Sunday, March 31, 2013

Easter Sunday (Mass During the Day)
Correct Thou My Vision

Picture: cc phr3qu3ncy

Sisters and brothers, have you ever had the experience of having your vision corrected? A week or so ago, I went for a routine medical check-up. And, at one point, the doctor made me stand against one wall of his clinic and look at an alphabet chart on the opposite wall. Take off your glasses, he said. And tell me what you see. I followed his instructions and, as might be expected, I could see nothing. Or rather, I could see something. But it was all a blur. It was only after I had put my glasses back on that everything became clear again. The experience was a timely reminder for me of how dependent I am on my lenses. Without them, the world is but a blur. Without them, I can’t see clearly at all.

I’m well aware, of course, that not all of us here need glasses or contact lenses. And yet, doesn’t the eye itself contain a lens, without which, we would all be unable to see clearly? Whether we realise or care to admit it or not, without proper lenses, all of us would suffer from blurred vision.

All of which may help us to understand a little better, what is happening in our Mass readings today. In the gospel, we’re told that, early on Sunday morning, three disciples of Jesus arrive at his tomb and find it empty. But, what’s perhaps even more important, while at the tomb, something happens to Mary and Peter and the unnamed disciple whom Jesus loved. Something momentous. To better appreciate what happens to them, we need to pay close attention to what they see. When Mary first arrives at the tomb, she sees what looks like a crime scene. Someone has shifted the stone from the entrance and stolen the Lord’s body. It’s reasonable for us to assume that this is also what Peter and the beloved disciple see at first. Mary has summoned them to what looks like the scene of a crime.

And yet, by the end of the reading, the scene has shifted quite dramatically. At least for two of them. On entering the tomb, and observing the neatly arranged burial cloths, Peter and the beloved disciple begin to see things differently. They start to realise that the empty tomb is not really the scene of a crime, but a sign that something truly extraordinary has happened. They begin to understand the teaching of scripture that Jesus must rise from the dead. And, in understanding this teaching, their vision is corrected by the lens of the Lord’s Resurrection. Their blurred image of the world becomes clear for the first time. What initially looks like the scene of a crime is transformed into the source of New Life. The tomb becomes a womb.

This experience of having one’s vision corrected is not limited to a single occurrence at the empty tomb. In the first reading, from the Acts of the Apostles, something similar happens to Peter yet again. To appreciate what’s happening, it’s helpful to recall that Peter is sharing the Good News with Cornelius, a gentile. And he is doing this in Cornelius’ own home. The home of a gentile. How, we may wonder, does Peter–himself a Jew–come to be in the house of someone whom the Jews considered unclean? Is Peter not afraid of being defiled?

Peter is able to visit Cornelius only because the Lord has shown Peter that God does not have favourites. But that the message of the Resurrection is meant for all. Jew and gentile alike. Somehow Peter has had his vision corrected. Seen through the blurry eyes of the Law, the house of Cornelius is nothing but a place of defilement. But seen through the lens of Resurrection faith, the place is transformed for Peter, into a privileged opportunity for sharing the Good News. As much in the first reading as in the gospel, Peter’s vision is corrected. His blurred image of reality is clarified for him.

These examples of how the lens of Resurrection faith corrects the disciples’ blurred perceptions of reality may help us to understand better what is written in the second reading. Here, we’re told to let our thoughts be on heavenly things, not on the things that are on the earth. Surely, this does not mean that we should go around continually gazing up at the sky. Otherwise, how would we be able to see where we were going? What it does mean is that we should be looking at earthly things always only through the heavenly lenses of the Lord’s Death and Resurrection. So that our sight, which is so prone to becoming blurry, can constantly be corrected. So that, in all things, we may truly enjoy clarity of vision.

Isn’t this also what our new pope, Francis I, has been doing since he was elected? By choosing, for example, to celebrate the Mass of the Lord’s Passion in a juvenile detention centre. By washing the feet of the young inmates there, including those of Muslims and of women. What was the Pope doing, if not providing the world with a lens with which to correct its vision? A lens with which to see more clearly. A divine lens provided by the very Mystery that we are celebrating so solemnly and so joyously today. The Mystery of the Death and Resurrection of the Lord.

And isn’t this what we continue to need more than ever today. Today, when it remains so very tempting to see the world only through the lenses of competition and suspicion and resentment. Of technological efficiency and economic gain and political expedience. Today, when many of us continue to discriminate against one another solely on the basis of race or religion. Of financial means or social status. Of gender or physical and mental ability. Today, more than ever, we need to have our blurred images of reality clarified by the Dying and Rising of Christ. For this is the corrective lens through which we can see ourselves and our world more sharply. This is the Lord’s Easter gift to His Church. A gift that we are all called to use wisely and to share generously with others.

Sisters and brothers, on this joyous Easter morning, how might we better allow our Crucified and Risen Lord to correct our vision today?

Friday, March 29, 2013

Good Friday
Ecce Homo

The power of love is a curious thing.
Make a one man weep, make another man sing.
Change a hawk to a little white dove.
More than a feeling that's the power of love...  

Sisters and brothers, I think at least some of you will recognise these words. They are the opening lines to the song featured in the movie Back to the Future, and popularised by Huey Lewis and the News. The song is entitled The Power of Love. Strange as it may seem, I think this secular song can actually help us ponder more deeply upon the significance of something that our liturgy exhorts us to do today.

As you may already have noticed, in our readings and prayers today, there is a significant emphasis on the act of seeing. The first reading begins with the words, see my servant... And it continues by saying that even kings shall see something never told and witness something never heard before. In the gospel, after he has had Jesus flogged, Pontius Pilate presents him to the people with the words, here is the man! In the Latin translation, the words are ecce homo! Behold the man! Look at him! A little later in our liturgy, as we unveil and venerate the cross, we will be chanting these words: Behold the wood of the cross, on which hung the salvation of the world. See! Behold! Look! Pay attention! This is what our liturgy is encouraging us to do today. But what exactly are we supposed to be looking at?

On the surface, it seems that Jesus dies a failure. Even a sinner. And he dies so painfully. So shamefully. An executed criminal. Is this all that we are being asked to look at? If not, then what else? The first reading provides us with an answer by posing to us this question: to whom has the power of the Lord been revealed? The power of the Lord, sisters and brothers. This is what we are being asked to look at today. The power of the Lord. Which is the power of love. A love that leads Jesus, the eternal only-begotten Son of God, to allow himself to be tormented and tortured. Convicted falsely and cruelly crucified. All for love of us. Of you and of me. Today, sisters and brothers, our liturgy tells us not to turn away. Not to be distracted. But to pay close attention. To see more deeply. To behold, hanging on the wood of the cross, Jesus our supreme high priest, who was tempted in every way that we are, though he is without sin. To look at him, remembering that ours were the sufferings he bore, ours the sorrows he carried.

And why, sisters and brothers, should we focus our eyes on this painful sight, if not because, we too wish to experience something of this power? Something of the power of the Lord. Something of the power of love. A power that brings liberty to captives, healing to the afflicted, joy and hope to the depressed and despairing. A power that can move us to forgive those we may have long resented. To reach out to those we may be guilty of neglecting. To share Jesus with those who have yet to meet him. Who have yet to experience the power of his love.

Sisters and brothers:
The power of love is a curious thing.
Make a one man weep, make another man sing.
Change a hawk to a little white dove.
More than a feeling that's the power of love.

As we continue to gaze upon our crucified Lord, how might we allow this power to transform us today?

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion (C)
Making an Airport of an Auditorium

Picture: cc Matthias Rhomberg

Sisters and brothers, do you know the difference between an auditorium and an airport? Of course you do! An auditorium is usually a destination in itself. We go there to attend a function, or to listen to a talk, or to watch a performance. And then we leave. In contrast, an airport is not really meant to be a a final destination, a place of rest, but a point of transit. We go there in order to allow ourselves to be transported somewhere else.

And yet, we also know that it is sometimes possible for us to enter an auditorium and be transported in some way. For example, when we listen carefully, with open minds and hearts, to an inspiring speech, or a moving musical performance. Then, even though our bodies remain rooted in our seats, we may find our spirits somehow being lifted up high into the heavens. If the performance is good enough, if our attention is close enough, if our hearts are open enough, an auditorium can sometimes be transformed for us into an airport.

Can we not say the same about Jerusalem, the holy city where all the action is taking place in our readings today? Jerusalem. At one level, this seems to be the destination, the end-point, towards which Jesus has been travelling. He enters it on Palm Sunday, enjoying a king’s welcome. And he is driven out of it on Good Friday, bearing a criminal’s cross. Jerusalem. At first glance, this is nothing more than an auditorium, in which the ugly spectacle of the killing of an innocent man is performed for all to see. Jerusalem. For many, this was simply a destination like any other. A place to visit. And then to leave. An auditorium. This was what Jerusalem was for the chief priests and the scribes. Whose jealousy and self-righteousness led them to engineer a plan to have Jesus put to death. And for Pilate and Herod too. Whose apathy and moral cowardice were what enabled the plan to succeed. And also for the many disciples of Jesus. Who had welcomed him so enthusiastically on Palm Sunday. But then deserted him so shamefully on Holy Thursday and Good Friday. For all of these people, Jerusalem remained only an auditorium. A place to visit. And then to leave. Nothing more.

But, if our Mass readings are to be believed. Things were quite different for Jesus. For Jesus, Jerusalem was not so much a destination as a point of transit. For, as St. Paul reminds us in the second reading, it was as a result of Jesus’ visit to Jerusalem, that God raised him high and gave him a name that is above all other names. And this happened not unlike how an auditorium is sometimes transformed into an airport. It happened because Jesus listened attentively, open-heartedly, generously to the will of his Father. As the first and second readings tell us, Jesus listened like a disciple. And what he heard, he put into practice. For love of his Father and for us, he made no resistance. He emptied himself. Even to accepting death on a cross. This was how Jerusalem was transformed for him. Although it may appear to some like a final destination, Jerusalem was really a point of transit. It was here that Jesus was lifted up into the glory of God.

But that’s not all. The gospel draws our attention also to several other people who managed to benefit from the experience of Jesus. People who found themselves transported in some way. The repentant criminal, for example. Whose humility won him an eternal reward. Indeed, I promise you, Jesus tells him, today you will be with me in paradise. Or the centurion at the foot of the cross. After seeing how Jesus dies, this soldier is able to praise God saying, This was a great and good man. Or the people who had gathered for the spectacle. So affected were they that they went home beating their breasts. Unlike the Jewish and Roman authorities, whose hardened hearts kept them transfixed in their own prejudice and sin, these other people found themselves transported into a new experience of God’s mercy and compassion. For them, Jerusalem was no longer just an auditorium, but an airport. A point of departure into God’s loving embrace.

How did this happen to them, sisters and brothers, if not through their willingness to watch and to listen, with attentive ears, and open hearts, and generous hands? And if this is true of these people in the gospel, surely it can be true too of us. Today, as we begin this most solemn and sacred of weeks in the Church’s calendar, it is too easy for us simply to go through the motions. To enter and to exit Holy Week as we would any other destination. And yet it doesn’t have to be this way. In the course of this week, it is also possible for us to be transported in some way. If we allow ourselves to pay careful attention to all that Jesus is saying and doing. To all that he is allowing others to do to him. If we watch and pray and accompany our Lord as he goes to his Passion. Surely, Holy Week will be transformed for us from a mere place of rest into a true point of departure. A place where we will find ourselves lifted up, as Jesus was, into the loving arms of God.

Sisters and brothers, how may we better allow the Lord to transform our auditorium into an airport today?

Saturday, March 16, 2013

5th Sunday in Lent (C)
Shuttle for the Stranded

Picture: insing

Sisters and brothers, have you ever found yourself trapped or stranded in some way? If so, what did it feel like? We may think, for example, of the thousands of people who found themselves left high and dry, when the MRT trains broke down on several occasions about a year or so ago. Perhaps some of you were among them. How do you think those passengers might have felt. I’m sure many were angry and frustrated. Perhaps even anxious and afraid. Stuck in a strange place. Unable to get to where they wanted to go...

And how do you think those same people might have felt when the shuttle buses finally arrived to rescue them? We may imagine that, despite their frustration, they also felt some relief. Very likely, the commuters were eager to quickly get onto the right bus, so that they could continue on their respective journeys without further delay. So that they could finally arrive at their desired destinations. However unhappy they might have been with the situation, it would have been rather strange for any of them to refuse to board the bus that was their ticket to freedom. For a passenger stranded by a broken down train, especially someone in a great hurry, nothing is more important than boarding the right shuttle.

All this is true not just of public transport. In the spiritual life too, we can sometimes find ourselves stranded in some way. Stuck in a strange place, without any visible means of escape. At least not at first. Isn’t this what we find in each of our Mass readings today? In the first reading, the people of Israel have been living for long years in exile. For generations, they have been stranded. Not just in the strange enemy territory of Babylon, but also in the faraway spiritual place of their own sinfulness. Their own infidelity to God. In such a difficult situation, God promises to do something marvellous. Just as, in the past, God had made a way for their ancestors through the waters of the Red Sea. Leading them out of slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land. So too now, the prophet announces that God is making for the people a road in the wilderness, paths in the wilds. God is providing a bus to ferry them back from exile. A shuttle to bring them all home.

And what God is doing in the first reading, God continues to do in the gospel. Here, we don’t need to be bible scholars to see that the woman caught committing adultery is well and truly trapped. She is stranded. And in more ways than one. In addition to the improper sexual relationship for which she is being accused, she is also caught up in the cunning scheme of the religious authorities. The scribes and the Pharisees, whose main concern is not really to uphold the Law, but to trap Jesus. After all, it takes more than one person to commit adultery. Where is the other party? Why accuse only the woman?

In any case, following the provisions of the Law, the scribes and Pharisees propose to execute the woman by stoning. A very painful and cruel way to die. And there is really nothing she can say in her own defence. There is nothing she can do to free herself. She stands guilty as charged. Thankfully, Jesus stands up for her. Speaks up on her behalf. Like a welcome shuttle, rescuing the stranded passengers of a broken down train, Jesus gives her a way out. Not only is she saved from death by stoning, she is also rescued from the dire spiritual consequences of her sin. She is given her life back. Has no one condemned you? Jesus asks. Neither do I condemn you, go away, and do not sin any more.

As with public transport, so too with the spiritual life. Even if we may sometimes get stranded, God works to make a way for us. In Christ, God provides a shuttle to ferry us to freedom. Except that things are sometimes far less straightforward in the spiritual life. Whenever an MRT train breaks down, it doesn’t take long for the passengers to realise that they are stranded. And, when the shuttle finally arrives, it doesn’t take much persuasion to get people on board. The same, however, can’t always be said for those stranded in a spiritual sense.

In the gospel, for example, the woman caught in adultery is not the only one who is in trouble. Her accusers are as well. They are trapped in their own judgmental and self-righteous attitudes. Stranded in their legalistic approach to religion. Which prevents them from truly experiencing and benefitting from the mercy and compassion of God. Unfortunately for them, unlike the woman they want to stone, these men don’t recognise the dangerous situation they themselves are in. They fail to see that they themselves are trapped. And so they refuse to accept Jesus, the Way to Freedom. They refuse to board the shuttle of his teachings. Without realising it, they choose to remain stranded in their  sin.

All of which should help us to appreciate a little better the reason why St. Paul writes the way he does in the second reading. For, as we all know, earlier in his career, Paul too was a crusading Pharisee. Trapped in his own narrow interpretation of the Law, he went around persecuting the early Christians. But God freed him from his self-righteousness. On the road to Damascus, the Risen Christ appeared to him. Helping him to recognise his terrible mistake. Providing him a way out. So that, towards the end of his life, even as he sits in prison, Paul is able to marvel at the wonderful things God has done for him in Christ. I believe nothing can happen, he says, that will outweigh the supreme advantage of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.

Sisters and brothers, unlike public transport, in the spiritual life, it is possible to be trapped and not even to realise it. It is possible to be stranded and still refuse to board the shuttle provided by God to ferry us to our true destination. Which is why the season of Lent is so crucial for us. This is the time when we make space in our lives for the Lord to appear to us, as he appeared to Paul on the road to Damascus. This is the time when we allow the Lord to show us the different ways we might be stranded. Whether it be in our clinging to memories of the past, or in our desperate worrying about the future. Whether it be in our obsession with our own material wants, or in our inability to reach out to those who may need our care and concern. Whether it be in the resentments that we may hold against those who have done us wrong, or in our guilt at having wronged others. However we may find ourselves trapped, God always remains eager to provide us a way out. A means to set us free. And although the traps may be many, the way out is always one and the same. Our shuttle is Christ. And his path is the Way of the Cross. To continue to board this shuttle, to persevere in walking this Way, is truly to come to know the love of Christ that Paul writes so passionately about in the second reading. All I want is to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and to share his sufferings by reproducing the pattern of his death.

Sisters and brothers, how might the Lord be shuttling you to freedom today?

Sunday, March 03, 2013

3rd Sunday in Lent (C)
From Vader to Skywalker

Sisters and brothers, do you know who Darth Vader is? How about Anakin Skywalker? I’m sure many of us are aware that these names belong to arguably the single most interesting movie character in the Star Wars series. But although they both belong to a single character, these names also refer to two very different personalities. In Star Wars, Anakin Skywalker is a good guy. A powerful Jedi knight. A warrior skilled in the ways of the Force. That mysterious source of all life and energy in the universe. Darth Vader, on the other hand, is a bad guy. A Sith Lord. Although he too is a highly skilled warrior, Vader’s powers come not from the light but from the dark side of the Force.

Anakin & Vader. One single movie character moved by two opposing forces. And one of the things that makes Star Wars so interesting, at least to me, is how Anakin is transformed into Vader, and then back again. In Episode 3 of the series, the highly-talented and idealistic young Anakin is seduced by the dark side of the Force when he allows himself to be driven by jealousy and paranoia. By ruthless ambition and blind rage. So that the darkness gradually consumes him. The further he goes, the more harm he does, both to others and to himself. As the darkness engulfs him, he becomes more like a machine than a human being.

But, fortunately for him, in Episode 6 of the series, an important shift takes place. Darth Vader allows his love and compassion for his son, Luke, to move him to sacrifice his own life in order to defeat the evil emperor. As a result, Vader himself finds salvation. He is transformed back into Anakin. Through the gentle but powerful force of love and compassion, the dark lord is brought back into the light.

Anakin Skywalker and Darth Vader. Two personalities living within a single character. Two personas set apart by the conflicting forces that move them. Vader is driven by darkness, and ends up being consumed by it. Anakin is drawn by goodness, which saves him in the end. Anakin and Vader. One life moved by two opposing forces. One good. One bad. One dark. One light. One that consumes and destroys. Another that saves and brings life.

Curious as it may sound, sisters and brothers, we find something similar in our Mass readings today. In the first reading, Moses is attracted to a mysterious bush blazing but not being burnt up. Why, we may wonder, is Moses so interested in the burning bush? Is it only because it is a strange sight? Maybe. But perhaps there is also another reason. Perhaps Moses is interested in the bush because, unlike it, he himself is already burning with a different kind of fire. A fire that is consuming him.

You may recall, sisters and brothers, the events that led Moses into the wilderness in the first place. Remember how, having witnessed a fellow Hebrew being mistreated by an Egyptian, Moses was so driven and consumed by anger, that he killed the Egyptian. And then, fearful that his crime might be discovered, Moses ran away into the desert. Why was Moses so drawn to the burning bush? Perhaps, sisters and brothers, it was also because he wanted to learn more about this mysterious fire that was so different from the one that was burning within him. The fire of anger and resentment. Of guilt and fear. Perhaps it was because he wanted to learn how to burn without being consumed.

And isn’t this precisely the gift that God imparts to Moses in the wilderness? In Moses, God replaces the fire of anger and resentment with something very different. A flame of love and compassion coming from God. A flame that energises without destroying. A flame experienced in God’s deep care and concern for God’s suffering people. I have seen the miserable state of my people in Egypt, God says. I mean to deliver them out of the hands of the Egyptians and bring them to a land where milk and honey flow. Love and compassion, in exchange for anger and resentment. Isn’t this how God saves and transforms Moses? So that when God sends him back to Egypt, Moses returns there a very different person from the one who had fled into the wilderness. Yes, a fire still burns within him. He still wants to set his people free. But it’s a very different kind of fire from the one that burned before.

Like the two types of force in Vader and Anakin, in Moses, we see two kinds of fire burning within a single life. The Moses who fled from Egypt was burning with a fire that destroys. The Moses who returns from the wilderness is ablaze with a life-giving flame.

And don’t we find a similar contrast in the second reading too? Here St. Paul tells us that though Moses led a single people into the wilderness. A single people who ate the same spiritual food, and drank the same spiritual drink. Not all made it to the Promised Land. Why? Because, in contrast to those who made it, those who did not were burning with the wrong fire. They allowed their wicked lusts for forbidden things to consume them. So that they failed to please God, and their corpses littered the desert. Like the barren fig tree in Jesus’ parable, these people failed to bear fruit. All because, like the fearful and guilty Moses who ran away from Egypt, they submitted themselves to a fire that consumed them. Like Vader, in Star Wars, they let themselves be moved by a dark force driving them to their doom.

As with the character in the movie, and also the prophet in the wilderness, we find in the single people of Israel, two opposing forces at work. Two different fires blazing. One destructive. The other life-giving. One enslaving. The other liberating. And can we not say the same for ourselves as well? Both as individuals and as a community. When we look into our own hearts and our own lives, don’t we find a similar ambivalence? A similar ambiguity? On the one hand, the consuming fires of our own greedy ambitions and jealous rivalries. The dark destructive forces of our irrational fears and painful insecurities. But, thankfully, that’s not all. If we look hard enough, it’s also likely that we will also discover the gentle flame of God’s life-giving love and compassion. Ever sensitive to our difficulties and our struggles. Continually offering us consolation and healing, transformation and freedom. And then sending us to share these same precious gifts with others.

Sisters and brothers, isn’t this what we are trying to do in the season of Lent. Or, more accurately, isn’t this what we are trying to make space for God to do in us. Within the wilderness of our Lenten discipline, we examine and deny ourselves in order to allow God to move us from the dark side into the light. To remove the destructive fires in exchange for a life-giving flame.

Sisters and brothers, how does God wish to transform us? How does God wish to transform you from Darth Vader back into Anakin Skywalker today?