Sunday, October 21, 2012

29th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)
Mission as Stay-cation

Picture: cc Mike Licht

Sisters and brothers, I think we are all familiar with the word vacation, right? We’ve probably all been on vacation before. We know what the word means. To vacate is to leave a place unoccupied. So to go on vacation literally means to leave our home, to spend some time in some other place. And our usual idea of going on vacation is simply to visit a foreign country. To cross a border somewhere. Whether by flying to Europe, or to the Holy Land, or simply by driving across the Causeway. For many of us, to go on vacation is to visit another country.

But that’s not the only way to go on vacation. It seems that, lately, for whatever reason, more and more people are choosing not to go abroad. They prefer to stay right here in Singapore. Some take their family to a chalet in Changi. Others–with more money to spend–check into a local hotel. In fact this kind of local vacation has become so common, that a new word has been invented for it. It’s called a stay-cation. But is a stay-cation a real vacation? Is it really possible to go on vacation without leaving the country? The answer, of course, is yes. Stay-cations can be real vacations because the main point of a vacation is not really to go overseas. People go on vacation because they need to take a break from their usual routine. They need a change in place and pace. And you don’t always have to go to another country for that. To truly go on vacation, we don’t necessarily have to cross a border between one country and another. What we do have to cross is the boundary between work and play, between tension and relaxation, between stress and calm. And it’s possible to cross this boundary without leaving Singapore. Just as it’s possible to fail to cross it even after we’ve travelled to a faraway place. How many of us, for example, have returned from an overseas holiday feeling even more tired and stressed out than before we left?

Sometimes the best, the most restful, kind of vacation is a stay-cation. And this is true not just of vacations. Something similar can be said about the Christian’s mission as well. What do we usually think of when we hear the word mission or missionary? Very likely, we may imagine someone who travels to a foreign country to preach the Good News. For example, our beloved Sacred Heart Fathers–who have served this parish faithfully for so many years–are all missionaries in this sense. We think also of the many good Singaporean Catholics, who go on overseas mission trips. People who visit slums in the Philippines, or orphanages in Cambodia. Singaporean Samaritans who go out of their way to help the victims of natural disasters to rebuild their homes, or who provide them with food and clothing. Very often, when we think of missionaries, we think of people like that. People who travel overseas.

But what about those of us who, for one reason or another, may not be able or willing to make the trip. Do we not have a mission? Are we not also called to be missionary? Is it not possible, and even necessary, to be on mission while staying in Singapore? To answer these questions, we need to do what we did with the word vacation. We need to examine the meaning of the word mission.

As you know, the word has a Latin root, which means to send. And, by virtue of our baptism, all of us Christians are sent on the same mission. We share in the one mission of Christ. And our Mass readings today remind us just what this mission looks like. First of all, Christ is sent to fulfil a specific need that every human person experiences. A need that we expressed just now, in our response to the psalm. May your love be upon us, O Lord, as we place all our hope in you. May your love be upon us… Regardless of whether we are rich or poor, young or old, woman or man, local or foreigner, all of us have a deep need to know how much God really loves us. We need to know that God is on our side. That God wants us to be happy. That God wants to be our Friend. That God accepts and embraces us as we are. Even though we may continue to struggle with our own sinfulness. For without this basic experience of God’s love, we often end up doing what we see the disciples doing in today’s gospel.

Like them, we become anxious and insecure. We begin to compete with one another for glory. We fight among ourselves to be first in everything. And while we are doing all this, we fail to notice the sufferings of those around us. Even our closest friends and family. This is precisely what we see happening to the disciples in the gospel. The reading begins from verse 35. In the earlier verses–from 32 to 34–Jesus had been telling his disciples that he would soon to be handed over to the scribes and Pharisees, who would have him tortured and killed. Jesus–their Lord and Master, their close companion and friend–tells the disciples about all the terrible things that will soon befall him. All the horrible suffering he will have to undergo. But the disciples offer the Lord no sympathy or consolation. Their only response is to start arguing about who among them is the greatest.

Unlike the disciples, however, God is painfully aware of the sufferings of each one of us. Especially the sufferings that result from our failure to realise just how much God really loves us. In response to our need, God sends his Son among us on a mission. To convince us of God’s love for us. To do this, Christ crosses the boundary between heaven and earth, between God and humanity. Even to the extent of sharing in our temptations and our sufferings. As the second reading tells us, in Christ, we have a high priest who has been tempted in every way that we are, though he is without sin. And the first reading states that Christ was crushed with suffering in order to justify many, to justify us, by taking our faults on himself.

This, sisters and brothers, is what the mission of Christ looks like. This is the mission that we are all called to share. The mission to help others to experience the love of God. And we don’t always have to go abroad to do this. For isn’t it true that Singapore too is mission territory? Isn’t it true that, as rich as some Singaporeans may appear to be, there are still many people here who need our help? We may think, for example of the many migrant workers among us. Not just the professionals, with whom we may compete for the jobs we like, but especially the blue-collar labourers, who do the work that locals are unwilling to do. Building our flats, scrubbing our toilets, cleaning our cars. Workers who are often victimised by employers who are unscrupulous, or even a little crazy. As much as the suffering people overseas, these strangers among us need to experience God’s love in real and tangible ways too. Is it not our mission to reach out to them as well? To speak up for them, when their rights are denied? Even to somehow share in their sufferings and pain, as Christ shared in our own?

And it’s not just the materially poor who need our attention. What about the many local children who struggle to cope with the pressures of school and of growing up? What about the adults, who feel burdened by the demands of work and family. People who are lonely and depressed. Who experience a deep hunger for God without even realising it. We don’t have to go far to meet these people. They are all around us. In our workplaces. In our neighbourhoods. Sometimes even in our own homes.

Sisters and brothers, we don’t always need to cross international borders to reach out to those in need. But we do have to cross a crucial boundary within ourselves. The boundary between competition and sharing, between indifference and caring, between selfishness and love.

Sisters and brothers, on this World Mission Sunday, is it perhaps time for us–for you and for me–to take a missionary stay-cation today?

Sunday, October 14, 2012

28th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)
Scanned Unto Salvation

Readings: Wisdom 7:7-11; Psalm 89:12-17; Hebrews 4:12-13; Mark 10:17-30
Picture: cc Cataract_eye

Sisters and brothers, have you ever been for a medical check-up? Have you ever had to undergo a blood test, or a body scan, or some other type of diagnostic procedure? How did you feel? Or how do you feel when you even think of the possibility of having to undergo a test like that? Do you like it? Welcome it? Eagerly look forward to it? If you’re like me, you don’t. And the reasons are obvious. For one thing, medical tests are often uncomfortable. I remember once having to go for a gastric endoscope. Although the procedure itself was relatively quick and painless–since I was put to sleep–the preparation for it was highly unpleasant. There were large quantities of a horrible-tasting liquid that I had to drink. After which, I spent most of the night in the restroom. Not fun at all.

But discomfort is not the only reason why we prefer to avoid medical tests. There’s another, perhaps even stronger, reason. It’s the same reason that keeps many of us from going to the doctor even when we experience medical symptoms of some kind. When we discover a suspicious-looking lump on some part of the body, for example. Or when we cough up blood. Or when we experience persistent shortness of breath. Faced with symptoms like these, why don’t we all head straight for the doctor without delay? Why do many of us hesitate? Why don’t we want to go for the tests and scans that would tell us for sure what, if anything, is wrong with us? Why? Quite apart from the money we may have to spend, is it not because we’re afraid of what might be uncovered? We don’t really want to know whether or not we’re sick. We prefer ignorance to knowledge, because, as they say, ignorance is bliss. We avoid medical tests because we’re afraid of the truth. And if we do this even when we are faced with clear signs that we might be ill, how much more do we avoid going for routine medical checks when everything seems to be well.

Which is why I find myself admiring that rich man in the gospel today.  Yes, I admire him. Even though he failed to answer the call of Christ. Even though we’re told that he went away sad. Of course, it’s not his failure or his sadness that I admire. What I admire is his courage. For this man seemed to be in the pink of spiritual health. He was able to tell Jesus, in all honesty, that he had kept all the commandments from his earliest days. He was quite obviously a good man. So good that he aroused the Lord’s affection. We’re told that Jesus looked steadily at him and loved him. We can imagine then that, prior to meeting the Lord, this man had probably not been experiencing any symptoms of spiritual illness. There was probably no indication that he needed to go for a medical check-up, or to take a blood test, or to undergo a scan of some sort. And yet, isn’t this exactly what he put himself through?

The gospel tells us that, of his own free will, this man ran up to Jesus, knelt before him and put this question to him, ‘Good master, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ By asking this question, and then by humbly submitting himself to the penetrating gaze of Jesus, this rich man was actually allowing himself to undergo a spiritual screening. He was courageously placing himself under the bright light of God’s Word-Made-Flesh. And the second reading tells us just how powerful and effective this Light is. Just how perceptive this Word can be. The word of God is something alive and active, we’re told. It can judge secret emotions and thoughts. No created thing can hide from him; everything is uncovered… And it is precisely under this powerful scan that the good man’s one weakness is revealed. He is too attached to his wealth. Not just to his material wealth–his money and his property. But also to his moral wealth–his own piety, his own virtue, his own goodness. He finds it difficult to let all these things go in order to follow Christ. Not that he should stop being pious and virtuous and good. What the man finds difficult to do is to stop building his spiritual life on these riches of his. To stop trying to save himself. But, rather, to enter into an intimate personal relationship with Jesus. Surrendering to the Lord control over his own life. This, the man is unable to do. He cannot let go of his riches. He cannot relinquish control. As a result he goes away sad.

And yet, isn’t it also true that, as he walks away, the rich man experiences something more than just sadness? Doesn’t he also experience enlightenment? After his encounter with Christ, after having undergone a spiritual scan, the man now knows something that he didn’t know before. He now has a better appreciation of the truth of his own spiritual condition. He now realises that he is unable to inherit eternal life simply by relying on his own goodness. He now knows that it is insufficient just to keep struggling on his own to keep the commandments. He also needs, above all, to rely on the help that God is making available to him in Christ Jesus the Lord. Which is why, it is perhaps not too farfetched for us to think that, later in life, this rich man did finally find the strength to do what he failed to do when he was younger. For, as he continued to grow in the knowledge of his own weakness, isn’t it likely that he would eventually turn to God for help? Isn’t it likely that he would finally recognise what Jesus tells us in the gospel? That what may be impossible for human beings is possible for God. For everything is possible for God.

But that’s not all. Courage is not the only quality that I find attractive in the rich man. There is another. I admire the man’s deep desire, his profound yearning, for the truth. It is this same desire that we find described in our first reading. I prayed, the writer says, and understanding was given me; I entreated, and the spirit of Wisdom came to me. I esteemed her more than sceptres and thrones; compared with her, I held riches as nothing. Didn’t the rich man have something of this desire? Wasn’t it his yearning for the spirit of Wisdom that led him to kneel uncomfortably before Jesus in the first place? Wasn’t it his desire for the truth that led him to endure the embarrassment of having his weakness uncovered in such a public manner? So that even if, at that particular point in his life, he still wasn’t ready to give up all his earthly treasures, it is likely that, later on in life, his desire for truth would finally lead him to succeed where once he had failed. Provided, of course, that he kept cultivating that desire. Continued to feed it. To pray out of it. To allow it to lead him again to Jesus.

And what about us, sisters and brothers? We who may or may not be experiencing symptoms of spiritual illness. Don’t we also need to come before the Lord Jesus to have him tell us what we must do to inherit eternal life? And isn’t this precisely what we are being invited to do in this Year of Faith? As individuals and as a community, we are being encouraged to take the necessary steps to draw closer to Christ. To deepen our relationship with Him through prayer and the study of the Scriptures and the teachings of the Church. To place every aspect of our lives under the brilliant light of Christ, as the rich man did. And there to allow Christ to reveal to us the truth of our spiritual condition. But, for us to do this, we must first ask God to increase in us those two qualities of the rich man that are so admirable. His courage and his desire for the truth.

Sisters and brothers, do you find this courage and this desire in your own heart? How ready are you for a spiritual scan today?

Sunday, October 07, 2012

27th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)
Between Marriage & Completion (Version 2)

(See version 1)

Sisters and brothers, have you ever heard that saying about marriage? You know, the one that goes something like this: No one is complete until they get married. And then they are finished! Many of us laugh when we hear it. I’m one of those who do. We find it funny because there is, of course, a double meaning to the word finished.

The first meaning is the obvious romantic one. It’s the one that people often use at the beginning of intimate relationships. It’s the meaning that the actor Tom Cruise was using in the feel-good movie entitled Jerry Maguire. In a particularly popular scene, after Jerry tells Dorothy, his secretary, that he loves her, he mouths these marvellously mushy (some might say cheesy), yet amazingly effective words: You complete me, he tells her. You complete me. Or, in other words, you finish me.

The other meaning of the word finish is the very opposite of the first. If the first is often used at the birth of relationships, then the second is usually expressed when they die. It’s the meaning that the actress Meryl Streep had in mind in that scene from the movie Kramer vs Kramer, where Streep’s character, Joanna, is in the process of leaving Ted, her workaholic husband. At one point, Ted desperately tries to coax Joanna back into their apartment. But she responds by pleading with her soon to be ex-husband in these words: Please don’t make me go in there… If you do, I swear, one day, next week, maybe next year, I don’t know, I’ll go right out the window... I’ll go right out the window. In other words, if you make me go back to our marriage, I’m finished.

Finished: one word with two very different meanings. And it is the context, the situation, that determines which one is intended. Jerry Maguire or Kramer vs Kramer. Romance or divorce. Completion or death.

No one is complete until they get married. And then they are finished!

More than just a (hopefully) interesting opening for a homily, this line also happens to highlight a connection that we find in our Mass readings today. If we look hard enough. It is a connection between two questions. The first question has to do with the meaning of marriage. And the second question has to do with what it means to be a complete human being.

I say if we look hard enough because, at first glance, the main message of the gospel appears to be nothing more than the prohibition of divorce. And Jesus does indeed speak out against the Mosaic law that allowed a man to divorce his wife for the most trivial of reasons, not least because, as scholars tell us, this same law could result in the abuse and exploitation of women. But Jesus’ response to the Pharisees also takes the conversation to a whole different level. Like the Kramers in the movie, and many others who have to face the painful task of dealing with a dying relationship, the Pharisees are concerned with the Law. Is it against the law for a man to divorce his wife? They want to know. And this is, of course, an important question. In many circumstances, this is a legitimate concern. For instance, even as we Catholics continue to uphold Jesus’ prohibition of divorce, we also know that Canon Law permits certain narrow exceptions to the rule, such as the so-called Pauline Privilege. Also, there may be certain situations in which a civil divorce might well be a prudent course of action even for a Catholic, provided that s/he does not remarry.

Even so, to remain with the Pharisees at the level of the law would give us too narrow a view of what our scripture readings are saying to us today. After all, how many of us here are married? I know I’m not. Do our readings not have anything to say to the unmarried? The answer is yes, they do. For, in the gospel, Jesus’ concern is not just with the ending of marriages, legal or otherwise, but also, more importantly, with the beginning of creation. Referring to the book of Genesis, Jesus invites us to consider not only the true meaning of marriage, but also the process by which one becomes a complete human being.

As we heard in our first reading, more than a simple contractual alliance, more than just a joint checking account, or a shared double bed, the true meaning of marriage is a profound union in which two people become one body. In a sense, they are no longer two but one – sharing a new common origin. When they marry, something new is created. And this process of union is also a process of completion. For notice the circumstances in which the first man and the first woman come together. Notice how, at the beginning of the reading, even though the man has already been created, he is not quite complete. God says: It is not good that the man should be alone. And notice too, how the completion of the man is brought about. The process is rather different from that portrayed in many romantic movies like Jerry Maguire. It is not a matter of the filling up some inner void in the man by some external creature. The attempt to do this with the animals fails. They are found to be unsuitable. They do not have enough in common with the man. He can only exert mastery over them, but no true partnership can be formed. No true intimacy is experienced. The man remains lonely. It is only when he falls into a deep sleep and gives away something of himself that success is achieved. Quite paradoxically, completion results from self-donation. And with completion comes communion. The man gives up a rib for the sake of the woman, and the two become one body.

It is at this point that we finally arrive at the crux of what the scriptures are saying to us today. This is the true connection between the meaning of marriage and the completion of a human being. For, as you well know, the early Fathers of the Church delighted in drawing parallels between the creation of the first man and the crucifixion of Christ. Just as the first man fell into a deep sleep in which the first woman was formed from his rib, so too did Christ fall into the profound slumber of death on the Cross, during which the Church was born from the blood and water that flowed from his pierced side. Also, as the second reading reminds us, just as the first man was completed, by giving something of himself, so too was Christ made perfect through suffering. And, just as the first man came to share a new common origin with the first woman, so too did Christ, the one who sanctifies, and all of us, the ones who are sanctified, come to share in the same stock.

It becomes clear then, sisters and brothers, that the scriptures have something important to say to us today, regardless of whether or not we have ever been married or divorced. Regardless of whether we are women or men. For, as baptised Christians, we are all members of the Church of Christ, the same Church that the Lord formed through his sacrifice on the Cross, the same Church that is destined to become his bride when he comes again. And, as members of this Church, whether married or single, separated or divorced, female or male, we are all called to perfection in Christ by imitating him in giving of ourselves to others in some way.

In this sense, none of us is complete until we get married. Only then are we finished. Only then are we made holy. Only then are we saved.

Sisters and brothers, both as individual Christians and as Church, how might the Lord be drawing us further towards completion today?

Saturday, October 06, 2012

Wedding Mass of Jarrold & Julia
Loving Unto Completion

Readings: Genesis 2:18-24; Psalm 148:1-4, 9-14 R:v.12; 1 Corinthians 12:31-13:8; Matthew 5:1-12
Picture: cc JF Sebastian

Julia and Jarrold, dear friends, there’s a modern-day proverb of sorts that I’m sure some of you have come across before. It’s sometimes found on coffee mugs or T-shirts or bumper stickers. It goes something like this: A man is incomplete until he’s married... and then he’s finished.

I know. It’s a rather male chauvinistic statement, right? It seems to imply that marriage to a woman spells doom for a man. Marriage marks the death of spontaneity. The end of his freedom. Perhaps not the most appropriate statement for an occasion like this. And I can imagine that, at this moment, you, Julia and Jarrold, are thinking that maybe you should have asked someone else to officiate today. For not only does the statement appear sexist, in a sense, it’s also obviously untrue. At least to those of us who claim to be followers of Christ. After all, we Christians believe that Jesus was both fully human and fully divine. He was a complete human being. And yet, we also believe that, right until the end of his journey on this earth, the Lord remained unmarried. Unmarried, but completely human. Quite the opposite of what the proverb tells us. Or so it seems.

And yet, if we were to ponder a little more deeply, perhaps we’ll find that there is a sense in which this statement is profoundly true. Indeed, the truth that it contains is the very message that you, Julia and Jarrold, are trying to bring to our attention through the Mass readings that you have chosen for today. A man is incomplete until he’s married… and then he’s finished.

As you know, the first reading from the book of Genesis, tells the story of the creation of the world. And we join the story at the point when the man has already been created. God has fashioned the man from the earth, and breathed into him the breath of life. From what was nothing, God made something. And not just any-thing, but a living, breathing, thinking, speaking human person. And yet, in the reading, even though the man has already been created, he’s still incomplete in some way. Still unfinished. Still lacking something. It is not good that the man should be alone, God says. I will make him a helpmate. A fitting companion. And it’s important to consider how this comes about. The creation of the man is finished only when a rib is taken from him to form the woman. The man is completed only when he is able to give of himself, to contribute to the creation of another. To engage in self-donation for the sake of someone else. And, of course, what is said of the man, can be said of the woman as well. For this is true of all human life: We are all incomplete, until we are able to engage in self-donation...

But this process of completion, this act of self-giving, is not just a matter of surrendering a part of our bodies–preferably a part that we can do without. Something even more is required. And the second reading tells us just what this something is. If I even let them take my body to burn it, but am without love, it will do me no good whatever. Without love, even the donation of my whole body will do me no good. And this is a truth that, in recent times, we have all come to know only too well. For we live in an age of terrorists and suicide bombers. We know that it is possible to give away one’s body, to even allow oneself to be blown to bits, for all the wrong reasons. For the sake of taking away life, instead of furthering it. To contribute to destruction, instead of creation. I can give away as many body-parts as I can spare–and even those I cannot–but without love, without desiring the well-being of another, I remain incomplete. Somehow less of a person. A nobody even. Truly nothing at all.

Isn’t this the truth that you, Julia and Jarrold, are trying to bring to our attention today? Isn’t this the truth that you are both pledging to live out in your new life together as a married couple? The truth that we are all incomplete until we are able to love others enough to give of ourselves for them. Only then are we truly finished.

But, if this is true, then the next question for us to ask is, of course, how? How do we learn to love in this way? How do we learn to keep putting the interests of the other ahead of our own? And to continue to do it even after the honeymoon–and all the warm fuzzy feelings associated with it–have passed? How do we persevere in doing this, while continuing to live in a world that teaches us to do precisely the opposite. A world that runs on an economy of consumption. A world that speaks the language of selfishness, and not of love. A world that keeps trying to force us to work ourselves to the brink of exhaustion and burnout, to the point where we have no energy left to care for ourselves, let alone to consider the needs of others. Even those of our spouse and children. In a world like this, how do we learn to love another truly, and so to become more completely human?

Again, the answer lies in the readings that you, Jarrold and Julia, have chosen. We notice, first, that the man in the first reading does not complete himself. He cannot. He needs to be completed by God. Next, the reading also tells us how this happens. The man allows himself to be put, by God, into a deep sleep. And we appreciate better the meaning of this sleep when we consider what the man was doing immediately before. While he was awake, the man was giving names to the different animals that God was bringing before him. And, as you know, by giving them names, the man was exerting his mastery, his superiority, over the animals. And it is only when this tendency to lord it over others is put to sleep, that the man is able to learn, first to give of himself, and then to recognise and to relate to the woman as his equal. This at last is bone from my bones and flesh from my flesh! The process of loving donation of self begins with the putting to sleep of our tendencies toward the mastery and manipulation of others.

Which is why the gospel passage that you, Jarrold and Julia, have chosen is so appropriate. For what are the Beatitudes if not a description of what happens when people allow God to put them to sleep in this way. Somehow, such people, become more complete. The poor in spirit, attain the kingdom of heaven. The gentle inherit the earth. The mourning are comforted. The merciful are shown mercy... And we should not be surprised at this. For was it not Jesus himself who lived the Beatitudes to the fullest? Jesus, who slept the sleep of death on the Cross. Jesus, whose side was pierced, and out of which was born his bride, the Church. Jesus, by whose Dying and Rising, we are all brought to completion as children of God.

My dear friends, it is this same Jesus who is present with us at this Mass. And it is in His self-sacrificing love that you, Jarrold and Julia, have chosen to situate your new life together. And what a marvellously wise choice you have made. For it is only in this love, the love of God made visible in Christ Jesus, that all creation is brought to completion.

A man and a woman are incomplete until they're married… and then they are finished.

My dear friends, Julia and Jarrold, how might we allow the Lord to continue putting us to sleep, so as to bring us to completion today?