Sunday, February 26, 2012

1st Sunday in Lent (B)
Uncovering the Face of Summer

Readings: Genesis 9:8-15; Psalm 24:4-6,7-9; 1 Peter 3:18-22; Mark 1:12-15
Picture: cc kevin dooley

Sisters and brothers, have you ever noticed how a single place can often present to us very different faces? Places can look and feel very different under different circumstances. When I was studying in the US, for example, I twice visited Chicago. The first time was when a housemate invited a few of us there over the Christmas break. Having only recently arrived in the country from sweltering Singapore, I wasn’t quite prepared for the harsh Chicagoan winter. The place seemed perpetually dark and gloomy and grey. Temperatures consistently remained far below freezing. Many a time, as we toured the city, we were hit by blasts of icy wind blowing across Lake Michigan. I wasn’t sure which would happen first: whether I would be frozen solid, or simply blown away. Never to be seen or heard from again. After that first visit, I said to myself, Never again!

But, as it happened, a couple of years later, I did go back. This time, in the summer. I could hardly recognise the place. The grey and gloom had given way to gorgeous greenery and brilliant sunshine. The same lake that, in the winter, had produced those shiver-inducing gusts of wind, now glistened, warm and inviting, in the summer sun. It was as though Chicago had two completely different faces. One that it wore in the winter, and another in the summer. A single place. Two very different faces.

We see something similar in our Mass readings today. On this 1st Sunday of Lent, we are presented with two closely connected places. The waters of the flood in the first reading, and the wilderness of temptation in the gospel. We see their close connection when we recall that Jesus entered the wilderness immediately after his baptism in the waters of the Jordan. And, in the second reading, we’re told that the waters of the flood point to the waters of baptism. In any case, whatever their connection, it is undeniable that both the waters and the wilderness are places of tribulation. Here people suffer. Far more than I thought I did on my first visit to Chicago. The flood waters destroy much of life on earth. Just as, in the wilderness, Jesus is made to feel the fragility of his human nature. Satan afflicts him with terrible temptations. Clearly, these are places of discomfort and desolation, of death and destruction. This is the face of winter.

And yet, in the experiences of Noah and Jesus, we see another side to these places. Our readings show us that the waters and the wilderness are not just places of tribulation. Unpleasant as they may be, these are also places of transition. We will recall that, prior to the flood, humanity had become so wicked that God had regretted His own creation. Originally intended for the fullness of life in the presence of our Creator, humanity had instead chosen to walk the path that leads to death. And so the flood was intended to wipe the slate clean. To allow God to recreate the earth. To begin again, with Noah and those in the ark. As terrible and destructive as they were, the flood waters were meant to be, not so much a dead end, as a passage from certain death to abundant life.

Much the same can be said for the wilderness too. This place, in which Jesus remained for forty days, recalls the wilderness in which the people of Israel wandered for forty years. Although difficult, their long journey was an important phase in God’s plan to free them from slavery in Egypt, and to lead them to new life in the Promised Land. For Jesus too, his experience of temptation in the wilderness, was meant to prepare him for his public ministry, in which he was to lead people out of darkness into the marvellous light of the Kingdom God. The time has come, and the kingdom of God is close at hand. Repent, and believe the Good News.

What we said earlier about Chicago can also be applied as much to the flood as to the desert. Like the American city, both of these biblical places have more than one face. There is a face of winter and one of summer. A face of suffering and death, and another of joy and fullness of life. But there is one important difference. In Chicago, summer follows winter as a matter of course. There’s nothing that we need to do to bring about the change. We have only to be there at the right time.

Things are different in our readings. Here, not many people are able to see beyond the suffering. Here, the face of summer is appreciated only by those who are willing and able to uncover it. As we said in our response to the psalm, the Lord’s ways are faithfulness and love for those who keep his covenant. For there is a third aspect to the waters and the wilderness. In addition to being characterised by tribulation and transition, they are also places of testing or training. In these places, what is tested is the one crucial quality that both Noah and Jesus shared. The one virtue that enabled these men to cooperate with God in bringing life to the world: their obedience.

In the story of the flood, God asked Noah to build and to populate the ark. And, in spite of being ridiculed by everyone else, Noah obeyed. He faithfully carried out God’s instructions. In the gospel, fresh from his baptism in the Jordan, Jesus submitted obediently when the Spirit drove him into the wilderness to be tempted.  And we know that this obedience is only a preview of what would be Jesus’ ultimate submission. The temptation in the desert is but a foretaste of the desolation of the Cross. As we heard in the second reading, Christ himself, innocent though he was, died once for sins, died for the guilty, to lead us to God.

Unlike the natural passage of the seasons, the way from death to life, from darkness to light, must pass through the discipline of obedience. It was so for Noah and for Jesus. It must be so for us as well. Which is why this season of Lent is so important. Here in this sacred time, we recreate for ourselves, in some small measure, the conditions of testing. By undertaking the rigours of prayer and fasting and almsgiving, we are allowing God to train us in the discipline of obedience. We submit to a kind of testing that will hopefully enable us, whenever we encounter places of tribulation–places where people suffer–not to retreat, but rather to remain. As Noah remained on the waters of the flood. And as Christ remained in the wilderness of temptation. For this is what we committed ourselves to through the vows of our baptism. The same vows that we are preparing to renew at Easter. And this too is what our world continues to require of us. In the many places in which we encounter human suffering, to persevere in bringing life out of death, light out of darkness, joy out of sorrow.

Sisters and brothers, in your own life, how is God inviting you to uncover the face of summer today?

Sunday, February 19, 2012

7th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)
Freedom Through Dis-Location

Readings: Isaiah 43:18-19,21-22,24-25; Psalm 40:2-5,13-14; 2 Corinthians 1:18-22; Mark 2:1-12
Picture: cc publicinsomniac

Sisters and brothers, are you familiar with the name Harry Houdini? I think many of us have heard of him. He was a magician and escape artist who became famous in the early 1900s. Among his many talents was the extraordinary ability to free himself after being tied up with a rope, or a chain, or even a straitjacket. No matter how tightly he was bound, Houdini somehow managed to escape. How did he do it?

Of course, I myself would never try it. But, if I were tied up like that, my first response would probably be to try to find some way to cut the rope, or snap the chains, or tear the straitjacket. To break the fetters that were holding me fast. Houdini’s approach was rather different. I’m not sure how far this is true, but I’ve read somewhere that part of his secret was the ability to dislocate his shoulders at will. I know. It sounds painful, doesn’t it? But this was apparently what enabled him to slip his bonds. Instead of breaking the chains that bound him, he shifted his own shape. Instead of stretching his bonds, he found a way to shrink himself. By dislocating his shoulders, he made himself smaller, and was then able to slip through the gaps and get free.

To find freedom by first shifting my own shape. This is an approach that looks a bit like what our Mass readings are trying to teach us today. Both in the first reading and the gospel, we find people who are tied up in some way. In the first reading, the Israelites are a conquered people. A people in exile. But God promises to free them. They’re told that, for them, God is making a road in the wilderness, paths in the wilds. In the words of the worship song popularised by Don Moen, for them God will make a way where there seems to be no way. But, if God is making a path to freedom for the people, then the people must be willing to walk in it. To gain their freedom, they need to turn to God. And this is precisely the problem. The people are stubborn. They refuse to listen. Not only are they tied up by the chain of exile in a foreign land, they are also trapped in their own sinfulness. Which is why God complains: Jacob, you have not invoked me, you have not troubled yourself on my behalf. Instead you have burdened me with your sins, troubled me with your iniquities. In order for the people to be truly free, they must first change their own spiritual shape. They need to be willing to dis-locate their hearts. They need to be centred no longer on themselves, but on God. As with Harry Houdini, so too with the Israelites: freedom comes through dis-location.

It is when we keep this in mind, that we begin to make some sense of what is happening in the gospel. Here too, we find people who are tied up in some way. People who are not free. The paralytic is trapped by his disability. He cannot walk. He lies on a mat, and has to rely on his friends to carry him. But Jesus’ response to this man is striking. Instead of immediately healing his handicap, instead of breaking the bonds of his paralysis, Jesus’ first concern is to forgive the man’s sins. With this approach, Jesus reminds us of what we have already seen in the first reading: That even if, from time to time, we may find ourselves trapped by certain external chains–such as exile or illness–it is the interior spiritual straitjacket of selfishness and sin that is more deadly. So that the way to freedom begins not with a healing of the body, but with a dis-location of the heart. First one needs to be re-centred on God. The other things will follow.

Without the willingness to be dis-located in this way, even a miraculous healing will not help us. Isn’t this what we see in the scribes in the gospel? Although they are not physically disabled, the scribes are spiritually paralysed by their own strict interpretation of the Law. Even though Jesus heals the paralytic, they are unable to recognise Jesus as the One who is the Law’s fulfilment. As the second reading reminds us, in him is found the yes to all God’s promises. As with the Israelites in the first reading, so too with the scribes in the gospel, there is no true freedom without a prior dis-location.

In contrast, notice what happens when people turn to God. The most striking example in the gospel is, of course, the paralytic himself. After his physical and spiritual healing, we’re told that not only does he gain the ability to walk, but he also inspires other people to sing the praises of God. Through his willingness to obey what Jesus tells him to do–to get up, pick up his stretcher, and go off home–the healed man helps others to dis-locate their own hearts in the direction of God. After he himself is freed, the former paralytic helps others to gain their freedom.

But he is not the only one who does this. Remember how it was that the paralytic came to be healed in the first place. Remember the actions of his four friends. In order to bring their paralysed companion before the Lord, they took the trouble to climb up and to strip off a roof. Why did they do this? They must have been thinking only of the welfare of the one who could do nothing to help himself. But that’s not all. Not only did they wish to help their friend, they also put their trust in the power of Jesus to heal him. And, because of their faith, their friend was cured in body and in spirit. The paralytic gained his freedom because he had friends whose hearts were in the right place. Friends willing to dis-locate their hearts away from self towards the helpless. Friends who turned away from stubborn disbelief towards firm faith in God. Which is why I think that what these four friends did was far greater than any performance by the great Harry Houdini himself. Houdini was willing to dislocate his own shoulders to free himself, to make himself famous. These men dis-located their hearts to help a helpless person find freedom.

And it is perhaps a happy coincidence–if you believe in coincidences–that we are reminded of their example today. Even as our country continues to analyse and to discuss our latest national budget. As you know, the reviews received so far from the experts have, in general, been very positive. Quite clearly, through this budget, more is being done to help those who are most at risk. Especially those who are limited by the frailty of old age, or those constrained by some disability of one kind or another. As one academic puts it, whatever its limitations, this is a budget with heart. Now, sisters and brothers, I must tell you that I myself struggle just to understand the accounts of the tiny spirituality centre where I work, let alone evaluate the budget for a whole nation.

But, even so, I have a duty to ask myself how my Christian faith should inform my view of the budget. And this is where our readings can be helpful. For they remind me that, although a budget like this can go a long way towards helping those most in need, it cannot do everything. The government cannot do everything. For at least two reasons: First, the helpless will only truly find help, when others like me are willing to let our hearts be moved with compassion. Second, and perhaps more importantly, as Christians, we believe that true freedom involves far more than mere material well-being. True freedom comes about when hearts are centred no longer on the self, but on God. And how else will others learn about God, if we do not bear witness? How will they learn about Jesus, if we do not share our faith?

Sisters and brothers, as we begin the season of Lent this week, how are we being invited to dis-locate our hearts so that others might find freedom today?

Saturday, February 04, 2012

5th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)
Hope in a Hug

Readings: Job 7:1-4,6-7; Psalm 146:1-6; 1 Corinthians 9:16-19,22-23; Mark 1:29-39
Picture: cc Roy Sinai

Sisters and brothers, I wonder if you’ve ever encountered the following situation. Someone has suffered some kind of setback in life. This someone is carrying a heavy burden. Maybe she has experienced failure in her career. Or in a relationship. Maybe someone else has betrayed her. Or a loved one has died. Whatever it is, she’s very upset. She’s experiencing a whole host of different feelings. Intense feelings. She’s angry at everyone. Perhaps even at herself. She goes to a friend and demands an explanation. Why has all this happened to her? Why?! She is a good person. What has she ever done to deserve all this?

Initially, with every good intention, the friend tries to address her questions. Tries to give her some answers. But, of course, nothing seems to work. In the face of all the hurt feelings, nothing appears to make sense. Finally, the friend decides just to keep quiet and to listen. She allows the other to ventilate. To pour out all the pain that’s inside. Then, at some point, the friend stretches her arms out toward the wounded one. And hugs her. No more words. Just a hug. At first, the other tries to wriggle free. But the friend persists. Gradually, the resistance is overcome. The storm of anger subsides. The person accepts the embrace. Tears are shed. By the one who is doing the comforting, as much as by the one being comforted. Of course, practically speaking, there really has been no change in the situation. Whatever it was that caused the setback–the failure, or death, or betrayal–has not been taken away. And none of the person’s questions has actually been answered in any satisfactory way. But, even so, something significant has happened. Somehow, there’s been a breakthrough. Although still suffering, the person is now no longer trapped in the past. For some mysterious reason, a light is seen at the end of the tunnel. Hope is born anew. And it all begins with flesh connecting with flesh. It all begins with a hug.

In the first reading too, we find someone bearing a heavy burden. We are familiar with Job’s story. He is a righteous man. Someone who faithfully keeps God’s laws. And God has blessed him with great wealth. But then, for some unknown reason, God decides to allow Job to be tested. In a series of disasters, Job loses first his property, and then his family, and finally, even his health. So that, when we meet him in today’s first reading, Job is filled with upset feelings. He complains to God. He speaks of the burdensome nature of human life. We work hard. But the money we earn, we cannot keep forever, even though we might delude ourselves into thinking that we can. Also, our lives often feel so empty and meaningless. Our riches do not satisfy us. Not only do we worry about safeguarding our possessions, but we’re also always looking forward to something else. In the day we wait for the night. And at night we long for the dawning of the sun. Never satisfied. Always restless.

For Job, these are not just casual observations. They are descriptions of his own experience of suffering. And they contain a whole series of difficult questions, which he addresses to God: Why do you let this happen? Why make us work so hard, only to allow us to suffer, and finally to die? Why? What is the meaning of it all?

These are deep questions. Painful and pressing questions. More importantly, these are also our questions. For we are like Job. We too are people of many burdens. Whether we are rich or poor, man or woman, foreigner or local, in different ways, and at various points in our lives, we all experience the tiring struggle, and the anxious restlessness, of everyday life. And there’s a part of us that wants to do what Job does. We wish to demand an explanation from God. In our uniquely Singaporean way, we want to ask why?! Why like that?! What is the meaning of it all?

And it may, at first, distress us that an answer is not to be found in our readings today. At least not the kind of answer that we think we are looking for. Nowhere in our readings does God answer the question why?. And yet, God does not ignore us completely. God does respond in some way. For we, who are Christian, believe that, to all our difficult questions, God really offers only one response. God sends us his Son. In our gospel today, we do not find Jesus telling us the reasons why we have to suffer. But what we do find is a summary of all that Jesus did and taught in the early days of his ministry. Tirelessly, Jesus goes about curing the sick, and casting out devils. But his concern is not so much with the healing and the exorcism, as it is with spreading the news that God is with the people. Such that, even though people beg him, Jesus will not allow himself to stay too long in any one place. Why does he do all this? And what possible connection might Jesus’ actions have to Job’s questions? To our questions? We begin to appreciate the connection only when we recall who Jesus is. Who we believe him to be. He is the Word of God that became flesh. Which means that, in him, God answers all our questions in the flesh. Much like the friend in our story, in Jesus, God responds to our painful queries by reaching out to us and giving us a hug. In the ministry of Jesus, God enters into and shares our pain. In him, flesh finally makes contact with flesh.

But that’s not all. Jesus is not just any other friend. And the hug he offers is no ordinary embrace. Jesus does more than just share our sufferings. He also shows us the way to live through them. While Jesus may not tell us the reason why we have to suffer, he does show us how to bear our sufferings in a way that leads to life. In the gospel, Jesus works as hard as anyone else, if not harder. But he does not experience his work as an empty, meaningless burden. Instead, Jesus is deeply conscious that he is fulfilling a mission given to him by his Father. He occupies himself only with his Father’s business. And, to do this, he prays regularly. He seeks his Father’s advice. He receives guidance and strength from his Source. We’re told that in the morning, long before dawn he went off to a lonely place and prayed there.

To receive God’s hug, then, is to model our lives after Jesus. This is what we find Paul doing in the second reading. Like Job, Paul describes his life in terms of slavery. But what is strikingly different is that Paul claims that this is a burden that he bears freely, for a particular purpose. Though I am not a slave of any man, I have made myself the slave of everyone so as to win as many as I could; and I still do this, for the sake of the gospel, to have a share in its blessings. Like Jesus, Paul does not think of his hard work as a meaningless imposition. Instead he sees himself as having been sent on a mission. A responsibility has been placed into his hands. But Paul was not always this way. There was a time, back when he was still named Saul, that he was a very angry man. It was only after his encounter with the Crucified and Risen Christ, on the road to Damascus, that he was transformed. Having received God’s embrace, he spent the rest of his life embracing others unto life.

And what of us, sisters and brothers? We who call ourselves Christian. We who live among many who suffer. Many who ask the same question that Job asked: Why?! Why do I suffer? We who gather here to celebrate God’s love for us in Christ. Aren’t we called to share this love with those who need it most?

Sisters and brothers, is there perhaps someone in your life who needs a hug today?