Sunday, April 27, 2014

Caught Not Taught (Rerun)

2nd Sunday of Easter (Divine Mercy Sunday)

Picture: cc Juhan Sonin

Sisters and brothers, have you ever noticed how good manners are caught rather than taught? I remember someone who once visited a family with several young children. While the grownups were chatting, the children started talking very loudly and playing very noisily, in the same room. The parents were very embarrassed by their children’s bad behaviour. They kept scolding them, trying to make them stop, but without much success. Then, not too long after that, the parents themselves were heard talking very loudly and interrupting each other. Is it any wonder that the children were doing the same? Although the parents tried verbally to teach their children to speak respectfully and to behave considerately, the parents’ actions spoke louder than their words. Good manners are caught, not taught.

And what is true of good manners is true also of something that we find in our Mass readings for today. As you’ve probably already noticed, faith is the common thread that runs through all three readings. Indeed, what we have here is a wonderful transformation from unfaith to faith. Notice how, in the gospel, when we first meet the disciples, they are lacking in faith. They have only recently witnessed the Passion and Death of their beloved Lord and Master. And, fearful for their own safety, they have locked themselves up in a room. They have forgotten what Jesus had said to them earlier about his rising from the dead. They lack faith. What’s even more striking is Thomas’ lack of faith. He refuses to believe that the Lord is risen even after hearing that his fellow disciples have seen him. Thomas wants proof. Unless I see the holes… unless I can put my hand into his side, I refuse to believe.

But perhaps we should not be too quick to judge Thomas. After all, doesn’t he have good reason not to trust the others? These are the same people who had only recently deserted their Master. Precisely at the hour of his greatest need. Rather than standing by Jesus, they had all run away. In a time of crisis, these disciples had shown themselves untrustworthy. Unreliable. Why should Thomas trust them now? But, even so, in refusing to believe their words, Thomas was also refusing to trust Jesus himself. And that’s the situation at the start of the gospel today. A situation characterised by a lack of faith. An inability to trust.

But contrast that situation with what is described in the first and second readings. Some time has passed since the Resurrection. And now, things are very different. Where once the disciples were finding it hard to trust even one another, now in the first reading we are told that they are able to remain faithful to the teaching of the apostles, to the brotherhood, to the breaking of bread and to the prayers. Where once they were fearfully hiding behind locked doors, now they are moving about courageously, out in the open. They are even attracting people to the faith by performing miracles and signs.

The second reading impresses us even more when it tells us about how, although the early Christians are undergoing various trials, they remain joyful in the Lord. You did not see him, yet you love him; and still without seeing him, you are already filled with a joy so glorious that it cannot be described, because you believe... The very thing that the Risen Christ had said was lacking in Thomas is now found in abundance in the early Christian communities. They have not seen and yet they believe. They trust one another. They trust God. They are able even to rejoice in their sufferings. How did this change come about?

We all know the answer. This radical transformation is the marvellous result of what we are celebrating now at Easter. It is the effect of the Resurrection. But what exactly is it about the Resurrection that transmits such power? How does the Risen Christ change fearful doubters into joyful believers? How does he train people to have faith in him. Even though they may not see him with their eyes. Or touch him with their hands. How does he help people, who have come to doubt even their own goodness, to trust once again in the power of God?

What do you think, sisters and brothers? How do you teach people to trust? Well... actually, you don’t. Like good manners, faith is caught rather than taught. How does Jesus teach the disciples to trust? Not by giving them long lectures (or homilies). Much less by scolding them. Or beating them with a stick. Jesus does it simply by trusting them first. Isn’t this what we find him doing when he comes among them through locked doors? To the very people who had earlier shown that they could not be trusted, Jesus entrusts a great power and a crucial mission. Peace be with you, he says. As the Father sent me, so am I sending you. Receive the Holy Spirit. Jesus teaches his disciples to trust him, by first trusting them. He teaches them to have faith in him, by first having faith in them. Undeserving though they all may be.

And it’s important that we remember this. For it is not just the first disciples who are fearful. It is not just Thomas who doubts. Whether we care to admit it or not, we too are often anxious and afraid. We too find it difficult to trust. Easy enough, of course, to say that we believe in Christ. But far more difficult to put that belief into practice. Don’t we find it difficult, for example, to believe that it’s possible for us to live a good Christian life? When we are surrounded by an all too secular society. Or possible for us to cultivate a close relationship with God, even as we may struggle to fulfil all the many other responsibilities that life loads upon our weary shoulders? Perhaps it’s possible, we may think, for holier people. For great saints. Like the two popes who will be canonised today. But not for ordinary sinners like us.

And yet God desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Tim 2:4). Our faith dares us to believe that it is possible even for us to be holy. And the road to holiness begins for us the way it began for Thomas and his companions. It begins when we allow ourselves to experience anew, in this very Eucharist, the deep trust that Christ the Risen Lord continues to place in each of us. His weak and sinful, yet much beloved disciples. Those for whom he was willing even to lay down his life. Those whom he was not ashamed to call his friends. I’m reminded of this prayer by the late Jesuit poet, Fr. Daniel Lord:
For some strange reason, Lord, you depend upon me. What possible need could you have for my shoulder? Why should you lean on me? Yet you do just that. I am grateful. It is a challenge and a trust, an inspiration and a call to character. If you are willing to depend upon me, weak and clumsy as I am, I am eager not to fail you. Lean on me, dear Lord. At least pretend to find me a help. May your sweet pretence make me worthy of your very real trust.
Sisters and brothers, like good manners, faith is caught not taught. And, however undeserving we may be, the Risen Christ continues to choose to place his trust in us. What must we do accept his precious gift? How shall we trust him in return today?

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Changing Our Channels

Easter Sunday of the Resurrection of the Lord

Picture: cc Dennis Skley

Sisters and brothers, have you ever marvelled at how easy it is to change the channels on a TV set? You sit in the comfort of your armchair, or bed, watching something on the screen. And then, for some reason, you get tired of what you’re seeing. Maybe it’s too boring. Or too serious. Too violent. Or too depressing. What do you do? You simply pick up the remote, point it at the TV, press a button, and presto! Almost immediately, the screen changes. The news report transforms into a kids’ cartoon. The American reality show fades into a Korean drama series. The horror movie gives way to a romantic comedy. All at the touch of a button. Quite amazing, isn’t it?

This is true of TV sets. But have you ever found yourself wishing that it was just as easy to change reality itself? That there was a special remote we could use to switch the channels of our lives? Suffering from an unbearable toothache? No need for the dentist. Just press a button and the pain is gone. Another quarrel with a problematic husband? Just reach for the remote and the quarrel is forgotten... Or maybe the husband is changed.

Sisters and brothers, if you think that this is nothing more than wishful thinking, you’re right. The fact is there is no such remote. And maybe there shouldn’t be. After all, if it were so easy to change reality, what value would we place on life? If it were so easy to change husbands, how little would I treasure the one I already have. And yet, we cannot deny that reality does often need to be changed. War and conflict, for example, need to be transformed into peace and reconciliation. Inequality to justice. Prejudice and oppression to mercy and compassion. And all these changes are not easy to bring about.

And yet, although there is no easy way to change the channels on the screen of reality. It is not impossible. The way to do it is, of course, to first change ourselves. The viewers. To transform our mindsets and perspectives. To change how we look at life and reality. At situations and people. And, strange as it may seem, we Christians do have a remote that allows us to do this. One that first changes the channels in us, the viewers. Isn’t this what the Resurrection is all about?

Consider what happens on Easter Sunday. Look closely at the change that takes place in the gospel. When Mary Magdalene approaches the cave where Jesus had been laid, she has a very particular view of the place. It is a tomb. A space where dead bodies are buried. Where mourners gather to weep. And this is what Mary is there to do. To mourn and to weep. Nothing more. But something unexpected has happened. Something that at first feels very disturbing. The stone has been rolled away. Without taking the time to look more closely, Mary jumps to a wrong conclusion. She now mistakes the tomb for a crime scene. So she runs to the other disciples to report the offence. They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, she says.

Thankfully, among the disciples, there is one able to see things differently. Following Simon Peter into the cave, the unnamed disciple whom Jesus loved surveys the scene. He notices the burial cloths. In particular, we may imagine, the cloth that had been placed over Jesus’ head. And which was now neatly rolled up in a place by itself. Surely grave robbers would not have been so tidy. We’re told that the beloved disciple sees and he believes. He finally understands that Jesus has been raised. The scene of a crime is transformed for him into a wellspring of new life. The tomb is changed into a womb. And this transformation happens because the beloved disciple is sensitive to the signals sent by the Risen Christ. He is attuned to the remote of the Lord’s Resurrection. The button has been pressed. And the disciple responds. He changes his view. And he acts accordingly. No longer mourning a person who has died. But bearing witness to a life that is new.

And this experience of changing one’s view is not limited to the beloved disciple on Easter Sunday itself. In the first reading, we find Simon Peter having a similar experience. Some time has passed since Easter Sunday. And Peter has travelled north to a place called Caesarea. The reading focuses our attention mainly on the words that Peter speaks. He shares the story of the Lord’s Life, Death and Resurrection. But what is perhaps just as important is the place where Peter is standing. And the people to whom he is speaking. The reading begins by telling us that Peter addressed Cornelius and his household.

Cornelius, as you know, was a Roman centurion. A gentile. Someone whose home it was unlawful for a Jew like Peter to visit. How then does Peter come to be in Cornelius’ house? This happens only because a change has taken place in Peter himself. Earlier, while he was at prayer, Peter had seen a vision, in which a voice had told him that what God has made clean, you have no right to call profane (Ac 10:15). In response to this vision, Peter accepts Cornelius’ invitation to address the centurion’s household. And Peter does this because the vision had effected a change in his view of Cornelius in particular. And gentiles in general.

What was at first seen as a profane place has been transformed into a precious opportunity. A venue for bearing witness to the love and mercy of God. Once again, the button has been pressed on the remote of the Resurrection. And, like the beloved disciple before him, Peter responds. He allows his perspective to change. And with this change of perspective, reality is transformed as well. To the benefit of others. To the greater glory of God. Cornelius and his whole household are converted to Christ. The church continues to grow.

This, sisters and brothers, is the power of what we are celebrating today. The power of the Resurrection. The power that changes a tomb into a womb. A profane place into a venue for spreading the Gospel. A power that effects these changes by transforming the way Christians look at reality. The way we look at others. The way we look at the ordinary situations of daily life. Difficult people become opportunities for growing in patience. Trials and tribulations become occasions for drawing closer to the crucified Christ. Tragedies and disasters become calls to show care and concern.

Isn’t this what the second reading means when it tells us to look for the things that are in heaven, where Christ is, sitting at God’s right hand? Not that we should walk around with our gaze perpetually fixed on the sky. But that we should be willing to continually allow God to change our perspective on life. To change our points of view. To bring them more in tune with how Christ sees. So that we can then begin to change our world.

Sisters and brothers, this is the joyous news: Christ the Lord has been raised. The button on the remote has been pressed. How willing are you to change your point of view today?

Friday, April 18, 2014

The Egg That Does Not Break

Friday Of The Passion Of The Lord

Picture: cc Wally Gobetz

Sisters and brothers, how would you feel, if you saw an egg drop on the ground and break? Would you be surprised? Probably not. You won’t be surprised, because that’s what happens when an egg falls from a height. It breaks. And not only does it break. But once broken it can’t be put back together again. We all know this. In fact, many of us learned this from a very young age. Do you still remember the nursery rhyme? Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall. Humpty Dumpty had a great fall. And all the king’s horses and all the king’s men could not put Humpty Dumpty together again. There’s nothing surprising about what happened to Humpty Dumpty, because Humpty Dumpty was an egg. And when an egg falls it breaks. And no earthly power can put it back together again. Nothing surprising about that. What would be surprising is if the egg were to fall and remain unbroken.

Sisters and brothers, I know it probably seems very strange to  be thinking of Humpty Dumpty on a day like today. After we have just listened to John’s account of the Passion of the Lord. After we have just recalled the terrible memory of how Jesus allowed himself to be handed over into the hands of cruel men. Of how he was tortured. And put to death on a cross. How do we feel as we immerse ourselves in this painful scene? How should we feel? Horrified, perhaps. At what human beings did to God’s only begotten Son. Sorrowful and guilt-stricken too. At the thought that he was pierced through for our faults, crushed for our sins. But surely not surprised. What is there to be surprised about. For just as we might expect an egg to break when it is dropped, so too can we expect a person to suffer when he is mistreated and abused. As Jesus was. Nothing surprising here.

And yet, our first reading begins with this rather puzzling prophecy. As the crowds were appalled on seeing him, the prophet says, so will the crowds be astonished at him… Now, sisters and brothers, we can surely understand the crowds being appalled on seeing the Lord’s torment. Perhaps we ourselves feel the same way today. But why astonished? What’s so astonishing about human flesh being torn by torture? Or a human life getting snuffed out by murder? Nothing. Like an egg breaking when it drops on the ground, there is nothing surprising here. Unless, of course, the egg falls but does not break. Unless there is something in Jesus that remains intact. Even under extreme persecution. Even in the face of death.

But this is precisely what our readings tell us. That, in spite of being dropped on the hard ground of torture and crucifixion, something in Jesus remained unbroken. The gospel highlights this by drawing our attention to two apparently incidental details. After Jesus had been crucified and the soldiers had divided his outer garments among them, we’re told that they chose to leave his undergarment intact. For it was seamless, woven in one piece from neck to hem. Also, after Jesus had died, we’re told that instead of breaking his legs, the soldiers pierced his side with a lance. So that even though the Lord’s flesh was bruised and torn. His bones remained unbroken.

And it was not just the Lord’s undergarment that was kept in one piece. It was not just his bones that remained unbroken. More importantly, the Lord was able to keep intact his own intimate relationship with his heavenly Father. As the second reading tells us, in Christ, we have a high priest who has been tempted in every way that we are, though he is without sin. Even in the face of great opposition, even under extreme pressure, the Lord stayed true to the One who sent him. He remained faithful to the mission that the Father had entrusted to him. Right to the very end. As Jesus tells Pilate in the gospel, I came into the world for this: to bear witness to the truth...

My dear friends, isn’t this what is so surprising about the Passion of the Lord? That even though the clothes were torn from his back. Even though the flesh was rent from his bones. Even though the life was snatched from his body. Through it all, Jesus was able to keep intact his loving relationship with his heavenly Father. He was able to stay true to his identity. He always remained who he was. As he told those who came to arrest him: I am he. I am Jesus the Nazarene. I am the Only-Begotten-Son-of-God. I am the Eternal-Word-Made-Flesh. I am he.

In contrast, it is the people around him, whose integrity was broken. The religious authorities. Who claimed to believe in God. Yet put to death God’s only Son. Pontius Pilate. Who knew Jesus to be innocent. And was even anxious to set him free. Yet handed him over to be crucified. Simon Peter. Who had earlier boasted of his own undying loyalty. Yet three times denied his Lord. Aren’t you another of that man’s disciples? I am not, Peter answered. The Master says, I am he. But the disciple replies, I am not. The contrast is heartbreaking.

And it’s especially heartbreaking because we can include ourselves among those whose fidelity to God is so fragile. Those whose integrity is so easily broken. Faced with the ordinary pressures of daily life. Influenced by the powerful forces of a materialistic, consumeristic, and workaholic society. Do we not find it difficult to keep our relationship with God in one piece? Is it not a great challenge for us to preserve our integrity intact? Isn’t this why we find so many scandals of one kind or another being reported in the news? Scandals that uncover our fragility and our brokenness. Indeed, not even our own church has been spared.

Which is why it is good for us to be surprised today. Not just to be appalled by the Lord’s terrible suffering. But also to be astonished at his unbroken integrity in the face of death. For perhaps our surprise can lead us to call on the only power that can do for us what no earthly power can. The power that is able to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. Who could believe what we have heard?, the prophet asks in the first reading. And to whom has the power of the Lord been revealed? Sisters and brothers, we have the answer to these questions. We are the ones the prophet is talking about. Today, in commemorating the Lord’s Passion, we are the ones to whom the Lord’s power is being revealed. The power that can put back together what has been broken. The power that can keep intact what so often feels much too fragile.

If all this is true, then let us do what the second reading calls us to do. Let us be confident in approaching the throne of grace. Which is nothing else than the Cross of Christ. The same Cross that we will soon leave our pews to venerate. That we shall have mercy from him and find grace when we are in need of help. Let us turn to our crucified Lord today, and say to him what he said to his Father: Lord, into your hands I commend my spirit.

Sisters and brothers, there is indeed something surprising in the Passion of the Lord. For here, by the power of God, the egg falls to the ground, yet remains unbroken. What must we do to draw ever more deeply from this awesome power today?

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Pacing Between The Palms & The Passion (Rerun)

Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord (A)

Picture: cc bradhoc

Sisters and brothers, which do you consider yourself to be? A pessimist? Or an optimist? Someone who sees the glass as half empty? Or half full? You’ve probably heard the story of the artist who painted a big black spot on a white canvas, and then showed it to some friends. Asking them to tell her what they saw. As might be expected, everyone said they saw a big black spot. To which the artist replied: But what about the white background? Don’t you see that too?

As you know, this story is often told to remind us to look on the bright side of life. To not be a pessimist. Forever obsessing over dark spots. But to be an optimist. Focusing instead on the light. Sounds like good advice. Especially since too much pessimism can lead to depression. And, in extreme cases, even to suicide. And yet, haven’t we also met people who are too optimistic? Who focus so much on the bright side that they simply ignore the darkness around them? We may imagine, for example, a family that refuses to acknowledge the fact that one of its members may be having a problem with alcohol or drugs or gambling. So the addict does not receive the help and care that is needed. And the whole family suffers. Extreme optimism can be just as destructive as excessive pessimism.

But if neither pure optimism nor pure pessimism is the way to go, then what are we to do? As Christians, how are we to react when a dark spot smears itself over the white canvas of our lives? Strange as it may seem, I think the answer can be found in our liturgy today. Here, we discover the proper Christian response to tragedy. A response that is actually a process. With a beginning, a middle, and an end. We will consider the beginning and the end first, before looking at the middle.

The first step in this process has to do with how we see. As you know, today we stand at the doorway of the holiest week of the year. Today, we accompany Jesus as he enters Jerusalem. Traditionally, we know this day by two names. The first name–Palm Sunday–draws our attention to how this week begins. It reminds us of that bright and joyful scene of the Lord’s glorious entry into the Holy City. We remember how the people gave Jesus a king’s welcome. With great enthusiasm, they waved branches and threw their coats on the road as he passed.

In contrast, the second name for our celebration today, reminds us of how this week will end. Passion Sunday. By the time we reach Thursday evening this week, the joyful acclamations will be replaced by angry insults. Instead of coats and branches strewn on the ground as signs of welcome, Jesus’ body will be stretched out on a cross in an extreme expression of rejection and scorn. By the end of this week, a big black spot will have smeared itself on the white canvas of the Lord’s life.

In such a situation, while an optimist might focus only on the palms, and a pessimist only on the Passion, our liturgy today reminds us that the two are inseparable. For together they show us that ours is a king who rides a lowly donkey. Whose crown will be a cruel wreath of thorns. Indeed, our prayer books refer to this day as Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord. What we find here, sisters and brothers, is a particular way of looking at the world. Not quite the pessimism that remains blind to the light. Nor the optimism that ignores the darkness. Instead, what we have here might perhaps be called a true Christian realism. A way of looking at the world that is willing to see clearly both the palms and the Passion. Both the darkness and the light.

And this is precisely what Jesus did. As we know from the many stories in the gospels, Jesus was not afraid to open his eyes to both the good and the bad. To both the darkness and the light. In his ministry, Jesus was willing to recognize not only the remorse of the repentant sinner, but also the hypocrisy of the scribe and the Pharisee. But that is not all. Especially when we follow Jesus closely this week, we will see that the courage that allows him to see the world realistically leads him also to act compassionately. Such that he will be willing even to take the final step of laying down his life for us. As St. Paul tells us in the second reading, His state was divine, yet Christ Jesus did not cling to his equality with God but emptied himself… even to accepting… death on a cross.

In the life of Christ, what begins with the ability to see realistically leads eventually to the end of loving self-sacrifice. But the distance between these two steps–between the beginning and the end–is very great. To move from one to the other–from realistic seeing to self-emptying love–a third step is needed. A middle step.

In our reading of the Passion today, we find the Lord taking this middle step in the garden of Gethsemane. Here, Jesus sees clearly the darkness that surrounds him. He knows what his Father wishes. But it is not easy to take the final step. He struggles. My soul is sorrowful, he tells his friends, to the point of death. The distance between the beginning and the end is too great even for the Lord.

What does he do? He falls to the ground and prays. Before his Heavenly Father, with heartbreaking honesty, he lays bare his soul. If it is possible, let this cup pass me by. Nevertheless, let it be as you, not I, would have it. And out of this intimate and trusting conversation, Jesus receives the strength to do what is required. So that the words spoken by Isaiah, in the first reading, may easily be spoken by Jesus as well: The Lord has opened my ear. For my part, I made no resistance, neither did I turn away…. I did not cover my face against insult and spittle....

Seeing realistically, praying honestly, and acting compassionately. These are the three steps that make up the Christian response to pain and suffering. To trial and tribulation. These are the same three steps that mark the road that Jesus is taking this week. A road that, as followers of Christ, we too are called to walk in our own lives. Not just in this holiest of weeks. But at every moment of every day. A road that stretches between the palms and the Passion.

Sisters and brothers, faced with the black spots of sin and suffering that smear the white canvas of our lives and our world, how will you react? What will you allow yourself to see, today?

Sunday, April 06, 2014

Raising the Undead (Rerun)

5th Sunday in Lent (A)

Sisters and brothers, do you like zombies? I know that there are people who like to watch movies about zombies. Just as there are those who like to play zombie computer games. As you know, there are different kinds of zombies. But the kind that you typically find in Hollywood movies have several unmistakable characteristics. For one thing, zombies are usually very ugly. This is because they’re actually already dead. So their flesh is rotting away. You can imagine what that looks like. Ugly and scary.

But that’s not all. although already dead, for some reason, zombies are still able to walk around. They’re not completely dead. But neither are they fully alive. Which is why they’re called the living dead, or the undead. Unlike normal human beings, the undead have only one reason for remaining in this world: To satisfy their desperate craving for human flesh. They’re always looking for something, or someone, to eat. Theirs is a totally self-centred, wholly flesh-driven, existence.

Ugly, undead, and driven by an insatiable hunger for human flesh. Quite a miserable way to live, don’t you think? And what makes it even more pitiful is the fact that the undead cannot die. At least not in the way that a human being can. They’re forever condemned to a self-centred existence between death and life. Is there any hope for them? How, if ever, can a zombie become truly human again?

As bizarre as it may sound, sisters and brothers, I think that this is the very question that our readings are inviting us to consider today. How, if ever, is it possible for a zombie to become human again? But to appreciate this, we must first find the zombie in our readings. And we do this by considering something that all our readings have in common. In each of them, we find people, who are already dead in some way, being raised to life.

In the gospel, Lazarus is dead in the literal sense of the word. Having died from an illness, he had been buried in a cave that was later sealed with a stone. Then, wonder of wonders, Jesus comes along, and calls Lazarus out from his tomb. Jesus raises Lazarus from his grave and returns him to the land of the living.

In the first reading, although physically alive, the people of Israel have suffered a political death. Their country has been conquered, and they’ve been sent into exile. Like Lazarus, they too have been buried. Not physically, but politically. Not in a cave, but in the faraway land of Babylon. Then, through the prophet Ezekiel, God comes along and calls them from their foreign tomb. God promises to raise them from their graves, and lead them back to the soil of Israel.

But what, we may wonder, do Lazarus and the Israelites have to do with us? Why should we bother about them? We are not dead. At least not yet. Neither physically nor politically. Not only are we still very much alive and kicking, we also live in a country that can perhaps be counted among some of the richest in the world. Why bother about Lazarus and the Israelites?

The reason is that the physical and political death that we find in these readings point us to yet another form of death. In the second reading, Paul speaks to the Romans about those who suffer from spiritual death. Although such people may continue to walk around as though they were alive, they are not. Indeed, Paul writes about such people in a way that reminds us of zombies. People who are interested only in unspiritual things, Paul writes, can never be pleasing to God. Another translation of the same verse renders it like this: those who are in the flesh cannot please God. Those who are in the flesh. Those who live zombie-like lives. Lives driven only by their own self-centred and fleshly interests. Such people are cut off from God. Although physically alive, they are spiritually dead.

And can we deny, sisters and brothers, that there is a fleshly, zombie-like quality to this modern society in which we live? Our whole global economy is built upon the production and consumption of goods at ever faster and cheaper rates. And a crucial part of this process is the exploitation of human labor. Cheap human labor. The cheaper the better. For example, I may not think much about it, but the new shoes or clothes or accessories that I buy at the store may actually cost far more than just the price stated on the tag. It may also carry the blood and sweat and tears of people working under very difficult conditions in some other corner of the world. Shouldn’t my own constant hunger for comfort and for consumer goods produced at the cost of the suffering of others remind me of a zombie’s ceaseless craving for human flesh? Could it be that our modern consumeristic existence is no different from–no less miserable than–that of a zombie’s? Isn’t this what Paul means by a life lived in the flesh?

And yet, according to Paul, we Christians should no longer be living like this. Through our baptism, we who once were zombies, have been brought back to life. And filled with the spirit of Christ. A spirit that gives us the power to do something that zombies cannot. When Jesus travels to Bethany in the gospel, he accomplishes two things at once. Not only does he raise his friend Lazarus, but he also makes the religious authorities so angry with him that they decide to kill him. By raising his friend from the dead, Jesus sets in motion a process that eventually leads to him being lifted up on a cross. And Jesus does both these things–the raising of his friend and the angering of the authorities–for the same reason. He does them out of love. At Bethany, Jesus does the very thing that zombies cannot. He shows his great love by laying down his life for his friends.

And that’s not all. Sisters and brothers, we too are numbered among the friends Christ. We too have been raised by him from the realm of the undead. And, as his followers, we too have been given the power to lay down our lives for others. Indeed, this is the answer to our question. How, if ever, can zombies become truly human again? By receiving and living in the spirit of Christ that we have all received at our baptism. The same spirit for which we prayed in our opening prayer just now, when we asked the Lord our God to enable us to walk eagerly in that same charity with which, out of love for the world, Christ handed himself over to death.

Sisters and brothers, in our own lives and in our own world, what will it take to continue raising the zombie in us to fullness of life today?

Saturday, April 05, 2014

Putting the Horse before the Cart

Wedding Mass of Benjamin & Cheryl

Readings: Genesis 2:18-24; Psalm 103; 1 Corinthians 12:31-13:8; Matthew 5:13-16
Picture: cc Emilio Labrador

Ben and Cheryl, my dear sisters and brothers, I’m sure you’re familiar with the phrase putting the cart before the horse. You know what it means. To put the cart before horse is to have things in the wrong order. To confuse our priorities. And it’s not difficult to see why. People don’t usually load a cart just for the fun of it. They do it for a specific purpose. To transport their stuff from one place to another. They have a particular destination in mind. But the cart cannot get to this place on its own. It needs the energy, provided by the horse, to pull it to where it’s supposed to go. And the horse can only do this if it’s placed first. In front of the cart. Not the other way round.

Putting the cart before the horse will, of course, result in the cart remaining stationary. You may load it with as many things as you like. You may even decorate it so that it looks beautifully attractive. But, without the horse in front to pull it, it will never move. It’ll never get to its intended destination. Which defeats the whole purpose of loading the cart in the first place.

All this is common sense. It’s easily understood in theory. And yet so easily forgotten in practice. Easily forgotten even when the cart that is being loaded is something as important as a marriage. Or a family. The common life that a man and a woman commit themselves to sharing by professing their vows. By saying I do. Which is why I think that you, Ben and Cheryl, have really chosen your Mass readings very wisely and carefully today. For the readings help to remind us what a marriage should look like, when the horse is placed in front of the cart.

First of all, Ben and Cheryl, you remind us that the marriage vows you will soon be professing, do have a very specific purpose. They are meant to transport you to a particular place. An intended destination. The gospel that you’ve chosen for us today helps to remind us just what this destination is. You are the salt of the earth… You are the light of the world…

The life of love that you will soon commit yourselves to share, for the rest of your earthly lives, is not meant to be a static state. But a dynamic, an exciting, journey. A holy pilgrimage. And your goal, your destination, on this pilgrimage is to somehow give flavour to an often tasteless world. To somehow bring light to those who remain in darkness.  The opening prayer that we prayed just now makes this even clearer for us. There, we said that God the Father has made the bond of marriage… a symbol of Christ’s love for his church. And we asked that your married life together always bear witness to the reality of that love. In other words, we were praying that your love will always illuminate the darkness of selfishness. That it will always give flavour to an environment marked by the blandness of self-absorption.

Bearing witness to love. This is your intended destination. This is where the cart of your marriage is meant to go. And the other readings help us to see what this love looks like. The specific route your marriage is meant to take. The beautiful second reading does this by describing some characteristics of love. Love is patient, love is kind. It is not jealous… And what the second reading describes, the first reading portrays in a story. The story of Adam and Eve. The story of how God creates the relationship of love between the first man and the first woman. Between two human persons equal in dignity. Suitable helpmates for each other.

The process involves three things. The first is sleep. The man is tranquilized. His ego–his tendency to selfishness–is put to sleep. The second is self-donation. A rib–a part of himself–is taken from him. And given to the other. And the third is the action of God. It is God who helps the man quiet his ego. It is God who enables the man to give of himself. It is God who fashions a new being out of what the man donates. It is God who creates a new bond of love. This at last is bone of my bones and flesh from my flesh!

But that’s not all. Thus far, we know our destination. And we know the route. We know that the cart of marriage we are loading today is meant to bear witness to love. That it is meant to embark on a pilgrimage of love. But how do we get this cart to move? Where is the horse that might supply the energy to propel and to keep us on our way? Again, the readings that you, Ben and Cheryl, have chosen, point us in the right direction.

The moving hymn that we sang for our responsorial psalm connects us with the power of love. Not so much our love for one another. Or even our love for God. But God’s love for us. Loving and forgiving are you, O Lord! Slow to anger, rich in kindness, loving and forgiving are you… When we truly allow these words to turn our thoughts to the love that God has for us. To our experiences of God’s love in the past. Then we also begin to see the rest of our readings in a new light. The story of Adam and Eve becomes more than just a story of God creating love out of nothing. It is also a story of how God rescues love from danger. For what happens to the first Adam at the beginning of creation is also the experience of Jesus, the second Adam, at the dawn of our salvation.

On the Cross, Jesus suffers the sleep of death. His side is pierced. And out flows the blood and water into which we are baptised. The love out of which the church is born. Refashioned in the image and likeness of God. In Christ, then, we see the same three elements found in Adam. Sleep, self-donation, and God’s powerful action. In Christ we see, in concrete, what St. Paul describes in the abstract. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. In Christ, we find the power that propels us to our intended destination. The energy we need to receive love. To give love. To bear witness to love.

And it is this power, it is this love of Christ, that we will need in the days ahead. Especially in those days when the heady emotions of the honeymoon are past. When the mundane details of daily living set in. When we continue to face the challenge of love, and bearing witness to love, even though we may no longer feel the euphoria that marks love’s beginnings. Especially in those days, we will need to remain in touch with the love of Christ. Especially at those times, we will need to tap into the love and forgiveness of God. To put God first in everything.

Isn’t this also why we are gathered here today? Not just to witness you, Ben and Cheryl, committing themselves to each other. But also for the rest of us to commit ourselves to you. To supporting you in your mission of bearing witness to love. To helping you to continue putting God first. And we can do this only to the extent that we ourselves remain in touch with the power of love. Only to the degree in which we ourselves continue to put God first.

Ben and Cheryl, my dear friends, the cart of a happy and fruitful marriage has an intended destination. As well as a designated propulsion system. What must we do to continue putting the horse before the cart in the days ahead?