Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Mass of Christian Burial for Marie Tan
Choosing The Pattern of Christ

Readings: Wisdom 3:1-9; Psalm 23; Romans 6:3-9; Luke 23:44-46, 50, 52-53, 24:1-6
Picture: cc kudumomo

Sisters and brothers, when you go on a trip to a foreign country, you usually don’t get to choose the pilot who will fly your plane, or drive your bus. And you accept this. When you travel, you accept that this is just one of those things over which you have no control. But this doesn’t mean that you have no choice at all. You may not be able to choose the pilot, but you can choose the airline. You can, for example, choose the company that has established a reputation for high safety standards and good service. So that even though you may not be able to choose the pilot, you can still choose the way in which you wish to travel.

This is true not just of a trip from one country to another, but also of our journey through life and death as well. Although we may try not to think too much about it, we all know that, if we let nature take its course, we cannot really choose the cause of our death. If we did, we would all probably choose to die peacefully and painlessly in our sleep. But, even if this is true. Even if we cannot choose the cause of our death. In a very real way, we can still choose how we wish to live, and how we wish to die.

Isn’t this what we see in the experience of our dear Auntie Marie? We all know the disease that led to her death. We all know that she had no choice in the matter. She did not choose to have cancer. Nobody in her right mind would wish that. And yet, those of us who had the opportunity of spending time with her after her diagnosis, also know that Auntie Marie did make a choice about how she would spend the time that was left to her. She did choose how she would live and how she would die.

We know that she chose to be baptised into the Christian faith. She chose to be a disciple of the Lord Jesus. And we know what this means. To be baptised is not just to have water poured over our heads. The water symbolises both a dying and a rising. A dying to ourselves. So that we can rise in Christ. The second reading we heard just now tells us what this means. To be baptised is to imitate the pattern given to us by Jesus. The pattern of his death, and the pattern of his life.

This pattern has several characteristics. The first is surrender. Surrender to God. As we heard in the gospel just now, the final thing that Jesus said before he breathed his last was Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.

I did not spend too much time with Auntie Marie. But I did have the opportunity to chat with her on the Thursday before she died. The full content of our conversation should, of course, be kept in confidence. But I do think that she would want me to share at least this much with you. She told me that she had been praying the Rosary. And she was moved to tears as she spoke about her prayer. At first, I thought she was sad or afraid. But she wasn’t. She showed me a pamphlet written in Chinese. It contained a description of all the mysteries of the Rosary. And she told me that she was much moved when she thought of all that Jesus had done for us, and for her. So much so that she was not afraid die. She was willing to imitate the Lord Jesus. She was willing to surrender her life to the Lord.

And, because she was willing to do this, because she surrendered so wholeheartedly to God, we believe that she rests in the peace of the Lord. For this peace is the second characteristic of the pattern that Jesus left for us. This is also what we heard in the first reading. The souls of the virtuous are in the hands of God, no torment shall ever touch them. Even though Auntie Marie did suffer physical pain, even though it may appear to many that she is dead and gone, as disciples of Christ, we believe that she is now at peace in the embrace of the Lord. We believe that God has put her to the test and proved her worthy to be with him. And we believe that, when the time comes, we will all be reunited in the Kingdom of God forever.

Apart from surrender and peace, there is a third characteristic to the pattern that Jesus left us. This has to do with the effects of his dying and rising. In John’s gospel (12:32), Jesus says: when I am lifted up, I will draw all people to myself. And we see the truth of this in the passage that we heard just now. After Jesus dies, people begin to gather. Joseph of Arimathea–who was until then only a secret disciple, because he was afraid of the religious authorities–now receives the courage to make his discipleship public. He goes and asks for Jesus’ body. We hear also of how the women gather at the tomb. When Jesus dies, he gathers people together. And they become one Body in Christ.

Isn’t this also what Auntie Marie’s passing is doing for us. When someone dies in Christ, people are gathered in the Lord. And this was something close to Auntie Marie’s heart. In my conversation with her, she told me that she had only one wish. She wished that all the members of her family would continue to care for one another. That they would always remain united. When someone dies in the pattern of Jesus, people are gathered together in Christ.

But that’s not all. In our gospel reading, although people are brought together, they do not remain in one place. Having been gathered by the experience of the Lord’s death, they then receive the news that He has risen from the dead. And, in this new experience, they are sent out to share the Good News with others. When someone dies according to the pattern of Christ, people are gathered in unity. And when someone rises in the pattern of Christ, people are scattered in service.

If all this is indeed true, sisters and brothers, then it is not just Auntie Marie who made a choice. We have a choice to make as well. We have a choice as to whether or not we wish to see Auntie Marie’s passing according to the pattern of Christ. We have a choice whether or not, even as we continue to grieve the loss of a loved one, we wish to surrender ourselves into the comforting arms of the Lord. We have a choice whether or not to allow ourselves to be gathered into unity, and to be scattered in service.

We have a choice.

Sisters and brothers, how will you choose today?

Sunday, December 25, 2011

The Nativity Of The Lord: Mass During the Night
Children’s Pageant Mass
Reaching The Light Switch

Readings: Isaiah 9:1-7; Psalm 95:1-3,11-13; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-14 (Children’s Lectionary)
Picture: cc Chris&Rhiannon

Sisters and brothers, grownups and children, are you afraid of the dark? There once was a little girl named Cindy. Cindy was only two years old, and she was terribly afraid of the dark. One afternoon, the grownups in her family were very busy, and they left Cindy in a room with her baby brother, who was fast asleep. At first, Cindy was happy just to play with her toys. Then evening came, and the room began to get very dark. Cindy was afraid. But she could not switch on the lights, because she was too short. There was no one else in the room except her baby brother. But he was no use, since he was also too short to reach the switch. Cindy was so frightened that she started to cry. Thankfully, someone finally heard her crying, came into the room, and switched on the lights for her.

What we learn from Mary’s story is that if you are stuck in a dark room, and you’re too short to turn on the lights yourself, then you need someone who can help you. Someone taller than you. Someone who can reach the switch for you. And this is precisely what we are celebrating on this joyous Christmas night. As our first reading tells us: Those who walked in the dark have seen a bright light. Tonight we celebrate the coming of Jesus. He is our bright light. He is the One who is able to reach the switch that we are unable to reach.

But there is something very strange going on here, isn’t there? This Jesus, whom we are celebrating, this rescuer, who is supposed to turn on the light for us, comes to us as a little baby. Can a baby reach the light switch that we ourselves cannot reach? How can a baby rescue us? How can a baby light up our darkness? This is the question that we need to think more deeply about in order to enter into the joy of Christmas. And, to do this, we need to recognize that there are different kinds of darkness. Just as there are different types of light switches.

At the time when Jesus was born, as our gospel tells us, the people were ruled by an emperor named Augustus. Now, as you know, the people were Jews. But Augustus was a Roman. How did a Roman become king of the Jews? Only by beating them in battle. So that, when Jesus was born, the people were living in a kind of darkness. It was the darkness of defeat. And they saw only one way out. They needed someone who was strong enough to drive out the Romans. But, of course, a baby cannot do that. A baby cannot even feed itself. How can it defeat an army? Isn’t this why, when it was time for Jesus to be born, there was no room for him in the inn? Most of the people paid no attention to him because they just did not think that the baby Jesus could be the one to rescue them from the darkness of Roman rule.

And what about us? Perhaps, as we come here tonight, we too may be feeling like we are stuck in a dark room of some sort. Where the light switch is beyond our reach. Some of us may be stuck in the darkness of illness or old age, of family problems or work stress. And perhaps we too may have our doubts about whether a helpless little baby can really help to switch on the lights in our darkness.

Which is why it is important for us to consider how the baby Jesus is able to save us. It is important for us to realize that there is more than one type of darkness in our readings today. In addition to the darkness of being ruled by a foreign king, the people in our readings are also stuck in the darkness of selfishness. Why else is there no room at the inn for Jesus, Mary and Joseph? Why else did the King of Kings have to be born in a dirty stable? People were focused only on their own needs. Caught up in their own concerns. No time to pay attention to the stranger and to the homeless. And, of course, with selfishness, there often also comes loneliness.

It is to brighten this darkness of selfishness and loneliness that the baby Jesus is born. And he can do this because of who he is. We believe that although Jesus is truly a human baby, he is also more. This Jesus is also God. The same God who made the whole universe out of nothing. The same powerful God, who out of his great love and mercy for us, has become a powerless little baby. As the second reading tells us: He saved us because of his mercy, and not because of any good things that we have done.

It is when we keep looking at this helpless little baby lying in a manger–not just on this Christmas night, but throughout the days of this Christmas Season, all the way till January the 8th–that we will be able to feel the light shine out. The light of God’s love and mercy for us. The light that reassures us that God is on our side, that God cares for us. The light that then moves us to care for others. The baby Jesus is able to reach the switch to this light, because the switch is not really something that is very far from us, something too high for us to reach. No, this switch is really buried deep within our hearts. And it takes this precious little baby, who is both human and divine, both powerless and almighty, to reach into our hearts to turn on the light for us.

The question we need to ask ourselves is: How willing am I to allow the baby Jesus to reach my light-switch today?

Saturday, December 17, 2011

4th Sunday of Advent (B)
The Rest Of A Guest

Readings: 2 Samuel 7:1-5,8-11,16; Psalm 88:2-5,27,29; Romans 16:25-27; Luke 1:26-38
Picture: cc darcy1b

Sisters and brothers, the holiday season is often a time for receiving guests into our homes. Some may drop by for only a brief visit. They come for tea, or lunch, or a dinner party. Others may linger. They stay for the night. Or even for a few days. But, however long the stay, or whatever its purpose, isn’t it true that we don’t always enjoy such visits? While there are many guests whom we love to entertain, isn’t there usually also a select few whom we sometimes wish would never show up at our door? Ever? Their arrival produces in us a tensing of the muscles, and a gritting of the teeth. Their leaving, a sigh of relief. The reasons for this are many. Some people may be too demanding. Others rude or inconsiderate. But perhaps the most difficult kind of guests to handle are those who insist on role reversal.

Consciously or not, these visitors simply refuse to accept the role of a guest. They refuse to sit back quietly and to let you play host. They try their best to help you entertain them. It’s as though they were determined to replace you as host. And, in the process, they often end up simply getting in the way. Even messing up your carefully made plans. You may, for example, tell them not to bring food because you’ve hired a caterer. But they bring a huge portion anyway. As a result, your family ends up eating leftovers for the rest of the week.

Yes, it’s not easy to be a good guest. It requires a certain self-discipline. A consideration for the other. An ability to allow oneself to be entertained by someone else. A willingness to surrender oneself into the hands of another. Trusting that the other both knows and wants what’s best for us. It demands that we somehow let go of control over our own lives, if only for a few hours. This can be uncomfortable. Even scary. Perhaps this is why some of us always prefer to play host than to be guests. And yet, when we insist on doing this, when we refuse ever to let ourselves be guests, we end up shortchanging not just ourselves, but also those we may wish to entertain. After all, how can one be a good host, who has forgotten what it feels like to be a guest?

And this is true not only in social circles, but also in the spiritual life as well. Especially in this beautiful season of Advent, many of us are trying our best to make space in our hearts and our lives for the God-Who-Comes. We are preparing to play host. We are trying to be as hospitable as we can. As individuals, we may be giving more time to prayer and reflection. As a parish, we are filling our Magi Board with resolutions, our Advent Tree with holy desires. We’ve set up Advent wreaths and Christmas cribs. As an Archdiocese, some of us are meeting for shared prayer using the Advent booklet. All this is good. However, even as we continue to engage in all these worthwhile activities, we need also to remember that the One we are preparing to welcome is not just a guest, but also, and most of all, our Host.

This too is what our readings help us to appreciate today. Consider King David in the first reading. For many years, he has been very busy fighting battles. He has expended much time and energy in building and consolidating his political power. But now, we’re told that he has finally settled into his house. Now, he enjoys rest from all the enemies surrounding him. And, now that his own house is secure and at peace, David wishes to make a special place in it for God. He wants to build a Temple. At first glance, this desire seems like a truly holy and commendable one. By this, David shows that he is not an ungrateful man. Even when things are going well for him, he does not forget God. Perhaps this is why the prophet Nathan initially supports David’s proposal.

And yet, quite surprisingly, God brings the king’s plans to an abrupt halt. Why? Is God trying to be difficult? A wet blanket? A kill-joy? We get a better sense of the possible reasons for God’s action when we reflect more deeply on God’s response to David. God reminds David that, amid all the battles that David has fought, through all the many adventures that David has undergone, even though it may seem like David had been doing all the work, it was really God who had been the main Actor. It is God who has been building David a royal house. It is God who has been making David’s reign secure. Although David may feel that he should make a space for God in his kingdom by building a Temple, God reminds David that it is actually God who is making a special space for David and his descendants among God’s people. God is the Host. David is but the guest. And, if David is the guest, then his first order of business is not so much to do something new for God, as it is to allow himself to rest in the space that God is making for him. Not so much to build a house for God, as it is first to remain in the house that God is building for him. And then, with heart filled with gratitude, to sing the praises of God, the divine house-builder. Just as we did, in our response to the psalm just now: I will sing forever of your love, O Lord.

No, sisters and brothers, God is not a kill-joy. In preventing David from proceeding with his Temple-construction plans, God is really helping David to resist the tendency toward role reversal. God is helping David to remember who is the Host and who is the guest. And this is important, because it is only by playing the role assigned to him, it is only by being a good guest, that David can remain in touch with the true source of his power. Isn’t this what is meant in the second reading, where we are told to give glory to him who is able to give us the strength to live the Good News of Jesus Christ?

And isn’t this also the experience of Mary in the gospel? When we hear Mary call herself the handmaid of the Lord, it is tempting for us to imagine a servant who is always busy. Someone who never has time to rest. A woman who only ever plays host, and is never a guest. After all, immediately after saying yes to the angel, doesn’t Mary set out on a journey to serve her pregnant cousin Elizabeth? In Luke’s gospel, the Visitation follows closely after the Annunciation. But that is precisely the point, isn’t it? The Visitation comes after the Annunciation. Not before. And what is crucial to the Annunciation is not so much what Mary does, as it is what God wishes to do in and through her. The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will cover you with its shadow. Isn’t this what being a handmaid means? Being willing first to accept and to appreciate, to submit and to surrender to, God’s action in one’s life. To be willing first to be a guest of the Divine Host. To remain in the house of God’s will for us. Let what you have said be done to me.

Isn’t this the crucial lesson that our readings are teaching us on this fourth and final Sunday of Advent? The same lesson that David learned, and that Mary knew so well. In a world where we are often judged only by how we perform and by what we produce, our readings remind us that, when it comes to God, we only have the strength to act when we have first learned to rest. We can only use our hands to build God’s house, when we have first been moved to raise our voices to sing God’s praises. We can only be good hosts to others, when we have first learned to be good guests of the Lord.

Sisters and brothers, how has God been building you a house? How good a guest are you today?

Sunday, December 11, 2011

3rd Sunday of Advent (B)
Waiting At The Right Terminal

Readings: Isaiah 61:1-2,10-11; Luke 1:46-50,53-54; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8,19-28
Picture: cc choonMing

Sisters and brothers, someone once went to receive a visitor at the airport. But after waiting for a very long time, he saw no sign of the guy. What’s going on? He thought. Had his guest changed his mind about coming? Had he fallen sick? Whatever it was, he eventually gave up waiting, and went home in frustration. Only to discover, later on, the real reason for his guest’s apparent no-show. It was really quite embarrassing. You see, while at the airport, our friend had been waiting at the wrong terminal.

To avoid frustration when waiting for another, it’s important to be sure that one is waiting at the right place. This too is a lesson that our Mass readings teach us today. As you know, the 3rd Sunday of Advent is also called Gaudete Sunday. Gaudete–the first word of the entrance antiphon. A word that means rejoice! Today, even as we continue to wait for the God-Who-Comes, our readings encourage us to keep up our efforts by speaking to us of the great joy that God brings to those who remain alert. To those who have the patience to wait. Indeed, we are reminded that there is something truly amazing about this divine gift of joy. Although we may sometimes think that joy is experienced only when the one for whom we are waiting finally shows up, our readings tell us that this is not really the case with God. With God, joy can be felt not only upon arrival. With God, joy is already ours to experience even while we wait.

Consider what is happening in the first reading. Although the prophet proclaims to the people that they will very soon be brought home from exile, this happy event is still in the future. It hasn’t actually happened yet. Even so, the prophet declares that he is already exulting for joy. In the responsorial psalm, in her Magnificat, Mary rejoices in the coming of the Messiah even though he hasn’t even been born yet, let alone accomplished his mission. At this point in the story, Mary has only just conceived the Christ-child in her womb. Who knows what could happen in the course of her pregnancy and beyond. And yet, Mary’s  heart is already filled with joy. In the second reading, even though St. Paul acknowledges that we are all still waiting for the Lord to come again, he also reminds the Thessalonians to be happy at all times.

Clearly, the joy that our readings offer us today is something really extraordinary. Not only is it never frustrated, but it can be experienced even while we wait. This is the joy that we are celebrating in these days. This is the grace of the beautiful season of Advent. But in order for us to receive this gift, we must take care to wait at the right place.

For our world often leads us to places other than the one found in our readings. So that, like our friend at the airport, we can end up frustrated, because we’ve been waiting at the wrong terminal. All too often, for example, we are led to look for joy at the terminal of acquisition. Whether we realise it or not, we are seduced into thinking that joy comes only from what we have. On a daily basis, everywhere we turn, we encounter all kinds of advertisements, which not only claim to reveal to us needs we never thought we had, but also promise to satisfy all of them. There was a time, for example, when I didn’t think I needed to carry a phone in my pocket. But now that I already have a cellphone of my own, I find myself thinking that perhaps I need a new one, a smarter one! Here, at the terminal of acquisition, happiness depends only upon what I have. But what happens when, for one reason or another, I’m not able to get what I want? Or when, having finally gotten what I want, I discover that someone else has something even better? What happens to my happiness then? It just keeps getting postponed, doesn’t it?

Nor is the terminal of acquisition the only place where our search for happiness is frustrated. Especially here in Singapore, there is yet another problematic location that many of us like to frequent. Let’s call it the terminal of activity. Here, we meet many different kinds of people: Students as well as office-workers. Priests and religious as much as lay people. Here, happiness has to do, not so much with what we have, but, above all, with what we do. Here, to be happy, we have to do something significant. We have to make something of ourselves. And, of course, what’s significant, what counts as something, rather than nothing, invariably depends upon what everybody else is doing. So that to be happy I have to keep doing things that are better or bigger, higher or faster, stronger or shinier than what others are doing. And, if I’m a religious person, I may even think that I’m doing it all for the greater glory of God. But, in fact, competition is the name of the game. And, with competition, of course, comes overwork. And, eventually, with overwork, burnout. For even if I happen to come out on top at some point, it’s always only a matter of time before someone else does better. Also, being a mere human being, there inevitably comes a time when I can no longer perform at the same level as I did before. A time of rest and retirement. Even of deterioration and decay. What happens to my happiness then?

Sisters and brothers, in contrast to the terminals of acquisition and activity, our readings invite us to wait at a very different place. Here, happiness depends, not so much on what we have, or on what we do, as it does on who we are. At first glance, this place bears a passing resemblance to the previous one. For, in the gospel, when people ask John the Baptist who he is, he appears to respond by talking about what he does. I am a voice that cries in the wilderness, he says: Make a straight way for the Lord. Similarly, the prophet in the first reading speaks about bringing good news to the poor, of binding up hearts that are broken, and of proclaiming liberty to captives and freedom to those in prison.

But, when we look more closely at what is going on, we see that, for both the prophet in the first reading and the Baptist in the gospel, what is crucial is not so much what they do as what the Lord has done to them and for them. The spirit of the Lord has been given to me, says the prophet, for the Lord has anointed me. He has sent me... The Baptist too speaks and acts not for himself but on behalf of someone else. He was not the light, only a witness to speak for the light. Both for the prophet as well as for the Baptist, who they are depends not so much on what they do as on their relationship with God, on who God calls and empowers them to be. And it is in living out of this deep sense of who they are that brings each of them a profound experience of joy. An abiding joy, which endures both in good times and in bad. As much when they are made to wait for the Lord’s coming as when they experience His arrival. And the place where this joy is to be found is neither the terminal of acquisition nor of activity. It is, instead, the terminal of anointing.

For us too. It is only when we are willing to wait at this same place, when we are willing to heed God’s call and allow God to take control of our lives, that we finally receive lasting joy. A joy that the world cannot give. A joy that is the grace of this season of Advent. A joy that is the gift of the Christ-child, who comes among us and within us, at Christmastime and throughout the year.

But, sisters and brothers, perhaps the crucial question we need to ask ourselves is: Am I waiting at the right terminal today?

Sunday, December 04, 2011

2nd Sunday of Advent (B)
The Embrace of Inconvenience

Readings: Isaiah 40:1-5,9-11; Psalm 84:9-14; 2 Peter 3:8-14; Mark 1:1-8

Sisters and brothers, have you watched the delightful animated movie that is playing on HBO? It’s entitled Despicable Me. And it’s about a professional thief named Gru, who finds redemption when he goes out of his way to adopt three little orphan girls. One interesting thing about the movie is the gradual change in Gru’s attitude toward the orphans. When they first show up on his doorstep selling cookies, Gru refuses even to open the door for them. He turns them away because he sees them as a nuisance–an inconvenient interruption to his busy life of crime. But his attitude begins to change when his career suffers a setback. Thinking that the girls can help him to defeat a rival criminal, he sets out to use them for his own evil purposes. What Gru doesn’t count on is the power of these innocent little ones to get under his skin. Somehow they penetrate his hard exterior and touch his inmost heart. Although his initial intention is to exploit them, through his contact with the girls, Gru experiences a deep healing of the hurts of his past. In the process, Gru is transformed. The once self-centred crook becomes a caring father.

By embracing the inconvenient, the thief comes to discover what is most important. The hardened criminal is enfolded by the tenderness of love. In going out of his way to welcome the homeless, Gru himself finds his way home. A similar process is described in our Mass readings for this 2nd Sunday of Advent. Today, our first reading and the gospel speak to us about a messenger and his message. The message itself is supposed to be an attractive one. It’s supposed to be good news. Console my people, console them, says your God. God is coming to save God’s people. But, although the message is appealing, it is also highly inconvenient.

For one thing, the messenger himself is far from attractive. The description of John the Baptist in the gospel must surely sound very strange to us. In place of the familiar and lovable, red and round figure of Santa Claus, we’re greeted instead by a skinny crazy fellow dressed in camel-skin. And instead of a sack, full of presents, and a friendly Ho Ho Ho, John comes empty-handed, screaming demandingly at the top of his voice. Nor is he easy to find. John proclaims his message not in the centre of town–not amid the bright and colourful lights of Orchard Road–but in the desolate and dangerous surroundings of the wilderness. To meet this messenger, to hear his message, we have to go out of our way. We have to embrace inconvenience.

And this inconvenience is not just something external. It’s not just a matter of making a slight detour to meet someone who looks and acts a little peculiar. The inconvenience is also something interior. For the message of consolation that this messenger brings is also a call to conversion. A call to examine our lives anew, and, wherever necessary, to rearrange our priorities. Let every valley be filled in, every mountain and hill be laid low. Let every cliff become a plain, and the ridges a valley. We need to prepare the way for the God who is coming into our hearts and into our world.

And yet, as inconvenient as it is to meet this messenger and to receive his message, the gospel tells us that all Judaea and all the people of Jerusalem made their way to him. Why? Why did all these people go out of their way, not only to meet and to listen to what looked and sounded like a crazy person, but also to allow themselves to be plunged by him into the cold waters of the Jordan River? Why? Why not just continue going about one’s own daily business? Or, speaking for ourselves, why not just continue celebrating Christmas the way many Christians do every year? Buying and exchanging presents. Cooking and eating meals. Even dressing up for Midnight Mass. And carolling with the choir. Why bother to embrace inconvenience?

Unless, of course, inconvenience is the crux of the matter. Unless there is something sorely lacking in one’s yearly routine. Unless one is longing for something more. And this is precisely what we find in our readings. In the first reading, the people are deeply aware that they are living in exile in Babylon. They are far away from home. In the gospel, even though the people are living in their homeland, they are keenly conscious that the territory no longer belongs to them. They are labouring under foreign occupation, under Roman rule. More importantly, these forms of political exile point to a deeper spiritual state. For no matter what our nationality, no matter whether or not we are living in our own country, we Christians believe that we find our true home only in the Kingdom of God. And we still await the coming of that Kingdom in its fullness. As the second reading tells us, what we are waiting for is what the Lord promised: the new heavens and new earth, the place where righteousness will be at home. We are still longing for a place and a time when the peace of God will be enjoyed by all. When the hungry will be fed, the sick healed, and the oppressed set free. When every tear will be wiped away. Such is our longing. And such is the reason why people may be led to embrace inconvenience.

The danger is that many of us may have actually become too comfortable even in the midst of our exile. Like the character Gru in the movie, we may have become so used to a hardened life, centred only on ourselves, that we don’t even yearn anymore for something different, something better. Why bother to remember that other people may be suffering, if my immediate family and I are not? Except that my comfort may actually be very superficial. And in my quieter moments, when I allow myself a brief pause from ceaseless activity, I may feel strangely far away from home.

In such a situation, it’s not always a bad thing when inconvenience comes knocking on my door. Whether it be in the form of a person in need or a report of disaster, a sudden illness or a failed relationship, a financial loss or a career setback. As Gru discovered, such irritations might actually turn out to be blessings in disguise. Messengers from God, urging me to prepare the way for the One who is coming to make all things new.

I’m reminded of a family I once had the privilege of meeting. One of the children was born with Down Syndrome. I asked the parents what it was like to raise such a child, thinking that it must be very challenging. Their answer surprised me. They said that this child was a great gift from God, for whom they were extremely grateful. For it was this child that brought the family together. It was this inconvenient child who daily reminded the rest of them of the meaning of love.

Sisters and brothers, in your lives, are there any inconveniences waiting to be embraced today?

Saturday, November 26, 2011

1st Sunday of Advent (B)
Making Heart-Space

Readings: Isaiah 63:16-17,64:1,3-8; Psalm 79:2-3,15-16,18-19; 1 Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:33-37
Picture: cc woodleywonderworks

Sisters and brothers, imagine for a moment that you are going for a party at a friend’s house. What would it take to make you feel welcome? If you kept ringing the doorbell, and no one came to let you in, would you feel welcome? Or, even if someone–maybe the domestic help–did finally answer the door, but you were then left to wander around the house on your own. Would you feel welcome? How about if you were ushered into the room where the other partygoers were seated. And what if many of these people even greeted you. But no one noticed that all the seats in the room were already taken. No one bothered to make a space for you. To invite you to join in. And you were left to hover awkwardly at the edge of the group. How would you feel? Probably not very welcome. Perhaps not at all.

Which goes to show that hospitality requires a special effort. To make someone feel truly welcome is not just a matter of smiling and talking a lot. Although these things can be helpful. Hospitality is a matter of space. To make a person feel welcome, we have to be willing to make space. To make space in our home, by opening the doors and ushering the guest inside. By offering an empty chair, and a cool drink, or a hearty meal. Or maybe even a room for the night. And the reason why all this is important is not just because the guest may be tired or thirsty or hungry or sleepy. Perhaps s/he isn’t. It’s important that we make space for the guest in our house, mainly because, in so doing, we show her that there is a space reserved for her in our hearts. Our efforts let the guest know that s/he means something to us. That her presence is important to us. That we truly want her to be here. That we are happy she has come.

If this is true–if welcoming another involves not just house-space but also, and above all, heart-space, then a crucial question arises. You see, house-space is relatively easy to make. Often, it’s simply a matter of shifting furniture around. But how do we make space for another in our hearts?

To make heart-space. This is what our Mass readings help us to do today. On this 1st Sunday of Advent, as we begin preparing to welcome the God-Who-Comes, our readings help us to make a space for him not just among us, but also within us. In the gospel, Jesus speaks of this by reminding us of the need to remain alert. We do not know the exact time of the Lord’s arrival. So we should stay awake. Even as we may fill our days with the hard work of meeting the many demands of life, we are called also to reserve a space for God. To be ready to meet and to greet him, whenever he decides to show up.

How do we do this? Primarily by carefully remembering who God is for us. How he is related to us. And there is a gradual progression in how our readings help us to remember. First, as Jesus reminds us in the gospel, this God-Who-Comes is not just any guest, not just a passing acquaintance, dropping in for a casual visit. He is, instead, the master of the house himself. Our lives belong to him. By making space for him, we are actually welcoming the Lord into his own home.

But that is not all. Although God is master of the house, and we are his servants. Our connection with him is not just a legal one. We are not just tenants of a divine landlord. The relationship is much closer. Much more intimate. Both in the first and second readings, we are reminded that God is our Father. And not just any kind of father. For, as we well know, earthly fathers can be good or bad, responsible or negligent, loving or even abusive. But God is a Father who cares for us, his children. As we heard in the first reading: You, Lord, yourself are our Father, ‘Our Redeemer’ is your ancient name. God is not just Father, but also Redeemer. The One who saves and rescues. The One who guides and protects. Like a vinedresser pruning his vines under the sweltering sun and pouring rain, God continues daily to watch over us, the fruit of his creation. Like a potter painstakingly shaping a lump of clay, God continues daily to form us into a work of breathtaking beauty.

But these reminders, of who God is, will probably have little effect on us, if we were simply to treat them as empty words scribbled on a page by a writer from long ago. Or as hollow sounds uttered by a reader performing a routine ritual. But if we were to somehow allow these reminders to penetrate deep into our hearts. To seep into our minds. To awaken in us memories of how God has been caring for us throughout our lives. Of how, in all the particular events and people we encounter daily, the Divine Potter continues to shape us. Of how, even in the trials and tribulations, in the many ups and downs, of our lives, the Heavenly Vinedresser continues to prune us. So that we might bear more fruit. Of how, even as we may sometimes feel like orphans, lonely and abandoned, the loving Father continues to hold us in his gentle arms, healing our hurts, and guiding us on the path of life. When we are able to do this, when we are able truly to remember who God is for us, then perhaps we can begin to find a space in our hearts into which we can welcome God.

Such a space can take different shapes. Our readings present us with three. The first is gratitude. As St. Paul tells the Christians at Corinth: I never stop thanking God for all the graces you have received through Jesus Christ. The second is contrition. In the first reading, even as he is mindful of God’s faithful love toward the people, the prophet is moved also to confess their sins. We had long been rebels against you, he says. We were all like men unclean, all that integrity of ours like filthy clothing. But this sorrow for sin does not lead the prophet to seal himself off in regret and despair. Rather, a space is opened up in his heart, a space that bears the shape of deep desire, the shape of an ardent longing, a longing for God to once again visit his people. Oh, that you would tear the heavens open and come down!

Gratitude, contrition, and longing. These are the three spaces that are opened up within us when we allow ourselves to remember who God is for us. How much God loves us and cares for us. How much God wants us to be truly happy. I’m reminded too of the words of a hymn written by Anne Quigley.

There is a longing in our hearts, O Lord,
for you to reveal yourself to us.
There is a longing in our hearts, for love,
we only find in you, our God.
For justice, for freedom,
for mercy, hear our prayer.
In sorrow, in grief, be near,
hear our prayer, O God...

Sisters and brothers, both in our lives and in our hearts, how much space is there for God today?

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Solemnity of Christ the King
Of King & Subjects, Shepherd & Sheep

Readings: Ezekiel 34:11-12,15-17; Psalm 22:1-3,5-6; 1 Corinthians 15:20-26,28; Matthew 25:31-46
Pictures: cc Ha-Wee

Sisters and brothers, as you know, this Mass is often referred to as the Children’s Mass. The reason is obvious. Many little ones come to this Mass. We even have a Liturgy of the Word designed specially for them. But isn’t it also true that we could just as easily call this Mass a Parents’ Mass? After all, the children don’t come here on their own, do they? At least I hope not! Invariably, the parents tag along as well. It’s sort of like a package deal. Sort of like a bottle of two-in-one shampoo. And not only do parents and children come together as a package, but it’s also true that we can’t truly understand what it means to be a child, without also considering what it means to be a parent. We can’t fully grasp the experience of parenthood, without also considering the experience of being a child. Parenthood and childhood are not separate things, standing alone by themselves. They are relationships. And because they are relationships, we cannot truly understand one without also considering the other.

It’s especially important to keep this in mind today. For as we bring our liturgical year to a close–next Sunday is already the 1st Sunday of Advent–we are invited to meditate on the meaning of the kingship of Christ. As we approach the end of the year, we recall what we believe will happen at the end of time. And our second reading tells us that, when that day comes, Christ will be made king over all. For everything is to be put under his feet. But what do we mean when we say that Christ is king? What sort of kingship does he exercise? Is he like Bhumibol Adulyadej, the king of Thailand? Or Jigme Wangchuck, the king of Bhutan? Or is he perhaps more like Elvis Presley, or Michael Jackson, or Eminem? Kings of rock or pop or (what is it called again?) hippity hop? What do we really mean when we say that Christ is king?

This is the question that our Mass readings invite us to ponder today. And, as it turns out, kingship is not unlike parenthood. It is not a thing separate and standing alone by itself. Rather, it is a relationship. As such, we cannot truly understand what it means to be a king, let alone submit to a king’s authority, without also considering what it means to be a subject. King and subject. Today our readings invite us to ponder these two sides of a single relationship.

What does it mean to be king? Both in the first reading and the psalm, we’re presented with the moving image of a good shepherd. We’re told that the kingship of Christ is a reign of care and compassion. Like a conscientious shepherd watching over his flock, so too does the Lord care for us, his sheep. Not only does he stand up in the middle of his scattered sheep, keeping all of us in view, but he also guides us to fresh and green pastures and streams of restful waters to revive our drooping spirits. He is careful even to ensure that every individual sheep is looked after according to its particular needs. The sick have their wounds tended to. The healthy are cared for so that they do not fall ill.

If this is how Christ exercises his authority as king, then we become authentic subjects of his–we truly submit to his reign–only to the extent that we are willing to behave like members of his flock. Only to the extent that we are willing to become his sheep. To hear and to follow his voice as he leads us to pasture. To submit to his healing hands, as he binds our wounds and keeps us safe from harm.

But, as we may well know from bitter experience, this is not as easy as it sounds. For there are many other voices competing with the shepherd for our attention. Voices that claim to offer us true happiness. But when we allow ourselves to be seduced by them, we often find, to our great dismay, that these voices lead us not to refreshing streams, but to stagnant pools of muddy water, unfit to drink. We may expend much time and energy, for example, slaving to build a career for ourselves. Only to find, later on, that the gratification brought by the money we make, or the positions we attain, cannot quite fill the gaping hole in our lonely hearts. We meet many different people everyday. We may even have thousands of friends on Facebook. And yet, we find it hard to connect with just one other human person in a meaningful and fulfilling way. We live with our family under the same roof. But we struggle to find quality time to spend with them. We fiddle daily with the newest most advanced gadgets, devices that keep us connected to the world 24/7. And yet, we still can’t escape the haunting feeling of being disconnected, of being isolated, not just from others, but even from ourselves. Who am I, really? For what or for whom do I live my life? Why am I so deeply unhappy?

It is especially to those of us who may find ourselves in such distressing circumstances that our readings today offer much needed consolation. If the world does not fulfill you, then come to Christ, the Good Shepherd. Heed his voice. Become his sheep. Let him lead you to where you need to go.

But that’s not all. There’s something more in our readings today. Something deeply surprising. What is it that distinguishes the sheep that belong to Christ the Shepherd-King? What is it that sets them apart from all others? In the parable that Jesus tells in the gospel–the parable of the Last Judgment–what is the distinctive characteristic that separates the sheep from the goats–those on the right side from those on the left? Quite amazingly, the true sheep of the shepherd are those who have themselves acted, not just as sheep, but also as shepherds. In a mysterious way, they who are sheep have actually cared for the Chief Shepherd himself. For I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink; I was a stranger and you made me welcome... And they have managed to do this–to shepherd the Chief Shepherd–by showing compassion to those around them who are most in need. In so far as you did this to one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did it to me.

The implication for us is clear. We only become true sheep of the shepherd’s flock, true subjects of Christ’s kingdom, to the extent that we ourselves are willing to care for the least ones in our midst. Not just those whose stomachs need to be filled, but also those who long for a listening ear and a reassuring touch. Not just those imprisoned behind bars of iron, but also those bound by various addictions. Not just those afflicted by diseases of the body and the mind, but also those who have fallen victim to the illnesses of society–to selfishness and greed and apathy.

Sisters and brothers, like parenthood and childhood, the king and his subjects, the shepherd and his sheep, come as a package deal. We can’t become one without also experiencing the other. We can’t be true sheep without also learning to be shepherds.

How willing are we to heed the call of Christ the Shepherd-King today?

Sunday, November 13, 2011

33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time
Mass @ CISC Team Retreat
Work Hard–Work Smart

Readings: Proverbs 31:10-13,19-20,30-31; Psalm 127:1-5; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-6; Matthew 25:14-30
Picture: cc TheBigTouffe

Dear friends, as you know we’re nearing the end of the year. And this is traditionally the time for students to take their major exams. Many young people are studying hard. And that’s important. For most students, there’s no other way to get through the exams.

But good students will tell us that doing well in the exams doesn’t depend only on diligence. In addition to working hard, you also have to work smart. There’s often so much material to study that it’s very unlikely that you can cover everything with the same amount of rigour. So you have to focus on the more important things. How do you know what’s important? By recalling what has been highlighted in class. The tips that the teacher has given.

Also, to study smart, you should consider not just what has been taught, but also how you will be tested. Some exams require only that you memorise the text, and then regurgitate it onto the answer sheet. But other exams require more. You have to show that you understand the material in a way that allows you to apply it to new situations in creative ways.

Then, of course, in addition to the what and the how, a good student will also wish to find out when exactly the exam is going to take place. This is so you know how much time is available for preparation. So you can pace yourself. You can study in such a way that you will reach your peak on the day of the exam.

Knowing what has been given, how you will be tested, and when the exam will be held. These are among the key pieces of information that a student has to consider in order to study smart.

But we are not just approaching the end of the calendar year. In addition, we are also bringing our liturgical year to a close. Next Sunday we will celebrate the 34th and last Sunday of Ordinary Time with the solemn feast of Christ the King. And just as the academic year ends with students studying and sitting for examinations, so too does our liturgical year come to a close with readings that remind us of the need to prepare for that ultimate examination that we will have to take at the end of time: the Last Judgment. But how exactly should we prepare for this exam?

When we consider our Mass readings, it’s quite obvious that they encourage us to work hard. The last servant in the gospel parable is condemned not just for being wicked but also for being lazy. And in the first reading, we’re given a portrait of the perfect woman. Someone who is always hard at work with eager hands. We may be forgiven then if we think that all we need to do to prepare for the Lord’s coming is to work as hard as we can. But is this true? Is hard work really all that is required? Isn’t it also true that the Pharisees and Scribes were hard workers too. And didn’t they reject Jesus when he came the first time? Could it be, then, that preparing for the Last Judgment is not unlike studying for a final exam? It’s not enough just to work hard. You also have to work smart.

We get a hint that this is indeed the case, when we consider that the woman in the first reading is praised not just for her diligence, but above all for her wisdom. The woman who is wise is the one to praise. And the responsorial psalm tells us in what this wisdom consists: O blessed are those who fear the Lord and walk in his ways! It’s not just any kind of hard work that is praised. There are, after all, many kinds of work that a person can do. And for a variety of motivations. The kind of work that is praised is the kind that flows from the fear of the Lord, from the firm and ongoing commitment to put God first in one’s life. We begin to see, then, that it’s not just a matter of labouring diligently, but also wisely.

And in order to do this, we have to consider what exactly it is that we have received. In the gospel parable, what is entrusted to the servants are huge sums of money. Some commentators say that a talent was roughly equivalent to sixteen years’ wages. So even the last servant, who received only one talent, received a lot. But what does this money symbolise? What does God entrust to us that is of such great value? As we have been reflecting upon in this retreat, the greatest gift that God gives to us is nothing less than God’s presence itself, God’s friendship, extended to us in and through Christ the Son. And if what has been entrusted to us is Christ himself, then perhaps it’s not enough simply to work hard. What is even more important is that we try to get to know the Lord ever better with each passing day. That we try to enter ever more deeply into his friendship.

But it’s not enough just to consider what has been given. We need also to consider how the Lord will judge us, what he will expect from us, on the Last Day. Notice how the three servants in the parable are judged. The ones who are praised are those who do more than just regurgitate what had been entrusted to them. They are willing to take some risks. Risks calculated to bring a greater return. In contrast, it is the one who is afraid of loss–the one who prefers to anxiously protect what he has received–who ends up in the place of weeping and grinding of teeth. Isn’t there a crucially important lesson here for us today? Especially for those of us who may be so intent on insulating our faith from the challenges of the world, that we forget that Christ is present in the world as well. And that we cannot truly deepen our friendship with the Lord, if we refuse to take the risk of going out to meet him there.

Finally, in addition to helping us to consider what we have been given and how we will be judged, our readings also invite us to remember when this ultimate examination will take place. Here there is a crucial difference between the Last Judgment and the ordinary final exams that students take. School exams usually run on a predetermined schedule. There are no surprises as to date, time and location. The same cannot be said of the Last Judgment. As the second reading reminds us, the Day of the Lord is going to come like a thief in the night. So we have to stay awake. We have to continually nurture our relationship with the Lord. Only in this way can we remain sons of light and daughters of day.

And isn’t this precisely what our whole retreat has been about? Isn’t this what we have been doing? We have been getting to know the Lord better, and allowing him to draw us ever more deeply into his friendship.

Dear friends, as we leave this place today, perhaps the question we need to ask ourselves is how we might continue to do this. How might we continue to prepare for the Lord’s coming, not just by working hard, but also by working smart, by allowing ourselves to remain in the Lord’s friendship in the days ahead?

Saturday, October 29, 2011

31st Sunday in Ordinary Time
Mass @ Rachel’s Vineyard
Repair and Maintenance
Readings: Malachi 1:14-2:2,8-10; Psalm 130:1-3; 1 Thessalonians 2:7-9,13; Matthew 23:1-12
Picture: cc Aine D

Sisters and brothers, as you know, machines break down. And it’s usually not too difficult to tell when they do, right? All that is required is for us to pay careful attention to whether or not they’re working properly. You will know, for example, that a refrigerator is broken, if you notice that it is no longer keeping the temperature. But it’s important to notice it sooner rather than later. Otherwise, all the food in the refrigerator will spoil. If we don’t want to suffer such dire consequences, it’s important that we pay attention. We know this. We know how important it is to maintain our machines regularly. And to repair them as soon as they break down.

But it’s not just machines that break down. People do too. You’ve probably seen the shocking news report that has recently been circulating on the internet. It tells the story of little Wang Yue, the 2-year-old girl who died a few days ago in Guangdong Province, in China. She was run over by two minibuses and then left to lie bleeding in the middle of a busy street. Even though no less than eighteen people passed her by, not one stopped to lend a hand. Poor Yueyue was left helpless and groaning, until a 58-year-old woman–who was out collecting trash– took pity on her, dragged her to the side of the road, and called for help.

There’s a striking similarity, sisters and brothers, between the tragic situation of little Yueyue, and that of a refrigerator-load of food that goes bad because the machine has broken down. Just as a refrigerator is meant to keep food fresh, people are meant to have compassion on one another. To care for each other. To extend a helping hand especially to the helpless. When a refrigerator breaks, the food in it spoils. When a society malfunctions, the people in it suffer. Which only goes to show how important it is for us, not only to maintain our machines, but also to look after ourselves as well. And to quickly get ourselves repaired when we are broken. But how is it that people come to be broken in the first place? And how do we go about getting ourselves repaired? These are the questions that our Mass readings help us to answer today.

For what we find in them is a group of malfunctioning people. These are the priests, the religious leaders, of Israel. It becomes obvious to us that they are not functioning properly when we compare the effects of their ministry with those of St. Paul's. In the second reading, the apostle Paul reminds the Thessalonians of how he and his companions had ministered to them. How, like a mother feeding and looking after her own children, he and his team of missionaries had been eager to share with the people not only the Good News, but their whole lives as well. In addition, they had also worked hard to support themselves materially, so as not to be a burden on the people. As a result, the Thessalonians accepted God’s message in such a way that it became a living power in their lives.

In contrast, both in the first reading and in the gospel, the religious leaders of Israel are criticised for the bad effects of their ministry. Instead of caring for the people, instead of having compassion on them, and helping them to bear the heavy weight of daily living, these men have added to the people’s burdens, by insisting that they keep all sorts of trivial religious rules and regulations. As a result, these malfunctioning religious leaders have caused many to stumble under the weight of their misguided teaching. But, thankfully, our readings don’t just describe to us a breakdown in religious leadership. They also tell us how it comes about, and what needs to be done to repair it.

The cause of the breakdown is clear. The people of Israel believed, as we Christians do, that the goal of human life is to glorify God. But the priests in our readings have instead sought only to glorify themselves. As Jesus says in the gospel, everything they do is done to attract attention. And this concern of theirs, to have the spotlight constantly shining on themselves instead of on God, amounts to a breaking of the covenant made between God and the people. Instead of letting God be God, the religious leaders attempt to take God’s place. They have thus strayed from the way that God has marked out for them. And, as a result, instead of being a blessing to others, their ministry becomes a curse. Instead of lightening the load of others, they become a burden. In their experience, we see the truth of what Jesus says in the gospel: anyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and anyone who humbles himself will be exalted.

Fortunately, it is also in this saying of Jesus that we find the remedy. If the breakdown is caused by pride and selfishness, then the repair is brought about by humility and love. By once again–and continually–remembering that it is God alone who gives life. That it is God alone who deserves all the glory. You have only one Father, and he is in heaven. You have only one teacher, the Christ. It is only by doing this–by allowing God to once again be God–that the relationship between God and humanity can be mended. And religious leadership can once again function as it should. Helping people to lighten their loads, instead of multiplying their burdens. This mending of the broken relationship between humanity and God comes about because our Lord Jesus Christ allowed himself to be broken on the Cross. It is this sacrifice of his that we celebrate at this Eucharist.

But that’s not all. There is one other point to note. A very important point. Although, in our readings, the criticism of the priests is very sharp, it is less a condemnation than an invitation to repent. It is a caring and compassionate call, addressed to those who are broken, persuading them to allow themselves to be healed. To forsake prideful ways. And to once again experience the peace that is so beautifully described in the responsorial psalm: my heart is not proud, nor haughty my eyes..... truly I have set my soul in silence and peace.... hope in the Lord both now and forever.

Sisters and brothers, I cannot say for sure, since I haven’t had the pleasure of accompanying you very much on this retreat. But my guess is that, in these days, you too have heard and responded to this invitation. That you too have been allowing what has been broken to be healed. That you too have come to experience anew what the psalmist writes about: the contentment of a little child that has just been fed, and is resting its head on its mother’s breast. Perhaps what remains to be done is to give thanks for the graces that have been received. And also to ask for the wisdom and the strength to do whatever is necessary to take better care of that which once was broken, but which has since been made whole again.

Sisters and brothers, how might we continue to nourish our relationship with God in the days ahead?

Saturday, October 22, 2011

30th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Check Your Cloth!

Readings: Exodus 22:20-26; Psalm 17:2-4,47,51; 1 Thessalonians 1:5-10; Matthew 22:34-40
Picture: cc *vlad*

Sisters and brothers, not so long ago, I was given a brand new car to drive. It was white in colour. Being a conscientious kinda guy, and wanting to keep the car spotless for as long as I could, I implemented a rather serious plan. Every morning, before I set off for the day, I used a damp cloth to give the vehicle a good wipe. In other words, I did the very thing that is done every morning in Singapore by domestic help. I cleaned my car.

One morning, as I was performing my self-imposed domestic duty, I discovered what looked like a spot of tar on one of the doors. Thankfully, after some vigorous rubbing with my cloth, I managed to remove it. Only to find, as I continued cleaning, more such black spots on other parts of the vehicle. To my great annoyance, it seemed as though the more I cleaned, the more those cursed spots kept appearing. Then, fortunately for me, after having expended a good deal of energy–far more than usual–I finally began to see the light. You see, it wasn’t really the case that my car was covered with tar. Instead, what was happening was that the one black spot I had removed at first, had clung stubbornly to my cloth. So that, as I cleaned, I was actually transferring the tar all over. Quite ironically, my conscientious efforts were contaminating the car as much as cleaning it. In order to keep my car immaculately white, in order to remove all the black spots, what I first had to do was to check and to change my cloth.

Since that fateful morning, I’ve come to wonder whether the insight I gained while keeping my car clean, needs also to be learned by those who are trying so hard to maintain peace in our world. Why is it that, it often seems as though the more strenuous our efforts at removing the dark spots of violence and terror in our world, the more prevalent they appear to be? I’m not sure. But could it be that the reason lies as much in our chosen instruments for maintaining order, as it does in the chaotic world itself? Could it be that true peace, cannot really be won by declaring war? Even if it is a War on Terror? Could it be that, to truly clean the world, we need also to check and to change our cloths?

I am, of course, not a political scientist. And I claim no expertise in such matters. But even if the lesson gained while cleaning a car is not quite applicable to the realm of geopolitics, it certainly does appear relevant at least to the spiritual life. This is what our Mass readings remind us today. Consider the Pharisees in the gospel. Not unlike the conscientious driver of a white car, they too want to keep their religious lives clean. And their chosen instrument–their cloth of choice–is the Law. For the Pharisees, the spiritual life can only be kept spotless, if it is constantly being put in order–or polished to a shine–by the Law. To do this, effort must be expended, not only to interpret the Law, but also to enforce it. The way of the Pharisee is thus also the way of the lawyer and the policeman. And yet, it’s quite striking, isn’t it, to consider the terrible consequences of such an approach? Today the gospel tells us that the Pharisees put their question to Jesus only to disconcert him. To disrupt his peace. In their efforts to maintain order, the Pharisees attempt to disturb the One Who Alone is our Peace (Ephesians 2:14). And when their reliance on the Jewish Law fails to achieve their purpose, they will eventually resort to Roman authority. At their prompting, Pilate, the Roman governor, will condemn Jesus to death. What begins as an exercise of cleansing, ends in a scandal of contamination. They will manipulate the law to torture and murder the Prince of Peace.

In contrast, in his answer to the Pharisees’ question, Jesus offers a radically different instrument for keeping the spiritual life clean. Instead of an obsession with the Law, Jesus proposes a surrender to Love. In place of the expertise of lawyers and enforcement by policemen, Jesus models the Way of the Cross. What the Lord is telling the Pharisees is that, if they wish to be truly clean, they must first change their cloth, contaminated as it is by the tar of idolatry. They must first repent of their idolatrous worship of the Law, and return to the love of God with all their heart, and soul, and mind. It is only in this way that true peace can be attained. And not just attained, but also shared with many. Isn’t this also what St. Paul writes about in the second reading, when he reminds the Thessalonians that it is because they first broke with idolatry, and became servants of the real, living God, that their faith has spread everywhere?

And that’s not all. Even though Jesus is asked for only one commandment–the greatest–he names two. Not just love of God, but also love of neighbour. And not just any neighbour. As the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke’s gospel (10:25-37) reminds us, the neighbour that most requires our attention is the one who is most in need. The one who has been robbed and left by the roadside to die. The ones who are somehow excluded by the prevailing order, as currently interpreted and enforced by the powers that be. The way of peace passes through the needy neighbour. This too is what we find in the first reading. In giving the Law to Moses, God pays particular attention to the poor, to strangers, to widows, and to orphans. Classes of people most excluded from the society of that time. In his day, Jesus himself would include tax collectors and prostitutes as well. What we find here, sisters and brothers, is scriptural support for something that the late Pope Paul VI wrote in his message for the Day of Peace in 1972: If you want peace, work for justice. If you want an orderly world or society, pay attention to those who do not yet find a place in it. Those most excluded from it. Even those who may seem to be mired in sin, or blinded by apathy.

Sisters and brothers, it is not easy to keep the spiritual life clean. We all know this from experience. What our Mass readings do for us is highlight an essential step in the process. First, continually check your cloth. And be willing to change it wherever necessary. First, ensure that your priorities are right: Love of God and needy neighbour before all else. Only then will the other things fall into place. Isn’t this an important lesson for us to learn, especially today, when some of us may be feeling especially threatened by what may look like chaos all around us? Chaos in the world. Chaos in our communities and families. Chaos even in our church. Chaos in our hearts. In the midst of all this apparent disorder, we may feel sorely tempted to respond by imposing order through the ever stricter interpretation and enforcement of laws. And yet, our readings remind us of the terrible danger that awaits those who choose such an approach. The idolatrous obsession with order and law–however well-intentioned–can lead to the eventual crucifixion of Love.

Sisters and brothers, even as we continue trying to keep the vehicle that is our spiritual life clean, perhaps it’s important that we also ask ourselves this question: Does our cloth need changing today?

Saturday, October 15, 2011

29th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Beyond Departments

Readings: Isaiah 45:1,4-6; Psalm 95:1,3-5,7-10; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-5; Matthew 22:15-21
Picture: cc idi0tekue

Sisters and brothers, do you like to shop in department stores? What do you like about it? What I like about department stores are, precisely, the departments. In a well-run store, all the goods will be neatly organised and easy to locate. To buy a shirt, for example, I can just go directly to the menswear department and try one on. I don’t have to waste my time wandering around, getting lost among pots and pans or women’s attire.

Now, if you were the manager of such a store, what do you think are some of the challenges you might have to face? I think one ongoing challenge would be to ensure that the merchandise always remains well-organised. That is not easy. Especially because, as you know, we shoppers have a habit of moving things around. But although it is hard to keep everything in its proper place, this is by no means the only difficulty.

What about electricity? I don’t mean electrical appliances. These will, of course, have their own proper department. But electricity does not. Electricity is not confined to any one department. It is needed throughout the store. It’s the power that freshens the air and lights up the room. Imagine what would happen if a foolish store manager were to treat electricity as just another category of merchandise. Imagine what it would be like if s/he tried to restrict electricity to just one department in the store. That’s quite a ridiculous thought isn’t it? The rest of the building would be left in the dark! No one would shop there. The store would have to be closed. Which goes to show how important it is to appreciate the nature of the thing. Electricity is power, not a department.

Clearly, then, not everything is meant to be departmentalised. And this is an important insight that we should keep in mind as we meditate upon our Mass readings today. Especially because the conversation in the gospel between Jesus and the Pharisees and Herodians may at first sound like a quarrel over departments. Is it permissible to pay taxes to Caesar or not? It’s tempting to approach this question as a choice between two competing departments. In the store of life, space is limited. Should we have a department dedicated to God? Or one dedicated to Caesar? Should we choose politics over religion? Or vice versa?

And not just the question, but even Jesus’ answer can be misunderstood as a statement about departments. Give back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar–and to God what belongs to God. When we hear this, it may seem as though Jesus is telling us to keep our lives rigorously departmentalised. To maintain one section for God and one for politics. And to keep both these departments strictly separated from each other.

But to misconstrue the gospel in this way is to fall into a very dangerous trap. It is the same trap that imprisons both the Pharisees and the Herodians, even as they team up to entrap Jesus with their question. Like foolish store managers, these people fail to appreciate that God cannot be confined to a particular section in a store. And because they try to do this, they end up with a blackout. They are engulfed in darkness. They fail to recognise and to receive Jesus, the Light of the World.

We are, of course, familiar with the political doctrine that calls for a separation of church and state. We all know its value. For example, we don’t want our Archbishop to take over the job of the Prime Minister. That would be disastrous. Nor do we want the government to tell us Christians what to believe and how to worship. Again, it’s not unlike a department store. Some of the staff are trained as sales personnel. Others as electricians. You don’t want these people to confuse their roles. But, even if a store has specially trained electricians on its staff, the fact remains that electricity is needed throughout the whole store. Electricity is power, not a department. And the same can be said about God.

We see this even more clearly when we consider the rest of our scriptures for today. The first reading is set in a time towards the end of the Babylonian Exile. The Persian army has conquered Babylon. Cyrus, the Persian king, then passes a decree allowing the Jewish exiles to return to their homeland. However, although it may seem that Cyrus is the one responsible for the people’s good fortune, the prophet thinks differently. He looks beyond the rise and fall of political regimes to the powerful and providential hand of God, secretly at work behind the scenes. To the prophet, Cyrus is acting only as God’s instrument. It is God who has appointed the Persian king to set the people free. From the prophet’s point of view, then, God’s activity is not restricted only to a particular narrow domain. Instead, God is at work in all areas of life. As much in politics as in religion, God labours effectively on the people’s behalf, freshening the air and brightening their way. Like electricity in a store, God is power, not a department.

We find this to be true also for the Thessalonians in the second reading. As St. Paul reminds them, when they received the Good News, it came to them not only as words–not only as pious religious sentiments–but as power and as the Holy Spirit and as utter conviction. The Word of God had a radical transforming effect on every segment of their lives. Here too, like electricity in a store, God is power, not a department.

And isn’t this an important reminder for us as well? For many of us, life is not unlike a fully stocked store. It’s filled with so many things, that we need to struggle constantly to ensure that everything has its proper place. When we are home, for example, we don’t want to allow the stresses and strains of the office to affect our interactions with our family. Nor do we want to let troublesome family issues cloud our judgment at work.

Still, as important as it is to departmentalise our lives, it’s even more important to realise that God is not a department. God is not just another thing that requires management. God is instead the divine electricity that continually freshens our earthly existence. God is that wonderworking power that guides and strengthens us on our way to eternity. If only we allow it.

For we can only benefit fully from this power when we stop restricting God to certain narrow segments of our lives. When we are willing instead to allow God to influence every aspect of our earthly existence. In the words of the responsorial psalm: in our lives we need to give the Lord glory and power, to give the Lord the glory of his name.

Sisters and brothers, in the busy shopping mall that is your life, how many departments are truly being powered by God today?

Saturday, October 08, 2011

28th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Showing Up For Success

Readings: Isaiah 25:6-10; Psalm 22:1-6; Philippians 4:12-14,19-20; Matthew 22:1-14
Picture: cc jiji

Sisters and brothers, if you were to take a close look at your own life today, would you consider yourself a success? What does success look like to you? And how, in your opinion, does one actually become truly successful? There’s a quotation, rather well-known in some circles, that is attributed to the popular American screenwriter and playwright, Woody Allen. In one of his movies, Allen is thought to have said that eighty percent of success is just showing up.

Just showing up. Sounds easy, doesn’t it? Want to be a successful student? Make it a point to turn up at every class and, of course, at the exams too. Want to be a successful parent or spouse? Be sure to stick around for all family occasions and activities. Want to have a successful career? Try to be there whenever there’s an opportunity for corporate advancement and networking. If you want to be successful, show up!

And yet, we only have to think a little more deeply to see that there must be more to success than that. For one thing, there must be more to showing up than just being physically present. A student who shows up at every lesson, but spends all his class time daydreaming about his girlfriend, is not likely to go very far. Neither is a corporate executive who attends networking events only for the free food. Nor, for that matter, is a parent for whom family time means catching up on emails from work. There’s more to showing up than mere bodily presence. Also, we should not forget that, for Woody Allen, showing up is only eighty percent of success. Now that, of course, is already quite a lot. But still, eighty percent is not quite a hundred.

It’s useful to keep these considerations in mind today, because our Mass readings invite us to reflect upon what it means to be a truly successful Christian. A tried and true disciple of Christ. A legitimate and loyal citizen of the kingdom of heaven. As it is for Woody Allen, so too in the kingdom. To be truly successful, much depends upon our willingness simply to show up. To show up where? At a very mysterious place. A place that, as we will soon see, is not really a physical location. The readings describe this place in different terms. The first reading tells of a holy mountain upon which the hand of the Lord rests. The beautiful twenty-third psalm speaks of the Lord’s own house, in which we shall dwell forever and ever. And, in the gospel parable, Jesus describes a wedding hall, where the king’s son is to marry his bride. A hill, a house, and a hall. Three apparently different localities. But each one serving as the venue for an identical activity: a lavish feast, a sumptuous banquet, prepared especially for the enjoyment of the invited guests.

Sounds like such a tempting proposition. Anyone would be foolish to turn it down. And yet, as Jesus points out, so many people do. So many prefer to busy themselves with various other activities. Why? What can be so difficult about showing up at a banquet?

We receive a deeper insight into this question when we consider closely what St. Paul tells us in the second reading. Paul writes as an old and tired labourer in the Lord’s vineyard. He has poured out the best years of his life spreading the gospel in foreign lands. Now he finds himself in prison. His earthly existence hangs in a balance. He senses that his end is near. And yet, in the midst of all his trials, even as he finds his aging body clasped in cruel chains, Paul continues to enjoy a remarkable freedom of spirit. I know how to be poor and I know how to be rich too, he says. There is nothing I cannot master with the help of the One who gives me strength. What is Paul describing, sisters and brothers, if not a grand interior feast of freedom? A banquet held not so much in any particular physical location, as it is in the very depths of his own heart? And what does Paul’s experience tell us, if not that the extravagant banquet that God prepares for us does not really need a special exterior venue? It can be enjoyed as much on a holy mountain, as in a humble home. As much in a wedding hall, as within the walls of a dark dungeon. What matters is that we the invited guests be willing to show up. To allow ourselves to remain present to the particular circumstances in which God desires to meet us.

Obviously, this is not an easy thing to do. It’s not easy because our own particular circumstance can sometimes be very difficult. As difficult as having a body afflicted by infirmity or ridden with illness. As challenging as having a heart broken by infidelity or deep disappointment. To remain present to such circumstances takes great courage. A courage that we are neither born with, nor able to produce for ourselves. This courage is, rather, a gift of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit that each of us receives at our Baptism and Confirmation. The same Spirit that we will shortly invoke upon the gifts of Bread and Wine. And it is this same courage that we find so sorely lacking in the invited guests of the gospel today. Rather than showing up at the banquet of life, instead of facing squarely the inevitable challenges of everyday existence, these people do all they can to distract themselves with other far more trivial things.

Still, perhaps we can sympathise with their predicament. We who might succeed in dragging ourselves to Mass on a given Sunday, but still struggle, sometimes in vain, to relate our weekend worship to the concrete circumstances of our weekday lives. We, who may continue to drift from one preoccupation to another, without ever encountering the presence of the living God. The same God who continues to invite us to enjoy what St. Paul enjoyed: a grand interior feast of freedom. For this is what being a successful Christian looks like. This freedom to face life courageously and to find the living God waiting for us there. Such that even if we should walk in the valley of darkness no evil would we fear. For God is there, with crook and staff, to give us comfort.

But that’s not all. Again, as Woody Allen reminds us, showing up is only eighty percent of success. And this too is what the man in the gospel–who turned up at the banquet without a wedding garment–discovered to his great dismay. To be a truly successful Christian, it’s not enough for us just to show up. It’s not enough for us just to face life courageously. People like Adolf Hitler and Osama bin Laden appear to have done the same. Except that their courage led them not to carefully cultivate life, but to violently snuff it out. In contrast, we Christians are called to do as Jesus did. To expend our own lives in the loving service of the kingdom. To put on, in our everyday lives, the wedding garment that is the Body and Blood of Christ, which will, in a few short moments, be broken and pour out for us all.

Sisters and brothers, if Woody Allen is right. If it is indeed true that eighty percent of success is showing up. Then how successful as Christians are we today?

Sunday, October 02, 2011

27th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Criss-Crossed Cables

Readings: Isaiah 5:1-7; Psalm 79:9,12-16,19-20; Philippians 4:6-9; Matthew 21:33-43
Picture: cc Bitman

Sisters and brothers, have you ever found yourself visiting a new place–maybe a friend’s home, or a retreat house like this–and trying to switch on an electrical appliance, only to find that it does not work? When this happens, one of the first things you might do is to check to see if the device is plugged into the power socket. But, as sometimes happens, when you do this, you may find that the power cord is entangled with a whole host of other cables, such that there’s no easy way to identify which one belongs to the device you wish to use. So you set out to disentangle the cables. To find out which cable belongs to which machine. Not an easy task. What’s worse, sometimes, even after you have done this, you may still not be able to get the appliance to work. Perhaps the power cable is too short to reach the socket, and you can’t find an extension cord. Or perhaps the appliance itself is faulty. If this is the case, there is usually not much more you can do except to get help. Unless you’re an expert, you don’t want to try to fix the appliance. It doesn’t belong to you. You don’t want to risk making the thing worse than it already is. It may, of course, feel very frustrating, especially after you’ve expended so much energy in disentangling the cables. But, even so, the wise thing to do is to wait. To defer to a higher power.

A dysfunction, a disentangling, and a deference to a higher power. These are also among the key elements in our Mass readings today. Both in our first reading and the gospel we find something that is malfunctioning. This is not just any electrical appliance, but a whole nation. Something is wrong with the people of Israel. It is somehow not performing the function for which it was created. And to find out why this is so, some troubleshooting is required. In the process, it’s as though a tangled mass of power cables is unravelled.

Isn’t this what we find in the first reading and the gospel? In both these readings, the parable of the vineyard is used as a tool for discerning the source of the problem. It serves as a way to troubleshoot the breakdown. And it is quite striking, isn’t it, that although both the prophet Isaiah and Jesus make use of the same parable, they arrive at rather different conclusions?

In the first reading, the problem is with the vineyard, the people of Israel itself. In disentangling the complex cables feeding into Israel’s situation, what the prophet uncovers is essentially a production problem. The vineyard is meant to produce grapes for making good wine. But it bears sour grapes instead. The people of Israel is meant to produce justice and integrity in the sight of all the nations. But it bears bloodshed and a cry of distress instead. Rather than caring for the poor and those who are excluded by society, Israel is itself complicit in their continued oppression.

The dysfunction in the gospel is different. Here the problem is not one of production but management. The vineyard itself remains fertile, but it is being mismanaged. Worse than mismanagement, the vineyard is subjected to theft and corruption. The managers disregard the rights of the landowner. They plot to embezzle not only the fruits of the estate, but the whole vineyard itself. In like manner, the leaders of Israel–the chief priests and elders of the people, those who have been entrusted with the task of caring for the House of Israel– have chosen instead to make the people totally dependent upon the leaders themselves. In their zeal for keeping every minute detail of the Law, in their claim to be experts at interpreting the Law’s provisions, the priests and elders have kept the people from receiving and responding to the love of God their Creator. The cause of the dysfunction is clear. It’s a management problem.

However, even after having disentangled the cables, and identified the cause of the dysfunction, both the prophet in the first reading, and Jesus in the gospel, experience the frustration of not being able to do much about it. Despite their best efforts at admonishing their hearers, Israel and its leaders remain stubbornly resistant to change. The House of Israel continues to fall short of fulfilling its intended function. While the resistance of its leaders escalates to such an extent that Jesus will be made to experience the ultimate frustration: He will lay down his life as a ransom for many.

Even so, in our readings today, frustration and irritation, suffering and death do not have the last word. For, in both versions of the parable, we notice a deference to a higher power, which power then promises to intervene on behalf of the frustrated. In the first reading, the owner of the vineyard abandons it, allowing it to lie fallow, in the hopes that it will become fertile again. In the gospel, the wayward tenants are replaced with others that are more capable and obedient.

But that’s not all. Quite paradoxically, in spite of experiencing the frustration that comes from feeling themselves powerless to remedy a deeply dysfunctional situation, those who, like Isaiah and Jesus, are willing to defer to a higher power–those who acknowledge that God alone is the owner of the vineyard–receive a deep consolation. In the words of St. Paul in the second reading–words that the scripture scholars tell us were written from prison–there is no need to worry; but if there is anything you need, pray for it... and that peace of God, which is so much greater than we can understand, will guard your hearts and your thoughts, in Christ Jesus.

Sisters and brothers, as it was for the House of Israel, so too is it often the case with us. Whether in our families or in our workplaces, in our world or in our church, from time to time we encounter dysfunctional situations that stubbornly resist our best efforts. After disentangling all the confused strands that feed into it. After having uncovered the causes of the problem. We may come to see that the situation is really beyond us. For example, the world economy continues to favor the rich over the poor. In religious circles, there remains a stubborn attraction to the predictability of the Law, often at the expense of mercy for those who may be struggling. For our part, all we can do is to persevere in taking Paul’s advice, not just to pray, but also to fill your minds with everything that is true, and to keep doing all the things that we have learned from the Lord Jesus. In the hope that the God of peace, to whose power we defer, will remain with us, consoling and strengthening us, even in the midst of our frustration.

Sisters and brothers, are there any tangled power cables in your lives today?