Sunday, July 26, 2015

Place For Your Passport

Solemn Feast of St. Ignatius of Loyola (Anticipated)

Readings: Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Psalm 1:1-6; 1 Corinthians 10:31-33; Matthew 8:18-27
Picture: cc Bill Couch

Sisters and brothers, when you travel, what is probably the single most important item, apart from yourself of course, that you need to safeguard? I know someone who recently received a painful reminder of the answer to this question. This person had flown into Changi Airport to catch another flight to a foreign destination. Unfortunately, he carelessly left his passport behind on the first plane. And ended up being stranded at the airport, because the authorities wouldn’t let him board the connecting flight without a valid travel document. Thankfully, the airline was able to very quickly locate and return his passport to him. Which allowed him to catch a later flight. So all he lost were some hours of travelling time. Imagine how much more inconvenience he would have suffered if someone had stolen his passport…

This person found out the hard way what all travellers have to learn at one point or another. Whenever you’re travelling, you have to make sure that you keep your passport in a safe place at all times. And there’s a similar lesson to be learnt in the spiritual life as well. A lesson that our Mass readings help to teach us. A lesson that is central to the spirituality of St. Ignatius. The patron of our parish. Whose solemn feast we celebrate today.

As you know, the spiritual life is commonly imagined as an ongoing journey. A continual pilgrimage. Out of selfishness and into love. Away from the narrow and anxious concerns of our ego. And towards God and God’s concerns. This image of constant travel is also something we find in our readings today.

In the first reading, after wandering in the wilderness for 40 long years, the people of Israel have finally arrived at their destination. They are preparing to cross the Jordan River to enter and to take possession of the Promised Land. But before they make the crossing, Moses gives them an important pep-talk. A pre-flight safety briefing, if you like. And it’s important to pay close attention to what Moses is saying. On the surface, it seems as though his only concern is that the Israelites keep the Law. If you obey the commandments of the LORD, your God, Moses tells them, you will live and grow numerous, and the LORD, your God, will bless you in the land you are entering to occupy. But the keeping of the Law is not really an end in itself. It’s only a means to an end. A way to achieve a deeper purpose.

We realise what this deeper purpose is when we carefully consider what Moses says next. If you turn away your hearts… and serve other gods... you will perish. Moses’ concern is not so much that the Israelites follow all the rules, as much as that they keep their hearts in the right place. Just as those who travel the world need to constantly protect their passports, so too do those who travel in spirit need to place their hearts in the safekeeping of God’s loving embrace. And they do this by keeping the Law.

For the Israelites, to keep the Law is to deposit their hearts with God for safekeeping. And it’s important that we not forget this deeper reason. This higher purpose for the Law. Otherwise, we can too easily reduce our faith simply to the following of a list of dos and don’ts. We can end up placing our hearts in the cold lifeless hands of the Law. Rather than in the warm and loving embrace of God. And this can lead to undesirable results.

We may, for example, become so burdened by the constant struggle to keep the letter of the Law that we lose the joy and delight experienced by those who appreciate and live its spirit. Those who keep growing in the realisation of how much they are loved and cherished by God. As a result, some of us may end up becoming so exhausted that we give up on God altogether. And others may turn ourselves into modern day Pharisees. Becoming rigidly legalistic. Even hypocritical and judgmental. Both of others and of ourselves as well.

Either way, we end up losing that life-giving connection about which the psalmist sings so beautifully. The nourishing bond enjoyed by the tree that is planted near running water. That yields its fruit in due season. And whose leaves never fade… The deep connection experienced by those whose hearts are ever kept in the right place. Secure in the loving embrace of God.

In the gospel, we find a striking image of what it looks like when someone is able to maintain just such a connection. Someone whose heart is always kept in the right place. As in the first reading, so too in the gospel, we find travellers preparing for a crossing. Not the River Jordan this time. But the Sea of Galilee. We’re told that when Jesus saw a crowd around him, he gave orders to cross to the other shore. To travel from Jewish to Gentile lands. And, as Moses did before him, Jesus gives his fellow travellers a pre-flight safety briefing. He offers them two instructions.

The first is a reminder of what we said earlier. That the spiritual life involves constant travel. An experience of homelessness even. Foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head. Yet this homelessness is not for sightseeing or vacationing. Much less is it because one is unable to commit to settling down in a particular place. The Lord submits to homelessness in the kingdom of this world, only  to fulfil his mission of proclaiming the coming of the Kingdom of God. And to help everyone to find their proper place in it.

We do this by making Jesus our first priority. By entrusting our hearts to him for safekeeping. By finding our rest in the Lord. Follow me, and let the dead bury their dead. Jesus demonstrates just what this mysterious restfulness in the midst of continual homelessness looks like. On the crossing, when his boat encounters a violent storm, we’re told that Jesus was asleep. The Lord experiences a deep calm even when surrounded by chaos. A powerful image of how he is able to endure not having a fixed place to lay his head, because his heart remains always securely deposited in the embrace of his Father’s will.

And this is also the twofold lesson taught by St. Ignatius. First, that to be a disciple of Christ is to be constantly travelling in the spirit. Continually on mission. Proclaiming–sometimes with our words, and always with our lives–the good news of God’s love for us in Christ. And, second, that we can travel safely, even on stormy seas, when we place our hearts in the hands of God. The second reading tells us that this has to do with our motivations. Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God. Not for turning a profit. Or for making a name for yourself. Or to take pride in your own accomplishments. But for the glory of God. As St. Ignatius would say, en todo amar y servir. In all things, to love and to serve (God).

Sisters and brothers, all seasoned travellers know well the importance of safeguarding their passport. On the road of discipleship, where are you choosing to place your heart for safekeeping today?

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Letting Go

Novena for Feast of St. Anne (Day 6)
You Are Called... To Trust In God

Readings: Isaiah 49:14-15; Psalm 61; 1 Peter 2:4-9; John 14:1-12

Sisters and brothers, I’m sure that at least some of you still remember that story about the atheist who fell off a cliff. He managed to cling onto a branch, and was left hanging from it, between heaven and earth. Knowing that he was in a desperate situation, the man decided that he should try to pray. Since, even though he didn’t believe in God, he had nothing to lose anyway. So he looked up at the sky and shouted: Is there anyone up there? To his great surprise, he heard a voice say to him: Yes, I’m here. What can I do for you? Save me! the man shouted back. Of course! Came the reply. Let go! Taken aback, the man kept quiet and thought for a while. Then he looked up again and shouted: Is there anyone else up there?

Funny though it may be, I think the story illustrates very well the message that we are being invited to ponder on this 6th Day of the Novena in preparation for your Parish Feast. You are called... to trust in God. What does this mean? Well, as the story shows us, to trust in God means to be willing to let go. And to let go not just of anything or in just any situation. But to let go even in a desperate situation. To be willing to place our very lives into the hands of God. That is what it means to trust. That is what we are called as Christians to do. And it's not easy.

I’m reminded of the news report that I saw on the BBC website earlier today. It comes from Sierra Leone in West Africa. As you know, this country was severely affected by the outbreak of the Ebola virus last year. The good news is that the number of new cases has dropped drastically. But the bad news is that there are now more than 8,000 children in Sierra Leone, who have lost one or both parents to the disease. Many of these children are now having difficulty finding a home.

According to the report, people are scared of them... They just don't trust that these children are okay now and they can touch them and go near them, so they push [the children] far away from them. And who can blame them. It is a matter of life and death. To accept these Ebola survivors is to run the risk of being infected yourself. Whether they realise it or not, the people are being called to let go. To let go of their fears and suspicions. To believe that, whatever happens, it is still better to accept the children than to reject them. And this is not an easy thing to do. But this is precisely what we Christians are called to do. To trust even and especially in desperate situations. Even and especially when it means letting go of our fears. And laying down our lives.

Desperate situations are also precisely what we find in each of our Mass readings today. Situations of life and death. In the first reading the city of Jerusalem, or Zion, has been conquered. And many of the people sent into exile. It is a desperate time. A time of hardship and heartbreak. But God tells the people not to give up. To continue to believe that even if a woman were to forget her own child–such as when that child might be infected by Ebola, for example–God will never forget them. God has their best interests at heart. What the people of Zion are being called to do is to let go of their doubts and their despair. To bravely endure their current difficulties. To lay their lives on the line.

This is also what Jesus is calling his disciples to do in the gospel. As you know, the passage is taken from John’s account of the Last Supper. It is Holy Thursday evening. Jesus has just washed his disciples’ feet. He is now about to walk the Way of the Cross. It is a desperate time. Their Master will soon be cruelly tortured and killed. Yet Jesus tells the disciples not to let their hearts be troubled. Trust in God still, and trust in me. And to trust in God is to walk the way that Jesus himself walked. To live the Way that Jesus himself is. I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. To keep doing the will of the One who sent him (Jn 6:38). To lay down one’s life for one’s friends (Jn 15:13).

The second reading tells us that it is this ability and willingness to trust, to let go, and to lay down one’s life, that sets apart the true believer from everyone else. Scripture scholars tell us that the Christian community to whom the second reading is addressed is undergoing some form of persecution. Probably not official State persecution. But more subtle forms of prejudice and rejection by their non-Christian neighbours. Perhaps they are being made to pay more for their food at the market. Or perhaps the vendors are refusing to serve them. Whatever it is, times are hard for all those who call themselves Christian.

And yet, faced with such difficulties, the second reading reminds Christians to continue to build their lives on Christ. The One who was persecuted and rejected before them. And for their sakes. The Lord is the living stone, rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to him. To continue to trust in Jesus, even in the face of persecution, is to allow the Lord to become the cornerstone, the firm foundation, of their lives. In contrast, to reject him, as the unbelievers do, is to turn him into an obstacle. A stone that trips them up and makes them fall down. Trusting in God is what makes the difference between the Christian and the pagan. The true believer and the agnostic or the atheist.

But let us be honest. It is not easy to trust in this way. To be willing to lay down one’s life. Difficult enough just to live according to the values of the gospel on a daily basis. To insist on treating others well, for example, even when they may stab us in the back. Just to get ahead. To make time to reach out to those in need. Even when we ourselves may be stressed out and struggling with the demands of daily life. To do all this is not easy. It requires trust. The willingness to let go. The courage to believe what our readings are inviting us to believe. That the God who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us (Rm 8:32), will never forget us.

And perhaps that is the key to belief. To remember the God who never forgets us. To remember how this God has blessed and protected and provided for us in the past. And continues to do so in the present. Isn’t this what the Mass is all about? A mysterious memory of God’s powerful providence. Of God’s undying love. For all God’s people. And, in remembering, we find the strength to believe. To trust. To let go. And to lay our lives in God's hands.

Sisters and brothers, there’s actually something else in that BBC report from Sierra Leone. Something I failed to mention. The report wasn’t just about the difficulties of the children. It was also about the heroic life of an Ebola worker named Augustine Baker. While working tirelessly to help Ebola orphans, both Augustine and his wife Margaret died of the disease. And now their own three children, the youngest of whom is only one year old, have become orphans too. And are being cared for by their grandmother.

Sisters and brothers, isn’t this what trust looks like? Isn’t this what it means to let go? What we Christians are called to do? The very thing that God has done for us. How are we being invited to trust, to let go, and to lay down our lives today?

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Flexible Fingers

16th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

Picture: cc Veronica Foale

Sisters and brothers, do you know what is meant when a Cantonese-speaking person tells you that someone has fingers that bend outwards and not in? The expression is used to describe (and criticise) the tendency to favour outsiders over one’s own people. Just as our fingers naturally tend to bend inwards, so too are we expected to side with our own family and friends. Our own countrymen and women. So someone whose fingers bend outwards and not in may be considered unnatural. Even dangerous. For we all know what happens when fingers are bent too far outwards. They get dislocated. In extreme cases, even disconnected from the hand.

And this is a danger that we face not just as individuals, but also as a nation. As you know, in a recent public lecture, the Prime Minister of Singapore listed identity as one of three key challenges that Singapore faces in the next 50 years. The worry is that the experience of globalisation will make Singaporeans feel so comfortable in the world that they will no longer see Singapore as their home. The fingers will bend so far outward that they will be dislocated. Even disconnected from the hand. The worry is that the nation of Singapore may disintegrate.

Which is precisely what has happened to the people of Judah in the first reading. As a nation, they have disintegrated. They have been conquered by the Babylonians. Sent into exile. And this political disintegration is the result of a deeper spiritual dislocation. Judah had turned away from the One True God to worship foreign gods. And God lays the blame for this idolatry squarely on the shoulders of the leaders. The shepherds that God had appointed to care for the people. You have let my flock be scattered and go wandering and have not taken care of them. The leaders have let the fingers bend so far outward that they have become dislocated. Disconnected from God.

Thankfully, all is not lost. For God promises to replace the bad shepherds with a good one. The lazy leaders with a caring king. I will raise a virtuous Branch for David, who will reign as true king and be wise, practising honesty and integrity in the land. Wise and virtuous leadership. This is God’s solution to the problem of disintegration. But we need to consider carefully just what this kind of leadership looks like. For it is tempting for us to think that the way to address the problem of dislocation and disintegration lies in a simple reversal of direction. If dislocation is caused by fingers bending outwards, then just focus on bending them back inwards instead.

And yet, it doesn’t take much reflection to see that such a solution gives rise to serious problems of its own. For when fingers are turned inward to the extreme, what they form is a hardened tightly clenched fist. Something that inflicts violence on others. Causes hurt to outsiders. And isn’t this the underlying cause of much of the conflict and division we see in our world today? People trying to build up their own identity at the expense of others. By inflicting pain and suffering on those different from themselves. Isn’t this what radical groups like ISIS are doing, for example?

In contrast, the leadership that we find in our readings is very different. As Christians we believe that the promise made by God in the first reading finds its fulfilment in the person of Jesus in the gospel. Jesus is the promised good shepherd. He is the virtuous king. The one who gathers together the scattered and disintegrated people of God. But notice how this king operates. On the one hand, it is clear that Jesus cares deeply for his apostles. The insiders. Upon their return from a mission, the Lord quickly invites them to come away to some lonely place to rest for a while. To replenish their strength. To reconnect with themselves. And with their God.

But notice also that this care and concern for the insiders doesn’t come at the expense of compassion for outsiders. For even when his vacation plans are interrupted by a large crowd, the Lord doesn’t turn these people away. Instead, we’re told that he took pity on them because they were like sheep without a shepherd, and he set himself to teach them at some length. The leadership exercised by Jesus is not an exclusive turning inward. But an inclusive embrace of all who find themselves dislocated and disconnected. All who are lost and searching for direction.

As the second reading tells us, this is a leadership that unites rather than divides. A kingship that tears down the dividing wall between Jew and Gentile. Between insider and outsider. Transforming hostility into hospitality. Suspicion into friendship. Enmity into reconciliation. And the reading spells out just how this transformation comes about. By the blood of Christ and through the cross. Jesus reverses our dislocation and disintegration not by anxiously turning us inward toward ourselves. But by humbly bending downward toward all who are in need. By courageously letting his own body be lifted upward on the Cross. By generously allowing his own blood to be poured outward for the salvation of the world.

Bent down. Lifted up. And poured out. This is what the leadership of Christ looks like. This is how God reverses the dislocation and disconnection that results from selfishness and sin. Not by clenching fingers together to form a violent fist. But by spreading them out onto the wood of a cross. So that all might be led into the fullness of life.

And this is also the kind of leadership that we are all called, by virtue of our baptism, to exercise in our world today. This is the kind of shepherding we are called to do. In our families and communities. In church and in society. This is what our world most urgently requires of us. To share with it the only way to lasting joy and peace. A joy and a peace that the world cannot give.

Sisters and brothers, in a society where identity is becoming so much of a challenge. At a time when many are resorting to the violence of clenched fists. God continues to call us to reach out especially to those most in need. To those who may be different from us. To bear witness to a leadership of sacrifice and of service. In this lies our true identity. This is what it means to follow Christ. This is what it means to be truly Christian.

Sisters and brothers, in what direction will you be bending your fingers today?

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Supports For The Upright (Rerun)

15th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

Picture: Neila Ray

Sisters and brothers, do you remember that series of images that’s supposed to depict human evolution? The first is a picture of what looks like a monkey walking on all fours. Then there are a few figures that remain bent over, but are already walking on two legs. And finally there is a human being. Standing fully erect and holding a spear in its hand. Seen from left to right, these pictures portray profiles that progress upward. They seem to highlight, in striking fashion, the feature that supposedly sets humans apart: The ability to stand up straight and tall.

Some time ago, I came across a similar set of pictures that some cheeky fellow had modified by adding more images to the right of the originals. Perhaps you’ve seen them too. After the erect human figure with the spear, there is one that’s a little bent, carrying a rake. The next one’s even more stooped. Burdened by the weight of a large pneumatic drill in it’s hand. And, finally, the series ends with someone completely bent over a computer screen. In striking contrast to the figures on the left, the profiles on the right move ever downward. They reverse the earlier process. Not evolution, but deformation. And there’s even a caption that reads: something, somewhere went terribly wrong.

Don’t worry, sisters and brothers. I don’t propose to talk about evolution today. Better to leave that to the scientists. I don’t even know for sure that the ability to stand up straight is a typically human characteristic. But I do know that we usually refer to good people as being upright. The Chinese describe such persons as being ding tian li di (顶天立地). Someone whose head reaches the heavens and whose feet are firmly planted on the earth. In the Bible too, not only are the upright often praised, but no less than God is described as being upright. Good and upright is the Lord, who shows sinners the way (Ps 25:8). We may say that to be human is to somehow share in the uprightness of God. And perhaps this is what the second reading means, when it says that before the world was made,  God chose us in Christ, to be holy and spotless. God chose us in Christ to be upright. To be loved and to love the way Christ did.

And yet, probably most, if not all of us, will agree that it’s no easy task to remain upright. Especially not in this crooked world in which we live. There are so many temptations that distract us. So many burdens that drag us down. Including the ordinary anxieties of daily living. As well as the constant cravings of our hungry hearts. And even though we see shocking reports of how an apparently normal 23-year-old can suddenly transform into a bloodthirsty gunman. Slaughtering 38 perfect strangers in cold blood on a beach in Tunisia. We know that, like evolution, deformation is usually a gradual process. One begins by cutting little corners. Making minor compromises. Stooping ever lower and lower. Until, without realising it, one ends up so bent over as to be no longer recognisably human.

Which is why it is helpful for us to pay close attention to our readings today. For here we find the reassuring news that God does not leave us defenceless. God offers us various gifts to help us remain upright. As we are told in the second reading, God has blessed us with all the spiritual blessings of heaven in Christ. What are some of these blessings? How do they help us? How might we make better use of them?

In the gospel, even before he gives them authority over unclean spirits, Jesus offers the apostles something no less valuable. We’re told that he sent them out in pairs. Not one by one but two by two. The better to support and care for each other. To help each other remain upright. Isn’t this also why we take the time to gather here every week? Even though we could probably pray at home on our own? Isn’t this why many of us invest even more of our time in some form of communal religious activity? Whether  serving as a greeter or a lector? Or singing in the choir? Or studying the bible? Or gathering as a family to pray together? We do all this not just because it’s fun. But also because we realise that we are called and sent not just as individuals but also as a community. We know that each of us is a gift of the Lord to all the others. We help one another remain upright.

But that’s not all. If it were, the church would be nothing more than a club. A group of people who come together only to pursue a shared interest for their own recreation. Jesus’ second gift to the apostles helps us to guard against such potentially selfish and exclusive tendencies. Jesus advises them to wear sandals. Neither bare feet nor shoes, but sandals. Bare feet are okay for staying home. Sandals are needed for going out. Sandals also have an advantage over shoes. If you get sand in them, as you’re likely to when walking in the desert, they allow you to do precisely what Jesus asks the apostles to do when they are rejected: shake off the dust from under your feet and move on.

Isn’t this a precious help to us in our struggle to be good human beings and faithful Christians? What better way to remain upright than to keep moving? To remain engaged in the Lord’s mission of preaching repentance and healing to others. To be focused not so much on ourselves. Not so much on the challenges that we may face. Or the wounds we may suffer. Or the difficult people we may encounter. Or even the weakness that might continue to plague us. But rather on the mission that has been entrusted to us to reach out to those in need.

Even so, we are still likely to encounter circumstances where these two gifts are insufficient. There may be times when our companions will fail us. When they will misunderstand and even hinder us in what are called to do. There may be times when the sands of rejection will accumulate so quickly as to make it too painful to soldier on. Isn’t this the experience of the prophet Amos in the first reading? Sent by God to preach an unwelcome message of repentance to a stubborn nation, Amos finds himself in a minority of one. Even Amaziah the local priest rejects him. In such a situation, Amos has but one source of support.

In the face of rejection, Amos reminds himself of his own prophetic call. I was a shepherd, and looked after sycamores: but it was the Lord who took me from herding the flock, and the Lord who said, “Go, prophesy to my people Israel.” By recalling the beginnings of his own vocation, Amos finds the strength to continue performing the ministry entrusted to him by God. The memory of his own God-given identity and calling as a prophet becomes something like the one thing that Jesus allows the apostles to carry with them in the gospel. A staff. A sturdy walking stick that gives sure support. Enabling the prophet to continue walking straight and tall, even when the going is tough.

Sisters and brothers, to be a good Christian is a challenging thing. But God provides us with gifts to help us. Community, mission, vocation. How well do we use them? What must we do to keep standing upright? To remain truly human? To avoid becoming bent and deformed today?

Sunday, July 05, 2015

Celebrating Failure

14th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)
(Mass@Retreat for RGS)

Sisters and brothers, what are the things that usually make you happy? What do people usually celebrate? When you walk into someone’s office, for example. What do you usually find hanging on their walls? Well, apart from artwork and family photos, one other thing you might find are academic diplomas and other certificates of achievement. Some people may even display their graduation photographs.

These are the things that typically make us happy. Give us joy. We usually celebrate and take pride in our accomplishments and successes. Not in our failures. And this is as it should be. Nothing wrong with that. Yet this natural tendency of ours to rejoice in our successes can make it very difficult for us to understand the prayers and readings for our Mass today.

You will remember what we asked God for in our opening prayer just now. Fill your faithful with holy joy, we said. For on those you have rescued from slavery to sin you bestow eternal gladness. Joy and gladness. This is what we are praying for at Mass today. But I’m sure you have also noticed that our readings are not about the things that usually make us joyful. The things that usually make us glad. Our readings are not about success and accomplishment. But about failure and disappointment.

In the gospel, Jesus preaches in the synagogue in his hometown. But, even though he impresses the people with his wisdom and power, they reject him. And we’re told that he could work no miracle there. We find something similar in the first reading. Here God sends Ezekiel to bring God’s message to rebels who have turned against God. To people who will very likely refuse to listen to him. Both the first reading and the gospel speak not about success but about failure. Not about achievement but about disappointment.

The second reading goes even further. For not only does St. Paul write about his own failure. He even celebrates it! Takes pride in it! For some time, the apostle has been suffering from something he calls a thorn in the flesh. Scripture scholars are unsure what exactly Paul is talking about. It could be a physical illness of some sort. Or a temptation. Or perhaps some ongoing persecution that he’s been experiencing. Whatever it is, this weakness is something over which Paul has no control. He is helpless to overcome it.

And yet, after praying to God to take it away from him. And failing to receive a favourable response. Quite incredibly, Paul is still moved to write these astonishing words: I shall be very happy to make my weaknesses my special boast. It’s as though the apostle were choosing to display a certificate on the wall of his office, proudly announcing his thorn in the flesh to everyone. Unlike most of us, Paul celebrates and rejoices not just in strength, but also and especially in weakness. Not just in success, but also and especially in failure. Not just in achievement, but also and especially in disappointment.

I’m not sure about you, sisters and brothers. But this is something that I find very difficult to understand. Let alone to imitate. My usual reaction to failure and disappointment, to weakness and helplessness, is not one of joy and celebration. But of anger and embarrassment and discouragement. Instead of celebrating my failures, I usually choose to hide them. And not just from others. But even from myself. I try not to think about them. To avoid getting depressed.

All of which may indicate that perhaps the joy and gladness I usually experience is somehow different from what we are praying for today. What we are praying for is not just any kind of joy but holy joy. Not just any kind of gladness but eternal gladness. What’s so special about holy joy and eternal gladness? In what way is it different from the ordinary kind?

St. Paul gives us the answer in the second reading, when he tells us the reason why he is able to celebrate his weakness. It’s not because it feels good to be helpless. But because God’s power is at its best in (human) weakness. When all human efforts have failed, then it becomes clear that only God alone could be responsible for whatever success may come.

Ordinary joy comes when our own efforts meet with success. But holy joy comes even in failure, because we trust and hope that God will somehow bring success out of our failure. Even though we may not see or understand how and when this could happen. In ordinary joy, my attention is fixed on the results of my own efforts. On monitoring and measuring them. And congratulating myself for them. In holy joy, my attention is fixed not on my results. Much less on myself. But on God. And on what God wants me to do. And I continue to fix my eyes on God, even if my efforts seem to bear no visible fruit to speak of. No human achievement to boast about. As the psalmist says, our eyes are on the Lord till he shows us his mercy.

Our eyes are on the Lord. Not on ourselves. This is what sets apart holy joy from the ordinary kind. And this is an important lesson for us to keep in mind especially today. When it sometimes seems that the only kind of joy we know is the kind that comes from measuring and monitoring tangible results. Today, when the language of strategic planning and key performance indicators has made its way from corporate boardrooms into church circles. Today, when we sometimes find ourselves obsessively counting baptisms and anxiously projecting future Mass attendance. Nothing wrong with that, of course. We do have a duty to do our best. But we also need to carefully bear in mind these enlightening words from Pope Francis’ The Joy of the Gospel:
Sometimes it seems that our work is fruitless, but mission is not like a business transaction or investment, or even a humanitarian activity. It is not a show where we count how many people come as a result of our publicity; it is something much deeper, which escapes all measurement. It may be that the Lord uses our sacrifices to shower blessings in another part of the world which we will never visit. The Holy Spirit works as he wills, when he wills and where he wills; we entrust ourselves without pretending to see striking results. We know only that our commitment is necessary. Let us learn to rest in the tenderness of the arms of the Father amid our creative and generous commitment. Let us keep marching forward; let us give him everything, allowing him to make our efforts bear fruit in his good time (The Joy of the Gospel, 279).
Sisters and brothers, what we are praying for today is holy joy. The kind that comes from keeping our eyes fixed on the Lord. And not on ourselves. Where are your eyes fixed? What are the things that you choose to hang on the walls of your office today?