Monday, April 27, 2009

3rd Sunday of Easter (B)
Effective Medicine

Readings: Acts 3:13-15, 17-19; Psalm 4:2, 4, 7-8, 9; 1 John 2:1-5a; Luke 24:35-48

Dear sisters and brothers, have you ever suffered a very persistent bout of the flu? I recently heard someone talk about such an experience. He said he’d already taken several courses of antibiotics, but even after many weeks, he still didn’t feel one hundred percent. He also said that it was probably because he’d been working too hard. He’d not been taking enough rest.

Which reminds me of two pieces of advice that I’ve received in the past regarding effective medicine. The first is an old Chinese proverb that goes liang yao ku kou (良药苦口), or good medicine is bitter to the taste. Which probably explains why many of us continue taking antibiotics even if it’s seldom a pleasant experience. The second piece of advice is from a musical produced in the sixties that was made into a movie, which I watched as a child. Some of you may remember Mary Poppins, and the song entitled A Spoonful of Sugar Helps the Medicine Go Down. There’s much wisdom in that, don’t you think? My sick friend’s need for rest is probably a case in point.

Taken together, these two pieces of advice tell us that effective medicine needs to be both bitter and sweet. And this seems also to be the experience of the people in our readings today. There are at least two groups who are feeling unwell. In the gospel, the disciples are still suffering the traumatic effects of having witnessed the shameful execution of Jesus, in whom they had invested all their hopes and dreams for a better life. And even though the Risen Christ had already appeared to several of them – including, most recently, the two disciples on the road to Emmaus – even though he had consoled them and administered to them his own powerful brand of antibiotics, they are still feeling under the weather. The Easter joy that we talked about in our opening prayer just now is still not yet an enduring experience for them. And the condition of the people that Peter addresses in the first reading is probably even more serious. Not only do they have no experience of the Risen Christ at all, they don’t even realize the depth of their need for him. How do these persistent ailments find their cure?

In both cases, there is a painful pill to swallow, a pill that is bitter in two respects. First, there is the need to acknowledge, not only that Jesus died, but also that those who are ill are somehow implicated in his death. The author of life you put to death… says Peter to his listeners. And even if the disciples did not actually kill their master, in the gospel, they remain burdened by the shame and guilt of having abandoned him. Isn’t this why they are so fearful when at first they mistake the Risen Christ for a ghost? Wouldn’t the presence of a ghost simply serve to remind them of the terrible consequences of their cowardice?

But that is not all. For the cure to be complete, a second form of bitterness needs to be submitted to. Again we find this in both the first reading and the gospel. It’s a key theme in Luke’s accounts of the resurrection. It consists in the conviction that it was necessary that the Christ should suffer… And this is difficult to accept, perhaps more difficult even than our own responsibility for the death of Christ. For if suffering and death are truly an inescapable part of Christ’s human experience, can it be any different for us who claim to follow him? 良药苦口: effective medicine is bitter to the taste.

Thankfully, however, the cure is not all bitter. Actually, unlike many of our modern sugar coated pills, which are sweet only on the outside, but bitter on the inside (which is why we don’t chew them), the core of the Easter message is one of joy, as is the experience of the disciples in the gospel. For the one administering the precious cure to them is not a ghost but someone whom they can experience in a very real way, one who is truly alive. In the words of Peter, you put (him) to death, but God raised him from the dead… The disciples’ fear is changed into incredulous joy and amazement, for in the Risen Christ they find that their mistakes have somehow been neutralized. And not just neutralized but even used to bring about a greater good. They have an intimate experience of what the awesome power of God can do even in the face of human weakness and sin. Much more than a spoonful of sugar, the disciples experience the sublime sweetness of the Resurrection.

And what, we may ask, is the sure sign that they are on the road to recovery? Is it not the fact that, in the first reading, we find them doing exactly what Jesus tells them to do in the gospel? Both in word and in deed, and in the name of Christ, they preach to all the nations the good news of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

Does this mean that they will never again suffer relapses, never again know the experience of sin? Is this our own experience? Probably not. But, as we are told in the second reading if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous one… And this too is part of the sweetness of the Easter message.

But there is something more to say isn’t there? For combating sickness is not just about seeking a cure after we fall ill. Perhaps even more importantly, it is also about disease prevention. It is about cultivating a healthy lifestyle, such that we will be less vulnerable to viruses. Again the second reading spells out for us what this healthy lifestyle looks like in the spiritual realm. It consists in knowing the Crucified and Risen Christ. And the way we may be sure that we know him is to keep his commandments: the great commandment of love, expressed especially in obedience to Christ’s commandment to share with others, as Peter and the first disciples did, the gift of healing that we have all received. For our world today, marked as it is by diseases of all kinds -- diseases such as greed and selfishness, loneliness and poverty -- is truly in dire need of this same healing.

Sisters and brothers, today how might we deepen our experience of this bittersweet cure of Easter, so that we might better share it with others?

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Mass of Christian Burial for Paul Yung
Time for the Timeless

Reading: Ecclesiastes 3:1-15; Psalm 23; Philippians 4:3-9; John 13:34-35, 14:27-28
Picture: cc mischiru

Dear sisters and brothers, what time is it? We heard in the first reading just now, that there is an appointed time for everything under the sun. If this is true, then what time is it now? Drawing from the list that we heard proclaimed just now, perhaps we would quite naturally say that now is a time for dying, a time for weeping, and a time for mourning. And we would be right. These are the more obvious choices. For it is true that today we grieve the passing from our midst of one dearly beloved. We mourn the death of Uncle Paul. But is that all there is to it? Sisters and brothers, what time is it now, really?

You probably already know this, but I’ve been told that when a revered Buddhist monk or teacher dies, and the body is cremated, people usually search through the ashes that are left behind. They look for what are called, in Tibetan, ringsel. These are small crystal-like beads, which enlightened ones are supposed to leave behind when they die. People treasure these ringsel as precious relics. I’ve never really seen them before. But I’ve heard that not only are they colorful and pretty to look at, these ringsel also have the ability to impart peace and tranquility, even enlightenment, to those who come in contact with them. Some say that these beads can even mysteriously multiply themselves.

Of course, probably few if any of us gathered here are practicing Buddhists. And although there will be a cremation on Monday, I don’t think any of us will be looking for crystals among the ashes. Even so, aren’t we doing something similar, if only in an analogous sense? At the wake last evening, for example, Barbara – our presider – helped us to remember Paul’s goodness and piety, his love and care for his wife Margaret and his daughter Christine, his diligence and loyalty to the postal service, as well as his talent for playing the violin. Christine’s godmother Marge remembered the way in which Uncle Paul used to protect her from allergies when they went to a Chinese restaurant together, and how he used to help her translate medical information from English into Chinese for the Cancer Prevention Society.

This kind of remembering can, of course, feel like a search among ashes. It is often accompanied by tears. For we realize that the one remembered is no longer with us, at least not in the same way. And that realization brings a deep sense of loss. But difficult as it may be, if we care enough for the one who has died, we somehow find ourselves impelled to go on searching. Why? Why do we remember if it is so painful? Is it not because, in the midst of the shifting sands of time, we yearn to find something that endures? Is it not because we long to find crystals in the ashes? And we are not wrong to do this. For, as we heard in the first reading just now, not only has God made everything appropriate to its time, God has also put the timeless into our hearts. And it is crucial that we take time to ponder upon the nature of that for which we seek. What are they, these timeless jewels so deeply embedded in the shifting sands of history, these colorful crystals that still call out to us from within the painful ashes of our memory? How has God planted them in our hearts?

As you know, Uncle Paul breathed his last at 10:45 on Easter Sunday morning. And, as his wife, my aunt Margaret, said to me, this is not something that was chosen. It is a blessing from God. And indeed it is a great blessing because it profoundly immerses Uncle Paul, and all of us who mourn his loss, into the single holiest mystery of the Christian faith. In the words of the memorial acclamation at Mass, by dying Christ destroyed our death, by rising he restored our life. If there is indeed something timeless to be found in our time-bound human existence, we Christians believe that it has been placed there through Christ’s sacrifice upon the Cross. When we search among the ashes of our memory, in the light of the Easter mystery, we find something even more precious than crystals. We find Jesus Christ himself, that pearl of great price, for which it is worthwhile to sell everything in order to obtain it. For by dying and rising for us Christ has left us something enduring. The very thing that we heard proclaimed in the gospel just now. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give it to you. Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid…

But that is not all. In order to enjoy the profound peace that Christ’s dying and rising has won for us, we need to take certain steps. The second reading from the Philippians spoke to us about these in terms of thinking and doing. Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing what you have learned and received and heard and seen in me. Then the God of peace will be with you. Or, as Jesus puts it in the gospel, love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another. And isn’t it true that when we do this – we the family and friends of Uncle Paul – isn’t it true that when we do this, we ourselves become the precious jewels that he leaves behind, so as to lead others into the peace of Christ? I’m reminded of something else that Marge shared with us last night. She said that now that Uncle Paul can no longer protect her from her allergies, Christine has taken over that task.

Sisters and brothers, even if it is true that now is the time for weeping and for mourning, perhaps it is just as, if not more, true that now is also the time for loving and for sharing peace. Even if there is truly an appointed time for everything under sun, perhaps now is, above all, the time to search for and to allow ourselves to be captured by the timeless.

Sisters and brothers, today, even as we continue to struggle with our feelings of grief and loss, how might we find the pearl of great price and so become shining jewels in the shifting sands of time?

Monday, April 13, 2009

Easter Sunday – The Resurrection of the Lord
Platform 9 ¾

Readings: Acts 10:34a, 37-43; Psalm 118:1-2, 16-17, 22-23; Colossians 3:1-4 OR 1 Corinthians 5:6b-8; John 20:1-9
Picture: CC Nenyaki

Dear Sisters and brothers, do you know who Harry Potter is? I think most of us are familiar with him – the main character in the popular series of children’s novels written by J.K. Rowling. Today I’m reminded of a scene from the first novel in the series: Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone. As some of you know, the eleven-year-old Harry is actually a wizard. And he is told to go to King’s Cross train station in London to catch the train that is bound for Hogwarts, the school of wizardry, where he will be trained in the magic arts that are his birthright.

But there’s a problem. Harry has been told to board the train at platform 9 ¾. But when he gets to the train station, he finds, of course, that there is no such platform. He stands and stares instead at the brick wall between platform 9 on one side and platform 10 on the other. No platform 9 ¾. What to do? It seems that his journey towards becoming a full-fledged wizard has come to a premature dead-end.

Thankfully, just at that moment, he happens to meet the Weasleys. Mrs. Weasley has come to the station to send off her sons George, Fred and Ron, to Hogwarts. Together, they show Harry how to get onto platform 9 ¾. As it turns out, what you have to do is to run into the brick wall – the dead end – between platforms 9 and 10. Harry follows the example of the Weasley children. And, marvel of marvels, he actually goes through the wall and onto the platform he is looking for. There, he finds the train bound for Hogwarts, which carries him into a whole new world filled with mystery and adventure.

Sisters and brothers, you may think me crazy for suggesting it, but doesn’t Harry’s experience tell us something about this joyous Easter feast that we are celebrating today? For instance, aren’t the people in our gospel today doing just what Harry did at King’s Cross Station? In the gospel, we find Mary, Peter and the beloved disciple running towards a tomb. And what is a tomb but a place for laying lifeless bodies to rest? What is a tomb if not a dead end?

But something happens to the disciples when they get to the tomb. For one thing, they find that the stone that once sealed its entrance has been rolled away. The depressing dead end has been transformed into an exciting entrance into mystery and adventure. The burial cloths have been changed from mere coverings for corpses into signs pointing to new life.

Early yesterday morning I received word that a relative of mine was on his deathbed in a hospital in LA. In a way, as I made the 2-hour long drive south along highway 101, it felt a little like running towards a dead end. And yet, when I got to the hospital and prayed with the family, I couldn’t ignore the unmistakable signs of new life breaking through the hard soil of grief and pain. I couldn’t ignore the strong faith of the wife, who whispered repeatedly into the ears of her unconscious husband, telling him to go into the arms of Jesus. I couldn’t ignore the efforts of the young daughter who, even in the midst of her own sorrow, was bravely trying to help her mom with the arrangements for the funeral that was soon to come. Yesterday, what was to be a drive towards an apparent dead end turned out to be something of a rendezvous with the resurrection.

Still, we need to be honest. These transformations from dead ends to doorways are difficult to discern. When Harry Potter first arrives at King’s Cross Station and approaches a train conductor to find out where platform 9 ¾ is, the conductor says to him, Are you trying to be funny? And, in the gospel, any other people would probably have seen nothing more than an empty tomb. For the mystery of the resurrection is something mysterious, something invisible to the naked eye. As Peter tells his listeners in the first reading, God granted that the risen Christ be visible, not to all the people, but to us, the witnesses chosen by God in advance.

Is God biased then? Why do some people only see an empty tomb, but not the risen Christ? Why are some people able to see only platforms 9 and 10, but not 9 ¾? Perhaps the name of the train station has something to do with it. Seeing the burial cloths at the empty tomb, it is only the disciple whom Jesus loved who saw and believed. Why? Perhaps it is because only someone conscious of being a beloved disciple can appreciate the tomb’s true location under the shadow of the King’s Cross. Isn’t this why we need to take care to look continually beyond the superficial realities of life? Isn’t this why the second reading tells us to think of what is above, not of what is on earth? To be able to locate platform 9 ¾, we need to be less focused only on getting onto the trains on platforms 9 and 10.

And isn’t this what our world is like? Isn’t ours a world that often seems obsessed only with getting onto the twin trains of economic and technical advancement, never mind the cost? Such that many others are left stranded between platforms 9 and 10, facing apparent dead ends, because they have been crowded out of the trains? Isn’t this why some people snap under the pressure? People like 42-year-old Vietnamese immigrant Lin Voong, for example, who went on a shooting spree on April 3 at the American Civic Association in Binghamton, New York, killing 14 people, before turning his gun on himself.

What then are we to do, we who have been entrusted with the secret of platform 9 ¾, we who profess to believe in the mystery of the empty tomb? Are we not called to do what Mrs. Weasley did for Harry Potter, and what we find Peter doing in the first reading today? Are we not called to be witnesses to what we have experienced, to assist others in breaking through the various dead ends of our world, so as to find a place on the train that leads to life? Is this not the very thing that we will be recommitting ourselves to when we renew our baptismal promises shortly? Are we not called to continue to work, each in our own way, towards transforming the global marketplace into a train station located under the shadow of the King’s Cross?

Sisters and brothers, on this joyous occasion of our Lord’s resurrection, where and how might we find platform 9 ¾ today?

A blessed Easter to you all!