Sunday, December 27, 2009

Sunday in the Octave of Christmas
The Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph (C)
From Hiding Places to Holy Portals

Readings: 1Samuel 1:20-22, 24-28; Psalm 84:2-3, 5-6, 9-10; 1 John 3:1-2, 21-24; Luke 2:41-52

Dear sisters and brothers, are you familiar with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe? As you know, the movie adaptation of this book by C.S. Lewis begins with the bombing of London during the Second World War, and the evacuation of the four Pevensie children to a house in the country. One day, little Lucy Pevensie is playing hide-and-seek with her three siblings, Edmund, Susan and Peter. She discovers a room where she finds a large wardrobe filled with winter coats. But the wardrobe is more than just a dusty old storage space. It is also a portal, a doorway to another world. Stumbling into it in search of a hiding place, Lucy finds herself in the magical land of Narnia, a wonderful but also perilous place, where animals speak, and where little children become kings and queens and mighty warriors.

Strangely enough this story of a wardrobe that is more a doorway to danger and adventure than a safe hiding place is what comes to mind today as we celebrate the feast of the Holy Family. For there are those among us who say that we live in a time when the family is increasingly coming under threat. And they are probably right. Aren’t divorces becoming ever more common? Aren’t we in danger of losing our children to various bad influences, ranging from drugs and alcohol to gang violence and Internet pornography? And are we not also hearing ever-louder cries for the acknowledgment of so-called alternative life-styles, whatever the forms these might take? All these developments can seem like so many deadly bombs falling upon our fragile families. Faced with such a lethal barrage, some of us choose to respond by emphasizing the importance of the nuclear family, consisting of father, mother and children. In the nuclear family, we seek something not unlike what Lucy thought she had found in the wardrobe: a safe hiding place, in an isolated room, out in the country, far from every possible danger. But how realistic is this approach? Is this really all there is to family life? Are holy families necessarily nuclear? Or might things be a little more complicated than that? What about those families who don’t quite fit the mold of a nuclear family?

Consider, for example, the two families that our readings present to us today. Neither of them would seem to conform to strict ideas of what a nuclear family should look like and how it should act. In the gospel, as we know, although Jesus is the son of Mary, Joseph is not his father. And, in the first reading, Hannah is actually only one of two wives of Elkanah. The other wife, Peninah, had children, but Hannah did not. And when God finally answers Hannah’s prayers by blessing her with a son, instead of keeping and raising him in her husband’s household, Hannah gives him to the priest Eli.

Not only is the stereotypical nuclear structure of the family missing, but there also seems to be more going on here than simply providing a safe hiding place. And yet both these families are models of holiness. In what does their holiness consist? The answer is found in a striking feature that they both share. Each family is closely associated with the House of God. Not only do they make an annual pilgrimage to worship at the temple, they also conduct themselves in such a way that, through them, their children are ushered into the service of God. I prayed for this child, and the LORD granted my request, says Hannah to Eli. Now I, in turn, give him to the LORD; as long as he lives, he shall be dedicated to the LORD.

We see something similar in the experience of Jesus too. In reply to the questions of his anxious parents, Jesus tells them that he must be in his Father’s house. And yet, soon after that, he returns with them to Nazareth. Clearly, his Father’s house is not just the Temple in Jerusalem, but wherever his heavenly Father wants him to be. Whether it be in a carpenter’s shop in Nazareth, or in a fishing boat on the Sea of Galilee, or on a Cross on Calvary, in all these places, Jesus remains in the house of his Father’s will. And his family plays a crucial role in ushering him there.

Even though they are not strictly nuclear, each of the families in our readings today is holy because, like the wardrobe in the movie, they act as portals, doorways through which people are led into the House of the Lord. And not only that, but both Samuel and Jesus also themselves become portals ushering others into the service of God. Samuel grows up to be the great prophet who anoints first Saul, and then David, king. And, as we are told in the second reading, those who keep Jesus’ great commandment of love remain in him, and he in them, and so may be called the children of God, members of the Father's household.

If all this is true, then, for a family to be holy, it seems less important that it fit some predetermined structure, than that it somehow manage to usher people into the House of the Lord. I’m reminded, for example, of Agnes Awori, a 53 year-old widow living in a slum on the outskirts of Nairobi in Kenya, whose story is told in yesterday’s issue of the LA Times. Agnes’ family is far from nuclear. She lives in a shack with 12 children, the oldest of whom is 15. Only four of these kids are hers. Seven are the children of her dead sister. And the last one is a baby that Agnes picked up 16 months ago while on her way to market. It had been abandoned in a plastic bag on the railway track, with its umbilical cord still attached. Although ridiculed by onlookers, Agnes chose to save the baby. She named him Moses. Now Agnes makes about $2.65 a day and has accumulated about $132 in debts. Still, as she rocks Moses in her arms, she is able to say: I'm happy in my life. I'll bring him up well, like these other orphans. Everyone has their own talents in life.

Of course, whatever Agnes may say, these are far from ideal conditions in which to bring up a child, let alone 12. But then we might say the same about being born in a manger and then having to flee by night into Egypt. Of course, it’s important to stress that more needs to be done to help people like Agnes. That, after all, is the aim of the newspaper article. Still, perhaps it’s worth remembering that what we are celebrating today is not the Feast of the Ideal Family, but that of the Holy Family.

Sisters and brothers, isn’t it true that families come in different shapes and sizes? But whatever may be the shapes and sizes of our families today, how might we make them better portals leading others into the House of the Lord?

Sunday, December 06, 2009

2nd Sunday of Advent (C)
Between Potholes and Reunions

Readings: Baruch 5:1-9; Psalm 126:1-2, 2-3, 4-5, 6; Philippians 1:4-6, 8-11; Luke 3:1-6

Dear sisters and brothers, have you seen that commercial with the talking pothole? A stylish grey sports car goes over a pothole, bursts a tire, and comes to a standstill. Oh no! Did I do that? The pothole asks, in a charming southern accent. Let me get my cellular out and call you a wrecker. Oh shoot, I don’t have a phone. I’m a pothole! So… 'K, bye! Funny commercial. But not if you’re the driver of the sports car. Can you imagine how you must feel? Not only has the pothole damaged your precious car, even worse, it has kept you from reaching your destination. Maybe you were rushing home for dinner, or to meet some friends for a drink, or to the hospital where your wife’s in labor. The pothole has kept you from being reunited with the people you love.

And speaking of reunions, I’m reminded of a YouTube video about Hilda Schlick, a grandmother in Israel, who was recently reunited with her long lost brother, Simon. Hilda is a survivor of the Holocaust. After WWII, she had ended up in Israel, thinking that the rest of her family had been killed. Except that they hadn’t. Years later, using her maiden name, Hilda's grownup grandson makes a search on the internet, and discovers that Hilda’s parents and brothers had survived the Holocaust and settled in Canada, where one of her brothers still lives, along with many nephews and nieces and their children – a big family. Thanks to the efforts of Hilda's grandson, the terrible pothole of war and genocide, which had broken her family apart, was finally filled in. After 65 long years, Hilda and Simon enjoyed an emotional reunion in an airport in Israel.

Potholes and reunions: Aren’t these the things that our Mass readings invite us to reflect upon on this 2nd Sunday of Advent?  For what do we find in the first reading, if not a disruptive pothole and a promised reunion? As a result of war, the city of Jerusalem has been separated from her children. They have been deported to a foreign land. But all is not lost. Through the prophet Baruch, God tells Jerusalem not to give up hope. For God has commanded that every lofty mountain be made low, and that all the age-old depths and gorges be filled to level ground, that Israel may advance secure in the glory of God. Although her family has been broken apart by exile and war, God promises Jerusalem that God will fill in the pothole, that God will smooth out the road, and bring the exiles home. God will work to bring about a joyful reunion.

And what about us? Isn’t this piece of good news also addressed to us too? Aren’t there potholes among us today as well, obstacles that keep families apart? We may think immediately, of course, of the brave young women and men serving in our Armed Forces, who continue to have to leave their families in order to keep their country safe. But shouldn’t we think also of the countless nameless faces, the mothers and fathers, who have to separate themselves from their children in order to find work in a foreign land? Shouldn’t we think also of the terrible temptations that many of our young people have to face on a daily basis: the temptations of drink and drugs, of sex and violence? In our world today, isn’t it true that, among many other things, poverty as well as other social evils can be as disruptive of family life as war? Face with potholes such as these, we can often feel terribly helpless. We can even be tempted to give in to depression and despair. Even so, in this season of Advent, through our readings, God reminds us not to give up, but to keep on hoping. For although, on our own, we may not be able to fill in all the potholes on the highway of life, there is still something we can do.

We can start by taking care of another highway, by attending to that interior road that connects us to God. Isn’t this the message of John the Baptist in the gospel? A voice of one crying out in the desert: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths. Every valley shall be filled and every mountain and hill shall be made low.” To even begin to see and to repair the many potholes on the highway of life, we must first patch up the ruptures in our relationship with God. It is only when we begin to fill in the holes in our hearts that we can receive the wisdom to see what needs to be done in our world, as well as the strength and courage to do it. Isn’t this also what the prophet tells Jerusalem in the first reading? How is she to regain her hope? She must first take off her robe of mourning and misery and put on the splendor of glory from God forever. She must first stand upon the heights and look to the east, to the rising sun, to see her children gathered from the east and the west. Isn’t this also what we are being asked to do in this season of Advent, to take off all the things that keep us from God and to put on Christ, to look to the rising Son of God?

And isn’t this also why, in addition to being a time of preparation, Advent is also a season of joy? Only this is a curious kind of joy. It’s the joy that children sometimes experience when you promise them a lollipop. They haven’t received it yet, but already they are happy. They are happy even while they wait, because they trust that their parents will not lie. For them, a promise is as good as its fulfillment. This is not unlike the joy that Paul talks about in the second reading. Although it’s not clear in the reading, because the relevant verse (v.7) has been left out, Paul finds himself in a pothole. He is writing from prison, separated from the community to whom he addresses his letter. And yet, Paul writes about joy. I pray always with joy in my very prayer for all of you, because of your partnership for the gospel…. I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work in you will continue to complete it until the day of Christ Jesus. Although kept apart from the people for whom he longs with the affection of Christ Jesus, Paul experiences joy when he prays for them, because he has confidence that God will continue to bless them. Although the pothole of prison prevents him from meeting them, his prayer enables him to enjoy a spiritual reunion with them in the Lord. And he writes to share with them this fruit of his prayer, his joy in the Lord.

Potholes and reunions: Isn't this what Advent is about? In the midst of our everyday busyness, aren’t we being called to allow God to fill in our potholes, to salvage the wreckages of our lives and our world, so that more of us might experience the joy of reunion, the same joy that is the gift of Christ at Christmas? If all this is true, then perhaps potholes can talk after all.

Sisters and brothers, what are your potholes saying to you today?

Sunday, November 29, 2009

1st Sunday of Advent (C)
Coffee, Karate and Christmas

Readings: Jeremiah 33:14-16; Psalm 25:4-5, 8-9, 10, 14; 1 Thessalonians 3:12-4:2; Luke 21:25-28, 34-36

Dear sisters and brothers, as you know, today we begin a new church year by entering the season of Advent. Why, you may wonder do we do this? Why not follow what we do on New Year’s Day? Why not just dive straight into Christmas, with a countdown and some champagne? Why bother with the four Sundays of Advent? To answer this question, I think we need to appreciate an important difference, a difference that we often forget about. Sisters and brothers, what is the difference between coffee and karate?

About a month or more ago, Starbucks Coffee introduced a new product: instant coffee. Of course, other brands of instant coffee have been available for a very long time. But Starbucks claims that their instant coffee is as good, if not better, than their regular version. To prove it, they even let people take taste tests at their stores. Now, I am not a coffee drinker. I don’t know the results of those tests. But if the claim is true, then coffee might well be one of those things that you can enjoy instantly without sacrificing quality.

Compare that with karate. Some of us may remember the movie The Karate Kid. A teenager takes up karate to defend himself against some bullies. But, although he’s very eager to learn, his teacher – who looks like a harmless little old man – only gives him ordinary household jobs to do. Paint the gate. Wax the car. Sand the wooden floor. At first, the boy is frustrated and impatient. Why is he wasting his time doing chores, while the bullies are learning karate under their own teacher? Why can’t he learn as quickly they seem to be doing? But later, he realizes that his chores were really part of the training. By repeatedly applying wax on and taking wax off, for example, he was learning defensive blocks. More importantly, his teacher was teaching him that karate was much more than just about beating an opponent in a fight. It was also about discipline and perseverance, mercy and self-restraint, things that the bullies had failed to learn. Even if they had picked up some fancy moves rather quickly, theirs was not the real thing. True karate requires much time, effort and self-sacrifice. Unlike coffee, there really is no such thing as instant karate.

And what about Christmas? Have you noticed how, suddenly, the radio stations are playing nothing but Christmas carols? Overnight, a huge Christmas tree has sprouted on State Street. Christmas decorations are everywhere, even while some of us are still finishing those leftovers from Thanksgiving. What is this, if not instant Christmas? But is there really such a thing? Is Christmas really more like coffee than karate?

Not if our Mass readings are anything to go by. While everything around us might lead us to think that Christmas has to do only with trees and tinsels, presents and parties, or even cribs containing cuddly newborn babes, our readings remind us that it’s also about much more. Long before we hear anything about a baby born in a manger, the liturgy helps us to prepare for Christmas by reminding us about its deeper meaning.

The first reading reminds us that Christmas is about the fulfillment of a promise. The days are coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to house of Israel and Judah…. In those days Judah shall be safe and Jerusalem shall be secure… To a small and insignificant nation, a people constantly threatened by powerful enemies – a people not unlike the karate kid – God promises safety and security. And this promise is made also to us. Even if we may live in the most powerful country in the world, aren’t we also threatened by bullies of different sorts? Some of our bullies are external: like rising costs of living and unemployment, or addiction to alcohol and drugs, or misunderstandings with family and friends. Other bullies are internal: like selfishness and greed, or the refusal to forgive, or the neglect of those who are suffering. But if Christmas is the celebration of the fulfillment of God’s promise to help us deal with our enemies, then we must first be able to identify them. Who are your enemies?

And not only does Advent give us the opportunity to identify our bullies, it also helps us to recognize the God who comes to deal with them. For God appears among us in many different ways, sometimes in ways as surprising as the harmless little old karate master. And not all of these appearances are as pleasant and attractive as a cute and cuddly newborn baby. In the gospel, for example, Jesus paints a terrifying picture of the circumstances surrounding his second coming at the end of time. People will die of fright, he tells us, in anticipation of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of heaven will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud of power and great glory… And not just at the end of time, even today, God can come to us in surprising ways. Think, for example, of the person who, after losing his job, begins to realize how much he has been neglecting his family. Advent is a time for us to learn to recognize and to welcome the God who often comes among us in unexpected ways.

And, as the karate kid found out, to do all this, we need to undergo training. Our readings describe this in three ways. The first is waiting. After begging God to teach me your paths, the psalmist says this: for you are God my savior, and for you I wait all the day. Not just an hour or two. The psalmist waits all the day. Second, in the gospel, Jesus tells us that this waiting involves being alert. Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy from carousing and drunkenness and the anxieties of daily life…. Be vigilant at all times and pray for the strength… to stand before the Son of Man. Third, to engage in vigilant waiting does not mean simply doing nothing. It involves continually trying to do the right thing. As Paul tells the Thessalonians in the second reading, we earnestly ask and exhort you in the Lord Jesus that, as you received from us how you should conduct yourselves to please God... you do so even more. Vigilant waiting through right conduct – this is the training that we are undertaking in this season of Advent, in preparation for the God who comes to fulfill God’s promises to us.

Today, most of us live in an instant world. Starbucks sells instant coffee. For a cheap lunch, I often make instant ramen. We get instant information on the Internet. We contact one another instantly by cellphone... All this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But it can get dangerous when we forget that, unlike coffee, there are also things in life that cannot be had instantly, things like karate, of course, but also things like justice and peace and true friendship. As well as things like Christmas. Isn’t this why we need the season of Advent?

Sisters and brothers, what will Christmas look like for you this year? Coffee or karate?

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Solemnity of Christ the King (B)
Candles, Comedians and Christ the King

Readings: Daniel 7:13-14; Psalm 93:1, 1-2, 5; Revelations 1:5-8; John 18:33b-37
Picture: cc anne.oeldorfhirsch

It’s better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.

Dear sisters and brothers, you’ve probably heard this saying before. And, if you’re like me, you probably also think that it makes a lot of sense. But isn’t it true that it’s often far easier said than done? At least speaking for myself, when I face a dark situation, my first reaction is rarely to find a candle to light. For one thing, sometimes I can be so engrossed in other concerns that I’m not even aware that the lights have gone out. At other times, I either get paralyzed by anger at those whom I think are responsible, or I try not to think about it, hoping that the darkness will simply go away by itself. And isn’t it also true that often, when the lights go out, you can feel so powerless that it’s difficult to find a candle, let alone to light it? Which is why, I must confess, I have a secret admiration for comedians. They have this amazing ability to find light in a dark situation.

Take David Letterman, for example. As you know, he recently faced a very dark time in his personal and professional life. Someone had gotten hold of evidence that he’d been cheating on his wife with several of his female colleagues and blackmailed him. What did he do? Instead of ignoring the problem or trying to cover it up, he told everybody about it on national television. And he even did it in a way that made people laugh, raising his ratings in the process. In a time of darkness, he lit a candle by speaking the truth.

Also, recently, I happened to watch an old routine by George Lopez. I think he was talking about the changes made by the previous Administration to the immigration policy, changes that may have cast a very dark shadow on the lives of many undocumented migrants in the country. In a very funny way, Lopez questioned the wisdom of the changes. What is going to happen, he asked, when they deport all the undocumented aliens? Who will maintain their roads and clean their streets? Who will build their homes and water their lawns? Who will care for their kids and walk their dogs? What was Lopez doing? In a time of darkness, when people were feeling powerless, he lit a candle by helping them to recognize another power.

What the comedians teach us, I think, is this. At least three things are required to light a candle in the dark. It involves looking into the darkness, speaking the truth, and recognizing another power.

We find something similar in our readings on this feast of Christ the King. Notice how the action in both the first reading and the gospel takes place in a time of extreme darkness. The first reading is set in a time of exile. The chosen people have been defeated and deported to an alien land. Their Temple is destroyed, and they are prisoners of a foreign power, first the Babylonians, and then the Persians.

A deep darkness covers the gospel too. Remember that here, in John 18, Jesus has already been betrayed by a close friend, accused by his own people, and tortured by the Romans. He will soon be crucified between two thieves. Remember also, that earlier, in John 13, when Judas leaves the supper room to sell his master, we are told that it was night, not just the usual darkness that falls when the sun sets, but rather a spiritual gloom resulting from the eclipse of the Son of God.

In these times of darkness, our attention is drawn to two men. One is able to light a candle. But the other remains in the dark. The first is the prophet Daniel. Remember his situation. Although an exile, he lives in the king’s court and enjoys royal favor. Living a relatively comfortable life, he doesn’t really have to pay attention to the darkness. But he does. With deep anguish, he gazes intently at the gloomy situation of his own people – a situation that he believes is the result of their own sinfulness, their infidelity to God. In his prayer, he confesses the truth of his people’s guilt. As he stares into the dark, he sees visions during the night. Even as his people are laboring under foreign rule, Daniel sees a vision that reminds him that there is another power. Not only is this power greater than that of the Babylonians and the Persians, it is also able to overcome the people’s sinfulness. Daniel sees one like a Son of man receiving dominion, glory, and kingship…. that shall (neither) be taken away… (nor) destroyed. For us Christians, this is the same power that we heard about in the second reading. It is the power of Jesus Christ… the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead and ruler of the kings of the earth…. who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood. By staring into the night, speaking the truth, and seeing a greater power, Daniel lights a candle in the darkness for his people.

In the gospel, Pilate too comes face to face with another power. But he cannot recognize it, not only because it appears as a body bruised by scourging, and a face bloodied by a crown of thorns. Pilate is blind to this power because he doesn’t appreciate the extent of the surrounding darkness. For him, the situation is difficult only because, if not handled properly, it may threaten his career. Although Caesar is his king, Pilate is really his own servant. Pilate’s concern is only to save his own skin. And in his selfishness, he is unable to speak the truth of Jesus’ innocence, let alone to accept the possibility that Jesus might truly be a King. As Jesus tells him, everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice. By clinging to his own career, Pilate loses sight of the truth. He rejects Christ, the Lighted Candle, and remains engulfed in darkness.

As it is with comedy, so is it with the spiritual life. In order to light a candle at least three things are required: one must face the dark, speak the truth and recognize another power. Daniel was able to do this but Pilate was not. Daniel saw the light, but Pilate remained in the dark. Even so, there is at least one thing that sets the spiritual life apart from comedy. We can watch a comedy and have a really good laugh, only to leave and forget all about it. And maybe some of us treat the Mass in the same way, except that we may not laugh as much. But, as you know, we Christians are called not just to come to Mass to see the light, but also to leave this place and to be lights in the surrounding darkness. And isn’t there much darkness around us, if not in our personal lives, then at least in society at large? In the front page of today’s Santa Barbara News-Press, for example, we are told that the unemployment rate in California has reached a modern-day record of 12.5 percent. Elsewhere in the same paper, there is a report of a four year-old Lompoc boy, who was allegedly beaten to death by his mother’s boyfriend, while both the mother and the accused were strung out on drugs.

We live in a dark world, a world waiting for light, a world in dire need of people who are able to face the dark, to speak the truth and to recognize another power, the power of Christ, the Crucified and Risen King.

It’s better to light a candle than to curse the dark.

Sisters and brothers, how might we light our candles today?

Sunday, November 08, 2009

32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)
Heroes for the Heroic

Readings: 1 Kings 17:10-16; Psalm 146:7, 8-9, 9-10; Hebrews 9:24-28; Mark 12:38-44 or 12:41-44
Picture: cc tanakawho

Dear sisters and brothers, when you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up? I remember having various options in mind, the usual favorites: doctor, engineer... But mostly – I’m embarrassed to say it – even though I didn’t realize it at the time, I think I just wanted to be a hero. You know, someone others would look at and then nod their heads in approval and admiration, someone people would point to and say, in tones at once reverent and enthusiastic: Yeah! What about you? Did you ever want to be a hero?

And have you ever noticed how important heroes are to us? Especially when we encounter a bad situation of some sort, have you noticed how quick we are to identify and shower praise upon extraordinarily courageous individuals, even as we denounce those we consider to be our enemies? Take the terribly tragic shooting that took place in Fort Hood, Texas this past Thursday. Within just a day or two, the media has already identified a hero: Kimberley Munley, the police officer who ended the massacre by shooting the suspect, but not before sustaining injuries herself. CNN characterizes her as a "tough woman" who patrolled her neighborhood and once stopped burglars at her house. A Facebook fan page, on which she is referred to as A Real American Hero, is reported to have attracted 1,400 members.

It’s perhaps not too surprising that we should look for heroes in a crisis. The attention and adulation that we give to them somehow helps us to bear the shock and the grief of the moment. By focusing on the heroism of some among us, we are able, at least to some extent, to change our sorrow into joy, our shame into pride. And yet, as much as our heroes help us to deal with our pain, as much as they deserve our praise, we may perhaps wonder whether something gets lost when our attention is focused exclusively on them.

Take our scripture readings for today, for example. The widow’s mite is a story that we all know very well. And our usual approach – my usual approach – is to think of the widow as a hero, a model to be praised and emulated. Painfully poor as she was, she willingly contributed all she had, her whole livelihood towards the upkeep of the Temple in Jerusalem. The rich may have donated much more in absolute terms, but she, even at great cost to herself, gave 100 percent. The widow in the first reading is just as heroic. In a time of drought and famine, even though she and her son are themselves close to starving to death, she willingly shares her food with the prophet Elijah. And what is even more worthy of praise and emulation than the widows’ heroic generosity is the attitude that motivates it. Both widows are willing to sacrifice everything, even at the risk of losing their own lives, because their trust is ultimately in the Lord. In the words of our responsorial psalm, they believe that their God is the Lord who keeps faith forever, secures justice for the oppressed, gives food to the hungry. Aren’t these women true heroes? Shouldn’t we be like them? In our own lives as Christians, shouldn’t we try to be just as generous, just as trusting, just as heroic?

Of course we should! And yet, isn’t there also something crucially important that gets left out when we focus only upon the widows as heroes? For, as heroic as they are, aren’t these women also themselves, in a sense, victims? Aren’t they themselves in need of a hero? Isn’t this precisely what they are hoping for from the Lord? To gain a better appreciation of this, however, we need to consider more closely the biblical context in which each of the stories is situated.

In the first reading, for example, the drought that occasions the widow’s suffering is not a random occurrence. It is the immediate result of the powerful word spoken by the prophet himself. As the mouthpiece of God, Elijah calls down a drought on the land because of the idolatrous behavior of Ahab, the king of Israel. Thus the widow – who is a foreigner living in the Sidonian town of Zarephath – is suffering because of the infidelities of the chosen people, in response to which God sends the prophet to issue a call to repentance. The Sidonian widow’s heroism is called for because the chosen people have become corrupt. And if she is a hero, then, Elijah is the hero’s hero.

We find something similar in the gospel as well. As some scripture scholars remind us, the story of the widow’s mite comes immediately after Jesus’ critique of the scribes – or at least some of them – and the prevailing system of religious practices that they administer. They devour the houses of widows and, as a pretext recite lengthy prayers. In this context, Jesus may well be drawing his disciples’ attention to the widow’s contribution, not just as conduct worthy of emulation and praise – although it is surely that – but also as a state of affairs to be lamented, a problem needing to be addressed. Why, we may ask, should a poor widow, struggling to keep body and soul together, be expected to donate her very last two coins toward the maintenance of the Temple? Shouldn’t the Temple be providing for her upkeep instead? Isn’t her situation a concrete illustration of how the administrators of the Temple and the Law devour the houses of widows and, as a pretext recite lengthy prayers. In this bad situation, like Elijah before him, Jesus appears as someone sent by God to speak up for the victims and to call the victimizers to repentance, to be a hero for the heroic, even at the cost of his own life.

But is there really any difference between the heroism of Jesus and Elijah on the one hand, and that of the widows on the other? Don’t both pairs share in common a genuine generosity born of profound faith and hope in the Lord? Aren’t both pairs willing to sacrifice everything for God and their fellow human beings? What difference does it make whether we focus our attention on one or the other? An indication of an answer might perhaps be found in our second reading, which makes a clear distinction between the sacrifices offered by the high priest and that of Christ. While the high priest’s sacrifices have to be offered repeatedly, Christ’s sacrifice has been made once for all. Similarly, might we not say that, if we were to focus only on praising and imitating the heroism of the widows, without also attending to and addressing the circumstances of their suffering, then won’t their sacrifices need to be offered again and again, if not by them specifically, then by others who will take their place? For better or for worse, won’t we always need heroes like them?

In contrast, attention to the heroism of Elijah and Jesus makes us see the importance of discerning the deeper reasons why people like those widows – people caught in difficult situations not of their own making – continue to have to suffer. More than simply looking out for heroes, Elijah and Jesus show us how, as grown-up Christians, called by God to be light of the world and salt of the earth, our vocation is not just to practice heroic virtue, but also to be heroes for the heroic.

Sisters and brothers, how grown-up are we as Christians? To whom are we called to be heroes today?

Sunday, October 18, 2009

29th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)
Did You See The Gorilla?

Readings: Isaiah 53:10-11; Psalm 33:4-5, 18-19, 20, 22; Hebrews 4:14-16; Mark 10:35-45 or 10:42-45
Picture: cc mrflip

Sisters and brothers, recently someone told me about an experiment he’d been involved in on campus a while ago. Apparently it’s quite a famous experiment. Some of you may have heard or even participated in it. A group of maybe 100 or more people was asked to watch a short video clip in which several other people, some wearing white and others wearing black, were passing basketballs to one another. The watchers were asked to count the number of times the ball was passed between the people in white. After the clip had been screened, various answers were given. Then, to the surprise of most of the test subjects, they were asked how many of them had seen the gorilla. Gorilla? What gorilla? Only two people raised their hands. The video was screened again. And, sure enough, in the middle of it, someone in a black gorilla suit walked right through the group of ball players. In fact, the gorilla had taken center stage, and yet most of the subjects hadn’t seen it. They’d been so focused on the ball that they’d missed the gorilla.

It may seem strange, but doesn’t this experiment mirror what we see happening in our gospel today? To recognize the similarity we need to situate today’s passage in the wider context of Mark’s gospel. We need to consider what has gone before and what will come after. We need to see, for example, that up until this moment, Jesus and his disciples have been moving ever closer to Jerusalem. In the very next chapter they will finally enter the Holy City. And, all along their journey, in addition to ministering to the crowds with his wise words and healing touch, Jesus has also been trying very hard to tell his companions about what awaits him in Jerusalem. In fact, today’s gospel passage follows immediately after Jesus’ third prediction of his Passion and Death. For the third time, Jesus tells his closest companions: Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death and hand him over to the Gentiles who will mock him, spit upon him, scourge him, and put him to death, but after three days he will rise(10:33f.). And what we heard just now is the response of Jesus' friends to this bone-chilling revelation. Their beloved Master has just told them, yet again, that he will soon die a horrible death. And James and John respond with: Grant that in your glory we may sit one at your right and the other at your left. Not only that, we are also told that, when the (other) ten heard this, they became indignant at James and John. And they were upset not because the Zebedee brothers had been insensitive, but rather because they had been trying to get ahead of the rest of them.

In other words, even though, all along their journey towards Jerusalem, the reality of Jesus’ impending suffering and death had actually taken center stage in their conversations, the disciples had missed it. Not unlike the test subjects who missed the gorilla even though it walked by right in front of them. Like those test subjects, the disciples’ were more interested in what had been going on in the background. They were concentrating on the glorious acclaim that Jesus had garnered from the crowds in his public ministry. Seeing earthly praise already received, they wanted also to share in the heavenly glory that was yet to come. Obsessed with their image of a glorious Messiah in the distant future, they missed the heartbreaking sight of the Suffering Servant closer at hand. Concentrating only on their own desires, they missed their chance to do what friends might be expected to do in similar situations – if not to console, then at least to try to empathize with the one who is suffering. It is not surprising then that when Jesus’ predictions eventually came to pass, when he was finally arrested in Gethsemane, they all left him and fled (14:50). They ran away because they hadn’t yet understood what Jesus had been trying to teach them. Focused as they were only on the passing to them of the ball of the Lord’s glory, they had missed the intruding gorilla of His Cross.

And perhaps this tendency of the first disciples is something that we are also particularly prone to in this modern age. As you may have heard, some people speak of ours as a feel-good generation, living in an increasingly therapeutic society. Many of us tend to assume – and I might include myself here too – that to be healthy and happy, an individual has to be free from all negative emotions and experiences. So that if we aren’t feeling good about ourselves at any given moment, if the struggles of life trouble us to any degree, then there must be something wrong with us. We need therapy, or counseling, or healing. We need help to take the pain away… And perhaps we do. But this obsession with our own individual well-being often leads us to fail to consider what others might be going through. So caught up are we in our own pressing concerns that we have no room to empathize with the pain of others, even those closest to us, let alone those who are far away. Like the first disciples and the subjects in the experiment, we concentrate so much on the ball that we fail to notice the gorilla.

And perhaps this would be all right, if not for the fact that there is a crucial difference between our situation and the gorilla experiment – a difference that our readings highlight for us quite strikingly. In the experiment, although the gorilla takes center stage at some point, it doesn’t have any real relation to the passing of the ball. Indeed, the gorilla is more of a distraction than anything else. The situation in our readings, however, is quite the opposite. Here, we find an intimate connection between passing into glory and the endurance of suffering. In the second reading, we are reminded that Christ identified himself so closely with us that in him we no longer have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has similarly been tested in every way, yet without sin. And the first reading tells us that it is by thus undergoing affliction for our sake that the suffering servant came to see the light in fullness of days. Also, not only does Christ’s passing into glory depend on his endurance of suffering, but his passing of glory on to us also depends upon our willingness to share in the sufferings of others. Whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all. For the Christian, the way to true happiness has to pass through the other, especially the other who suffers.

Or, in the words of that song popularized in the sixties by Jefferson Airplane, when the truth is found to be lies and all the joy within you dies… you better find somebody to love… Especially when the going gets tough, particularly when we might be sorely tempted to focus solely on our own needs – perhaps during a time of budget cuts, for example – we need to find somebody to love. And, happily, our celebration of World Mission Sunday today offers us an opportunity to express that love in concrete monetary terms. But World Mission Sunday comes only once a year, one day out of three hundred and sixty five. What about the rest of the time?

Sisters and brothers, when we leave this place to live out the other three hundred and sixty four days of the year, how many of us will see the gorilla? How many of us will find somebody to love?

Sunday, October 11, 2009

28th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)
Moving House

Readings: Wisdom 7:7-11; Psalm 90:12-13, 14-15, 16-17; Hebrews 4:12-13; Mark 10:17-30 or 10:17-27
Picture: cc hagwall

Sisters and brothers, do you like to travel? Many of us do. Traveling broadens our horizons. We get to visit new places, to see new sights, to meet new people. But no matter how far we go, how many great sights we see, or how many interesting people we meet, we usually get a special feeling when we return home, don’t we? It doesn’t matter how much fun we’ve had on the road. There’s almost a kind of relief, when we’re able to settle back into familiar surroundings, to put up our feet after snuggling into our favorite chair, to shut our eyes in the warmth of our own bed. Finally, we’re home!

And all of us have a home of some sort, don’t we? It doesn’t matter if work commitments mean that we often have to live out of a suitcase. Nor does it matter even if we don’t actually have a roof over our heads. For a home doesn’t really have to be a physical location. As the saying goes, home is where the heart is. And the human heart has a marvelous capacity for making its home in all sorts of different places. Sometimes home is an object or a memory. Sometimes it takes the form of a person or an activity. Whatever it is, we all have a home of some sort, a (literal or figurative) place, where our hearts find rest.

But, of course, we’re not always aware of this, are we? We don’t always know exactly where our home is. Especially if we tend to wander around a lot, we can often fail to recognize the exact place where our hearts prefer to rest. Which can be dangerous, because our chosen homes are not always the best places to be. Sometimes, for example, some of us may find our home in a bottle of pills or liquor, or in the screen of a slot machine or a computer, or in various unhealthy eating or working habits. Remaining in such homes is highly detrimental to our wellbeing, as well as to the wellbeing of those who love us. Common sense dictates that, if we live in homes like these, and if we want to enjoy a fuller life, then we have to move. But that is often much easier said than done.

Which brings us to a question that today’s gospel reading poses to us. To the man who at first seems to have everything a person could need or want, Jesus says, there is one thing you lack. But what is this one thing? We may imagine that this was also the question at the top of the rich man’s mind. I’ve kept all the commandments. What could I possibly lack?

If we take this question as the central focus of the passage, then what Jesus asks of the rich man begins to make a lot of sense. Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come follow me. For notice the effect that this apparently demanding – if not downright unreasonable – request has on the man. Of course, we don’t know for sure exactly what was going on in his mind. All the gospel tells us is that his face fell, and he went away sad, for he had many possessions. But perhaps it is not too difficult to imagine what lay behind his disappointment. Perhaps it's possible to imagine that Jesus’ words actually helped the man to recognize for himself the place that he called home. As a result of Jesus’ call, the man finally began to see the extent to which his heart was resting in his many possessions. And not just his material possessions, all of which Jesus wanted him to sell and give to the poor. But also his moral possessions, all the commandments that he prided himself in having observed from his youth. From these too, he was to detach himself, if he wanted to inherit eternal life. Not that he was to stop keeping the Law, but that he would no longer rely on its observance for his salvation, but on his following of the Lord.

And this, of course, brings to mind what the second reading tells us about the word of God being living and effective, sharper than any two-edged sword, penetrating between soul and spirit, joints and marrow… to discern the reflections and thoughts of the heart. With just a few carefully chosen words, Jesus, the Word Made Flesh, penetrates the heart of the rich man, uncovering his deepest desires, and helping him to see the place he calls home.

But that’s not all. In addition, Jesus also shows the rich man how detrimental this home of his can be to his own spiritual wellbeing. For in choosing to rest in his many possessions instead of following Jesus, the man was doing the exact opposite of what the first reading tells us a spiritually astute person would do. As we heard just now, the spirit of wisdom is to be preferred over scepter and throne… all gold, in view of her, is a little sand, and before her, silver is to be accounted mire… So that to choose possessions over Jesus, gold over the Wisdom of God, is the same as to prefer the worthless over the priceless, the passing over that which endures. It is to make a foolish choice, a dangerous choice. All of which meant one thing for the rich man: it was time for him to move, to change his home. But that’s much easier said than done. And so, we’re told, he went away sad.

Speaking for myself, it’s not too difficult to identify with the rich man. It’s not too difficult to imagine oneself in the position of knowing what has to be done, and yet still be unwilling, even unable, to do it. We all know, for example, the damage being done to the earth by our current patterns of energy consumption. And yet, how difficult it is to move out of this comfortable home that we have made for ourselves. How hard it is to take the bus instead of drive, or to use a fan instead of the A/C. What Jesus tells the rich man applies as well to us: there’s one thing you lack… You’re unable to move, even when you know you need to.

In contrast, in the gospels, we find Jesus continually on the move. Today’s reading, for example, begins by telling us that he was setting out on a journey. And we know where his journeying would lead him: to Calvary and beyond. Jesus is able to do this because, unlike the rich man, he makes his home not in possessions, but in his Father’s will. His heart rests in his Father’s love.

According to a Chinese legend, when the sage Mencius was a boy, his mother moved house three times. Their first home was near a cemetery. And little Mencius would imitate the wailing of the mourners passing by. Their second home was near an abattoir. And the boy mimicked the shrieking of the animals as they were being slaughtered. Finally, they found a place by a school. And the boy began to follow the lessons that were being recited by the students. Only then did his mother finally settle down. It must not have been easy to move house so often. But for the love of her son, the wise mother was willing and able to suffer the inconvenience.

Perhaps it’s for this same kind of wisdom, the wisdom born of love, that we too need to pray, as did that person in the first reading, who said, I prayed, and prudence was given me; I pleaded, and the spirit of wisdom came to me.

Sisters and brothers where exactly do we find our home? How willing and able are we to move if we have to?

Sunday, October 04, 2009

27th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)
Towards Completion

Readings: Genesis 2:18-24; Psalm 128:1-2, 3, 4-5, 6; Hebrews 2:9-11; Mark 10:2-16 or 10:2-12

Sisters and brothers, have you ever come across that bumper sticker with the message about marriage? You know the one I’m referring to. It goes something like this: No one is complete until they get married. And then they are finished! Many of us laugh when we come across it. I’m one of those who do. We find it funny because, of course, there is a double meaning to the word finished.

The first meaning is the obvious romantic one. It’s the one that people often use at the beginning of intimate relationships. It’s the meaning that Tom Cruise was using in the feel-good movie Jerry Maguire. In a particularly popular scene, after Jerry tells Dorothy, his secretary, that he loves her, he immortalizes in movie history these marvelously mushy (some might say cheesy), yet amazingly effective words: you complete me. You complete me, he says. In other words, you finish me.

The other meaning is the very opposite of the first. If the first is often used at the birth of relationships, then the second is usually voiced when they die. It’s the meaning that Meryl Streep had in mind in that scene from the movie Kramer vs Kramer, where Streep’s character, Joanna, is in the process of leaving Ted, her workaholic husband. Ted desperately tries to coax Joanna back into their apartment. But she responds by pleading with her soon to be ex-husband in these words: Please don’t make me go in there… If you do, I swear, one day, next week, maybe next year, I don’t know, I’ll go right out the window. I’ll go right out the window. In other words, if I go back to our marriage, I’m finished.

Finished: one simple word with two very different meanings. And it is the context, the circumstances, that determine which one is intended. Jerry Maguire or Kramer vs Kramer. Romance or divorce. Completion or death.

No one is complete until they get married. And then they are finished!

More than just a (hopefully) snazzy opening for a homily, this line also happens to highlight a connection that we find in our readings today, if we look hard enough. It is a connection between two questions: on the one hand, the question about the meaning of marriage and, on the other hand, the question regarding what it means to be a complete human being.

I say if we look hard enough because, at first glance, the main message of the gospel appears to be nothing more than the prohibition of divorce. And Jesus does indeed speak out against the Mosaic law that allowed a man to divorce his wife for the most trivial of reasons, not least because, as scholars tell us, this same law could result in the abuse and exploitation of women. But Jesus’ response to the Pharisees takes the conversation to a whole different level. Like the Kramers in the movie, and others faced with the painful task of negotiating the death of a relationship, the Pharisees are concerned with the Law. Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife? And in many circumstances this can, of course, be a legitimate concern. For instance, even as we Catholics continue to uphold Jesus’ prohibition of divorce, Canon Law also admits certain narrow exceptions, such as the so-called Pauline Privilege. Also, there may be certain situations in which a civil divorce might well be a prudent course of action for a Catholic, provided that s/he does not remarry.

Even so, to remain with the Pharisees (and the Kramers) at the level of the law would give us too narrow a view of what our scripture readings are saying to us today. For, in the gospel, Jesus’ concern is not just with the ending of marriages, legal or otherwise, but also, more importantly, with the beginning of creation. Referring to the book of Genesis, Jesus invites us to consider not only what it tells us about the true meaning of marriage, but even beyond that, also about how one becomes a complete human being.

As we heard in our first reading, more than a simple contractual alliance, more than just a joint checking account, or a shared double bed, the true meaning of marriage is a profound union in which two people become one flesh. In a sense, they are no longer two but one – sharing a common origin, a new creation. And this process of union is also a process of completion. For notice the circumstances in which the first man and the first woman come together. Notice how, at the beginning of the reading, even though the man has already been created, he is not quite complete. God says: It is not good for the man to be alone. And notice too, how the completion of the man is brought about. The process is rather different from what Jerry Maguire might have had in mind. It is not a filling of some inner void in the man by some external creature. The attempt to do this with the animals fails. They are found to be unsuitable. They do not have enough in common with the man. He can only exert mastery over them, but no true partnership can be formed. No true intimacy is experienced. The man remains lonely. It is only when he falls into a deep sleep and gives up something of himself that success is achieved. Quite paradoxically, completion comes with self-donation, and with completion, communion. He gives up a rib and the two become one flesh.

It is at this point that we finally arrive at the crux of what the scriptures are saying to us today. For, as you well know, the early Fathers of the Church delighted in drawing parallels between the creation of the first man and the crucifixion of Christ. Just as the first man fell into a deep sleep in which the first woman was formed from his rib, so too did Christ fall into the sleep of death on the Cross, during which the Church was born from the blood and water that flowed out of his pierced side. Also, as the second reading reminds us, just as the first man became complete and came to share a new common origin with the first woman, by giving something of himself, so too was Christ made perfect through suffering, such that he who consecrates and those who are being consecrated – you and I – all have one origin.

It becomes clear then, sisters and brothers, that the scriptures have something important to say to us today regardless of whether or not we have ever been married or divorced, regardless of whether we are women or men. For, as baptized Christians, we are all members of the Church of Christ, the same Church that the Lord formed through his sacrifice on the Cross, the same Church that is destined to become his bride when he comes again. And, as members of this Church, whether married or single, separated or divorced, female or male, we are all called to perfection in Christ by imitating him in giving of ourselves to others.

No one is complete until they get married. And then they are finished!

Sisters and brothers, both as individual Christians and as Church, how might the Lord be drawing us further towards completion today?

Sunday, September 20, 2009

25th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)
Receiving the Hands of the Child

Readings: Wisdom 2:12, 17-20; Psalm 54:3-4, 5, 6 and 8; James 3:16-4:3; Mark 9:30-37
Picture: cc po1yester

Sisters and brothers, have you ever visited a pre-school? Or maybe watched pre-school children at play? Today I’d like to invite us to imagine the scene at a pre-school, where a child is at play. What is the child playing? Two games that we probably know well. The first has to do with fitting blocks of different shapes into their respective slots in a box. The blocks will only fit into the slots if they are of the same shape. The child has to match them. Can you picture it? The second game has to do with making shapes out of play-doh or modeling clay. The child is free to make whatever shape it likes because the clay yields to its touch. The clay submits to the hands of the child. The child is limited only by its own imagination. Can you picture the scene? Shouldn’t be too difficult, right? But then this child does something different, something creative. It decides to combine the two games. It shapes the play-doh from the second game so that it fits into one of the slots in the first. Can you imagine what the scene looks like? Do you think the child will succeed?

It may seem surprising, sisters and brothers, but perhaps this scene of a child at play can help us to appreciate the deeper meaning in our scripture readings today. Like our pre-school scene, our readings today also present us with slots and blocks and modeling clay. Can you find them? Can you see what they look like?

First, let’s look for the slots. The first reading gives us the names and descriptions of two different kinds of people, two slots of different shapes. The first has the shape of the wicked. The second that of the just. And these two differently shaped slots, these two different kinds of people, are contrasted in terms of what they do and what motivates them. In the first reading, the wicked are threatened and offended by the words and way of life of the just. So upset are they that they even go to the extent of plotting to mistreat and to murder the just. With revilement and torture let us put the just one to the test, they say. Let us condemn him to a shameful death. Conflict and cruelty, hostility and homicide: these are what characterize the conduct of the wicked. And the second reading tells us something of what motivates such horrible behavior. Where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is every disorder and every foul practice. Jealousy and selfish ambition, leading to conflict, violence and even death: such is the shape of the wicked.

Contrast that with the shape of the just. Whereas the wicked act defensively, out of anxious self-assertion, the just rely ultimately on God to defend them. As we heard in our responsorial psalm: Behold, God is my helper; the Lord sustains my life. The just are able to do this because they are moved by the very thing we prayed for earlier in our opening prayer when we said that the perfection of justice is to be found in God’s love. The just are moved by the love of God. Such that whereas the foolish actions of the wicked lead to disorder and violence, the just act according to the wisdom from above, which is pure… peaceable, gentle, compliant, full of mercy and good fruits and is sown and cultivated in peace. Whereas the selfish ambition of the wicked leads ultimately to the taking of innocent life, the love of the just allows them to lay down their life for others.

These then are the two different slots in our readings, the wicked and the just. And, in the gospel, we find two blocks that match them. Jesus is, of course, the Just One, moved by the Wisdom and Love of God to lay down his life for others, both friends and enemies alike. In his life we find the block that fits into the slot of the just. In contrast, in their jealousy and hardness of heart, the religious authorities who plot to have Jesus condemned and crucified fit the slot of the wicked.

And don’t we find these same slots and blocks in our own experience today? Don’t we find them in our world, in our communities, in our families, perhaps even in our own hearts? In our parish communities, for example, do we not find, on the one hand, people who serve selflessly in different ministries, people who help in proclaiming the word of God, in leading the singing, in preparing the coffee and donuts, or in putting out the chairs? But, on the other hand, in some parishes, perhaps not in this one, we may also find jealousy and selfish ambition at work, such that various ministries come to be monopolized by the same people, to the exclusion of others. Where else in your experience, sisters and brothers, do you encounter the slots of the wicked and the just?

But that’s not all. More than just slots and blocks, in our readings today, we also find something that looks like a child working with play-doh. Isn’t this what Jesus is doing with the disciples in the gospel? We are told that as they began a journey through Galilee, Jesus was teaching his disciples. In telling them about his impending Passion and Death, Jesus was trying to make them understand that the Cross is central to the path they have chosen, the path of love that leads to life. He was trying to shape them to fit into the slot of the just. But the teaching is too much for the disciples. They demonstrate their lack of understanding by arguing among themselves about who is the greatest. They show that their shape still tends to fit more easily into the slot of the wicked than the slot of just. But all is not lost. For we are also told that the disciples remain silent when questioned by Jesus. They are embarrassed, a sign that perhaps there is still hope for them. In the days ahead, they might yet be molded into the right shape by Jesus, if not before his Crucifixion, then perhaps after his Resurrection. But for this to happen, they must remain pliable as play-doh. In contrast to the hardness of Jesus’ enemies, the disciples need to learn to submit to the healing hands of the Lord. Will they succeed?

And what about us? Does the Lord not continue to mold us too, shaping us to fit the slot of the just? And does not this molding often bear the shape of the Cross? Think, for example, of the parent who loses a child to cancer. How will s/he respond to such a tragic experience? Some might end up hardening themselves, remaining trapped in their grief and their anger at God and the world. But then, there may also be others who gradually allow their pain to lead them to reach out to others who have experienced a similar loss, or who contribute towards the work of finding a cure for this dreaded disease. Remaining pliable, these parents submit themselves to the hands of the Lord, as he shapes them to fit into the slot of the just. They learn to lay down their lives for others. They learn the deeper meaning of Jesus' words to the disciples in the gospel: Whoever receives one child such as this in my name receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me but the One who sent me?

Sisters and brothers, in various ways, like the pre-schooler and the play-doh, Jesus wants to shape us to better fit the slot of the just. How receptive are we to his touch? Will this child succeed?

Monday, August 31, 2009

22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)
The Goose is for the Golden Egg

Readings: Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-8; Psalm 15:2-3, 3-4, 4-5; James 1:17-18, 21b-22, 27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Picture: cc kjarrett

Sisters and brothers, I think most of us have heard the story about the farmer who had the tremendous good fortune of owning a goose that laid a golden egg each day? Eager to get rich quick, and thinking that all the eggs are stored in the belly of the bird, the farmer kills it and, of course, loses everything. No more goose. No more eggs. The moral of the story: greed will get you nowhere, especially when it’s coupled with stupidity.

But here’s another story about two other farmers each of whom has also been given a goose that lays golden eggs. The first farmer is unlucky. His goose is a nuisance and a troublemaker. Not only does it refuse to be toilet trained, it is also highly aggressive. It often intimidates the other animals and sometimes even attacks the farmer and his family. Finally, unable to tolerate all the nonsense any longer, the disillusioned farmer kills his goose, thus terminating his precious supply of golden eggs.

The second farmer is very different. As bizarre as it may sound, this one actually falls in love with his goose and pampers it to no end. Not only does he feed it with rich gourmet food – food that is really quite unsuitable for geese – he also refuses to let it do any work. He even goes to the extent of dressing up the poor animal in all sorts of designer clothes and jewelry. As you might expect, because of this kind of treatment, the goose soon becomes overweight and sickly. Eventually, its health issues became so serious that it can no longer lay eggs, golden or otherwise. But the farmer is so distracted by the tasks of feeding and dressing up the goose that he doesn’t even notice.

Sisters and brothers, I know you’ve not heard this story before (since I made it up). But what do you think might be its moral? What possible connection might it have to our Mass readings today? What is its relevance for us?

Notice, first, that each of the geese is received as a gift. Likewise, in our readings today, mention is also made of gifts given and received. In the first reading, Moses presents the people of Israel with a gift from God, a set of statutes and decrees, a code of dos and don’ts that will help them to prosper in the Promised Land. Also, in the second reading, after telling us that every perfect gift is from above, the author goes on to speak about what pure and undefiled religion looks like. It is here in our readings that we find a God-given goose. This is God’s gift to the people, a code of religious practices and institutions, including the Ten Commandments, for example, as well as the institution of the priesthood and the various guidelines concerning feast days and how they are to be celebrated.

But just as the goose is precious only because it lays golden eggs, so too do these laws and institutions embody a more precious gift, namely the close covenantal commitment between God and the people, God’s promise to be continually present and active among them. As Moses reminds his listeners in the first reading: what great nation is there that has gods so close to it as the Lord, our God, is to us whenever we call upon him? Similarly, the second reading reminds the early Christians to welcome the word – the presence of God – that has been planted in them. And can we not also say the same about ourselves? Although our religious practices and institutions may differ from those of the Israelites in the first reading, as well as from the early Christians of the second, do we not continue to receive God’s word through the various aspects of our Catholic religion? Isn’t this what we are doing here today, for example? Here, in this place, are we not attending to the goose of religious practice as it miraculously lays for us the golden egg of God’s presence and action in our lives?

But if this is so, if we are indeed recipients of a goose that lays golden eggs, then the experience of the two farmers in our story reminds us that there are at least two dangers that we need to guard against. The first is the danger faced by the first farmer. It is that of disillusionment. For even though the goose is a gift from God, and even though it miraculously lays golden eggs, it is still a goose, prone to the silliness of geese. There will be times when it will try our patience to breaking point. For instance, do we not hear stories of how an unreasonable minister (cleric or lay) in one church might be the cause of people defecting to another? Or, more serious, can we even begin to imagine how those who have suffered from clerical child abuse must struggle with their ambivalent feelings towards the church. Then, of course, there are those who decide to do away with the goose altogether and to undertake the arduous task of searching for gold on their own, those who prefer to describe themselves as spiritual but not religious. As understandable as this latter response may be, we might be forgiven for wondering if it may not be a case of someone throwing the baby out with the bath water, or even of cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face.

Then there is the danger faced by the second farmer, the same danger to which the Pharisees and scribes in the gospel succumb, the danger of distraction. Again, as bizarre as it sounds, isn’t it really easy to become so distracted with the goose as to forget about the golden eggs? Isn’t it easy to be so concerned about every minute detail of our own performance as to neglect to open our hearts to the God who stands at the door knocking? This people honors me with their lips, says Jesus, quoting Isaiah, but their hearts are far from me. And I myself have to confess, for example, that I live and worship at a church quite literally surrounded by homeless people. Some of them camp on our very doorstep. But as much as I pay careful attention to our liturgical performance within the church, I also tend to ignore the presence of these people without. And yet, more likely than not, their bodies – unkempt and unwashed though they may be – are where that pure religion that the second reading speaks about is to be found. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to care for the orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world. Could my attention to worship to the neglect of charity and justice be one way in which I am pampering the goose at the expense of the golden eggs?

Sisters and brothers, truly it is not easy. It is not easy to safeguard this precious gift that God has entrusted to us, to continue to discipline the goose of religion, even as we focus our attention on the golden eggs of God’s presence. It is not easy to guard against the twin dangers of disillusionment and distraction. Yet it is on this that the vitality of our faith and the purity of our religion depend. Isn’t this why our opening prayer today is so important? In it, we asked almighty God to help us to do what needs to be done: fill our hearts with love for you, increase our faith, and by your constant care protect the good you have given us. As it turns out, even the preservation of our God-given treasures requires a further gift from God. For as it is written in 2 Corinthians 4:7: we hold this treasure in earthen vessels, that the surpassing power may be of God and not from us.

Sisters and brothers, how open are we to experience this power, to receive this gift of God today?

Monday, August 17, 2009

Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)
The Magic of Gillyweed

Readings: Proverbs 9:1-6; Psalm 34:2-3, 4-5, 6-7; Ephesians 5:15-20; John 6:51-58

Dear sisters and brothers, do you know what gillyweed is, what it’s used for? My guess is that many of you know better than I do. You know that gillyweed is a plant from the Harry Potter stories. In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, gillyweed helps Harry to complete the second of three perilous tasks that he has to perform as part of the Triwizard Tournament. The second task requires that Harry and each of the other three contestants go underwater to rescue a loved one. And Harry is able to do this only after eating gillyweed. The plant makes him grow gills for breathing underwater. It also turns his feet into flippers and makes his hands webbed, so that he can swim better. That’s what gillyweed is for: it helps you to survive underwater.

Which makes me wonder what would happen if gillyweed was given to people who lived in the desert, people who neither liked to swim nor knew how. Would these people also grow gills and webbed hands and feet? And if they did, would they even know what to do with these things? Or perhaps they wouldn’t even want to eat gillyweed in the first place, since we’re told that it’s not very appetizing. It’s green and looks like a bunch of rats’ tails. It’s also rubbery and tasteless. Our desert-dwelling friends might, of course, try to find ways to jazz up the taste a bit – add mustard, or ketchup to it, maybe, or slap on a generous coating of barbecue sauce and then grill it. But whatever they did, as long as they did not dive into the water after eating it, they’d be missing the point, right?

I mention gillyweed today, because I think that maybe it’s not much different from how the Eucharist can look and taste like sometimes. For some of us, and I should confess, sometimes also for me too, the Eucharist can seem quite bland and boring. Why am I sitting here, listening to the priest drone on and on, when I could be catching up on sleep, or maybe even watching that new Harry Potter movie? At times, this is how the Eucharist tastes like to us – tough and tasteless. Of course, this may be due to any number of reasons: the priest may be having a bad day, or the cantor may be recovering from a head cold… And we could respond by trying to jazz things up in various ways. But more than anything else, the Eucharist can seem most tasteless when we lose touch with its deeper meaning, when we forget that the Eucharist has an intimate connection with life. As Jesus tells us: whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life… Just as eating gillyweed might seem a silly thing to do if one doesn’t dive into the water immediately after, so does the Eucharist become tough and tasteless when separated from the tasks of daily living.

How then might we make our participation in the Eucharist more meaningful? How might we better relate the liturgy to life? Our readings offer us some important hints. The first reading paints for us a picture of a banquet laid out by Lady Wisdom to which we are invited. We are told that Wisdom calls from the heights out over the city… Come, eat of my food, and drink of the wine I have mixed! Forsake foolishness that you may live… And in this call, we find three important steps towards making our participation in the Eucharist more meaningful: COME, EAT and LIVE...

The first of these steps might perhaps seem too obvious to require further explanation. Of course we have to come to the Eucharist to experience its effects. Aren’t we here now? But are we really here? Sure, we may all be here physically. But where are we mentally and emotionally? Isn’t it possible that even as we might be sitting in our chairs, we are really someplace and even sometime else – replaying in our minds that difficult conversation we had with someone the other night, for instance, or worrying about something we have to do tomorrow, or maybe even wondering about that cool place we’ll be visiting after Mass? But is it really possible to keep all our distractions at bay? Probably not. Still, maybe it isn’t necessary to do that in order to be fully present. Maybe what we need instead is simply to acknowledge our distractions and make them a part of our prayer. Isn’t this also what coming to the Eucharist involves? Like the patient who uncovers his/her symptoms before the doctor instead of trying to hide them, we come to the Eucharist as we are, allowing our preoccupations and distractions to be laid bare. We come acknowledging that we don’t have it all together. Because that’s precisely why we are here. As the first reading tells us, Wisdom’s invitation is issued not so much to the wise as to whoever is simple… to the one who lacks understanding. And I am that person. I am the one who often doesn’t understand what life requires of me. I am the person who often remembers only my own needs and interests even as I forget the depth of God’s love for me. That’s me. I come as I am. We come as we are. And we say Lord have mercy.

Even so, we don’t remain as we are. We come only to be transformed. And for this to happen, we need to eat. At one level, this refers, of course, to Holy Communion, to our sharing in the one Bread and the one Cup at the one Table of the Lord. But just as there’s more to coming to the Eucharist than being physically present, so does eating involve more than the juices in our digestive system. For, as we are told in our readings today, what we are sharing is not just a feast for the taste buds. It is also a banquet for the understanding. It’s meant not just to strengthen our bodies, but also to help us to make wise, God-centered decisions. Do not continue in ignorance, the second reading tells us, but try to understand what is the will of the Lord. Which means, more than just our stomachs and intestines, the food we share in the Eucharist has to pass through our hearts, that deep place within us where our decisions are made. This is what it means to eat. This is what we are trying to do through our singing of the hymns, our attention to the readings, our responses to the prayers, our interaction with one another and everything else at the Eucharist. We are allowing Jesus, the Bread of Life to enter into our hearts and to transform us – to turn us from foolishness to wisdom.

And all this happens not only in this confined space, and not only for this limited time. We come and eat so that we might live. And living extends beyond what we are doing here. Living means continually striving to forsake the foolishness of a self-centered existence, in order to embrace the wisdom of a Christ-centered one. Living means allowing ourselves to be bread broken for others, just as Christ was broken for us. Living the Eucharist means being willing to dive into the cold and choppy waters of life, because Christ first plunged into the messiness of our human existence. In this, we see again the similarity between the Eucharist and gillyweed. Just as eating gillyweed was a cool thing for Harry Potter to do only because he then plunged into the water to rescue his friends, so too is the Eucharist meaningful, only if our coming and our eating leads us also to live out its implications in our daily lives.

There’s one other thing. Harry Potter came to know about the magic of gillyweed only because someone else shared it with him. Sisters and brothers, do you know of anyone with whom you might share the wisdom of the Eucharist today?

Sunday, August 02, 2009

18th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)
Gorging on Appetizers

Readings: Exodus 16:2-4, 12-15; Psalm 78:3-4, 23-24, 25, 54; Ephesians 4:17, 20-24; John 6:24-35
Picture: cc avixyz

Sisters and brothers, some years ago, together with a couple of traveling companions, I spent several weeks in a foreign country. This being our first time there, we weren’t too familiar with the local customs. On one occasion we were invited by some friends to share a simple home-cooked meal at their modest apartment. As we sat around a small table, beer was served, followed very quickly by several dishes of food. Our hosts encouraged us repeatedly to eat and to drink, even as they engaged us in friendly conversation, continually refilling our glasses and replenishing the food on the table. As I recall, I was quite happy to do as I was told, since I was hungry, and the food was very tasty. After some time, however, my companions and I were stuffed. Perhaps noticing that we had stopped eating, our hosts began to clear the table, and we thought that the meal was over. We were wrong. It had only just begun. From out of the kitchen came even more substantial and mouth-watering dishes of food. To our regret and embarrassment, however, neither my companions nor I were able to eat much more than a few mouthfuls of these delicacies. Having earlier gorged ourselves on the appetizers, we no longer had any room in our bellies for the main course. If only we hadn’t mistaken one for the other.

If only we hadn’t mistaken the appetizers for the main course. Which is something that can be said too about the people in today’s gospel reading. As you know, earlier in John’s gospel, Jesus had fed five thousand by miraculously multiplying five barley loaves and two fish. Suitably impressed, the people now come looking for Jesus, so that he can keep on feeding them in the same way. Are they wrong to do this? Are they wrong to look to Jesus to fill their stomachs? Are the Israelites in the first reading wrong to expect God to provide them with bread in the wilderness? Are we wrong, when we pray to God to find us a good and steady job so that we can feed our hungry children? Probably not. After all, didn’t Jesus teach us to ask our heavenly Father to give us today our daily bread?

The problem then lies somewhere else. The people’s mistake is similar to the one my traveling companions and I made. In their search for material food, the people treat Jesus merely as a miraculous bread-making machine. But Jesus wants to be much more than that for them. More than simply filling their empty bellies with the food that perishes, Jesus wishes to satisfy their hungry hearts with the food that endures for eternal life. The bread Jesus multiplies miraculously is meant only as an appetizer, something to increase the people's yearning for the main course, the Bread of Life himself. But the people are unable to appreciate this. Having gorged themselves on the appetizers, like I did, the people have no room in their hearts for Jesus. All they are looking for is more of what they have already received. As the Lord tells them, you are looking for me not because you saw the signs but because you ate the loaves and were filled.

Here, even as they present us with the people’s mistake, our readings also invite us to reflect upon two of the factors that tend to lead the people astray. What is it that makes the people more susceptible to mistaking the appetizer for the main course? The most obvious factor is, of course, hunger. We see this especially in the experience of the Israelites in the first reading. Wandering in the wilderness, the people are so hungry that they find themselves dreaming even of the miserable food that they had eaten as slaves in Egypt. Their hunger is so great that they find it difficult to trust in the promises of God. They are unable to imagine the rich delicacies that await them in the Promised Land. But, as powerful as it is, hunger is not the only factor. As we noted earlier, in the gospel, Jesus had already provided the people with all the bread they could eat, with much left over. Yet they continue to look for him. They continue to want even more. What do we see at work in them, if not the power of greed? Hunger and greed. Are these not the insidious forces that remain very much in evidence in the world in which we live, especially in these times of deep recession and yawning budget deficits? Today, could these same forces be rendering us more susceptible to mistaking the appetizers for the main course?

And if they are, what can we do about it? What ought we to do about it? How might we better follow Jesus’ advice and work for the food that endures instead of the food that perishes? The way to correct our mistake is perhaps a matter of commonsense. If we have filled our lives with too many of the wrong things, then we need to empty them to make room for the right ones. The second reading describes this process in terms of a taking off and a putting on: you should put away the old self of your former way of life, corrupted through deceitful desires, and be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and put on the new self, created in God’s way in righteousness and holiness of truth.

The imagery that is evoked here is, of course, that of baptism. It is said that, in the early days, candidates for baptism were stripped of their garments, before being plunged into the baptismal waters. And, after their immersion, a white garment was quickly draped over them to symbolize their new life in Christ. Even if we who were baptized at a later time may not have had the experience of being stripped naked, we nonetheless still share the same calling. It is our task continually to strive to put away the old self so as to put on the new, to expend our energies in doing the works of God. This will involve different things at different times and for different people. But perhaps especially in these days, it will involve as much the work of feeding of the hungry as that of challenging the greedy.

Sisters and brothers, there’s actually an important addendum to the story with which we began this reflection. From what I told you, I might have perhaps given you the impression that the main course in that meal at our friends’ apartment consisted in the dishes of food that were served later. But that’s not really accurate. Even though the food and drink had a crucial role to play on that occasion, if we had been focused solely on eating and drinking, we would have missed the whole point. For the crux of the meal consisted less in the food and drink than in the conversations that were being shared and the relationships that were being built among those of us at table.

Sisters and brothers, how is Jesus the Bread of Life, inviting us to pay greater attention to the main course today?