Saturday, February 22, 2014

Between The Artist & The Fool

7th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Picture: Luna Park NYC

Sisters and brothers, when you were in school, did you have a least favourite subject? Do you still remember what it was? Or, for those who happen to still be in school, what it is? I’m a little embarrassed to say this, but one of my least favourite subjects in school was art. And the reason is simple. I wasn’t very good at it. Or, to use the more technical, and also more honest, term: I sucked. I used to dread it when the art teacher would come into class and give each of us an assignment to create something beautiful. Commissioning us, as it were, to produce a work of art.

The most difficult thing for me was when we were told to draw or paint something from scratch. On the basis of nothing more than our own imagination. I just didn’t know where to begin. But even when we were given something concrete to reproduce, like an apple or a flower, I still found it a great challenge. Somehow, as hard as I tried, my copy just never did look very much like the real thing. I just wasn’t able to create something beautiful. It was as though I was born without an artistic bone in my body. Which is why I never did like art class very much. What I disliked most was the pressure I felt. The pressure to produce something I just wasn’t able to produce. A thing of beauty.

Which probably explains why my first reaction to our Mass readings today is one of anxiety and discomfort. For what is God doing in our readings if not commissioning a work of art? A thing of beauty? In the first reading, God tells Moses to speak to the whole community of the sons of Israel and say to them: ‘Be holy...’ And, what God expects from the whole of Israel in the first reading, Jesus asks of each of his disciples in the gospel: You must be perfect. And the same demand is, of course, also addressed to us: Be a holy community! Be perfect individuals! In other words, be a thing of beauty! What does this sound like, sisters and brothers, if not a commission? It would seem that God is inviting us to become artists. To make of ourselves a glorious work of art.

It is no wonder then that I should feel anxious. I feel like I’m being asked to do something I’m not good at. To produce a thing of beauty. To create a work of art. And it doesn’t comfort me very much that God gives very detailed specifications for what this artwork should look like. For these requirements seem too burdensome for me to fulfill. In the first reading, we’re told to love your neighbour as yourself. And this love is to be expressed in not ever bearing grudges against another. But, rather, in openly telling the other of his or her offence. In the gospel, Jesus makes even more stringent demands. We’re expected to love not just our neighbour, but even our enemy. To return good for evil.

And what is perhaps most intimidating is the model that is presented to us to imitate. We’re asked not just to be holy and perfect. But to be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy. To be perfect just as your heavenly Father is perfect. Sisters and brothers, it seems that what our readings are commissioning us to produce in our own lives is not just any ordinary work of art. But nothing less than an image of God himself!

Now I’m not sure how you feel about all this, sisters and brothers. But when I listen to these words, it feels a little like I’m being transported back in time. Back to when I was in school. Back to that dreaded art class. I feel as though I’m again being pressured to produce something beautiful. Something that I don’t have the ability to produce. Is it any wonder that my first reaction is anxiety and discomfort? And, following this first reaction, there is also a second and a third.

My second reaction is to try to find some loopholes in God’s commission. Some possible exceptions to the general rule. Sure, God is asking me not to hate, but to love my enemies. This may be true in general. But maybe this doesn’t quite apply to some specific people. Like the noisy person who lives next door. Or the busybody who shares my office. Or the fellow motorist who just cut into my lane. Or the foreigner who has just stolen my job... Surely these are not my enemies. And, of course, surely I don’t really hate them. Hate is, after all, such a strong word. I just prefer not to have anything to do with them. That’s all.

My third reaction is simply to ignore what is being asked of me. To try not to think about it too much. Just like how I used to procrastinate whenever I received an assignment in school that I didn’t really like. I just used to push it out of my mind for as long as possible. Hoping that it will go away. That the teacher may forget about it. Or change her mind, and cancel the assignment. Which, of course, never happened.

Anxiety and discomfort. Compromise and procrastination. These are among my reactions to the pressure that I feel our readings are putting on me today. The pressure to be an artist. The pressure to produce, in my life and in my world, a thing of beauty. A work of art. And yet, sisters and brothers, is it possible that I may be mistaken? That I am looking at our readings in a wrong way? Could it be that there is another more helpful way to look at them? And, if so, what might this be?

I think we find more than a hint of an answer in our second reading. Here, St. Paul uses two words to describe God’s people. Didn’t you realise, he says, that you were God’s temple. And if anyone thinks of himself as wise… he must learn to be a fool… A temple and a fool. Do these things have anything in common? I’m not sure, but I think they do. The scripture scholars tell us that the word in Greek that is translated as temple actually refers not to the whole temple, but only to the Holy of Holies. The most sacred part. The place reserved for the Presence of God. And we know that, at least in Jesus’ day, this portion was left empty. Also, the Latin root for the word fool actually means a windbag. And, like the Holy of holies, a windbag is essentially empty. It contains nothing but air.

All of which may indicate what our readings are asking of us. It is true that God is commissioning a work of art. That God wishes us to be beautiful. But nowhere in our readings are we pressured to produce this artwork ourselves. Nowhere in our readings are we asked to become artists. Instead, what we are asked to do is to become empty. Like the Holy of Holies. Filled with nothing but the Presence of God. Or like a windbag. Filled with nothing but the powerful wind of the Spirit of God. We are asked to allow God to be our Artist. To allow God to shape and mould us into a thing of beauty. Into a work of art.

And isn’t this why we are here this evening? Not so much to make ourselves beautiful. Like someone applying cosmetics. Much less to show off our own beauty. What we are here to do is to submit ourselves to the hands of the Divine Artist. To bring the many things that fill our hearts and our lives, and to lay them down before God. Joining them to the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross. So that God can continue to fill us with His presence. To transform us from within. To make of us a work of art.

Sisters and brothers, God is asking us not so much to be artists, as to be fools. Not so much to produce, as to submit. What must we do to respond ever more generously to this invitation today?

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Beyond Masak-Masak

6th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Picture: cc Lan Rasso

Sisters and brothers, have you ever heard of the term masak-masak? Do you know what it means? The Singaporeans among us will probably be familiar with it. As you know, masak-masak refers to the games of make-believe that little children like to play. For example, a child may use toy cooking utensils to pretend to prepare food. And even to pretend to serve it to others. It’s no coincidence that, in Malay, the word masak actually means to cook. So masak-masak can refer to a little child pretending to cook. The child only goes through the motions of cooking and serving. But, of course, nobody actually expects to be fed.

And that’s fine. It’s appropriate for a little child to engage in masak-masak. It’s even quite amusing for adults to watch them. But what’s appropriate for children is, of course, not so appropriate for adults. Especially if the adult in question actually has the responsibility for feeding others. Can you imagine, for example, inviting your friends to a restaurant, for a dinner party, and then finding out that it serves only make-believe food? Or returning home from a tiring day at work, expecting a hot meal, and discovering that your domestic helper or spouse has spent the day doing nothing but playing masak-masak? And what would happen if all that we ever did was to play masak-masak? We would all either have to survive on raw food, or starve to death! Masak-masak may be fine for children. But, to keep from starving, at least some of us adults need to learn how to cook for real. Even if it’s just to boil an egg and some instant noodles.

I mention all this because I think it can help us to understand a little better why Jesus says the things he does in the gospel today. If your virtue goes no deeper, Jesus says, than that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never get into the kingdom of heaven. But why? What is wrong with the virtue of the scribes and Pharisees? And why is it insufficient to get us into heaven?

As you know, in the gospels, although the scribes and Pharisees follow the Jewish Law very very strictly, they seem to think that keeping the Law is only a matter of external ritual observance. Of going through the motions of prayer, at certain prescribed times and in certain prescribed ways. Or of fasting. Or giving alms. Or offering sacrifices. But this is insufficient for entering the kingdom of heaven, because the kingdom is not just about what we do externally, with our hands. But, just as importantly, also about what we have within us, in our hearts. Which is why, in the gospel, Jesus encourages us to deepen our observance of the Law, by watching, not just what we do, but also how we think and feel. By, for example, going beyond refraining from killing, to not being driven by anger. Beyond just keeping away from adulterous relationships, to resisting lustful thoughts. Beyond just fulfilling our promises, to being honest at all times.

But that’s not all. The virtue of the scribes and Pharisees is insufficient not just because it remains with the external. But also because it relies only on human strength. The scribes and Pharisees prescribe many rules for people to follow, without actually helping them to find the power and energy they need to keep those rules. Theirs is a very burdensome, very strenuous regime. A spirituality of purely human effort and self-exertion. Without any possibility of finding nourishment. Like children playing masak-masak, the scribes and Pharisees only go through the motions of cooking, without actually feeding anyone.

In contrast, the virtue that our readings are proposing to us is quite different. Although Jesus invites us to deepen our observance of the Law, we are not left to our own devices. The deeper we go, the more we realise our own weakness. Our own inability to live up to what is demanded of us. And, in our weakness, we are led to turn to God for help. Isn’t this why we prayed the way we did in our opening prayer just now, when we asked that we may be so fashioned by God’s grace as to become a dwelling pleasing to God. To be fashioned by God. Rather than to build ourselves up. In other words, we asked God to make us holy by filling us, by feeding us, with God’s very Self. With God’s life-giving and energy-replenishing Presence. And the first reading reassures us that God does hear and answer our prayer. That God does give us the strength that we need to do what is right. If you wish, we are told, you can keep the commandments, to behave faithfully is within your power.

And what is this power? From where do we find this nourishment? The answer is clearly spelt out for us in the second reading. Where St. Paul speaks of having a wisdom to offer those who have reached maturity. Not the virtue of the scribes and Pharisees. Not just the masak-masak that is meant only for children. The games of make-believe that may amuse some, but actually feed no one. Paul is speaking instead of the hidden wisdom of God. The wisdom that God has revealed to us through the Spirit. The same wisdom that we are gathered here this morning to celebrate and to partake. The wisdom that is found in the crucified and risen Christ.

But to gain access to this wisdom, it is not enough for us just to drag ourselves to this holy place once a week. Not enough for us just to go through the motions of standing and sitting and kneeling. Not even enough for us just to come up to the altar to receive the Eucharistic bread. As important as all these actions may be, they remain on the level of external ritual observance. They remain only masak-masak. As long as we do not open the doors of our hearts to the Lord. As long as we do not bring along with us our joys and our sorrows. Our triumphs and our defeats. As long as we do not allow ourselves to enter into an intimate personal relationship with the One who has loved us enough to lay down his life for us on the Cross.

It is only when we do this. When we actually get to know Jesus in the same way that we may come to know a close personal friend. That we gain access to the strength and energy we need to live the virtues of the kingdom. It is only in this way that we find true nourishment. It is only in this way that are we fed. And not just us. In being fed, we too are then moved to reach out to help others find nourishment. Whether it be in the form of material help. Or spiritual guidance. We ourselves become people who feed others with the wisdom that we have first received from God. The wisdom that is Christ.

Sisters and brothers, it’s quite understandable, and even amusing, for little children to engage in games of make-believe. But there comes a time when children are all called to grow up. To mature in their faith. To enter into an intimate personal relationship with the One whom we call our Lord and Saviour. For it is only in doing this that the world will find true nourishment.

Sisters and brothers, in our lives of faith, how is the Lord inviting us to continue to outgrow masak-masak today?

Sunday, February 09, 2014

Being Polished To A Shine

5th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Picture: cc Terry Robinson

Sisters and brothers, do you ever pay attention to the vessels that we use at Mass? The chalice and the ciboria that we will soon bring up to the sanctuary, and place on the altar? Do you ever notice how they always look so clean and bright and shiny? How do you think they remain that way? Despite being used day after day, and week after week? This, of course, doesn’t just happen naturally. As you know, left on their own, many metallic surfaces have a tendency to tarnish. To grow dull and dark. So, if the vessels we use at Mass remain bright and shiny, it’s only because someone–probably one of our hardworking sacristans, or one of their helpers–someone has taken the trouble to wash or to polish them regularly.

And we know what washing and polishing involves. There is usually both an addition and a subtraction. First we need to add something. A mild detergent or a metal polish. But this addition is done for the sake of subtracting something else. The dirt or tarnish that has accumulated over time. Only when that has been removed, does the vessel become shiny once more. Only then, can its surface receive and reflect the light that falls upon it.

Washing and polishing. Adding and subtracting. This is how we make tarnished objects shiny again. This is how we make them  capable once more of receiving and reflecting the light. It’s helpful for us to keep this in mind, especially on this 4th Sunday in Ordinary Time. For today our Mass readings are all about the need to keep on shining. Your light will shine like the dawn, says the prophet Isaiah, in first reading. And, in the gospel, Jesus  says the same thing: Your light must shine in the sight of men.

But what does it really mean to shine? And how exactly do we go about doing it? Our readings seem to give us very clear answers to these questions. In the gospel, Jesus equates shining with letting others see our good works, so that they may give the praise to our Father in Heaven. And the first reading offers us some very concrete examples of what these good works might be. Share your bread with the hungry, and shelter the homeless poor, clothe the person you see to be naked and do not turn from your own kin. In other words, be merciful to those most in need of mercy. It would seem then that the message in our readings is simple and straightforward enough: As Christians, we are to shine in the world by doing good to others. By showing mercy to the many among us who need our help.

But is this really all there is to it? Is shining really only a matter of addition? Of simply adding more good deeds to our already busy schedules? I ask this question for several reasons. For one thing, we all know that it’s actually quite possible to do good deeds for less than honourable reasons. To make our good deeds become more about us than about the people we are trying to help. We may have heard of corporations, for example, that give to the poor only for the corporations’ own benefit. To avoid tax. Or to gain publicity. And what is true of companies, is also true of individuals. Sometimes, some of us give, only in order to get something back. And even if we do manage to bring ourselves to give without expecting anything in return, doesn’t it often remain a challenge for us, to keep ourselves from taking too much pride in what we do? From secretly, or not so secretly, congratulating ourselves too much?

And isn’t it also true that there is often a limit to how much we are willing to give? Whether it is a matter of our money, or of our time, or of our effort, there does usually come a point, doesn’t it, when it begins to feel just too burdensome to continue giving or doing? A time when, for example, we may find ourselves feeling disappointed and disillusioned, because our efforts do not seem to lead to lasting results. Perhaps we may even become resentful of the very people we are trying to help. Isn’t this why some of us speak of donation or compassion fatigue?

Why, do you think, sisters and brothers, we encounter such unfortunate experiences. Is it not because we focus too much on ourselves? On what we can do? On what we can contribute, or add? Forgetting that we are only able to shine to the extent that we receive and reflect the light of God’s mercy. As we prayed in our opening prayer just now, we are called to rely not on ourselves, but solely on the hope of heavenly grace. And when we focus too much on ourselves, instead of causing us to shine with the mercy of God, our charitable works may actually serve only to tarnish us further. By inflating our egos. By puffing us up with pride. Or by breaking us down in disappointment and disillusionment.

If this is true, then perhaps there is something important that we can learn from the observations we made earlier, concerning the washing and polishing of the vessels we use at Mass. The process, you will recall, involves not just addition, but also subtraction. Detergent or polish is added only so that the dirt and tarnish may be removed. Similarly, perhaps we need to perform good deeds in such a way as to remove from ourselves our own selfishness and self-absorption. Our tendency to cling stubbornly to our own self-interest. To rely only on our own strength.

And, in order to do this, it’s helpful to remember that when our responsorial psalm talks about the just man, it speaks not just about his hands, but also about his heart and his head as well. With a firm heart he trusts in the Lord. Open-handed he gives to the poor. His head will be raised in glory. What this tells us is that, if we wish to shine out in the world, we need to focus not just on what we do with our hands. But also on where we place our hearts. In performing our good works, we need to truly allow our hearts to go out in compassion to those who are suffering. In such a way that we may, if only for a moment, forget ourselves and our own petty concerns. Allowing ourselves to be filled, not just with pity for those who suffer, but also with trust and hope in God. Whose mercy is without end.

Realising that even if we may not succeed in ridding the world of suffering completely, or immediately, there is no need for us to be disappointed or disillusioned. For we believe that, contrary to appearances, God continues to hold the world securely in the palm of his hand. In the warmth of his embrace. Promising that a day will come when every tear will be wiped away. And God’s promise has indeed already been fulfilled in the Dying and Rising of Christ our Lord. The very Mystery that we are gathered here to celebrate at this Mass. A Mystery that gives us the strength we need to persevere in doing good. Even when we may face failure, or persecution. Isn’t this what St. Paul means when he writes, in the second reading, about relying not on his own power, but on the power of the Spirit. The power that comes from knowing Jesus as the crucified Christ.

Sisters and brothers, we live in a dark world. A world that very much needs the light of God’s mercy. In our homes and in our workplaces. In our church and on our streets. What more can we do to allow God to polish us. So that we can shine out more brightly with the light of Christ today?