Saturday, August 30, 2008

Memorial of the Martyrdom of St. John the Baptist
Follow Your Bliss

Readings: 1 Corinthians 1:17-25; Psalms 33:1-2, 4-5, 10-11; Mark 6:17-29
Picture: CC decor8

Follow your bliss! Curiously, these words coined by the late professor of mythology, Joseph Campbell, are what come to mind on this day when we celebrate – yes, celebrate! – the beheading of John the Baptist. They are, of course, very easily misinterpreted, especially by this consumeristic society of ours. At first glance, they would seem to encourage us to embrace the very thing that our Mass readings for today are warning us against.

For there is in both readings a clear distinction between wisdom and foolishness, between truth and falsehood, between self-sacrifice and self-indulgence. John the Baptist models for us what the former half of these pairs looks like, just as Herod and his household illustrate the latter. John fearlessly speaks God’s word, even when it is inconvenient, even when it is dangerous, even when it loses him his head. In contrast, Herodias is willing to commit murder for the sake of expedience – to permanently remove the bearer of an inconvenient truth. And, afraid to appear weak in the sight of his guests, Herod falls prey to her scheming, just as he had earlier given in to his own self-indulgence. It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife…

It’s easy to think, then, that what we are being presented with is a simple and straightforward contrast between pain and pleasure. To live the way of the wisdom, the way of the cross, the way of Christ, is to forsake the way of delight. After all, wasn’t it Herod’s enjoyment of a young girl’s dancing that led him take a prophet’s life? We need to deny our natural inclinations and embrace only that which makes us suffer. Or do we? Is there not something else that we need to consider? Should we not notice, for example, that Herod had initially kept John alive, because he liked to listen to him.

Could it be that the contrast we are being invited to consider, is not so much between pleasure and pain, as it is between two different kinds of inclinations? Could it be that true wisdom consists in the ability to discern our delights, in learning to truly find and follow our bliss? For Herod’s foolishness consists in his indulgence in a more superficial delight – saving face before his guests – at the cost of another deeper, more enduring one – being led by John’s message to an encounter with God in Jesus the Lord. In contrast, for the sake of delighting in the goodness of God, of which the earth is full, John the Baptist was willing even to sacrifice his life.

How are we being invited to truly follow our bliss today?

Friday, August 29, 2008

Thursday in the 21st Week of Ordinary Time
Memorial of St. Augustine, Bishop and Doctor of the Church
Sleeping To Stay Awake

Readings: 1 Corinthians 1:1-9; Psalms 145:2-3, 4-5, 6-7; Matthew 24:42-51
Picture: CC jonnykeelty

On the approximately 3-hour long bus ride from the airport to my final destination, I wanted very much to stay awake. I wanted to take in the scenery provided by the coastal drive. I wanted to notice important information, details about the various exits along the freeway, for example. But the rigors of the flight across the Pacific proved just a little too much – I had tried not to sleep for any extended period on the plane, in an effort to avoid jetlag. As a result, more than half of the precious bus ride found me in dreamland.

This is the experience that is brought to mind as we listen to Jesus exhort the disciples to stay awake and stand ready because the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect. We all know that this is easier said than done. Like what I found on the bus, the desire to sleep can prove too overpowering. We succumb so easily to the zee-monster, and before we know it the scenery has passed us by. Ever so stealthily, the Son of Man may have come and gone, without us being any the wiser. Is there anything we can do to help ourselves stay awake?

Perhaps the first thing is to notice what staying awake entails. While we may think only in terms of staying away from the more obvious occasions of sin – not getting angry with others, for example, or shielding our senses from all less than wholesome delights – Jesus speaks mainly in terms of responsibility for those entrusted to our care. What sort of servant… is faithful and wise enough for the master to place him over his household to give them their food at the proper time? A key part of the lesson that Jesus offers us today seems to be that staying awake is at least as much about our need to care for others as it may be about our own struggles with purity. To stay awake and to be ready to welcome the Son of Man who comes at unexpected moments of each passing day, we need to be conscientious in seeing to the needs of those for whom we have some responsibility.

And perhaps it is only when we allow our hearts to be taken up by such preoccupations – when we are more concerned for the ultimate wellbeing for others than with our own comfort – that we come to learn to do what is necessary to stay awake. Perhaps it is only when we gradually become orientated towards the service of others that we learn to care for ourselves in ways that make us more effective stewards of the Master’s household. We learn to get enough sleep and rest when we need it, for example, so that we can be alert and effective in discovering and seeing to the needs of others. We become more aware of and attentive to our own emotional needs, so as to avoid unconsciously burdening others with them. We carefully cultivate our own interior life, not only so that we ourselves can be holy, but also so that others might encounter the Lord in and through us. In other words, we learn to stay awake by getting enough sleep.

As we continue on the bus ride of life, how much of the scenery are we truly enjoying today?

Friday, August 22, 2008

Friday in the 20th Week of Ordinary Time
Memorial of the Queenship of Mary
Fulfilling the Futile

Readings: Ezekiel 37:1-14; Psalm 107:2-3, 4-5, 6-7, 8-9; Matthew 22:34-40
Picture: CC Todd Huffman

Today, eight days from the solemn feast of the Assumption, we celebrate the Queenship of Mary. And, quite coincidentally, although the Mass readings are taken from those prescribed for Ordinary Time, they are marvelously appropriate for helping us to reflect upon at least one key characteristic that distinguishes Mary as Queen, as someone whose spiritual authority we respect and revere, as well as strive to emulate. The readings do this by inviting us to imagine two scenes, one involving the prophet Ezekiel, and the other, Jesus the Lord. The first is as dramatic as the other is mundane. Yet, on closer examination, both bear a striking resemblance to each other.

What probably captures our attention most of all in the first reading is the incredible transformation brought about by the power of God’s Word. A valley full of dry bones becomes populated by an immense army. The dead are brought back to life. And what’s even more amazing is that God promises to do the same for the whole House of Israel. God promises to raise them from their graves to the fullness of life. Even so, we may perhaps pause to consider how God chooses to effect this startling transformation through the ministry of Ezekiel. Imagine for a moment what it might have been like to stand in the shoes of the prophet. How might he have felt as he gazed upon that desolate valley reeking with the smell of death? What might have been his initial reaction upon hearing God’s instruction to prophesy to the bones? Speaking to the dead? Could one conceive of anything more futile than that? And yet, the prophet obeys. He trusts in the power of God’s Word, and of the breath of God’s Spirit. He prophesies. And the dead are brought back to life.

We find something of the same defiant hope in Jesus’ exchange with the lawyer in the gospel. Although what Jesus encounters is not quiet a valley of bones, we might be forgiven for making a connection between the scene from the first reading and the dry cynicism of the one who questions the Lord. Could anything be more futile than to converse with someone who seems out only to criticize? And yet, Jesus does not shrink from the encounter. Instead, he uses the opportunity to present an invaluable teaching: the greatest and first commandment.

Which brings us to Mary. For who is Jesus but the Word of the Father? And how does the Father choose to speak this Word except through the generous consent of Mary. Like Ezekiel, relying upon the breath of the Holy Spirit, Mary courageous speaks the Father’s Word of Life over the dry bones of the human race. As futile a project as it may have seemed, and as costly a sacrifice as it might have involved, Mary did not flinch. She spoke. And we were brought back to life. Isn’t this reason enough to proclaim her as our Queen? And not just to proclaim, but also to beg her to obtain for us the same defiant hope that she had. So that even in the face of apparently futile situations – both around and within us – we will yet find the courage to prophesy. As children of so wonderful a Mother, as subjects of so splendid a Queen, can we do anything less?

How, and in what situations, are we being invited to prophesy today?

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Thursday in the 20th Week of Ordinary Time
Memorial of St. Pius X, Pope
Beyond Hand-Washing

Readings: Ezekiel 36:23-28; Psalm 51:12-13, 14-15, 18-19; Matthew 22:1-14
Picture: CC aka Kath

In the movie, As Good As It Gets, Jack Nicholson’s character suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder. It’s a debilitating condition in that it forces him to do various things in highly ritualized and rigid fashion. The simple act of washing his hands, for example, takes incredibly long, because he has to do it a certain way and a definite number of times, each time replacing the soap in a particular position, and so on. In a memorable scene, Nicholson wants very much to take his beloved out to dinner. But he almost ruins everything by making his date wait an eternity for him, while he showers in the bathroom. It’s quite ironic, isn’t it, how obsessing over getting clean – over preparing oneself for something – can actually hinder us from truly enjoying the main event?

Sometimes I wonder if the same might not be said about the way we live our religious lives. We know how important it is to have clean hands and pure hearts. Often, much of our spiritual energies are spent trying to keep ourselves away from the filth of sin. And this is probably as it should be. Indeed a large part of our readings today is all about how God promises to cleanse God’s people. I will give you a new heart and place a new spirit within you… you shall be my people and I shall be your God.

But there are also other important points to note. First, the readings are less about the people keeping themselves clean (try as they might, they seem quite powerless in this respect) than about how God purifies the people. And second, cleansing appears only as a part – albeit a significant and important part – of the message in our readings. There is also something more. Could it be that some, if not many of us, often obsess so much over trying to keep ourselves clean that we end up hardening the very hearts that God promises to soften? Could it be that we pay so much attention to spiritual cleanliness that we end up neglecting the other just as important aspects of the message?

The gospel presents us with two of these aspects. Jesus’ parable highlights the point that in addition to cleansing us, God also calls us to enjoy the joyful fellowship with God and one another. It’s probably true that our preoccupation with our many secular activities is the main reason for our reluctance to take up God’s generous invitation. But one may also wonder whether, at least sometimes, our obsession with our own sinfulness could have the same effect. Such obsessions can keep our attention focused more on ourselves than on the mercy of God.

In addition, our efforts at staying away from sin can also make us neglect the third important aspect in our readings today. Not only does God cleanse and call us, but God also expects us to allow ourselves to be clothed with the wedding garment that is the life, death and resurrection of Christ. It is only in putting on Christ, in striving to live the life that he lived, in immersing ourselves ever more fully in the challenges of daily human living, that we can truly be kept clean from the stain of sin and selfishness. Could it be that, instead of remaining perpetually obsessed with washing our own hands, it is precisely only in trying to hear and heed God’s call and in allowing ourselves to be clothed in Christ, that we are cleansed?

How might God be calling and choosing us to go beyond our obsession with cleanliness today?

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Wednesday in the 20th Week of Ordinary Time
Memorial of St. Bernard, Abbot & Doctor of the Church
Muscle Building

Readings: Ezekiel 34:1-11; Psalm 23:1-3a, 3b-4, 5, ; Matthew 20:1-16
Picture: CC phil dowsing

Following from yesterday’s fitness analogy, we might begin our reflection today by considering some facts that underlie our need for physical exercise. Muscles are made to be used. They grow only to the extent that they are exercised. Left dormant for too long, muscles will begin to weaken and waste away. On the other hand, however, they shouldn’t be overworked. Muscles also need enough time for rest and recuperation. Otherwise they will not grow. A right balance of work and rest, therefore, is essential to any good exercise program. In addition, it’s also important to consider how muscles work. Simplistically put, they act like rubber bands that hold together and move various bones or body parts across joints. And, what enables them to do this effectively, are the tendons that connect the muscle to the bones with which it is associated. A torn tendon will not only render the muscle useless but it can also cause excruciating pain.

Why, we may wonder, are we talking about muscles today, when our readings invite us to consider the difference between good and bad shepherds? The connection becomes a little clearer, when we consider Jesus’ description of the Kingdom of heaven in the gospel. When we think of the Good Shepherd, it’s not unlikely that we find ourselves imagining rest along flowing waters and relaxation in green pastures. Indeed, the Good Shepherd Psalm (23) does paint just such a scene for us. And we often associate this same image with eternal rest. Quite appropriately, we sing this psalm at funerals and wakes. Even so, our gospel today invites us to consider how the Divine Shepherd is also a Vineyard Owner, who seems to delight in putting the sheep to work. Could it be that part of being a Good Shepherd is also to find work for the sheep? Could it be that a shepherd can actually do harm by expecting too little from those under his/her care? Could it be that sheep actually need to work? Could it be that, like muscles, they will also waste away if left idle for too long?

This is, of course, a dangerous consideration for us to make. It’s dangerous because we tend towards the other extreme. Is it not risky to speak of work to a nation of workaholics? And yet, isn’t it also true that our busy-ness with secular activities often goes hand-in-hand with a tendency to think of religion only in terms of (eternal) rest? Isn’t this why our faith often seems so divorced from our daily living? Isn’t this why we often turn to God only in times of major crisis or extreme fatigue? Isn’t this why it’s so difficult for us to find the proper balance between labor and leisure?

Perhaps what we need is to consider our work and its meaning in a new light, and within a new context. The dignity of human work – or the human who works (homo faber) – consists in its marking of the earth with the imprint of the human and the divine, in its connecting of the heavenly with the earthly. Our work is meant to somehow make God more present to the world. And, like muscles, we attain this lofty aim only to the extent that we are firmly inserted, at one end, in the will of God, and at the other end, in the needs of the world. (On the dignity of human work, see, e.g., JPII, Laborem exercens.)

And let us also not forget the key piece of good news in our readings today: that the generosity of our God goes beyond any earthly employer. When we work in God's vineyard, we never labor in vain. God rewards every little effort that we make, every little bit of exercise that we engage in.

How are we being invited to flex our muscles today?

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Tuesday in the 20th Week of Ordinary Time (II)
Spiritual Exercise

Readings: Ezekiel 28:1-10; Deuteronomy 32:26-27ab, 27cd-28, 30, 35cd-36ab; Matthew 19:23-30
Picture: CC ~twon~

At the gym the other day, I noticed a new article on the wall. It’s aim was to debunk some common health and fitness myths. One of these myths is the belief that all thin people are fit and healthy, with low body-fat, and so do not need to exercise. On the contrary, the article noted that thin people could still carry hidden fat deposits in their bodies that may adversely affect their health. One can be slim and shapely, for example, and still have cholesterol clogged arteries. And we know how dangerous that can be. Clogged arteries prevent life-giving, oxygen-carrying, blood from passing through them, leading to potentially fatal conditions such as strokes and heart attacks. Thinness doesn’t necessarily imply health. The bottom line is that we all need to exercise.

The image of clogged arteries presents a useful corollary to Jesus’ well-known parable in today’s gospel: It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the Kingdom of God. On the one hand, a rich person may too easily be tempted to cling stubbornly to his/her material possessions, and as a result, not be slim enough to pass through the tiny aperture that leads into the Kingdom. On the other hand, whatever the state of one’s finances, one’s interior life can also be clogged by various disordered attachments, which prevent the life-blood of God’s love and grace from penetrating one’s mind and heart. In either case, as we noted yesterday, one focuses so much on the self, on its achievements and possessions, that one loses sight of God. One is so preoccupied with negotiating the river of life that one neglects to keep in touch with its Source. One forgets that it is the Lord who deals death and give life.

It’s perhaps important to focus a little more attention on what the image of clogged arteries adds to our reflection. For isn’t it far too easy for many of us to dissociate ourselves from Jesus’ challenge to the rich? It’s easy for us to think that we are not wealthy enough to fall within the scope of Jesus’ critique. True, we may not all be as rich as Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, or Li Kashing and the king of Tyre of the first reading, but are we any less attached to the riches that we do (or yearn to) possess? Are we anymore able to pass through the needle’s eye? Do we not need to pay careful heed to the warning of the gym article? One can appear thin in material riches and still have arteries that are so clogged by the cholesterol of selfishness and apathy, of pride and unforgiveness, that the flow of God’s love and grace is dangerously impeded.

Again, the bottom line is worth recalling: fat or thin, rich or poor, we all need to keep fit. On a regular basis, we all need to set aside time to exercise the spiritual muscles that keep us in touch with God. Perhaps the fat and the rich need it more. Perhaps some may even get to the stage where a spiritual angioplasty becomes necessary. But how sure are we that we are still far from that eventuality? How sure are we that our arteries remain unclogged?

How might we continue to keep spiritually fit today?

Monday, August 18, 2008

Monday in the 20th Week of Ordinary Time
Remembering the Source

Readings: Ezekiel 24:15-23; Deuteronomy 32:18-19, 20, 21; Matthew 19:16-22
Picture: CC radcarper

Imagine a people living along a mighty river. For as long as they can remember, the river has always been there. As children, they play along its banks and swim in its waters. As adults, they irrigate their fields and feed their families from its bounty. And, as their civilization develops, the people gradually learn to harness the river’s power. They learn to build dams and to change the course of the river’s flow. As time goes on, some of the people also begin to appropriate stretches of the river as their own. They begin to lay claim to, as well as to trade in, its benefits. The unscrupulous ones do this at others’ expense. They care only for themselves and exclude the poor and the powerless. The more virtuous ones try to be charitable with what they possess. But both virtuous and vicious alike can’t quite escape the seductive idea that the river and its contents actually belong to them. Then, one day, disaster strikes. Something happens at the river’s source and the waters gradually run dry. Only then do the people come to remember that the river was never really solely their possession. Even though they had learnt how to harness its power and harvest its fruit, it was never really totally under their control.

Something like this realization is what Jesus is helping the rich young man to arrive at in today’s gospel. Listening to the conversation between them, it’s tempting to think only in terms of a commercial or even charitable transaction. It’s as though a social worker or missionary was asking a rich person to give more of his/ her material possessions to charity, in exchange for spiritual wealth. But isn’t there something far more profound going on? In asking Jesus what he must do to attain eternal life, the rich young man is obviously thinking only in terms of merit. I do x and God will give me y. Or I invest a in order to reap the benefit b. Underlying this approach is the same attitude that the people living by the river have – the idea that our lives actually belong to us. Instead, in asking him to sell everything, Jesus proposes a radically different perspective. This is already clearly seen in Jesus’ initial response to the man’s question. Why do you ask me about the good? There is only One who is good. By these words, isn’t Jesus attempting to shift the man’s attention from the many good things he thinks he owns to the Giver of all that is good? Isn’t Jesus ever so subtly reminding the man of something he seems to have forgotten – that the river of his life and all its contents, including even his virtuous actions, does not really belong to him, that everything he is and has is a gift from an ultimate Source? In the words of the response to the psalm: You have forgotten God who gave you birth…

But the man goes away sad, because he isn't quite ready to make the shift in his thinking. He hasn’t quite come to the realization that everything – yes, even eternal life – is gift. Perhaps what he needs is the hard lesson that God offers the people through the prophet Ezekiel in the first reading. Here, a parallel is drawn between the death of Ezekiel’s wife and the impending desecration of the Temple. It’s as if God proposes to stop the flow of the life-giving waters of a mighty and beloved river, so as to enable the people to remember its Source. Sometimes, it’s only when we actually lose something that we realize what a precious a gift it was.

Do we need to wait for such drastic reminders in our own lives? Or should we not rather try to find ways to remember and remain in touch with the Ultimate Source of our existence, the only Giver of all that is good?

How might we continue to do this today?

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Thursday in the 19th Week of Ordinary Time (II)
Memorial of St. Maximillian Kolbe, Priest & Martyr

Readings: Ezekiel 12:1-12; Psalms 78:56-57, 58-59, 61-62; Matthew 18:21–19:1
Picture: CC karroozi

How do you feel when you see signs that are missing letters of the alphabet in them? Sometimes I find them funny, especially when an unintended message is sent as a result. But at other times, I find myself rather irked that those who put up the sign don’t care enough to ensure that it actually says what it’s meant to say. Someone somewhere has been negligent. Someone has dropped the ball. As a result, the sign isn’t as effective as it should be.

Memories of such signs, as well as my reactions to them, are what our readings bring to mind today. For we all know that as followers of Christ, members of his Church, we are called to be signs – or sacraments, to be more exact – of God’s loving and compassionate presence in the world. And, in the gospel, Jesus highlights an essential aspect of this sign, a crucial letter in the message that we are meant to bear. In reply to Peter’s query about whether or not he has to forgive a wayward brother even up to seven times, Jesus replies: Not seven times but seventy-seven times. And yet, this is a letter that so easily falls off our sign. Forgiveness demands so much from us that we may sometimes simply decide to forget about it, to leave our sign hanging with missing letters? The effort is just too much for us.

In contrast, our first reading presents us with someone who faithfully maintains the accuracy of the message on his sign, even when the going gets tough. In order to send the people the message that they will be exiled if they do not repent of their rebellious and idolatrous ways, God makes a demanding request of the prophet. He has to pack up his things, and depart from his home through a hole in the wall. And the prophet obeys. He doesn’t flinch from God’s call. The message is sent without any missing letters.

We find the same thing to an even greater degree in the life of the saint whom we celebrate today. It is a story we know well. Incarcerated by the Nazis at Auschwitz, St. Maximillian Kolbe volunteered to be executed in place of a young father. He did not flinch from sacrificing even his life, so as to continue presenting to the world an accurate sign of God’s inexhaustible love.

What is it, we may wonder, that sets Ezekiel and Maximillian apart from the rest of us? What is it that enables them to maintain the accuracy of their sign, even when an apparently superhuman effort is required of them? Perhaps it’s got to do with their intimate relationship, their close communication with the divine Sign-maker. Isn’t this also what we find in the life of that Sign of all signs, Christ our Lord?

As we reflect on their examples, perhaps we may consider if there are any missing letters on our sign, both as individuals as well as a community.

How accurate is the message we are sending today?

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Wednesday in the 19th Week of Ordinary Time (II)
Groaning Unto Life

Readings: Ezekiel 9:1-7; 10:18-22; Psalms 13:1-2, 3-4, 5-6; Matthew 18:15-20
Picture: CC rogiro

There are two apparently contradictory aspects to the stereotypical Singaporean, aren’t there? On the one hand, we are known for our skill at complaining. From rising prices to rowdy neighbors, from inclement weather to inconsiderate bosses, we tend to grumble at every little thing that inconveniences or irritates us. And yet, on the other hand, isn’t it interesting how this skill of ours coexists so happily with apathy – a certain ability to remain blind to the many troublesome aspects of the world around us – poverty and oppression, for example, or loneliness and loss of direction in life? Isn’t it amazing how adept we are at grumbling at inconvenience while remaining oblivious to injustice?

How different we are from the people who survive the great purge described in the first reading today. Here we find a fearsome scene of massive destruction. Old men, youths and maidens, women and children – wipe them out! Only one group of people is spared – those who bear God’s mark on their foreheads. And who are these people? What sets them apart from all the others? They are those who are unable to find ultimate comfort in the earthly city. They moan and groan over all the abominations that are practiced around them. They prefer to swim against the tide of prevailing prejudices. They wholeheartedly yearn for, and work towards, that day when the idolatry and injustice that they see around them will be brought to an end. And perhaps they have even known persecution for being the odd ones out. On the day of slaughter, it is they who find safety and vindication.

But what difference is there, we may wonder, between their groaning and our grumbling? We find some indication of a possible answer in the gospel. While our self-centered complaints often tend to fracture relationships and alienate people, their concern is the sort that builds true community. While our grumbling is often simply in the interest of letting off steam or to attract attention, their groaning is born of the kind of fellowship that begins and ends in the presence and action of God. If two of you agree on earth about anything… For where two or three are gathered together in my name…

Considering their example, do we not find ourselves challenged to seek the grace that would make us more like them? Is this not a crucial first gift for which we need to ask, even as we may continue to gather in Christ’s name – that the Lord may turn our apathy into awareness, that he may transform our empty grumbling into the groaning that leads to life?

How might we continue to do this today?

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Tuesday in the 19th Week of Ordinary Time (II)
When Appetites Go Awry

Readings: Ezekiel 2:8—3:4; Psalms 119:14, 24, 72, 103, 111, 131; Matthew 18:1-5, 10, 12-14
Picture: CC winston & michelle

In the Mexican movie, Bad Habits (Malos Habitos) (still showing at the Picturehouse) several people are depicted as facing similar problems. A little girl cannot stop binging on junk food, despite being put through various weight-loss programs by her mother. The latter’s concern over the child’s weight has, however, a dysfunctional aspect. Obsessed with being thin, she too has a problem with food. She denies her body of food only so as to consume the approval that society offers to the lean. She suffers from anorexia. Her husband, on the other hand, finds her too skinny, and indulges in an adulterous relationship with a buxom student. Their problems in the secular realm are mirrored in the religious life of a nun, a relative of theirs. In order to taste the benefit of having God stop the torrential rains that are causing much misery in the nation, she endangers her own life through extreme fasting.

Whether or not we agree with everything in the movie – for example, the parallel it seems to draw between religious fasting and anorexia (see, e.g., Holy Feast and Holy Fast) – it’s difficult to remain unmoved by its depiction of what happens when appetites – whether gastronomical or social, sexual or religious – go awry. We live in a society that is characterized by consumption. Our lives are increasingly centered on the need to eat and drink like there was no tomorrow, to shop till we drop. And yet, we cannot escape the fact that our appetites are becoming more and more problematic. They damage not just the environment and others, but especially our very selves. Our need to consume is becoming a yawning chasm threatening to consume us. And our efforts at controlling them often go only so far. It’s like trying to put a lid on a pot of boiling water while the fire is still blazing. It’s only a matter of time before the steam escapes, often with explosive results.

Perhaps our readings today offer us another alternative. Instead of an anxious and ultimately unsuccessful suppression or repression of unruly cravings, the prophet in the first reading is in touch with a more fundamental need – an appetite for God’s word. Obediently he allows God to feed him with the One thing for which we all hunger. So I opened my mouth and he gave me the scroll to eat… I ate it and it was as sweet as honey in my mouth. It is this same sweetness that the psalmist proclaims: How sweet to my taste is your promise! And, in the gospel, is it not likely that what Jesus finds so appealing about children is the fact that, however rebellious they may be from time to time, they always depend upon their parents to feed them? Isn’t this the kind of parent that God wishes to be, one who tirelessly seeks out his hungry wayward children, only so as to feed them with the most fulfilling of food?

If this is indeed a more constructive option, then perhaps what we consummate consumers need to do is not so much to put a lid on our appetites, as much as to trace them to their root. For it is only then that we find the deep hunger that moved the prophet so courageously to open his mouth and to allow himself to be fed. And in being fed, he himself becomes a channel of nourishment for others. Perhaps it is only in this way that dysfunctional consumers can be transformed into committed prophets. Perhaps it’s only in this way that a hungry world can be fed.

How might God be found in our appetites today?

Monday, August 11, 2008

Monday in the 19th Week of Ordinary Time (II)
Memorial of Saint Clare, Virgin
Taxed Unto Glory

Readings: Ezekiel 1:2-5, 24-28c; Psalms 148:1-2, 11-12, 13, 14; Matthew 17:22-27
Picture: CC Paul Keleher

Your glory fills all heaven and earth… This is our response to the psalm today. It’s a familiar phrase, one that we may mouth with such ease and confidence, without so much as a second thought to its awesome significance. And yet we may well wonder at the extent to which we truly believe what we are saying. Do we even begin to grasp the meaning of what we are proclaiming? By these words, we speak of the ongoing presence and action of God in all of creation. We declare our firm belief that God is to be found not just in the most obvious places and experiences that we commonly consider sacred, but that God’s glory fills all heaven and also all earth. That we are not surprised and even shocked by this declaration is likely a sign of how jaded we are, of how routine our worship has become.

That this is a belief that is far from easy to grasp is clear when we carefully consider our readings today. Each of them presents us with an experience. The one in the first reading is quite obviously a God-experience, what is called, in more technical terms, a theophany. The prophet describes his vision of God’s glory. It is a tremendously awe-inspiring experience. The senses of the prophet are bombarded by extraordinary sights and sounds, and perhaps even smells. There is flashing of lightning, loud noises, strange animals, and a being seated high up on a throne, shrouded in fiery brilliance. The vision leaves us in no doubt that God is far above anything or anyone we poor mortals can ever imagine. We may well imagine how the prophet felt at this sight. Could there have been any doubt in the prophet’s mind that what he was witnessing was anything other than the glory of God? Is it any surprise that he prostrated himself in worship?

Then, in the gospel, we find yet another experience. Jesus tells his disciples, once again, that he is going to be killed, and then raised to life on the third day. And a great sadness came over them. Notice how mundane and down-to-earth is this second experience. A man tells his friends that he is going to suffer and die. And his friends react with sorrow. There is neither fire nor smoke. Apart from Jesus’ reference to being raised again, there seems to be nothing really extraordinary here. Could the contrast with the first experience be any greater? And yet, isn’t this also an experience of the glory of God, an experience of the God who fills not just the heights of heaven, but also the depths of earth, the God who comes to us not just in moments of wonder and awe, but also in times of sorrow and pain? But, unlike the prophet in the first readings, the disciples do not recognize this experience as the theophany that it really is. They neither bow down nor worship. Can we blame them?

Should we not rather empathize with them? For don’t we too find it so very difficult for us to even begin to entertain the possibility that God can be present as much on earth as in heaven, as much in the secular as in the sacred, as much in the midst of pain and defeat as in triumph and jubilation? Isn’t this why someone like St. Clare stands out among us? Together with St. Francis, she was able to find God not just in riches but also in poverty. That we struggle to do the same is a sign of our failure to appreciate what Jesus proclaims in the second part of the gospel today. Through the rather puzzling instructions that he gives Peter in regards the paying of the Temple tax, Jesus demonstrates how closely and intimately God associates with us in His Son. In Christ, we who were once far away have been brought near. We are now no longer foreigners but sons and daughters. We are now even in the same tax bracket as the Lord! Perhaps what we need to ask for is a deeper understanding of this mystery, so that in all things, and at all times, we may learn to prostrate ourselves in worship before the Lord.

What experience of God’s glory are we being blessed with today?

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Thursday in the 18th Week of Ordinary Time (II)
Crossing the Threshold

Readings: Jeremiah 31:31-34; Psalms 51:12-13, 14-15, 18-19; Matthew 16:13-23
Picture: CC moufle

My mom’s dog is a lovable fellow. He knows he’s not allowed into the house. And, for the most part, he’s pretty obedient. But sometimes he finds himself torn between obedience and desire. Maybe the people in the house are doing something that looks very fun – like playing a game or eating something that smells very good, for example – and he can’t bear to be stuck outside looking in. But he also remembers the no entry rule. So what does he do? He puts his two front paws inside the house, while keeping the rest of his body outside. He positions himself on the threshold – neither fully in nor fully out.

I’m reminded of the dog today, because our readings present us with a kind of threshold – a doorway between two spaces. The first reading speaks of these two spaces in terms of two different covenants between God and God’s people. The first was brokered in the mists of the past (after the Exodus). The second would be made in the fullness of time. The first was written on tablets of stone. The second would be written on human hearts. The first seemed to require specialized information understood only by legal experts. The second would be rooted in something more personal and relational, a knowing that was accessible to all. The first was broken by the people’s infidelity, symbolized by the breaking of the stone tablets of Moses. The second would be rendered enduring and eternal, because it would be forged out of the broken and resurrected body of God’s only begotten Son.

These then are the two spaces described in the first reading. And here, in the gospel, is the threshold: Jesus himself. Which is why the question asked by Jesus of his disciples is so important. In asking it, Jesus is not just testing to see if his disciples have the right information, whether they know the right words. He is inviting them, and us, to walk across the threshold, to enter through him, into the fullness of covenantal living. Never mind what others say about me, you… who do you say I am?

And, through the accuracy of his words, Peter shows that he has received a divine revelation. It was not flesh and blood that revealed this to you but my Father in heaven… Peter is indeed on the way towards crossing the threshold, towards knowing and following Christ. But he is not quite there yet. He hasn’t quite crossed over. Although his words are accurate, the rest of him is not quite in the right place. He is able to recognize Christ as the One chosen by God to heal the broken. But he is not willing to accept that Christ must do this by first being broken for those who would be healed. This must not happen to you… And, through his protest, Peter demonstrates that while he may be able to talk the talk, he’s not quite ready to walk the walk. Not only is he tempting Christ away from Calvary, he’s also resisting the cross that every disciple of Christ is called to bear. Like my mother’s dog, his heart is still torn. He remains only on the threshold. Not quite out, but not quite in.

Jesus’ response to Peter may seem harsh. But it is really the only solution to Peter’s – and to our – difficulty. Get behind me… Follow wherever I go. Do whatever I do. Get your body across the threshold that I am. Allow yourself to be broken, as I was, and so enter into the fullness of life.

And what of us? How are we being invited to cross the threshold today?

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord
Interpreting the Bible in a Liturgical Context

Readings: Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14; Psalms 97:1-2, 5-6, 9; 2 Peter 1:16-19; Matthew 17:1-9
Picture: CC carulmare

In place of a homily today, here's a link to an article that explores a method for interpreting scripture in a liturgical context. The article refers to the readings for year C, which are the same as year A, except that the gospel is taken from Luke instead of Matthew.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Tuesday in the 18th Week of Ordinary Time (II)
Shock Treatment

Readings: Jeremiah 30:1-2, 12-15, 18-22; Psalms 102:16-18, 19-21, 29 and 22-23; Matthew 15:1-2, 10-14
Picture: CC eliazar

I’ve been told that the local construction industry is (finally) booming. It does seem as though, everywhere we turn, we find MRT tunnels being dug and new edifices being built. But that is only half the picture. Along with the gradual appearance of new buildings, there is also a rapid disappearance of old structures. For the new can be erected only after the old has first been pulled down. The excitement of construction must often be preceded by the trauma of demolition. This is especially so when the old structure has become unsafe for human habitation.

Something like that is happening in both our readings today. In the first, God tells the people that the structure of their social and religious lives have grown unsafe. Their worship has become empty. Although apparently attentive to external religious observances, they have failed to see to the needs of the poor and the outcaste. Although seemingly concerned about worship, they have actually turned to false gods and neglected the One true God. The building cannot be salvaged any longer. And, switching to a medical metaphor, God tells them that their wound is incurable, their injury past healing.

Even so, God promises a time of healing and restoration. God foretells a period of rebuilding, not just of external structures, but, more importantly, of the people’s relationship with God. You shall be my people and I will be your God. But before this can happen, the old unsafe structure must first be torn down. The excitement of construction must be preceded by the trauma of demolition.

Jesus says as much in the gospel. Using yet another metaphor, he speaks of the religion of the Pharisees and scribes as a plant my heavenly Father has not planted. Their religion focuses only on external observances, while neglecting the interior life. It is concerned with accumulating the riches that come through fidelity to rules and regulations, while failing to consider the struggles of the poor in spirit. Not only does this plant not bear fruit in the peace and justice that are signs of God's kingdom, but it actually chokes the latter’s growth. Switching to a medical metaphor not unlike the one in the first reading, Jesus refers to the scribes and Pharisees as blind. Theirs is an illness that prevents them from seeing the things that are truly important.

In order to cure this blindness, in order to heal this incurable illness, the plant must be pulled up by the roots. And it is this traumatic process of uprooting and demolition that Jesus tries to initiate by saying something that shocks his listeners. It is what comes out of the mouth that makes him unclean. The key question is whether or not the scribes and Pharisees will allow their shock to lead them to conversion. Or will they instead prefer to cling to that which needs to be cleared away in order to make way for the plant that the Father wishes to plant, the building that God wishes to erect – a structure that is firmly grounded on no other foundation than the love of God made manifest in Christ.

In our lives too, don’t we encounter, from time to time, traumatic experiences designed to shake us out of our drowsiness and complacency? How do we respond to such treatment?

How is the Lord shocking us into restoration today?

Monday, August 04, 2008

Monday in the 18th Week of Ordinary Time (II)
Memorial of St. John Mary Vianney, Priest
Watch Where You Are Going

Readings: Jeremiah 28:1-17; Psalms 119:29, 43, 79, 80, 95, 102; Matthew 14:22-36
Picture: CC **spacemonkey**

Watch where you are going! That’s something that my late grandfather used to tell me when I was a boy. I had a bad habit then, something that I still find myself doing from time to time. While walking on the street, I would easily be distracted by the things around me. And I’d keep staring at them instead of watching where I was going. You can imagine the results. My grandfather’s sagely advice was either to stop walking and look at whatever thing was catching my interest, or simply to ignore it and to watch where I was going. As it turns out, if a recent news report is anything to go by, adults are as much in need of this advice as children. Several weeks ago, Barack Obama’s adviser fell off a Chicago curb and twisted her ankle while sending a text message on her Blackberry. Watch where you are going!

And, if our readings for today are anything to go by, we need to heed this same advice in the spiritual realm as well. Consider Peter’s experience in the gospel. Quite marvelously, he is walking to Jesus across the choppy surface of the lake. Peter is walking on water! And, for a while, he’s actually doing fine. As long as he keeps his eyes fixed on Jesus. As long as he continues to watch where he is going. But isn’t it true that this advice is often least easy to heed precisely when one needs it most? When the road gets rough, we tend to get more easily distracted. Which is what happens to Peter. The force of the wind distracts him. His attention is drawn away from Jesus. And he starts to sink. Thankfully, he has the presence of mind to call for help. And Jesus saves him.

The people in the first reading have a similar experience. But it is one that doesn’t end quite as well. They too are caught in the midst of choppy waters. The Babylonians have conquered their nation and many of them have been sent into exile. In such a situation, God’s wish, as expressed by Jeremiah, is for the people to continue patiently submitting to Babylonian rule, trusting that God will liberate them in time. But this is not an easy message to accept. Far more attractive is the false prophecy of Hananiah, who tells the people what they want to hear. And the people are distracted. They prefer to rely on what is false. They fail to watch where they are going, and things end badly not only for them, but also for the one who distracted them.

Contrast this with what we hear of Jesus in the gospel. The choppy waters he is facing are not just those on the lake. He has received news of the beheading of his cousin, John the Baptist. Along with coping with his grief, surely Jesus cannot but consider the implications of John’s death for his own ministry. The temptation must be great to allow himself to be distracted by these difficulties. In such a situation, we’re told that Jesus went up into the hills by himself to pray. He takes time to keep his focus on the One who sent him. He carefully watches where he is going. Such that his walking on the choppy waters of the lake are only a symbol of how he will walk the rough road to Jerusalem, to Calvary, and beyond.

How are we being invited to do the same?

How are we being invited to watch where we are going today?

Friday, August 01, 2008

Friday in the 17th Week of Ordinary Time (II)
Memorial of St. Alphonsus Liguori
Looking With New Eyes

Readings: Jeremiah 26:1-9; Psalms 69:5, 8-10, 14; Matthew 13:54-58
Picture: CC anthrovik

Today I’m reminded of the Chinese idiom ling yan xiang kan (另眼相看). Literally, it means to see with a different set of eyes. I’ve been told that it has a negative connotation. It’s used, for example, when someone we hold in high esteem is caught in some scandalous activity. We then find ourselves revising our opinion of that person. We look at him/ her with different eyes. But don’t we also often need to do the same in a positive sense as well?

Say we meet an old friend that we haven’t met for a long time. Maybe the last time we saw this person, s/he was short and pimply, with a mouthful of braces, and painfully timid and shy. Then, one day, years later, we meet again. And we are surprised by what we see. We’re greeted by an attractive, self-confident person, moving gracefully in a tall and well-proportioned body. The braces are gone, leaving behind a set of straight and gleaming white teeth. And gone too are the pimples. How do we react? Quite obviously, in order to continue the friendship, we will have to relate to this person in a way different from how we used to. We will need to see with new eyes. Otherwise, if we were instead to cling to our former impressions of this person, we will end up rejecting the new reality before us. And the friendship will die.

Sadly, something like the latter possibility is what we find happening in our readings today. Jesus returns to his hometown with the bearing of a prophet, as powerful as he is popular. Elsewhere he has gained a following through his ministry of preaching and healing. People have been flocking to hear and to touch him. But his old friends and neighbors, and perhaps even the members of his extended family, are not quite ready for this new Jesus. They still cling stubbornly to the Jesus they’ve known from his boyhood. They refuse to look at him with new eyes. They refuse to see beyond the carpenter’s son, the one of whom they think they know everything. And as a result of their rejection of the new reality of who Jesus is, something dies. They forfeit the opportunity of renewing their relationship with the Lord. He works no miracles in their town.

What happens to Jesus in the gospel happens also to God in the first reading. Here we find a dispute in the Temple at Jerusalem, between the prophet Jeremiah and the people. The latter take great pride not only in the Temple, but also in their fidelity to the rituals that take place within it. They think that if only they faithfully carry out these rites of worship, everything will go well for them. But a new and difficult reality is coming to meet them. The powerful Babylonian army is drawing near, threatening their very existence. And Jeremiah, speaking on behalf of God, tells them that they have to repent. Otherwise even the Temple itself will be destroyed. Do they listen? No. They prefer to cling to their old certainties. They refuse to see with new eyes. They reject God’s warning, and even go to the extent of wanting to kill God's messenger. As a result something dies. Not only will the Temple be destroyed, but their religion will be shown up for what it is, an empty husk of routine rituals, devoid of the mysterious and the miraculous.

And what about us? Doesn’t God continue to meet us in new ways each day? Sometimes, for example, God may come to us as someone who helps us in our difficulties. At other times, God may just as easily appear as someone who needs our help. Are we alert and flexible enough to welcome God?

How ready are we to see with new eyes?