Sunday, December 29, 2013

Dress, Direction & Docility

Feast of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph

Picture: cc katie swayze

Sisters and brothers, do you ever watch people playing soccer? And if and when you do, how do you tell whether the people you are watching are really serious players? How do you know whether they actually belong to a regular soccer team? Or whether they are just a bunch of guys who play recreationally? When you watch people playing soccer, how do you tell the serious players from the weekend warriors? The true professionals from the rank amateurs?

Actually, it’s not too difficult, right? One obvious tell-tale sign is, of course, their dress. If the soccer players you’re watching actually belong to a serious team then, chances are, they’ll all be wearing proper uniforms. In contrast, the recreational players, those who just meet occasionally, at the neighbourhood field or playground, typically wear whatever they like. How then do these teams tell themselves apart? Well, that’s easy. The guys on one team leave their shirts on. The others go bare-bodied.

But dress is not the only way to distinguish the serious soccer teams from the individuals who play for fun. Another way to do it is, of course, to consider the direction of movement. Usually, serious players are able to truly play as a team. They’re able to move as a single unit. To flow in a single direction of play. And, of course, this requires of each player the ability and the readiness to always do only what is more advantageous for the team as a whole. Instead of being focused only on one’s own individual interests. For example, even though he may have a chance at goal, a player may still choose to pass the ball to a teammate who has a better chance. Isn’t this what makes the difference between a true team player and an individualist? One is always moving only in the direction of the rest of the team. The other is out only for his own individual glory.

But in order to do this–in order to move more or less fluidly as one unit in a single direction–the team must submit to some form of leadership. To some form of guidance. Whether it be in the shape of a captain. Or of a coach. Or a team manager. Or even all three. This docility to leadership and guidance is a third characteristic of a serious team.

So dress, direction and docility. These are some ways by which we may distinguish a serious soccer team from a bunch of recreational players. And, strange as it may sound, what’s true of soccer teams is true also of holy families. When we look closely at our Mass readings today, we find that a holy family can be recognised by the same signs that indicate a serious soccer team. Dress, direction, and docility.

Consider what we find in the second reading. Notice how the reading begins by describing what is expected of the members of God’s chosen race. Of God’s adopted family. Of which, of course, we are all members. Notice how the expectations are described in terms of dress. You should be clothed, we are told, in sincere compassion, in kindness and humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with one another; forgive each other as soon as a quarrel begins. Not only that, but over all these clothes, over all these virtues, to keep them together and complete them, we are also to put on love.

But how exactly do we do all this? How do we go about dressing ourselves in these virtuous external behaviours? Only by first internalising something else. Let the message of Christ, in all its richness, find a home with you. In other words, we are able to put on Christ only by first letting him enter into an intimate relationship with us. By sharing with him our deepest dreams and aspirations. As well as our most distressing struggles and anxieties. This is how we truly become members of his family.

Now notice, sisters and brothers, how it is only after having described what distinguishes the wider family of God, that the second reading then goes on to focus on the conduct that is expected of the individual members of particular families. Of wives, of husbands and of children. All of which should make clear to us, that this feast we are celebrating today remains deeply relevant to everyone of us. Regardless of whether or not we are married. Or whether or not we actually have children of our own. Or whether or not we may consider ourselves members of a conventional family. For whatever may be our current status, we all belong to the family of God. To God’s holy family. And one key characteristic of this family is how it dresses. It’s proper uniform is the love of Christ.

But that’s not all. Because it is clothed in the love Christ, this family is also distinguished by a particular direction of movement. Always towards God. Even if it means having to sacrifice one’s individual preferences. Isn’t this what we find in both the first reading and the gospel? In the first reading, the focus is on grownup children, who are encouraged to set aside their own personal concerns in order to respect and honour and support their aging parents. Especially if their parents may be suffering diminishment of some sort. And children are asked to do this, not just for the sake of the parents themselves. But also, ultimately, because this is what pleases God. Who honours the father in his children, and upholds the rights of a mother over her sons.

In the gospel, the spotlight shifts from children to parents. Here we find blessed Joseph struggling with the demands of fatherhood. Continually, he is asked to move from one place to another. First from Bethlehem to Egypt. Then, from Egypt back to Israel. And, while on the way back to Israel, he has to change his intended destination from Judaea to Nazareth. But although Joseph’s geographical destinations may keep changing, he is actually always moving in the same spiritual direction. Consistently, he sets aside the dictates of his own comfort and aspirations, in order to do what is necessary to protect Jesus. A child who is not even really his own. Repeatedly, Joseph chooses to place the child’s interests above his own. And, in doing so, Joseph keeps moving in the same direction. Always away from self-absorption. Towards absorption in God. Always away from self-glorification. Towards the glory of God, expressed in the common good. In what is more beneficial for the whole human family.

And this ability to keep moving in a single direction–away from self towards the will of God and the good of others–comes about only with docility. Only when one is willing to keep submitting oneself to God’s direction for one’s life. In the words of the response to the psalm, O blessed are those who fear the Lord and walk in his ways!
So these then are the distinguishing characteristics of holy families. Like serious soccer teams, they can be recognised by their dress, their direction, and their docility. Sisters and brothers, on this Feast of the Holy Family, if we were to observe ourselves in the mirror. Much as how we might watch soccer teams on a pitch. To what extent will we be able to recognise the signs of a holy family? What is our dress? What is our direction? How docile are we, today?

Saturday, December 28, 2013

More Than A Spark

Wedding Mass of Jevon & Ashley

Readings: Song of Songs 2:8-10,14, 16, 8:6-7; Psalm127:1-5; 1 Corinthians 12:31-13:8; Matthew 5:1-12
Picture: cc Chris Waits

It only takes a spark to get a fire going.
And soon all those around can warm up in its glowing…

Jevon and Ashley, sisters and brothers, are you familiar with these words? I think at least some, if not all, of us will recognise them as the opening lines to the hymn Pass It On. When I was growing up, this hymn was also a very popular campfire song. And it’s not difficult to understand why. Imagine for a moment, sisters and brothers, that you are a teenager or a young adult sitting in front of a huge campfire late into the night. Feeling the crackling heat of the flames in front of you. Enjoying the warm companionship of all your friends around you. At that moment, the song really seems to get it just right. It only takes a spark to get a fire going. And soon all those around can warm up in its glowing...

It sounds so nice, doesn’t it, sisters and brothers? Even romantic, if the setting is right. But is it true? Does it really take only a spark to get a fire going? I suspect that those of us who have ever tried to start a fire from scratch will probably disagree. Especially if the wood we were using was damp. In such a situation, you can quite easily use up a whole box of matches–many many sparks!–and still not succeed in getting the fire started. All you’d get is a lot smoke to keep the mosquitoes at bay. The reason for this is that, contrary to what the song may tell us, starting a fire actually requires more than a spark. You also need flammable material. Material that can catch fire easily. Stuff like dried leaves. Or paper. Or kerosene. And, once the fire is started, you also need to keep feeding it. Otherwise it will quickly die out.

It actually takes more than a spark to get, and to keep, a fire going. Isn’t this also the message that we find in these Mass readings that you, Jevon and Ashley, have so wisely chosen for our celebration this afternoon? As is fitting for a wedding, the readings you have chosen speak to us about love. About the unmistakable signs and the powerful effects of love. What does love look like? How do we know when love is present? The first reading, from the Song of Songs, tells us that love is like a fire. A fire burning within a lover’s heart. Powerfully moving him into action. Energising him to leap on the mountains, in search of his beloved. And, having found his beloved, this fire also inspires him to lift up his voice to call her out from wherever she may be hiding.

And that’s not all. The second reading goes on to tell us even more about the powerful effects of this fire. Love, we’re told, is patient and kind; it is never jealous… never boastful or conceited… never rude or selfish... it is always ready to excuse, to trust, to hope, and to endure whatever comes. What a wondrous thing love is! What a fantastic fire! Able to accomplish such incredible things!

And yet, as those here who are already married will be able to tell us, such power does not show itself all that easily. It does not come about without effort. Easy enough perhaps, in the dizzy days of courtship, to leap on the mountains (or into your car) and to rush off in search of your beloved. Easy enough perhaps, when your love is still young, to repeatedly lift up your voice (or your handphone) to call your beloved out of hiding. But not so easy to continue doing all this, after a long day has been spent at work, satisfying a demanding boss. Or a tiring night has been spent at home, pacifying a troubled child. Not so easy, at those times, to even think about getting off the couch. Or out of bed. Let alone leap on mountains, or lift up your voice. Not so easy to continue being patient and kind. To remain ready to excuse, to trust, to hope, and to endure whatever comes.

Which is why it’s so very important to recognise something else that we find in our readings today. This fire of love that we are celebrating here is no ordinary fire. It is not something that we produce for ourselves. The way we may manufacture a box of matches, for example. The first reading tells us that this fire is nothing less than a flame of the Lord himself. Which means that this love that we are celebrating today, this love that has brought the two of you together, Jevon and Ashley, is not really something that you accomplish for yourselves. No. It is first of all a gift. Generously and mercifully bestowed upon you, upon all of us, by God.

It is God who is the First Lover. It is God who, in the birth of Christ at Christmas, has energetically leapt over the mountains of his own divinity, into the depths of our humanity, in search of us. It is God who, through the Dying and Rising of Jesus, which we celebrate at this Mass, continues tirelessly to demonstrate his infinite patience and kindness, his endless gentleness and compassion, toward us. Persistently calling us out of the many hiding places of our selfishness and sin into the warmth of his embrace. This, my dear friends, is the fire that we are celebrating. A fire that is first of all the precious gift from God. A fire that truly no flood can quench, no torrents drown. A fire that does not come to an end.

And if it is true that this fire is a nothing less than a gift from God, then our part is to continually dispose ourselves to receive this gift. To somehow ensure that we are always flammable enough to be set alight by the spark of God’s love. Set aflame, so that we can, in turn, ignite the rest of our world. How do we do this, sisters and brothers? We find the answer in the gospel reading. Why are the poor in spirit called happy? And the gentle? And those who mourn? And the rest of those mentioned in the Beatitudes? Why are all these people called happy? Is it because God chooses to bless only them and not anyone else? Or is it not because they are the ones who are most ready to receive God’s blessing? They are the ones who are the most highly flammable. They most easily catch fire when they come in contact with the spark of God’s love. And they become this way by being constantly in touch with their own vulnerability. Their own weakness. Their own need for God. They never forget that without God they can do nothing. Without God they cannot even live the life of a married couple the way it is meant to be lived.

So, my dear friends, perhaps this is also what we are here to do today. To remind ourselves. And to commit ourselves to continue reminding one another in the days ahead. To remind ourselves that we can do nothing without God. To remind ourselves that this love among us, this love between you, Jevon and Ashley, will only be able to survive and to thrive, to the extent that we continue to keep kindling within us the fire of God's love for us.

Jevon and Ashley, sisters and brothers, it really takes more than a spark to get a fire going. What more must we do, for ourselves and for one another, to remain as flammable as we can today?

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Beware of Short Circuits!

Christmas Day (Mass At Night)

Picture: cc Michael

Sisters and brothers, have you ever experienced a short circuit? Even if you haven’t, I’m sure you know what a short circuit is. You know it’s what happens when the current in an electrical circuit is diverted in some way–takes a short cut so to speak–so that the full circuit cannot be completed. And then the lights, for example, won’t come on. The toaster or microwave won’t work. What’s worse, your appliances may actually get damaged. Sometimes even beyond repair. Which is why short circuits are a real nuisance. Something to be avoided. We all know that.

But perhaps what we don’t always remember is that electricity is not the only thing that can be short circuited. Can you think of anything else? How about relationships? Think, for example, of a classic love triangle. Handsome and eligible A falls in love with beautiful and equally eligible B. The feelings are mutual. The chemistry intense. The sparks fly. Well, at least at first. But then, along comes C. Who may or may not be handsome. Or beautiful. And maybe not all that eligible. But still, A or B end up falling for C. Upsetting the original relationship. Short circuiting the initial love connection between A and B. Possibly even causing hurt to one or both of them.

And, of course, if love can be short circuited, so can joy. We’re now, for example in the season for exchanging gifts. And it’s usually a joyful experience. But this joy can be short circuited too. For instance, people have given me some gift vouchers for Christmas. And receiving them is a joyful thing. But this joy isn’t quite complete until I buy something with those vouchers. And then actually make use of the things that I buy. What a waste it would be, if I were just to leave those vouchers in my drawer, and forget all about them. Until the expiry date has passed. In such a situation, the joy that the generous givers of those vouchers intended for me would be short circuited. And what a pity too. What a waste of a good gift!

Whether it’s electricity or love or joy, we need to beware of short circuits. We need to avoid them at all costs. I mention this only because I think our Mass readings on this Christmas Night are actually telling us the very same thing. Beware of short circuits!

As you’ve no doubt already noticed, both the first reading and the gospel announce the birth of a child. An extraordinary infant. A precious gift from God. A saviour sent to rescue God’s people from danger. To bring them justice and integrity. And peace that has no end. Scripture scholars don’t quite agree on the precise identity of the child mentioned in the first reading. But we Christians interpret both readings as referring to one and the same person. Jesus. Whose birth we celebrate tonight. He is the only One with the power to fulfill Isaiah’s prophecy completely. He is the greatest and most precious Gift from God to us. Which is why it’s fitting that, in the gospel, the news of his birth is proclaimed by the angels with great joy.

And yet, sisters brothers, we know far too well, that this Gift, this Peace, this Joy was not as well received as it should have been. This is true even as far back as the time of the prophet Isaiah. Our first reading tonight is taken from chapter 9. A little earlier, in chapter 7–the passage we heard on Sunday–Isaiah had proclaimed a similar prophecy to Ahaz, the king of Judah. Encouraging the king to ask God for a sign. But Ahaz had refused. Probably because he was afraid of losing his kingdom. Maybe even his own life. And, in choosing his own concerns over God’s gift, Ahaz failed to receive the joy that was being offered to him and his people. Out of fear and selfishness, the king short circuited God’s loving and merciful intentions for him.

In the gospel too, we see short circuits taking place. How else are we to understand the care taken by St. Luke to include, in his story, the little detail that when the time came for Jesus to be born, there was no room at the inn? The hotels were full. All available space had already been taken. Occupied by others who had arrived earlier. Or perhaps reserved by those deemed more important. And yet, who could have been earlier than the One who existed before Time ever began–the Eternal Word Made Flesh? And who could have been more important than the One who came to bring us life in all its fullness–the Saviour of the World? In any case, in the little town of Bethlehem, on Christmas night, hotels and hearts alike were simply too full to accommodate Christ the Lord. And, as a result, God’s precious Gift of Love could find no welcome there. The offer of heavenly peace and joy was short circuited by earthly pursuits.

Fortunately for us, even if the inns were full that night, the stables were not. Even if the town was too crowded, the countryside was still open. Room was found in a box where animals are fed. Space was made in the hearts of shepherds. And it was only in such lowly locations, among such humble folk, that God’s Gift of Love found a worthy reception. The circuit of peace and joy moved toward completion. Glory to God in the highest heaven, and peace to those who enjoy his favour.

All of which should lead us, sisters and brothers, to reflect on our own celebrations tonight. As you know, we gather here not just to commemorate an event that took place two thousand years ago. Not just to watch pageants. To sing carols. To exchange greetings. To admire pretty lights. And then to go home to open presents. Or to party the night away. We gather here to make space for the One who, even now, continues to look for room at the inn. We gather tonight to help each other to receive the One who is still knocking patiently and insistently on the doors of our hearts. Beckoning us first to experience for ourselves, and then to share with others, the deep joy and peace of his coming.

And yet, isn’t it true that it remains all too easy for us here in the city of Singapore, as it was for those in the town Bethlehem, to short circuit the process? To crowd our hearts and our lives with other concerns. Even concerns that may appear pious. But are actually self-serving. Isn’t it true, for example, that it’s possible to stress ourselves out perfecting our carols and arranging our decorations, and then fail to notice the Lord coming to us in the person(s) who may be most in need our care?

What then can we do to truly welcome Christ? To make room for him at the inn? To avoid short circuiting his loving intentions for us? The answer should be no surprise. To make room for Christ, the ego and its countless cravings must be set aside. As St. Paul tells us in the second reading, what we have to do is to give up everything that does not lead to God. All our worldly ambitions. Only then can we truly become God’s own people, having no other ambition except to do good. ... To have no other ambition except to do good. Not easy to accomplish, sisters and brothers. Which is why it’s perhaps consoling for us to remember that Christmas doesn’t end with Midnight Mass. No, our celebrations are only just beginning. The season of Christmas will continue till the 12th of January. The feast of the Baptism of the Lord.

Sisters and brothers, as we begin our joyful celebration of the Lord’s coming, what do you need to do to avoid a short circuit tonight?

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Through Doorways of Danger (Rerun)

4th Sunday in Advent (A)

Picture: cc Tristan Schmurr

Sisters and brothers, what do you do when you experience danger? What do you do, for example, if a riot suddenly erupts in your supposedly peaceful country. And on a scale not seen in the last fifty years. A riot where police cars are overturned and an ambulance set on fire. And what do you do when you notice an increase in the number of construction workers in your neighbourhood? People who appear to belong to the same ethnic group as those responsible for the recent riot? What do you do, sisters and brothers? How do you react, when danger comes knocking on your door?

Especially in this modern society of ours, it often seems that only one reaction is possible. That only one response is reasonable. Today, it often seems that, when danger threatens, all we can do is to turn it away. To keep it out. For our homes, we may buy and install stronger locks and more sophisticated alarms. For our country, we may tighten immigration policies. Beef up police patrols. Ban alcohol... Isn’t it true, sisters and brothers, that in our world today, it often seems that, when danger comes knocking, all we can do is to increase security?

Of course, in itself, security is not be a bad thing. If we were truly living in a dangerous neighborhood, we’d be silly not to lock our doors at night. But could it be that when we make the search for security our only response to danger, we may actually create more problems for ourselves? Could it be that, in our desperate attempts at keeping our doorways safe, we may actually end up keeping out other things as well? Things that may actually be very dear to us?

This is a useful question for us to ponder especially today, as the season of Advent approaches its climax. Throughout the past three weeks, we’ve been preparing ourselves to welcome the Lord. And yet, in the response to our psalm today, we hear a call that may sound puzzling to our ears. Let the Lord enter! We are told. Let the Lord enter! He is the king of glory. But why is it even necessary to tell us this? Haven’t we been watching and waiting for the Lord? Haven’t we gone to confession in preparation for his coming? Isn’t it reasonable to expect that we will surely open the door for him when he arrives? Of course we will! Or will we?

Before we answer this question, it’s helpful to first consider how God chooses to enter the lives of the people in our readings today. Both in the first reading and the gospel, we find someone standing at a doorway through which God wishes to enter. But not everyone is able to open the door to God.

In the first reading, the one at the door is Ahaz, the ruler of the southern kingdom of Judah. King Ahaz is facing a national emergency. The neighbouring kingdom of Israel has entered into a military alliance with Syria. Together, these two northern armies are threatening to invade Judah in the south. Ahaz and his people are in danger. Yet it is precisely at this moment that the angel of the Lord tells Ahaz to ask God for a sign. For some mysterious reason, God chooses to enter the lives of Ahaz and his people through a doorway of danger. But the king is reluctant to open the door. He refuses to ask for a sign. He claims that he doesn’t want to put God to the test. But perhaps he’s really just afraid of what the sign might say. What if it predicts his defeat and death? Better to opt for security. Better to keep the door locked. Even if it may mean shutting God out.

In the gospel too, God chooses to enter someone’s life through a doorway of danger. We know the story well. Joseph is betrothed to Mary. But before they live together, he discovers that she is with child. And he is not the father. We can imagine how Joseph must feel. In addition to the shame that comes from discovering his fiancee’s apparent infidelity, there is also the danger that his reputation will be ruined by scandal. Even worse, the Law provides that someone in Mary’s situation should be stoned to death. All of which places Joseph in a precarious position. Yet it is precisely through this risky doorway that God wishes to enter. It is exactly under such dangerous circumstances that God wishes to save God’s people. An angel is sent to reassure Joseph. Do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife. In other words, do not be afraid to open the door of danger, for it is God who wishes to enter. Unlike Ahaz before him, Joseph obeys. He takes his wife to his home. And the prophecy is fulfilled. Emmanuel. God is with us.

Two people. Each standing at a doorway of danger. Two people. Each reacting very differently. One is paralyzed by fear. The other finds courage. One remains obsessed with security. The other opens his heart and his life to God. But how is it, we may wonder, that one can succeed where the other fails? Perhaps the way they conduct themselves at the door of danger is connected in some way to how they live their lives on either side of it. We know, for example, that both as a person and as a king, Ahaz lived a wicked life. He introduced and encouraged many idolatrous practices among his people. If such was his conduct in times of security, is it any surprise that he should find it difficult to trust God in times of danger?

In contrast, the gospel tells us that Joseph is a man of honour. A righteous man. Not only is he faithful to the Lord, he expresses that fidelity in the respect and care he has for his neighbor. Despite his shame and disappointment at Mary’s pregnancy, he tries to find a way to save her. Even if he’s afraid when God comes knocking–as anyone in his place would be–he is able to trust God enough to open the door.

The experiences of Ahaz and Joseph contain an important lesson for us. Although security is important, an obsession with it may lead us to shut the door in God’s face. Preventing God from entering more deeply into our lives and into our world? For, whether we like it or not, God has a habit of entering through doorways of danger. We see this not just in Ahaz and Joseph, but also, above all, in Jesus as well. As we’re told in the second reading, Jesus was proclaimed Son of God in no other way than through his resurrection from the dead. Which is why, it is fitting that, in our opening prayer just now, we prayed that we may by the Lord’s Passion and Cross be brought to the glory of his Resurrection. Our prayer is for the courage to allow God to lead us through the dangerous doorway of the Lord’s Cross to the safety and fullness of life in his Resurrection.

I’m reminded of these words from a hymn written by Miriam Therese Winter.
Christ come quickly, there’s danger at the door.
Poverty aplenty, hearts gone wild with war.
There’s hunger in the city and famine on the plain.
Come, Lord Jesus, the light is dying,
the night keeps crying: Come, Lord Jesus.
Sisters and brothers, danger comes to us in different forms. In difficult people. In challenging situations. In uncomfortable emotions. Through which doorways of danger does the Lord wish to enter your life? What are you doing to let him in today?

Sleeping Unto Life

Wedding Mass of Kenneth & Mandy

Readings Genesis 2:18-24; Psalm 103; 1 Peter 3:1-9; Matthew 19:3-6
Picture: cc Raelene Gutierrez

Kenneth and Mandy, my dear friends, do you like to sleep? We all know, of course, that sleep is something that none of us can do without. We’ve probably all experienced, at some time or other, what it feels like to suffer from a lack of sleep.  It feels terrible. Not to mention dangerous. Especially if we fall asleep while driving a car. If we don’t sleep, we can’t function properly.

But what if you had a choice? What if you could decide whether or not to go to sleep? Would you still do it? I’m not sure, But I think that, given a choice, many of us would prefer to stay awake all the time. I think many of us look at sleep as simply a necessary evil. Especially in a place like Singapore. Where everyone is always so busy. Rushing around doing one thing after another. Even if it’s just going shopping. Or meeting friends for coffee. Or surfing the internet. I may be wrong, but I suspect that if we all had a choice, we’d simply stop sleeping. Just so that we could have more time to do the other things we want to do.

And yet, sleep isn’t just a waste of time. It can also be a very creative activity. Have you ever experienced, for example, going to bed with a question you just couldn’t answer? Or a problem you just couldn’t solve? And then waking up with the solution? How does this happen? The experts tell us that this is possible because, although our conscious mind may shut down when we sleep, our unconscious mind remains active. Helping us to arrive at answers and solutions that don’t occur to us while we are awake, because we are distracted by so many other things. In other words, when we sleep, we let our conscious mind get out of the way, so that our unconscious mind can do its work.

It’s a little like what happens in certain medical procedures where, if the patient were awake, he would simply get in the surgeon’s way. So the patient is put to sleep to allow the surgeon to do her work. And, if the operation succeeds, then the patient awakes a changed person. Something new has happened. Sickness has been removed. Health has been restored. And it all happens in sleep.

But perhaps some of us may be starting to wonder what all this has to do with us. So what if sleep can be a very creative activity? What possible relevance might this have for us on this joyous occasion of the coming together of you, Kenneth, and you, Mandy, as husband and wife? The answer to this question is actually to be found in the scripture readings that you, Kenneth and Mandy, have chosen for this celebration.

Quite appropriately, you have chosen readings that help us to answer three key questions concerning marriage. First, what is marriage? Second, who makes marriage? And third, how can we participate? In the gospel reading, Jesus reminds us of something about Christian marriage that is sometimes all too easy to forget. Especially in our world today, where people may sometimes get married with the idea that they are just going to give it a try. The way we may try on a piece of clothing. Or a pair of shoes. Let’s just give it a try. See if it works out. If it does, fine and good. But if it doesn’t, then we can always call it quits.

This may be fine for others. But it is not what we Christians understand marriage to be. For us, marriage is not just a contract, which we can enter into and then break off whenever we feel like it. Rather, marriage is a deep union of two lives in a single love that binds them together as one till death. As Jesus reminds us in the gospel, in a Christian marriage, the husband and the wife are no longer two, but one body.

Which is why, as those here who are already married will be able to testify, although it may be quite a hassle to get married, (there's so much planning involved!), it’s far more difficult to remain married. To live married life the way it is meant to be lived. Not just as two separate people. Each doing his or her own thing. But as a truly married couple. United in a single love. Each person caring for the needs, and looking to the happiness, of the other. And to the children, when they arrive.

This is not easy to do. Thankfully, our readings also remind us of a second thing. Not just what married is, but also who it is that is ultimately responsible for making such a marriage work. Again, as Jesus reminds us in the gospel, it is the creator, who from the beginning made them male and female. So that what God has united, man must not divide. Although marriage requires much effort from the man and the woman, it is ultimately God who makes the marriage. It is God alone who has the power to ensure that the relationship survives and thrives.

Which brings us to the final question. If marriage is truly a deep union till death of two lives in a single love. And if marriage is ultimately the work of God. Then what do the rest of us have to do? How are we to contribute? How are you, Kenneth and Mandy, and the rest of us gathered here, to participate in this work of God that is your married life together? The answer is again to be found in the readings that you have chosen for today. And it is a rather surprising answer.

In the first reading, when God creates the first marriage between the first man and the first woman, notice how Adam makes his contribution. We’re told that the Lord God made the man fall into a deep sleep. And while he slept, he took one of his ribs, and built it into a woman. So, in order for the marriage to come about, Adam contributes a part of his very self. He donates his rib. But he doesn’t do this himself. He allows God to do it. And God does it by first putting Adam to sleep. Strange as it may sound, sisters and brothers, I think this is an important indication to us of how we can participate in God’s work of making a marriage. We need to allow ourselves to be put to sleep.

But don’t be mistaken, sisters and brothers. This sleep that we’re talking about is not any ordinary sleep. It is not the sleep of tiredness, or of indifference, or of neglect. It is not the sleep of laziness, or of boredom, or of depression. It is a very different, very special, kind of sleep. Indeed it is the kind of sleep that celebrate at this and at every Mass. The sleep that Jesus himself experienced. First, when he lay, a helpless and vulnerable baby, in a lowly manger. And then, many years later, when he hung, tortured and dying, on a cruel cross. It is the kind of sleep that we find in our second reading from the first letter of St. Peter. Which tells us how different people are supposed to behave. Wives, we’re told, should be obedient to their husbands. Husbands must always treat their wives with consideration. Respecting them as equals in the eyes of God. And everyone should be sympathetic and compassionate and self-effacing to everyone else.

Sisters and brothers, isn’t it true that we can only behave in this way, when we first allow a certain part of ourselves to be put to sleep? That stubborn part that is concerned only about our own comfort? Isn’t it true that in order for a marriage to work, we must first allow God to put to sleep our selfishness and our egotism. So that we can truly grow in love and care for one another? And this is true not just for you, Kenneth and Mandy, but also for the rest of us. Family and friends. In the days ahead, each one of us here, must be willing to somehow allow our selfishness to be put to sleep. So that we can participate in God’s work of making this marriage. Of joining this couple. Of building this relationship.

Sisters and brothers, even as we gather to celebrate this joyous occasion, how are we being invited to continue allowing God to put each of us to sleep, so that this new marriage may truly arise in all its glory today?

Sunday, December 08, 2013

From Rowdiness to Paradise

2nd Sunday in Advent

Picture: cc Michael 1952

Sisters and brothers, have you ever seen chaos being transformed into peace? What was it like? Imagine, for example, just for a moment, that you are now entering a rowdy secondary school classroom? Try to picture what it looks and feels like? … Probably the first thing that hits you as you go into the room is the noise. Everyone is talking at the same time. Some even shouting at the top of their voices. You see a group of students chasing one another around the room. Another bunch climbing over the desks and chairs. Throwing things at one another. A few others are sword-fighting. Using rulers and hockey sticks. Whatever they can get their hands on. Some are laughing. One person is crying, because s/he’s been bullied by classmates. But nobody takes any notice. Everyone is busy doing his/her own thing. Everything except the one thing these students are supposed to be doing. Studying.

Not too difficult to imagine the chaos, right? But then, suddenly, everything changes. The noise ceases. The restlessness subsides. The one being bullied is rescued. Order is restored. How does this happen? Typically, the change takes place when a teacher steps into the room. But not just any teacher. Especially not a timid, inexperienced one. No. It has to be someone able to command respect. Maybe the Form Teacher. Or the Discipline Mistress. Someone to whom each of the students is willing to listen. Someone credible. Someone with charisma. It’s only when such a person arrives that order is finally restored. The once rowdy classroom transformed into a peaceful place. The rebellious youngsters converted into obedient lambs. This transformation is possible only when each student is willing to recognise and to accept the teacher’s authority.

A recognition of authority. Leading to a radical transformation. Of chaos into order. Of rowdiness into peace. And it’s not only classrooms that undergo such transformations. Countries do as well. Isn’t this why South Africa is occupying such a prominent place in the news these days? Isn’t this why the whole world is mourning the passing of Nelson Mandela on Thursday night? Mr. Mandela did for South Africa what an effective teacher does for a rowdy classroom. He rescued those being bullied by an oppressive social system. He used his own considerable authority and charisma to help transform his beloved country. From the chaos of racial discrimination and oppression. Towards justice and equality. Towards reconciliation and peace.

And the good news for us, sisters and brothers, is that what is possible for classrooms and countries, can also happen to the whole of creation as well. Isn’t this what we are preparing to celebrate in this Season of Advent? Isn’t this what we find in our Mass readings today? In the first reading, the prophet Isaiah paints for us an incredible picture of a radical change in the whole of creation. An unbelievable transformation, in which natural enemies actually become intimate friends. The wolf lives with the lamb, the panther lies down with the kid, calf and lion feed together… They do no hurt, no harm… for the country is filled with the knowledge of the Lord.

The savage violence of Nature transformed into the blissful harmony of Paradise. How does this happen? In the first reading, this amazing change comes about with the arrival of a great leader. A charismatic king. Born of the royal House of Jesse, the father of King David. Someone upon whom the spirit of the Lord rests. A person who, not unlike Nelson Mandela, will be sought out, not just by his own people, but by the nations of the world as well. Sought out because this person rescues the poor and the oppressed. He cares for those whose eyes are constantly filled with tears, because they are being bullied by unjust social, political and economic systems. Structures that favour the rich and powerful, to the detriment of the poor and the vulnerable. As we heard in the responsorial psalm, he will have pity on the weak and save the lives of the poor. In his days justice shall flourish, and peace till the moon fails.

It is to proclaim the fulfilment of this great promise, made so long ago through the prophet Isaiah, that John appears in the gospel today. By preaching a message of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, the Baptist announces the coming of a charismatic leader. Christ Jesus himself. Who, through his life, death and resurrection, will transform chaos into justice. Rowdiness into peace. I baptise you in water for repentance, says John, but the one who follows me is more powerful than I am, and I am not fit to carry his sandals; he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire.

But in order for people to enjoy the peace that Christ brings, they must first be willing to recognise and to receive him. To obey him. To entrust their lives into his hands. Isn’t this why John has such harsh words for the Pharisees and Sadducees? John tells them that they cannot hope to enjoy the peace of God simply by relying on their own status as descendants of Abraham. Or even just by going through the motions of water baptism. They need to do more. They need to show signs of true repentance. They need to produce the appropriate fruit. But what are these signs? What is this fruit?

We find the answer in the second reading. Here, St. Paul tells the Christian community in Rome that they should not give up. Instead, they should continue placing their hope in God. By continuing to treat one another in the same friendly way as Christ treated them. Be tolerant with each other, Paul writes, following the example of Christ Jesus, so that united in mind and voice you may give glory to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Friendliness and mutual toleration. Unity of mind and heart. Living for the glory of God alone. These are the signs of true repentance. This is the appropriate fruit borne by those who are ready to recognise and to receive Christ. Those who are able to enjoy the peace that Christ brings when he comes.

Sisters and brothers, if this is true for the Pharisees and Sadducees. If this is true for the Israelites and the Romans. Must it not be just as true for us as well? Into the chaos of our world, into the rowdiness of our lives, Christ continues to want to enter. Bringing justice and equality. Reconciliation and peace. Are we not called to continue preparing ourselves to welcome him? By bearing appropriate fruit in our own lives? By treating others in the same way that Christ treats us. With understanding and toleration. With mercy and compassion. Taking care, especially to reach out to those who may be crying, because they are being bullied in some way. To rescue those who are helpless and oppressed. Even to treat the environment with greater respect and care.

Sisters and brothers, in this Season of Advent, we continue to await the arrival of Christ our charismatic Teacher. Who comes to transform the rowdy classroom of our lives into the justice and peace of Paradise. What can we do to better recognise and receive him today?

Sunday, December 01, 2013

Rising To The Advent Challenge

1st Sunday of Advent (A)

Sisters and brothers, do you recognise the name Yusman Wright? Those of you who do will know that it belongs to the 43-year-old real estate agent who won this year’s Mediacorp Subaru Challenge. You know, of course, what the Subaru Challenge is, right? It’s an annual endurance contest held in front of Ngee Ann City along Orchard Road. 400 contestants compete with one another to see which one of them can  keep the palm of one hand on a car for the longest period of time. The winner gets to keep the car. This year, the prize was a Subaru Forester 2.0i Premium, worth S$85,000 (less COE). And Yusman Wright beat all his fellow contestants with a winning time of 75 hours and 1 minute. Imagine that. Keeping your hand on a car for 75 hours. That’s more than 3 days! Quite a feat. Especially if you consider that the contest is held out in the open. Exposed to sun and rain. Not only that, but this was actually Yusman’s 5th attempt.

What do you think, sisters and brothers? What is it that drives someone like Yusman Wright to keep entering a contest like this, year after year? What is it that enables him to keep his hand glued to a car, without caring about anything else? Oblivious to pain and discomfort? Heedless of any other distraction? According to Yusman it’s all about focus. This is what he told the press after his win: if you join with the right focus in the mind… if you just go on what you want to achieve... win this car, then just focus on that. I think it's all in the mind…

Just focus… It’s all in the mind… Much easier said than done, right? And yet, this man was able to do it. He was able to focus only on winning the car. And if he was able to do this, it must have been because he wanted it really badly. His desire was strong. The car’s appeal irresistible. Such that he just could not bring himself to let it go. The strength of desire. And the power of attraction. Surely these must have been the things that enabled Yusman to rise to the Subaru Challenge.

The strength of desire and the power of attraction. These are also the  things that we find in our Mass readings, on this 1st Sunday of Advent. In the first reading, the prophet Isaiah speaks to us of a great prize that is waiting to be won. A prize far more precious than a brand new SUV parked in front of Ngee Ann City. The prize is the very presence of God Himself. Isaiah proclaims that a time is coming when the God of Israel, who lives in the Temple on Mount Zion, will make his Presence known to the whole world. God will wield authority over the nations, and God’s reign will bring true peace. Nation will not lift sword against nation, there will be no more training for war.

And it is because of this great prize, it is out of their desire for this precious gift, that people from all nations will be attracted to Mount Zion. They will be drawn to it irresistibly. They will leave their respective countries and go to where God is. Much like those 400 contestants in the Subaru Challenge detached themselves from the comfort of their own homes. But only so that they could attach themselves to their desired prize. I rejoiced when I heard them say: ‘Let us go to God’s house.’ Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord!

The strength of desire and the power of attraction. A desire that leads people to search relentlessly for God. An attraction that moves people to disregard all distractions, and to focus on God alone. A desire and an attraction that enables people to claim the prize of peace in the presence of God. Much like how Yusman Wright kept entering the Subaru Challenge, kept his hand stuck to the car, until he won it. But let’s face it. Not everyone is a Yusman Wright. Not everyone is able to do this. Not everyone can remain focused on the prize, focused on God, in this way. It’s not an easy thing to do.

As Jesus tells us in the gospel, on the day when the Son of Man comes of two men in the fields one is taken, one left; of two women at the millstone grinding, one is taken, one left. When God comes to visit us, bringing the prize of peace, not all will be able to receive it. Some of us will not meet the grade. Why? Not so much because God is stingy. But more because our desire may just not be strong enough. The attraction we feel for God not powerful enough. We may allow themselves to be distracted by many other things. By eating, drinking, taking wives, taking husbands… Also by buying condominiums, enrolling children in the best pre-schools and tuition centres, fretting over PSLEs and IB programmes, worrying about KPIs and other measures of productivity. Not that all these things are bad in themselves. In many cases, they are important and necessary. But we need to take care that we do not let our concern for all these things make us lose our focus on God. Make us lose touch with the concerns of God. By all means work in the field. Grind at the millstone. But always remain focused on God.

Isn’t this what Jesus means when he tells us to stay awake? To stand ready? Even as we may busy ourselves with many things, we need to somehow remain in contact with God. Remain in touch with our desire for God. Continue to feel the attractiveness of God. St. Paul speaks of the same thing in terms of light and darkness. The night is almost over, he writes, it will be daylight soon. The night of selfishness and loneliness. Of resentment and vengefulness. Of jealousy and greed. Of pain and sorrow. All this will soon be no more. On the day when the Lord comes. But to win this prize. To share in this light. To experience this peace. We must keep training our desire. We need to continue cultivating our attraction to the Light. This may be easier for those of us experiencing darkness of some kind. Those undergoing pain and suffering in some way. Our experience of darkness can help us to deepen our desire for God. To increase our attraction to the Light. We keep crying out to God, until God hears and answers us.

But, even if we may not be experiencing darkness in our own lives, we should not fail to notice that we live in a very dark world. A world where many continue to suffer terribly. People like the victims of a terrible typhoon in a distant land. But also people much closer to home. People who may be living as close to us as the room next door to our own. Or even in our own bed. People who need us to reach out to them in some way. In care and compassion. To make their concerns our own. Isn’t this how we can do what St. Paul tells us to do in the second reading? To let our armour be the Lord Jesus Christ. To put on Christ. To make his concerns our concerns. And his concerns are always for the poorest and most needy of all.

Sisters and brothers, Yusman Wright was able to rise to the Subaru Challenge by remaining focused on the prize. A brand new SUV. Advent is a time for us to sharpen our focus on God. To increase our desire for the things of God. To deepen our attraction to the concerns of God. So that we can claim the prize of God’s Coming.

What can you do to rise to our Advent Challenge today?

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Flame On!

33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

Sisters and brothers, are you afraid of fire? If you are, you have nothing to be ashamed of. You have every reason to be afraid. For we all know the destructive power of fire. Isn’t this why all our buildings are usually equipped with fire escapes and alarms? With fire extinguishers and sprinklers? We are justifiably afraid of fire. So we prepare for the time when a fire might flare up unexpectedly. Not only that. We also try our best to prevent fires from breaking out in the first place. From a very young age, for example, we have all been taught not to play with fire. Preparation and prevention. These are the two main ways by which we guard ourselves against the destructive effects of fire. But are they the only ways? Is there another? What do you think?

Are you familiar, sisters and brothers, with the Human Torch? Those  who are will know that he’s a superhero. A member of a group of superheroes collectively known as the Fantastic Four. While on a journey into space, this foursome was bombarded by cosmic radiation. Upon their return to earth, they found themselves endowed with superhuman powers. As his name suggests, the Human Torch has the ability to envelop his whole body in fire. Without doing himself any harm. And, whenever he does this, the Torch usually yells out a signature phrase. Do you remember what it is? That’s right. Flame on!

Flame on! That’s what the Human Torch shouts out when he ignites himself. When he transforms himself into fire. Isn’t this, sisters and brothers, a really cool way of guarding yourself against the flames? Not just by preventing a fire from starting. Or preparing to put it out should one flare up. But by actually becoming fire. For, if you are already fire, what do you have to fear from fire itself? So, not just preparation or prevention. But actual ignition. Transformation. Flame on!

I know what you’re probably thinking right now, sisters and brothers. You’re thinking that I’ve been reading too many comic books. Or watching too many movies. Or maybe even suffering from a delusion of some kind. And you may well be right. After all, the Human Torch is but a fantasy. What possible relevance could he have for the often harsh realities of our daily lives? How could someone in his or her right mind expect to survive being enveloped by fire?

And yet, curiously enough, our Mass readings today seem to point us precisely in this apparently delusional direction. You will, no doubt, have noticed that both the first reading and the gospel, speak to us of a day that is coming. A rather strange day. A day of the Lord’s visitation. A day of terror and tragedy. But also a day of safety and salvation. In the first reading, the prophet Malachi describes it in terms of fire. The day is coming now, he proclaims, burning like a furnace. A fire is coming. But notice that the prophet does not tell his listeners to try to prevent this fire. Or even to prepare to put it out. Instead, he seems to assume that the fire will come anyway. How then to safeguard oneself?

To answer this question, we need to consider the curious effects that this fire has on different people. According to the prophet, the arrogant and the evildoers will be like stubble. Like straw. The fire will burn them up. But on those who fear God, those who put God first in their lives, this fire will have the opposite effect. For them, the harsh fiery furnace of God’s coming will turn into a gentle sun of righteousness. Bringing wholeness and healing. Instead of death & destruction.

We see something similar in the gospel too. Here, although there is no explicit mention of a fire breaking out, scripture scholars tell us that St. Luke is writing about the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, at the hands of the Romans, in the year A.D. 70. In the gospel, this terrible event is something that is going to take place in the future. But notice that Jesus focuses not so much on how this destruction can be prevented. Or how preparations can be made to overcome it. Instead, Jesus speaks about how it can be endured. Although many will perish, those who cling to their faith in God, those who remain steadfast to the end, will be saved. Your endurance will win you your lives.

What are we to make of all this, sisters and brothers? What is it about the God-fearers in the first reading, and the faithful disciples in the gospel, that enables them not just to survive, but even to thrive, in the face of terrible suffering? As with every question that life poses to us. Every question that’s worth asking. The answer is found in the life of Christ himself. For, as we well know, Jesus too faced a fiery furnace. He too encountered a day of destruction. When he had to carry a cruel cross. Only to be crucified upon it like a common criminal.

And, because Jesus remained faithful and steadfast to the end, he was crushed but not destroyed. Rather, he was raised to life on the Third Day. How did this come about? How was Jesus preserved in the furnace of suffering? Was it not because he himself was constantly already on fire with the love of his heavenly Father? Even at the tender age of 12, Jesus was able to tell his poor perplexed parents that he had to be in his Father’s house. Doing his Father’s will. And when it came time for his public ministry, Jesus began by first allowing himself to be immersed in the waters of the River Jordan. The waters of our frail human condition. The waters of his Father’s will for him. And, having done so, Jesus experienced himself being engulfed by the fire of the Holy Spirit. Who descended upon him like a dove.

Sisters and brothers, if Jesus was able to thrive in the furnace of adversity, it was only because he was always already aflame with the love of his heavenly Father. Always already engulfed in the fire of the Holy Spirit. And can we not say the same of the people in our readings as well? In the first reading, it is because they are already on fire, that the people are able to continue walking in the ways of God. In the gospel, it is because they are already on fire, that the disciples can be expected to transform their terrible trials into opportunities for bearing witness to Christ. In the second reading, it is because the Thessalonians are already on fire that Paul can encourage them to turn away from idleness, and to work quietly and diligently instead.

To continue burning with the love of God. Sisters and brothers, isn’t this also what we are all invited to keep doing every day of the week? And isn’t this also why we gather here to worship every Sunday? Even as we may have to face the furnace of the inevitable challenges of daily living. We are able to survive and to thrive. To turn painful trials into precious opportunities for bearing witness. Only to the extent that we continue to allow ourselves to be set alight with the love of God. To be transformed by the Holy Spirit into fire itself.

I saw an image of this fire last Friday evening. When we gathered in this church to express our solidarity with the victims of Typhoon Yolanda. A slideshow was screened. In the midst of the many images of terrible suffering. Of pain and anguish. One image caught my eye. It was a picture of a group of people who appeared to be waiting for something. Perhaps for supplies to be distributed. A young woman in this group had her arms wrapped around something to which she was clinging tightly. Almost desperately. It was a large statue of our Blessed Mother. I saw on that woman’s face a quiet determination. A firmness of resolve. A courage and a strength that were signs of a fire burning deep within her. Keeping her going in the midst of her trial.

And what about us? How do we face our trials? Only by prevention and preparation? Or also, most of all, by ignition & transformation. Sisters and brothers, how can we keep shouting flame on today?

Monday, November 11, 2013

Some Things Have to Be Custom-Made

Wedding Mass of Rachel & Andrew

Readings: Genesis 2:18-24; Psalm 148; 1 Corinthians 12:31-13:8; Matthew 5:1-12
Pictures: cc Stefan Z

Andrew and Rachel, my dear friends. Have you ever noticed how so many of the things we use these days are mass-produced? Even something as complex and as sophisticated as a smartphone? I imagine that the parts that make up a smartphone are manufactured and assembled in factories that churn out many thousands of units a day. And it’s a good thing that we’re able to do this, because it makes the products more easily available. Also more affordable.

But, even though we may have the technology to mass-produce a lot of useful stuff. A factory-manufactured product is not always the most suitable. Some things still need to be custom-made. Especially if we want them to fit well. I know someone, for example, who recently needed a new set of dentures. The process of making them was really quite laborious. Not to mention expensive. It involved several visits to the dentist. First, to have a couple of teeth extracted. Then measurements had to be taken. Moulds and adjustments made. And, even after the dentures were finished, it took some time for the wearer to get used to them. At first there was some pain and discomfort. But, thankfully, the last time I checked, the person is finally happy with the final product. The dentures fit comfortably now. But only after a rather long and costly process. Only because they have been custom-made.

Today, many things can be mass-produced. Very quickly. And very cheaply. But some other things continue to have to be custom-made. If this is true of dentures, it’s even more true of marriages. Isn’t this the message that you, Andrew and Rachel, are trying to bring to our attention, through the scripture readings that you have chosen for our celebration today?

In the familiar first reading from the book of Genesis, we have an account of something being made. At first glance it may seem like the reading provides us with a description of how the first woman is created. And that’s true. It does. But that’s not all it does. For notice how the reading ends. It ends not just with a woman. Standing alone as a finished product. The reading ends rather with a relationship. We’re told that the man and the woman become one body. Quite clearly, the first reading is a description of how a relationship is created. And not just any kind of relationship. Not just a relationship where one creature exerts mastery over another. But a relationship of true equals. Of mutual respect. Of deep intimacy. Of oneness of heart and mind and body. This at last is bone from my bones and flesh from my flesh!
And notice how this unique relationship comes about. Notice how the man rejects all other animals. The same animals that God had earlier mass-produced, so to speak. These are found to be unsuitable. What the man is seeking requires something more than mass-production. The relationship that he desires requires more time and effort. It must be custom-made. And notice what this customised process involves. First the man is made to fall into a deep sleep. And then something is taken from him. Something that is actually a part of his very self. A rib is taken from the man. And made a part of the woman.

Now, my dear friends, I may be wrong. But I think that for us modern Christians, this process may at first look like nothing more than a surgical procedure. Like something we may find, for example, in an episode of Grey’s Anatomy. And, what’s more, we may even think that it’s a procedure that’s rather unethical. The man is drugged, and then his rib is stolen from him. But perhaps there is really something more going on. To appreciate what this is, we need to turn our attention to the second reading. Again, very insightfully chosen by you, Andrew and Rachel. Here, we find St. Paul reminding us of the crucial importance of love. If I give away all that I possess, Paul writes, if I even let them take my body to burn it (or my rib), but am without love, it will do me no good whatever.

Paul’s words should help us to see more clearly, what is happening to the man in the first reading. First, his ego is put to sleep. His tendency to seek only what’s good for himself. First, his self-interest has to be tranquillised. Only then can he make a donation of himself to the other. To the woman. For her good. Not just his own. It is only then, only through this loving self-donation, that the intimate relationship between man and woman can come into being. Marriage is the custom-made product of love.

And this process doesn’t take place only in the Garden Eden. Only at the beginning of Creation. Or even only on a wedding day like today. Or even only during a romantic honeymoon. This laborious custom-made process needs to continue at every moment of every one of the days to come. It has to continue, for example, even when both the man and woman come home after a long and tiring day at work. Looking forward to some down time. Some me time. Eager perhaps to enjoy some tender loving care from the other. Which is all very legitimate. But, for one to receive care, there must also be another willing to offer it. Another willing to take time to put self-interest to sleep. So that self-donation can take place. It is only when both man and woman are willing to do this for each other. And, when children come along, for them as well. And on a regular basis. That the marriage relationship can continue to be created. Continue to be custom-made.

All of which, as those among us who are already married will tell us, is much easier said than done. I imagine that there will perhaps be days in a marriage when, having already given much of oneself, a husband or a wife may feel as though there is just no more to give. How then to carry on? Which is why it’s important for us to consider something else in our readings today. Notice who it is who is ultimately responsible for the process of Creation. Not just the man and the woman. They are involved. But only as generous and obedient collaborators. The process is ultimately in the hands of God. It is God who manufactures the parts. It is God who assembles them. It is God who supplies the power to bring the relationship to life.

Isn’t this why the gospel that you, Andrew and Rachel, have chosen is so important. Here, we’re told that certain kinds of people are blessed. The poor in spirit, the gentle, the mourners, those who seek what is right. What do all these have in common, my dear friends, if not the humility to recognise that what is needed most we are unable to manufacture for ourselves. My dear friends, Andrew and Rachel, the love without which no marriage can survive, is ultimately the precious gift of God. A gift that God happily showers upon us, especially in the Mystery that we are celebrating at this Mass. A gift that we need to continue to beg from God. And to offer to one another in the days to come.

Rachel and Andrew, my dear friends, many of the things we use everyday can be mass-produced. But a marriage needs to be continually custom-made by God. How are we being called to collaborate with God in this creative process today?

Sunday, November 03, 2013

Between Automation & Attention (Rerun)

31st Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

Readings: Wisdom 11:22-12:2; Psalm 145:1-2, 8-9, 10-11, 13, 14; 2 Thessalonians 1:11-2:2; Luke 19:1-10
Picture: cc Andrew Seaman

Dear sisters and brothers, do you ever sometimes marvel at the wonder of automation? When I do my laundry, for example, all I usually have to do is throw my dirty clothes into the washer, add detergent, and press the right buttons. I can then go off and do whatever else I need to do. Have my breakfast, read the newspapers, check my email... Then I return a little later to transfer my clothes to the dryer. On those rainy days when I can’t hang them out to dry. Again I press the right buttons. And, before I know it, all my clothes are washed and dried. What’s wonderful about the whole process is that I don’t have to stick around to watch over the machines as they do their work. I don’t have to pay much attention to them at all. They know when to stop on their own. That’s the wonderful thing about automation, isn’t it? It saves us from having to pay constant attention to something.

But, even though modern technology is now so far advanced, not everything is automatic. I know someone, for example, who once left a large pot of beans over the stove to boil. And then went off to do something else. Completely forgetting about the pot. Unfortunately, unlike the washer and the dryer, that stove was not automatic. It didn’t know when to stop boiling those beans. It needed more attention than my friend was able to give to it. So, as you can well imagine, there were no beans for dinner that night.

Automation is great. But not everything is automatic. Some things still require our close attention. This is true not just of a stove. It’s also true of something that our Mass readings are inviting us to reflect upon today. The relationship between God and creation. What is this relationship like? Some people may think that it is not much different from the way in which I relate to the washer and the dryer. It’s a relationship of automation. God simply pushes the buttons at the beginning, and then leaves the scene. Returning only much later. At the end of time. And, if the results are not up to God’s expectations, people will be punished.

This is probably the kind of understanding that we find St. Paul arguing against in the second reading. It is likely that the Thessalonians have received a forged letter. A letter claiming to be from Paul. But actually written by someone else. A letter telling the Thessalonians that the day of the Lord has already arrived. That Jesus has come for the second time. And the poor Thessalonians are alarmed. Worked up. Perhaps they think that, like the pot of beans my friend placed on the stove, they have been left all alone to prepare for the Lord’s second coming. And they’re not ready. They’re worried that God will return to find nothing but burnt beans. But Paul says that God has not left them alone. Paul assures them that he and the other leaders are praying continually that God will make them worthy of his call. Implying that God does not just leave us to prepare for the Lord’s coming automatically. The way I leave the washer and the dryer to do my laundry for me. Instead, God pays constant careful attention to us. Continually offering us the help that we need.

And the first reading helps us to deepen our understanding of God’s careful attention, by reminding us that no created thing could persist or be conserved, if not called forth by God. In other words, the very fact that we (and everything else) continue to exist is itself a sign that God is paying careful attention to us. God does not just create us and then leave us to make the best of our lives on our own. Instead, not only does God remain close to us, but the first reading even goes so far as to insist that God’s imperishable spirit is in all of us. Continually calling and guiding us. Consistently caring for and paying close attention to us.

And it is this same spirit that we find at work in Jesus in the gospel (see Lk 4:18). This is the spirit that moves Jesus to journey to Jerusalem. The spirit that sends Jesus to seek out and to save what was lost. In the ministry of Jesus, God pays continual and careful attention to all those whom God has created.

But that’s not all. There is something else very significant in today’s gospel. Notice how the reading begins by telling us that Jesus had originally intended only to pass through Jericho. But he ends up staying at the house of a man named Zacchaeus. What causes Jesus to change his mind? What is it about Zacchaeus that enables this senior tax collector and a wealthy man, to benefit from the ministry of the Lord?

The answer is not difficult to discover. Again it has to do with attention. Notice how, rather than simply allowing Jesus to pass by, Zacchaeus takes the trouble to climb a tree. Although he knows that people don’t like him, he’s still willing to draw attention to himself. But only so that he can himself pay closer attention to Jesus. And Zacchaeus does this–he pays closer attention to God–not just by climbing the tree. We're told that he also gives half his property to the poor. In our reading, taken from the Jerusalem Bible, Zacchaeus’ words express something that’s going to happen in the future. He tells Jesus: I am going to give... But bible commentators tell us that, in the original Greek, the sentence actually expresses something that’s already happening in the present. What Zacchaeus is telling Jesus is that he is already giving half his property to the poor. On this reading, more than just climbing a tree, the tax collector, whom everyone thinks is a great sinner, is actually a generous benefactor of the poor and the needy. Isn’t this why Zacchaeus is able to benefit from Jesus' attention? It’s because Zacchaeus himself already constantly pays close attention to God. Especially to God present in the poor. As a result, when Salvation comes around, It doesn’t just pass him by. It decides to stay, and to shower blessings on Zacchaeus and his entire household.

All of which should lead us to reflect upon our own situations today. We all benefit from modern technology. We all enjoy the wonders of automation. And isn’t it true that sometimes we can too easily forget that not everything in this world is automatic? That some things just need more attention from us? Things like my relationship with God for example. Not enough just to go to Mass every Sunday, and expect the relationship to deepen by itself. It won’t. Not if I don’t make the time and the effort to communicate meaningfully with God. To pray from my heart. To pay closer attention to what God might be trying to show me. Through the people and the events that God is sending into my life.

And the same can be said for my other relationships as well. Relationships with my spouse and my children. With my friends and my colleagues at work. Unlike washers and dryers, these relationships are not automatic. They need my attention. Or they will die. And what about helping those who are less fortunate? Doesn’t this also require attention? Even if I may sometimes be tempted to think that it is only a question of paying my taxes on time. And hoping that the government will take care of the problem. Isn’t it true that the government cannot do everything? Could it be that there is something more that I need to do as a Christian? Closer attention that I need to pay? Greater efforts that I need to make? To reach out to those who could really use my help?

Sisters and brothers, in our readings today, salvation comes to Zacchaeus and his household because of the close attention the tax collector pays to God and to the poor. To God present in the poor. What about us? You and me? How are we being invited to continue moving from automation to attention today?

Sunday, October 27, 2013

From Puffed Up to Poured Out

30th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

Picture: cc garrettsjean

Sisters and brothers, what do you think? What does modern society have in common with a puffer fish?  You know, of course, what a puffer fish is, right? The Japanese call it fugu. You know how it gets its name. The fugu is actually not a very big fish. Nor can it move very fast. But it’s able to survive and to thrive in the wild, because it has a highly effective way of defending itself against attack. The fugu, as you know, has an extremely elastic stomach. Which it can quickly fill with water whenever it’s threatened. The sudden intake of liquid enables the fugu to quickly grow much bigger than it actually is. And this sudden increase in size is usually enough to scare away would-be predators. That’s how the fugu survives. That’s how it gets ahead in life. By a strategy of self-inflation.

Now I may be wrong, sisters and brothers. But it seems to me that it’s not just the puffer fish that relies on a strategy of inflation to get ahead in life. To survive and to thrive in the wilderness of modern society, don’t many of us have to do the same? Don’t we have to spend much time and effort puffing ourselves up just to face the challenges of daily living? We have to spend years in school, for example. Not just to gain an education. But also to puff ourselves up by accumulating academic qualifications. Isn’t this why so many of us get so stressed out around this time of year? When exam season comes around. Parents even more than students. Nor does the stress end after we graduate. Even then, we have to carefully puff up our resum├ęs. So that we can advance more quickly in our chosen careers.

And not just in school and at work. Don’t we have to rely very much on the strategy of inflation even on the social scene as well? Why else do so many of us feel obliged to post intimate personal information and images on social media? If not to enhance our public personas? To puff ourselves up in the sight of others? Even total strangers. In the most recent issue of Digital Life–the Straits Times' technology supplement–for example, the editor, Oo Gin Lee, writes about how his 11-year old daughter has to endure getting laughed at by her friends in school. All because her dad doesn’t permit her to have a Facebook account or a smartphone. Imagine that. Only 11 years old. And already feeling the pressure to puff herself up in the sight of others. Sisters and brothers, what do you think? Doesn’t our modern society have something in common with the puffer fish? The fugu puffs itself up occasionally to repel predators. We have to do it on a daily basis to attract admirers. In both cases, the strategy is the same. Self-inflation.

But please don’t be mistaken, sisters and brothers. I’m not saying that social media is necessarily bad. It’s not. Nor am I saying that students should not take their studies seriously. Or adults their careers. They should. The problem arises, however, when self-inflation becomes our default strategy. When it becomes the only way we know how to relate to the world. And not just to the world. But even to God. For, as you will probably have noticed, our Mass readings today are all about how those who puff themselves up end up failing to find favour in the sight of God. The classic example of this is, of course, the Pharisee in the gospel parable. Notice how the Pharisee puffs himself up in the Temple. How his prayer is really a hymn of praise of himself to himself. In his telling of the parable, Jesus is careful to indicate that the Pharisee stood up in the Temple and addressed his prayer, not to God, but to himself.

But why exactly, we may ask, does he fail? Why is God not impressed with the Pharisee’s considerable litany of spiritual achievements? Why does the Pharisee leave the Temple not at rights with God? The answer is to be found in the first reading. Which reminds us that God is no respecter of personages. In other words, God isn’t attracted by the very thing that the Pharisee tries to inflate. Namely, the Pharisee’s own ego. And the reason for this is not so much that the Pharisee is worthless as a person. He’s not. He is, after all, like the rest of us, lovingly created by God. As is written, in Psalm 139, we are fearfully and wonderfully made (v. 14). The problem is rather that, being so focused only on himself, the Pharisee leaves no room in his heart and in his life for God to enter. The Pharisee is just too full of himself. Or rather, too full of the self that consists only in his own personal achievements. The things in which he takes great pride. Puffed up only with himself, the Pharisee ends up repelling everything and everyone else. Even the merciful God who created him.

In contrast, it is the tax collector whose prayer is accepted. It is the sinner, who leaves the Temple at rights with God. Why? The reason is not too difficult to see. The tax collector succeeds where the Pharisee fails, not so much because he is sinful. But because he is both willing to admit, and able to mourn, his own sinfulness. He knows, from experience, his own weakness. His own inability to make himself holy. And, broken-hearted, he begs for help. God, be merciful to me, a sinner. And God does help. God does hear his prayer, because that is what God is like. As the responsorial psalm reminds us, the Lord is close to the broken-hearted; those whose spirit is crushed he will save.

Here, sisters and brothers, we find the radical difference between the Pharisee and the tax collector. The first puffs himself up with the water of his own egotistical achievements. And, by doing this, ends up repelling God. The second, however, humbly acknowledges his own brokenness. And, by doing this, actually attracts God into his heart and into his life. Allowing himself to be filled with the wine of God’s love and mercy. But that’s not all. While the story of the Pharisee may end with the parable in the gospel. The story of the tax collector actually continues. It continues with what St. Paul writes in the second reading concerning himself.

My life, says Paul, is already being poured away as a libation. What is this life that Paul is referring to, sisters and brothers, if not the same invigorating wine that the tax collector allows God to pour into his heart in the gospel? Here, in the second reading, we find the intended destination of God’s love and mercy. It’s meant not just to be locked up within people like the tax collector in the gospel and St. Paul in the second reading. Those who allow themselves to be filled by God. The wine of God’s love and mercy is meant to be poured out for the life of all the world. Just as blood and water poured out from the side of the crucified Christ. As he hung lifeless on the Cross. And it is by allowing himself to be the vessel through which this gracious outpouring takes place, that St. Paul can hope eventually to receive his heavenly reward. The crown of righteousness reserved for me, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give to me on that Day. The Day of the Lord.

Sisters and brothers, perhaps this is the challenge that our Mass readings are presenting to us today. The challenge to go beyond our usual mode of operation in modern society. And to cultivate instead an alternate strategy for daily living. The challenge to move continually from self-inflation to self-libation. From being puffed up to being poured out. So that more people in our world may truly come to know that Christ, our Crown of Righteousness, has already come. Has already died. Is already risen. For them. For you. For me. For all.

Sisters and brothers, what must we do to keep moving from inflation to libation today?

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Foes That Must Be Fought

29th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)
(Mission Sunday)

Picture: cc HoangP

Sisters and brothers, have you ever found yourself under attack by an enemy of some kind? What do you do? How do you react? Do you run away? Do you fight back? Or do you just give in? Well, it all depends, right? Sometimes fighting back is just not the wise thing to do. If I happen to be in a lonely place, for example. And a robber suddenly appears and points a knife at me, asking for my wallet. Probably not a good idea for me to fight back. No point in risking my life to save a few dollars, which I can earn back later on. Better just to give in. At least for the time being.

And this is true not just of human robbers snatching my money. It’s also true of another kind of thief. The invisible kind. The kind that steals not my money, but my good looks. I’m talking, of course, about ageing. What do I do, for example, when I notice wrinkles appearing on my face? Or when my hair starts turning from black to white? Or when it even begins to fall off? At first, of course, I may insist on fighting hard against this enemy. I may use skin creams and hair dyes and other similar weapons. But, after a while, I realise that I’m really fighting a losing battle. It’s only a matter of time before age catches up with all of us. Maybe it’s better not to struggle so hard. But to learn to grow old gracefully. Rather than fighting back all the time, there are some enemies that we just need to learn to accept. Maybe even to befriend.

But not all enemies are like that. There are some enemies that we really need to keep fighting against. No matter what. Even if it seems at first that we have no chance of winning. For example, as you know, here in Singapore, we have spent much of this year fighting against a very tiny but very deadly enemy. The Aedes mosquito. Which spreads Dengue fever. A disease that has so far claimed the lives of 5 people in Singapore this year. And although it’s an uphill battle, we have not given up. We continue to make every effort to fight this enemy. To wipe out its breeding grounds. And we do this so that we, and those we love, can be safe. This is something worth fighting for.

Sisters and brothers, sometimes, when we are under attack, it’s wise to give in. But, at other times, we just really need to keep on fighting. This is true in the spiritual life as well. In each of our Mass readings today, for example, we find people under attack. And, in each case, those under attack do not to give in. But keep on fighting back. In the first reading, after escaping from slavery in Egypt, the people of Israel reach a place called Rephidim. Here they are attacked by a race known as the Amalekites. And the people of Israel react by going to war. They do not give in. They fight back. In the second reading, St. Paul tells Timothy never to give up, but to keep fighting the good fight. To keep struggling especially against the attacks of false teaching. And, in the gospel parable, we find a poor widow suffering injustice of some kind. Caused by the attacks of an unnamed enemy. But, although she seems helpless, the widow does not give in. She keeps fighting back, by pestering a judge until he finally agrees to help.

The Amalekites in the first reading. Falsehood in the second. And injustice in the gospel. Sisters and brothers, in our readings today, these are the enemies against whom people refuse to give in. But keep fighting against. And we can probably think of other enemies too. Enemies whose attacks perhaps we ourselves have experienced. Enemies that we continue to have to fight against. Enemies like certain sinful habits that we can’t seem to break. No matter how hard we try. Maybe an addiction of some kind. To pornography. Or to gambling. Or to drink. Or even to work. An attachment to an unhealthy relationship. To someone who, for example, is already married to somebody else.

And what about enemies that attack not just individuals but also societies. Enemies such as poverty, for example. Isn’t it true that even in a rich place like Singapore, there are still poor people among us? People who need help, just to survive. And isn’t it also true, that there is a kind of poverty that affects even those who may have plenty of money. A poverty of the heart that somehow prevents people from being truly happy. A deep sense of loneliness, or emptiness, or meaninglessness, which may remain even though one’s life may be filled with many expensive things.

Sisters and brothers, like the people in our readings today, it’s likely that we too have experienced attacks by enemies that we need to fight against. But how do we do this? How exactly should we fight back? Especially when we ourselves often feel so weak? Thankfully, our readings give us some suggestions. When fighting against spiritual enemies, there are at least two things that we need to pay attention to.

The first is to occupy the right places. Notice what Moses tells Joshua in the first reading. March out to engage Amalek, he says. I, meanwhile, will stand on the hilltop. Moses begins his fight against Amalek by making sure that his forces occupy two places at once. The first place is where he sends Joshua and his armies. To the battlefield. And the second place is where Moses himself goes. To the hilltop. The battlefield of life. And the hilltop of prayer. These are the two places that we all need to occupy, especially when fighting against spiritual enemies. On the one hand, we need to do everything in our power to engage the forces of evil on the battlefield. But that is not enough. We also need to remain on the hilltop to pray for strength. The way Moses prayed. And the way the widow in the gospel prayed. Lifting up holy hands to God. Without giving up. Trusting in God’s power and desire to save us. Even if we may sometimes have to wait.

But that’s not all. In addition to occupying the right places, we also need to make use of the right weapons. Notice how, in the first reading, when Moses raises up his arms in prayer, he is not empty-handed. He carries the staff of God in his hand. The staff given to him by God as a sign of power and authority. The same staff that Moses used to defeat the magicians of Pharaoh. To part the Red Sea. And to strike the rock from which water flowed for the people to drink. Notice also that, in addition to the staff of God, Moses also relies on a stone on which he sits. And the support of two companions, when his arms grow tired. And not just Moses on the hilltop. But also Joshua, on the field of battle. He too relies on a weapon. We’re told that Joshua cut down the Amalekites with the edge of the sword.

But what about us, sisters and brothers? What weapons do we have? What is our equivalent of a staff, and a stone, and a sword? The answer to this question is found in our second reading, where St. Paul reminds Timothy of the power of the holy scriptures–from these, Paul writes, you can learn the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. It is in the scriptures that we find our true and only effective weapon against the power of the Enemy. This weapon is Christ himself. Who, by his Cross and Resurrection, has redeemed the world.

My dear sisters and brothers, in life we often undergo attacks from enemies that we need simply to ignore. Or even to accept. But there are other times. There are certain enemies that we have to keep fighting against. No matter what. Enemies that threaten our life as Christians. Enemies that are stronger than us. Against whom, on our own strength, we would be powerless. But, thankfully, we have been given an effective Weapon. A Weapon that has already won for us the Victory. And it is this Weapon and this same Victory that we are celebrating here at this Mass. It is this Weapon and this Victory that we all have received a mission to proclaim to all the world.

Sisters and brothers, as we celebrate Mission Sunday, what enemies do you need to keep on fighting against today?