Sunday, December 28, 2014

The How and The Why

Feast of the Holy Family

Picture: cc Jeremy Jenum

Sisters and brothers, the story is told of a man who enjoyed his wife’s cooking so much that he decided to ask her to teach him how to cook his favourite dish. Her delicious pot roast. The recipe was simple enough to learn. But, as he was learning it, he discovered a rather curious thing. He noticed that his wife always cut off both ends of the meat before putting it into the oven. When he asked her the reason why, she simply said that that was the way her mother taught her to do it. Not satisfied with her answer, the man decided to phone his mother-in-law to ask her. But her answer was the same. That was the way my mother taught me to do it. Thankfully, the wife’s grandmother was still alive. So the man went to ask her. When she heard the question, the grandmother laughed. We only had one roasting pan at the time, she said. And it was too small to fit the whole piece of meat. So I cut off both ends. That’s the only reason why…

One lesson I think we can learn from this story, sisters and brothers, is that sometimes knowing why we do something is at least as important as knowing how to do it. The why can motivate us. Energise us. It can even free us to make changes to the how, if necessary. To improve it. Without, of course, changing the quality of the outcome. The goodness of the pot roast.

I mention this because I think this lesson about the importance of the question why can help us to enter more deeply into the feast we are celebrating today. The Feast of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Today, as our opening prayer reminds us, not only are we celebrating the holiness of Jesus’ immediate earthly family, we are also asking God for the grace to imitate them. To learn and to follow their recipe for holiness. And our readings help us to do this by telling us how.

The recipe is actually simple enough. Simple enough to understand. If not to put into practice. It has to do with how we treat one another. So, in the first reading, children are encouraged to treat their parents with respect and honour. Even, and especially, when parents may have grown frail with age. Even if a father’s mind should fail, a son should continue to support him. Should not despise him. And, the second reading goes on to remind wives to give way to your husbands. Husbands to love your wives and treat them with gentleness. Children to obey your parents. And parents to never drive your children to resentment. The reading even broadens this recipe for holiness to include not just immediate family, but also the whole Christian community. Which includes, of course, our own parish family. You are God’s chosen race, his saints…. Bear with one another; forgive each other as soon as a quarrel begins…

Sisters and brothers, all of this is should actually come as no surprise to us. We all know what we have to do to imitate the Holy Family. We all know the recipe. The problem is that we often find it too difficult to follow. Too difficult to find the necessary motivation, the needed strength, to put it into practice. Which is why it is helpful to see that the question how is not the only question that our readings help us to answer. Just as important, our readings also invite us to consider the question why. Why should we imitate the Holy Family? Why should we treat one another with love and respect? With gentleness and compassion? If it’s really so difficult, why even bother?

The responsorial psalm answers this question quite simply. O blessed are those who fear the Lord and walk in his ways! If we treat one another well, as God wants us to, then we will enjoy God’s blessing. And the first reading describes this blessing in terms of specific earthly benefits. For example, whoever respects his father will be happy with children of his own.

The second reading, however, helps to broaden our understanding of God’s blessing. Why should we continue to try to treat one another lovingly? Even when it may be difficult? The answer is simply that when we do this, the peace of Christ will reign in our hearts. And the message of Christ, in all its richness, will find a home in us. This is the reason why we are called to holiness. Why we are called to love. And what an awesome reason it is. When we strive for holiness, by loving one another, we actually make a space for God. A place where God can be at home. In our hearts. In our lives. And in our world.

Isn’t this also the whole reason for the Holy Family’s existence? Isn’t this why it is so fitting that we should be celebrating the Feast of the Holy Family within the octave of Christmas? The holiness of the Holy Family has a very particular purpose. It enables God to make a home among us. Isn’t this what we find happening in the gospel? The reading begins with the Holy Family paying a visit to the Temple in Jerusalem. Which was where the Jews believed that God lived on earth. It was God’s home among God’s people. And when the baby Jesus is brought to the Temple, he immediately finds himself at home there. For in the Temple the baby is quickly recognised for who he really is. And what is home if not the place where we are recognised for who we really are? First Simeon, and then Anna, recognise Jesus as the Christ of the Lord. The fulfilment of God’s promise of salvation. In the helpless baby, the holy man and the holy woman recognise the powerful arm of God. Stretching out to save God’s people.

But that’s not all. We’re told that, after Jesus is consecrated in the Temple in Jerusalem, his parents bring him back to Nazareth in Galilee. And there, the Son of God finds yet another home. For we are told that, in Nazareth, under the watchful care of Mary and Joseph, Jesus grew to maturity, and he was filled with wisdom; and God’s favour was with him. Through the efforts of his holy mother, and his holy father, the little child grows into the holy person he is meant to become. A blessing to the whole world. Reconciling the whole of Creation with its Creator.

Here, sisters and brothers, we find the reason why the Holy Family is called to holiness. It is so that God will be able to bless them by making a home among them. And, through them, to bless the world. And isn’t this also why we too are all called to be holy? To love one another? Not just our immediate family members, but also our extended family? The family of the Church? Even the whole human family? We imitate the Holy Family, so that God will continue to find and to make a home in us. So that Christ will continue to grow to maturity in our midst. So that God’s presence will be seen and felt among us. A presence that brings justice and peace. Reconciliation and healing. Courage and joy. Not just to us. But also, through us, to the rest of the waiting world.

Sisters and brothers, someone once said that he who has a why to live for, can bear almost any how. On this Feast of the Holy Family, our readings give us both the how and the why. Both a recipe for holiness and a reason for putting it into practice. What will we do to follow this recipe more closely today?

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Starting At The Very Beginning

Wedding of Eugene & Lynette

Readings: Genesis 2:18-24; Psalm 32:12, 18, 20-22. R.v.5; John 15:9-12

Eugene and Lynette, my dear friends, I’m not sure if any of you still remember that old musical film from the nineteen sixties entitled The Sound of Music. If you do, perhaps you’ll also remember one of the songs from the film. The song is called Do-Re-Mi. And this is how it begins: Let’s start at the very beginning. It’s a very good place to start. When you read you beginning with A-B-C. When you sing you begin with Do-Re-Mi…

Let’s start at the very beginning… I’m not sure, my dear friends. But I’d like to think that you, Eugene and Lynette, perhaps had these words in mind when you chose the scripture readings for our celebration today. As you know, a wedding marks the beginning of a couple’s married life together. And married life is built on love. But how do we learn to love? Where do we start? Well, from your selection of readings, it seems quite clear that you have chosen to start at the very beginning.

For the first reading you have chosen is a passage from the book of Genesis. Which, as some of us may know, is the book that begins the whole Bible. It is also the book that talks about the beginning of the whole universe. The whole of Creation. And the passage that you have chosen speaks in particular of the beginning of love between man and woman. When you read you begin with A-B-C. When you sing you begin with Do-Re-Mi. But what about love? How does love begin? What are the A-B-Cs and the Do-Re-Mis of true love?

The first reading tells us three things about the beginnings of love. The first is that love is not something we can acquire by our own efforts. It is not something that we can manufacture, or buy, or even steal, for ourselves. In the reading, the man is at first all alone. And he can do nothing to change that. He cannot produce love for himself. God has to intervene. It is not good that the man should be alone, God says. I will make him a helpmate. A companion. And so, God creates a woman. Who, unlike all the other animals, is equal to the man. So that she can be a true partner to him. And he a partner to her. Only in this way can the man and the woman enjoy a loving relationship with each other. And this is the first thing we learn about the beginnings of love. We cannot make or buy love for ourselves. Love is a gift from God. A gift freely given and freely received.

But notice also how this gift comes about. Notice how the man is first made to fall into a deep sleep. What is this sleep? It is the silencing of that part of us that tends to get in the way of love. The part that cares only about my own comfort, for example. The part that always wants things to go my own way. The part that refuses to compromise with others. Refuses even to consider the possibility that there may be another way of looking at things and at people. In other words, my dear friends, for true love to be born, the ego has to be silenced. Put to sleep.

But that’s not all. After the man is put to sleep, something else happens. A rib is taken from him and given to the woman. What this tells us is that love begins through a special form of giving. The man gives away not just an object that he has, but a part of his very self. His own rib. This is how love begins. It begins with the donation of self. It begins with self-sacrifice.

These, then, my dear friends, are the A-B-Cs and the Do-Re-Mis of love. This is what you, Eugene and Lynette, have chosen to remind us about. First, that love is received as a gift from God. Second, that love requires the silencing of the ego. And, third, that love is born of self-donation.

All this is, of course, much easier said than done. Those of us here who have already been married for some time will probably be able to testify that it’s not always easy to remember these A-B-Cs. Much less to live them out. Perhaps it’s a bit easier in the first few months of the honeymoon period. When the initial excitement and euphoria of the wedding are still strong. But not so easy when all of that subsides. And the normal stresses and strains of daily life come knocking on our door. When the demands of work increase, for example. Or when a baby arrives. Or when all those characteristics in our partner that we used to consider so adorable, suddenly begin to seem more than a little irritating. When all this happens, how are we to remain in touch with the beginnings of love? How to remember to look to God, the Giver of Love? To silence our ego? And to continue giving of ourselves to the other? The answer, my dear friends, is found in the gospel reading that you, Eugene and Lynette, have chosen.

Here we find the Lord Jesus telling us the secret to remaining in touch with the beginnings of love. As the Father has loved me, he tells us, so I have loved you. Remain in my love. What does it mean to remain in his love? It is first to remember how Jesus first loved us. How his life is a testimony to the A-B-Cs of love. How, by coming among us as a human person, he let himself become God’s Gift of love to us. How he allowed his own ego to be silenced. Especially in the Garden of Gethsemane, when he could have chosen to run away. But, instead, he willingly sacrificed himself on the Cross. So that we might be saved.

It is by constantly remembering and living out of this love that the Lord Jesus has for us all, that we in our turn find the strength and the courage to love one another. Even and especially when the going gets tough. And this is true not just for you, Eugene and Lynette. It is true also for the rest of us, who are gathered here to express our commitment to supporting you in your marriage. Especially those of us who call ourselves followers of Christ. We too are called to remain in touch with the A-B-Cs and Do-Re-Mis of love. By continuing to develop and to nurture our own relationship with Christ. By receiving love as a gift. By silencing our egos. By giving of ourselves to one another. And we are happy to do this. Happy to make this commitment. Because we believe what Jesus tells us in the gospel. That when we remain in his love for us by loving one another, his own joy will be in us, and our joy will be complete.

My dear friends, Eugene and Lynette, when you read you begin with A-B-C. When you sing you begin with Do-Re-Mi. What must we do to keep starting from the very beginning of love today?

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Put A Ring On It

Solemnity Of The Nativity Of The Lord
(Mass During The Day)

Readings: Isaiah 52:7-10; Psalm 97:1-6; Hebrews 1:1-6; John 1:1-18

I need no permission. Did I mention?
Don't pay him any attention.
‘Cos you had your turn. And now you’re gonna learn.
What it really feels like to miss me.
‘Cos if you liked it, then you shoulda put a ring on it.
If you liked it, then you shoulda put a ring on it...

Sisters and brothers, I think at least some of you are familiar with these words. They come from a song, by Beyoncé, entitled Single Ladies. The song, as you may recall, is sung by a recently single lady. A woman who has just broken up with her boyfriend. And she broke up with him because, even though they had been together for three years, he still hadn’t proposed to her. Hadn’t put a ring on her finger. Perhaps he had shown her a good time. Bought her expensive gifts. Even whispered sweet nothings in her ear. But, after three years, all of that just wasn’t enough. ‘Cos, if you liked it, then you shoulda put a ring on it. If he really loved her, he should have proposed to her by now.

The song can perhaps be summarised in three words: Talk is cheap. Talk is cheap, if it’s not translated into appropriate action. Into visible effects. Words of love should eventually lead to a marriage proposal. A ring on the finger. A visible expression of the lover’s commitment to spending his whole life with the beloved. Otherwise they’re just mere words. Empty talk. Hollow sounds that can be heard. But the effects of which cannot be seen. And talk like that doesn’t have much value. Empty talk is cheap. If you liked it, then you shoulda put a ring on it…

I mention this song not because I want to scandalise you. But  because I think it provides a helpful contrast to what we are celebrating today. Christmas is the exact opposite of empty talk. In direct contrast to worthless words, what we celebrate today is a Word-Beyond-Price. A Word of great Power and Beauty. A Word that has visible effects in our lives and in our world. A Word that can not only be heard. But also seen and felt.

In the first reading, for seventy long years, the people of Judah have been suffering in exile in Babylon. And now, God finally speaks to them a reassuring Word. A promise of salvation. And, unlike many of our human words, God’s Word is not empty but full. God’s Word is grounded in a serious commitment on the part of God. Commitment to the people’s well-being. Commitment that is expressed in effective action. Not only is the Lord consoling his people. The Lord is actually already redeeming them. Setting them free from exile. Returning them to their own land. The Lord bares his holy arm in the sight of the nations, and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God. Unlike empty talk, which only rings in our ears, God’s Word has effects that can be seen with our eyes. It is a Word-of-Great-Beauty. A Word-Beyond-Price.

But that’s still not quite the full extent of what we celebrate at Christmas. For what is seen in the first reading are only the effects of God’s Word spoken through the prophets. Through human messengers. At Christmas, something even more wonderful happens. Not just the effects. But God’s Word Himself becomes visible. Speaking to us no longer only through the borrowed voices of human messengers. But in His own Voice. As the second reading reminds us, at various times in the past... God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets; but in our own time... he has spoken to us through his Son.

And the gospel tells us just how this remarkable communication comes about. The Word was made flesh, he lived among us, and we saw his glory. This is what Christmas is about. This is what we celebrate. The Word of God, the Second Person of the Trinity, becomes a human being. Takes on human flesh. So as to speak to us, in a human voice that is His very own. To bear with us the burdens and temptations of human existence, in a body that is his very own. To lay down, and then to take up again, a human life that is his very own. And all of this to prove to us just how committed God is to us. How much in love God is with us. How willing God is to pay any price, to bear any sacrifice, for us.

Sisters and brothers, this is the wondrous Mystery we are celebrating today. The Mystery of a God who is not satisfied with just whispering sweet nothings in our ears. Or simply showing us a good time. Today, we celebrate a God who does what that boyfriend in Beyoncé’s song was unwilling to do. In the coming of Christ at Christmas, God makes an unbreakable commitment to us. God offers us an irrevocable proposal of marriage. God gives to us a ring to be placed on our finger. A visible sign of a Love-Beyond-All-Telling. Spoken in a Word-of-Great-Beauty. A Word-That-Was-Made-Flesh. A Word-Beyond-Price.

And what a joy this is for us. This commitment of God. For us who live in a society that enjoys such a great abundance of options. But that so often finds itself unable to choose among them. Unwilling to commit to any one of them. For to say yes to one, is also often to so no to the others. Something that many of us can’t quite bring ourselves to do. Are afraid to do. And, even when we do manage to commit, we frequently find ourselves unable to live out the implications of that commitment. Isn’t this why so many marriages break down? And within a few years of the wedding.

And yet, even though we may seem so allergic to commitment, there remains a part of us that can’t live without it. In a society that often seems to know nothing else than empty talk, there remains a place deep within our hearts where we still yearn to hear and to see the Word-Beyond-Price. To experience God committing Himself to us in an irrevocable proposal of marriage.

But let us be honest, sisters and brothers. A marriage proposal is still only a proposal. For a marriage to result, something else is needed. The proposal must be accepted. Accepted not just with empty talk. But with true commitment. Commitment made visible in lives that are lived the way John the Baptist lived his life. As a witness to speak for the light, so that everyone might believe through him. This, too, my dear friends, is what we celebrate at Christmas. Not just God’s commitment to us. But also our acceptance of that commitment. And our making of a return-commitment to God. In our Baptism. In our Confirmation. In the Eucharist. In our daily lives...

Sisters and brothers, empty talk is cheap. If you liked it, then you shoulda put a ring on it. In the coming of Christ at Christmas, our Divine Boyfriend has already placed a ring on our finger. Has already committed Himself to us in a Word that cannot be taken back. A Word-of-Great-Beauty. A Word-Made-Flesh. A Word-Beyond-Price. How shall we respond? What kind of word shall we speak? What commitment shall we make? How might we place a ring on the Lord’s finger today?

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Proof of the Pudding

4th Sunday in Advent (B)

Picture: cc Nickster 2000

The proof of the pudding is in the eating. Sisters and brothers, I’m sure you’re familiar with this old English saying. You know what it means. It refers to how the true value of something is judged, not so much by looking at it, but by experiencing it. By putting it to use. So a house, for example, may look very elegant and impressive on the outside. But you still wouldn’t consider it a good house, if things start to fall apart soon after you move in. If the floor tiles start popping up, for example. Or the water pipes start leaking. Or the paint begins to peel. In that case, you could probably use another saying to describe the house. A Chinese one this time. You could say that the house was ho kua bo ho jiak (好看不好吃). Nice to look at, but not good to eat.

And it is, of course, wise to recall these proverbs not just after you’ve moved into the house. That would be too late. Better to be mindful of them while the house is still being built. So that you’ll take care to ensure that the house is properly constructed. Built to be lived in. And not just to be looked at. So that you’ll remember to make certain that, in constructing your house, the contractor uses durable materials. And good workmanship.

But why talk about building houses in Advent? As you know, Advent is a time for making space for the God-Who-Comes. In a sense, in Advent, we make an effort to build a spiritual house for the Christ-child. So that there will be a place fit for him to live in–in our hearts and in our homes, in our church and in our world–when he comes to us at Christmas. But what kind of building must we do to ensure that Jesus finds a fitting welcome? A house that’s not just nice to look at. But also good to eat. Fit for the Lord to live in. This is the crucial question that our Mass readings help us to answer, on this 4th and final Sunday of Advent.

The first reading presents us with a rather curious situation. King David wants to build a House, a Temple, for God. But God refuses to let him do so. Why? Why not let David go ahead with his plans? I’m not sure, sisters and brothers. But perhaps it has something to do with how God wants God’s House to be built. At this point in the story, King David has just succeeded in defeating all his enemies. After a string of victorious battles, the Lord has finally given him rest. But David doesn’t seem to want to rest. He prefers to quickly get busy again. To undertake a huge building project to add to the list of his achievements on the battle-field.

God, however, seems mindful of the dangers that come with this kind of building. Building on one’s own achievements. Building from a interior place of busyness and restlessness. Very likely God knows that this kind of building too easily leads to the inflation of one’s own ego. We end up building a house not for God but for ourselves. A house that might be nice to look at, but not good to eat. So God stops David. And, instead, reminds the king that all the achievements he has accumulated so far, have been attained only through the help of God. They are blessings. So that, rather than presume to build a House for God, David should first take time to rest in, and to be grateful for, the house that God is building for him. And his people.

In this way, God teaches David (and the rest of us) the proper way to build a House for God. A space fit for God to live in. And not just nice to look at. Such a holy place must be built not on one’s own achievements. But on the blessings received from God. Not from an anxious need to remain constantly busy. But from a place of tranquility and rest. Rest that God alone can provide. Rest in the delight that our loving God takes in each and all of us. Without our having, or being able, to do anything to earn it. This is how we build for the sake of God. And not just to feed our own hungry egos. It is only in this way that we can do what the second reading encourages us to do. To give glory to him through Jesus Christ for ever and ever. Amen.

But, even if all this theory is true, how does it translate into practice? What does it look like when someone finds the courage to build in this way. To build on blessings rather than achievements. To build from a place of rest rather than anxiety. To build to glorify God rather than to feed one’s own ego. The answer is found in the gospel. Here, it is Mary who shows us how to build a House fit for God. It is Mary who demonstrates to us how to make a space for God to enter into our hearts, into our lives, and into our world.

Notice how the building is done only at God’s initiative. Only on the foundation of God’s blessing. That is why the angel calls Mary highly favoured. Full of grace. Her part is only to obey. To yield to God’s call. To accept God’s gift. Which, in itself, is not an easy thing to do. For, to do this, Mary has to adjust the plans that have already been made for her and Joseph, her betrothed. She has to consent to being the mother of a child whose father is not her husband. A very dangerous prospect at the time. It is no wonder then, that Mary is, at first, deeply disturbed.

And yet, she courageously brings her unrest before the Lord. She bravely questions the angel. Who tells her what she needs to hear, in order for her to once again find rest. So that, by the end of their conversation, Mary is able to give to the angel her generous consent. To say yes to making a space for God in her heart and in her womb. And, in the process, God finds a home on earth. A Temple made not of stone, but of human flesh. Built not on human achievements, but on divine grace. Constructed not to feed egos, but to glorify God.

All of which should help us to reflect on our own ongoing efforts at preparing for Christ’s coming at Christmas. Very likely, we are buying gifts and organising parties. We have put up cribs and decorated Christmas trees. We have gathered with others to share our prayers and to confess our sins. All these activities are good and necessary. Important ways by which we prepare to welcome the Lord. And yet, it also remains crucial for us to remember the lesson that our Mass readings are teaching us today. That all these efforts of ours at building a spiritual house for God will only bear good fruit to the extent that we are truly building for God and not just for ourselves. Truly building on our blessings and not just on our achievements. Truly building from an interior place of rest and not restlessness. And to do this means that, more than frantic activity, what we need is patient courage. Courage that Mary had. Courage to count our blessings. To rest in God’s love. And to give praise and glory to the Lord of our Salvation.

Sisters and brothers, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. How good is your pudding today?

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Naked Unto Joy

3rd Sunday in Advent (B)

Picture: asiaone

Sisters and brothers, if the news reports are to be believed, there were at least 100 very happy people on Orchard Road last Thursday morning. Perhaps some of you know what I’m talking about. You know the reason for the joy. You know that, on Thursday morning, a certain clothing store on Orchard Road launched its annual winter promotion by offering free clothes to its first 100 shoppers. Of course, that in itself is no big deal. After all, distributing freebies is a common sales gimmick. What made the event stand out was the fact that, in order to get the free clothes, the first 100 customers had to show up at the store half-naked! That’s right. It was a Semi-Naked Sale. Come in swimwear, and we’ve got you covered. That was the slogan.

And what do you think was the response? Well, pretty good, apparently. The first two people in line started queueing from as early as 11pm the night before! And, by 8am on Thursday morning, there were already close to 70 people outside the store. All eagerly waiting to experience the joy of being clothed for free. So eager that they were willing to shed their dignity. To strip off their garments. To bare their bodies. If only partially.

Sisters and brothers, before you rush off to report me to the Archbishop, please let me assure you that I am in no way expressing support for or approval of this Semi-Naked Sales Promotion. Much less am I suggesting that we do the same here in church. I mention this only because, strange as it may sound, I think it bears more than a passing resemblance to what we find in our readings on this 3rd Sunday of Advent.

As you know, traditionally, the 3rd Sunday of Advent is also known as Gaudete Sunday. From the Latin word that means rejoice! And indeed our readings today are full of joy. Filled with encouragement to rejoice. It’s as though our liturgy were carrying out a winter promotion of its own. A pre-Christmas campaign of joy. And, like that sales event on Orchard Road, the first reading describes this joy in terms of someone getting clothes for free. I exult for joy in the Lord, the prophet exclaims. My soul rejoices in my God, for he has clothed me in the garments of salvation, he has wrapped me in the cloak of integrity...

But what does this mean for us? What are these garments of salvation? What is this cloak of integrity? And how does this person come to be clothed? The first reading compares these clothes to the finery worn by a bride and her groom. Except that, as we all know, it’s not really the clothes and accessories themselves that bring joy at a wedding. These things symbolise something much deeper. At a wedding, the bride and groom dress themselves up not just in specially tailored fabrics. And finely crafted jewellery. When they get married, the couple are actually clothing themselves in one another. In the love that they have for each other. This is the deeper reason for their joy.

Similarly, the joy that the prophet speaks about in the first reading does not come from being clothed in any ordinary outfit. Not even something made by the most famous of fashion designers. What the prophet rejoices in, the thing that he is being clothed with, is nothing less than God Himself. The spirit of the Lord has been given to me, for the Lord has anointed me… This is the cause of joy. Not just being clothed in garments of gold. But being anointed by the Spirit of God. Being wrapped in the power and presence of God.

And this is also the reason why, in the second reading, St. Paul wants the Thessalonians to be happy at all times. Not so much because all their problems have been solved. Or because they have nothing anymore to be sad about. But because, in Baptism, they have all been clothed in Christ Jesus. Wrapped in the Spirit. Who keeps them safe and blameless. Even in the midst of their struggles. Helping them to remain faithful to God. Even as they continue to do what we ourselves are doing in this beautiful Season of Advent. Await the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.

But that’s not all. Joy and clothing are not the only things that our liturgy has in common with that sales event on Orchard Road Thursday morning. There is something else. The joy that God provides in our readings is offered to a particular group of people. In the first reading, the prophet is sent to comfort a people in Exile. To bring good news to the poor, to bind up hearts that are broken. In the responsorial psalm, the Blessed Virgin Mary sings of how God looks on his servant in her nothingness. How he fills the starving with good things. And sends the rich away empty. The people that God chooses to clothe in garments of joy are people who are in need. People who are, in a sense, naked. And not just naked. But unable to clothe themselves. And not just unable to clothe themselves. But ready and willing to acknowledge and to accept their inability. To embrace their vulnerability. To own up to their weakness. To their need for God.

This too is what we find in John the Baptist. In the gospel, the Baptist has no illusions about who he is and what he can and cannot do. He accepts that he is not the light. Only a witness to speak for the light. He freely admits that he is not the Christ. Not the Saviour of the world. Indeed he considers himself unfit even to undo the sandal-strap of the One who is coming after him.

What we find in John the Baptist, sisters and brothers, is a refreshing humility. A paradoxical modesty. That is unafraid to stand naked before God. And it is precisely into the hearts and lives of people such as this that Christ the Lord chooses to come. People willing to be stripped of all the things that others may use to cover up their human weakness. People willing to come before God in their nakedness. It is precisely such people that God chooses to clothe in garments of joy.

All of which should prompt us to reflect upon ourselves. We who continue to prepare ourselves to welcome the Lord when he comes at Christmas. We who make it a habit to buy and to wear  new clothes in the festive season. Which, in itself, is not a bad thing. As long as we do not forget that what’s more important is to allow ourselves to be anointed, enwrapped, by the Spirit of God. To be clothed in the precious Body and Blood of Christ. And this is something that we cannot do for ourselves. It is a gift from God. Freely given to those of us who are willing to lay bare those areas in our lives that we prefer to keep under wraps. Areas where we are weak and vulnerable. Helpless and needy. Places where our consciences may have been pricked. Our egos deflated. Our hearts broken and torn...

Sisters and brothers, there seems to be no shortage of people willing to bare their bodies before others. Just to receive clothes that will last for a few years. How willing are we to bare our souls before God. So as to receive garments that will endure for all eternity? On this 3rd Sunday in Advent, how ready are you to stand naked before God today?

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Called From Coma To Consciousness

1st Sunday in Advent (B)

Picture: cc BK

Sisters and brothers, I once heard a story about someone who fell into a coma after a serious car accident. And the doctors were unable to revive her. In desperation, the family sought the help of a folk healer. Who said that the trauma of the accident had somehow caused the person’s soul to become separated from her body. And, since the body had been moved, the soul was now unable to find its way back to it. Hence the coma. To help the person, the healer went back to the scene of the accident and performed some rituals to recall the soul. And to lead it back to where the body lay, unconscious, in hospital. Well, believe it or not, soon after that, the comatose patient actually regained full consciousness. Much to the family’s relief.

To be called from coma to consciousness. Wouldn’t that be a precious gift? But perhaps we may be unimpressed. After all, how often does a person fall into a coma? And is it even possible for a soul to be separated and then reunited with the body? Surely this is only a fairy tale.

And yet, haven’t we met people who live more or less habitually in a coma-like condition? People who seem less than fully conscious. People who are there, but not quite there. People who, for example, may have been traumatised by some event in the past. And, as a result, are only half alive, because they can’t get over the hurt. Or can’t forgive the one who hurt them.

And what about people who are not so much caught up in the past as obsessed with something in the present? Something like money. Or success. Or good looks. Or gambling. Or gaming... Don’t obsessions like these also cause people to be somehow less than conscious? To live as though their souls were separated from their bodies?

Nor are trauma and obsession the only things that can cause such a condition. Technology too can result in a loss of consciousness. Don’t we often see people walking down the street, for example, with their eyes glued to their phones? Or driving a car while texting? Or even listening to a homily while tweeting? Like the person in a coma, they too are there, but not quite there. They walk without really walking. Drive without really driving. Listen without really listening. In fact, it’s probably no exaggeration to say that many of us live much of our lives precisely in such a coma-like condition. With our souls separated, to a greater or lesser extent, from our bodies.

And, of course, our modern society encourages such a condition. We call it multi-tasking. A skill that we cannot do without if we wish to survive and thrive in this fast-paced world of ours. And yet, it doesn’t take much reflection on our part to see that multi-tasking comes at a cost. Just as the accident victim’s coma caused her and her family to suffer. So too does our habitual lack of consciousness hurt others and ourselves as well. Not only do we fail to attend adequately to those around us. We lose sight even of our own legitimate needs. Not only do we tend to neglect our family and friends. Our colleagues and classmates. We may forget even to eat when we ourselves are hungry. To rest when we are tired. To relax when we are stressed. To socialise when we are lonely. To pray when we are burdened… Our coma causes suffering. In ourselves as much as in others.

But if this is true, then what can be done for us? How can we be brought back to consciousness? Sisters and brothers, could it be that what we need is something like what that folk healer was able to provide for the comatose patient? We need someone to call our souls back into our bodies. And isn’t this what our Mass readings do for us on this first Sunday in Advent?

In the gospel, Jesus issues an urgent call to consciousness. In the space of five short verses, the Lord repeats the same instruction no less than four times. Stay awake… because you never know when the time will come… Stay awake… because you do not know when the master of the house is coming… Stay awake! Be attentive to the signs of the master’s coming. Stay awake! But how do we do this? How do we stay awake and remain watchful for God’s coming? We who habitually live in a semi, if not fully, comatose condition. We who are often oblivious even to our own legitimate desires. Let alone the needs of others. How can we become conscious enough to welcome the Lord when he chooses to come to meet us?

Our readings help by awakening in us three important dispositions. The first is something central to the season of Advent. Something expressed very beautifully in both the first reading and the responsorial psalm. Oh, that you would tear the heavens and come down, the prophet Isaiah exclaims. A moving cry of longing matched by the words of the psalmist: God of hosts, bring us back; let your face shine on us and we shall be saved. What these words can do for us, sisters and brothers–if only we pay careful attention to them–is awaken in us that deep longing that each of us has. A longing for full consciousness. A longing  for true happiness. A longing to experience God’s boundless love. A longing that leaves us feeling restless, even when busy with many things. Or frustrated, even when our materials needs have been met. Or lonely, even amidst many people. A longing that motivates us to remain alert for signs of the Lord’s coming.

The second thing that our readings awaken in us is contrition. In the first reading, after begging God to come, the prophet confesses his people’s sinfulness. We had long been rebels against you… And yet, in the midst of this consciousness of sin, the prophet continues to trust in the abiding mercy of God. He remembers who God is and what God has done for the people. You, Lord, yourself are our Father. Our Redeemer...We the clay, you the potter, we are the work of your hand.

Which brings us to the third thing that our readings awaken in us. As we remember all that God has done and continues to do for us. As we remember who God has been and continues to be for to us. What is awakened in us is gratitude. The same gratitude that we find St. Paul expressing in the second reading. I never stop thanking God, he writes to the Corinthians, for all the graces you have received through Jesus Christ… because God, by calling you has joined you to his Son, Jesus Christ…

Longing, contrition and gratitude. Three things that our readings awaken in us. If only we listen carefully to the call that they address to us. A call to greater wakefulness. A call to deeper consciousness. A call to closer attention to the different and exciting ways in which God chooses to come to meet us in our daily lives.

Sisters and brothers, as we begin this beautiful season of Advent, our loving God is calling out to each of us. Calling our wandering souls to return to our bodies. Calling us to wake from our comas into fuller consciousness. What will you do to respond to this call today?

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Signs Of Citizenship

Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ King of the Universe (A)

Picture: cc mroach

Sisters and brothers, imagine for a moment that you want to know whether someone is a citizen of Singapore. Or of some other country. How would you tell? What signs would you look for? One possible sign is, of course, place. Not necessarily the place where the person lives and works. For we all know that a person can live and work in one country, and remain a citizen of another. What we need to consider is not so much the place of residence, as the place of recognition. The place that recognises the person as its citizen. And the place that the person recognises as his/her home.

But how do we tell what this place is? And what does this recognition look like? Well, another sign we might consider is privilege. A citizen enjoys certain privileges at home that non-citizens do not. Here in Singapore, for example, the privilege of owning private residential property is accorded mainly to citizens. Foreign ownership is very much restricted.

But even more than place and privilege, what is perhaps one of the most reliable signs of citizenship is, of course, the passport. A person can quickly prove that s/he is a Singaporean simply by flashing that bright red Singapore passport. So place, privilege, and passport. Three signs for determining whether or not a person is actually a citizen of a particular country.

And yet, as important as it may be to know a person’s nationality, we Christians believe that we are ultimately citizens not of the nations of this world. But of the world to come. We are subjects not just of any earthly government. But of a heavenly ruler. The same person whose solemn feast we celebrate today. Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe. But how can we tell whether this is indeed the case? Are there signs that indicate to us and to others that we are in fact citizens of the Kingdom of God? I believe this is the question that our Mass readings help us to answer today. And the answer is yes. There are reliable tell-tale signs of heavenly citizenship. Signs similar to those that indicate earthly citizenship.

The first sign is again place. Of course, all of us live and work here in this world. This is our current place of residence. And yet, for us who are Christian, this is not quite our eternal home. Like the psalmist, we too can sing of dwelling in the Lord’s own house for ever and ever. Now it’s likely that the psalmist was referring to the Temple in Jerusalem. The place where God was believed to live among the people of Israel. But that holy place is now no more. It has long since been destroyed by the Romans. We Christians believe and live in a different holy place. A new Temple. Made not of solid brick but of living flesh. With Christ as its cornerstone. For us Christians, the place that we recognise as our true home is the Body of Christ. The Church assembled by God. The eternal Jerusalem.

The million dollar question is, of course, whether or not this is really what we believe. Whether or not we actually recognise Christ as our true home. And we answer this question not so much with our lips, but with the lives that we lead. As we go through our daily routines, what is it that takes up most of our time and energy? Are we concerned only with making a comfortable dwelling for ourselves here on this earth? Or is our attention focused instead more on deepening our relationship with God? With securing our home in Christ?

The second sign of heavenly citizenship is privilege. The same privilege that God promises the people in the first reading. And that the psalmist sings about in the responsorial psalm. The wondrous privilege of having Christ as our Good Shepherd. The precious experience of being watched over and protected by a caring and merciful Lord. Who even lays down his life for us. So as to rescue us when we are in trouble. To free us when we find ourselves painfully trapped in our own sinful tendencies and petty resentments. The priceless consolation of being led to refreshing streams when we are thirsty. And treated to a rich banquet when we are hungry. Hungry and thirsty not just for food and drink. But especially for meaning and direction. For love and affection. For inspiration and encouragement.

To be a citizen of the kingdom of God, a sheep of the Lord’s pasture, is to know how to gain access to these privileges. Through personal prayer, for example. And through the celebration of the Sacraments. Chief among which is the Sacrament of the Eucharist that we are gathered here to partake in today. Of course, those who are citizens of the world, will think of prayer and the Sacraments as nothing more than burdensome obligations. Even a massive waste of time. But the citizens of the kingdom of God think differently. They know, from experience, that prayer and the Sacraments are truly a happy privilege. Even a joyous necessity. For they provide much needed nourishment on the journey to our heavenly home.

And yet we must take care not to be mistaken. All this talk about looking forward to another home must not lead us to think that we should neglect our current place of residence. This present world in which we live. Much less the people who share it with us. For our readings speak of a third sign of heavenly citizenship. A kind of passport. A travel document not printed on paper. But written with works of mercy. The same works described by the king in the gospel today. I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink; I was a stranger and you made me welcome... Works of mercy done for the least of the brothers and sisters of Christ. Works of mercy that remain much needed in our world today. Works of mercy that gain us entry into the kingdom prepared for us since the foundation of the world.

So, sisters and brothers, place, privilege and passport are as much signs of heavenly citizenship as they are of the earthly kind. And it is crucial that we keep cultivating these signs in our own lives. For, as St. Paul reminds us in the second reading, the difference between heavenly and earthly citizenship is nothing less than the difference between eternal life and death. For just as all men die in Adam, so all men will be brought to life in Christ.

Sisters and brothers, on this last Sunday of our liturgical year, we are reminded that here we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come (Hb 13:14). The city in which Christ is acclaimed King of the Universe. The city in which God is worshipped as all in all.

Sisters and brothers, what will you do to claim and to keep your citizenship in this heavenly city today?

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Asset or Liability?

33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Picture: cc Rebecca Wilson

Sisters and brothers, do you know the difference between an asset and a liability? I’m sure you do. An asset is something useful and valuable. Something that’s advantageous for you to have. A liability, on the other hand, is just the opposite. It’s a burden. Something that adds trouble to your life. Puts you at a disadvantage. But have you ever considered how the way we classify something–either as an asset or as a liability–actually affects the way we relate to it?

Just the other day, I heard someone talk about an experience she’d had trying to discourage a couple from having an abortion. The man she was talking to was very angry, because the child that he and his wife had conceived was stricken with Down’s Syndrome. So upset was he that he couldn’t even bring himself to name his own child. Preferring to refer to the unborn baby as it. Thankfully, however, he finally agreed to have the child put up for adoption. And, in the process, this man was amazed by how many couples were more than happy to welcome his unwanted child into their homes. Why should all these couples want a handicapped child like his?

What do you think, sisters and brothers? What accounts for the difference in attitude between that man and the people who were willing to adopt his child? The answer is not difficult to guess, right? The man saw his child as a liability. A burden. Something that would put him at a disadvantage. In contrast, the other couples were somehow able to see the child as an asset. A gift. Perhaps even a blessing. Something that would bring joy into their lives... A single unborn child. Yet classified in two very different ways. Leading to two contrasting attitudes and reactions.

Don’t we find something similar in the parable that Jesus tells in today’s gospel? What is the difference between the first two servants and the last? What makes the first two invest their master’s money, and the last one bury it? At first glance the difference is simply between two kinds of people. The hardworking and the idle. Those who are good and faithful, and the one who is wicked and lazy. But why the difference? What is it that helps the first two servants to be diligent? And what is it that causes the last one to be lazy?

I’m not sure, sisters and brothers, but I think the answer has to do with how each servant classifies the money handed to him by his master. The first two servants quite obviously see what is entrusted to them as an asset. An opportunity. Something valuable that they can invest. So as to make more money for their master. The last servant, however, sees the money as a liability. Something that could get him into trouble if he somehow happened to lose it. The first two were eager to make a profit for their master. The last one was afraid to get himself into trouble. The difference has to do with classifying something either as an asset or a liability.

Which should also account for why the the perfect wife in the first reading is so hardworking. Even though she doesn’t really have to be. Since the bible tells us that she actually has serving girls of her own. People who can do the work for her. Like the first two servants in the gospel parable, this wife sees her work, and the time that she has, as assets. Opportunities to make the life of her family even better than it already is.

But what has all this to do with us? To answer this question, we might perhaps begin by asking ourselves what are the things that God has entrusted to us? Each of us will probably answer this question differently. But I think that probably the biggest thing that God has entrusted to us is simply the relationship that God has established with us. The relationship that God began simply by creating us. The relationship that God renewed by sending Jesus to be the sacrifice that takes away our sins. The relationship that God continues to keep alive and nurture by showering countless blessings upon us everyday. Even if some of these blessings remain in disguise.

If this is true, then a further question we might want to ask ourselves is how we view our relationship with God. Do we see it more as an asset? Or more as a liability? How can we tell? Well, one way is to consider how we feel about the things that help us to build up this relationship. How do I feel, for example, about having to come to Mass every Sunday? Or about spending quality time everyday in prayer? Or about reaching out to people who may be in need of my help? How willing am I to do these things? Am I eager or reluctant? Diligent or lazy?

And what can I do, if I happen to find myself more reluctant than eager? More lazy than diligent? What can help me to begin to view my relationship with God more as an asset than as a liability? There are at least two things I might consider. The first is something that both the gospel and the second reading invite me to do. Which is to look ahead to the future. Just as Jesus speaks of a time when the master will return, so too does St. Paul write about the Day of the Lord. When this day arrives, it is those who have taken the trouble to cultivate their relationship with God who will be rewarded. The people that Paul calls sons of light and daughters of the day. People who have taken the trouble to stay wide awake and sober. So as to be ready to welcome the Lord even when he comes like a thief in the night.

But that’s not all. I do not have to wait till the Day of the Lord to enjoy the benefits of cultivating my relationship with God. For the the responsorial psalm reminds me that those who fear the Lord, those who put God first, will be happy and prosper. This doesn’t mean, of course, that I will surely be rich and famous. What it does mean is actually what we prayed for earlier in our opening prayer. Where we asked God to grant us the constant gladness of being devoted to you, for it is full and lasting happiness to serve with constancy the author of all that is good. In a very real way, to cultivate one’s relationship with God is really it’s own reward. For the closer we come to God, the more rooted and grounded we become in God’s steadfast love for us. As St. Paul writes in the letter to the Romans (8:31) if God is for us, who is against us?

Sisters and brothers, how we relate to something depends very much on how we classify it. How would you classify your relationship with God? Is it more of an asset or a liability? And what difference will it make in your life today?

Sunday, November 09, 2014

Making Life Liveable...

Feast of The Dedication Of The Lateran Basilica

Picture: cc Don Shrimpton

Sisters and brothers, what do you think are the minimum conditions you need to live in a particular place? The essential elements that make a place fit for human habitation? The things that make life liveable. What are they? A roof over your head, perhaps? Running water? Modern sanitation? Your own room? A bed? An aircon? Wifi connection? What do you think?

Some years ago, as part of the final stage of Jesuit training, I was sent to live for a week in a slum. Fortunately for me, the two families, who took turns to host me, lived in houses with some access to electricity and modern sanitation. But, even then, the living conditions were quite deplorable. One house was barely half the size of a one-room HDB unit. And that tiny space was shared by 8-10 people. I couldn’t be sure exactly how many, because some came home after I’d gone to bed. And left before I woke up. The other house was slightly larger. But the toilet-cum-bathroom was so small that, once inside, you barely had room to move. And since the space had neither natural nor artificial light, everything had to be done in the dark.

Even so, to my surprise, despite the poor living conditions, my days in the slum were happy ones. This was largely because of the way I was treated. As an honoured guest. Given the very best that each family could offer. Little though that was. In one house, I was given an old couch to sleep on. It was so narrow, I didn’t have room to turn. And so short, I could hardly stretch out my legs. But it was where the head of the household usually slept. Everyone else just squeezed together, side by side, on the hard floor. In the other house, I was given a bed that was infested with bugs. But it was the only bed they had. Again, reserved for the head of the household.

Sure, the conditions were terrible. Especially to my Singaporean sensibilities. But I was welcomed and accepted. Treated with respect and honour. Even with great affection. And, much to my surprise, this was enough to make me happy. Enough to make that slum fit for me to live in. At least in that short but memorable week that I spent there. So that when the time was up, I actually found myself sad to leave. In spite of the horrible physical conditions, my hosts had somehow managed to make my life among them liveable. Even happy. Simply by treating me well.

I mention this, because I think it may help us to understand the reason why Jesus is so angry in the gospel today. He is upset at what he finds in the Temple in Jerusalem. The conditions there have become so bad as to make the place unfit for God to live in. But why? Is it because the space has become too small? Or because the paint is peeling from the walls? Or the furniture is too old? Not quite. The reason goes beyond the physical conditions. Important though these may be.

You have turned my Father’s house into a market, Jesus exclaims. But what does he mean? How does one turn a temple–a house of God–into a market? Is it simply by using the space to buy and sell things? Don’t we ourselves buy and sell books and religious articles in this church? Don’t we raise funds and reserve columbarium niches here? So are we also turning this church into a market? A place unfit for God to live in? Well, it all depends, doesn’t it?

A market is a market because its primary purpose is the buying and selling of things. You may have seen markets where, for example, one or more altars have been set up inside them. But the presence of those altars do not make the market a place of worship. They are set up so that the stallholders can pray for good business. That is their main purpose. And that is what makes the place a market rather than a temple. The primary concern is business. Not worship. Money. Not God.

In contrast, a church is a church because its primary purpose is worship. Even if buying and selling is carried out, this is fine, as long as it is done to facilitate worship. Not the other way around. In other words, what makes a place fit for God to live in, is the way we treat God there. Even if the physical conditions may be poor, our God will still be happy to live in the place. As long as we treat God well. Much like how I was treated in the slum. Giving God glory and honour. And all the very best that we have to offer. Instead of using God for our own profit. Or using our worship as an excuse for making money. Isn’t this why Jesus is so upset? The people have turned God’s house into a market. A place where business is the primary concern. Not God.

But God doesn’t live only in physical structures. Not just in buildings like the Temple in Jerusalem. Or the Lateran Basilica in Rome. Whose feast we celebrate today. Or even this little church of ours. More than holy places, God wishes to live in a holy people. In us. The people whom God has claimed as his own. As St. Paul reminds the Corinthians in the second reading: Didn’t you realise that you were God’s temple and that the Spirit of God was living among you? If this is true, then we need to ensure that, not just our churches, but we ourselves are fit for God to live in. How to do this? Again, by trying our best to treat God well. To give God glory and honour. And all the very best that we have to offer. Instead of using God to turn a profit. Or manipulating God to get what we want. Or confining God to a tiny space. In church. For one hour a week. On a Sunday.

And how will we know that we are actually living in this way? What are the signs that our lives are fit for God to live in? The answer is found in the first reading. Which gives us a description of what it looks like when God’s Presence fills the Temple. When this happens, the life-giving stream of God’s Presence gushes out powerfully from that holy place. And wherever it goes, the stream makes its surroundings liveable. Not just for God, but for all manner of living things. Human and otherwise.

The same can be said for us. If we are indeed the Temple of God. Then the powerful stream of God’s Presence will continue to gush out from us to the rest of world. Bringing abundant life wherever it flows. To all the people and situations that we encounter in the enormous marketplace that is our world today. To those who may live in deplorable conditions. Victims of the market. People who live in slums. And also those who, though they may live more comfortably, still can’t quite find true happiness. Because they don’t know how to relate to others. Except according to the rules of the market.

Sisters and brothers, this is how we know that we are providing conditions fit for God to live in and among us. When we continue to do what Jesus does in the gospel today. Contribute, each in our own way, towards making our world a better place to live in. For God. For us. And for the rest of Creation.

Sisters and brothers, what are you doing to make life more liveable in your world today?

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Living Love & Telling Time

30th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Picture: cc Robert Couse-Baker

Sisters and brothers, do you ever think about the importance of being able to tell the time? To know what time it is is also to know where I need to be. And what I need to do. Have you ever missed an important appointment, for example? Or a valuable career opportunity, perhaps? Or even an episode of your favourite Korean drama? Simply because you lost track of time? Doing the things we love often depends upon knowing what time it is. But what does it take to tell time? And to do it accurately?

Imagine, for a moment, the face of a clock. The kind that has moving hands. Rather than changing numbers. What do you think are the more important parts that make up this machine? The things that enable it to keep time? I’m no expert. But I think a clock has three main components. The first is the mechanism inside the clock. The moving internal parts that usually remain unseen. These are crucial. They have to move at just the right speed. Otherwise the clock will either run too fast or too slow.

And yet, as important as it is, the internal mechanism alone is not enough for us to tell the time. We also need the hands on the face of the clock. By pointing at the right numbers, the hour, the minute, and the second hands indicate to us the exact time at any given moment. But that’s not all. For the clock to keep accurate time, at least one more important component is needed. Something called the pivot. This is the slender rod at the centre of the clock, which joins the mechanism to the hands. Translating the regular internal movement into a reliable external reading. Without the pivot, the inner mechanism might continue to move, but the hands will not turn. The clock would be useless.

Internal mechanism. External hands. Connecting pivot. Three essential components to an accurate clock. Three things that help us to tell time. To know where we need to be and what we need to do at any given moment. To understand what life requires of us. And how we should respond. Sisters and brothers, as strange as it may sound, I believe that this is also what our Mass readings present to us. Today, our readings provide us with something like the face of a clock. Helping us to see for ourselves what time it is in our lives as Christians. And what God requires of us here and now.

Like any good clock, there are three main parts. First, the internal mechanism. In the gospel, the Pharisees try to disconcert Jesus–to trip him up– by asking him a complex legal question. Which is the greatest commandment of the Law? This is a difficult question, because the Law, as you know, consists of no less than 613 commandments. To single out one of these as the most important is no easy task. And yet, by trying to be difficult, the Pharisees actually help to uncover for us exactly what it is that makes Jesus tick. The inner mechanism that drives the Lord’s every thought and word and action. You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. You must love your neighbour as yourself. Love of God and love of neighbour. This is what moves Jesus. What leads him to descend from heaven onto the earth and into the grave. And then, at the appointed time, to ascend again back into the sky. And if this is true of Jesus, our Master. Then it should also be true of us, his disciples, as well. Our interior lives should also be motivated by the same movement of love.

But that’s not all. The interior movement of love needs also to be translated into concrete external actions. Actions like those described in the first reading. Here, having freed the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt, God enters into a covenant with them. Teaching them how they are to live in the Promised Land. God’s instructions are very practical and detailed. They show the Israelites what love of God and of neighbour look like in the particular situation in which they find themselves. Specifically, the love commandment translates into caring for the foreigner, the widow, and the orphan. Three groups of people who are especially vulnerable at the time. Keeping the love commandment also means showing mercy to the poor. Refusing to charge them interest on a loan. Not depriving them of what they need to keep warm at night...

Like the hands of a clock, the first reading shows us what love requires of the people of Israel in their own particular situation. It indicates to us what love looks like in the concrete. And it should also move us to look at our own situation. To consider, for example, who are the most vulnerable in our midst. Who are the equivalent of the foreigner and the widow. The orphan and the poor. To identify the ways in which our society may be exploiting the needy. By abusing migrant workers for example. Those who arrive on our shores seeking a better life. By confiscating their passports. By making them pay exorbitant agency fees. By treating them more like commodities than human beings. Or even by neglecting or mistreating our very own children. By pressurising them to perform beyond their capabilities. Sisters and brothers, what do you think? To what forms of vulnerability and need might the turning hands of the clock of God’s love be pointing to us? And how are we being invited to respond?

To answer these questions honestly, there is something else that we need. Something that connects the internal movements to the external actions of love. We need a pivot. Which is what we find in both the responsorial psalm and the second reading. The psalm does this through the power of memory. It reminds us of how God is our rock, our fortress, our saviour. Our shield, our mighty help, our stronghold. It invites us to remember–as we do every time we gather to celebrate the Eucharist–how God has been and continues to be a safe refuge for us in all our trials and temptations. It also inspires us to make a return. Of love for love. To respond by saying–not just with our lips, but also with our lives–I love you, Lord, my strength.

We find a similar connection, a similar pivot, in the second reading. Here St. Paul congratulates the Thessalonians for successfully translating their faith into action. How do they achieve this? By doing two things. Observation and imitation. You observed the sort of life we lived, Paul tells them, and you were led to become imitators of us, and of the Lord. The Thessalonians are able to do what is required of them by remaining connected with the same love that moves and empowers Paul and the Lord Jesus himself. And, by doing this, they themselves, in their turn, become a great example for others everywhere to follow. An example even for us to follow. If only we are willing to observe and to imitate the love of the Lord and of his saints. Both those who have gone before us. As well as those who may still be walking among us. Sitting next us...

Sisters and brothers, as it is with a clock, so too with the love of God and of neighbour. To be able to tell the time accurately, we need three things: interior movement, external actions, and a connecting pivot. What are we doing to continue reading and responding to the signs of our time today?

Monday, October 20, 2014

Order By Attraction

29th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)–Mission Sunday
Good Shepherd Lay Associates Day of Recollection

Picture: cc Windell Oskay

Sisters and brothers, what do you think is the best way to clear up a mess? Imagine, for example, that you’ve gone abroad for a holiday. Leaving your house in the care of some friends. And, upon your return, you find that your friends have left your house in a state of chaos. How would you go about putting things back in order? The answer is quite simple, right? To tidy things up you need to sort them out. Carefully separate one thing from the other. And then put each thing back in its own proper place. Separation. That’s how we usually bring order out of chaos.

Now that may be true of tidying up your house. But can you think of some other situation where another method might work just as well? Or maybe even better? I’m reminded of a science experiment that our teacher once performed for us when we were still in school. Onto a stiff piece of cardboard, the teacher poured a container-full of rusty iron filings. Which spilled out all over the cardboard. Making quite a mess. Then, the teacher took a magnet and put it under the cardboard. And, to our amazement, the chaotic pile of iron filings arranged themselves into an orderly pattern. How did this happen? How did a messy heap get tidied up so neatly and so quickly? You know the answer. It was achieved by the power of attraction. Attraction of the iron filings to the force field exerted by the magnet.

Separation is not the only way to bring order out of chaos. Sometimes attraction works much better. I think this is also the lesson that our Mass readings are trying to teach us today. The gospel presents us with a mess. A state of chaos. The mess comes in the form of a question posed to Jesus by the Pharisees and the Herodians. Is it permissible to pay taxes to Caesar or not? The question is asked with the intention of trapping Jesus. Of getting him into trouble. But even if it’s a dishonest question, a messy question, it’s still a valid one. An important one. Should a faithful Jew pay taxes to a foreign power that is occupying Jewish land by force? This is a difficult question. A messy question. A potentially dangerous question.

How does Jesus tidy up the mess? What answer does he offer? Give back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar–and to God what belongs to God. The answer is as elegant as it is simple. But what does Jesus mean? One possible interpretation is that Jesus is calling for a strict separation of religion and politics. Of church and state. According to this understanding, what Jesus is saying is that the question of whether or not one should pay taxes is a purely political or civil one. And so it should not be mixed up with the religious question of what God requires. To tidy up the mess, we must separate the questions into two boxes. Taxes in one. God in another. And neither should be allowed to affect the other.

But scripture scholars tell us that such a view is mistaken. Not least because, in the ancient world, religion and politics were not separate, but very much mixed. The first reading shows us just how mixed. Here, the Persian king, Cyrus, has conquered the Babylonians, and allowed the people of Israel to return from exile in Babylon to their own land. These actions of Cyrus are clearly political actions. And yet, in the reading, God tells Cyrus that, unknown to him, all his political achievements have actually been the result of God’s action. Though you do not know me, God says, I arm you that men may know from the rising to the setting of the sun that, apart from me, all is nothing. Clearly, in the eyes of God there is no separation between religion and politics. God sees and is concerned about everything and everyone. So that even if the coin used to pay taxes in Jesus’ day may belong to Caesar, Caesar himself belongs to God. Indeed, everything belongs to God. For apart from God, all is nothing.

So how then to tidy up the mess? How to bring order to the chaos? Surely we cannot continue to mix religion and politics in exactly the same way today? Surely we Christians cannot seek to impose all our religious beliefs on everyone else? Especially if we make up only a relatively small percentage of our country’s population? Surely we do not expect our Archbishop to tell the government exactly how to run the country? Or the government to tell us Christians how to worship? And what to believe? So how then are we Christians to conduct ourselves in civil society? When should we speak up? When should we remain silent? How shall we even go about making such decisions? To tidy up the apparent messiness of our political and religious lives? Our Mass readings don’t give us exact answers to all these questions. But they do point us in a helpful direction.

In the second reading, St. Paul praises the Thessalonian Christians for having shown their faith in action, worked for love and persevered through hope, in our Lord Jesus Christ. Even though they live in a largely pagan society, the Thessalonians have succeeded in properly ordering their lives in Christ. How did they manage to do this? For St. Paul, the power to do this comes to them from God. From the attractive force that God exerts upon them. We know that God loves you, Paul writes, and that you have been chosen, because when we brought the Good News to you, it came to you not only as words, but as power and as the Holy Spirit and as utter conviction. If the Thessalonians have succeeded in bringing order out of their chaotic lives, it is because they have allowed themselves to be attracted, above all else, by the power of God’s love for them in Christ Jesus. And, like iron filings arranged by a magnet, they have allowed this powerful attraction to permeate all of their lives. To affect everything that they think and say and do. They have managed to order their lives not so much through separation. But through attraction.

And isn’t this a helpful insight for us to ponder? Especially today, when we celebrate Mission Sunday. And when you Lay Associates and Lay Partners of the Good Shepherd congregation gather to renew your commitment to the mission. For whether we care to admit it or not, it is into a messy world that we are all sent on mission. A chaotic world that cries out for order. And we Christians can only be of some help to the extent that we first allow God to put order into our own individual lives. Arranging them around our primary attraction to God. And then sharing this attraction with others. Even magnetising them. So that they too may be drawn into the force field that is God’s enduring love for the world.

Sisters and brothers, life can often seem quite messy. And yet, God continues to attract us to himself in Christ. What can we do to continue allowing the powerful magnet of God’s love to bring order out of chaos? In hearts, in our lives, and in our world, today?

Sunday, October 05, 2014

Healing Steps

27th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Sisters and brothers, imagine for a moment that you haven’t been feeling too well. You don’t know what exactly is the matter. But something just doesn’t feel right. You’re experiencing symptoms of some sort. Maybe it’s a headache. Or tiredness. Or insomnia. Something like that. Something that’s bearable. But also serious enough to make you worry. So, after suffering in silence for a while, you finally pluck up your courage and go to see a doctor. What can the doctor do for you?

I’m not a doctor. But speaking from a lay person’s perspective, three things come to mind. The first is, of course, diagnosis. The doctor figures out what, if anything, is wrong with you. Then, once this is determined, the doctor goes on to prescribe a course of treatment. And, if the treatment works, a good doctor may also offer you some advice for prevention. For avoiding such illnesses in the future.

Diagnosis, treatment, and prevention. Three important steps by which we are healed. Healed not just of physical ailments. But also spiritual ones as well. Isn’t this what’s happening in our readings today? Isn’t this what the stories of the vineyard are really about? As we’re told in the first reading and the response to the psalm, the vineyard of the Lord is the house of Israel. And something is wrong with the vineyard of the Lord. With God’s people. She’s experiencing certain worrying symptoms. Signs of an illness. What are these signs? And what is God’s diagnosis?

In the first reading, the problem is one of production. The vineyard is producing bad fruit. Despite all the owner’s efforts at cultivating good domesticated grapes, the vineyard produces sour wild grapes instead. In her life as a people, God expects Israel to produce the good domesticated fruit of justice and integrity. Of care and concern for the poor and the weak. The needy and the lonely. To be a society where everyone is adequately provided for. But Israel refuses to be domesticated. She prefers to grow wild. To live by the law of the wild. Survival of the fittest. Everyone looking only to his or her own interests. As a result, Israel produces the tragically sour fruit of bloodshed and distress. Of pain and suffering.

In the gospel, the problem is not just one of production. But also of management. If the vineyard is not producing the good fruit that’s expected of it, it’s because it’s being managed by greedy and dishonest tenants. People who live by the law of the wild. People unwilling to work for another. People who misappropriate the vineyard’s produce. People who scheme to snatch the vineyard itself away from its owner. People willing even to commit murder, just to satisfy their own selfish ambitions.

Sisters and brothers, I’m not sure how you feel when you listen to this diagnosis. But I can’t help wondering if it doesn’t also apply to me. To my life. Both as an individual and as part of a community. A church. A society. A world. Isn’t my life also meant to be a vineyard of the Lord? In everything that I do–at home or at work, in church or in the streets–am I not also supposed to be producing the good fruit of justice and integrity. Of care for the weak and the needy? Doesn’t my life also belong to God?

And yet, how willingly do I submit my life to God’s direction? How often do I prefer instead to run wild? To do only what I want to do? How often do I manage my own life as though it belonged only to me? And not to God? Consciously or unconsciously, how often do I misappropriate the glory and honour that is due to God? Just to puff up my own ego? To feed my own ambition? And doesn’t all this self-centredness cause suffering of some kind? Perhaps, at times, even bloodshed and distress? And isn’t this why, in my more lucid moments, I myself feel like something is wrong, or out of place? Like I need help, and healing?

Which makes it all the more important that we carefully consider the treatment that God prescribes for his problematic vineyard. His wayward people. In the first reading, because the vineyard resists God’s efforts at domesticating it, God decides to abandon it to the wilderness. To tear down the protective wall that God had built around it. To let it face the dangers of living in the wild. The aim is, of course, to lead the vineyard to a change of heart. To entice it to turn back to God. To finally submit itself to God’s management. Not unlike how the prodigal son (Lk 15:11-32) finally decides to return to his father. To live in his father’s house.

A new management is also what Jesus prescribes in the gospel. Since the religious leaders have proven themselves greedy and corrupt, God will replace them with new leaders. People who build their lives not on the ambition of the chief priests and Pharisees. But on the love of Christ. So that the stone rejected by the builders becomes the foundation stone of God’s people.

Sisters and brothers, isn’t this prescription also applicable to us? To me? Perhaps not all the time. But at least sometimes. Sometimes, when I experience trials and difficulties in my life, could it be that God is allowing me to experience the wilderness? But only with the aim of leading me to a change of heart? Could it be that God is inviting me to finally turn over the management of my life into God’s infinitely more capable hands? Into the hands of Christ? The same hands that loved me enough to be nailed to the wood of the Cross? Could it be that it is only when I do this–when I turn over the management of my life to Christ–that I will finally begin to bear the fruit I am meant to bear? Justice and integrity. Healing and wholeness.

But that’s not all, sisters and brothers. Beyond diagnosis and treatment, there is also prevention. Even after being healed, what can I do to avoid illness? To stay healthy? In the second reading, St. Paul suggests three things. The first is prayer. There is no need to worry, Paul writes, but if there is anything you need, pray for it. Much like how going for routine medical check-ups can give us peace of mind. Regular prayer can allow the peace of God to guard our hearts. The second thing is a healthy diet. Not so much what we put into our stomachs, but what we allow to enter our minds and hearts. Fill your minds with everything that is true, everything that is noble, everything that is good and pure… And, finally, the third thing is frequent exercise. Keep doing all the things that you learnt from me, Paul says, and have been taught by me and have heard or seen that I do… Regular prayer, a healthy diet, and frequent exercise. These are St. Paul’s suggestions for remaining in good spiritual shape.

Sisters and brothers, in the book of Exodus (15:26), the people of Israel are assured that God is the the Lord who heals them. What about us? How does God wish to heal us of our ailments? And to make us instruments of healing for others? What can we do to claim this precious healing for ourselves and for our families? For our church and for our world today?

Saturday, September 27, 2014

The Difference A U-Turn Makes

26th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)
100th World Day of Migrants and Refugees

Picture: cc gfpeck

Sisters and brothers, have you ever experienced for yourself what a difference a U-turn can make? Have you ever, for example, found yourself in a car going in the wrong direction? Maybe you took a wrong turn. Or maybe you missed your exit on a highway. What to do? You need to turn around. But you can’t do that unless and until you find a U-turn. In a small city like Singapore, this is usually not too much of a problem. U-turns are relatively common. But imagine travelling in a strange country. And having to drive many kilometres going the wrong way. All because you can’t find a U-turn. It can be quite frustrating. Even scary. Especially if your car is running low on fuel. Or you’re facing an emergency of some sort. In such situations, a U-turn can make all the difference. Even the difference between life and death.

U-turns that make the difference between life and death. This is also what we find in our readings today. In the first reading, we find people making U-turns of two different types. The upright man renounces his integrity to commit sin and dies. The sinner renounces sin to become law-abiding and honest. And so finds life. The upright man makes a U-turn towards death. The sinner towards life. The first sabotages himself. The second wins salvation. In each case it is the direction of the U-turn that makes all the difference. The difference between death and life.

In the gospel too, U-turns are what make all the difference. A father asks two sons to work in his vineyard. One son refuses. But later changes his mind and goes. Another son does the opposite. He agrees. But then changes his mind and doesn’t show up. Both sons make U-turns. But in opposite directions. The first son toward obedience. The second disobedience. But the story is, of course, a parable. It’s not just about obeying an earthly father. But our Father in Heaven. It’s not just about working in an ordinary vineyard. But the Vineyard of Life Eternal. Here, as in the first reading, obedience leads to life. Disobedience results in death. And, again, it’s the direction of the U-turn that makes all the difference.

That much is clear. And yet, sisters and brothers, do we really know what it means to be obedient? Or disobedient? Do we really know what it looks like to be heading towards life? And what it looks like to be going in the opposite direction? Do we really know? Perhaps this may sound to us like a very silly question? After all, we’re respectable church-going people. Of course we know what it means to be obedient to God! Of course we know what it looks like to be on the way to life!

And yet, in the gospel, it is precisely the people who think they know who really don’t. That’s the reason why Jesus tells the parable in the first place. To show the chief priests and elders of the people that they don’t really know what it means to be obedient. That, even though they may pride themselves on their own knowledge and practice of the Law, they are actually heading in the wrong direction. Not towards life. But towards death.

So what does obedience look like? How do we know whether or not we are headed in the right direction? To find the answer to this question, we need to look more closely at our readings. In the first reading, God poses this question to the people: Is what I do unjust? Is it not what you do that is unjust? What is this distinction that God is making? In the eyes of God, what is the difference between the just and the unjust?

Again, the difference has to do with U-turns. The justice of God consists in God’s willingness to allow the sinner to repent. In contrast, God considers the people unjust because they refuse to let this happen. They refuse to give others the opportunity to turn their lives around. To make U-turns. And isn’t this true of the chief priests and elders in the gospel? Thinking that they themselves are already on the right path, they refuse to entertain the possibility that tax collectors and prostitutes could repent and find life. It never occurs to these self-righteous men that public sinners could actually be making their way into the kingdom of God before them.

Sisters and brothers, isn’t this what makes the difference between true justice and injustice? Between obedience and disobedience? Between life and death? The willingness to allow others to make U-turns. The readiness to give those heading in a wrong direction the opportunity to turn their lives around. The responsorial psalm summarises this in a single word. Mercy. Remember your mercy, Lord. The psalmist prays. Do not remember the sins of my youth. In your love remember me… In other words, Lord, be merciful to me. Give me the opportunity to turn my life around. Allow me the chance to make a U-turn unto life.

Remember your mercy, Lord. This poignant prayer of the psalmist, which we can so easily make our own, finds its answer in the second reading. Here St. Paul describes for us what God’s mercy looks like in the flesh. Again, it has to do with U-turns that make all the difference. Though his state was divine, Christ Jesus, in his mercy, chose to make a detour in the direction of our own sinful condition. He chose to empty himself. Even to the point of accepting death on a cross. But God worked a U-turn of his own. God raised him high. Turned around the scandal of his dying. And transformed it into the glory of unending life. Gave him the name which is above all other names. So that, through him and with him and in him, those of us headed in the wrong direction might be able to turn our lives around. If only we would praise his name. If only we would follow in his steps. If only we would immerse ourselves in his mercy. And share it with others.

To show mercy to others. To allow them the opportunity to change their lives for the better. To give them the chance to make a U-turn in the direction of new life. This is what obedience looks like. This is what God has done for us in Christ. This is also what we, in our turn, are called to do for others. And it’s fitting that we should be reminded of this especially today. As we celebrate the 100th World Day of Migrants and Refugees. A day when we consider the many people in the world whose lives have been turned upside down. People displaced from their homes for one reason or another. People crying out for the opportunity to turn their lives around again. People in need of mercy... Not just those living in faraway lands. But also those who have somehow found their way to our shores. Not just those suffering from the more obvious violence of war and natural disasters. But also those fleeing from the more subtle cruelty of  an oppressive global economy. Forced to sell their labour, and sometimes even their bodies, in exchange for poor wages and harsh treatment.

Sisters and brothers, could it be that if we were only to look carefully around us, we would find many still needing to turn their lives around? What can we do to show them mercy? To help them make a U-turn unto new life today?