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?