Sunday, March 28, 2010

Passion Sunday (C)
The Difference The Road Makes

Picture: cc Michael Lehet 

Dear sisters and brothers, what do you think? If two people want to get to the same destination, does it make a difference which road they take? Does it make a difference, for example, that one person takes a longer and another a shorter road, if both end up, or seem to end up, at the same place? Think of college diplomas, for example. Many people get one – as I did – by studying for several years in a university when they’re teenagers or young adults. But then there are also others who receive their diploma only years later, after many hours of night school perhaps. Does it make a difference either way? Does it make a difference whether you’re lucky enough – as I still am – to have someone else to pay for your studies, or if you have to work hard to pay for them yourself?

In a way, perhaps there is no difference. The diploma you get is the same. The paper on which it is printed is the same. But is the paper really all that matters? After all, I’m told that in some places it is possible, to buy a college diploma without actually having done any coursework. Does it make a difference if you do that? The paper is the same right? And yet, if we think a little more about it, there really is a difference, isn’t there? There is a difference because although the paper may be the same, the person who holds it is not. Even if, on the surface, the destination you arrive at – the piece of paper – may seem the same, the road you take makes all the difference.

It’s useful to keep this in mind as we reflect upon our readings today. For what are we trying to do in Holy Week, except to accompany our Lord Jesus on the road? Today, on Passion Sunday, we recall how, accompanied by his friends and disciples, Jesus finally arrives in Jerusalem, and is joyously welcomed by the people there. In a sense, Jesus and his traveling companions have the same purpose for coming to the Holy City. They come so that Jesus can take possession of the kingdom prepared for him since before the world began. They want to enter into glory. And we can say the same too for all the other characters in the Passion story that we heard just now – the people of Jerusalem, the chief priests and the scribes, Pilate and Herod, the soldiers and even the two thieves. In some way, everyone wants to reach the same destination as Jesus. Every one wants to enter into glory. But not everyone is willing to take the same road. Indeed, there are some very striking differences between the roads the others take and the one that Jesus chooses.

Consider, for example, the group of people closest to Jesus, his own apostles. Although, on the surface, it seems like they are walking with Jesus, in reality, they are on a very different road. On the night before their Master is to die, just after he has shown them how heartbroken he is that one of them will betray him, the Twelve start arguing about who among them is the greatest. By doing this, they show that their road is not much different from the one traveled by the chief priests and scribes, as well as by Pilate and Herod. It is the road of power and violence and lordship. In contrast, Jesus is the suffering servant that we heard about in the first reading. He walks the road of service. I am among you as one who serves. I have not rebelled. I gave my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who plucked my beard…

Consider also the difference between Peter and Jesus. Notice Peter’s false self-confidence. Lord, I am prepared to go to prison and to die with you, he says. Peter is unaware of his own weakness. He fails to realize that true strength comes from God alone. By his words he shows that, not unlike the unrepentant thief, his is the road of arrogance. Contrast that with the humility of Christ. Even though he himself is without sin, in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus openly tells his heavenly Father about his own interior struggles. Father, if you are willing, take this cup away from me… Humbly, Jesus prays for strength, even as his closest disciples remain asleep. And his prayer is heard. He receives the comfort and courage that he needs to face the terrors that are to come. We see the same humility, the same willingness to accept the truth, in the repentant thief. We have been condemned justly, he says. And he too receives what he asks for. Today you will be with me in paradise. Yes, at this point, even the great apostle Peter is walking a different road than Jesus. But Jesus tells him that he has prayed for him. So that when Peter has turned back, he can then strengthen the others.

Consider also the road chosen by Pilate and Herod. We’re told that although they were enemies at first, they became friends after meeting Jesus. Perhaps this is because they realized that they are both walking the same road, the road of self-preservation. By uttering a single word, either Pilate or Herod could have saved Jesus. But neither of them did so, because to do so would have been very dangerous for them. Freeing Jesus might cause a revolt. Which would then make Caesar very unhappy. And what would happen to them if Caesar was unhappy? Better to send an innocent man to his death. Better to walk the way of self-preservation. In contrast, Jesus walks a different road. Not self-preservation, but self-emptying. As the second reading tells us, the road chosen by Jesus involves a double self-emptying. There is first a divine self-emptying. Though he was in the form of God… he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness. Then there is a human self-emptying. He became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. And it is because of this double self-emptying that Jesus is then raised up to the glory of God the Father.

Sisters and brothers, even if glory is the same destination that everyone wants to reach, we take many different roads to get there. At the beginning of this most holy of weeks, as we celebrate Passion Sunday, we who claim to be followers of Christ are invited to consider carefully the road chosen by our Master, so that we can follow more closely in his footsteps. And it is important for us to do this especially today, when our Church continues to undergo the terrible Passion of sexual abuse scandals. In this difficult time, when the temptation is great to choose other roads -- roads of arrogant self-assertion, or anxious self-preservation, for example -- our Lord continues to show us the way of service and humility and self-emptying. He continues to show us how to walk the way of the Cross, the only way that leads to true Glory.

In the poem that many of us know so well, Robert Frost once wrote that taking the road less traveled had made all the difference. Sisters and brothers, as individuals and as Church what road are we traveling, what difference are we making, today?

Sunday, March 21, 2010

5th Sunday in Lent (C) 
Stone, Bird, Water 

Dear sisters and brothers, have you ever played  rock, paper, scissors? It’s a simple game usually played by two kids on a playground. Each person sticks out a hand in one of three possible shapes. A clenched fist is a rock. Two fingers represent a pair of scissors. And an open palm is paper. The rock crushes the scissors. The scissors cut the paper. And the paper wraps up the stone. Where I come from there’s also a slightly different version of this game. Over there, although the clenched fist represents a stone, the open palm is water. And bringing the tips of your fingers together, like this, represents a bird. The stone crushes the bird. The bird drinks the water. And the water sinks the stone.

Stone, bird and water. Sisters and brothers, if you had a choice, which of these would you like to be? I know this probably sounds like a strange and even silly question, right? Even if some of us may have played this game before, probably few if any of us here will have played it recently, at least not the grownups among us. This is, after all, a game for children. But isn’t it true that even if grownups may not play this game with their hands or at the playground anymore, we all still play it in different ways and in different places? Don’t we see, for example, this game being played in the scripture readings that we heard proclaimed just now?

In the first reading, the people of Israel have been exiled for long years in Babylon. Like a fragile little bird, they have been crushed under the powerful stone of their Babylonian oppressors. But in the midst of their misery and oppression, God speaks to them a word of hope. God makes them a promise of mercy. God reminds them of how, so many years ago, God had rescued their ancestors from the powerful stone of the Egyptian army. God reminds them, not only of how God had made the mighty Egyptians sink in the waters of the Red Sea, but also of how God had put water in the desert and rivers in the wasteland for God's chosen people to drink. Not only did the water of God sink the stone of the Egyptian army, but it also gave life to the poor oppressed bird that was the people of Israel. And God promises that all these things done in the past will be repeated in the present and in the future. See, God says, I am doing something new! The people will no longer have any reason to drink from other stagnant and contaminated sources of water, no reason to rely on pagan idols and foreign gods. The One True God who rescued their ancestors from Egypt promises to once again sink the stone of oppression and to provide living water for the poor defenseless bird to drink.

And, in the gospel, we see the ultimate fulfillment of this great promise in the person and ministry of Jesus. The stones are not too difficult to spot in this story. We find them in the hands of the scribes and the Pharisees, who threaten to stone the poor woman whom they had caught in the act of committing adultery. But even crueler and more dangerous than the stones in their hands are the ones in their chests, the hardness of their hearts. We see this hardness in their willingness to treat the woman as nothing more than a tool with which to trap Jesus. There is no attempt to consider her particular circumstances, to find possible reasons to show mercy. It takes more than one person to commit adultery, for example. Where, we may wonder, is the other party? We see this hardness also in the way they forget their own sinful condition in the sight of God, eagerly claiming for themselves the roles of judge, jury and executioner. Adultery is usually committed in secret. How, we may wonder, did they catch the woman in the act?

Before this horrifying hardness of heart, the sinful woman can only remain silent. Like a poor defenseless bird, she can do nothing to save herself. She knows her own guilt before the Law. There is little she can do except to lie in the dust and wait for the stones to crush her. And perhaps even before they fall, she has already experienced the crushing weight of her own conscience. Watching her, we can almost taste the sand in her mouth, and feel the despair in her heart.

Into this parched and pitiful scene, Jesus enters like a life-giving stream of sparkling clear water. Speaking first to the scribes and the Pharisees, Jesus sinks the stone of their cruel hearts in the powerful waters of God’s wisdom and love. Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her. Now it is the accusers' turn to be silenced. And after they have all quietly slunk away, Jesus speaks to the woman. There is no longer any need for her to search for corrupted sources of water. Jesus lets her drink from God’s mercy and compassion. Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on do not sin any more. As in the past, so too now in Christ, God is doing something new. Once again, the stone is sunk and the poor defenseless bird is rescued and given the water of life to drink.

Isn’t this why St. Paul can write as he does in the second reading? As you know, Paul too had been a proud Pharisee. He too had known and kept every detail of the Law. He too had persecuted those he considered to be sinners. And then, like the woman caught committing adultery, he had an experience of God’s mercy in the Crucified and Risen Christ. His stony heart sank in the love of God, even as he was given to drink from the waters of God’s mercy. And he now considers all the things that he formerly took pride in, the things that hardened his heart like a stone, as junk, as things to be thrown away. I consider them so much rubbish, he says, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having any righteousness of my own based on the law but that which comes through faith in Christ. Paul no longer wants to be a stone. He is no longer trying to save himself. He is quite happy to be a bird, to allow God to save him, to drink from the mercy of God in the water and blood that flows from the side of the Crucified and Risen Christ. And having drunk deeply of this life-giving stream, Paul spends the rest of his life flying from one place to another, leading others to Christ.

Sisters and brothers, isn’t this also what we have been trying to do especially in this great season of Lent. In undertaking our Lenten discipline of prayer, fasting and almsgiving, we have not been trying to become strong and hard. We have not been trying to save ourselves. Instead, we have been trying to remember that, in the sight of God, we are all weak and defenseless little birds. We have been humbling ourselves, so that God might lift us up. We have been turning away from contaminated sources of water, so that we might once again experience God giving us to drink from the cool clear waters of God’s love for us in Christ, and so that we can then lead others to drink from them as well. For it is in these same waters that we were all baptized as Christians. It is also these same waters that we will have sprinkled upon us at the Easter liturgy, when we will all recall and renew our baptismal promises. It is also in these same waters that God continues to do something new among us today, in our lives and in our world. It is in them that God continues to rescue the bird and to sink the stone.

Water, stone or bird. Sisters and brothers, in the game of life, which of these are we trying to be today?

Sunday, March 14, 2010

4th Sunday in Lent (C)

Of Homecoming and Setting-Out

Pictures: cc bernardoh

Dear sisters and brothers, have you ever asked yourself what the most joyful time of the year is for you? What is your favorite celebration? Is it Christmas? Or Thanksgiving? Or Easter? Which is it? And what do you like about it? Is it the gifts, the food, the company? What makes it joyful for you? What makes it a celebration?

For many people of Chinese descent – as well as the Vietnamese, Japanese and Koreans, among others – the major civil celebration of the year took place about a month ago, when the Lunar New Year came around. Many things go into this celebration, which traditionally lasts for fifteen days. Of all these things, three seem to stand out as most important. The first is what happens even before New Year’s Day. Traditionally, especially on New Year’s Eve, much work is done to put the household in order. As far as possible, debts are paid off, the house is cleaned, and much food is prepared. Then, on the eve of the New Year, after all the work is done, the family gathers for a feast. Together family members partake of the Reunion Dinner. And, not unlike what is done here at Thanksgiving, those living outside the family home will often return for this feast. And then, the next day, when the New Year finally arrives, people will leave their homes to go visiting. They go out to extend to others their good wishes for the year that is just beginning.

Cleansing, feasting and visiting. These are three of the more important things that go into the celebration of Chinese New Year – three things that can really be condensed into two. There is first a homecoming, and then a setting-out. There is first a putting of one’s own household in order, and then a going-out to celebrate with others. Both of these elements are important. The celebration would not be complete – the joy would not be as full – if any one were missing.

And yet, if an outsider – someone unfamiliar with the customs – were to pay a surprise visit to a family at any time other than the feast on New Year’s Eve, the visitor might be forgiven for failing to realize that a celebration was in the works. How could there be a celebration, for example, if everyone was sweating it out, scrubbing floors and dusting windows? Or how could there be a celebration if no one was at home, if everyone was out visiting? As understandable as this puzzlement may be, it also uncovers to us our own rather limited view of what a joyful celebration must look like. Very likely, many of us expect a celebration to involve lots of happy people, gathered in one place, eating, drinking, socializing, and having a good time. Which is why it can be very difficult for us to understand why our Mass prayers refer to Lent as a joyful season. In this time of strenuous self-examination and self-denial, where exactly is the joy to be found? Could a celebration really be in the works if everyone is engrossed in the demanding disciplines of prayer and fasting and almsgiving?

Our Mass readings help us to answer this question by showing us what a celebration looks like in the scriptures. The most obvious thing here is, of course, the feasting. In the first reading, Joshua finally leads the people of Israel across the Jordan and into the Promised Land. Encamped at a place called Gilgal, they feast on the produce of the land for the first time. In the gospel, the loving father welcomes his prodigal son with a grand feast, in which the main course is a corn-fed calf. But even if feasting appears to be the most prominent aspect in these celebrations, it is by no means the only one. Two other things are just as important. First, as with Chinese New Year, the feasting in our readings is preceded by a homecoming. The meal enjoyed by the people of Israel follows their arrival at their new home in the Promised Land after forty years of wandering in the desert. And the feasting in the gospel parable follows the eventual return of the prodigal after long years of dissolute living far from his father’s house. Also, this homecoming – of the prodigal son as well as of the people of Israel – is not just a change in physical location. More importantly, it is also a spiritual return, a cleansing of the heart, an ordering of one’s life, a mending of relations. The people of Israel acknowledge once again that they are nothing without God, just as the prodigal finally comes to his senses and realizes that he can only truly be at home with himself when he returns to the side of his loving father. Before the feasting, there is first a cleansing and a homecoming. To truly be joyful, the one who is lost must first be found.

And that’s not all. Again like the celebration of the Lunar New Year, after the homecoming and the feasting, there is also a setting-out. Isn’t this what we see the father doing in the gospel parable? Just when the party is at its height, when the heady wine is flowing freely, and the juicy steaks are hot off the grill, the father leaves the comfort and warmth of his own home, to plead with his older son. Indeed, it’s quite striking, isn’t it, that in this parable the father is hardly ever at home? We find him more often outside: dashing along the highway to embrace the returning prodigal child, or standing on his doorstep to plead with his sulking older son, begging him to join the celebration. In the father’s actions, we find a model of what a true Christian celebration involves: not just a homecoming and a feasting, but also a setting-out.

And it is to this same model that St. Paul refers us in the second reading, when he writes: God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ… entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. So we are ambassadors for Christ, as if God were appealing through us… be reconciled to God. Here we have a beautiful image of what our celebration looks like. It has to do with reconciliation, a return to right relationship. Which involves not just a homecoming but also a setting-out. For aren’t these the very things that make one an ambassador? One cannot be an ambassador without a country to call home. Nor can one be an ambassador without, in some sense, setting out for a foreign land. Both the homecoming and the setting-out are essential aspects of the celebration. Both are motivated and immersed in joy, the same joy that we celebrate at this and at every Eucharist, the joy won for us by the life, death and resurrection of Christ, the joy of being ushered into the fullness of a new life in Christ. As St. Paul tells us in the second reading, whoever is in Christ is a new creation: the old things have passed away; behold new things have come…

Sisters and brothers, on this fourth Sunday of Lent, how willing are we to leave the old to embrace the new? How ready are we for both the homecoming and the setting-out? How prepared are we to enter more fully into the celebration?

Monday, March 08, 2010

3rd Sunday in Lent (C)
Between the Barren and the Burning

Picture: cc slack12

Dear sisters and brothers, the story is told of a parishioner who put a big smile on her pastor’s face when she said to him, after Mass one Sunday morning, Congratulations, Father! That was a wonderful homily! But Father’s smile faded very quickly when he heard what she told him next: Everything you said applies to someone that I know!

Was the pastor’s homily really good? Did he truly deserve the compliment? We don’t know. The story doesn’t tell us. The point is that, good or bad, deserving or not, the homily was wasted on the parishioner. It was wasted because, if everything Father had said applied only to someone else, then nothing actually applied to her. Quite likely, on that Sunday morning, that parishioner left the church in the same condition as when she entered – unchanged and unrepentant.

And this is precisely the kind of condition that our readings are targeting today. They do this by inviting us to reflect upon the relationship between two types of plants: a barren tree and a burning bush. If we look closely enough, both these plants can be found, at least metaphorically, in each of our readings today.

Quite obviously, there is a burning bush in the first reading. But where is the barren tree? Consider what we know about Moses. On the one hand, we have to acknowledge that his life up to this point has been fruitful in some respects. He is a shepherd and a husband and a father. We’re told that it is while leading his father-in-law’s flock across the desert that he encounters the burning bush. And we know the reason why he has been reduced to living the life of a wandering herder of livestock, he who had once been a prince of Egypt. It is because he had tried to use his royal position to help his fellow Hebrews. He had killed an Egyptian bully, and so became a fugitive from the law. And yet, although fruitful in some respects, his life is still, in a very important sense, barren. It is barren because he has not yet begun to fulfill God’s plan for him. God wants him to shepherd not the flock of his father-in-law, but God’s own people – to free them from slavery in Egypt, and to lead them through the desert to the Promised Land.

And how does this remarkable transformation take place? How does the keeper of sheep become a leader of Israel? How does Moses become more fruitful? The process involves an intense encounter, even a painful struggle, between Moses and God, between the barren tree and the burning bush. It is only because Moses recognizes the presence of God in the bush that is on fire without being consumed – it is only because he is willing to engage in this difficult dialogue with God – that Moses is finally transformed into the person he is called to be. Of course, we might wonder what exactly was that burning bush that Moses encountered at Horeb. Was it quite literally a plant engulfed in flames? Or is this just a metaphor for some other kind of experience? We can’t be sure. And perhaps that’s really beside the point. The point is that, whether literal or metaphorical, the experience was not wasted on Moses. Rather, he allowed it to change his life. The barren tree came to bear much fruit.

Contrast that with what we find in the gospel. Here, it is, of course, the barren tree that is most obvious. Jesus uses this metaphor to refer to certain of the people of his day. Their lives are barren, not because they are bums, too lazy to get a job, or because they neglect their daily prayers, or fail to go to the synagogue on the Sabbath, or to keep the other commandments. Very likely they do all these things quite well. Their lives are already fruitful in some sense. And yet, like Moses, they are also still barren in another, very important, sense. They have not yet begun to fulfill God’s plan for them – especially to be light of the world and salt of the earth. And even more serious than their barrenness is their blindness. Unlike Moses, they refuse to acknowledge their own condition. They fail to see their own need for ongoing repentance. They are oblivious to the fact that, even if their lives are already fruitful in some respects, there is more that God expects of them. And this refusal to face the truth blinds them to something else. It renders them unable to recognize God’s presence in their lives. They fail or refuse to see the burning bush when they encounter it.

Consider what Jesus has to say about the reactions of these people to two disasters that had happened at that time. When Herod massacred a group of inhabitants of Galilee, and when a collapsing tower killed eighteen people in Siloam, some people responded by saying that the victims met their fates because of their sins. Instead of treating those disasters as burning bushes, or wake-up calls, these people were acting like that parishioner we talked about earlier. They were considering the disasters as messages from God addressed only to others. Those other people suffered because they were sinful. Which implies that we were spared because we are not. And this kind of attitude should probably sound very familiar. It is still very much with us even today. Didn’t some famous evangelical preacher recently pronounce that the earthquake in Haiti was the result of the Haitians having made a pact with the devil?

Were the victims of the Galilean massacre, or the people who died at Siloam, really more sinful than others? Did the Haitians really make a pact with the devil? It’s quite unlikely that anyone could present conclusive evidence one way or the other. But that’s not quite the point is it? The point is that by adopting this kind of outlook we are wasting the opportunity for repentance that this misfortune presents to us. Indeed, Jesus rejects this attitude outright. Do you think that because (they) suffered in this way, they were greater sinners…? Jesus asks. By no means! But I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did! And Paul says the same thing in the second reading. Speaking about the trials that the Israelites underwent in the desert, Paul asserts that these things happened to them as an example, and… a warning to us…. Therefore, whoever thinks he is standing secure should take care not to fall.

Sisters and brothers, especially in this time of earthquakes and tsunamis, of hurricanes and flooding, it’s difficult to deny that we are indeed surrounded by burning bushes aplenty. And in addition to these disasters, more likely than not, many of us will also have encountered crises of a more personal nature. What is our reaction to all these experiences? Do we see in them messages that apply only to other people? Or are we willing to treat them as the wake-up calls that they could be? Life is fragile, for saint and for sinner alike. There’s no time to waste. God wishes to cultivate the still-barren areas of our hearts and our lives, so that we may continue bearing fruit, fruit that will remain.

Sisters and brothers, as we approach the middle of our Lenten journey, how willing are we to allow our barren tree to encounter the Lord’s burning bush? How determined are we to not let the Lord’s call to repentance go to waste?