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?