Saturday, November 17, 2012

33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)
Resting Where We Wake Up Safe

Readings: Daniel 12:1-3; Psalm 15:5,8-11; Hebrews 10:11-14,18; Mark 13:24-32
Picture: cc Tobyotter

Sisters and brothers, where were you when you awoke from sleep this morning? Where did you find yourself? How did you feel? What did you see? Very likely, most of us awoke to find ourselves nestled in the comfort of our own beds. Perhaps cuddling a pillow or two. Enjoying the delightful combination of coolness and warmth between our sheets. Gradually rousing ourselves from the misty shadows of sleep into the brightening dawn of wakefulness. And, most probably, when we did finally open our eyes, we were greeted by the sight of safe and familiar surroundings. Nothing surprising to alarm us. Nothing unpleasant to disturb us. Nothing scary to frighten us...

But not everyone wakes up like this. At least not all the time. There are also people who are sometimes jolted into consciousness to find themselves in very uncomfortable places. Very embarrassing, even painful, positions. And I don't mean people who live in war zones. Or those who are too poor to afford a roof over their heads. Some of us may have seen the photographs recently posted on a local news website. Pictures of people who had a little too much to drink. Well, actually, much more than a little. I believe the technical term is wasted. One picture shows a person lying unconscious on the floor of an MRT train. A trail of his own urine behind him. Another is a picture of someone passed out on a toilet seat. His pants pulled down to his knees. I think you get the general idea...

Some people wake up well. And others don’t. Some of us awaken feeling safe and secure. Others, hungover and humiliated. And we know the reason for the difference, don’t we? How we rise to wakefulness is often determined by where we choose to lie down to rest. Unless someone else moves us, if we fall asleep in our beds, that’s where we’ll find ourselves when we wake up. But, to be fair, no one really chooses to spend the night on the floor of an MRT train. Much less soaking in a pool or urine, or naked on a toilet seat. People end up in such uncomfortable places, only because they try to find rest somewhere else. Not in any particular physical location. But in the delightful mental and emotional bliss brought on by intoxication. They choose to find rest in the pleasures of drink. And, as we all know very well, this is a feeling that does not last. Unlike a cosy bed, which supports us throughout the night and into the morning, the high we get from the mouth of a bottle very quickly abandons us. Leaves us stranded. Often in the strangest and most embarrassing of places.

For many of us, how we awaken depends upon where we choose to find rest. This too is the lesson that our Mass readings are trying to teach us on this second to last Sunday of Ordinary Time. Next week, as you know, we will celebrate the Solemn Feast of Christ the King. As we ready ourselves for the end of the Church’s liturgical year, our Mass readings invite us to carefully prepare ourselves for the end of time. But what will the end of time look like? The first reading describes it in terms of people waking up from sleep. There is going to be a time of great distress, we are told. And, of those who lie sleeping in the dust of the earth, many will awake, some to everlasting life, some to shame and everlasting disgrace. Not just in our own day, but even at the end of time, some people will wake up well, and others very poorly. Some will find safety. Others disgrace.

And what makes all the difference is where people choose to find rest. Disgrace is found by those who seek refuge only in passing things. Things that do not last. Things like material wealth and success. Or popularity and good looks. Fast cars and faster computers. Big houses and bigger egos. In time, like the high that comes from a few stiff drinks, all these things will pass away. And not just these things. In the gospel, Jesus goes so far as to say that even heaven and earth will pass away. Everything about this fleeting life will eventually be no more. Even this beautiful church of ours, in which we take such pride. There will come a time when it will no longer be here. But, if this is true, where then are we to seek rest? How then are we to find safety when we finally wake up from sleep?

The responsorial psalm provides the answer. I keep the Lord ever in my sight, the psalmist declares. Since he is at my right hand, I shall stand firm. And so my heart rejoices, my soul is glad; even my body shall rest in safety. The only truly restful space, the only ultimately safe place, is to be found in God alone. More specifically, we really only arrive at true safety when we rest in Christ Jesus our Lord. For, as he tells us in the gospel, although heaven and earth will pass away, my words will not pass away. And the second reading explains why this is so. For unlike the ineffective sacrifices offered by the priests of the Old Covenant, Jesus has offered himself in one single sacrifice, by virtue of which he has achieved the eternal perfection of all whom he is sanctifying. Of you and of me. The Lord’s words do not pass away, because they are not mere words. They are matched by his single act of undying love. The selfless sacrifice of the eternal Word of God on the rugged wood of the cruel Cross.

The Cross of Christ. For us who are Christian, to find safety is to seek rest nowhere else than at this most uncomfortable place. But how do we know, sisters and brothers, where exactly it is we are seeking our rest? One way to find out is, of course, to ask ourselves what are the things we do not have, but for which we crave? Or what are the things that we do have, and to which we cling? Consider our cravings and our clingings. What are they? Are they truly enduring things? Or are they, like everything else apart from God, doomed eventually to pass away? Another way is to pay attention to our reactions to trials and temptations, to failures and setbacks. When we encounter such unpleasant experiences, what do we do? Do we allow our anger and disappointment to get the better of us? Even to turn us away from following the Lord? Or do we use such experiences as opportunities to accompany our Blessed Mother, as she stands at the foot of the Cross, gazing upon the bruised and bloodied face of her dying glorious Son?

Sisters and brothers, the same holds true in the spiritual life as in the material. How we awaken often depends upon where we seek our rest.

Where are you seeking your rest today?

Sunday, November 11, 2012

32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)
Seeing with New Eyes

Readings: 1 Kings 17:10-16; Psalm 146:7, 8-9, 9-10; Hebrews 9:24-28; Mark 12:38-44 or 12:41-44
Picture: cc kphotographer

Sisters and brothers, have you ever had the occasion to revise your opinion about something or someone? Let’s say, for example, that you always thought that a certain friend of yours was a little proud or aloof, because she didn’t like to join you and the rest of your friends on your regular outings. Then, one day, you discover the reason for your friend’s apparent antisocial behaviour. She has to care for one of her children, who is in hospital with a terminal illness. On learning this, you’ll probably, quite naturally, begin to see your friend in a new light. And perhaps even treat her differently. There is a Chinese idiom that describes such situations quite well. Ling yan xiang kan (另眼相看). Literally, this means to see something or someone with another set of eyes.

I mention this, because I think that this is precisely what we need to do with those two poor widows in our Mass readings today. Both the Sidonian woman of the first reading and the woman in the treasury of the Temple in the gospel. We need to ling yan xiang kan. We need to look at them with new eyes.

First, let’s consider the woman in the gospel. How do we usually see her? Well, our usual approach–my usual approach–is to think of her as a model to be praised and imitated. For poor as she was, she willingly contributed everything she possessed, all she had to live on towards the upkeep of the Temple in Jerusalem. The rich may have donated much more in absolute terms, but she, even at great cost to herself, gave 100 percent. The same can be said for the widow in the first reading. She is just as heroic and worthy of imitation. In a time of drought and famine, even though she and her son are themselves close to starving to death, she willingly shares the little food she has with the prophet Elijah.

And what is even more impressive, even more worthy of our praise and imitation, is the attitude that motivates the generosity of these two women. Both widows are willing to sacrifice everything, even at the risk of losing their own lives, because they have placed all their trust in God. In the words of the responsorial psalm, they believe that their God is the Lord who keeps faith for ever, who is just to those who are oppressed… who gives bread to the hungry. So firm is their belief that God will care for them that they are willing to give everything they have for the sake of others. Aren’t these women true heroes? Shouldn’t we try our best to imitate them? In our own lives as Christians, shouldn’t we keep striving to be just as generous, just as trusting, just as heroic? Of course we should!

And yet, isn’t there also something crucially important that gets left out when we see the widows only as models for imitation? Isn’t it important that we also learn to see them with new eyes? For, as heroic as they are, aren’t these women also, in a sense, victims? Aren’t they themselves in need of a hero to save them too? Isn’t this precisely what they are hoping for from God? To gain a better appreciation of this, however, we need to consider more closely the background in the Bible against which each of these stories is set.

In the first reading, for example, the widow is suffering because of a drought. And it’s important to remember that this drought is not a random occurrence. The prophet Elijah himself has caused it. Following the instructions of God, Elijah has called down a drought on the land because of the sinful behaviour of Ahab, the king of Israel, who has turned to the worship of idols. So the widow–who, by the way, is not an Israelite, but a gentile, living in the Sidonian town of Zarephath–is suffering because of the sins of God’s chosen people. The people of Israel have sinned, and the poor widow is among those who are paying the price. Her heroic sacrifice is necessary only because the chosen people have become corrupt.

We find something similar in the gospel as well. As some scripture scholars remind us, the story of the widow’s mite comes immediately after Jesus’ criticism of the scribes, who swallow the property of widows, while making a show of lengthy prayers. Against this background, Jesus may well be drawing his disciples’ attention to the widow’s generous contribution, not just as conduct worthy of imitation and praise–although it is surely that–but also as a situation to be lamented. As a problem needing to be addressed.

Why, we may ask, should a poor widow, struggling to keep body and soul together, be expected to donate her very last two coins toward the maintenance of the Temple? Shouldn’t the Temple be providing for her upkeep instead? Isn’t her situation a concrete illustration of how the administrators of the Temple are swallowing the property of widows, while making a show of lengthy prayers? More than just a heroic model for us to imitate, isn’t this poor woman also an oppressed victim crying out for our help? And, in this bad situation, like Elijah before him, Jesus appears as someone sent by God to speak up for the oppressed. To call the victimisers to repentance. And it is because Jesus does this, that he will end up losing his life.

Seen in this light, the two women in our Mass readings become more than just models for us to imitate. They are also victims for us to help and to defend. Just as Elijah and Jesus helped and defended them. And how crucially important are the words and actions of Elijah and Jesus! For, if not for the willingness of Elijah and Jesus to speak out and to act on behalf of them, these poor widows will have to keep suffering. And not just them, but also others like them, who may be forced to live under difficult conditions not of their own making. Like the high priest mentioned in the second reading, all such oppressed people will keep having to offer their sacrifices repeatedly, until other people are able and willing to see them in a new light. Able and willing to speak up for them. Even to sacrifice and to lay down their lives for them. As Jesus does for us. Once and for all.

And isn’t it true that people like these two widows remain with us even in our world today? We only need to have the eyes to see them. The hearts to feel for them. And the hands to reach out to them. People who may impress and inspire us with their lives of quiet selfless sacrifice on behalf of others. People oppressed by economic systems and social structures beyond their control. People who need our help, so that their sufferings, and the sufferings of others like them, can eventually come to an end.

Sisters and brothers, are there perhaps some of these people in your life too? And is it perhaps time for us to look at them with new eyes? Time for us to ling yan xiang kan today?

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Wedding Mass of Roberto & Marina
When Clothes Make the Marriage

Readings: Genesis 1:26-28, 31; Psalm 33; Colossians 3:12-17; Matthew 19:3-6

Clothes make the man. Sisters and brothers, I think you’ve probably heard this proverb before, right? Clothes make the man (or woman). You know what it means. The proverb refers to how, for better or for worse, we often judge one another by our appearances. By the clothes we wear. Which is not always a good thing, because it can lead to mistakes being made. For example, a person who may dress very poorly–because he feels comfortable in old and worn-out clothes–may in fact be very rich. But, despite this risk of mistakes, isn’t there still a sense in which the proverb may actually be true?

Clothes make the man. Isn’t it true that the way we dress does actually have an effect on how we feel? On how we carry and conduct ourselves? We see this most clearly, of course, in the comic books. For example, dressed in ordinary street clothes, Tony Stark is just an arrogant but brilliant billionaire. But once he puts on his suit of armour, he is transformed into Ironman, superhero extraordinaire. But it’s not just the superheroes who experience this. We do too, don’t we? Putting on a smart well-tailored suit, for example, may help a corporate executive to feel and act confident and successful. Just as my wearing of these religious vestments can help me and the congregation to enter more deeply into worship. And perhaps we may also ask Marina how she feels in her beautiful wedding dress. Or Roberto, in his stylish suit. Very likely, donning these special forms of dress does in fact help them to enter more deeply into the joyful mystery of matrimonial union that we are gathered here to celebrate today. What does this tell us, sisters and brothers, if not that, like Ironman’s armour, the clothes we wear can give us power of some sort.

Clothes make the man. There is indeed a sense in which this is true. And I mention this only because, through the readings that they have chosen for this happy occasion, Marina and Roberto seem to be reminding us of something very similar. Consider what we heard in the second reading from the letter to the Colossians. Notice how the reading begins: You are God’s chosen race, his saints; he loves you, and you should be clothed in sincere compassion, in kindness and humility, gentleness and patience... You should be clothed… What is the writer doing, sisters and brothers, if not describing for us a spiritual dress code. A uniform of goodness to be worn by all those that God has chosen to be saints of God. This is neither a tuxedo nor an evening dress, but a suit made up of spiritual virtues of different kinds. Compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience... And this uniform of goodness bestows on the wearer a special power. The virtues that make up this suit help the members of the community not just to remain united among themselves, but also, and most importantly, to remain close to Christ.

Not only do clothes make the man. Clothes also make the saint. And clothes make the church. But that’s not all. There is something more. Something more specific. For, if it is true that this uniform of goodness makes both the saint and the church, then it must follow that it also has the power to make a marriage. If it is true that the virtues of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience do confer power to unite a community, then it stands to reason that they have the power also to unite two different people in holy matrimony. Even to bind them so closely together that–in the words of Jesus to the Pharisees in the gospel–the man and the woman become no longer two but one body.

Not only do clothes make the saint. Not only do clothes make the church. Clothes also make the marriage. This is the lesson that you, Marina and Roberto, are proposing to us today. The power to preserve and nurture the marriage bond comes from putting on the uniform of goodness, the suit of virtue described in the second reading. But, as those among us who have been married for some time will probably be able to testify, this is easier said than done. It’s not always easy to be kind and humble, gentle and patient with another. Especially when work pressures increase, or when the baby comes along, or when illness knocks on our door. In challenging times like these, from where am I to find patience, when it appears that I’m filled with nothing but bad temper? From where am I to find kindness, when my tongue is just itching to say something critical or sarcastic? From where am I to find the virtues that together make up this uniform of goodness that I’m supposed to be wearing?

Even if it’s true, sisters and brothers, that clothes makes a marriage, the question remains, from where are we to find this clothing? Are we to manufacture it for ourselves? The first reading provides us with a hint of an answer by reminding us of two things. First, that God created us in God’s own image and likeness. And, second, that when God saw everything that he created, God found it to be very good. From where, then, are we to find the uniform of goodness, if not from the hand of God. And if this is true, then it’s important for us to remember that a vibrant marriage depends not just on us, but especially on God.

In order, then, for the bond of marriage to grow and deepen, attention needs to be paid not just to one’s relationship to one’s spouse and to one’s immediate family, but also to one’s relationship to God, as well as to the wider community. For as the response to the psalm tells us, the earth is full of the goodness of God. On days when my own goodness is in short supply. On days when my own patience is at an end. On days when kindness seems missing from my heart. Still all is not lost. For God remains the Source of all Goodness. If only I have the time and the humility to ask. And not just from God, but also from friends and relatives. From all of you, who have gathered here this afternoon, to show your support for Marina and Roberto. To express your friendship.

Clothes make the marriage. And God alone is the Divine Seamstress, providing us with the virtues that unite us in a bond of love. Sisters and brothers, as we celebrate this joyous occasion, how might we continue to clothe ourselves with the goodness that God offers us today?

Sunday, November 04, 2012

31st Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)
What Comes Before The First...

Readings: Deuteronomy 6:2-6; Psalm 17:2-4,47,51; Hebrews 7:23-28; Mark 12:28-34
Picture: cc rachel

Sisters and brothers, do you know what it feels like to join a conversation that has already begun? Or to start watching a film that has already been running for some time? It can feel quite frustrating, right? Especially if you’ve missed an important part of the story. However hard you try, you just can’t seem to figure out what exactly is going on. Worse still, you may even get the wrong idea. You may actually miss the whole point. Sometimes with embarrassing results.

Consider, for example, a primary school teacher who happens to witness what looks like a blatant act of bullying. One student punches another in the stomach. Pow! And the victim doubles over and cries out in pain. Quite understandably, the teacher goes ballistic. Without seeking any explanation, he grabs the bully and hauls him to the discipline mistress’ office. Only to find out, after getting the whole story, that the boy wasn’t actually beating up his friend. The two had spent the previous evening watching a wrestling match on TV, and were simply reenacting what they had seen. What the teacher saw wasn’t a case of bullying after all. Like the so-called sport of professional wrestling, it was all make-believe. Play-acting. Which the poor teacher would have realised if he had arrived on the scene a little earlier. Or, having arrived late, if he had only taken the time to find out what had happened before the punch was thrown.

Sometimes, finding out what happened earlier can make all the difference. And this is a useful lesson to keep in mind, especially on this 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time. Today, our Mass readings remind us of something that we all know very well: the two greatest, most important, commandments of the Law. We know that these two commandments require us, respectively, to love the Lord our God with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our mind and with all our strength, and to love our neighbour as ourselves. Perhaps we’re so familiar with these requirements of the Law that we don’t think about them very much. But isn’t it true that when we do stop to reflect, even for a brief moment, we find something very puzzling? What’s puzzling is how someone can actually be commanded to love. Don’t you find this difficult to understand? Of course, people can be commanded to do many things. To pay COE and ERP charges, for example. Or to cross roads only at pedestrian crossings. Or not to carry durians or chew gum in MRT stations. And we know too that commands can even be changed. At one time, people can be commanded to have no more than two children. And, at a later time, to have more. All this is possible. And quite understandable. But can the same be said for love? Is it really possible to command someone to love?

True love is, after all, freely given and freely received. Or it isn’t love. What would you say, for example, if you had a young daughter, and she were to come home one day and declare that her boyfriend was forcing her to love him? Very likely you would react as that primary school teacher reacted. You’d go ballistic. You’d confront the bully. Give him a piece of your mind. Or worse…

Unlike taxes and birth-control, love cannot be commanded in the same way. If you try to do it, you’ll make yourself a bully. Or an abuser. Or even a rapist.

So what does all this make God? Is God a bully? It would seem so, wouldn’t it? If we were to consider nothing else except the commandment to love. Unless, of course, the commandment is not the whole story. Unless, like the primary school teacher, we are arriving on the scene in the middle of the action. Something else has gone before. Something crucially important. We get a hint of just what this something is in the first reading. Here, not only are the people of Israel given the commandment to love God, they are also given a reason to do so. The reason comes in the form of a promise: If you fear the Lord your God all the days of your life and if you keep all his laws and commandments which I lay on you, you will have a long life, you and your son and your grandson. In other words, keeping the commandments is the way to become truly happy.

But that’s not all. If it were, the people would still have little motivation to love God. Little reason to trust that God would keep God’s promise. What makes God worthy of trust is, of course, what had happened even earlier. As you know, before giving the people the commandments, God had freed them from slavery in Egypt. Once they were nobodies. Scattered individuals without a homeland. But God had gathered them and was making them into one nation. A people called and chosen to be God’s very own. And God was even giving them a place to call home. A land where milk and honey flow.

Seen in this context, God’s command to love begins to look very different. Instead of an act of bullying or extortion, it is a pathway to freedom. A recipe for health and happiness. And keeping God’s Law begins to look different too. No longer is it something that people do just to keep a grumpy God from getting angry. Or to manipulate a greedy God into giving them what they want. Rather, keeping the commandments becomes an act of gratitude for all the good that God has done and continues to do on their behalf. An expression of fidelity and loyalty to Someone who has proven himself worthy of trust.

But even this, sisters and brothers, is still not quite the whole story. At least not for us. For us Christians, there is something even more important. Something without which the story would never arrive at its happy ending. For even though we may know that keeping the commandments is the way to true happiness and lasting freedom, how many of us find it easy to love? How many of us are able to do it on the strength of our own efforts. For, as the first letter of John reminds us, our love must be not just words or mere talk, but something active and genuine (1 John 3:18). Our love needs to be expressed in deeds. Such as making quality time for prayer, even in the midst of a busy schedule. Or showing concern for the less fortunate among us, or those for whom we have some responsibility. Or being patient with people we find irritating. Or simply caring for our own bodies, by getting enough rest and relaxation, and by watching what we eat.

Sisters and brothers, how many of us find it easy to do all this? Do we not often feel rather more like the many priests mentioned in the second reading? The priests under the former covenant, who have to offer sacrifices everyday for their own sins and for the sins of the people. And even then are unable to perfect themselves, let alone lead others to perfection. Like these priests, we too receive painful reminders of our own weakness everyday. We know the good, but we are unable to do it. We know the bad, but we are unable to avoid it. Thankfully, in our weakness, God makes us a new promise of help. A promise that God fulfils in the person of Jesus Christ our Lord. Jesus, who, as the second reading reminds us, offered himself once and for all. Laying down his life for us on the Cross. And taking it up again, so as to live for ever to intercede for all who come to God through him.

It is only in and through this Jesus that we find the possibility of keeping God’s commands. It is only by remembering and reenacting his sacrifice–as we are doing at this and at every Mass–that we receive the power that we need to truly love God and our neighbour. And, in so doing, to find true happiness and lasting freedom.

As with any conversation, it’s very difficult to understand, let alone to live out, God’s love commandment, without having experienced what has gone before. Sisters and brothers, how might we gain a deeper appreciation of God’s abiding love for us in Christ Jesus today?