Saturday, August 18, 2012

20th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)
A Fad Or Life

Readings: Proverbs 9:1-6; Psalm 33:2-3,10-15; Ephesians 5:15-20; John 6:51-58
Picture: cc foshie

Sisters and brothers, you probably know what a fad is, right? Something that many people may go crazy over, all of a sudden, but then is soon forgotten. And just as suddenly. Some of us may still remember, for example, the Hello Kitty craze that saw long lines of people queueing in front of stores for many hours just to buy a stuffed toy. If I recall correctly, some fights even broke out in public, and the police had to be called in. But the hysteria died down almost as quickly as it began. The popularity was as short-lived as it was widespread.

And it’s not just toys. Even diets can become fads. Some years ago, for example, low-carbohydrate, high-protein diets were all the rage among those seeking to lose weight fast. And the diets did seem to work. I personally know of someone who experienced dramatic weight-loss by drastically reducing his carbohydrate intake. But, as some doctors have warned, although such diets may appear effective in the short term, in the longer term, they aren’t good for you. Not only that, but people actually often end up regaining the weight that they lost. And sometimes just as quickly. This is because, not only do they find the diet difficult to maintain, they also fail to accompany the change in diet with appropriate adjustments in lifestyle. They may fail to get enough exercise and rest, for example. So it’s no surprise that we don’t hear much about these diets now. Their popularity was as short-lived as their apparent benefits. A fad diet might help you to lose weight fast. But, for staying in good shape in the long term, we need to do more than just watch what we eat. To maintain a healthy body, there is no real substitute for healthy living.

This contrast between a passing food fad and an ongoing effort at leading a healthy lifestyle is not unlike the choice that our Mass readings present to us today. As you know, for several Sundays now, the gospel reading has been taken from Jesus’ long speech on the Bread of Life, in chapter 6 of John’s gospel. You will recall that, after witnessing the miracle of the multiplication of loaves, the people had wanted to make Jesus their king. They wanted him to keep providing them with food for their bellies. In response, Jesus seems to warn the people to watch their diet. Do not work, he tells them, for food that cannot last, but work for the kind of food the Son of Man is offering you. The true bread, which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.

But what does this mean? What does it mean to eat the bread from heaven? Is this just a new kind of diet? Does it involve nothing more than coming to church and receiving Holy Communion once a week on a Sunday? As it turns out, our readings tell us that there’s much more to eating the Bread of Life than simply watching what we put into our mouths. To enjoy the eternal benefits of what Jesus is offering us, it is not enough simply to munch periodically on a tiny piece of bread. Jesus is more than just the promoter of a fad diet. As he reminds us in today’s gospel, he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood lives in me and I live in him. For Jesus, eating the Bread of Life has to do not just with what we put into our mouths on Sunday. More important, it has to do with how we live our lives on the other days of the week. Eating the Bread of Life involves living a spiritually healthy lifestyle. It’s not just a fad diet.

The first reading from the book of Proverbs reinforces this message by presenting us with the image of a feast prepared by Lady Wisdom. We’re told that she has slaughtered her beasts, prepared her wine, she has laid her table… Everything has been prepared for the feast. But that is not all. Again Wisdom is not just providing us with a special diet. Partaking of this sumptuous feast is not just a matter of stuffing certain kinds of food into our mouths. For we’re told that Wisdom has chosen a special location for the banquet she is hosting. The reading begins by telling us that, even before she prepares her table, Wisdom has built herself a house. So that, to eat the food she is offering, her guests need to first travel to her home. They need to move. To change their location. And the reading also tells us just what this movement entails. Leave your folly, Wisdom says, and walk in the ways of perception. Leave your foolish, spiritually unhealthy ways of life. Turn away from the kinds of living that keep you busy with so many different things that you fail to recognise the power and presence of God in and around you. Walk instead in the way of Wisdom. Live in such a way that your eyes are always fixed first firmly on God. As it is in the gospel, so too in the first reading, feeding on the bread of Wisdom has more to do with living a spiritually healthy lifestyle than with simply keeping to a fad diet.

And, just in case we still don’t understand, the very same lesson is to be found in the second reading as well. Be very careful, we’re told, about the sort of lives you lead. Again, the concern is with the whole of life. Not just with what we put into our mouths. And, as in the first reading, the second also invites us to change. We’re told to live like intelligent and not like senseless people. To move from thoughtlessness to the recognition of the will of the Lord. From drugging ourselves with wine and other intoxicating substances–like the internet and even our work–to being filled with the Spirit, and constantly singing the praises of God.

But that’s not all, the second reading adds a crucial, and immensely consoling, detail. This may be a wicked age, the reading tells us, but your lives should redeem it. In other words, if we continue to change our lifestyle in this fashion, if we continue to keep fixing our eyes on God, as Jesus did, we do not benefit only ourselves. We accomplish far more. Nothing less than the redemption of the whole world.

And this is what is actually at stake, sisters and brothers, when we gather here to eat the Bread of Life. Nothing less than the salvation of the whole world. This is what is actually happening when we allow our special diet on Sunday to have a positive and lasting impact on our lives the rest of the week.

Perhaps what we need to do, sisters and brothers, is to examine our own personal attitude towards the Eucharist. Do we truly consider it a power that can change our whole life? For all eternity? Or do we treat it like nothing more than a fad? Popular today, but quickly forgotten tomorrow.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

19th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)
Beneath the Surface

Readings: 1 Kings 19:4-8; Psalm 33:2-9; Ephesians 4:30-5:2; John 6:41-51

Sisters and brothers, have any of you been watching the Olympics? Have you seen the synchronised swimming events? It’s quite amazing what those groups of young women can do in the water, isn’t it? Not only can they move different parts of their bodies as though they were a single unit, they can also perform such amazing feats as appearing to walk on the surface of the water, and even leaping many feet into the air, while keeping their movements synchronised. And they make it all seem so easy, so effortless! Truly sensational to watch!

But we wouldn’t really be getting the full picture if we stopped there, would we? What we have just described are only some of the things that happen above the water. As you know, what’s perhaps even more important is what’s going on below the surface. It’s only when we watch carefully the scenes captured by the underwater cameras that we begin to see more clearly. It’s only then that we begin to appreciate much better the actual extent of the young ladies’ talent and mastery. It is only when we look below the surface, for example, that we begin to see that the person who may seem to be walking so effortlessly across the surface of the water is actually being supported by many others, strenuously treading water below. So that, although synchronised swimmers are awarded points based only on what happens on and above the water, it is still what they do below the surface that makes all the difference.

And it’s perhaps useful for us to remember this lesson learned from watching synchronised swimming when we meditate on our Mass readings for today. For, at first glance, it may seem that our readings are really pretty straightforward. It’s all about the benefits of eating. In the first reading, the prophet Elijah is burnt-out and ready to give up. But he eats the food that God provides, and is rejuvenated. In the gospel, Jesus tells his listeners that it’s not just any kind of bread that is worth eating. Not even the manna that their ancestors ate in the desert. For all of them have died. The food that is truly worth eating is Jesus himself. Whoever eats him will live forever.

Now although this message may have seemed shocking to Jesus’ listeners, for us Catholics it’s all really very straightforward. There are no surprises here. For we know what we believe. We know that Jesus is not suggesting that we slice a piece of meat from his thigh, stuff it into our mouths, and chomp down on it, even as the blood drips down our chin. We know very well, or we think we do, that Jesus is talking about the Eucharist. And this is precisely what we are here to do, aren’t we? We gather to eat the Bread of Life. So we’re already doing what Jesus wants us to do. In fact we do it every week. Some of us even everyday. What more can our readings be saying to us that we aren’t already doing?

And yet, could it be that there is more to our readings than this? Could it be that this is only what is happening above the surface? Could it be that we’ll only see more if we were to switch on and to focus the underwater cameras of our mind, so to speak?

We do this by first paying closer attention to the actions of the prophet Elijah. When first we meet him at the start of the first reading, he’s running from Queen Jezebel, who wishes to kill him. He is tired and worn out. He’s ready to give up the mission that God has given him. But still, as burnt-out as he may be, Elijah’s journey into the wilderness is clearly more than just an escape. For in the wilderness, Elijah does something that an escapee would probably not do. He prays to the very God from whom he seems to be escaping. I have had enough, he says, take my life. And it is in response to these words of utter desolation, to this prayer of deep despair and disillusionment, that God sends an angel to encourage and to nourish Elijah. So that, even though Elijah feels like sleeping, the angel rouses him and inspires him to persevere on his journey, until he finally arrives at the mountain of God.

Already, at this point of our meditation, we begin to see that eating the Bread of Life involves more than just habitually showing up in church, and falling in line to receive a tiny communion wafer, which we then proceed to pop into our mouths without a second thought. If Elijah’s experience is anything to go by, to eat the Bread of Life, to truly experience its beneficial effects in our lives, we need also to be conscious of the mission that God has given each of us at our baptism. The mission to bear witness to the Dying and Rising of Christ in the concrete circumstances of our daily lives.

And, out of this consciousness of our God-given mission, we then need to find that place in our experience where we too may be feeling tired and discouraged. Where we too may be ready to say, Lord, I’ve had enough. That place in our heart where we are tempted to stop walking, to lie down, and to fall asleep. Perhaps we may be close to giving up on a spouse who never seems to listen to us or to show us affection. Or on problematic children who insist on doing the exact opposite of whatever we tell them. Or on a habitual sin that we can’t quite seem to shake off no matter how many times we go to confession. Or on trying to speak out against certain unjust practices at work. Whatever the actual situation, like Elijah, we need to enter into the wilderness of our hearts. And, from there, to address our prayer to God. As Elijah did. For when we courageously lay bare our weakness and vulnerability in this way, God sends an angel to strengthen us. An angel who feeds and nourishes us with the Bread of Life, so that we too can continue our journey to the mountain of God.

But that is not all. There is something even more amazing happening below the surface of our readings today. And we catch sight of this amazing thing when we allow ourselves to wonder if Elijah’s experience in the first reading doesn’t remind us of someone else. Do we know of someone else who received a mission from God? Someone else who found it difficult to go on? Someone else who cried out to God and received new strength? Whom might we be talking about if not Jesus himself. Jesus, who, in Gethsemane, cried out in anguish: Father take this cup away from me… Jesus, whose sweat fell like great drops of blood. Jesus, to whom the Father sent an angel to give him strength. Jesus, who rose from his prayer, even as his companions remained fast asleep. Jesus, who then walked on courageously, even to Calvary, the mountain of God.

This then, sisters and brothers, is a more complete picture of what eating the Bread of Life looks like. To be fed on this Bread, as Elijah was, is really to participate in some way in the sacrifice of Christ himself. It is to do the very thing that our second reading encourages us to do. Try, then, we’re told, to imitate God as children of his that he loves and follow Christ loving as he loved you, giving himself up in our place as a fragrant offering and a sacrifice to God. This is what should be happening beneath the surface when we gather to eat the Bread of Life. We should, in some way, be imitating and following the Crucified and Risen One, and walking onward to the mountain of God.

Sisters and brothers, when, in a few moments, each of you comes forward to receive communion, what actually will be going on beneath the surface today?

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Funeral Mass of Mary Tan Ah Ong
Strong Bones

Readings: Wisdom 3:1-9; 2 Corinthians 4:14-5:1; John 5:24-29
Picture: cc Trace Meek

Dear friends, although we may not think about it very much, there is a truth that we all know very well, and accept without doubt. The truth is this: just because we don’t see something, doesn’t mean it does not exist. When we stand in front of a mirror, for example, apart from the clothes we may be wearing, what we see is nothing much more than our skin. Even our hair and our nails are just hardened skin. But does this mean then that our body is made up only of skin? Of course not. The skin is just that part of our body that we can see. Underneath the skin, there is also our flesh. And, even more important, our bones.

Our body is made up not just of skin, but of flesh and bone as well. Even though we don’t usually see our bones, we know they are there. And we know how important they are. Although our skin is crucial for protecting our body, and for helping us to appear attractive to others, it is really our bones that hold us up. And our bones will remain even long after we have died, and the skin and flesh have disappeared. What is more, if we want to have a healthy body, we need to take care of our bones. We need to be sure, for example, that our diet contains enough calcium, so that our bones remain strong. Otherwise we may end up with a condition known as osteoporosis. Our bones become so weak and brittle that they break very easily. Just because we don’t see something, doesn’t mean it does not exist. Just because something is out of sight, doesn’t mean we don’t have to care for it.

This is true not just of our skin and our bones. Those of us who are Christian recognise something similar in the rest of life as well. In life as a whole, there are also things that are seen, and things that are unseen. And, here too, it is the unseen things that are more important. So the second reading speaks to us of the difference between the things that are visible and the things that are invisible. Although, like our skin, the things that are visible last only for a time, the invisible things, the bones of our inner self, last much longer. They are eternal.

Which is why the first reading can say that even if good people may appear to die. Even if they may seem to us to be no more. This is only what we can see with our naked eyes. In actual fact, something else, something unseen, is going on. These same people are in peace. Although, outwardly, it may seem that they have experienced nothing more than pain and suffering and death, inwardly, they have been going through something else. God has been purifying them like gold in a furnace. Through their sufferings, God has been burning away every trace of selfishness. So that they can enjoy true love and happiness with God forever.

But if this is true. If it is really the case that the unseen things are the ones that are more important. The things that last forever. Then what can we do to care for them. We care for our bones by making sure we get enough calcium. But what can we do to care for our inner self? The self that lives forever? Our gospel reading gives us the answer by reminding us that God the Father, who is the source of life, has made Jesus the Son the source of life. And that whoever listens to the words of Jesus and believes in God has eternal life. Such a person has passed from death to life. In other words, to care for our inner self, our unseen self, we need to believe in Jesus. We need to trust in his words. We need to live our lives according to his teachings. And when we do this, then our inner self, our invisible life, becomes strong. And even if, outwardly, we may suffer and die, inwardly, we enjoy the fullness of life in Jesus Christ our Lord.

Isn’t this why, sisters and brothers, we have chosen to call our gathering here this afternoon a celebration of life? What we are doing here is something more than an expression of sorrow for a loved one who has left us and gone away. We are doing more than simply mourning someone who was here for a time, and now is no more. What we are doing here is far more even than a calling to mind of happy memories. Memories of events that took place in the past, but are now no more. Although it is important to do such things. We are gathered here to do something more.

For all these actions–mourning and remembering–focus only on things that are past, things that are seen. Yet, as our readings remind us, we are gathered here today, to focus also, and especially, on the things that endure. On the things that are unseen. We believe that, because our beloved sister, Mary, lived and died a Christian life, because she lived and died according to the teachings of her Lord and Master Jesus the Christ, she is now enjoying peace and eternal happiness. This is the life that we are celebrating today. Not just something in the past that is now no more. But something that continues on into the future. Something that will remain forever. Today, even though our hearts may be breaking with sorrow because we no longer see our beloved sister, Mary, we also dare to rejoice. We dare to celebrate that which is unseen. The life that we believe Mary to be living. The life that is eternal. For just because we don’t see something, doesn’t mean it does not exist. And, just as important, just because something is out of sight, doesn’t mean we don’t have to care for it.

Sisters and brothers, even as we celebrate, perhaps the question we might ask ourselves today is this: What can we do to care for our own unseen life? What more can we do to care for our bones today?

Sunday, August 05, 2012

18th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)
The Tidbits are for the Table

Picture: cc happy via

Sisters and brothers, once upon a time, there lived a very wealthy tycoon, who made his home in a huge palace at the top of a high mountain. In this wonderful place, there was every kind of exotic and delicious food to eat. And, everyday, the tycoon would host a sumptuous feast for his family and friends. One day, it came to the tycoon’s attention, that there were many people living at the foot of the mountain, who were too poor to feed themselves. So, out of pity, he sent out his servants to invite all the starving people to live in his palace, where they could eat for free. Unfortunately, most of the people did not believe his servants, and refused to climb the mountain. While those who did believe, found the road too difficult, and gave up halfway.

On being told about what was happening, the tycoon came up with a brilliant plan. He realised that it was too difficult for the people, hungry as they were, to persevere in climbing the mountain without receiving some tangible guarantee of what they would enjoy at the top. So, when he next sent out his servants, the tycoon made them bring along some appetisers from his table. The servants were instructed to line the road up the mountain with these little tidbits, so that the people might be attracted to climb to the top. Surely, having tasted the tidbits, they would now finally allow themselves to be lured all the way to his table. Where they could feast to their hearts’ content.

However, something rather unexpected happened. The people found the tidbits so tasty that, instead of climbing up the mountain, many of them simply waited by the side of road for the tycoon’s servants to feed them. Some of the people even took the trouble to build little shacks along the way, so that they could live there permanently. They also did everything they could to ensure that there was a steady flow of tidbits. They worked hard, for example, to improve the condition of the road, so that the servants could travel unimpeded. And whenever the servants were a little late in bringing the tidbits, some of them would stage noisy demonstrations to protest the tycoon’s apparent negligence or cruelty. But few, if any, of them ever made the journey up the mountain. Few, if any, learned the lesson that the tidbits were meant only to lure them to the tycoon’s table.

The tasty tidbits are meant for the dinner table. Sisters and brothers, this too is the lesson that our readings are teaching us today. In the first reading, God has a plan to guide the Israelites to a very special place. A land flowing with milk and honey. But the way to this place is difficult. They have to pass through a vast wilderness. Hungry and thirsty, the people are tempted to give up. They even dream of returning to slavery in Egypt. At least there, even if they don’t have their freedom, their stomachs will be full. In response to the people’s complaints, God feeds them. But the food that God provides is meant only to sustain them along the way. The manna and the quail are but tidbits, offered to help the Israelites to persevere on their journey to the table of plenty that God is preparing for them in the Promised Land. The tidbits are meant to lure them to the table.

In the gospel too, we see a similar situation. Earlier in the gospel of John, Jesus had miraculously fed thousands of people. As a result, in today’s reading, the people want to make Him king. If Jesus were their king, then their stomachs would never be empty again. Or so they think. What they fail to realise, however, is that Jesus’ miracle is meant only to be a sign pointing them to a deeper reality. The bread that Jesus provides them is only a tidbit meant to entice them to climb the mountain of faith. To lure them to make the journey to the Table of the Lord.

And, as Jesus takes pains to point out, this table is none other than Jesus himself. In Him, the heavenly Table of Plenty has come down among us. I am the bread of life, he says. He who comes to me will never be hungry; he who believes in me will never thirst. Jesus performs miracles in order to draw people into relationship with Him. To encourage them to place all their hope in Him. To allow Him to lead them into the fullness of life. By insisting on making Jesus a mere earthly king, the people are turning down His offer of friendship. They are refusing to climb the mountain of faith. They are failing to acknowledge Jesus as the Lord of their lives. By treating Jesus as nothing more than a bread-making machine, they are shortchanging themselves, settling for the tidbits at the expense of the Table. Which is why Jesus warns them not to work for food that cannot last, but to work instead for food that endures to eternal life. Not to settle for the tidbits, but to press on towards the Table of Life, by believing wholeheartedly in the One that God has sent.

Sisters and brothers, in the spiritual life, material blessings are meant to draw us ever deeper into relationship with God. They are tidbits meant to lead us to the Table of the Lord. The same Table around which we are gathered this morning. And this crucial distinction between tidbits and Table is something that we too need to remember especially today. Today, when so many of us spend many of our waking hours doing exactly what Jesus tells the people not to do. We worry and work for food that cannot last. We expend much time and energy accumulating things. From money to consumer goods. From titles and degrees to corporate contacts and friends on social networks.

Today, when it’s sometimes difficult to distinguish certain forms of worship from the practices of the stock market. When the so-called prosperity gospel finds such a warm reception among so many. Such that even some of us Catholics are seduced by its message. God doesn’t want you to be poor. God wants you to be rich. And getting rich involves donating more. The more money you donate, so we’re told, the more God will bless you with material wealth. But doesn’t this amount to what the people in the gospel were trying to do? What Jesus was warning them against? Doesn’t this reduce the almighty God to an earthly king? A bread-making, money-minting machine, that we can manipulate at will?

Which is not to say that we shouldn’t work and pray for our material needs. We should. We have to. But we should do it in such a way that, even as our hands may work for such food, our hearts are set first on God, on His kingdom, and on His righteousness. By doing this, we will be heeding those wise words from the second reading: You must give up your old way of life; you must put aside your old self, which gets corrupted by following illusory desires. Your mind must be renewed by a spiritual revolution so that you can put on the new self that has been created in God’s way, in the goodness and holiness of the truth. By living in this new way–this way that strives to put God first in all things–we will be treating material blessings as they are meant to be treated. We will finally be recognising the truth that the tidbits are meant only for the Table.

Sisters and brothers, how well are we learning and living this truth today?