Sunday, January 26, 2014

Of Space & Light (Rerun)

3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Picture: cc [kerwin]

Sisters and brothers, have you ever come across people fighting over space of some sort? Maybe a seat on a train? Or a parking lot in church? Have you ever wondered what can be done to reduce such conflicts? Even to do away with them altogether?

I’m reminded of the story of a king who wanted to see which of his three sons was wise enough to succeed him. So he called all three to his throne room to test them. To each one he handed a bag of silver, telling them to use the money to buy something that could fill the whole room. Which was enormous. The eldest son returned leading wagons laden with stones. But these were not enough to fill the room. The second son came back with cartloads of sticks. But these too were not enough to fill the room. When it was the youngest son’s turn, the king was surprised to see the boy arrive empty-handed. The prince reached into his robe and pulled out a candle. He placed the candle in the middle of the room, and then lit it with a match. Very quickly, the light from that single candle succeeded where the many sticks and stones had failed. It filled the entire space.

Don’t you find it amazing, sisters and brothers? How light can succeed so easily where solid objects struggle and fail? And there is, of course, an even more amazing difference. When we fill a space with solid objects, we are left with less space for other things. But this is not the case with light. I can switch on as many lamps as I want in this space, but I never have to leave it. Light never occupies space to the exclusion of other things. Unlike solid objects, light fills without occupying. It brightens without excluding.

It’s useful for us to keep this in mind, on this 3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, because our Mass readings are all about space and light. In both the first reading and the gospel, we find a people living in a space that has been occupied by someone else. In the first reading, the Assyrians have conquered the territory of the people of Israel. And, in the gospel, the Romans have done the same. In the midst of this political darkness, it is natural for the people to look toward a brighter time. When the foreign invaders will be driven out. And it seems that this is exactly what the prophecy foretells. The people that walked in darkness has seen a great light. A king will soon arise who will finally break the rod of foreign oppression. Drive out the invaders. Reoccupy the land.

But it’s quite clear that this is not what our readings mean to us. In the gospel, the coming of the light is associated with the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. But Jesus does not call for the overthrow of Roman rule, but for the conversion of human hearts. Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is close at hand. The darkness that Jesus comes to dispel is, above all, a spiritual one. Like the youngest prince in our story, Jesus comes to fill the land not with the sticks and stones of rebellion, but with the light of repentance. While the use of sticks and stones would bring only more violence and conflict, the Light of Christ shines out with mercy and compassion. With reconciliation and healing. We’re told that Jesus went round the whole of Galilee teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the Good News of the kingdom and curing all kinds of diseases and sickness among the people. Jesus fills the whole space of Galilee with his healing Light. And he calls others to join him in doing the same.

In the second reading, we find St. Paul calling for this same movement from sticks and stones to the Light of Christ. According to Paul, the Christians in Corinth are experiencing conflict and division. And the reason is simple. They have carved up their community into solid opposing factions. When people claim that they are for Paul, they mean that they are not for Apollos. And vice versa. By using the names of the apostles in this exclusionary way, the Corinthians are really filling the space of their community life with the violence of sticks and stones. They are acting contrary to what Jesus preached. They remain in spiritual darkness. Which is why Paul reminds them that, instead of competing with one another for human respect, they should be united again in their belief and practice. They should be filling the space of Corinth with the healing Light of Christ.

And this is, of course, not an easy thing to do. It is not easy to move from conflict to compassion. From hurt and anger to healing and reconciliation. From the violence of sticks and stones to the gentle Light of Christ. It is not easy, because the way of Christ is also the way of humility. Of self-emptying. The way of the Cross. In today’s gospel, for example, the Light begins to shine out at a very particular moment. We’re told that it is upon hearing that John had been arrested that Jesus begins his public ministry. It is precisely at a time when it is dangerous to be a prophet, that Jesus decides to become one. And he chooses to do this not just at a particular time, but also in a particular place. We’re told that Jesus went back to Galilee. A place that was under the control of Herod Antipas, the same person responsible for having John the Baptist arrested. And who would eventually have him beheaded. For Jesus, the way of Light is also the way of the Cross. To choose to live in the Light is also to choose, in some way, to die. To die to myself. To die, in particular, to the endless demands of my ego. Even as it keeps trying desperately to fill itself with the sticks and stones of material possessions and human respect.

But still, as difficult as it may be to choose the Light, it is not impossible. For although the Light of Christ does not occupy physical space in the world, it has the mysterious power to make space within our hearts. Especially when I gaze at Christ, as he hangs upon the Cross. And when I recall that he hangs there for me. To save me. To love me. I begin to find in myself the traces of a desire that is deeper even than my desperate craving for wealth and power and recognition. The psalmist describes it as a desire to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life. A desire to live in the kingdom that Jesus proclaims in the gospel. The kingdom of Light, of Justice, and of Peace. The kingdom where all are welcome. Where none are excluded.

Sisters and brothers, some of us may still remember that well-known story of the spiritual master who once posed this question to her disciples: How do you know when the night is ended and the dawn is breaking? One disciple answered: It is when you can tell, from a distance, whether a car is a BMW or a Mercedes Benz. Wrong, replied the teacher. It is, answered another disciple, when you can tell from a distance whether a block of flats is a BTO or a luxury condo. Wrong, said the teacher. You know that the night is over, and the dawn is breaking, when you can look into the face of any other person, and recognise there the face of your sister or your brother. Until you can do that, the light has not dawned upon you. You remain walking in the dark.

Sisters and brothers, what will it take for the dawn to break, for the Light to shine, in our hearts, in our homes, and in our world today?

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Between Facebook and Shakespeare

2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)
(World Day of Migrants & Refugees)

Picture: cc Edinburgh Blog

Sisters and brothers, imagine for a moment that you want to connect with more people. How do you go about doing this? Well, there are different approaches you can take. One common approach is that of publicity. And probably the most effective way to publicise yourself these days is, of course, to tap into the social media networks. To get on Facebook and Twitter. Instagram and Whatsapp. You can get connected very quickly this way. Even instantaneously

And yet, for all their power, there are limitations to this approach. Limitations that become clearer, for example, when you come across someone who tells you that, although she has five thousand friends on Facebook, she still often can’t help feeling lonely. Like no one understands and accepts and appreciates her for who she is.

So what else can we do? Is there a way to get around this difficulty? A way to connect with people beyond the limitations of Facebook? Perhaps there is. Consider how, for example, a story like Romeo and Juliet still has the power to move many people today. More than five hundred years after it was first written by Shakespeare. Written in a time before the ballpoint pen was invented. Let alone the internet and the mobile phone.

But it’s important to see that the kind of connection people experience when watching Romeo and Juliet is rather different from the kind that one typically gets on Facebook. There is a difference in emphasis. Whereas social media like Facebook focus on publicity. On information. Classic pieces of literature like Romeo and Juliet have to do more with identification. People are able to connect with the story because they somehow identify with its characters. They feel like the story is about them.

Another way to describe this difference is to say that Facebook lets us reach out to more people the way butter can be made to cover a larger surface on a slice of bread. By being spread out more thinly. By limiting itself to the more superficial things. By allowing people to connect in the fastest, but also the shallowest, of ways.

In contrast, Romeo and Juliet takes the opposite route. Not superficiality. But depth. Although more than five centuries old, the play continues to touch many people, because it pays attention to the deep and complex emotions of the human heart. And it is this deep connection with our common humanity that makes the play a classic. A work that continues to move people. Long after it was first produced.

Superficiality versus depth. Publicity versus identification. Facebook versus Romeo and Juliet. Two contrasting approaches to connecting with people. And it’s not difficult to guess which is the more enduring. In contrast to the ongoing popularity of Romeo and Juliet, it has recently been reported that, in the short span of 3 years, from 2011 till now, Facebook has actually lost 3 million teenage users. Perhaps an indication that if you wish to expand your reach, to connect with more people, and in a more lasting way. Facebook is not enough. You also need Shakespeare.

I mention all this because, in our Mass readings today, we find a similar concern to reach out to more people. In the first reading, the servant of God receives a call to a much bigger, more universal, mission. It is not enough for you… to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back the survivors of Israel, God says, I will make you the light of the nations so that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth. God is expanding the scope of the servant’s mission. From the tiny nation of Israel, the servant is now asked to reach out to the ends of the earth. Sounds like an impossible mission. Can it really be accomplished?

We all know the answer to this question. This apparently impossible mission has actually already been accomplished by and in Christ Jesus. Isn’t this what enables St. Paul to address the Christians of Corinth the way he does in the second reading? Even though many of them are not Jews, Paul calls them the church of God. And he tells them that they are called to take their place among all the saints everywhere. For Jesus is Lord of all the nations no less than theirs.

We see this same expansion of reach already taking place in the gospel. Notice how John the Baptist sees his mission as limited to the people of Israel. It was to reveal (Jesus) to Israel that I came baptising with water, he says. It is only with the coming of Jesus that this mission truly begins to expand, beyond Israel, to the far reaches of the earth. As far even as this tiny red dot known to us as Singapore.

And notice how this expansion of the mission takes place in Jesus. Notice how John only recognises Jesus as the one to expand this mission when he sees the Spirit come down and rest on him. Which is, of course, a reference to the Feast that we celebrated just last Sunday. The feast of the Baptism of the Lord. And we may recall the significance of that Feast. Of how Jesus’ baptism is not for the forgiveness of sins. Since he has no sin. Rather, by allowing himself to be plunged into the murky waters of the Jordan, Jesus immerses himself into everything that is truly human. Even to the extent of suffering the terrible effects of sin. Even to the extent of allowing himself to be nailed to the Cross. It is because Jesus allows himself to enter deeply into our humanity, that he is able to connect with every single one of us no matter where or when we happen to be. Connect with us and draw us into the warmth of his Father’s embrace.

All of which should lead us to reflect on ourselves. We who profess to be followers of Christ. Whom Christ has baptised with the Holy Spirit. And immersed in the blood and water flowing from his pierced side. We too have received a mission to connect with others. A mission to keep expanding the reach of the Good News of God’s love for us in Christ.

And the way to expand this reach is to immerse ourselves in everything that is truly human. To be willing to make efforts to pay closer attention. First to the joys and struggles of our own daily routine. And then to those of the people around us. Our family members. Our colleagues. Our fellow parishioners. People on the road. People at the store. Yes, even people on Facebook. And, especially today, we remember also the many migrants and refugees of our world. Those who leave home to find a better life for themselves and their families. Whether it be for reasons of their own choosing or not. For if Jesus has immersed himself into the river of our humanity. Then it is also by doing the same that we will find and connect with him and with the world.

Sisters and brothers, on this 2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, our Lord continues to invite us to expand the reach of the gospel by deepening our connections with all that is truly human. What can we do to respond to this call? To continue choosing the way of identification, the way of Romeo and Juliet, the way of Christ Jesus our Lord, today?

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Looking Through 3D Glasses

Feast of the Baptism of the Lord

Picture: cc MIKI Yoshihito

Sisters and brothers, have you ever watched a 3D movie? It’s been quite a while since I watched one myself. But, if I remember correctly, there is a piece of equipment that no 3D moviegoer can do without. Something that the cinema distributes as you enter the auditorium. You know what I’m talking about. I’m referring, of course, to 3D glasses. Those special spectacles that every viewer has to put on, in order to enjoy the full 3D movie experience. Spectacles that are needed even if you already happen to be wearing your own prescription glasses–as I am–or contact lenses. And the reason is quite simple. Without those special glasses, all you will see on the screen is a series of blurry images. But when you put on the glasses, the movie comes alive for you. The 3D effect makes you feel as though you are actually part of the scene itself. The glasses make all the difference. Between obscurity and clarity. Between frustration and enjoyment. Between detachment and involvement.

I mention this, because I think our Mass readings actually perform for us a similar function. They help us to see more clearly what we are celebrating today. Without our readings, we probably wouldn’t be able to enjoy the full impact of this Feast, which marks both an ending and a new beginning. The ending of the Christmas Season. And the beginning of Ordinary Time. If not for our readings today, our Feast will look like a series of blurry images. A scene that wouldn’t make much sense to us.

For we celebrate today the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord. At a certain point in his adult life, Jesus takes the trouble to travel from his home in Galilee to the River Jordan, to be baptised by John. But we know that John’s baptism is for the forgiveness of sins. And, as Christians, we believe that Jesus, being the Son of God, is without sin. So why should the Sinless One insist on undergoing a ritual for the forgiveness of sins? Sisters and brothers, don’t you agree that this is a blurry image, a confusing scene, if ever there was one?

Thankfully, our readings help to clarify our vision. They help us to see what is actually happening. The better to immerse ourselves in the scene. And they do this in several ways. First, they show us that what initially looks like a sinner being converted, is actually something quite different. In the first reading, God speaks not of sinfulness, but of service. Here is my servant whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom my soul delights. This indicates to us that, Jesus’ Baptism isn’t so much an expression of a sinner’s sorrowful repentance from sin, as a servant’s humble obedience to God’s will for him. And God’s will is that he be gentle with God’s people. That he not break the crushed reed, nor quench the wavering flame. But that he show the people boundless mercy and great compassion. Even to the extent of becoming one of them. Becoming one of us. Isn’t this what Jesus does in the gospel? By lowering himself into the same waters that we sinners use to wash ourselves, Jesus, the Sinless One, expresses his readiness to obey God’s will. His willingness to be one like us in all things. Even to the extent of immersing himself in our sinfulness. Suffering the terrible effects of our sin.

In this way, Jesus shows that he comes to us, not just as the  Servant of God, but also as our Servant as well. As our Servant and our Friend. Out of compassion for us, Jesus dives into the waters of our weak and vulnerable human condition. And he does this not just to be one with us, but also, and even more important, to set us free. For, as the first reading reminds us, this too is his mission. This too is what God sends him to do. To open the eyes of the blind, to free captives from prison, and those who live in darkness from the dungeon.

Which leads us to another way in which our readings help to clarify our vision. For the gospel tells us that something truly dramatic happens as soon as Jesus emerges from the waters of the Jordan. After completing his symbolic act of obedience and submission, of solidarity and compassion, we’re told that the heavens open, the Holy Spirit descends, and the voice of God is heard. This is my Son, the Beloved; my favour rests on him. What is the gospel doing, sisters and brothers, if not revealing to us a clearer picture of what is actually happening?

What looks at first like a sorrowful sinner turning his life around on earth, is really God’s only begotten Son turning the keys that open for us the gates of heaven. Transforming for us the waters of repentance into waters of adoption. Showing us how, if we but follow in his footsteps, we too can become children of God. We too can enjoy God’s favour. For, as the second reading reminds us, God does not have favourites, but that anybody of any nationality who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to him. Anyone who follows the example of Jesus. Anyone willing to lower herself in service of God and of humanity. Anyone willing to serve the cause of right. To devote her life to going about doing good. Such a one will experience the heavens open for her, the Holy Spirit descending upon her, the voice of the Father affirming her: You are my beloved daughter, in you I am well pleased!

But that’s not all. Our readings do not just help us to see more clearly, and to enter more deeply into, the Lord’s Baptism as a historical event that took place more than two thousand years ago. They also do the same with the ordinary events of our daily lives. Helping us to make sense of confusing situations. I’m reminded, for example, of that terribly tragedy reported in the news about a week or so ago. On the 26th of December, the day after Christmas Day, two men, both Chinese Nationals, were working in a leather dye factory, somewhere in Kampong Ubi, when one of them fell into a 3m high vat of dye. His colleague jumped in to try to save him. But they were both knocked unconscious by the noxious fumes in the vat. And both men died in hospital, after spending 9 days in a coma. Mr. Zhai Hailei, the one who tried to help his friend, was just 26 years old. He leaves behind a young widow and two daughters, aged one and five.

Sisters and brothers, which of us would not be moved by this sad tale? Which of us would not find it heartbreaking and confusing. And yet, doesn’t this story look different when seen through the lenses of the Lord’s Baptism? Doesn’t Mr. Zhai’s selfless act in Kampong Ubi–jumping into a vat full of noxious fumes to save his friend–bear more than a passing resemblance to what Jesus does in the Jordan River? I don’t know if Mr. Zhai was Christian. But even if he wasn’t, perhaps it’s still not too farfetched to imagine that, when he passes through the gates of death, and emerges on the other side of eternity, he too will hear our merciful God saying to him: You are my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased!

Sisters and brothers, it is fitting that the Baptism of the Lord is the Feast that ushers us into Ordinary Time. For, if we celebrate it well, this Feast can help us to make sense of confusion in our ordinary lives. It can enable us uncover opportunities to enter more deeply into the Mystery of God’s merciful love. To take advantage of occasions to live more faithfully, more selflessly, as true adopted sons and daughters of our heavenly Father.

Sisters and brothers, when you put on the 3D glasses of the Lord’s Baptism, and look at your life, what do see today?

Sunday, January 05, 2014

Between Diamonds & Charcoal

Solemnity of The Epiphany of The Lord

Picture: cc Kim Alaniz

Sisters and brothers, what do you think? What’s the difference between a diamond and a lump of charcoal? I know. Sounds like a silly question, doesn’t it? Silly, because, the differences are so obvious. For one thing, there is a clear difference in value. Given a choice, I’m quite sure any of us would much rather have a diamond than a lump of charcoal. Unless, of course, we happen to find ourselves at one of those auctions held, in the 7th month of the Lunar Calendar, to celebrate the Festival of Hungry Ghosts. Otherwise there really is no comparison. Diamonds are far more valuable than charcoal.

And, along with this difference in value, there is also a radical difference in appearance. A diamond is valuable not just because it’s rare. But also because it’s beautiful. It sparkles. When light shines on a diamond, the diamond is able to somehow reflect and to bend the light in such a way as to magnify it. To accentuate it. To make it even more brilliant. More dazzling. In contrast, charcoal just looks like... well... charcoal. It's black and dull and dirty. Instead of sparkling in the light, charcoal seems just to smother it. To suck it in. Much like what the scientists tell us a black hole does.

And yet, sisters and brothers, as you know, despite being so different in value and in appearance, diamonds and charcoal actually share exactly the same chemical composition. They are both made up of the same stuff. Carbon. Why then do they look so different? Why do they react so differently to light? The differences are due not to composition, but to arrangement. The carbon atoms are arranged differently in a diamond than they are in a lump of charcoal. Arranged one way, the carbon sparkles in the light. Arranged in another, it smothers it.

I mention all this not to show off my knowledge of chemistry. All this information is easily available on the internet. I mention all this because I think it can help us to enter more deeply into what we are celebrating today. As you know, the solemn feast of the Epiphany of the Lord is all about light. Epiphany means manifestation. Revelation. As we heard in the second reading just now, something that was unknown to any men in past generations has now been brought to light. And that something is, of course, the immensity of God’s love. God’s love expressed in the coming of Christ at Christmas. God’s love not just for the people of Israel. Not just for the Jewish nation. But for all peoples. For all nations. Christ comes into the world for everyone. For you, for me, for all. It is no accident then that the wise men in the gospel are all foreigners. Gentiles. In their experience, we see how God’s love shines out for people everywhere.

But in order for the light of God’s love to shine out more brightly for all the world to see, people need to react to the light in appropriate ways. In the first reading, the light of God’s glory is shining down on the city of Jerusalem. God is finally going to free the city and its people from their enemies. And the prophet Isaiah tells Jerusalem the proper way for it to react to the light. The city is told to arise and to shine out. To lift up its eyes and look around. To see for itself how people of all nations are streaming towards it, attracted by the glory of God. The city is encouraged to allow this awesome sight to make it grow radiant. To make its heart throbbing and full. In other words, Jerusalem is being asked to react to the light in the same way that a diamond would. To sparkle and to dazzle. To magnify and to accentuate the light. To make it even more brilliant for all the world to see.

We find a similar kind of reaction in the second reading. Here, St. Paul writes about having received a revelation from God. A revelation of the great mystery of God’s love found in Jesus Christ. The same mystery that we are celebrating at this Mass. A mystery that is meant not just for Jews, but for Gentiles as well. Paul received this revelation at his conversion. When the light of the crucified and risen Christ shone down upon him (cf. Acts 9:3) while he was on the road to Damascus. And now, Paul continues to react to the light in the same way that Jerusalem is told to react in the first reading. In the same way that a diamond reacts. Through his writings and his preaching, by tirelessly sharing the Good News of God’s love with many people, Paul allows himself to sparkle. To dazzle. To magnify the light. To accentuate its brilliance. Rendering it even more accessible and attractive to others.

But not everyone reacts to the light as a diamond does. There are others whose reactions are more like that of charcoal. Isn’t this true of King Herod in the gospel? When the wise foreigners come to consult him, after having been attracted to Jerusalem by the light of the star, Herod helps them. But not because he wants to magnify the light. On the contrary, Herod feels threatened by it. He's perturbed. He wants to smother the light. To get rid of it. To kill it. And not just Herod. But also the chief priests and the scribes. Although these experts are able to tell the wise men where the Messiah is to be born, they themselves make no effort to look for Jesus. Their expertise does not bring them any closer to the light of God’s love. Like Herod, they fail to follow the instructions of Isaiah in the first reading. They fail to grow radiant. They fail to sparkle. They fail to dazzle. The light finds no home within them.

But why, we may ask is there such a difference between the reactions of St. Paul and the Wise Men on the one hand, and Herod and the scribes on the other? Are they not all human beings? People created by the love of God? Why then are some able to sparkle in the light? While others simply ignore it? Or seek only to smother it? As with diamonds and charcoal, perhaps the reason has to do with a difference in arrangement. A difference in how people choose to arrange their lives. If St. Paul and the Wise Men are able to sparkle in the light, isn’t it because they are in touch with their own deep hunger and thirst for Truth? For Goodness? For Love? For God? Their lives are arranged in such a way that God is given top priority. God is allowed to occupy the central place. In contrast, the lives of Herod and the scribes are centred on other things. On other interests. On economics. On politics. On security. Even on religion. And, ultimately, on self-interest. But God is displaced. And the light finds no room to shine.

All of which should lead us to reflect on ourselves. We who live in this city of Singapore. Which continues to attract so many foreigners to its shores. Many of whom come here in search of better material prospects for themselves and their families. People who are attracted by the bright lights of economic success. And yet could it be that this is not the only light we have to offer? Especially we who call ourselves Christian? At Christmas, we are reminded that, like St. Paul, we have been entrusted with a light far greater than money. The light of God’s love made visible in Christ. A light continually shining down upon us and from within us. Meant to be seen and appreciated by all. By local and foreigner alike. But what is our reaction to this light? What are we doing with it? In our daily living, through the things that we do and say. Through the ways in which we react to the daily challenges of life. To what extent do we really allow ourselves to sparkle in the light? Or are we simply smothering it? Like a great lump of charcoal would?

Sisters and brothers, on this solemn feast of the Epiphany, how can we arrange our lives so as to continue to shine out like diamonds in the light of Christ today?