Saturday, December 29, 2012

Feast of the Holy Family
Family Pictures on a Touchscreen

Picture: cc exfordy

Sisters and brothers, have you ever marvelled at the things you can do with a touchscreen? The kind that we find on a smartphone, an IPad or a tablet PC? I myself don’t use a touchscreen on a regular basis, but I’ve watched other people do so. And I’ve been fascinated. One moment you’re looking at a vivid image on the screen. And then, with a tap of a finger you can make the screen display a completely new and different picture. Or, you can remain with the same picture but, using your thumb and forefinger, you can make it bigger, or smaller. You can even make the screen display different parts of the same image. You can zoom in to focus on something in a corner, for example. Or zoom out to see more of the background.

Those of us who enjoy the luxury of playing with these devices on a daily basis probably don’t even think twice about it. But isn’t it a truly marvellous thing to be able to do all this? To change the way an image is displayed by simply touching the screen with a finger? And I’m not thinking only about the technology involved. Although it must be very interesting. What I find even more amazing is what such a device can do for us. Whether we realise it or not, the touchscreen gives us the power to look at a given thing–to look at life itself, really–from many different angles. To see familiar things in new and surprising ways. So that we can appreciate reality more deeply. And, hopefully, live life more fully.

I mention this because I think that our Mass readings for today do for us something very similar. Just as a touchscreen can help us to see ordinary things from fresh perspectives, so do our Mass readings display for us new ways of looking at something that we may think we already understand very well. What images come to your mind, for example, when you think of family? Where do families come from? What are they for? What does it feel like to live in a good family? Image and origin, purpose and feeling. These are some of the questions concerning family life that our readings help us to answer today.

I’m not sure, sisters and brothers, but I think that probably the first image that comes to most of ours minds when we think of a family is that of parents and children, and perhaps grandparents, all living together in the same household. And along with this image of the family, we also have a common view of how families come about. Their origin. We tend to think that families originate first from a decision that people make for themselves. We say, for example, that so and so is starting a family. As if a family is something that one can start at will. And if someone else decides to remain unmarried, we tend to think that such a person has no family of his or her own. And yet, when we turn to the images displayed on the touchscreen of our readings today, we get a rather different perspective.

Consider the story of Hannah in the first reading. Notice how, for long years, she had wanted a child of her own, but was unable to conceive. Much as she wanted to start a family, she could not. It was only after she had gone to pray at the Temple in Jerusalem that she finally gave birth to a baby boy. Whom she named Samuel. What does this tell us, sisters and brothers, if not that a family is not first of all something that one starts for oneself? A decision that one makes. A family is rather a precious gift that one receives from God. God is the Origin of family life.

Isn’t this why, immediately after Samuel is weaned–when he is old enough to survive apart from his mother–Hannah brings him to the Temple and dedicates him to the service of the Lord for his whole life? For Hannah, the child was a gift from God. So, he should live his life for God. But not only that, Hannah’s dedication of Samuel also implies a much broader image of family life than one that consists only of parents and their children. For if God is the child’s proper Origin, then the People of God are his proper family. And Samuel’s service in the Temple of God can properly be considered family service.

The second reading presents us with a similar picture, when it invites us to think of the love that the Father has lavished upon us by letting us be called God’s children. More than just children of our earthly parents, we are all children of God. And, as members of God’s family, we are all to love one another. To live our lives in service of each other. Whatever may be the colour of our skins, or the countries of our birth, or the languages we speak.

The second reading also goes on to indicate to us the purpose of family life as seen from this broader perspective. After telling us to love one another as Christ told us to, the reading goes on to say that whoever keeps his commandments lives in God and God lives in him. More than just generating and nurturing children–as important as this is–family life is ultimately about living in God. Living in God by living in the love that God has shown us in Christ Jesus our Lord. The love that led Jesus to be born for us in a manger. The love that saw him give his life for us on the Cross. The same love that we celebrate at this and at every Eucharist.

And yet, this broad view of family life should not lead us to think poorly of our own immediate families. Much less to take them for granted. For many of us–though by no means all–living a life of love, living a life in God, will usually mean living together with particular members of an immediate family. With spouse, parents, grandparents, children, sisters and brothers. And living such a life means caring for specific members of such a family. Which leads us to the final question that our readings help us to answer today. What should it feel like to live a good family life?

The gospel provides us with an answer that is probably quite surprising. For it’s likely that we may think of life in a good family as being one that’s free from tension. As being more or less plain sailing all the way. And yet, tension is precisely what we find in the gospel. Here both Jesus and his earthly parents struggle to negotiate the tension between the obligations of the immediate family and those of the family of God. As the son of Mary and Joseph, Jesus really should have informed them of his intention to remain in the Temple. Just as it was only proper–at least at this stage of his life–that he should return with them to Nazareth and live under their authority. And yet, as Son of his Father in Heaven, it was also proper that he should be busy with his Father’s affairs. What is this sisters and brothers if not tension? But a healthy tension. A necessary tension. For we are told that, living in this way, Jesus increased in wisdom, in stature, and in favour with God and men. It was precisely their willingness to live this tension courageously that made Jesus, Mary and Joseph a Holy Family.

This then, sisters and brothers, is what family looks like when seen through the eyes of faith. This is the image of family life displayed on the touchscreen of our readings. Sisters and brothers, how ready are we to allow our hearts to be touched by this image? How willing are we to live the reality of family life in God today?

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Christmas Day (Mass during the Day)
Words That Hurt & The Word That Heals

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.

Sisters and brothers, I think you’ve probably heard this maxim before. It’s what parents used to teach their children to say when teased by their friends. Words will never hurt me. A very brave statement to make, don’t you think? It seems to imply that words don’t matter very much. And yet, we all know, from experience, the power that words have over us. Anyone who’s ever opened a rejection letter, for example, turning down their application for a much needed job, or to a much sought after school, will know the power of words to sadden and to disappoint us.

And words can do much worse than that. Some of us will remember, for example, the tragic story of Amanda Todd, the 15 year-old Canadian girl, who took her own life just a couple of months ago, after being cruelly bullied on Facebook. Or perhaps some of us may know first hand what it feels like to be a victim of character assassination. Having others gossip about us. Or spread rumours concerning us. Whether true or not. Demolishing our reputations or even our careers in the process. Clearly, not only can words disappoint, they can also destroy.

And those are just the more obvious effects. There are also more subtle but no less dangerous ones. Not only can words disappoint and destroy, they can also deceive and seduce. Mislead and confuse. How many of us, for example, can deny being continually enticed by cunning advertisers into buying things that we do not really need? And on a regular basis? How many of us can say that we have not been led to believe, by society at large, that our worth as persons depends mainly upon the highs and lows of our successes and failures. Upon the make of car that we drive, or the district in which we live. Upon the kind of work we do, or the company we keep. Upon the school to which we send our kids, or the grades those same kids obtain. How many of us can claim to be unaffected by the words that may pop into our minds from time to time, telling us we’re worthless. Or just not good enough. Discouraging us from persevering in whatever worthwhile thing we may be trying to do.

Sisters and brothers, whether we care to admit it or not, words do have power over us. Power to disappoint and to destroy. To seduce and to mislead. To discourage and to depress. But if this is true, what becomes of our beloved maxim then? Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me. Are parents expecting too much from their children when they teach them to say this? Is it just a matter of wishful thinking? Of putting up a brave front. If words are indeed so powerful, how can we expect not to be hurt by them?

And yet, perhaps the maxim doesn’t really mean that words do not have power over us. They do. Obviously. But rather, as powerful as words may be, perhaps it remains possible for us to tune them out. The way people tune a radio, for example. Or switch channels on a TV set. We can tune out the hurtful and misleading words by tuning in to healing and nurturing ones. Isn’t this how parents can help to protect their children from the cruel and confusing words of others? By constantly speaking loving and nurturing words themselves. Words of guidance and of truth. And words that are not just being spoken, but also constantly being translated into action. Into quality time spent with the child, for example. And into close attention being paid to its needs and concerns. Such that, held secure in their parents’ unconditional love and acceptance, the child is better able to disregard whatever hurtful things others may say about it.

Isn’t this also what our God, our divine Parent does for us? Isn’t this what we celebrate at Christmas? The wonderful mystery of our heavenly Father speaking to us in a remarkably new and compelling way.  Reminding us of how much we are loved and cherished. Showing us the way to true happiness. As the second reading tells us: At various times in the past and in various different ways, God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets; but in our own time, the last days, he has spoken to us through his Son. His Son Jesus, who, the gospel tells us, is also the eternal Word of God. At Christmas, we celebrate how this same Word of God becomes translated into terms that we can better experience and understand. Into a living breathing human person, whom we can see and touch. The Word was made flesh, he lived among us, and we saw his glory.

But that’s not all. As the Word of God comes among us, he also brings much power. The power to save us from our enemies. From the hurtful and misleading words that threaten to lead us astray. In the first reading, this salvation comes in the form of the joyful news that God is fighting on behalf of his people. For the Lord is consoling his people, redeeming Jerusalem. The Lord bares his holy arm in the sight of all the nations. And this should not be surprising. For this is what the Word of God is all about. As the gospel tells us, the Word of God is both light and life. He enlightens all people. Shows them the way to true happiness. And to those who receive his message, those who accept him into their hearts and into their lives, the Word gives power to become children of God. Power to live life to the full.

Isn’t this what Christmas is really about? It is about a loving Father continuing to speak his Word to his children. His Word of Love and Light and Life. And even translating this Word into a human person, able to lay down his life for his friends. Helping them to protect themselves against the effects of other words. Dangerous words. Words that seduce and discourage and destroy.

Sisters and brothers, perhaps it is true that while sticks and stones may break our bones, words will never hurt us. But only provided we learn to tune out these same words of danger and tune in to the Word of God made flesh for us. The Word whose coming we celebrate at Christmas.

Sisters and brothers, which channel are you tuned into? Whose words are you listening to today?

Sunday, December 23, 2012

4th Sunday of Advent (C)
Confined Space–Abundant Grace

Picture: cc Clugg14

Sisters and brothers, imagine for a moment that you’ve lost or misplaced something. How do you feel? And what are you willing to do–where are you willing to go–to get it back? Would you ransack your room? Your whole house? Search through all your belongings? Just to find what is missing? Would you be willing even to crawl under your bed to look for it there? Or to dive into a garbage bin? Or jump into a monsoon drain? Or reach into a toilet bowl? … Into what confined space, into which inconvenient and uncomfortable place, would you be willing to go, just to get back what you’ve lost?

Well, it all depends, doesn’t it, sisters and brothers? If what you’ve lost is just a paper clip, or a one-cent or even a five-cent coin, the answer to all these questions is probably no. No reason to go to all that trouble for something that’s so easily replaced. But what if what is lost really means something to you? What if it is a diamond engagement ring? Or some other priceless object with deep sentimental value? Or what if it isn’t just an object that you’ve lost, but a person. A member of your family perhaps. A precious daughter or son. A beloved mother or father. A dear husband or wife. Some of us may have seen, for example, that notice posted near the entrance to the Farrer Road MRT station. It’s an appeal for news about an elderly gentleman with dementia, who has wandered off and gone missing. What if it is someone you love who is lost? What would you be willing to do? Where would you be willing to go to get him or her back?

Isn’t it true, sisters and brothers? That the lengths to which we are willing to go to search for something. The energy we are willing to expend. The confined spaces we are willing to enter. The uncomfortable places we are willing to visit. All serve to indicate to us just how much we treasure the particular thing that we have misplaced? Or the person whom we have lost?

And it’s helpful to remember this especially on this 4th Sunday in Advent. With Christmas just round the corner. For our first reading today is addressed precisely to people who are lost. People who feel themselves cut off from God. Unable to find their way home. People begging God to seek them out and to rescue them. To enter into the confusing and confining situations of their lives, and to lead them back to where they belong. People whose heartfelt prayer we made our own just now in our response to the psalm: Lord of hosts, bring us back; let your face shine on us and we shall be saved.

And God responds to this prayer with great generosity and compassion. God goes out of God’s way to seek out and to save the lost. God shows just how precious these people are–how precious we all are–to God, by deciding to enter into various confined spaces and inconvenient places, just to bring God’s people home. The first reading tells us about the first of these places: Bethlehem Ephrathah, the least of the clans of Judah, out of you will be born for me the one who is to rule over Israel. Out of love for his people, the almighty, infinite, and eternal God, proves himself willing not only to descend into the chaos of the earth–to be bound by the forces of gravity, to stumble along dusty streets, to struggle through rugged roads–but even to be born a helpless infant in an insignificant town. Bethlehem Ephrathah, the least of the clans of Judah. This is the first confined space in our readings into which God pours his mercy.

But to be born an infant God must also be willing to enter other confined spaces. Other inconvenient places. In the gospel, this place is found in two unlikely women. Into the aged womb of Elizabeth–long past the time of childbearing–God enters and prepares for himself a prophet. A voice that will cry out in the wilderness. Preparing a way for the Lord. Then, into the virginal womb of Mary–as yet untouched by the seed of any man–God enters in an even more amazing fashion. Becoming present to us in a remarkably new way. In the person and life of God’s only begotten son, Christ Jesus our Lord.

And the second reading reminds us of what this same Christ says to his heavenly Father upon coming into the world: You who wanted no sacrifice or oblation, prepared a body for me. A body, sisters and brothers. Yet another confined space. Another inconvenient place, into which God is willing to enter. Just to save us. His beloved people. The great God, whom no eye can see, and no thought can comprehend, is willing to suffer the constraints of human flesh. To endure heat and cold. Weakness and disease. Just so that we, who have been corrupted by sin and selfishness, might once again be made holy by the offering of his body made once and for all by Jesus Christ.

An insignificant town. A virginal womb. A vulnerable and fragile body. These are among the confined spaces into which our God is willing to enter just to seek out and to save those who have been lost. To seek out and to save you and me. What does this tell us, sisters and brothers, if not that we are precious in the eyes of God? That we are cherished and treasured. That we are loved and held very dear. That even in the midst of our many weaknesses our God refuses to give up on us. Refuses to let us go. Persists in pursuing us and calling to us. Bringing us home.

And that’s not all. For it is true that God is willing to enter into every manner of confined space. Every kind of inconvenient and uncomfortable place. Just to search for us. Then it follows that it is actually possible for us to find God in these same kinds of difficult places. In our own anxieties and struggles. Our doubts and temptations. In the many dark areas of our lives and of our world. In every difficult and challenging place where people may find themselves in need of help and of hope. God is already there waiting to be found by us. Isn’t this the experience of Mary and her cousin Elizabeth in the gospel? After conceiving Jesus in her womb, Mary embarks on a difficult journey. She travels to a town in the hill country of Judah on a mission of mercy. To help Elizabeth with her pregnancy. And when she finally greets her cousin, their meeting is filled with the presence of the Holy Spirit. The presence of the living God. A presence that brings peace and  joy and hope.

It is this same presence that we prayed for earlier in our opening prayer, when we beseeched our Lord to pour forth, the abundance of his grace into the confined spaces of our hearts, so that we too might experience the joy of God’s presence and share it with others around us.

Sisters and brothers, God loved the world so much that he sent his only Son into the troubled place of our humanity, to seek out and to save us who were lost. Into what confined and confining spaces are we willing to enter to experience the presence of this same merciful God today?

Sunday, December 16, 2012

3rd Sunday of Advent (C)
Pats on the Back & Kisses on the Cheek

Readings: Zephaniah 3:14-18; Isaiah 12; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:10-18
Picture: cc katerha

Sisters and brothers, do you know the difference between a pat on the back and a kiss on the cheek? You know, of course, what a pat on the back feels like. Once in a while, for example, one of you kind parishioners will come up to me after Mass and say, Thank you, Father. That was a lovely celebration. How do you think that makes me feel? Happy, of course! That’s what a pat on the back can do. It produces joy. But notice what this joy is like. Although I feel happy that someone has paid me a compliment, my attention isn’t really on that person. It is, instead, on me. On my own achievement. I’m happy to know that I did well. That I led a lovely celebration. Well done, Fr. Chris! Kudos to me!

And what if I want to experience this joy again? Well, I’ll just have to make sure that I keep on doing well. Keep on providing lovely celebrations. But my efforts, of course, won’t always be successful. Being human, it’s quite inevitable that I’ll slip up from time to time. And perhaps even more often than that. I may chant in the wrong key, for example. Or lead the congregation in reciting the Gloria–as I did last week–when we’re not supposed to do so in Advent. I remember also the time, at this very altar, when I accidentally let the incense burner tip over. Scattering hot coals all over the sanctuary floor. Right in the middle of Mass. I recall the look of horror the altar server gave me. Big mistake! No lovely celebration for the congregation that day. No pats on the back for me... What happens to my joy then?

Thankfully pats on the back are not the only way to produce joy... My mother has a dog named Chacko. Whenever I visit her, he will come to the gate to greet me. And he’s always happy to see me. He’ll be wagging his tail vigorously. Jumping up and down excitedly. And if I bend over to pet him, he may even spring up to give me a kiss on the cheek. Now, how do you think I feel? Happy, of course! In fact, my encounters with Chacko are often the highlight of my day.

Like my conversation with the appreciative parishioner after Mass, this too is a joyful experience. But with one significant difference. You see, Chacko doesn’t care whether or not I led a lovely celebration at Mass. It doesn’t make a difference to him, even if I did spill hot coals all over the floor that day. He’s just happy to see me, period. And seeing him so happy fills me with joy. A joy that’s quite independent of my success or failure. A joy that remains even when I may mess things up or fall short of expectations. I’m not sure, sisters and brothers, but I think this feeling is quite different from the one I get upon receiving a compliment. One kind of joy depends on my performance. My living up to expectations. The other doesn’t. And isn’t this a key difference between a pat on the back and a kiss on the cheek?

It’s important for us to keep this difference in mind, especially because today is Gaudete Sunday. And our Mass texts are all about joy. The entrance verse urges us to rejoice in the Lord always. In the opening prayer, we asked that we might attain the joys of salvation. In the first reading, Israel is told to shout for joy. To exult with all her heart. And, in the second reading, St. Paul tells the Philippians that he wants them to be happy. Always happy in the Lord. Sisters and brothers, I’m not sure about you. But I am not always pleased to hear these words. Rather than console me, these beautiful texts sometimes make me feel even more burdened than I already am. Hearing them, I may ask myself, well, how joyful am I really? Probably not that much. Not enough to shout aloud. And if I’m not as joyful as all Christians are supposed to be, then... oh, no! There must be something wrong with me? I must be falling short. What more should I do?

And yet, notice how, when I approach the Mass texts in this way, I’m thinking of joy as something that I achieve. My focus remains only on me. On my performance. On what I need to do. The joy I’m seeking is not unlike the kind I get when I receive a pat on the back. I want to do well so that God will reward me. Compliment me. Tell me I did a good job. I want to know what I can do to rejoice in my own performance. But that’s quite different from what our Mass texts are inviting us to do. For they do not tell us to rejoice in ourselves. To shout for joy at our own excellence. Our own goodness. Our own perfection. No. Quite to the contrary. The call is to rejoice not in ourselves, but in God. And to do so all the time. Rejoice in the Lord always.

But how does one rejoice in this way? The first reading shows us how. And it does this, not so much by telling us exactly what we need to do, as much as by reminding us what God has done, and is doing, on our behalf. The Lord has repealed your sentence, we’re told, he has driven your enemies away. The Lord is in your midst; you have no more evil to fear. As marvellous as all this sounds, the reading goes even further. Not only does the prophet remind us of the wonderful things God does on our behalf, it goes on to describe for us a very moving scene. An image of how our God rejoices over us. The Lord will exult with joy over you, we’re told. He will renew you by his love; he will dance with shouts of joy for you as on a day of festival. What do you think, sisters and brothers? What must it feel like to experience God dancing for joy over us? Over you and me? Dancing for joy, for no other reason than that God delights in us. In you and in me. Surely the feeling must be one of joy. A joy that’s perhaps not so different in quality from what one experiences when greeted enthusiastically by a friendly dog at the gate. A joy that depends not on us, but on the One who rejoices over us. A joy that comes less from a pat on the back, than from a kiss on the cheek.

All of which may help us to understand a little better the words of John the Baptist. In the gospel, he tells us about two different kinds of baptism. There is the kind that John brings. A baptism with water. And then there is the kind that Christ the Lord brings. A baptism with the Holy Spirit and fire. What is the difference between these two? Perhaps it is not unlike the difference between a pat on the back and a kiss on the cheek. One kind remains only at the level of our own performance. It can only tell us what we must do. But can’t quite provide us the strength with which to do it. The other kind goes far beyond the first. It allows us to experience the Lord rescuing us in our weakness. Rejoicing over us in our struggles. Cherishing and challenging us. Strengthening us to do all the things that we ought to do.

And isn’t this the kind of joy that we need more than ever. Especially when we find ourselves living in a world that often seems filled with much danger and uncertainty and injustice. A world in which 20 innocent young schoolchildren and 6 teachers can suddenly lose their lives at the hands of a lone gunman. A world that often gives us little reason to pat ourselves on the back. Yet, in a world such as this, perhaps it remains possible for us to experience deep joy. If only we learn to shift our attention away from ourselves and onto God. Allowing God to rejoice over us and to comfort us. To reassure us and to move us to action.

Sisters and brothers, today is Gaudete Sunday. How ready are we to allow the Lord to kiss us on the cheek today?

Sunday, December 09, 2012

2nd Sunday of Advent (C)
The Power of the Siren

Picture: cc bartb_pt

Sisters and brothers, have you ever witnessed the power of a siren? I myself never really had the experience until some years ago, when I was studying abroad. If I remember correctly, I was walking by the side of a road at the time. And traffic was moving normally at first. Then, suddenly, the sharp scream of a siren pierced the air. And even before I could tell from where the sound was coming, all the vehicles suddenly swerved to the sides of the road and stopped moving. It was only a few moments later that I saw the flashing lights of the emergency vehicle. But, by that time, the ambulance was able to speed past without stopping. Probably rushing to the rescue of someone in need. Using the path that the other motorists had so quickly cleared for it. To me, this was truly an amazing sight. Something that I’ve never seen happen here in Singapore, where people don’t seem to bother too much about rescue vehicles. This was my first experience of the power of the siren.

I mention this because something like a siren is sounding in our Mass readings too. In the gospel, for example, we’re told that the word of God came to John son of Zechariah, in the wilderness. And this word has an effect very much like that of a siren. Not only does it motivate the Baptist to devote his whole life to God, the word also prompts him to sound the alarm to others around him. We’re told that, having heard God’s word, John the Baptist begins to tell people to do something very similar to what those motorists did when they heard the siren. He tells them to prepare a way for the Lord. To make his paths straight. But why, we may wonder, is the siren sounding at all? Why do people have to make way for the Lord? What is the Lord coming to do?

The first reading provides a clearer answer to these questions. For here too a siren is sounding. In the gospel, the siren rings out in the proclamation of the Baptist. In the first reading, it resounds in the prophecy of Baruch. And, in both cases, the language is strikingly similar. Both Baruch and John the Baptist call for the clearing of a path. For the paving of a road. For mountains to be levelled. For valleys to be filled in. But there is one important difference in their messages. A significant shift in emphasis. In the gospel, the Baptist tells the people to make a way for the Lord who is coming. In the first reading, on the other hand, Baruch announces to the people that it is God who is coming to make a way for them. As you know, the first reading is set in a time of emergency. The people had been conquered by a foreign power. Sent into exile in a faraway land. But now, finally, the long-awaited siren was sounding. Like a speeding ambulance, God was coming to the people’s rescue. God was paving the way for them to return home. And not just to return home, but to do it in style. Like royal princes carried back in glory.

If we listen closely, then, to the sirens that are sounding in the first reading and in the gospel, we receive both consolation and a call. To those of us who may feel like we are experiencing an emergency of some kind, or exiled in some way from our true homeland, the siren of Baruch proclaims a consoling message of help and of homecoming. This is a message addressed to those of us who, for example, may have suffered a setback of some sort. A failure or a disappointment of some kind. Or those who may continue to struggle to earn a fair wage in a foreign land. Or those who may feel strangely empty, even when their pockets and bank accounts are full of material possessions. Or painfully lonely, even when surrounded by great crowds of people. Or curiously restless, despite juggling many different duties and responsibilities. Whatever our emergency, we can take comfort from the knowledge that the siren is already sounding. Reassuring us. Telling us to have no fear. The Lord is coming to our rescue.

But, in order for us to benefit from God’s help, we must first do all that we can to make way for the Divine Ambulance to reach us. And our Mass readings give us at least two ways by which we can do this. The first is found in the instructions of  Baruch. Take off your dress of sorrow and distress, says the prophet, put on the beauty of the glory of God for ever. At first glance, this may sound like nothing more than a demand for a change in appearance. An advertisement for a cosmetic makeover. It seems that we’re simply being asked to exchange our mourning garments for party dress. Our sad faces for joyful ones. Which, as we know, is much easier said than done.

But perhaps more than just a superficial change in appearance, Baruch is inviting us first to a change of focus. We are to stop staring obsessively only at our own problems and hang-ups. Only at the many different things that tend to depress and discourage us. Rather, even in the midst of our difficulties, we are being invited to continue turning our eyes upon the Lord. To keep focusing our attention on the glorious things that God has done and continues to do in our lives. Chief among these being the gift to us of Christ our Saviour. The same gift that we celebrate at this and at every Eucharist.

For it is only by shifting our focus in this way–away from our own wretchedness, and onto God’s glory–that we experience the joy and peace that will enable our appearances to be changed as well. Isn’t this what St. Paul is asking for in the second reading? Paul prays that the Philippians will never stop improving their knowledge and deepening their perception so that they can always recognise what is best. For this will help them to become pure and blameless, and prepare them for the Day of Christ. The day when the Lord comes to their rescue.

And that’s not all. In addition to a change of focus, our readings also invite us to a change in direction. Isn’t this what John the Baptist is preaching in the gospel? A baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Like motorists obediently moving aside to make way for an onrushing ambulance, we too are called to swerve away from our own sinful tendencies, so that God might be better able to enter our lives, and lead us to safety. And not just our sins as individuals, but also as a society. We are to turn away, for example, from our tendency to discriminate against people, to treat them unfairly, simply because of their nationality or the colour of their skin. For this is what Advent is all about. Preparing the way for the God who is coming to save us.

Sisters and brothers, on this 2nd Sunday in Advent, what must we do, both as individuals and as a society, to experience the power of the siren today?

Sunday, December 02, 2012

1st Sunday of Advent (C)
Coffee, Karate and Christmas (II)

Picture: cc Mahadewa

Sisters and brothers, have you ever wondered why we begin a new church year the way we do? Why do we bother to spend four whole weekends of Advent, just to prepare for Christmas? Why don’t we simply do the same thing that others do on the 1st of January? Why not just dive straight into Christmas with a quick countdown and a bottle of bubbly? Although it may sound strange, I think the answer to these queries can be found by considering another question. Sisters and brothers, do you know the difference between coffee and karate?

As you may know, some years ago, Starbucks introduced a brand new product in the United States: instant coffee. And, as did earlier producers of instant coffee, Starbucks claimed that their instant coffee was as good, if not better, than the regular kind. To prove this, Starbucks invited people to take taste tests in their stores. I’m not a coffee drinker. And I don’t know the results of those tests. But if the claim is true, then coffee might well be something that we can enjoy instantly, without sacrificing quality.

But can we say the same for something like karate? Some of us may still remember the movie The Karate Kid. I mean the original version. Not the recent remake. In the movie, a teenager takes up karate to defend himself against a gang of bullies. But, although he’s very eager to learn, his teacher–who looks like a harmless little old man–keeps giving him ordinary household jobs to do. Paint the gate. Wax the car. Sand the wooden floor. At first, the boy is frustrated and impatient. Why is he wasting his time doing a maid’s work, while his bullies continue to improve their own fighting skills under another teacher? Why can’t he learn as quickly they seem to be doing?

It’s only later that the boy realises the truth. His chores were actually part of the training. For example, by repeatedly waxing the car, he was actually practicing the movements for defensive blocks. More importantly, his master was teaching him that karate is much more than about beating up an opponent in a fight. It’s also about discipline and perseverance, mercy and self-control. Things that his bullies had not learned. Even if they’d picked up some fancy moves rather quickly, theirs wasn’t the real thing. True karate requires much time, effort and self-sacrifice. Unlike coffee, there really is no such thing as instant karate.

And what about Christmas? Is Christmas more like coffee or karate? Well, it depends on whom you ask. Have you noticed, for example, how our local shopping malls have already started displaying Christmas decorations and lights? And playing Christmas music? Looking at how all these christmassy things seem to spring up almost overnight might make us think that, like coffee, Christmas too can be enjoyed instantly. But is this true? Is there really such a thing as instant Christmas?

Not if our Mass readings are anything to go by. While everything around us might lead us to think that Christmas has to do only with trees and tinsels, presents and parties, or even cribs containing statues of cuddly newborn babes, our readings remind us that it’s also about much more. Long before we hear anything about a baby born in a manger, the liturgy helps us to prepare for Christmas by reminding us about its deeper meaning. A meaning that has at least three parts.

The first part has to do with being saved from bullies. Recall what we heard in the first reading. The days are coming, says the Lord, when I am going to fulfil the promise I made… In those days Judah shall be saved and Israel shall dwell in confidence. To a small and insignificant race, a people constantly being bullied by larger, more powerful enemies, a people not unlike the Karate Kid, God promises safety and security.

And this promise is made also to us. Even if we may live in a relatively safe place, aren’t we still threatened by bullies of different kinds? Some of these bullies are more external. For example, rising costs of living. Or stressful living conditions, leading to all sorts of addictions. Or negligent employers, who house workers in bug-infested dormitories. Or misunderstandings with family and friends. Other bullies are more internal. Like greed and selfishness. Or the refusal to forgive. Or indifference towards the needs of the less fortunate. Whatever the form our bullies may take, Christmas is a celebration of how God comes to help us deal with them. But, if this is true, then we must first be able to identify these threats to our wellbeing. Who exactly are our bullies today?

But that’s not all. Advent has a second aspect. Not only does it give us the opportunity to identify our bullies, it also helps us to recognise the God who comes to deal with them. For God can show up in different ways. Sometimes in ways as surprising as a harmless looking old man, who just happens to be a karate master. And these appearances of God are not always as attractive as a cute little infant. In the gospel, for example, Jesus paints a terrifying picture of the circumstances surrounding his coming at the end of time. People will be dying of fear, he tells us, as they await what menaces the world... And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. And not just at the end of time. Even today, God often comes to us in surprising and unsettling ways. Such as when badly treated workers finally decide to go on strike. Advent is a time for us to learn to recognise and to welcome the God who may come among us in frightening ways.

But, for us to do all this–to identify our bullies and to recognise the God who comes to help us–we need to undergo training. This the third aspect of Advent. We need to learn to remain focused on God. To keep making our own the words of the psalm: Lord, make me know your ways... teach me your paths. Make me walk in your truth, and teach me: for you are God my saviour. We need to train to remain alert to the signs of God’s coming. In the words of Jesus, we need to stay awake praying at all times. We need to train also by leading Christ-like lives even as we continue to await God’s coming. Like the Thessalonians in the second reading, we need to learn to make more and more progress in the kind of life that we are meant to live. A life of love.

Sisters and brothers, it’s difficult to deny that we live in an instant world. Starbucks sells instant coffee. The internet give us access to instant information and instant friends. Many of us have developed very flexible thumbs from sending countless instant text messages. Of course, all this may not be a bad thing. Provided we remember that not everything can be obtained instantly. Some things need time and effort. Things like karate, of course. But also things like justice and peace and true friendship. As well as things like Christmas. Isn’t this why it’s important that we take very seriously this lovely and joyful season of Advent?

Sisters and brothers, how will you be spending your Advent this year? What will Christmas be like for you? Like coffee or karate?

Saturday, December 01, 2012

Wedding Mass of Zhonghan & Teresa
Walk This Way...

Readings: Ecclesiasticus 26:1-4, 13-16; Psalm 103:8, 1-2, 3-4, 8-10, 11-12; Colossians 3:12-17; Matthew 5:1-12

Teresa and Zhonghan, dear friends, I have this vague recollection in my mind, of a scene from what must have been a comedy. Someone is knocking on the door of a mansion. And the butler goes to answer it. Now, the butler is a hunchback. So he’s bent over double, and has to shuffle his feet as he walks. He opens the door and greets the guest. Then he leads the guest into the house saying, walk this way. Obediently, the guest starts to imitate the butler. He too bends over double and proceeds to shuffle his feet. Walk this way, he was told. And that’s exactly what he does.

It’s a funny scene, because the phrase walk this way has, of course, two different meanings. The meaning the butler probably intended is the more obvious one. He wanted the guest to follow him into the house. To walk in the same direction. But the guest misunderstood. He thought he was being asked to imitate the butler’s manner of walking. Walk this way. Two different meanings. Exploited to comic effect.

But perhaps we may wonder whether it really matters that the guest misunderstood. That he got the butler’s meaning wrong. After all, right or wrong, the guest ended up entering the house anyway, didn’t he? Well, yes he did. But, if only he had understood correctly, he wouldn’t have had to suffer such discomfort. To bear such a heavy burden. Imagine having to walk like a hunchback all through a large mansion. If only he had understood what was meant, the guest would have entered the house in a far more natural and dignified manner. Walk this way. It really does make a difference how the invitation is understood.

I bring this up because today, with great joy, we have come together to usher you, Zhonghan and Teresa, through the doorway of holy matrimony. And, as we do this, the scripture readings, which you have chosen for the occasion, seem to be telling us exactly what the butler told his guest. Walk this way. If you wish to enjoy a happy and godly marriage, walk this way. And yet, we do need to be careful how we interpret the scriptures. For it is possible to misunderstand. And, in misunderstanding, to burden ourselves far more than we have to.

Take the first reading, for example. At first glance, it seems that it’s mainly concerned with the good wife. Or, to use more gender inclusive language, with the good spouse. The reading appears to be nothing more than a list of directions, telling a spouse how s/he should act in a marriage. S/he should be beautiful and graceful. Like the sun rising over the mountains. S/he should be modest and chaste. S/he should even be perfect. And, perhaps most noteworthy of all, s/he should be silent. Now I’m not sure how you, Teresa or Zhonghan, feel about all this. But it does seem to me–man of little faith that I am–that if we were to understand the passage this way, we would make married life far more burdensome that it can be. For the passage doesn’t seem to tell us from where a spouse is to find the strength to meet all these apparent demands. How is a wife or a husband to do all these things? And for the whole duration of the marriage. For the rest of their lives together.

Is there then perhaps another meaning that we are missing? Can the reading be understood differently? I think it can. For although the passage offers a rather detailed description of the good spouse, s/he is not really its main focus. Notice what is said in the third sentence: A good wife is the best of portions, reserved for those who fear the Lord. In other words, a good spouse is not really something that one becomes through strenuous effort and sheer force of will. Rather is the good spouse, above all, a gift from God. The best of portions. A precious blessing. Bestowed upon those who fear the Lord. Upon those who strive to put God first in their lives. The focus of the reading, then, is less on what one’s spouse should do than it is on the relationship that one needs to cultivate with God. In all things, one needs to fear the Lord. Which is not to say, of course, that one shouldn’t try to be a good spouse. Of course, one should! But the first concern is not with the performance of one’s spouse, or even of oneself, but rather with one’s relationship with God.

We find a similar concern in the second reading too. Notice how, at first glance, the passage seems to be all about what a Christian should do. How a Christian should act. One needs to be clothed with sincere compassion, in kindness and humility, gentleness and patience. One needs to put on the garment of forgiveness and of love. All this is, of course, very important. We do need to be virtuous. But, on closer inspection, we find that this garment of virtue is not something that we manufacture for ourselves. For the reading goes on to say that we should let the message of Christ, in all its richness, find a home in us. And that we should do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus. It’s only in this way that we have access to all the virtues. In other words, in my life, I must first do whatever I can to keep letting God in. Only then will the virtues start flowing out in abundance.

Isn’t this also what you, Teresa and Zhonghan, are trying to remind us, through your choice of the gospel reading. Isn’t this what the beatitudes are all about? Contrary to what we may think at first, the gospel reading is not exactly a list of things to do. Much less a summary of key performance indicators. The focus here is not really on our performance. What does it really mean to be gentle and poor in spirit? To be mournful and merciful? To be pure and peaceful and persecuted? Rather than means of exerting our own strength, aren’t these, above all, ways of humbly acknowledging our weakness? Instead of anxious assertions of power and control, are the beatitudes not rather humble admissions of our own helplessness and need? And isn’t this precisely the secret of Christian marriage? And not just of Christian marriage, but of the whole Christian life? The virtues that we need to live this life we are unable to produce for ourselves. We must receive them from God. And we receive better, when we first learn to accept our weakness. And to find our strength in God. How happy are the poor in spirit: theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

This, then, my dear friends, is the way that our scripture readings are proposing to us today. This is the road that leads to the fullness of life–including the fullness of married life–in Christ Jesus our Lord. This is the path that we need to keep traversing together. Supporting one another in prayerful and joyful companionship in the days ahead. This is the doorway through which, together with Teresa and Zhonghan, the Lord is leading us in this joyful celebration.

My dear friends, Teresa and Zhonghan, how ready are we to do whatever it takes to walk this way today?