Saturday, April 21, 2012

3rd Sunday of Easter (B)
What Type of Knowledge? What Kind of Friend?
Picture: cc kaysha

Sisters and brothers, if I were to tell you that I know Lee Hsien Loong, would you be impressed? What about if I were to tell you that, not only do I know him, but that I am actually a friend of his? Imagine that. A friend of the Prime Minister of Singapore. Would that astonish you? Would that make you think more highly of me? Probably not, right? (And this is no reflection on our esteemed PM.) After all, everyone knows Lee Hsien Loong. And, especially now, after the PM has gotten onto Facebook, anyone can be his friend. Nothing really to be impressed about.

But what if I were to tell you that I knew him personally? Or that I was a close family friend? (I’m not, by the way. In case you’re wondering.) But just suppose I were to claim to be such. Claim to know him well. To be his good buddy. Would you be impressed? Well, it depends, right? It depends on whether I can back up my claim with some hard evidence. For example, if I could walk up to his doorstep, ring the doorbell, and be invited into his home, without being handcuffed and driven away in a police car, then maybe you’d be impressed. After all, talk is cheap. My claims will carry weight only to the extent that I’m able to show some visible signs to support them. Otherwise, I should just stick to friending the PM on Facebook.

In other words, there are different ways of knowing someone. And, these days, even of befriending them. There’s the kind of knowledge that sees only from afar. The kind that is relatively easy to have. And then there is the more personal, more intimate kind. The kind that takes time and effort. The kind that can change your life. And, if we want to tell which kind of knowledge, what kind of relationship, someone has, it’s not enough just to accept what that person says. We also need to look at the signs in that person’s life. This is true not just of knowing the Prime Minister of Singapore. It is true also of relating to the Risen Christ, whom we continue to celebrate in this joyous Easter season.

We see this quite clearly in our gospel reading for today. At this point in the story, the disciples have already received news that Jesus has risen from the dead. Earlier, the women had already discovered the empty tomb, where two men in brilliant clothes had informed them that the Lord had risen. Peter himself had also visited the tomb, and had found it empty. Then, of course, the two disciples on the road to Emmaus had encountered Jesus, and rushed back to Jerusalem to inform the rest. So that, at this point in the story, it’s quite clear that the disciples already know that Jesus has risen. But what kind of knowledge is this? How deep is it? Is it the kind of knowledge that gains you entry into another’s house? Or is it the kind that only allows you to friend him on Facebook?

It is the signs that tell us. Notice, for example, the disciples’ reactions when Jesus comes among them. We’re told that they are reduced to a state of alarm and fright. Probably not unlike how I would feel if I were dragged away by the PM’s security detail. Alarm and fright. They weren’t expecting the Lord to show up. They had heard that he was risen. And yet, they didn’t really know it. Didn’t really believe it.

But all that begins to change. Jesus reassures them. He shows them the things that they need to see. He speaks to them the words that they need to hear. And their knowledge begins to deepen. The virtual reality of Facebook gradually gives way to the intimacy of true friendship. And there are concrete signs of this shift in knowledge. First of all, there is a recognition. The disciples begin to see that this person standing before them is really the Lord. But that’s not all. The recognition goes deeper. For we are told that Jesus opened their minds to understand the scriptures. Which means that the disciples finally recognise Jesus as the One whom the prophets had foretold so long ago. The one who was to suffer and rise from the dead on the third day. The first sign then is the ability to recognise Jesus in the here and now.

And this first sign leads immediately to a second. Upon recognising Jesus, the disciples are filled with joy. The same people who just a moment ago had been paralysed with alarm and fright, now find themselves spontaneously rejoicing. Recognition and rejoicing. These are the first two signs that the knowledge of the Resurrection has begun to flood the disciples’ hearts. But there’s more. The other readings speak to us of two others signs of this deepening of knowledge.

In the second reading, John tells us that we can be sure that we know God only by keeping his commandments. This is a third sign. True knowledge of the Resurrection is expressed in obedience to God, in such a way that God’s love comes to perfection in the one who obeys. And this growth towards perfection is made manifest in a fourth sign. The sign that Peter demonstrates in the first reading. After healing a paralysed man in the Temple, Peter bravely bears witness to the suffering, death and resurrection of Christ. You killed the prince of life, he exclaims, God, however, raised him from the dead, and to that fact we are the witnesses.

Recognition and rejoicing. Obedience and witnessing. These are four of the tell-tale signs that indicate to us the deep interior knowledge the disciples had of the Crucified and Risen Christ. These are the indicators that tell us that the disciples' knowledge was not just the product of superficial, second-hand information. Rather was it born of profound spiritual experience. Each of them had encountered the Lord in a very real, deeply personal way. And the effects were plain to see in their daily lives.

All of which might lead us to reflect on ourselves. On our own knowledge of Christ. To what extent do our own lives show forth the signs of the Resurrection? To what extent do we recognise the Lord in the people and situations that we encounter daily? To what extent do we rejoice in him, obey him, bear witness to him at each moment of every passing day? And if we find these signs lacking, then perhaps we need to truly make our own that beautiful prayer from our responsorial psalm: Lift up the light of your face on us, O Lord. Lift up the light of your face, and teach us to see you more clearly, to love you more dearly, and to follow you more nearly, O loving and living Lord.

Sisters and brothers, on this 3rd Sunday of Easter, how well do we really know the Risen Christ today?

Saturday, April 14, 2012

2nd Sunday of Easter (B)
Divine Mercy Sunday
Not Like The Others

Readings: Acts 4:32-35; Psalm 117:2-4,15-18,22-24; 1 John 5:1-6; John 20:19-31
One of these things is not like the others;
One of these things doesn’t belong;
Can you tell which thing is not like the others,
By the time we finish our song?
Sisters and brothers, I think at least some of us will recognise these words. They’re taken from a song that was often sung on Sesame Street, that popular educational TV show for children. Typically, as the song was sung, a collection of objects would be displayed. Usually four of them. Three would be similar, and a fourth would be different. The children would then be asked to identify the odd one out. One of these things is not like the others... Can you tell which one...

The song was very helpful for teaching children to notice similarities and differences. It helped them to identify the things that belonged together, and the things that didn’t. To distinguish the same from the different. A very useful and important skill. But there is something that the song does not teach. Something just as, if not more, important. After helping us to identify the thing that is not like the others, the song doesn’t tell us what to do about it. How should we relate to the thing that is out of place? The one that doesn’t belong? The odd one out?

And yet it is crucial that we consider this question, isn’t it? Especially in our world today, we often already know, far too well, how to distinguish what belongs from what doesn’t. We’re already highly skilled at telling apart the same from the different, the insider from the outsider, the master from the servant, the conservative from the liberal, the local from the foreigner, the friend from the foe. What is more, the world also constantly teaches us to relate to what is different–to what seems out of place–in one of only two ways. From a very young age–from the time we gather with other kids at the neighbourhood playground–we already learn, very quickly, that when we meet people who may be even a little different from us, we should either exclude them from our group, or bully them into becoming exactly the same as us. We may make fun of how someone speaks, for example, until the person learns to talk like us. Exclusion or oppression. Discrimination or intimidation. This is often what the world teaches its children. And, of course, what is learned at the playground, we continue to practice later on in life. As much in the office as at home, as much within pious church circles as amid the busyness of the global marketplace. People with difficult marital situations, for example, may get talked about behind their backs. Just as poorer nations might have unfair trade agreements imposed upon them in exchange for aid.

Either exclusion or oppression. These are the two different reactions that the real world presents to us on a regular basis. Both are expressions of hostility. And both often lead to a similar result. They bring about violence of some sort. Either the obvious violence of open conflict, or the hidden violence of passive aggression. Both estrange people in some way, whether one from another, or within each individual self. Yet, despite their tragic consequences, we often can’t seem to avoid either of these two options. When faced with people who are different from us, we often can’t seem to react in any other way. We either exclude, or we oppress. Nothing more. Nothing else.

Which is why it may be difficult to believe what we find in our first reading today. Here is a group of people so united, heart and soul, that its members go to the extent even of selling their possessions in order to help those who are poor and in need. To those whose situations are different from the rest–to the vulnerable and the disadvantaged–the early Christians react not with exclusion or oppression, but with great mercy. Could this really be possible? If so, how? How did these Christians manage to go beyond the limited options proposed by the world? The false alternatives of exclusion and oppression?

The second reading tells us how, by reminding us that it is our faith that enables us to overcome the world. When we truly believe that Jesus is the Christ, when we commit ourselves to living his commandment of love, then we are transformed. We may remain in the world, but we are no longer of the world. We are reborn. We begin to relate to others no longer purely out of self-interest, but mainly out of love. We no longer exclude or oppress those who may be different from us. Instead, we show them mercy. The same mercy that we ourselves first receive from Christ, who laid down his life for us on the Cross. Or, as the second reading puts it, the Christ who came not just by water, but also by blood. The same blood into which we have all been baptised. And of which we will partake at this Eucharist. It is faith in this blood of Christ, faith in the mercy of God in Christ, that is capable of transforming us.

And this very transformation is what we witness in the gospel today. Here, among the disciples, Thomas is the odd one out. He is the one who doesn’t quite belong. The others have already encountered the risen Christ. But Thomas has not. The others have already received the post-resurrection gift of faith. But not he. And it is helpful for us to consider carefully how Jesus deals with Thomas, the one who is different from the rest. The Lord does not drive him from the upper room. Neither does he bully him into submission. Instead Jesus meets him where he is. Peace be with you, the Lord says. Put your finger here; look, here are my hands. Give me your hand; put it into my side. Doubt no longer but believe. Rather than exclusion or oppression, Jesus wins over the one who doubts by showing him great mercy. And it is only after having experienced this mercy, that Thomas is then ready to be sent out, like the others, to show mercy to others. As the Father sent me, so am I sending you... those whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven. As the Lord says, in another context, it is those who have been forgiven much, who show great love (see Luke 7:47).

Sisters and brothers, in many different ways, the world continues to encourage us to exclude and to oppress those who may be different from us. But through our faith, we have been given power to overcome the world. This is the gift of Easter. The grace to show others not hostility, but mercy. The mercy that we ourselves continue to receive from the crucified and risen Lord.

Sisters and brothers, on this 2nd Sunday in Easter, as we celebrate the feast of the Divine Mercy, it is likely that we will encounter people who are not quite like all the others, people different from us, people who somehow don’t seem to belong. How will we show them mercy today?

Sunday, April 08, 2012

Easter Sunday
Beyond the Bright Side

Readings: Acts 10:34,37-43; Psalm 117:1-2,16-17,22-23; Colossians 3:1-4; John 20:1-9
Picture: cc Caitlinator

Sisters and brothers, what kind of people do you think our world needs most today? This planet of ours, which so often seems engulfed in darkness. What kind of people do you think it needs most of all? The answer appears quite straightforward, doesn’t it? In a world of shadows, what more can we need than people able to see the brighter side of life? Optimistic people. People who think only positive thoughts, who speak only cheerful words. Isn’t this why the coach of the national women’s table-tennis team provoked such a strong reaction recently, when he predicted that Singapore had only a 1% chance of beating China in the world championships? People got angry with him. Never mind if what he said was true. He shouldn’t have said it.  He was being defeatist. He should have spoken more positively. He should have looked on the bright side.

I’m reminded of a story of a father who had twin sons. The two little boys were identical in appearance, but very different in temperament. As different as night and day. The first boy was a pessimist. His brother an optimist. One day, the father decided to put them both to the test. He filled the room of the first boy–the pessimist–with all the latest toys and gadgets that he knew the boy liked. And the other son’s room he loaded with horse manure. As expected, when the father later visited his pessimist son in his room, he found him sunk deep in depression. What am I going to do with all these toys? The boy asked, shaking his head. Now all my friends will get jealous of me. I’ll have to waste time studying all the manuals. I’ll have to spend money on batteries. What am I going to do? In contrast, the other boy was seen, in front of his dung-filled room, jumping for joy. When asked why he was so happy, he replied, pointing enthusiastically into his room, with a big smile on his face, I just know there must be a pony in there somewhere!

If made to choose between the attitudes of these two boys, perhaps we may think that optimism is the better option. After all, better to be happy than depressed, right? But then, whether happy or depressed, isn’t it the case that neither boy was really in touch with the truth? After all, toys may indeed bring difficulties, but also many hours of enjoyment. And, very often, a roomful of horse manure is nothing more than... well... a roomful of horse manure.

But then what about this joyous season of Easter that we’re beginning to celebrate today? Isn’t Easter all about looking on the bright side? And doesn’t our gospel today highlight to us the contrast between pessimism and optimism? When Mary of Magdala arrives at the tomb and finds it empty, she immediately fears the worst. She gets anxious and depressed. The Lord’s body is missing, stolen by grave robbers. What are we to do now? The classic reaction of a diehard pessimist, or so it seems. In contrast, Simon Peter and the disciple Jesus loved react differently. They too see an empty tomb. But they believe that the Lord has been raised. Isn’t this an example of the power of positive thinking? The ability to look on the bright side of life?

No, actually. Not quite. As tempting as it may be to see in the gospel nothing more than a contrast between negative and positive thinking, there actually is something far more profound here. The gospel tells us that when Mary first arrives at the tomb, it is still dark. And the scholars say that this is no ordinary darkness. It is the darkness of unbelief. A lack of faith. In this darkness, Mary cannot see the truth. She looks on a scene of joy and sees only a source of deeper sorrow. So she flees from the empty tomb.

In contrast, Simon Peter and the other disciple run in the opposite direction. They move from the darkness of unbelief towards the light of faith. But this light is quite different from the kind of wishful thinking and empty optimism that would imagine a pony when surrounded only by horse manure. For when the apostles first arrive at the tomb, it is still, for them, a place of grief and sorrow. This is where their Lord and Master was buried. And along with him all their hopes and dreams. Yet, the two of them somehow find the courage to enter this uncomfortable place. They fix their eyes on what is there, however agonising it may be. And it is only when they do this, when they gaze, without flinching, upon reality in all its harshness, that they begin to recognise the unmistakable signs of new life. They notice that the burial cloths–the trappings of death–have all been left behind. And the other cloth, which had covered the Lord’s head, has been neatly rolled up and set aside. Surely, no grave robber would bother to do all this. The apostles see these things and they believe. They move from the darkness of despair into the light of faith. But only because they were first willing to enter the tomb of their grief. Only because they faced their fears. Only because they fixed their eyes firmly on a reality that has been touched and transformed by the Dying and Rising Lord.

Isn’t this what is meant when we are told, in the second reading, to let our thoughts be on heavenly things, not on the things that are on the earth? What we are being asked to do is not to walk with our eyes forever fixed on the clouds above, ignoring the obstacles that may trip us up here below. That may be what positive thinking looks like. But it is not what faith is all about. For we are able to raise our thoughts to heavenly things only by following the footsteps of the One who came from heaven to earth to save us. And Christ was raised to the heavenly heights only by first descending into the depths of death. To be raised with him, we must first be buried with him. To enter with him into the various tombs of our own earthly existence. Places of grief and sorrow. And there to experience him indicating to us the unmistakable signs of new life. This is what Easter is about. Not the blindness of positive thinking. But a new vision of Truth.

And isn’t this precious gift the very thing that we Christians have to offer to our darkened world today? Isn’t this what the world needs? Isn’t this what Peter himself is talking about, at the home of Cornelius, in the first reading? Cornelius, as you know, is a gentile. To the Jews, he and his household remain in the dark, far from God. But it is to this very household that Peter brings the light of faith. And he does this in a very characteristic way. He does it by bearing witness. Peter bears witness to the mighty works that Jesus did when he walked the countryside of Judaea and in Jerusalem. Peter bears witness to the fact that although they killed him by hanging him on a tree, yet three days afterwards God raised him to life. Peter bears witness that all who believe in Jesus will have their sins forgiven through his name. And isn’t it true that Peter is able to bear witness to the light of Christ, only because Peter himself was willing to enter the darkness of the tomb? He entered it, and found it empty.

Sisters and brothers, it is true that our world remains engulfed in darkness. The darkness of unbelief, selfishness and sin. But this darkness cannot be dispelled by the power of positive thinking alone. What is needed is the light of faith. The light of Easter. And for this light to spread, Christians must bear witness.

Sisters and brothers, as in the days of Peter and Cornelius, what our world needs most are witnesses to Christ. Witnesses to his Dying and his Rising. How will you be a witness today?

Friday, April 06, 2012

The Sacred Paschal Triduum
Friday of the Passion of the Lord (Good Friday)
On A Day Like This...

Readings: Isaiah 52:13-53:12; Hebrews 4:14-16,5:7-9; John 18:1-19:42
Picture: cc david_jones

Sisters and brothers, what does one do at a time like this? What is the appropriate thing to do on a day like today? Today is Good Friday. Today a man is arrested, and cruelly tortured, and subjected to a shameful death–a criminal’s death–on a cross.

What does one do on a day like this?

The Scriptures offer us examples of what others do. There are, of course, those who are responsible for this terrible thing. Those who even work hard to bring it about. The enemies of Jesus plot to have Him killed. Judas Iscariot, one of His closest disciples, betrays Him into their hands. And his judge and executioners, together with the crowds, are somehow manipulated into helping to bring the plan to its deadly conclusion.

What does one do on a day like this?

For the unscrupulous and the unknowing, one does whatever one can to add to the suffering, to hasten the slaughter.

And then there are those who simply turn and run away. Those who cannot bear the sight. Those who dare not be associated with a scene such as this. For, as the Scriptures tell us: so disfigured did he look that he seemed no longer human. He was a thing despised and rejected by men... a man to make people screen their faces; he was despised and we took no account of him. Those who saw him in the street ran far away from Him.

What does one do on a day like this?

For those who give in to timidity and fear, one strives to distance oneself, if not physically, then at least emotionally, psychologically. One distracts oneself with other things. Even apparently important things. One simply turns and runs away.

But then there are those who choose to remain. In body and in spirit. In proximity and in solidarity. As the gospel tells us: near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, together with a handful of women, and the disciple he loved. There was nothing they could do to remove His terrible suffering. But they did the next best thing. They stayed and kept watch. Through tear-filled eyes, and with breaking hearts, they bore silent witness.

What does one do on a day like this?

For those who have received love, and who love in return, one tries to remain as close as possible to the Beloved who suffers. To touch and to assure. To strengthen and to console. To watch and to remember.

What does one do on a day like this?

When a man suffers and dies on a cross? Much depends on who this man is, and why he suffers. The Scriptures provide us with the answers. This is no ordinary criminal. This is Jesus, the Son of God. The Supreme high priest. The One who has been tempted in every way that we are, though he is without sin. And his sufferings are not really his own. No. Rather, he was pierced through for our faults, crushed for our sins. On him lies a punishment that brings us peace, and through his wounds we are healed.

What does one do on a day like this?

When the Son of God gives his life as a ransom for many? What one does depends very much on what one allows oneself to see and to feel. Which is why, it is good to make our own these words from the Stabat Mater. To make our own this prayer addressed to Mary, the Mother of Jesus:
Make me feel as you have felt;
make my soul to glow and melt
with the love of Christ my Lord.
Sisters and brothers, today is the day of the Lord’s Passion. On a day like this, what will you be doing?