Sunday, November 30, 2014

Called From Coma To Consciousness

1st Sunday in Advent (B)

Picture: cc BK

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Signs Of Citizenship

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

Picture: cc mroach

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Asset or Liability?

33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Picture: cc Rebecca Wilson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 09, 2014

Making Life Liveable...

Feast of The Dedication Of The Lateran Basilica

Picture: cc Don Shrimpton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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