Sunday, January 29, 2012

4th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)
Ite Inflammate Omnia!

Readings: Deuteronomy 18:15-20; Psalm 94:1-2,6-9; 1 Corinthians 7:32-35; Mark 1:21-28
Picture: cc dannebrog

Sisters and brothers, you’ve probably noticed how moths and other flying insects are attracted to bright lights. So attracted are they that even if the light is coming from a naked flame, they will still fly into it. And get burned alive. Why do they do that? I don’t know the exact scientific explanation for it. But legend has it that moths were originally made of Fire. However, over time, they got so involved in the affairs of moths, that they gradually lost touch with their Fire-nature, and all that was left of it was a tiny Spark buried deep inside them. A Spark large enough to draw them to the Fire, but far too tiny to protect their fragile moth-bodies from the heat. So that, one after another, many generations of moths flew into the Flames, and perished.

Now, the Fire was very upset by this sad state of affairs. But what could It do? The moths were just too fragile. If the Fire came too close to them from the outside, they would simply disintegrate in the heat. Finally, the Fire decided upon the only course of action open to It. The Fire transformed Itself into a moth. Not just any ordinary moth. A moth that was made of Pure Fire. A moth that could survive the heat of the Flames. The plan was for this Fire-moth to teach the others how to purify themselves. How to transform their fragile moth-bodies into Fire, from the inside out. In this way, the moths could then approach the Flames without being hurt. The plan succeeded. But only to a certain extent.

The Fire-moth did all that it was supposed to do. It gathered several other moths, and taught them the secret of Fire-transformation. It then sent out these disciples to teach the art to the rest of the moth-world, promising them that the Fire-moth would always be present to them, if only they remained true to their Fire-nature. Having done this, the Fire-moth flew back into the Flames. At first, the disciples did as they were told. But they faced stiff opposition from the others. You see, in order to be changed into Fire, a moth had to allow a part of itself–the part that was opposed to Fire–to die. And, of course, not all moths wanted to die.

Sadly, in reaction to this opposition, the disciples of the Fire-moth soon gave up trying to teach the art of Fire-transformation to others. Instead, to protect themselves, they set up a very strict boundary between them and the other moths. Between the World of Fire and the world of moths. So that, gradually, the art of Fire-transformation was all but lost. All except for a very small group of disciples, who refused to remain within the boundaries. These disciples continued bravely to go out into the moth-world, and to share the art of fire-transformation with others. So that, even today, if you are lucky, you may witness an amazing sight. You may see a moth flying into a naked flame without itself being burnt alive.

Sisters and brothers, you’ve probably not heard this legend before. Since I made it up. But it does mirror the story that our Mass readings are telling us today. In the first reading, Moses shares with the people of Israel God’s response to a complaint that they had voiced earlier. Like the moths in the legend, the Israelites were attracted to the presence of God. But they were also very much frightened by God’s awesome power. So that each of them had said to Moses: Do not let me hear again the voice of the Lord my God, nor look any longer on this great fire, or I shall die. In response, God promises to send them a prophet. Someone who is able to do what Moses had been doing. Someone who could act as an intermediary between them and God. I will put my words into his mouth, God says, and he shall tell them all I command him.

This promise made by God in the first reading finds its fulfilment in the person and actions of Jesus in the gospel. But Jesus is not just another Moses. He is not just another prophet. The gospel tells us that his teaching made a deep impression on his listeners because he taught them with authority. Unlike other prophets, Jesus didn’t just repeat words that he had heard from someone else. Rather, Jesus is himself the Word that became flesh (John 1:14). He came among us not just to teach us, but also to transform us. He is the Fire that became a moth, in order to purify us of everything that is opposed to Fire. This is the very thing that we find him doing in the gospel. In the synagogue, Jesus drives out the unclean spirit, and makes the man clean again.

And what Jesus does for the man in the synagogue, he does also for each of us gathered here today. In the waters of our Baptism and through the oil of our Confirmation, in the confined space of the Confessional, and at the open table of this Eucharist, Jesus purifies us and transforms us. Jesus burns away everything that is not of God, so that we can approach the Throne of Grace with boldness (Hb 4:16). With a confidence rooted not in our own goodness, but in the love of the One who laid down his life for us on the Cross. But that is not all. Like the moths of the legend, we are transformed by Christ not just for ourselves. We are changed in order to be commissioned. To be sent out to share the mystery of transformation with others.

And, if we are truly to live up to our call. If we are to be truly serious about sharing the secret of transformation with others. Then we need to resist a very seductive temptation. A temptation to which even the great St. Paul himself appears to have succumbed. In the second reading, Paul advises those who are unmarried to stay that way, so that they can give their undivided attention to the Lord. Of course, Paul offers this piece of advice for the good of his readers. He wishes to help them to avoid having to divide their attention between the world’s affairs and the affairs of the Lord. But that’s precisely the problem isn’t it? In making a strict distinction between these two spheres, isn’t Paul forgetting that the reason why Christ came among us, the reason why we have all been changed, is precisely so that we might be able to purify and to transform the affairs of the world into the affairs of the Lord? And how are we to do this if all of us were simply to separate ourselves from the world?

Even a religious vocation like my own is not meant for its own sake. Although, through his or her vows, a religious does withdraw to some degree from the affairs of the world, these vows are lived as a reminder, to those who remain immersed in the affairs of the world, of their calling to transform all that is worldly into the things of God. And we can do this only to the extent that we are willing to live the tension that Paul seems to be trying to help his readers to avoid. Like the transformed moths of our legend, we are called to remain true to the Fire within us, even as we continue to immerse ourselves in the affairs of the world, seeking to transform them into the Kingdom of God.

I'm reminded of another legend, a Jesuit one, that tells of how, when St. Ignatius of Loyola was sending St. Francis Xavier out to preach the gospel far away in the Indies, he left his friend with these Latin words: ite inflammate omnia. Go, set the world on fire!

Sisters and brothers, how are we being called to do the same today?

Wedding of John & Angie
Beyond the Smallest Squares

Readings: Ecclesiasticus 26:1-4, 13-16; Psalm 127: 1-5; Ephesians 5:2, 21-33; Mark 10:6-9

John & Angie, sisters and brothers, have you ever come across a puzzle that is presented as a square diagram? In the square, many other lines are drawn, so as to form smaller squares. You’re then asked for the total number of squares that you can see. The puzzle may look easy at first. What can be simpler than counting squares? But there’s actually more to it than we think. As you may know, many of us will tend to count only the smallest squares inside the diagram. But those are not the only ones that we can see. We easily overlook the fact that these smallest squares make up larger ones, which also need to be counted. And, of course, the whole diagram itself is also a square. That needs to be counted too. To solve the puzzle, we have to count not just the smallest squares, but the larger ones as well. Without forgetting the largest.

To look beyond the smallest squares. This is a challenge that we face too, as we gather here this afternoon. Today, we are here to witness the coming together of both of you, Angie and John, in holy matrimony. Today, we share your joy and excitement as you profess your marriage vows to each other. Today, it’s quite obvious to all of us that the spotlight is shining brightly on you both, Angie and John. And yet, even as all the attention may be focused on you, we may also ask ourselves a question that is similar to the one posed by the puzzle. Not how many squares do we see?, but how many parties are there in a marriage? How many parties does it take to make a marriage work? At first glance, the answer is simple. A marriage is between a husband and a wife. John and Angie. Two parties. What could be simpler?

And yet, as those of us here who are already married will probably be able to tell us, it takes more than two parties to make a successful marriage. The husband and the wife are just the smallest squares in the puzzle. There are larger ones as well. Our scripture readings for today tell us the same thing. In the gospel, Jesus says that a man must leave father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two become one body. At first, this may sound as though Jesus is saying that a marriage consists only of husband and wife. But that is not all. Jesus also says that it is God who has made them male and female. It is God who brings the two together as one. And what God has united, man must not divide. The strength of the union between a husband and his wife depends not just on their love for each other. It depends ultimately on God. To love each other as they should, the spouses must first learn to love the One who has loved them into existence, and who has brought them together.

The first reading gives us a similar message. At first, it may seem that the reading speaks to us only about two parties. It’s all about what a great blessing a good wife is to her husband. Now we know, of course, that this was written many hundreds of years ago. At that time, the husband was still considered the head of the household. But now, things are a bit different. Now, many married couples see themselves as equals. So we can just as easily think of a good husband as being a great blessing to his wife. But that’s not all. The reading is not just about two parties. For not only does it tell us what a great blessing a good spouse will be to his/her partner, it also tells us what kind of person is likely to be blessed in this way. A good wife (or husband) is the best of portions, it says, reserved for those who fear the Lord. The ones who are more likely to be blessed with a good spouse are the ones who put God first in their lives. Again, the message is that there are more parties to a happy marriage than just the husband and the wife. There is more to the puzzle than the smallest squares.

But does marriage then involve only three parties? The husband, the wife, and God? Is that all? Not quite. Our second reading explains to us that there are more. It reminds us that the marriage between a husband and a wife is modelled on another marriage: The marriage between Christ Jesus and the community of his disciples–the Church. As Christians, we believe that Jesus died and rose again for us. And, by doing this, he made us members of his Body. We, the members of the Church, are the living parts of the Body of Christ. And it is from this Body, that each of us draws the strength to live good lives. It is from this Body that a husband draws the strength that he needs to love his wife. And the wife her husband. Both in good times and in bad. In sickness and in health. Till death finally draws them apart. It is also from this Body, that both husband and wife draw strength to bear and to bring up children in the love of God.

These then, are the parties in a happy marriage. Not just husband and wife, but also God–who joins the two of them together as one–as well as Jesus the Lord–who gathers and strengthens them in his Body, the Church. If all this is true, then, in the days ahead, it is important not just that you, Angie and John, continue to strengthen their love for each other. It is also important, if you wish to build a happy marriage, that you continue to strengthen your connections with God and Christ and Church. It is also important that the rest of us gathered here on this joyous occasion commit ourselves to supporting John and Angie in their life as a married couple.

Sisters and brothers, Angie and John, how willing are we to see beyond the smallest squares today?

Sunday, January 22, 2012

3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

Readings: Jonah 3:1-5,10; Psalm 24:4-6,7-9; 1 Corinthians 7:29-31; Mark 1:14-20
Picture: cc *Tom [luckytom] 

Sisters and brothers, do you ever put yourself on autopilot? You know, of course, what the autopilot is. And how useful it can be. You know, when you board a commercial aircraft, that the pilot won’t really be flying the plane all the time. The destination and flight-path have already been programmed into the computer. So that, for most of the journey, the plane flies itself. Which allows the captain to pay attention to other important things. And it’s not just aircraft that have this capability. We do too.

When I brush my teeth in the morning, I don’t usually pay much attention to the movements of my toothbrush. All that has already been programmed. I do it by habit, almost mechanically. I put myself on autopilot. And this allows me to think about other things, even as I keep my teeth and gums healthy. I can reflect on the Mass readings of the day, or even begin composing a homily like this one.

And yet, as useful as the autopilot may be, we all know that we can’t rely on it all the time. Even sophisticated commercial aircraft still require a flight crew, because there are crucial moments in the flight when the captain has to take over manual control. Not just at take-off and landing, but also during the flight itself. Whenever serious turbulence is encountered, for example, or some other emergency crops up.

In the same way, there are situations in our lives when keeping the autopilot on can be problematic. There was a time when I had a regular schedule that involved me getting into my car every evening, and driving home from work. I did this so regularly that, without knowing it, on the drive home, I began putting myself on autopilot. I would get into my car, start daydreaming and, the next thing I knew, I would find myself at home. Which was fine. Except that my schedule wasn’t always so regular. There were days when I would get into my car intending to go to the grocery store. But then, forgetting to turn off my internal autopilot, I would drive straight home instead.

As useful as it may be, there are times when the autopilot needs to be shut off. Times when, for various reasons, we have to pay more conscious attention to what we are doing, and where we are going. Times when we may even be called to change our flight-path.

The people of Nineveh, in the first reading, find themselves faced with just such an occasion. The prophet Jonah gives them a very good reason for turning off the autopilot and changing the direction of their lives. Jonah tells them that God is not pleased with them. Their current flight-path has placed them on a direct collision course with destruction. Only forty days more, they’re told, and Nineveh is going to be destroyed. To their credit, the Ninevites pay careful attention. They heed the prophet’s warning, and turn off the autopilot. They change the direction of their lives, and successfully evade disaster.

What Jonah does for the Ninevites, Paul seeks to do for the Christians of Corinth. Like Jonah, Paul teaches his readers how to tell time. Just as the Ninevites were told that they had only forty days before their city would be destroyed, Paul warns the Corinthians that our time is growing short.... because the world as we know it is passing away. No longer are we to aim only at leading a comfortable existence on this earth. No longer are we to care only about enjoying life, or about buying things, or about other worldly preoccupations. If we do, then, when the end comes, we will find ourselves sorely disappointed. For God is reordering reality according to another set of values. God is setting a course for a different destination: new heavens and a new earth (Isaiah 65:17). Like Jonah, Paul is inviting the Corinthians to turn off their autopilot, and to reassess their flight-path. Even to change it if necessary.

In the gospel too, Jesus begins his public ministry with a reminder about time. The time has come, he proclaims, and the kingdom of God is close at hand. Repent, and believe the Good News. That is, change the direction of your life, or risk being excluded from the coming Kingdom.

But that’s not all. It’s not just for the sake of avoiding destruction or disappointment that we are called to change course. One very striking aspect of our readings today, is the fact that it’s not just the sinful people in them who find it necessary to make a change. At the end of the first reading, it is God himself who appears to change. After witnessing the Ninevites’ repentance, we’re told that God relented. God did not inflict on them the destruction that he had threatened. Out of mercy and compassion, God decides to spare the people.

Similarly, in the gospel too, we find Jesus himself making a change. We’re told that it was only after John the Baptist had been arrested, that our Lord went into Galilee to begin preaching. The people had just lost their prophet. They needed another. The time was ripe. And, generously, Jesus responds. He leaves the comfort of familiar surroundings, and positions his life in a whole new direction. One that will lead him all the way to the Cross and beyond.

What’s more, further on in the gospel reading, we find another group of people making a change, for a reason other than to evade disaster. Why did the four fishermen–Peter and Andrew, James and John–agree to change the direction of their lives so radically? Why did they suddenly leave their nets, their boats, even their father? They did so not to avoid destruction, but because they found themselves mysteriously attracted to the Lord. They wanted to remain with him, to be sent out by him, to share his life in some way.

Avoidance of destruction, compassion for the struggling, and attraction to the Lord: these are among the key reasons that our readings offer to us today for changing the direction of our lives. And it’s important that we pay careful attention to these reasons. Even to make them our own. For we live at a time when the dangers of flying on autopilot are many and obvious. Globally, our world seems set on a course for disaster. Our habits of consumption continue to do grave, possibly irreparable, damage to the environment, even as we go on neglecting the needs of the poorest among us. Closer to home, we find ourselves surrounded by many who fill their lives with an abundance of possessions, and yet can’t help feeling curiously empty inside. In such a situation, at such a critical time, what we need are people willing to make a change. People who are able to inspire others to do the same. People motivated not just by the desire to avoid destruction, but also by heartfelt compassion for those who may be lost, and, above all, by a profound attraction to the Crucified and Risen Lord.

Sisters and brothers, on this 3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, how might the Lord be calling you to turn off the autopilot today?

Saturday, January 14, 2012

2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)
What’s In A Name

Readings: 1 Samuel 3:3-10,19; Psalm 39:2,4,7-10; 1 Corinthians 6:13-15,17-20; John 1:35-42

Sisters and brothers, when I was still in school, a bunch of my friends and I had a favourite expression. Whenever one of us did or said something surprising or out of character, something outrageous or just plain stupid, the rest of us would say to the person: What is your name?! I don’t remember exactly when and how we started doing this. And, at the time, I didn’t really take the trouble to wonder why. It just felt like fun. But now, looking back, I think that perhaps there was more to it than just amusement. What is your name? At one level, it sounds like a ridiculous question. We were friends. We already knew our names. So why ask? Unless, of course, there is more to my name than I realise.

We may not think much about it. But most of us have more than one name, don’t we? There is the common one that most people use. And then there are the ones known only to a few. For example, a man may introduce himself by saying: I am Tan Ah Huat, but my friends call me AH. Or, at work, a powerful corporate boss may be called M’am, or Mrs. So and So. But, at home, she answers to other titles. Like mommy, or sweetie pie, or honey bunch.

What is your name? Whether we knew it at the time or not, through this expression, my schoolmates and I were really saying to each other: Who are you? I thought I knew you. But now you’ve said or done something that makes me think otherwise. So, who are you, really? What is your name? It’s an important question. I need to know my names. Otherwise I won’t know when someone is calling. But that’s not all. I need to be familiar with the different names that people use for me, not just so that I can know when I am being called, but also so that I can know who it is that’s doing the calling. Only my friends call me AH. Only my children call me mommy.

We see something similar in our Mass readings today. In the first reading, the boy Samuel hears himself being called by name. But he keeps mistaking God’s voice for that of Eli. And there’s a reason for this. We’re told that Samuel had as yet no knowledge of the Lord and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. He knows he is being called, but he doesn’t know by whom. He hears the call, but he doesn’t yet know the caller. So he doesn’t know how to respond. Which is what makes his master’s instruction so important. Eli teaches Samuel to say: Speak, Lord, your servant is listening. This is not just a formula of words. Rather, it is an invaluable lesson in how to recognise and respond to God’s voice. In this response, Eli teaches Samuel how to acknowledge and answer to a new name. Other people may call him Samuel, but, before God, he is to be known by another designation. Speak, Lord, your servant is listening. And it is only when he accepts the name servant, and learns to act accordingly, that the boy Samuel finally grows up into the person he is meant to be: a prophet sent by God. We’re told that the Lord was with him and let no word of his fall to the ground.

To truly follow God’s voice, we have to learn to answer to another name. We have to acknowledge another identity. Otherwise, we run the risk of following other voices. Voices that tend to deceive us. Voices that lead us to our destruction. We see this in the second reading. Here, St. Paul explains to the Corinthians why it is improper to fornicate. To lie with a prostitute is to treat one’s body, and the body of another, as nothing more than instruments for pleasure. But the body is more than a instrument. It has another identity. It is called by a deeper name. One that expresses a higher dignity. Your body, writes Paul, is the temple of the Holy Spirit.... You are not your own property; you have been bought and paid for. (By this, Paul is, of course, referring to the price paid by Christ on the wood of the Cross.) Your body, then, is not a tool. It is a temple. That is why you should use your body for the glory of God.

In order to answer God’s call, and to resist being seduced by other voices, I need first to learn to acknowledge my own proper identity. My name before God. But isn’t this a form of slavery? Or oppression? By allowing God to call me by whichever name God wants, am I not denying my own true self? Careful consideration of our gospel reading today shows us that this is not a valid objection. In the gospel, Jesus changes the name of Simon, the son of John, and the brother of Andrew. But notice how Jesus goes about doing this. He doesn’t just arbitrarily pluck a name out of thin air. The reading tells us that first, Jesus looked hard at him. Jesus sized him up. Jesus gazed into the depths of his very soul. And only then did he proclaim that Simon should be called Cephas, a name that means Rock. Our proper name before God is not some random word. Rather, it describes who we really are. Who we are meant to be. It is our true self. The only self that has any real value. The self that finds its identity in God.

But if all this is true–if we can only respond to God’s call by learning our true name–then the question remains: How do we do this? How do we learn our name? Again, the gospel is instructive. Perhaps even surprising. For we live in a world that often tells us how important it is to make a name for ourselves. To build up ourselves. To find ourselves. Books have been written on the subject. Movies have been made. For many people, this is what spirituality is all about. Self-actualisation. It’s all about me, myself, and I!

But the gospel shows us a different way. How did the first disciples find their own true names? How did they discover their deepest desires? They did this not by looking intently at a mirror. Instead, they did what John the Baptist did. In the reading, we’re told that when Jesus passed him by, the Baptist stared hard at him, before saying, Look, there is the lamb of God. The first disciples learned to do the same. At first, when Jesus asked them what do you want?, they didn’t quite know how to answer. But then they proceeded to spend much time with the Lord. To come and see. And as they saw–as they continued to gaze intently on Jesus–their appreciation of who he was began to grow. First, they recognised him as a Rabbi, a teacher. Then, later, the Christ. And, it is only in this gradual recognition of who Jesus really is, that the first disciples discovered their calling. After spending a day with Jesus, they became his followers. What began as nothing more than a day-trip turned into an adventure unto eternity. We learn our true names only by first looking at Christ, and by learning his name. Who he is for us.

And this is what this whole season of Ordinary Time is about. Ordinary doesn’t mean unimportant. Ordinary Time is a season for us to do what John the Baptist and the first disciples did. To gaze intently upon Jesus. Even to stare hard at him. To allow the mystery of his life, death and resurrection to penetrate into our hearts. To learn who he really is for us. And, in so doing, to discover who we are meant to be for him.

Sisters and brothers, as we embark on this exciting season in the Church’s calendar, by what name is God calling you today?

Sunday, January 08, 2012

Solemnity of the Epiphany
Transforming Knowledge

Readings: Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 71:1-2,7-8,10-13; Ephesians 3:2-3,5-6; Matthew 2:1-12
Picture: cc webzer

Sisters and brothers, today I’m again reminded of an old story told by the late Fr. Anthony de Mello. Many of us have probably heard it before. But perhaps it is good for us to hear it again.

A recently baptised Christian meets an unbelieving friend. And their conversation goes something like this:
So you have been converted to Christ?
Then you must know a great deal about him. Tell me: what country was he born in?
I don’t know.
What was his age when he died?
I don’t know.
How many sermons did he preach?
I don’t know.
You certainly know very little for someone who claims to be converted to Christ!
You are right. I am ashamed at how little I know about him. But this much I do know: Three years ago I was a drunkard. I was in debt. My family was falling to pieces. My wife and children would dread my return home each evening. But now I have given up drink; we are out of debt; ours is a happy home; my children eagerly wait for my return every evening. All this Christ has done for me. This much I know of Christ!

What do you think, sisters and brothers? Did the recent convert in the story really know Christ? In a sense he didn’t. But, in another sense, he did. He certainly didn’t know many details about Christ’s life. And yet, it would be inaccurate to say that he didn’t know Christ at all. For he credits Christ with helping him to turn his life around. What this story shows us is the fact that there are different kinds of knowledge. There is the kind that is capable of filling our minds, but then remains only there. And then there is the knowledge that also moves our hearts, and changes our lives. We see something similar in our Mass readings today.

Consider the chief priests and scribes who advised King Herod in the gospel. They certainly knew things that not even the wise men could figure out. By searching the ancient scriptures, they were able to pinpoint the exact location where the Christ was to be born. And, in doing this, they were actually confirming that this baby was truly the One sent by God to save God’s people. And yet, when they heard the wise men say that this long-awaited saviour had finally been born, these scholars showed no sign of excitement or enthusiasm. On the contrary, we’re told that Herod and the whole of Jerusalem reacted by being perturbed. The news upset them. Not only did they feel no desire to pay their respects to the newborn king, but Herod even started scheming to have him killed.

In contrast, although the wise men didn’t know exactly where the Christ was to be born, the knowledge that they did have prompted them to search the skies for a sign. And to follow the star when it rose. This same knowledge propelled them to travel a great distance to Jerusalem from the east. It also motivated them to bring along their treasures: precious gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh. And, when the wise men finally reached the helpless little baby, whom they had been seeking so desperately, we’re told that they did him homage by falling to their knees. We may also imagine that, once they had returned to their own lands, they eagerly spread the news about this glorious child, to their own people. Quite clearly, theirs was a different kind of knowledge from that of Herod and his advisors. Like the new convert in our story, the wise men had the kind of knowledge that gave them power. The power to transform their lives, and the lives of others, for the better. The power to grow closer to God.

We see the effects of this kind of knowledge also in the other two readings as well. In the second reading, Paul claims that he has been entrusted with what he calls the knowledge of the mystery. And it is this same knowledge that has transformed him. Where once he was a persecutor of Christians, now, elsewhere in the letter to the Ephesians, he calls himself a servant of the gospel, and even a prisoner of Christ Jesus.

What we see in the life of Paul is a positive response to the prophet’s call in the first reading. Here, Isaiah proclaims a wonderful piece of news. He shares with the city of Jerusalem the knowledge that her light has come. That the glory of the Lord is now shining upon her. And he expects that once she receives this news, Jerusalem will not just sit back and do nothing. Instead, in the midst of the darkness that still covers the rest of the world, this holy city will arise and shine out. In other words, she will do what Paul had been doing ever since his conversion on the road to Damascus. And what we imagine the wise men must have done, once they had returned home. She will share the light of Christ with everyone she meets.

There is, then, at least two different kinds of knowledge. There is the knowledge that leaves you the same. And there is the knowledge that has the power to change you. This is the important reminder that our readings are offering to us on this solemn feast of the Epiphany. And one of the reasons why I think this reminder is important is because, in our local church today, there are those of us who are perturbed. We are upset by what we see as a growing lack of reverence among some others in our community. People are showing up to Mass in bermudas and tank tops and flip flops. They are talking and texting and tweeting, when they should really be praying and paying attention to the deep Mystery that we gather every Sunday to celebrate.

There is probably good reason for us to be concerned. But perhaps we may also wonder how effective are the measures being taken in response to this apparent problem. So there is a perceived lack of reverence at Mass. What do we do? Well, some of us respond by putting up bigger posters and publishing bolder bulletin announcements. Others station stricter and sterner-looking wardens at the doors. And, if a recent letter to the Catholic News is to be believed, there are even those who have resorted to refusing communion to Catholics deemed to be improperly dressed. (The canon lawyers should tell us whether such a move is even licit.)

In the midst of this darkness of upset feelings and great perturbation, our readings pose to us this question: What kind of knowledge are we offering when we adopt all these measures? Is it the knowledge of the wise men? Or is it rather that of the chief priests and scribes? Is it the knowledge that actually brings a person closer to the Lord? Or is it the kind that only serves to continue keeping us at a distance? Is it the knowledge that is capable of truly transforming lives? Or is it the kind that merely leaves us pretty much the same? If it merely leaves us the same, then why are we resorting to such tactics? Why are we so focused only on reminding people of their obligations? What can we do to usher people into the Mystery, instead of merely enforcing the law?

Sisters and brothers, as we bring this beautiful season of Christmas to a close, what knowledge do we truly have of Christ today?

Sunday, January 01, 2012

Solemnity of Mary, The Mother Of God
Do You See What I See?

Readings: Numbers 6:22-27; Psalm 66:2-3,5,6,8; Galatians 4:4-7; Luke 2:16-21

Said the night wind to the little lamb:
Do you see what I see...
Said the little lamb to the shepherd boy:
Do you hear what I hear...
Said the shepherd boy to the mighty king:
Do you know what I know...

Sisters and brothers, do you recognise these words? Do they ring a bell for you? Some of you may recognise them as words taken from a popular Christmas carol. Do you see what I see? Do you hear what I hear? Do you know what I know? I believe these are also the questions that our Mass readings are addressing to us as we celebrate the Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God today.

Today, we find a very clear structure to our readings. There is a both a beginning and an ending. We begin, in the first reading, with God teaching Moses how to bless the people. And, at the end of the gospel reading, we’re told that, when it came time to have their baby circumcised, Mary and Joseph named him Jesus. The same name that the angel had given him before his conception. A name that literally means God saves. So that, at the beginning of the readings, we have a blessing. And at the end, a naming. What all this tells us is, of course, that the blessing that Moses is instructed to pray for in the wilderness of Sinai, is finally given by God, in its fullness, in Bethlehem. In the helpless little baby lying in a manger, God saves.

But that’s not all. Not only do our readings have a definite beginning and a definite ending, they also have a clearly discernible middle. And this middle is very important. The blessing at the beginning can lead to the naming at the end, only because a middle connects them both. And this middle consists in a seeing, and a hearing, and a knowing. The same words that we took from our Christmas carol.

Except that this is no ordinary seeing or hearing or knowing. The prayer for blessing can only lead to the ceremony of naming when people see, hear and know in a very particular way. To appreciate this, we might imagine what an ordinary bystander might have seen and heard as s/he passed the manger in Bethlehem on that first Christmas night. Here was a homeless couple. Probably bearing the dark stains and the disturbing smells of long travel. A couple who did not have the means to secure decent lodgings for themselves. A couple who were driven by necessity, not only to have to sleep next to farm animals, but even to have to lay their newborn baby in the very place out of which these same animals ate their food. What kind of parents could bear to allow their own precious child to sleep in a manger? At best, our bystander might have seen in them a poor family deserving of pity. At worst, a pair of lazy good-for-nothings, unwilling to work to provide the basic necessities for their child. And yet, the gospel tells us that the shepherds, who came to the stable to visit the Holy Family, saw and heard something very different. For we are told that, after their visit, they went back glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen. What exactly did they hear and see?

And what if we were to place ourselves in the shoes of Mary and Joseph? Even though Mary must have already been near the time for childbirth, the couple had been forced to embark on this arduous journey to Bethlehem, for no other reason than to obey the Roman Emperor’s decree. Then, after finally having arrived at this unfamiliar town, no one would offer them a proper place to sleep. So that they had to experience first hand what their son would later say about himself: foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head (Luke 9:58). Under such difficult circumstances, anyone in the shoes of Mary and Joseph might be forgiven for shaking his or her head in depression and despair. And yet, in the darkness of their situation, this holy couple was able to see something different. Something wonderful. What did they see? What did they hear? What did they know?

Our readings offer us a moving image of what this something might have been. In the first reading, the blessing of God is described in terms of God’s face. May the Lord let his face shine on you.... May the Lord uncover his face to you... Then, in the second reading, St. Paul speaks not only of how God sent his Son born of a woman, but also of how God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts. The same Spirit that enables us to call God Abba, Father. In later years, St. Irenaeus of Lyons will speak of the Son and the Spirit as the two hands that the Father stretches out to save us. So that what we find in our readings today is a beautiful portrait of the God who saves. The God who uncovers his face to us in a radiant smile. The God who reaches out his hands to us, in the Son and in the Spirit, drawing us into the warmth of God’s embrace.

This is what Mary and Joseph and the shepherds experienced. In the darkness of that first Christmas night, they saw the bright light of God’s face, smiling down upon them. In the cries of that helpless little child, they heard the reassuring voice of the almighty and ever-loving Father, reaching out a hand to save his people. In the difficult challenges of their lives, and the deep recesses of their hearts, they knew the consolation of the Spirit, moving them to cry out, not just Abba, Father, but also Jesus, God saves.

What is more, this incredible grace, given to Mary and Joseph and the shepherds, is meant not just for them. This grace, to see and to hear and to know the saving power of God, is meant for us as well. This is the very thing that we have been praying for as we continued, in these Christmas days, to gaze upon the baby in the manger. But it is not just in the manger at the Place of Gathering that God’s saving power can be found. What we discover in the messy stable at Bethlehem, we need also to uncover in the chaotic circumstances of our daily lives, and of our troubled world. For the baby born in Bethlehem, on that first Christmas day, continues to be born for us, wherever we may find ourselves today. In every place of darkness, God continues to uncover to us the radiance of his smile. In every situation of helplessness, God continues to stretch out his hands to save us.

Sisters and brothers, it was on the eighth day after his birth, that Mary and Joseph were able to name their son Jesus. God saves. Today, we have, once again, reached the eighth day in the Octave of Christmas. And, even as we gaze out onto our troubled world, the words of our Christmas carol continue to resound in our minds and hearts:

Said the night wind to the little lamb:
Do you see what I see...
Said the little lamb to the shepherd boy:
Do you hear what I hear...
Said the shepherd boy to the mighty king:
Do you know what I know...
The Child sleeping in the night... will bring us goodness and light

Sisters and brothers, what do you see? What do you hear? What do you know, today?