Saturday, June 27, 2015

The Meanings of Life

13th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

Picture: cc georgereyes

Sisters and brothers, if I were to ask you to imagine a bowl of rice, what image would come to your mind? Well, it depends, doesn’t it? When I think of rice, the image that I see is a bowl of fluffy white rice. Freshly cooked and recently scooped. With the steam still gently rising from it. Invitingly ready to eat. And I would be right. That is indeed what a bowl of rice looks like. But that is not the only possible image, right?

When asked to imagine rice, someone else might just as easily think of a bowl of uncooked rather than cooked rice. Or brown rice instead of white. Or rice porridge. Or even glutinous rice. The kind that’s used to make bak chang (meat dumplings). And that person would not be wrong. These are all correct ways of imagining a bowl of rice. For, in the English language, there’s really only one word that refers to all these different things. Rice.

In contrast, I’ve been told that Tagalog, the national language of the Philippines, has more than seven different words for rice. There’s one for white rice. One for unpolished rice. One for cooked rice. One for rice porridge. One for fried rice. Even one for burned rice. And one for left-over rice. These different words help Filipinos to speak more precisely. But, when speaking English, we have to be more careful. We have to remember that the same word can mean many different things. So that, if someone talks to us about rice, we really should ask them which kind they mean. Or risk being greatly mistaken.

And what is true of the word rice, is true of other English words as well. Another good example is the word that our Mass readings invite us to ponder today. Not the word rice. But the word life. As you may have noticed, our readings are all about life and death. In the first reading, we’re told that God takes no pleasure in the extinction of the living. God does not create human beings for death, but for life. Indeed, the reading goes so far as to say that God made human beings imperishable. Or indestructible. Immortal. And that it is the devil who brought death into the world. By successfully tempting us to sin.

The gospel focuses our attention on the same thing. Here Jesus brings back two people from death to life. One is a twelve-year-old girl who dies of a sudden illness. The other is a grown woman who, although still alive, is actually gradually losing her life. For she has been experiencing some sort of bleeding for twelve long years. And, as you know, the people of that time believed that a person’s life resided in the blood. So to keep bleeding in this way would be the same as to gradually be drained of one’s life. To be dragged, slowly but surely, into the jaws of death. Thankfully for these two people in the gospel, the touch of Jesus brings them both back from death to life.

But what does all this mean for us? At one level, the meaning seems quite obvious doesn’t it? God made us for life. We experience death only because of sin. Jesus comes to lead us out of sin and death, and into life. So, if we want to live forever, we have only to turn away from sin and believe in Jesus. That’s what our readings are telling us to do. Simple enough, right?

Well, if it really were all that simple, then why do we still celebrate Christian funerals? Why do even very devout and saintly Christians, people who have spent their lives following Christ, still suffer and die? Shouldn’t they live forever? Or are we to believe that they had some secret sin that we don’t know about? A sin serious enough for them to be condemned for it. Or was their faith simply not strong enough? Or, if they didn’t sin, and their faith was strong enough, then maybe the message in our readings is simply false? Belief in Jesus doesn’t really enable us to conquer death and to live forever. We’re being fooled.

Sisters and brothers, as you may have guessed, the problem doesn’t really lie with our readings. Nor does it lie with those who have died. The reason why we find it difficult to match what our readings are telling us with our own experiences of life, is because the life that our readings are talking about is not quite the same as what we often understand life to be.

When we hear the word life, we tend to think immediately of one, and only one, thing. Biological life. Physical life. Material life. Life that has to do with breathing in and breathing out. With eating and drinking. With buying and selling. But the scripture scholars tell us that the biblical understanding of life is quite different. They say that the New Testament talks about, not one, but three kinds of life. Each expressed by a different Greek word. The first kind is the one we are most familiar with. Biological or physical life (bīos). The second is psychological life (psychē). What we may consider the quality or meaningfulness of life. And, finally, the third and most important is divine or transcendent life (zoē). What the gospel of John calls eternal life. The life that God communicates to us. Not just after we are dead. But even now, while we are still physically and psychologically alive. The life that Jesus talks about when he tells us that he came to bring us life in abundance (John 10:10).

The reason why we find it difficult to match our readings with our experience is because we are thinking only of biological life. But our readings are really more concerned about eternal life. Transcendent life. Life in Christ. However saintly or sinful, however faithful or faithless we may be, our biological life will eventually come to an end. Death comes to us all. But if we cling to Christ. If we allow ourselves to be touched by Christ. If we live as Christ lived, then we are already living life in eternity. Life that does not end. Even if we may suffer a physical death.

But what does this third kind of life look like? And how do we know we are living it here and now? The second reading helps us to answer these questions by inviting us to think about how Christ lived his life on this earth. Remember how generous the Lord Jesus was: he was rich, but he became poor for your sake, to make you rich out of his poverty. Christ was rich in divinity. But out of love for us, he emptied himself to take on a physical and psychological life like our own. To become a human being like us. And then, having done that, he emptied himself even more. By laying down the same physical and psychological life he had taken up for us. By dying on the Cross. So that God raised him high. Gave him the name that is above all names. (Ph 2:6-11)

This is what eternal life looks like. Christ on the Cross. This is the image our readings are painting for us. This is God’s gift to us. A gift we receive by first remembering what Christ has done for us. As we are doing in this Mass. And then by being inspired and energised to do as Christ did. Laying down our lives for others. Especially by performing works of mercy for those most in need. And so to be raised up to life in its fullness.

Sisters and brothers, if I were to ask you to think of an image that best expresses your life right now? What would your image look like? What kind of life are you really living today?

Sunday, June 21, 2015

By The Stormy Sea

12th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

Picture: cc Lawrence OP

Sisters and brothers, do you remember the legend of St. Augustine and the boy by the sea? It is said that, while the saint was writing his book on the Holy Trinity, he found himself stuck. Unable to fully comprehend how God could be both one and three at the same time. So he took a break and went to the beach. Where he noticed a little boy doing a strange thing. He was running back and forth between the sand and the sea. Curious, the saint went to take a closer look. He saw that the boy had a seashell in one hand. Which he was filling with seawater. And then pouring the water into a hole he had dug in the sand.

What are you doing, little one? Augustine asked. Can’t you see? The boy replied. I’m emptying the ocean into this hole. At which the saint smiled, and said, But that’s impossible! The mighty ocean is far too large to be contained in this tiny hole. Yes, said the boy. But not more impossible than your own attempts at containing the greatness of God within the tiny confines of your puny mind. After saying this, the boy vanished.

The legend is obviously meant to teach us a lesson. But what exactly is this lesson? Some may think that it is this. That since we can never fully comprehend God, we should simply give up trying. If you can’t empty the ocean, then walk away from it. But, if this is true, then it would seem that Augustine never really learned his lesson. For, not only did he complete his book on the Trinity, he also became one of the greatest theologians in the history of the church. Whose many writings are still read and studied even today. Why bother to speak and to write so much about something that you can’t completely understand?

I’m not sure, sisters and brothers. But I think that the true lesson of the legend is something different. The proper human response to the Mighty Ocean of God’s Mystery is not to try to empty it into the tiny confines of our mind. Neither is it to walk away from it in frustration and despair. The proper human response to the Ocean of Mystery is to walk courageously into it. To allow ourselves to be carried along by its currents. Even if we do not fully understand where it will take us. Trusting that wherever it does take us is exactly where we are meant to be. Where we find true and lasting joy and peace.

I mention this because I think that, like Augustine, we too find ourselves standing before an Ocean of Mystery today. If not exactly the Mystery of the Trinity, then the mystery of human suffering. As you know it’s only about a fortnight ago that a sudden earthquake in Sabah took the lives of 18 people. Including 7 children from Singapore. Between the ages of 12 and 13. Then, just two days ago, we heard of yet another shooting in the United States. In Charleston, South Carolina, 9 people were killed in a church, where they had gathered to worship God. And these are only two tiny drops in a vast ocean of global suffering.

Sisters and brothers, how do these reports affect you? Perhaps a single all but irresistible question arises in at least some of our minds. The question why or how. Why did or how could God allow all this to happen? A question that is no easier to answer than the question how can God be both one and three at the same time? It is ultimately a Mystery. A vast ocean, impossible for our tiny minds to comprehend.

And, faced with this stormy sea, we may be tempted to do one of two things. Either to offer pat answers like: It’s God’s will. Or: God is punishing us for our evil ways. Or to give in to the temptation to despair. Unable to reconcile our belief in an all-powerful and all-loving God with the reality of suffering in our world, we may decide either to close our eyes to the suffering, or to deny the existence of God altogether. In either case, we choose to walk away from the Mystery.

But how can we avoid these two extremes? Neither trying to empty the ocean nor walking away from it. But, instead, immersing ourselves more deeply in it’s dark waters. And what does this even mean? What does it look like to wade into the Ocean of Mystery? These, my dear sisters and brothers, are the questions that our Mass readings help us to ponder today.

In both the first reading and the gospel, we find a stormy sea. In the gospel, the storm is a literal one. A very violent one. One that threatens to capsize the disciples’ boat. And to drown everyone on board. In the first reading, the storm is also a figurative one. As you know, although Job is an upright and God-fearing man, he experiences terrible suffering. In a string of disasters, he loses first his wealth, then his children, and even his health.

These external storms provoke great interior turmoil. Both in the disciples and in Job. Turmoil expressed in that poignant question that the disciples pose to Jesus with such urgency: Master, do you not care? Which is not much different from the question that we may find ourselves asking as well. Lord, why did you let this happen? People are suffering. Your people. Suffering for no apparent reason. In some cases, suffering precisely because they have chosen to follow you. Master, do you not care?

What is God’s response to this heartfelt plea? In the first reading, instead of providing an answer, God helps Job to reframe the question. From why? to who? Who pent up the sea...? Or who is this God whom you are presuming to question in this way? In the gospel too, we find a reframing of the question. After Jesus calms the storm at sea, the disciples are moved to ask, who can this be? Even the wind and the sea obey him. Quite strikingly, our Mass readings begin and end with the question who?

And the second reading follows up the question who? with the question what? Presuming that we all know who Jesus really is. The Son of God himself. The reading invites us to recall also what this same Jesus has done for us. For you and for me. We know the answer to this question. With great love, Christ has given his life for us on the Cross. And to remember the immense love of Christ, as we are doing at this Mass, is to be overwhelmed by it. To be encouraged and empowered by it. Given the strength not only to bear our own sufferings. But also to reach out in mercy to others who suffer. And even to those who cause suffering. Much like how the family members of the victims of the Charleston Shooting have taken the trouble to meet the shooter. And to tell him that they have forgiven him.

To live no longer for ourselves, but for him who died and was raised to life for us. To see the world no longer according to the standards of the flesh, but of the Spirit. To allow ourselves to become a new creation. No longer trying to contain or to deny God. But happy simply to follow Christ wherever he leads. And so to enter more fully into God’s love. For us and for the world.

Sisters and brothers, what must we do to immerse ourselves more deeply in the vast Ocean of God’s love today?

Saturday, June 20, 2015

The Allure of Need

Wedding Mass of Jonathan & Grace

Readings: Genesis 2:18-24; Psalm 33; Colossians 3:12-17; Matthew 5:1-12
Picture: cc leniners

Jonathan and Grace, my dear friends, what exactly is it that attracts you to someone? What are the things that might make you consider entering into a relationship with that person? Even to marry him or her? Perhaps some of us are attracted to a person’s strengths and achievements. The gifts that the person has to offer. Like musical talent, for example. Or the ability to make us laugh. But isn’t it true that there is something else that may attract us even more? Can you guess what this is?

I’m not sure, since I’m not an expert in such things. But I think that what’s perhaps even more attractive than a person’s strength is perhaps his/her weakness. Isn’t it true that many of us, whether we care to admit it or not, cannot help but be drawn to people who need us? People who are vulnerable in some way. And who are not afraid to show us that vulnerability. To open up a space for us in their lives.

I mention this, because this attractiveness, this allure of weakness, seems to be something that characterises the love story that we have gathered here to celebrate. As some of you already know, Jonathan and Grace first met at the 2011 Tri-Varsity Games. Where they happened to be teammates representing NTUCSA in the Ultimate Frisbee competition. (There may be a valuable lesson to be learned here.) But it wasn’t really their frisbee skills that got their relationship started. According to Jonathan, during the post games makan, his attention was drawn to (in his own words) a quiet, bespectacled, nerdy-looking girl who was using her phone. Quite interestingly, it was her shyness that drew Jonathan to Grace. So he struck up a conversation with her by pointing out that they both had phones of a similar make and model.

But that’s not all. For even though they didn’t exchange contacts during that first meeting, Grace somehow managed to get in touch with Jon some time later. And how did she signal her interest in him? How did she move the relationship along? You guessed it. By demonstrating her need for him. She asked him to help her increase the speed of her phone. After that, Jon was hooked. No turning back anymore…

Again, I’m not sure my dear friends, but I think that there is an important lesson here. Something that this lovely couple, Grace and Jon, are trying to share with us today. The lesson that good, strong and lasting relationships need to be built not just on strength. But also on weakness. Isn’t this also the message that we find in the readings that they have chosen for the occasion?

In the first reading, we find the account of how God creates the first relationship between humans. How does this come about? It begins with a need. A weakness. It is not good that the man should be alone, God says. The man needs a suitable companion. But he is unable to find one on his own. He needs God’s help. And God helps by first putting the man to sleep. By silencing his ego. So that the man can give away a part of himself. And, in the process, the first human relationship is born. Born as much out of human weakness as the power of God.

The second reading has a similar message. St. Paul reminds his readers that, as God’s chosen race, there is a certain uniform that they need to put on. Certain clothes that they need to wear. The virtues of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience and, ultimately, love. Which is another way of saying that they need to put on Christ himself. Let the message of Christ, in all its richness, find a home with you. But how are we to put on Christ, if not by first acknowledging our own nakedness. Recognising that the clothes we often wear, the clothes that the world gives us to wear, the garments of self absorption and anxious self assertion, are nothing more than rags. We are able to put on Christ only by acknowledging our need for him.

Which also helps us to understand what Jesus is teaching in the gospel. The beatitudes present us with a list of needy people, whom Jesus proclaims to be blessed. People who are blessed precisely in their weakness. For God delights in coming to satisfy their need for him. As the psalmist tells us: The Lord fills the earth with his love. All we need to do is make a space in our hearts and in our lives to receive the love that God has to offer us. And we do this by humbly recognising and acknowledging, perhaps even proclaiming, our need for God. Not unlike how Grace captured Jonathan’s heart by asking for his help to upgrade her phone.

Jonathan and Grace, I’m not sure, but I think that this is the invaluable lesson that you are sharing with us today. Even as we gather to celebrate your love for each other. The lesson that there is a charming, perhaps even irresistible attractiveness to weakness and vulnerability. And that it is often precisely in courageously acknowledging and even professing our need for one another and for God that true love is born. Again and again. Among us. And into our world.

My dear friends, even as we rejoice with Jonathan and Grace, even as we offer them our friendship and love, our prayers and good wishes, perhaps we need also to consider our own need for one another. Our own need for love. Our own need for God.

Sisters and brothers, do you perhaps have a phone that needs upgrading today?