophets and kings. He was taken up to heaven in a fiery chariot. And, as if all this wasn’t enough, his prophetic activity continued even after he was dead! An image that comes to mind is that of a skater, artfully and acrobatically covering every inch of ice. Is such frenetic activity truly all that effectiveness means?

The gospel helps to deepen our reflection by presenting us with Jesus’ instruction regarding effective prayer. In your prayers do not babble as the pagans do. What makes prayer effective is not the use of many words. We don’t have to imitate an ice-skater and try to cover everything. Your Father knows what you need before you ask him. Instead, Jesus offers a prayer that is as striking in its simplicity as it is surprising in its depth. For what makes the Lord’s Prayer effective is its expression of the basic desires that move every human heart. In a world in which every manner of danger lurks, we are taught to pray for divine protection, especially from temptation. In a world plagued by conflict and division, we pray for reconciliation, with God and with one another. In a world where many are hungry, we pray for our daily bread.

Indeed, if we find ourselves merely mouthing the words of this prayer by rote, without being conscious of the deep desires that they express on our behalf, is it not because we have simply allowed the many things with which we fill our lives to numb us to our most profound yearnings? And what is the deepest of these desires, the most fundamental of these yearnings, if not the wish for our all-powerful and all-loving God to reign over all creation? Your kingdom come… This is what effective prayer looks like. Not so much a skater anxiously skimming over the surface of the ice, but a deep-sea diver plumbing the profound depths of the human heart, and resonating there with the will of God for all creation.

Might not the same be said of effective Christian living? Could it be that what made Elijah effective was not so much his busy-ness, but the fact that he was led by God to plumb the depths of his own longing, and lived out his life accordingly? Do we not recall, for example – in addition to his awe-inspiring deeds at Carmel and Gilgal – his profound experiences at the Wadi Cherith and Mount Horeb? Isn’t Elijah’s skill as a skater rooted in his experiences as a deep-sea diver?

A final image comes to mind as we bring our reflection to a close. It comes from the funeral of the late Pope John Paul II. In the vastness of the Square of St. Peter, surrounded respectfully by thousands, lies a lone cypress-wood coffin. And, placed above it, the pages of the Holy Scriptures, gently fluttering in the breeze. So startling in its simplicity, yet so subtly eloquent in its silence. Even in death his body prophesied…

How is the Lord helping us to live effective Christian lives today?

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Wednesday in the 11th Week of Ordinary Time (II)
Eye Test

Readings: 2 Kings 2:1, 6-14; Psalms 31:20, 21, 24; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18
Picture: CC Sarah606

In spite of skyrocketing fuel costs and the adverse effects on the environment, many of us – myself included – are still driving. Part of the reason is the freedom that it affords us. We needn’t throw ourselves at the mercy of the varied sites and schedules of public transport. We more easily move from place to place even in inclement weather. We can happily forge through life at our own preferred pace and in our own desired direction. But before one is allowed behind the wheel, one must first get a license, which entails undergoing several tests. In addition to the theory and practical tests – for which people expend much time, effort and money preparing – there is one other that is as short as it is crucial. Even if one is able to pass all the other tests, the dream of driving will not be realized if one fails the eye test.

We find a similar situation in our readings today. Elisha’s desire is to get behind the wheel of life by taking on the mantle – inheriting the prophetic legacy – of his teacher and mentor, Elijah. He asks for a double portion of Elijah’s spirit. And when he eventually receives it, he is empowered to part and to pass through the waters of the Jordan, as Elijah did before him. But notice how he has first to undergo several tests. There is the test of fidelity, which Elisha passes with flying colors. Although Elijah sends him away, Elisha insists on remaining with his master right to the end. Then, there is also a crucial eye test. Elijah agrees to leave Elisha his spirit only if the latter is able to see the former when he is gloriously taken up into the heavens. But why, we may wonder, is it such a challenge to see Elijah? Is there perhaps a haze, such as we sometimes experience in these parts, which obscures his vision? Or is Elisha myopic or suffering from cataracts? A hint as to the possible difficulty is found in the gospel.

Here, Jesus’ concern is to teach us how to become true disciples of his, how to inherit his legacy, just as Elisha inherited Elijah's. Here, not only does Jesus set before us an eye test, but he also indicates to us how our vision can be obscured. Instead of looking at what we need to look at, we often have a tendency to fix our eyes instead on other less significant things. Like the hypocrites that Jesus speaks out against, we might be tempted to become too focused on ourselves and on other people. We become concerned with whether or not others are looking at what we are doing, on what they might be thinking about us, and on how our own performance measures up to that of others. When this happens, we lose sight of the One whose Spirit we seek to inherit. For just as Elisha needs to fix his eyes on the glorious ascent of Elijah, so too are we Christians called to remain attentive to the dying and rising of Christ. But how can we do this if our eyes are filled with the cataracts of vanity and hypocrisy, of comparison and competition, of pride or self-loathing?

When our vision is thus obscured, not only do we lose sight of our suffering and glorious Master, but we also fail to appreciate our own true calling – that we are destined to faithfully navigate the tumultuous waters of life so as to reach the Father’s house on the opposite shore. We forget that what is important for us is not so much how we are perceived by others, or even by ourselves, but by God, the same God who sees all that is done in secret and rewards us accordingly. In such situations, what we need is the healing touch of the Divine Surgeon, gently excising our cataracts, and restoring the acuity of our vision.

How is the Lord testing our eyes today?

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Tuesday in the 11th Week of Ordinary Time (II)
Reversing the Irreversible

Readings: 1 Kings 21:17-29; Psalms 51:3-4, 5-6ab, 11 and 16; Matthew 5:43-48
Pictures: CC cirofono

There is an obvious difficulty with the metaphor that we used yesterday. At least at the present time, Alzheimer’s disease is incurable. We can only treat the symptoms and slow the disease’s inexorable course. Reversing it is still beyond our grasp. And it is tempting to feel the same way about ourselves too, isn’t it? When we look at the situation in the world around us – the wars and conflicts, the huge disparities in wealth and resources, the environmental degradation – it’s enough to make us throw up our hands in despair. The same might be said for our own personal lives. Confessing the same sins again and again without any apparent improvement, praying for wayward family members who never seem to come even close to repentance, struggling without success to forgive someone who has hurt us deeply: these are all experiences that can lead us to discouragement and disillusionment. Perhaps, like Alzheimer’s, our situation is truly irreversible.

Which is why it is important to let our readings today caress our tired hearts like a breath of fresh air. For what we find here is precisely the reversal of the irreversible. In the first reading, the greedy, cruel and sadistic king Ahab repents in sackcloth and ashes. And in the gospel, Jesus invites us to consider the possibility that weak and fallen creatures like us can actually arrive at the perfection of God. But we must not be too quick to consider what we have to do to achieve such an incredible feat. The readings are more concerned with highlighting what God does. And it is God’s actions that we need first to contemplate.

God’s first move is to warn. Through the prophet, God paints for the king a fearsome portrait of the terrible consequences of his sin. Not just the king, but also his family members, will suffer the unthinkable curse of having their corpses defiled by wild animals. And the warning actually takes effect. Ahab repents. A possible interpretation of how this comes about is to think that the king is cowed into repentance by the horrific punishments with which God threatens him. That may indeed be so.

But Jesus’ words in the gospel invite us to consider another possible perspective, one with which good parents of naughty children will probably be able to identify. God's warning springs not so much from a desire to inflict punishment as it does out of compassion. This is the same thing that the psalmist asks God for: in your compassion blot out my offences. And this is also what Jesus invites his disciples to imitate. The Father’s compassion is such that he makes the sun to rise and the rain to fall on good and bad alike. In addition to issuing fearsome warnings, God seeks to reverse the irreversible by loving unconditionally, with heartfelt compassion.

There is, however, a limitation to the metaphors that Jesus uses in the gospel. Neither the sun nor the rain has a capacity to feel pain. And isn’t pain precisely the reason why we find it so difficult to show compassion? We shy away from difficult and abrasive people because we don’t want to be hurt. And it is precisely here that we find probably the most moving and inspiring example that God offers us. In seeking to reverse the irreversible, God willingly undergoes the painful humiliation of suffering and death. As we are reminded in the letter to the Hebrews: Son though he was, Christ learned obedience from what he suffered; and when he was made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him (Hb 5:8-9(NAB)).

Christ was made perfect through suffering. And it is in contemplating his suffering, in receiving his compassion, in heeding his warning, that we receive the power to reverse the irreversible, and to be made perfect as he was.

How does the Lord wish to bless us with this power today?

Monday, June 16, 2008

Monday in the 11th Week of Ordinary Time (II)

Readings: 1 Kings 21:1-16; Psalms 5:2-3ab, 4b-6a, 6b-7; Matthew 5:38-42
Picture: CC latvian

Yesterday I learnt a new word. I happened to tune in to the BBC while driving and heard an interview given by someone who has written a new novel about Alzheimer’s disease. The author described this debilitating affliction in terms of retrogenesis. That is, a process by which the growth and development of a human person is gradually and painfully reversed, to the point where the adult victim finally reverts to an almost embryonic state. Retrogenesis. The word comes to mind again as we meditate upon today’s Mass readings, because it helps to us identify more closely with them.

To begin with, perhaps I need to acknowledge that I may not resonate too easily with what I hear today, neither the first reading nor the gospel, at least not initially. Part of the reason for this is my tendency to focus only on the end-result. The first reading terminates in violent murder and ruthless thievery. And, sinful though I may be, I am neither a murderer nor a thief. In the gospel, Jesus speaks about a person who is able to turn the other cheek and go the extra mile. And, although I may basically be a good person, these are not quite my spontaneous reactions to being treated badly. Still, despite the difficulty, I know that these readings are about me, about us. And perhaps the way to appreciate this is to widen our attention beyond the end-result to the process that leads up to it. What we find when we do this is movement in two opposite directions: genesis and retrogenesis.

Retrogenesis is what we find in the first reading. Notice how it begins, rather innocuously, with someone initiating a commercial transaction. King Ahab desires to possess Naboth’s land. And he makes a reasonable – even generous – offer for it. I will give you a better vineyard… or… its worth in money. But Naboth refuses because this is ancestral land, which he is not at liberty to sell. Not everything can be traded commercially. It is Ahab's apparently harmless desire to possess that degenerates eventually into murder. And this process of retrogenesis takes place not just in what happens to Naboth, but more especially in Ahab and his wife Jezebel. Their desire to possess grows into an obsession that possesses (and gradually dehumanizes) them. Even if I may not identify so easily with the murderous end-result, can I not find in myself – if only at times – similar inordinate desires to possess? When the object of that desire is wealth, we call it greed. When it is sex or power, we call it lust. When it is food, we call it gluttony. And can we afford to forget that there is also such a thing as spiritual gluttony? A crude form of this is sometimes experienced at large religious gatherings, when people may jostle one another rather ruthlessly, just so that they might receive whatever is being distributed.

In contrast, what we find in the gospel is a movement in the opposite direction, a process of genesis. We are still listening to Jesus’ Sermon of the Mount. And we know how it began: Blessed are the poor in spirit, theirs is the kingdom of heaven. If retrogenesis is rooted in the inordinate desire to possess, genesis begins instead with an invitation to dispossession, to acknowledging one’s poverty in the sight of God. It is when one responds positively to this invitation that it becomes possible to do the remarkable things that Jesus enjoins us in the gospel today. To respond positively to God is to embark on a process of genesis, of becoming more human. And not just more human, but also more divine. For to allow ourselves to be dispossessed in this way is also to allow ourselves to be possessed more and more by the spirit of God, and so to be divinized even as we are humanized. While I may not be as perfect as Jesus requires in the gospel, do I not find in my heart – if only at times – stirrings in this direction?

In a world that often seems to revolve around the need to acquire and to accumulate possessions of all kinds, and pays the price in brutal conflict, cruel deprivation, and senseless loss of life, perhaps what we need to consider today is the direction in which we, as individuals and as a human community, are moving.

Is it genesis or retrogenesis that we are undergoing today?

Friday, June 13, 2008

Friday in the 10th Week of Ordinary Time (II)
Memorial of St. Anthony of Padua, Priest and Doctor of the Church
Two Roads Converge...

Readings: 1 Kings 19:9a, 11-16; Psalms 27:7-8a, 8b-9abc, 13-14; Matthew 5:27-32
Pictures: CC krystal.pritchett

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood… So begins that famous poem by Robert Frost. The image brought to mind is that of a fork in the road, calling for a choice to be made between two onward paths. It’s an image that’s commonly presented especially to those discerning a priestly or religious vocation, not least because the person in the poem professes to have taken the road less traveled. Our readings today might be seen to bring us to a similar fork, but from the opposite direction. Instead of two roads diverging, what we are presented with are two paths that converge. But first let us acknowledge that both readings are far from easy to hear, let alone to put into practice. Both deal with situations of struggle. Both present instructions that sound harsh. Yet, these situations are not static but dynamic. And the impetus for moving on is provided in each case by a question.

In the gospel, the situation is obviously one of temptation and trial. Not only does Jesus warn us about how various parts of the body can be occasions for sin, but he also offers that radically difficult piece of advice: if your right eye should cause you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; for it will do you less harm to lose one part of you than to have your whole body thrown into hell… Even so, these words need not shock us into paralysis. When we pause to ponder them, we realize that they invite us to consider an important question. For we can tear out parts of ourselves and still survive only to the extent that we know the parts of us that are truly essential. Which necessitates that we first ask ourselves the question: who am I? When constantly tempted by lustful tendencies, for example, in addition to resisting them, we might also bring them to God in prayer. And, in doing this, we may find that beneath the sinful tendencies and behaviors may lie authentic God-given desires that need to be attended to – desires for intimacy and affective connection with another, for example, which can be addressed in appropriate ways that entail no sin.

The situation of struggle in the first reading arises from the persecution and pain encountered by the prophet. I am the only one left and they want to kill me. And, especially given recent events in Myanmar and Sichuan, which of us will find it easy to hear the words, the Lord was not in the wind…the Lord was not in the earthquake? But, as with the gospel, these words are not meant as a stop sign but an invitation to move on. They too raise a question that often comes to those who suffer: where is God? In the midst of not just external chaos but interior turmoil as well, where is God to be found? And it is likely that, at least at the beginning, God may well seem absent from the stormy blast. It may feel as though God has absconded in the wake of the shattering of the earth and the searing heat of difficult emotions. But as we allow ourselves to climb the mountain of our misery, to enter and to remain in the cave of our hearts, as Elijah did, we may yet find an answer to our question. We may yet begin to hear anew the gentle breeze of God’s voice.

And it is also at this point that we find the two roads converging. For in pondering the question who am I, we actually arrive at a location where God is to be found. And by struggling with the question where is God, we are led to a new vision of who we are. Isn’t this what happens to Elijah in the first reading? As he emerges from the cave, he hears God’s voice. And the question that God asks of him – what are you doing here? – leads him to a deeper awareness of who he is and what he is about. I am filled with jealous zeal for the Lord of hosts… And notice what happens next.

In Frost’s poem, each of the two diverging paths leads further into the wood. Similarly, in our readings today, both roads converge and then lead on in a definite, and perhaps rather surprising, direction. ‘Go,’ the Lord said ‘go back by the same way to the wilderness of Damascus…’ Having arrived at a renewed sense of who we are and where God is to be found, we are led back from whence we came. But although the road may be the same, the traveler has changed, transformed by the struggles painfully negotiated both before and at the point of convergence, anointed by God and ready to anoint others, empowered to help them to find God and their deeper selves, to undergo transformation and to transform. Here too is a road less traveled. Here is the path of the Christian vocation.

Today how are we being led to the point of convergence and beyond?

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Thursday in the 10th Week of Ordinary Time (II)
Living in 3-D

Readings: 1 Kings 18:41-46; Psalms 65:10, 11, 12-13; Matthew 5:20-26
Picture: CC blockpartypress

Think global, act local has become a well-known mantra for many diverse fields of knowledge and human endeavor. It speaks to the need, especially in our time, to strive for a close connection between near and far, international and parochial. Some have even coined a new term – glocal – to express the importance of such connections. A good example of such efforts is found on page three of today’s local paper. The report tells of how 24 undergraduates will be heading for Russia during their vacation this year, precisely with the view to raising the global quality of their education. The education minister is also quoted as highlighting the further aim of this effort. Not only is there a concern to increase the job prospects of the students after graduation, but also their ability to contribute to the country’s development. Go glocal for growth might be an appropriate – if a little corny – slogan.

Which is all fine and good, except that one cannot help but wonder what such growth – both personal and national – will look like. Will it resemble, for example, what I happened to see on cable TV last night? There, Bangladeshi Nobel Prize recipient, Muhammad Yunus, spoke about his own approach to going glocal. He shared about what he calls social business, that is, commerce that is carried out not primarily for profit but for helping those most in need. In addition to the micro-financing initiatives of the Grameen Bank, for which he has become world-famous, he also talked about the many other different companies that he has started in order to do such things as supply potable water to areas where the ground water is tainted with arsenic. Will the kind of growth we are working towards look like this? Or will it look very different? Will it be grounded in altruism or self-seeking? Will it mediate care and concern for all or will it only further foster the cutthroat competition that often leads to conflict and chaos?

The direction in which our growth will take will depend on our connecting with yet another perspective, beyond even the global and the local. It is this crucial dimension about which Jesus speaks in the gospel today. If your virtue goes no deeper than the scribes and the Pharisees, you will never get into the kingdom of heaven… In addition to the geographical dimensions of the local and the global, must be added the motivational – the depth – dimension of the spiritual. On this depends how and to what end we use all the different resources that we work so hard to accumulate. On this depends whether we work towards a more just and peaceful world or one characterized by more violence and oppression.

And just as going glocal requires the development of certain skills – of situational analysis and networking, for example – so too does the spiritual require the cultivation of specific disciplines. What some of these might be is illustrated in the first reading. Here Elijah models for us the spiritual attitude of waiting upon the grace of God. While economic development might be produced with prudent policies and favorable conditions, spiritual growth is ultimately a matter of grace, which comes to us like the torrential rains of the first reading. For this we need to persevere in prayer and with patience to await. And, like Elijah, we need also to learn to recognize, to anticipate, and to go with the flow of this heavenly shower. Even before the onset of the rain, Elijah hears its sound and invites the king to celebrate. At the sight of a cloud small as a man’s hand he instructs Ahab to harness the chariot. And once the torrents come, we witness the awe-inspiring power with which Elijah runs ahead of the horse-drawn king.

As important as it is to connect the dual dimensions of the global and the local, perhaps more than ever before, we are also being reminded of the significance of the spiritual. As salt of the earth and light of the world, we Christians are challenged to connect with this third dimension, and to share with others the benefits of doing the same.

To which dimensions are we connecting today?

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Tuesday in the 10th Week of Ordinary Time (II)
The Geography of Salt and Light

Readings: 1 Kings 17:7-16; Psalms 4:2-3, 4-5, 7b-8; Matthew 5:13-16
Picture: CC tina|raval

There is little change in the weather report for the readings today as compared to the situation yesterday. If anything, the drought has worsened and the famine is more sharply felt. Even the wadi in which Elijah had previously taken refuge has dried up. There is, however, a subtle change in geography. At the onset of the hunger in the city and famine on the plain, God’s response was to send spiritual nourishment from locations of contrast – the country and the hill. But today we see Elijah moving back into a place of human habitation, specifically a Sidonian town. And even though Jesus continues to speak from the Mount of the Beatitudes, his words imply a necessary change of setting. Let us begin by considering this implied shift.

You are the salt of the earth… You are the light of the world. These words indicate a necessary movement, an important displacement from a distant location of contrast, to a place of close engagement. Jesus’ own words make this clear: No one lights a lamp to put it under a tub; they put it on the lamp-stand… Something similar can also be said of salt. Even if it retains its taste, salt cannot do its work if it remains only in the saltshaker. For it to take effect salt needs to be sprinkled onto – even dissolved into – the food. Which implies that although God’s Wisdom might ring out first from a distant place, a location of contrast, it needs to somehow make its way to where it is needed most – from the country to the city, from the mountain to the plain. Are we not reminded once again of the great mystery expressed with such elegant eloquence in John’s gospel: and the Word became flesh?

And what this necessary change of location looks like is strikingly illustrated in the first reading. As we noted earlier, here we find Elijah moving from the wadi into the town. And it is significant too that the town is a Sidonian one, just as the person chosen to help him is an impoverished widow.

At this point we find ourselves invited to deepen our consideration of the mechanics of how salt and light do their work. For salt is valued not merely for its own taste. One doesn’t usually eat it on its own. Rather, salt is at its best when it is skillfully used, in the right amounts, to enhance the natural flavors of food. Similarly, light is valued not just in itself. It is highly hazardous, for example, to stare into the sun with the naked eye. Instead, light is valued for its ability to illumine and to accentuate the inherent beauty of the world around us. How this translates into practice is again well illustrated by Elijah’s example. He, the prophet of God, comes to the Sidonian widow woman as salt and light. And yet, we cannot fail to notice how he blesses the woman by asking for her help. He invites her not only to share her meager supply of food and water, but also her skills in the kitchen. First make a little scone of it for me…

The challenge for us is to grasp the implications of these considerations for our proper identity and role as Christians in the world today. When the city and the plain are stricken by famine and drought, it is indeed tempting – for me too – to withdraw to a safe distance from which to hurl scathing critiques and harsh judgments, or to build high fences and solid walls to safeguard ourselves from dangers perceived and real, or even to overwhelm others with our own brand of saltiness and brilliance. But these do not seem to be the best ways in which salt and light do their work. Our call is to engagement rather than escape, to collaboration rather than control. The challenge is to enhance flavor without becoming tasteless, to illumine without getting lost. Striking this balance implies the need to remain in constant touch with the One who alone is our Source and our Goal. Lift up the light of your face on us, O Lord…

How are we being invited to continue meeting this challenge today?

Monday, June 09, 2008

Monday in the 10th Week of Ordinary Time (II)
Feast in Famine

Readings: 1 Kings 17:1-6; Psalms 121:1bc-2, 3-4, 5-6, 7-8; Matthew 5:1-12
Picture: CC babasteve

Christ come quickly there’s danger at the door;
poverty aplenty, hearts gone wild with war.
There’s hunger in the city and famine on the plain.
Come Lord Jesus, the light is dying,
the night keeps crying.
Come Lord Jesus.

These words from an old hymn are what come first to mind as we listen to the Mass readings for today. For, in both passages, the action takes place against a similar background. In the first reading, the prophet Elijah pronounces a condition of drought leading to famine. There shall neither be dew nor rain in these years… This dire situation is a consequence of idolatry. Led by their king, Ahab, the people have turned away from the Lord their God, and chosen instead to worship the storm god Baal. Anxious to ensure fertile fields and timely seasonal showers, they have thrown in their lot with a pagan deity. As a consequence, to show that he alone is the master of all creation, the One True God shuts up the heavens and sends no rain. The gospel hints at a similar context when it begins by telling us that upon seeing the crowds, Jesus went up the hill. The teaching that Jesus then goes on to offer is a response to what he sees with his own eyes: a mass of confused and dejected people, laboring under a drought of divine grace, thirsting for the word of God.

There’s hunger in the city and famine on the plain…

Don’t these words also describe the situation in our world today, if not literally, then at least figuratively? Even in those rare cities in which poverty does not rear its ugly head, is there not often a tendency towards idolatry that results in a famine of the word of God? In place of Baal, do we not have our own idols of choice? We might think, for example, of science and technology, or economics and finance. Of course, these things are not bad in themselves, just as fertile fields and seasonal showers were blessings for the people of Elijah’s day. But havoc is wreaked when created realities are raised to the status of deity, when people’s taste-buds are dulled to the point that they can appreciate only what this material world has to offer.

There’s hunger in the city and famine on the plain…

Into this situation of drought, God’s Wisdom descends like welcome rain. The same teaching that Jesus offers verbally, Elijah presents in action. To the spiritual starvation that prevails, even in the midst of material plenty, both in the city and on the plain, God responds by instructing Elijah to go out into the country, just as Jesus goes up the Mount of Beatitudes. From these respective places of contrast, Elijah and Jesus present God’s antidote to the poison of idolatry. Against the anxious acquisition of wealth and the unceasing search for self-sufficiency, they preach a counter-cultural message of the blessing to be found in spiritual poverty and total dependence on divine providence. I have ordered the ravens to bring you food… How happy are the poor in spirit… To the competition and conflict that inevitably arises from a possessive clinging to resources of all kinds, Elijah and Jesus offer an alternative vision of peace and right relationship, a vision powerful enough to inspire tireless effort, even in the face of persecution. Happy the merciful… Happy the peacemakers…

In the midst of the hunger that prevails in our cities, and the famine in our plains, how is our God inviting us to bear witness to the Beatitudes today?

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Sunday in the 10th Week of Ordinary Time (A)
Sales Pitch

Readings: Hosea 6:3-6; Psalms 50:1, 8, 12-13, 14-15; Romans 4:18-25; Matthew 9:9-13
Picture: CC quatre mains

Sisters and brothers, are any of you interested in getting a new vehicle? Do you think that now is a good time to buy? As you know, the COE prices for June have gone down in every category. That’s good. But then oil prices are going through the roof. Even Malaysia has raised its petrol and diesel prices. So is it a good time to buy or not? Whether or not it’s a good time, just imagine for a moment that you are thinking of buying a new vehicle. What type will you get? What make and model? And how will you decide? Most probably you’ll consider things like the intended use for the vehicle, how much it costs, its fuel consumption, engine capacity, after-sales service and so on. And, unless you’re getting it only to show-off, you will probably choose the vehicle that will bring you the best benefits for the lowest cost.

But why, you may wonder, are we talking about buying a new vehicle at a time, and in a place, like this? Maybe Father is looking for one and needs some advice? Not really. Here’s the reason. Don’t you think that our Mass readings look a little like a brochure or an advertisement for a new vehicle? This, of course, is not just any ordinary vehicle. It’s a special kind of vehicle. We all need it, but not to shuttle us back and forth between home and work, or school, or the church. We need it for a far more important purpose. We need it to carry us on our spiritual journey. We need it to get us to heaven. Are you interested?

But if it is not a car or a pick-up, a motorcycle or a van, then what kind of vehicle is it exactly? The answer is found in the second reading. Here Paul talks about the spiritual automobile that carried Abraham into heaven. Paul tells us that this vehicle is the faith that was ‘considered as justifying him’. This, my sisters and brothers, is the type of vehicle that our readings are offering us today: faith. But what does this vehicle look like? How much does it cost? What make and model is it? What benefits does it bring us?

The first benefit is also described in the second reading. Here, Paul tells us that faith enabled Abraham to do something quite extraordinary. It gave him the ability to believe. And not just to believe anything, but to believe the unbelievable. He was already a hundred years old and his wife, Sarah, was past the age of childbirth, and they were still childless. Yet he dared to believe that God would fulfill his promise to make him the father of many nations. Of course, I don’t think there’s anyone here who is already a hundred years old, let alone still trying to conceive a child. But, whatever our age, don’t we all need the grace to believe the unbelievable?

Especially when we are going through tough times – whether financially, emotionally or spiritually. When no one seems able to help us. When even God seems painfully absent. At times like these, don’t we need the strength to believe what we heard in the first reading today? Let us set ourselves to know the Lord; that he will come is as certain as the dawn… That he will come is as certain as the dawn. Aren’t these unbelievable words precisely what we need to believe, especially when we are stumbling about in the dark?

And there is also another particularly unbelievable thing that faith helps us with. It helps us to believe that God’s love for us is more powerful even than our sinfulness. Isn’t this what we see in the gospel? Imagine the scene for a moment. There, by the customs house, sits Matthew, the tax collector, the public sinner. And yet, the power of faith is such that it enables him to believe that Jesus can actually be calling a sinner like him. Don’t we too need this kind of power, this kind of belief? Especially when we ourselves may be struggling with our own particular areas of sinfulness. Don’t we need to believe that however serious or deadly our sin, Jesus can and wants to reach into our hearts and call us back to life?

And belief is only the first benefit that the vehicle of faith brings us. We can probably already guess what is the second. Consider again Matthew’s example. Once he believed that Jesus was calling him, what did he do? He didn’t simply remain seated where he was. The gospel tells us that Matthew got up and followed Jesus. He left the customs house, the place of his sinful occupation. We’re not told exactly where he went after that, only that he followed Jesus. But we do know that he ended up a saint. This is the power that faith gave him. It gave him the strength not only to believe but also to move, to move from the customs house into the Kingdom of God. And isn’t this also what happened to Abraham? His faith in God led him to believe, and his belief gave him the strength to move, to move his entire family, including the animals, from their ancestral home in Ur of the Chaldeans into the land of Canaan.

Don’t we also need this same power of movement? Especially when we may find ourselves stuck, whether it is in a sinful situation, a difficult relationship, or a stress-filled and meaningless life. The vehicle of faith gives us the strength to leave the customs houses of our lives, and to follow the Lord wherever he leads us.

There is still a third benefit that comes with this vehicle of faith. It’s not as clear in today’s gospel taken from Matthew. But in Luke’s version (5:29), we are told that the tax collector is the one who held a great reception in his house in Jesus’ honour. Having received the gift to believe the unbelievable, and the power to move along with Jesus, the new disciple now opens his home and his heart. He gladly welcomes others to share in the joy that he has found, or rather, the joy that has found him. Don’t we want to have the same gift also, the gift of welcoming others and of sharing with them the treasures of our faith?

These then are the three precious benefits, the three invaluable blessings that faith brings us: belief, movement and welcome. And knowing these benefits, we can now identify the particular make of this vehicle that is being offered to us today. It’s a BMW.

One thing remains for us to consider. How much does it cost? How many hours of prayer must we spend? How many Masses do we need to offer? How much fasting must we endure to buy this vehicle? The price tag is found in the gospel. Here Jesus tells us the good news: what I want is mercy, not sacrifice. The cost of this vehicle is nothing more or less than mercy. It is, of course, the mercy that we are called to show to those in need: the people of Sichuan and Myanmar surely, but also those closer to home, the lonely family member, the struggling neighbour, the new and very blur colleague. We need to show them mercy. But that is not the whole story. The mercy that we show others, we first receive from God. For this is the same God who walked by the customs house and sold a sinner a brand new vehicle. This is the same God who then walked on to Calvary and was raised to life on the third day. It is this God, who by his boundless mercy, has already paid the price for us, in full.

Sisters and brothers, are you ready to buy yourself the BMW of faith today?