Sunday, August 28, 2011

22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time
Choosing the Cross

Readings: Jeremiah 20:7-9; Psalm 62:2-6,8-9; Romans 12:1-2; Matthew 16:21-27
Picture: cc rogiro

Sisters and brothers, how do you make decisions? Is the decision-making process something that interests you? As you may have heard, earlier this month, the Centre for Ignatian Spirituality and Counselling–that building located behind this church–hosted a forum on decision-making according to the teachings of St. Ignatius of Loyola. I was told that the organizers were expecting a modest number of participants–maybe 30 or 40 at most. But more than 120 showed up. It certainly does seem that decision-making is something that interests us.

And yet, we may wonder what exactly it is we think we are doing when we go about making decisions. The impression I sometimes get is that, very often, we equate decision-making with figuring out what we ought to do. We want to know exactly what course of action we should take.

Now this is, of course, an important question. But is decision-making really only about knowledge? Isn’t it true that, all too often, our difficulties in making decisions have to do not so much with knowing which course of action to choose, as it is with finding the courage and strength to choose it? I may know, for example, that I need to stop seeing that person who is already married to someone else. But I don’t really want to do it. Hence the difficulty. Very often, we know what we need to do. We just don’t like to do it.

Take, for another example, yesterday’s polling for the Elected President. We had four candidates from which to choose. Adequate information was provided about each one. Enough, at least, for each of us to make an informed choice. And yet, when faced with this serious decision of choosing a Head of State, almost 38,000 Singaporeans decided to spoil their votes. Why? Did they not know which candidate came closest to their own ideals of what the President should be? Possibly. But I wonder if the problem was perhaps not so much knowing who to choose, as it was being willing to pick someone who was less than ideal. When faced with a choice among options that we may not like, we often shy away from choosing. Not realizing that not deciding is itself a decision. By spoiling my vote, I’m just deciding to let others choose for me.

Quite clearly, then, decision-making involves more than just knowing what to do. It also includes somehow getting in touch with the inner resources that we need, to do what needs to be done. Especially if what needs to be done is very difficult, something we don’t particularly like. It is exactly this kind of situation, that we find in our Mass readings today. In the gospel, Peter has already acknowledged Jesus as the Son of God. But now he discovers not only that Jesus must die a most shameful and painful death, but that Peter himself is being called to follow in Christ’s footsteps. If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, Jesus says, let him renounce himself and take up his cross and follow me. The choice is clear. There is no question about what needs to be done. If Peter wants to follow Christ, then he too needs to walk the Way of the Cross. But knowing what needs to be done is not the same as doing it. Peter doesn’t like it. He protests. This must not happen to you. As a result, Jesus rebukes him.

The situation in the first reading is similar. God had called Jeremiah to be a prophet, to speak on God’s behalf. And, after some initial hesitation, Jeremiah had responded generously. But now, Jeremiah is beginning to realize that being a prophet is not such a cushy job after all. More often than not he has to tell people what they do not wish to hear. And people respond not just by rejecting his message, but also by abusing him, the messenger. The word of the Lord, he laments, has meant for me insult, derision, all day long. Again, as with Peter, so too with Jeremiah. The question is not how to discover what needs to be done–that’s clear enough–but how to find the strength to do it.

Thankfully, our readings give us some indication of what to do. Notice Jeremiah’s approach to decision-making. Notice first what he does not do. He does not simply go about trying to find someone who is prepared to tell him what he himself wants to hear, namely, that he can change his profession, that he can stop speaking on God’s behalf. Instead, very honestly, he brings all his complaints before the Lord. He even goes to the extent of claiming that God has seduced him. In another translation, the word used is duped. He says that God has somehow deceived him, the way a false lover might deceive the beloved by whispering sweet nothings into her ear. Bold accusation. And yet, by pouring out what is in his heart in this almost irreverent fashion, something begins to happen to Jeremiah. Underneath all his hurt feelings, he discovers a hidden wellspring of energy. A fire burning in his heart which, for all his complaining, he himself cannot extinguish. What Jeremiah discovers is that his call to be a prophet is not just an external imposition by a demanding, even tyrannical, God. Rather, his call is a deep hunger within him, something he himself yearns to do. In the words of the response to our psalm, Jeremiah discovers that it is for you my soul is thirsting, O Lord my God.

And it is only after we, like Jeremiah, have tapped into this inner fountain of spiritual energy, that we can then begin to put into practice what we are told in the second reading. Having gotten in touch with our own deep hunger and thirst for God–which is really God’s very presence within us–we can then begin to let our behaviour change, modelled by our new mind. We can begin to think in God’s way and not just in our own. For, as the second reading tells us, this is the only way to discover the will of God and know what is good, what it is that God wants, what is the perfect thing to do.

Put in another way, the process of Christian decision-making moves from the heart, to the head, to the hands. It involves not just trying to figure out what exactly it is we need to do, but also discovering the One whom we love. And then in gradually learning to see things the way God sees them. It is only by doing this that we can find the strength to follow Jesus on the Way of the Cross, to choose to continue doing God’s will, even when we may not like it. And, in so doing, to enjoy the reward that Jesus promises to bestow upon us when the Son of Man comes in the glory of his Father with his angels.

Sisters and brothers, what challenges do you face in making your decisions? How will you find the strength to take up your cross today?

Sunday, August 21, 2011

21st Sunday in Ordinary Time
Solid Seat or Stumbling Block

Readings: Isaiah 22:19-23; Psalm 137:1-3, 6, 8; Romans 11:33-36; Matthew 16:13-20
Picture: cc CastawayVintage

Sisters and brothers, some weeks ago I heard a loud cry of shock and dismay coming from a room not far from where I was. Later, I discovered the reason for it. Someone had tried to sit in an old armchair. It was one of those chairs with two cushions, one on the seat and the other against the backrest. Anyway, this person had planted himself in the chair, apparently with some force, only to feel, to his great surprise, his bottom going right through the seat. The chair was broken! Hence the loud exclamation.

My friend’s surprise and irritation are understandable. For we rightly expect chairs to be capable of bearing our weight. They are meant to be places where we can rest. And to suit this purpose, we expect them to be solid enough. But solidity is not the only requirement. In order to fulfill its function, a chair also has to offer us a space that is wide enough to fit our bodies. Isn’t this why there is something in us that feels uneasy when we come across a chair that is cluttered with other things, like books or laundry (clean or otherwise) or when it has been choped with a little packet of Kleenex tissues? However solid such a chair is, we still can’t sit in it. Not without first removing the other objects. When a chair is either too fragile or too full, it fails to perform its rightful function. Instead of being the welcoming space it is meant to be, it ends up simply taking up space. It becomes an obstacle in our path.

It’s useful to keep this in mind when we consider the authority that Jesus grants to St. Peter in the gospel today. Playing on the literal meaning of Peter’s name, Jesus tells him that he is the rock on which Jesus will build his church. The authority granted to Peter is meant for a very particular purpose. It is to serve as a foundation stone for supporting the rest of the church. And doesn’t a foundation stone bear close similarities to a chair? Like a chair, a foundation stone needs to be both solid and spacious enough to support the building that is constructed upon it. In this case the church.

Furthermore, what is said of Peter the Rock, can be extended also to the Church itself, to you and to me, we who are members of the spiritual building that the Rock of Peter supports. Again, like a chair and a foundation stone, a building too needs to be solid and spacious enough, so as to better accommodate its occupants.

Solidity and spaciousness. We see this combination of qualities also in the first reading, where God grants authority to the steward Eliakim. Not only is this authority described as a solid peg driven into a firm place, it is also said to be a throne of glory. In other words, it is a solid and spacious seat.

Which leads us to consider an important question: Whose glory is the throne of Eliakim ultimately meant to hold? Who is the rightful occupant of the spiritual building that is the Church? We find the answer in the second reading. Here, St. Paul ends his reflection on the richness of the depths of God, by acclaiming joyfully that all that exists comes from God; all is by him and for him. To him be glory for ever! Amen.

In other words, together with the Rock of Peter, we who make up the Church, are meant to be the dwelling place of God. This is where God has chosen to take his seat in the world. It follows then, that in order to fulfill this function, both Rock and Church must share the same qualities of solidity and spaciousness.

And to better understand what spiritual solidity looks like, we need to pay closer attention to our gospel reading for today. Notice how it is that Jesus comes to confer on Peter the keys of the kingdom. Jesus does this only after he hears Peter’s answer to the very personal question who do you say I am? Not just what your teachers, or your priests, or your parents, or your friends say, but what do you say. Who do you say I am? You are the Christ, Peter responds, the Son of the living God. Through his ability to recognize Jesus as the Son of God, through his willingness to believe that God, the Almighty Creator of the whole universe, could actually be present and active in a mere human being, Peter demonstrates the solidity of his faith.

But, as it is with a chair, so too with Peter’s faith. Solidity alone is not enough. Spaciousness is also needed. And, as we will see next week, when we continue our reading from the gospel of Matthew, as solid as Peter’s faith may be, it still isn’t quite as spacious enough. For although Peter is willing to recognize God in the man who works wondrous miracles and attracts great crowds of admirers, he can’t quite bring himself to accept the fact that this same wonder-worker must also walk the Way of the Cross. Peter’s faith, at least at this point in the story, is not spacious enough to recognize God in the bruised and battered face of the suffering and crucified Christ.

And it is when Peter rejects the Cross of Christ that he falls short of the purpose for which Jesus has chosen him. Cluttered by unrealistic expectations, the chair of Peter’s faith is unable to accommodate the Paschal Mystery of Christ, the same Mystery that we are celebrating at this Mass. Instead of a foundation stone, Peter turns into an obstacle in the Lord’s path. Which leads Jesus to tell him to get behind me, Satan! 

Sisters and brothers, clearly Peter’s experience provides an important lesson for each and for all of us. As members of the Church, as living stones making a spiritual house (1 Peter 2:5), in which God wishes to dwell, as the spiritual seat that God wishes to occupy on this earth, we too are called to remain solid and spacious enough to receive the Lord. We too are called to be courageous enough to acknowledge the presence of God not just in good times, but also in bad. Not just when enjoying popularity, but also when suffering rejection. Not just in good health, but also in sickness. Not just in a booming economy, but also in a recession. Not just in the midst of career advancement, but also in retrenchment. Not just in times of peace and harmony, but also in times of chaos and unrest. Not just in family and friends, but also in strangers and even enemies. Whatever the times, situations, and people in which the Lord chooses to come to us, like Peter, we too are called to be ready to welcome and to follow him. Like an inviting armchair, we too are called to be solid and spacious enough to receive the full presence of God.

Sisters and brothers, when we examine ourselves today, both as individuals and as a church, what do we find? Are we truly a solid seat, or are we merely a stumbling block for the Lord?

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Tuesday in the Twentieth Week of Ordinary Time
The Calling of Ducks and Sheep

Readings: Judges 2:11-19; 6:11-24; Psalm 84:9, 11-14; Matthew 19:16-30
Picture: cc Reinout van Rees

I once visited a small farm at feeding time and saw a woman feeding her ducks. Carrying a basin of food, she walked out into her yard and started calling in a loud voice. At the sound, all the ducks started waddling over to where she stood. And she fed them from the basin. All the ducks responded to one and the same sound, the very same call.

Sometimes I think that this must also be how God calls us as well. After all, in John 10, doesn’t Jesus refer to himself as the Good Shepherd, and to us as the sheep who listen to his call? I imagine that the calling of sheep would not be much different from that of ducks. One and the same call going out to the whole flock. But is this really true?

Our readings today tell us otherwise. Especially if we include the previous day’s readings, which we missed because we celebrated the Solemnity of the Assumption. When read together, the readings of yesterday and today present us with accounts of two people receiving calls from God. There is Gideon in the first reading, and the unnamed man in the gospel. Two people in very different circumstances, receiving very different calls.

Consider first the man in the gospel. We’re told that he was very wealthy in more ways than one. He was rich not just materially, but morally as well. For he claims to have kept all the commandments. In addition, he was also rich in self-confidence. He comes to Jesus, not to ask the Lord for help but only for instruction. He doesn’t ask the Lord to give me life, but only to tell me what I can do to gain life. He’s quite sure that he can do what is required.

To such a person, Jesus responds by issuing a call to poverty and self-emptying. Go and sell what you own... and come follow me. In other words, get rid not just of your material wealth, but also of your self-reliance. You cannot save yourself. Trust only in me. Follow me!
Contrast that with the call of Gideon. We’re not sure of Gideon’s material circumstances, but what we do know is that he was poor in power. Gideon was a member of an oppressed people. He was afraid of the Midianites, who were carrying away his people’s crops. In addition Gideon was also poor in self-esteem and in self-confidence. He claims that he is the least important member of his family, and his clan is the weakest in Manasseh. He feels helpless in the face of the marauding Midianites, and has long been waiting for God to save his people. But his hope is fast fading.

To such a poor person as Gideon, God responds in a strikingly different manner from the way Jesus deals with the man in the gospel. Instead of calling for greater humility and self-effacement, God calls Gideon to stop waiting for God to do something, but to take courage and to act on his people’s behalf. Not only that, God actually tells Gideon to tap into the righteous anger that he is feeling at his people’s plight. Go in the strength now upholding you, God says. I will be with you and you shall crush Midian. In contrast to the rich man, who is called to empty himself of his wealth, Gideon is asked to exploit the inner resources that God has already given him.

Two men experiencing God’s call in two very different ways. All of which brings us back to the call of the Good Shepherd to his sheep. Is the calling of sheep really similar to the calling of ducks? Do we all receive the same call, in exactly the same way? Not quite. For in John 10:3, Jesus says that the Good Shepherd calls his sheep one by one. In another translation, he calls his sheep by name. Each one experiences a unique call.

How is God calling you today?

Monday, August 15, 2011

Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary
(Mass During The Day)
Lessons From A Gum Wrapper

Readings: Apocalypse 11:19,12:1-6,10; Psalm 44:10-12,16; 1 Corinthians 15:20-26; Luke 1:39-56
Picture: cc Save vs Death

Sisters and brothers, I’m not sure if there are any of you here who remember this. But, when I was growing up in the seventies, there was a particular brand of bubble-gum that was very popular with the kids. It was popular not really because of the gum itself–which was quite ordinary–but because of the wrapper. You see, printed on the inside of each gum wrapper was a picture. Sometimes, if you were lucky it was a superhero, like Spiderman or Ultraman, someone who possessed extra-ordinary powers. But that’s not all. What was so attractive about this picture was that it was transferable. All you had to do was to spill a few drops of water onto the image, and then press the wrapper onto your wrist, or somewhere else on your body, and after a few short seconds Ultraman would appear on your skin like a tattoo. And, of course, if you were a kid with a lively enough imagination, not only Ultraman’s image, but also his superpowers would be transferred onto you. And you could then go around like a true superhero looking for monsters to subdue, and innocent people to protect. Transferable superpowers, that was the real attraction. Not the gum.

I mention this because, strange as it may sound, there are close similarities between those bubblegum wrappers of my childhood and the solemn feast that we are so joyfully celebrating today. Consider what we just heard in our Mass readings. Notice how, as with those gum wrappers, we find in our readings a hero, someone with wonderful, extra-ordinary power. The first reading tells of how an evil monster–a huge red dragon–was threatening to devour a woman and her as yet unborn child. But, miraculously, not only did both woman and child escape, but the monster was defeated. The reading ends with a voice from heaven joyfully proclaiming that victory and power and empire for ever have been won by our God, and all authority for his Christ. As with those gum wrappers, here too we find someone with superpower. Through his life, death and resurrection, Christ has conquered not just the evil dragon, but even Death itself.

More importantly, we’re also told that Christ’s extra-ordinary power over death does not simply remain with Him alone. Rather, like the image on the gum wrappers, this superpower is actually transferable. As we’re told in the second reading, just as all die in Adam, so all will be brought to life in Christ. All will be able to share in Christ’s victory over death. Transferable superpower. That is what we are celebrating today. For who do you think was the first candidate for the transfer of Christ’s power over death? Who else but the Lord’s very own mother, his first and closest disciple, the Blessed Virgin Mary herself. Today we celebrate the effects of this transfer of Christ’s power onto Mary. We believe that when her time on earth was complete, Mary, like her son Jesus, did not suffer the decay of death, but was assumed body and soul into heaven.

What is more, the effects of this power transfer did not begin only at the end of Mary’s life on earth. They were already felt when she was still a young teenager. As we heard in the gospel, soon after the Holy Spirit had descended upon her at the Annunciation, as soon as the power transfer had taken place, Mary immediately set out to do good. She went as quickly as she could to help her cousin Elizabeth, who was elderly and with child. And notice the effects of Mary’s visit. As soon as Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the older woman herself experienced a transfer of power. And not just her, but also the child in her womb. As a result of Mary’s presence, both the mother and her unborn child were filled with the joy of the Holy Spirit. The wondrous effects of transferable superpower. This is what we are celebrating today.

There is one final similarity between the gum wrappers and the Assumption. You will remember that, in order for Ultraman to become imprinted onto one’s wrist, in order for his powers to be transferred, something was needed. One had to apply water. Similarly, the power  transfer that Mary experienced took place because something else was present. We learn what this thing is from what Elizabeth says about Mary in the gospel. Blessed is she who believed that the promise made her by the Lord would be fulfilled. Mary believed. The power transfer that she experienced was brought about by her faith. The same faith that is symbolized by the waters of Baptism. Through her faith, Mary allowed the image of her as yet unborn Son to be imprinted onto her heart, just as she let his power move her to do good. The faith that enables a transfer of superpower. This is what we celebrate today.

And this transfer of power is not for Mary alone. She was but the first candidate. As we will hear later in the Preface to our Eucharistic Prayer, Mary is the beginning and the pattern of the Church in its perfection and a sign of hope and comfort for God’s people on their pilgrim way. The power of Christ is meant to be transferred not just to Mary, but, beyond her, to all of her children. To you and to me. All of us who have been immersed in the waters of Baptism. All of us who have had the image of Christ imprinted onto our hearts. All of us who are given a share in Christ’s awesome power over death, the same power that we are celebrating at this Eucharist.

If all this is indeed true, sisters and brothers, if we are indeed celebrating the transfer of superpower today, then the question we need to ask ourselves is, having received this power, what are we doing with it today?

Sunday, August 14, 2011

20th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Lay Apostolate Sunday
Location and Action

Readings: Isaiah 56:1, 6-7; Psalm 66:2-3, 5-6, 8; Romans 11:13-15,29-32; Matthew 15:21-28
Picture: cc whatjeanlikes

Sisters and brothers, have you ever noticed how so much of what we do depends on where we are? For example, I recently returned from a place where, even in the middle of summer, there were still some mornings and evenings when I needed to put on a sweater before leaving the house. But now that I’m back in tropical Singapore, I find myself trying to wear as little clothing as possible. Without being arrested for indecent exposure, of course. Anything to help me cope with the heat. When in a cooler place, you wear more. When in a hotter location less. Our surroundings have a big impact on the things we do. Very often, location determines action.

It is useful to keep this in mind as we begin our meditation on our Mass readings today. For the action in all three readings takes place in more or less the same kind of location. The nature of this space is brought to our attention at the beginning of the gospel, when we are told that Jesus left Gennesaret and withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. Jesus changed his location. He moved into the borderlands between Jewish and Gentile territories. And having arrived at this in-between locality, Jesus can no longer mix only with his own people. Now he also has to deal with foreigners.

Similarly, each of the other two readings situates us in a location between the native and the alien. Although the first reading is addressed to the people of Israel, it speaks to them about foreigners. And although the second reading is addressed to Gentile Christians, it speaks to them about the Jews. All our three readings today locate us squarely in the borderlands, in an in-between place–between us and them, between ours and theirs.

But, if it is true that location determines action, then what does one do in such a place? What is the appropriate action to perform when you find yourself surrounded by people with customs and beliefs, perspectives and preferences that are very different from yours? People who may eat different foods, wear different clothes, worship different gods. People who may look and even smell different. What do you do?

The first line of our first reading provides an answer by telling us to act with integrity. When we find ourselves among foreigners, we should take care to remember who we are, and to whom we belong. We are to maintain our integrity as the chosen people of God, and not allow this sacred identity to be dis-integrated through bad influence. So, in the verses that have been left out of our first reading from Isaiah 56–our reading jumps from verse 1 to verse 6–the prophet tells the people to keep observing the sabbath, and to stay away from every evil deed. What do you do when you find yourself among foreigners? You remain constant in your faith.

Good advice. But that’s only half the story. There’s something more. Something very important. For our integrity as the people of God is not really our own. Our integrity is modelled upon the integrity of the God to whom we belong. And, as our readings remind us, the integrity of God is expressed in the mercy that God constantly shows to all people–Jews and Gentiles alike. In the first reading, we’re told that God wishes to bring even foreigners to God’s holy mountain. So that God’s house will be called a house of prayer (not just for Jews but) for all the peoples. And in the second reading, St. Paul expresses the firm belief that even though his fellow Jews have rejected Christ, they still enjoy God’s mercy, because God never takes back his gifts or revokes his choice.

The surprising and even shocking extent of God’s mercy is brought out most clearly in the gospel. Here Jesus presents us with an example of what a Christian is called to do when travelling in the borderlands. We can’t say for sure what his exact intentions were. Did Jesus actually mean to ignore the Canaanite woman? Or was he just testing her? This is unclear. But two other things are clear enough. First, Jesus’ apparent indifference to the woman had the effect of drawing out her faith, of making it more explicit. Notice how, at first, the woman calls out to Jesus while keeping her distance. She addresses him by the accurate but impersonal title Son of David. Then, having been ignored by the Lord, she comes right up to him, kneels at his feet, and acknowledges him as her Lord. And that’s not all. When Jesus rebuffs her, the woman responds by humiliating herself. She accepts the rude name that Jesus gives to her. Yes, she is a house-dog. But she also reminds Jesus that even house-dogs remain members of God’s household. And membership has its privileges. Jesus grants her request. He heals her daughter.

And this is the second important point. By changing his mind in this way, Jesus breaks the stereotype that some Jews had of foreigners. Jesus shows that even among those thought to be unclean, great faith can be found. For God’s mercy is broad and deep enough to accept all peoples–natives and foreigners alike. Through his willingness to change his mind, Jesus shows us the constancy of God. As followers of Christ we too are called to do the same. When we find ourselves in the borderlands between the native and the foreign, we are called not just to remain constant in our faith by keeping to ourselves and coming to church every Sunday. We need also to be channels of God’s mercy to others. We  need also to reach out to foreigners, and even to be willing to change our minds–to break our stereotypes–about them.

This is an important reminder for us especially today, as we celebrate Lay Apostolate Sunday. For, as you know, the word apostle, means one who is sent. And a lay apostle is one who is sent into the world. And what is the world, if not one big borderland–a place in between the brilliant brightness of Heaven and the deep darkness of Hell? In the world, we Christians are surrounded by many different kinds of people. And although it is true that we need to guard ourselves against bad influences, it also remains no less true that we cannot simply separate ourselves from others. What is more, foreigners can appear in many different disguises. We find them in many different places. In our offices and in our schools, even in our own homes and in our church. In all these places and more, there are foreigners waiting for the lay apostles of Christ to bear witness to them, to show them the constancy of God’s mercy, to draw them into God’s household, and to break the stereotypes that keep us apart.

Sisters and brothers, as lay apostles sent out into the world, how can you let your location determine your action today?