Monday, September 29, 2008

Friday, September 26, 2008

Friday in the 25th Week of Ordinary Time
Telling Time

Readings: Ecclesiastes 3:1-11; Psalms 144:1b and 2abc, 3-4; Luke 9:18-22
Picture: CC littledan77

Have you ever had the following experience? For some reason you suddenly awaken with a jolt after a good night’s sleep. Still a little drowsy, you reach for the bedside clock and find that you’re already 15 to 30 minutes behind your usual schedule. Hurriedly you scramble out of bed and proceed with the routine morning ablutions. But when you’re done and finally get a chance to look at the clock again, you realize that you’re actually a whole hour ahead of schedule. You’d earlier misread the time. Feeling rather bemused and even a little foolish and embarrassed, you wonder what you’re going to do now.

Ever had a similar experience? Or some other experience of getting the time wrong?

I wonder if the disciples found themselves in a similar situation in our gospel today. The incident described is probably very familiar to us. It is found also in the gospels of Matthew (16:13ff.) and Mark (8:27ff.). But notice how, in Luke’s version, Jesus’ immediate response to the disciples’ declaration that he is the Christ of God is to rebuke them. Unlike Matthew’s version, there is no praise of Peter for getting the answer right. But didn’t they get the answer right? Isn’t Jesus indeed the Christ, the anointed one, of God? Why the rebuke? And why so soon? Perhaps it had something to do with timing. Perhaps the disciples were jumping the gun in thinking only about the glory of the anointed one, without giving due consideration to the lesson that Jesus goes on to teach them – that the Christ must first endure a time of trial.

But, what next? After having gotten the time wrong, what are the disciples to do now? What are we to do when we find ourselves getting the time wrong? How do we learn to get the time right next time?

Some indication of an answer is found in both the first reading and the gospel. In the former, Qoheleth tells us that it is God who has made everything appropriate to its time. And, more importantly, he goes on to say that God has also put the timeless into (our) hearts. In other words, it is possible to get some sense of what the right time – God’s time – may be at any given moment in our lives. And isn’t this what we find Jesus doing at the beginning of the gospel? We’re told that, before summoning his disciples, Jesus was praying in solitude. He was looking into his heart. He was seeking the timeless. He was consulting his Father. He was telling the time.

What time is it for us today?

Thursday in the 25th Week of Ordinary Time
The Crucial Hinge

Readings: Ecclesiastes 1:2-11; Psalms 90:3-4, 5-6, 12-13, 14 and 17bc; Luke 9:7-9
Picture: CC Wm Chamberlain

You are not alone!

Today, I can’t help but recall these words, uttered repeatedly by a presenter at one of a series of orientation events that I had to attend over the last several days.

You are not alone!

For me, those words seem like a hinge around which two significant interior movements were (and probably still are) taking place in me as I begin yet another new stage in my life. The first of these movements was occasioned by the massive information overload that my fellow incoming graduate students and I were experiencing. There was just so much to do and to become familiar with in such a short time. It was quite overwhelming. Have we bitten off much more than we can ever hope to chew? And yet, even in the midst of the growing realization of the immensity of the task ahead of us, I also found myself quite consoled by the sincerity and genuine concern expressed by those whose responsibility it is to welcome us and to ease our transition into graduate study, as well as by the considerable resources to which we have access.

You are not alone!

This sharing of my orientation experience is occasioned by our readings today, which also present us with two (possible) movements centered upon a hinge. We find the first movement expressed in both the first reading and the gospel. In the latter, for all his despotic power, Herod finds himself greatly perplexed by the reports concerning Jesus. And in the former, for all his obvious intellectual acumen, Qoheleth comes to the conclusion that, especially when seen from the vast perspective of history, all human effort is vain. There is nothing new under the sun… Here we find a movement from the arrogance born of a false sense of mastery and self-sufficiency to the perplexity that springs from a realization that, whatever appearances might suggest, we don’t really have a handle on the world.

But, even if this is true, we are not doomed to perpetual anxiety and despair. For our readings also speak to us of a second possible movement – one that invites us to see beyond the historical to the eternal. And, not unlike my experience at orientation, this movement also takes place around a hinge. We find this hinge in the response to the psalm:

In every age, O Lord, you have been our refuge…

Even as crisis situations – such as the one that Wall Street is facing at the moment, for example – may force us to acknowledge how small we are, and how insignificant are our efforts when viewed against the immensity of creation stretched out in time and space, the psalm prompts us to make the following prayer: Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain wisdom of heart…

Teach us to realize that we are not alone. Teach us to move not only from arrogance to perplexity, but also from perplexity to trust. Help us continue hoping in the One who is always there for us. Give us the wisdom and courage to act even when situations seem to overwhelm our meager abilities to respond…

How might the Lord be reminding us today that we are not alone?

Sunday, September 21, 2008

25th Ordinary Sunday (A)
Passing the Driving Test

Readings: Isaiah 55:6-9; Psalm 145:2-3, 8-9, 17-18; Philippians 1:20c-24, 27a; Matthew 20:1-16a
Picture: CC Ruth L

My sisters and brothers, many of you drive, don’t you? Do you like it? I do. Of course, we all know that it’s not good for the environment. And, especially with today’s gas prices, many of us are probably trying to lessen the amount of time we spend in our cars. But still, we can’t deny the fact that, for the most part, driving is an enjoyable experience. There’s something about being free to roam about wherever you want, without being constrained by bus schedules or someone else’s routine. And what with the wonderful weather and the beautiful scenery here in Southern California – driving is invigorating!

But not everyone is fit to drive. To obtain a license, not only must you be old enough, you also have to pass several tests. There’s a theory test, a test of eyesight and a road test. You need to pass them all before being given your license. You need to demonstrate your knowledge of local traffic rules and basic driving skills, before being granted the freedom to roam about freely in your car.

There’s a somewhat similar situation in the spiritual life as well. In a way, the Christian life is a quest for freedom. This is not just any kind of freedom. It’s not just the ability to do whatever we want whenever we feel like it. What Christian freedom looks like is illustrated by St. Paul in the second reading. For him, it's a matter of life and death.

Most of us value our own lives very much. Whatever we may say in polite conversation, we don’t really want to die. We cling to life like a stubborn stain to a white shirt. But, on the other hand, we probably also know of others who may actually be looking forward to death. Perhaps their lives are filled with terrible disappointments and suffering. Perhaps they’re lonely and find no meaning in their earthly existence. Whatever their exact situation, they long for release. They see death as a way to escape from their troubles. In either of these cases, whether one desires to live or to die, one remains limited and confined by the circumstances of one’s life. One isn’t free.

In contrast, notice what Paul says in the second reading. Notice the tension he experiences. I do not know which I shall choose, he says, life or death. And the reason for his dilemma is because either option offers him the possibility to love. Death means being with Christ in a most intimate way. And life means being able to serve those entrusted to his care. Paul experiences a tension because he is free. Like a licensed driver on the road, he experiences the invigorating freedom to choose the loving thing in every situation. He is free to conduct himself in a way worthy of the gospel of Christ.

And isn’t this the same freedom that we – the daughters and sons of God, the citizens of God’s Kingdom – are meant to enjoy? Isn’t this the divine driver’s license that we all want to receive? But what do we need to be ready to roam freely in God’s Kingdom? Drivers need to know the roads. We need to know our God.

And our readings today provide us with two tests by which we can gauge our knowledge of God. Both are practical tests. Each one is targeted at people in different situations. The test in the first reading is meant for those who have fallen away from God. The language used is quite strong: let the scoundrel forsake his way, and the wicked his thoughts, let him turn to the Lord for mercy…

Although we may not be scoundrels in the true sense of the word, don’t we all have experiences of being in the wrong, of having sinned in some way? And sometimes it is precisely because we are not really out and out scoundrels that we find it difficult to turn back to God. We wonder how we could have done such a terrible or stupid thing. We are embarrassed to admit our failure to ourselves, let alone to our God. It is precisely at such times that we face a tough challenge. We face a difficult test. It is a test of how well we know our God. It is a test of how deeply we realize what our readings are reminding us today: that our God is generous and forgiving, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and of great kindness… To pass the test is to take advantage of the Lord’s mercy, to turn back and to be reconciled with God.

But sinful though we all are, we don’t always find ourselves in a situation of having fallen. Sometimes, we may actually feel that we are on reasonably good terms with God. Like those people in the gospel, who have been working all day in the vineyard, we may be conscientiously fulfilling all our God-given responsibilities. We go to church. We say our prayers. We give to charity. We care for others. But are we truly free? Again, there is a test for us, a test of how well we know our God. It consists in how we react to situations wherein God shows mercy to others, especially those others whom – whether consciously or not – we may consider to be less holy or less spiritual than ourselves.

To take a rather mundane example, let us say that Mary is a highly respected member of her parish, where, for many years she has been the leader of the lectors. Then, one day, someone else is chosen to replace her. Not only is this person a far less experienced lector than Mary is, but she is also known to be a single parent – the result of a youthful indiscretion. Doesn’t Mary face a test in a situation like this? How will she react to being replaced by such a person? Will she complain as the people in the gospel do? Like those laborers who had worked hard all day, will she also grumble to herself that someone who had previously committed the sin of fornication has now been made her equal? Or will she instead rejoice at the marvelous generosity of her God, who offers to all comers, the fullness of love and life? Will her knowledge of God be such that she is willing to graciously be last who once was first?

Sisters and brothers, I have a secret to share with you. I only recently received my California driver’s license, having only just relocated here from Singapore. And to get that license, I had to take the theory test at the DMV office in downtown Santa Barbara. Here’s the secret. Being already a licensed driver in Singapore for many years, I was rather overconfident and, to my utter embarrassment, I failed the test the first time I took it. Thankfully, after sitting at the DMV and studying the Driver Handbook for a couple of hours, I was able to pass the test the second time round.

Whether it is at the first or second try (or even the third or the fourth) what is important is for us to pass the test -- to realize ever more deeply with each passing day, the tremendous depth of God's love for us -- and so to enjoy the freedom of the sons and daughters of God, the freedom to love as God loves. For, as St. John tells us, everyone who loves is begotten by God and knows God… for God is love (1 John 4:7-8).

Sisters and brothers, how might God be testing us today?

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Friday in the 24th Week of Ordinary Time
Accepting Our Traveling Companion

Readings: 1 Corinthians 15:12-20; Psalm 17:1bcd, 6-7, 8b and 15; Luke 8:1-3
Picture: CC dontdothisathome

Those who have done it before sometimes tell us that going on a trip with a friend typically has one of two consequences. It either reinforces or ruins the relationship. This has probably to do both with the sudden decrease in space between each person, as well as the sudden increase in time spent together. Especially if you’re sharing a hotel room, there’s nothing like a trip to highlight every little idiosyncrasy, every little behavioral quirk in another person. Little things – such as snoring, or noisy bathroom habits, or taking too much time over a meal – things that may often escape notice in the usual interaction between friends, suddenly seem to take center stage. The question one is faced with then is how much one values the relationship – enough to accept these new, and perhaps less than desirable, discoveries about the other?

Listening to our gospel reading today, we may well wonder if something of the same process took place among the traveling companions described there. Jesus journeyed from one town and village to another, we are told. And accompanying him were the Twelve and some women… What was it like for these followers of Jesus as they followed him on his journey? What was it like to be in such close physical and emotional proximity to the Lord, and to his other followers? We may well surmise that in addition to the geographical itinerary that they all traversed in common, there was also a spiritual journey that each one had to make, a passage into deeper relationship with the Lord.

Consider, for example, how some of them came to be followers of Jesus. Some of the women, we’re told, had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities. And it is at least probable that many others were hoping that Jesus might liberate the Jews from foreign rule. And yet, we also know well the destination towards which Jesus was heading – Calvary and the Cross. What was it like for those first disciples, as their journey progressed? What was it like to see their initial hopes gradually fade away with the diminishment and death of their chosen Master?

Quite likely, each disciple faced a similar daunting challenge. It is the same challenge that Paul writes about in the first reading. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are the most pitiable people of all… It is the awesome project of allowing our hopes in Christ to be deepened (and not destroyed) by his Passion and Death. It is the difficult task of receiving the grace to believe in the Resurrection of the Lord. This doesn’t mean, of course, that we should give up our work in this world. Quite to the contrary, it means allowing our otherworldly hope inform and strengthen our earthly efforts.

Journeying together with this traveling companion of ours – so human and also so divine – we find ourselves led to the boundaries of our hope. The question we face is whether or not we are willing to cross those boundaries, whether or not we are ready to accept the peculiar idiosyncrasies of our traveling companion, and move with him into the peace and joy of the Kingdom.

Care for a vacation together anyone?

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Thursday in the 24th Week of Ordinary Time
Avoiding Abuse

Readings: 1 Corinthians 15:1-11; Psalm 118:1b-2, 16ab-17, 28; Luke 7:36-50
Picture: CC chefranden

Have you ever had the experience of needing a tool, a screwdriver perhaps, but could not find one? Have you ever been driven to improvise, for example by using a coin or a fingernail instead? Or maybe what was needed was a Philips-head screwdriver and all you had was a flat one. What happened? Sometimes the improvisation works well, but often enough, something goes awry. The fingernail may break. The coin may bend. Or either the screw or the flat-headed screwdriver may get damaged. That, of course, is the result of abuse. Using something for a purpose other than that for which it was made can lead to highly undesired consequences.

The same can be said about people too. Consider some of the ways in which people abuse themselves and others: various addictions (to work and alcohol, to shopping and sex), providing poor and inhumane working conditions, melamine in milk, unwarranted curtailment of religious freedom. Could we not say that these abuses are often rooted in a fundamental lack of awareness of and respect for the proper identity and dignity of the human person? And, as a result, much damage is done, both to individuals and to society as a whole.

In contrast, our Mass readings for today present us with examples of what happens when people come to a profound awareness of who they are in the sight of God. Let us look first at the results. Notice Paul’s description of the fruitfulness of his ministry. He takes pride in his grace-empowered work among the early Christians. We preach and so you believed. Notice also the moving scene provided for us by the woman who, in contrast to the neglectful Pharisee, ministers so tenderly to Jesus. How did both she and Paul come to love and to serve others with such energy and passion?

Paul attributes it to grace, which enables him to fulfill his true destiny as a disciple of Christ: by the grace of God I am what I am. It is by this grace that Paul realizes his own unworthiness: I am… not fit to be called an Apostle… because I persecuted the Church of God… And in this realization, he submits to the grace that empowers him to love and to serve. Something similar happens to the woman in the gospel too. As Jesus tells us: her many sins have been forgiven; hence, she has shown great love… We come to fulfill our destiny only to the extent that we first realize our identity as sinners who are forgiven and loved. Your faith has saved you. Go in peace…

Isn’t this why Paul tells us that the gospel he preaches is of first importance: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures…? For how do we come to realize more deeply our true identity except by encountering the one who died and rose for our sins? It was so for Paul and the unnamed woman. It is so for us as well.

How might the Lord be reminding us of who and what we are today?

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Tuesday in the 24th Week of Ordinary Time
Memorial of St. Cornelius, Pope & Martyr, & St. Cyprian, Bishop & Martyr
Healing Broken Bodies

Readings: 1 Corinthians 12:12-14, 27-31a; Psalm 10:1b-2, 3, 4, 5; Luke 7:11-17
Picture: CC Brian Ledgard

Bodies have been very much in the news over the past week – broken bodies to be exact. Just two examples will suffice. The horrific Chatsworth train-crash – the worst in the US in the last 15 years – left 25 dead and 135 injured. Further to the east, the so-called China milk scandal has thus far claimed the lives of two infants, and sickened more than a thousand other little ones. We will likely hear of more victims in the days ahead.

Investigations are ongoing in each of these disasters. And perhaps we shouldn’t preempt the findings. Even so, we cannot help but ask questions. Why, we may wonder, does the world’s sole remaining superpower continue to operate a railway that has trains running on the same track in opposite directions? Why had better safety mechanisms not been put in place earlier (see LA Times Editorial)? How could people bring themselves to contaminate infant formula with plastic, only so as to deceive others as to the formula’s actual protein content? Why weren’t remedial measures taken earlier? Whatever the answers, it does look as though, in both cases, cost considerations have been allowed to override those of public safety. In both cases, what has resulted are broken bodies.

And broken bodies of different sorts are also what we find in our liturgy today. In the gospel Jesus encounters the corpse of a young man who had been the sole security and support of his widowed mother. In the first reading, Paul’s concern is to heal the broken body that is the Christian community at Corinth – divided by competition and conflict. And in the time of the two saints we celebrate today, the Christian community was suffering both from external persecution as well as internal doctrinal disagreements. Perhaps in reflecting upon what we find here, we might obtain some guidance as to what it takes to mend broken bodies of whatever sort.

Paul offers us the first useful tip by highlighting the diversity that exists in the body that is the church. The body is not a single part, but many. In itself, this realization is already an essential step towards holding the body together. What we seek is unity rather than uniformity. But Paul goes further. The integrity of the body depends also upon the integrity of each individual part. The unity of the whole depends upon each part recognizing and playing its own assigned role, without trying to usurp the roles of others. Individual and communal integrity is essential to the healing of broken bodies.

And, as Jesus shows us in the gospel, so too is compassion. Although we need to focus on our own work, although we need to play our own assigned role, we are not to go to the opposite extreme of seeking only to mind our own business. Both as individuals and as a community, we need to be very much in touch with all that goes on in the world around us. Like Jesus, we need to allow ourselves to be affected by the many broken bodies – physical, social, spiritual… – that surround us. When the Lord saw the widowed mother, he was moved with pity for her…

But, as the lives of both Cornelius and Cyprian show us, efforts at mending broken bodies often incur terrible costs. Both saints suffered much, and ultimately gave their lives for the sake of unity. Like Jesus before them, they allowed their own bodies to be broken for others. Even so, this is a cost that yields an infinitely incomparable return – life eternal in the kingdom of God.

What and where are the broken bodies seeking to attract our attention today?

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Monday in the 24th Week of Ordinary Time
Memorial of Our Lady of Sorrows
Beyond the Eating Contest

Readings: 1 Corinthians 11:17-26, 33; Psalm 40:7-8a, 8b-9, 10, 17; John 19:25-27 or Luke 2:33-35
Picture: CC Daniel Leininger

Some of us may know people whose eating habits attract nicknames like garbage bin or vacuum cleaner. Whenever they come near food of any sort, all of their attention is immediately focused on consuming it. It’s as though they are participating in an eating contest. Nothing can distract them from their purpose. They seem intent on disposing of everything in sight in the shortest time possible. We’re not saying, of course, that there is anything morally wrong with such a habit. Not necessarily. What we’re more concerned with is to consider how such an approach to eating sometimes seems quite similar to the way in which some of us approach the spiritual life.

Isn’t it true that some of us do sometimes approach religious rituals and devotions as a glutton would a buffet table? At the sight of the rich spiritual food laid out before us, our eyes widen, our mouths water, and we immediately set out to polish off as much of the delicacies, and as quickly, as we can. Sometimes, this tendency is quite understandable. Perhaps we may be suffering in some way, or facing a crisis of some sort. We may be crying out most pitiably to God for help. Can we not be forgiven – especially when we find ourselves in such dire straits – if our attention becomes focused solely on our own needs? Can someone with a bad toothache, for example, really be expected to think of anything, or anyone, else other than relief from his/ her own pain?

And yet, our readings and the feast that we celebrate today invite us to consider the possibility – indeed, even the necessity – of another approach. In the first reading, Paul reminds the Corinthians that when they come together for the Eucharistic meal, and think only about filling their own stomachs, they show contempt for the Church of God. It is not the Lord’s Supper that they are eating. In other words, in their urgency to satisfy their own hunger, they defeat the whole purpose of the celebration. They eat judgment rather than redemption upon themselves.

In contrast, the gospel presents us with a strikingly different image. Here, even as he struggles to breathe his final painful breaths, the crucified Christ’s attention stretches far beyond his own pain. Not only is he providing a place for his mother, but he is also inaugurating a new context of relationships for us all. He shows us that the ties that bind unto eternity will be those that go beyond the blood ties of familial kinship. Instead they will be rooted in the blood that he is shedding on the Cross – the blood of the New Covenant, the blood of the meek Lamb of God, obediently led to the slaughter. Woman behold your son… behold your mother…

Here then is the sorrow that we dare to celebrate today. Here is the sorrow in which Mary shared so fully, the sorrow that leads our hungry hearts to the eternal joy, the final satisfaction, of the Kingdom. It is a sorrow that is shared rather than selfish. It is a sorrow that is compassionate rather than insensitive. It is a sorrow that knows how to be patient even when satisfaction seems late in coming. In the words of Paul, when you come together to eat, wait for one another…

Today, how are we being invited to share more fully in this sorrow of Mary, and even to partake of it unto eternal joy?

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Friday in the 23rd Week of Ordinary Time
Of Headless Chickens and Two-Headed Snakes

Readings: 1 Corinthians 9:16-19, 22b-27; Psalm 84:3, 4, 5-6, 12; Luke 6:39-42
Picture: CC Mary Witzig

Run so as to win… I do not run aimlessly…

These words of St. Paul in the first reading conjure up a couple of images that express well the situation in which many of us, myself included, often find ourselves. The picture that Paul himself sketches is that of a well-trained and focused athlete, straining for the finish line. Many of us can probably identify with this metaphor. Throughout much of our busy lives, don’t we often find ourselves focused upon various long and short-term goals? Aren’t we brought up to train and strain ourselves towards them? And yet, quite ironically perhaps, precisely in the midst of our busyness, don’t we sometimes also feel a little like we’re doing what Paul professes to avoid? Don’t we sometimes feel like headless chickens, aimlessly running about, without a proper end in sight? We’re busy with many things, and yet something often still seems painfully missing. There remains a void within us waiting to be filled, a deep hunger that all our many activities don’t quite seem to satisfy. Which are we then: finely tuned athletes or headless chickens?

Jesus’ words in the gospel help us to further deepen our reflection. Again, a couple of images come to mind. The first is taken from the Lord himself. If we do sometimes feel like we’re running about aimlessly, perhaps it’s because we are blinded to varying degrees by a beam in our eye. But what might this mean? What could this beam be? Could it be that our difficulty has as much to do with having too many goals as with having none? Perhaps our predicament is not just that of a headless chicken, but also that of a two, or even many, headed snake. We find ourselves torn between competing ideals, conflicting desires. We wish, for example, to be both spiritually and financially well off. Of course, these aren’t necessary inconsistent desires. Until, that is, our relentless quest for the latter leads us into the murky waters of greed and even crime. Here, it’s so easy to be blinded and to lose one’s way. Attracted in opposite directions the two-headed snake either ends up paralyzed or aimlessly crawling around in circles.

Thankfully, the beautiful words of the responsorial psalm come to our rescue. Here we find the solution to our difficulty. It lies in coming to see – in allowing the Lord to show us – on a regular basis, that among the various things that we want, among the many hungers that we experience, there is one desire that surpasses them all. My soul yearns and pines for the courts of the Lord. My heart and my flesh cry out for the living God… It is this clear-sighted realization that enables someone like Paul to continue racing to the finish, forsaking all else besides. Or, to be more accurate, with God’s help, Paul strives continually to relate and to subordinate all other yearnings to this one, all encompassing desire.

How might the Lord wish to remove the beams from our eyes and help us to continue racing to the finish today?

Friday, September 12, 2008

Thursday in the 23rd Week of Ordinary Time
With Open Eyes

Readings: 1 Corinthians 8:1b-7, 11-13; Psalm 139:1b-3, 13-14ab, 23-24; Luke 6:27-38
Pictures: CC KM (Benny)

Aiyah, close one eye, lah! This is a phrase familiar to many Singaporeans. It’s used typically in situations wherein someone is perceived to be doing something that’s against the rules, or at least something inappropriate. Maybe the person in question is new to a particular organization and hasn’t learnt the way things are done. Trying to be kind and understanding, the longer-serving colleagues might, at least initially, overlook his/her mistakes. They will close one eye. It’s such an apt phrase, isn’t it? It captures quite accurately what is going on. Although fully aware that the rules are being infringed, one chooses to excuse the mistake, at least in this particular instance.

Even so, it may perhaps be necessary to reflect a little more upon how our use of this phrase might affect the way in which we approach mercy and forgiveness. For we may well think that to forgive others – let alone to love our enemies, as Jesus exhorts us to in today’s gospel – entails closing one or both our eyes to their faults, ignoring the hurt that they may have caused us. Consciously or not, we may tend to distinguish between knowledge and love in a less than helpful way. For it may seem, very often, that when we allow ourselves to dwell more deeply upon the extent of the wrong that has been done to us, we find it that much more difficult to forgive. Messy feelings get in the way. Wouldn’t we be better able to forgive, and even to love our enemies, if we closed our eyes? At least in such situations, knowledge does often seem to defeat love. Indeed – albeit referring to a different situation – in today’s first reading, doesn’t Paul say that knowledge inflates with pride, but love builds up?

Still, we also realize all too quickly that such self-imposed ignorance is far from easy to achieve. Try as we might, the painful memories linger far longer than we wish. The difficult feelings continue to ebb and flow in ways beyond our control. Worse, those who somehow succeed in bottling these up, often do so only at great cost to their own mental and emotional health. In seeking to close their eyes, they end up imprisoning their hearts. Could this be a sign that we need to re-evaluate our understanding of the process of forgiveness? Could it be that love and compassion involve more than closing one’s eyes?

Two considerations might be helpful. The first is the need to examine what the phrase to close one eye refers to and what it leaves out. One closes an eye not to one’s own spontaneous reactions – one’s thoughts and feelings – but to the other’s mistake. And one does this without denying the wrong that has been done. After all, one only closes one eye. More than that – and this is the crucial aspect that the phrase leaves unexpressed – we are able to close one eye, we are able to excuse the wrong, only to the extent that we are first willing and able to open all our eyes – those in our heads as well as in our hearts – to the whole situation. In the example given earlier, the colleagues are willing to overlook the newcomer’s mistakes precisely because they allow themselves to know and to appreciate, what it’s like to be a newbie.

And there is more. The fullness of knowledge that underlies and aids the process of loving to the point of forgiveness, of loving even one’s enemies, is underscored by Paul in the first reading: If one loves God, one is known by him. It is also beautifully expressed in the words of Psalm 139: O Lord, you have probed me and you know me… God knows each and all of us - the wrongdoers and the wronged - to our very depths. God sees both the light and the shadow, the good and the bad. And in that fullness of knowledge, God continues to cherish and to delight in us. Isn’t this the keenness of sight for which we need to pray? Isn’t this the love that alone is able to fuel our attempts at forgiveness?

How are we being invited to open our eyes today?

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Tuesday in the 23rd Week of Ordinary Time
Memorial of St. Peter Claver, Priest
Aim High!

Readings: 1 Corinthians 6:1-11; Psalm 149:1b-2, 3-4, 5-6a and 9b; Luke 6:12-19
Picture: CC drp

Aim high, my late grandfather used to tell me. Aim high! Then, even if you miss, at least you won’t be too far off the target. Of course, I’ve come to see that this is not always the best advice. It can, for example, be counterproductive when offered to perfectionists and workaholics. It can breed a kind of perpetual discontent, an inability to be happy with what one has and the person one is. Even so, there’s value in it when seen in an appropriate light. It can, for example, help us to understand what Paul seems to be saying to the Corinthians in our first reading today.

At one level, Paul’s message does seem to be less than helpful in this very complex world of ours. At a time when the church has been rocked by one scandal after another – when even priests have been convicted of serious sexual and financial crimes – it seems quite na├»ve, and even downright dangerous, to still think that we should try to deal with all our difficulties and disputes in-house, without recourse to the civil authorities. Even if this may have been feasible in the days of Paul, for better or for worse, that time is now past. Today, even whole dioceses run the risk of bankruptcy as a result of civil suits.

What value then do Paul’s words have for us today? Even while we – as individuals and as a Christian community – allow ourselves to have greater recourse to civil authorities, perhaps Paul’s admonishment of the Corinthians might serve to remind us not to settle simply for what the law courts have to offer. Perhaps what Paul offers us is a crucial reminder to aim higher.

For while the civil law and the authorities that uphold and enforce it may be indispensable in maintaining societal order, our identity as Christians impels us to go further. Consider Jesus’ actions in the gospel today. As is common in Luke’s account, Jesus prefaces every major decision with prayer. He bases his choice of the Twelve not so much on external legal prescriptions as on his intimate relationship with his Father. And it is also from out of this relationship that Jesus’ true authority flows, bringing much comfort and healing to the many who seek him. More than societal order, what Jesus offers is the fullness of life that comes from being reconciled with God and with one another. Beyond law and order, Jesus brings love and peace. As followers of Christ, can we afford to settle for less? Even as we are expected to give heed to the prescriptions of civil authority, does Jesus not also call us to go beyond? As he does with the Twelve in today’s gospel, does he not invite us to share in the same authority that he wielded with such awe-inspiring effect?

Quite coincidentally, the Jesuit saint we celebrate today offers us an example of someone who heeded this call to an amazing degree. In the time of Peter Claver, the buying and selling of human beings was not against the law. And yet, Peter left his comfortable European homeland to spend his life ministering to newly arrived slaves in faraway Colombia and working tirelessly for their cause. In this complex world of ours, are there not still many who continue to cry out for something like Peter’s daring dedication and ardent advocacy?

How are we being invited to aim higher today?

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Feast of the Birthday of the Blessed Virgin Mary
Celebrating Interruptions

Reading: Micah 5:1-4a or Romans 8:28-30; Psalm 13:6ab, 6c; Matthew 1:1-16, 18-23 or 1:18-23
Picture: CC Sebastiano Pitruzzello (aka gorillaradio)

It’s usually no surprise who gets to be the center of attention at birthday celebrations. The birthday celebrant, of course! After all, a birthday is a time to celebrate the gift of a particular life, and all the blessings that that life brings to the rest of us. And so, it may at first be more than a little surprising that on the day when we celebrate the birthday of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the spotlight seems to be on someone else. Although our readings do refer to the our Blessed Mother, we seem drawn not so much to focus our attention on her as to consider how the birth of Jesus Christ came about… The gospel provides us with a lengthy genealogy of Jesus, as well as a description of how Jesus came to be born in the household of David. What, we may well wonder, does all this have to do with Mary?

To answer this question, perhaps it’ll be helpful for us simply to follow the lead of our readings. Two things – two rather paradoxical aspects – may stand out for us when we consider how the eternal God takes flesh in time and space. The first is how Jesus’ arrival springs quite spontaneously from the natural course of human living. In Jesus, God doesn’t come among us as a spectacular and extraordinary revelation from on high. There’s no blinding flash of light, no loud booming noise, nothing seems to be out of the ordinary. There’s only an orderly succession of names – Abraham became the father of Isaac, Isaac the father of Jacob – at the end of which is born the baby Jesus who is called the Christ. If there is consolation to be found in this aspect of Christ’s birth, it comes to us in the realization that we don’t have to be spectacular or extraordinary individuals to experience God. God seems to delight in showing up in the humblest of situations, among the most ordinary of people.

But that’s only one side of the story. There is another, perhaps apparently less palatable, but no less consoling aspect. It is summed up in the word interruption. Listening to the litany of names in Jesus’ genealogy, for example, aren’t we struck by how the list of men is (thankfully) punctuated – interrupted – at key points by women? There is Rahab, the mother of Boaz, Ruth, the mother of Obed, Bathsheba, the mother of Solomon, and finally, the one whom we celebrate today, Mary, the mother of Christ, and our mother. And, as we well know, each of these women has their own story to tell. Theirs are stories of interruptions to the deceptively smooth flow of human life and history. Much like how Jesus’ birth comes as an unsettling – even shocking – interruption to the plans and expectations of saintly Joseph. He was betrothed to Mary, but before they lived together, she was found with child… What do these considerations tell us, if not that as ordinary and unspectacular as God’s coming often seems to be, it also often encounters us as an interruption to our best laid plans.

Perhaps here is where we finally come to some appreciation of what it is we are celebrating today. Perhaps here is where we are reminded of the great gift that Mary’s life brings us. In Mary, we find the indispensable quality for welcoming and experiencing God. In Mary, we find the admirable capacity to live an ordinary human life while remaining open to the many God-filled interruptions that characterizes it. For, as we heard in the first reading, whether it is in the smooth flow of daily living, or in its disturbing interruptions, all things work for good for those who love God… To celebrate Mary is to share and to rejoice in her gift of delighting in the ordinary yet surprising ways that God comes among us, the different ways in which Jesus continues to be born into our world.

How might we better celebrate our blessed Mother’s birthday today?

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Friday in the 22nd Week of Ordinary Time
Calming the Anger Within

Readings: 1 Corinthians 4:1-5; Psalm 37:3-4, 5-6, 27-28, 39-40; Luke 5:33-39
Picture: CC EddieB55

I’m told that victims of abuse or trauma often bear scars that cut much deeper than the physical. It’s sort of like the dog that has often been beaten. Every time it sees someone with a stick in hand, it may react either by putting it’s tail between its legs and running away, or by baring its teeth and going on the attack. Never mind if the stick is actually only an umbrella, or a blind person’s cane. It’s always perceived as a threat. It always evokes a similar reaction each time. And things are not much different with humans too. A child that has often been beaten will instinctively wince and dodge when a hand is raised. Even if the intention is to stroke instead of slap, to hug instead of hit.

Although such reactions are understandable, they will often adversely affect one’s relationships. Consciously or not, one’s initial – and perhaps habitual – reaction to others will always be characterized by caution, since everyone is always perceived as a threat. Needless to say, misunderstandings are bound to occur. And piecemeal attempts at patching ruptured relationships will only go so far. What’s needed is a radical change in how one perceives reality as a whole – to realize that, as dangerous as this world is, not everyone is out to get us, not every would-be friend is a fiend in disguise; to learn to relax when appropriate, to let down one’s guard enough to allow healthy relationships to develop.

Perhaps something like is what Jesus is talking about in today’s gospel. New wine must be poured into fresh wineskins… For some reason, whether or not it is through abuse or trauma, some people have a warped image of God. Jesus understands that his presence and action must be a scandal – a stumbling block – to those whose view of God is that of a judgmental police officer – ever ready to spot and to punish the slightest deviation from the norm. The disciples of John the Baptist fast often… but yours eat and drink… He knows that no piecemeal explanation of his actions will be sufficient to convince them. No one tears a piece from a new cloak to patch an old one. What is needed is nothing less than a revolution in their perspective on God – that God is more like a loving Father than a finger-pointing judge. And this is a revolution that, through his life, death and resurrection, Jesus aims to bring about. Rather than merely patching tears and refilling tired wineskins, Jesus offers them, and us, a whole new garment and fresh skins overflowing with the Spirit.

For, as Paul tells the Corinthians in the first reading, this God of ours is the only One capable of judging rightly. It is only God who can truly search the obscure depths of the human heart. It is only God who can uncover the good that often seems so well hidden, even to ourselves. And isn’t it such a consolation that, no matter what others or we ourselves might think, when God does this, when God does finally manifest the motives of our hearts… everyone will receive praise?

But first we must be willing to allow our perceptions to change. We need to allow God to calm our fearful and all too judgmental hearts. On an ongoing basis, we need to experience the height and depth of God’s love, in the person of the crucified and risen Christ, as he comes to meet us in each passing moment of every passing day.

How might the Lord be offering us new cloaks and new wineskins today?

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Wednesday in the 22nd Week of Ordinary Time
Memorial of St. Gregory the Great, Pope and Doctor of the Church
Settling the Upset Stomach

Readings: 1 Corinthians 3:1-9; Psalms 33:12-13, 14-15, 20-21; Luke 4:38-44
Picture: CC Denise Soong

From time to time, even those of us with the strongest of constitutions experience a stomach upset. Whether it is caused by disagreeable cuisine, food poisoning, or something more serious, the condition affects our body’s ability to extract nourishment from all but the most easily digestible of foodstuffs. And, as long as it lasts, we often have no choice but to carefully watch what we eat. At least for a time, we may be reduced to a liquid diet, for example, or something simple (and bland) like rice porridge. And even though we could probably continue to survive on such a simple diet even after we’ve recovered, isn’t it true that many of us will look forward with great expectation to the time when we can, once again, enjoy more tasty fare – fish head curry, or beef rendang, or chili crab, for example?

Which is why it sometimes puzzles me that we don’t often experience the same cravings when it comes to spiritual nourishment. Isn’t it true that, as regards our spiritual diet, many of us seem only to be able to find sustenance in the most simple and obvious of sources? Finding God is a struggle for us, even in the most well-constructed and quietest of worship spaces, and during the most inspiring of liturgies, let alone the often chaotic situations of our daily lives? Could this be why many are increasingly finding themselves drawn towards more solemn liturgies – celebrations that tend to underscore the absolute transcendence of God?

This, in itself, is of course not a bad thing. I myself enjoy such celebrations. But isn’t it disturbing that there are those who tend to think – and to insist – that this is the only valid way of finding God, thus creating a bone of contention out of what should be a source of unity? Further, isn’t it also legitimate to examine the extent to which our participation in such celebrations helps us to continue finding God in the everyday? Isn’t it important that we learn to draw spiritual nourishment also from the more complex and diverse foods that God may choose to serve us outside of obviously sacred space and time? In the words of the first reading, shouldn’t we learn to appreciate more solid food? Shouldn’t this be the mark of a mature Christian?

But how do we do this? How do we get over the upset stomachs that prevent us from enjoying and drawing sustenance from more robust foods, and keep us at odds with one another? Perhaps what we need is what Peter’s mother-in-law received in today’s gospel. Perhaps we need the Lord himself to take us by the hand and to heal us of our infirmity, so that, like Jesus, we can find and serve God in the many and diverse situations and people that God may send our way.

How might God wish to settle our upset stomachs today?

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Tuesday in the 22nd Week of Ordinary Time
Mind Reading

Readings: 1 Corinthians 2:10b-16; Psalms 145:8-9, 10-11, 12-13ab, 13cd-14; Luke 4:31-37
Picture: CC Hern Y

Since moving to this new place, I find it important frequently to remind myself to do something that doesn’t always come naturally, at least not to me. Ordinarily, I find myself too easily engrossed in my own concerns, rather oblivious to what is happening in the world around me. I believe the technical term for this condition is… blur. But, especially because I find myself in new surroundings and around unfamiliar people, I’ve been trying to pay more attention not just to what people say, but also to how they say it, not just to their speech, but also to their actions. How else to know what’s on their minds and in their hearts, except by learning to read what is expressed in word and deed?

Which is something useful to call to mind today, as our Mass readings present us with a contrast between realities beyond the material. In the first reading, Paul distinguishes between the spirit of the world and the spirit of Christ. And the gospel presents for our consideration the contrasting effects of the spirit of an unclean devil and the authority and power of Jesus. The lesson is quite clear: what should characterize us as Christians is the latter spirit, the latter authority and power, as opposed to the former. As Paul tells us, we are those who have the mind of Christ. But how are we to know if this is indeed the spirit that moves us in any given situation? How are others to tell what is in our minds and hearts? What is within us can only be determined externally by our words and our deeds.

Consider the effects of the spirit of the unclean devil on the possessed person in the gospel. Enslaved and oppressed by what is within him, the man in the synagogue speaks and acts as someone imprisoned by fear and anxiety, even when faced with the One who is just in all his ways. Have you come to destroy us? The overwhelming preoccupation of this person is with self-preservation and self-advancement.

In contrast, the spirit of God moves Jesus to do the very thing that we heard him preach about in yesterday’s gospel passage: proclaim liberty to captives… set the downtrodden free… Jesus’ preaching effectively casts out the unclean spirit from the possessed person. And the one who was oppressed is released. The one who was imprisoned is set free. Jesus’ preoccupation is with self-donation for the betterment of others.

Presented with this stark contrast between opposing spirits, do we not find ourselves drawn to pay careful attention to what we encounter daily in the world around us, to learn to distinguish the effects of the spirit of the world from the spirit of Christ? Do we not also find ourselves invited to discern carefully the spirits that are moving not just around, but also within us?

And is it not important for us also to consider what people see when they look carefully at us who bear the name of Christ, at what we say, surely, but also at what we do? Living as we are in a world teeming with the poor and the oppressed, the blind and the captive, to what extent are we preoccupied with self-donation rather that self-advancement?

If others were to read our minds by studying our deeds, what spirit would they discover?