Saturday, October 31, 2015

Visible Actions From Invisible Connections

Solemnity of All Saints

Sisters and brothers, we all wash our hands many times a day. Do you know why? The story is told of a conversation between two students from rival schools. The boy from Raffles Institution notices that his opponent from ACS has failed to wash his hands after visiting the restroom. So, in a voice dripping with sarcasm, he says: In my school, we are taught to wash our hands every time we finish using the restroom. Really? His rival replies. In our school, we are taught not to pee on our hands.

The story is, of course, not meant to be taken seriously. It’s only a joke. Used to poke fun at a rival school. We all know that, however careful we may be when using the restroom, we do still need to wash our hands afterwards. Even if they don’t look dirty. We wash them not because of what we can see. But more because of what we can’t see. We perform the visible action of washing our hands, because we recognise that there are invisible germs crawling around on them.

And it’s not just germs that are invisible, right? Have you noticed that human connections are too? We can’t really see them either. We can only guess that they are there. For example, when we meet people who look alike. We may guess that they are related. Or when we see a couple holding hands. We can infer that they are in a relationship. We don’t actually see the connection. But we can recognise it. And having recognised it, we then need to act accordingly. For example, when a bachelor meets an attractive woman who’s wearing a wedding ring, he should recognise her unseen connection to her husband. And refrain from pursuing her. Or flirting with her. Recognising the invisible connection, the man should be led to perform an appropriate visible action.

I mention all this because, although it may not be so obvious, our Mass readings for this solemn feast of All Saints are really all about connections. In the first reading, John sees a vision of heaven. And his vision is full of revealed connections. First, we’re told that he sees an angel. And what is an angel, if not a creature of connection? An angel’s sole purpose is to carry messages from God.  To connect God with others. What’s more, this particular angel carries a special seal. Meant to be used to mark the foreheads of the servants of God. Again, like angels, servants are also connected creatures. The purpose of a servant is to serve the Master.

The reading then goes on to describe John’s vision of countless people from every nation, race, tribe, and language. Very different individuals. And yet very obviously connected to one another. For they are all dressed in white robes. And the reason why their robes are white is because they have washed them in the blood of the Lamb. In other words they have made it to heaven only because of their purifying connection with the self-sacrificing love of Christ.

And, as a result of recognising all these connections, this multitude of saints come together and join their voices to sing the same song: Victory to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb! The recognition of their invisible connection to God and to the Lamb, moves the saints to perform a single visible action. Enthusiastically, they sing the praises of God.

In the second reading too, we find an invitation to undergo a similar process of recognition and action. Think of the love that the Father has lavished on us, by letting us be called God’s children. What is this, my dear friends, if not a call to remember our own intimate connection with God in Christ? And not just to remember the connection. But also to let our remembering lead us to engage in concrete visible actions. Surely everyone who entertains this hope must purify himself, must try to be as pure as Christ. To do what the saints in the first reading do. To allow our recognition of invisible connections lead us to perform concrete visible actions. To deepen our relationship with Christ. To sing the praises of God.

And what happens when we do this? According to the responsorial psalm, we will be blessed. We shall receive blessings from the Lord and reward from the God who saves us. For such are those who seek him, seek the face of the God of Jacob.

Recognition leading to action. Resulting in the enjoyment of blessings. This is also the process that Jesus describes in the gospel. Here the Beatitudes provide us with a list of people who share a common characteristic. They all recognise and act according to their connection to God and to others. And, as a result, they are all blessed. For example, who are the gentle and the poor in spirit, if not those who recognise their own deep need for God and their close connection to others? And who then allow this recognition to influence their actions. And who are the peacemakers and those who hunger and thirst for what is right? If not people who have a deep desire for everyone to be in right relationship with one another, with the rest of creation, and with God? It is people like that whom Jesus pronounces blessed. People who recognise their invisible connections to God and to others. And who then allow this recognition to move them to act appropriately. To sing the praises of God. Not just with the voices. But also with their lives.

This is the message that our readings present to us as we celebrate this solemn feast of All Saints. This is what it means to be a saint. Not just for me to strive for perfection as an individual. But, above all, first to recognise my many and often hidden connections. To God. To others. To the rest of creation. And to allow this recognition to move me to appropriate and concrete action. Singing the praises of God in thought and word and deed. So as to be truly blessed.

And isn’t this a timely reminder for all of us? Especially today? When we often experience the pressure to work as though we have no one else on whom to depend. Since no one owes us a living. And to live as though our actions do not have any impact on anyone else. Isn’t this the cause of the haze that has plagued us all these weeks? Today. When our individualistic tendencies often make us lose sight of our deep connections to one another. And to God. When, despite the many opportunities that technology gives us to connect with others, we still feel more disconnected and lonely than ever.

I’m reminded of these words from a song performed by the Christian band Tenth Avenue North. Words inspired by the seventeenth century poet John Donne:

No man is an island, we can be found.
No man is an island, let your guard down.
Please don’t try to fight me, I am for you.
We’re not meant to live this life alone.
Through trouble, rain, or fire, let’s reach out to something higher.
Ain’t no life outside each other.
We are not alone.
Through trouble, rain, or fire, let’s reach out to something higher.
Eyes open to one another.
We are not alone.

Sisters and brothers, we often wash our hands only because we recognise the presence of unseen realities. What will our recognition of invisible connections lead us to do today?

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Between the Hideous Hag and the Lovely Lady

30th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

Sisters and brothers, have you ever seen that picture that is actually two pictures in one? At first glance, what you see is something that looks like the face of an ugly old hag. With a large crooked nose. Not a pleasant sight. But if you resist the strong temptation to turn away from the ugliness. If you take the trouble to stare long enough at the hideous image. You might begin to see something else. You may see that the huge misshapen thing right in the middle of the picture is not just a nose. It’s also a delicate little chin belonging to a pretty young lady. Whose face is turned shyly away from your gaze. Exposing her neck. In a most attractive way. And when you see that, then the image is transformed for you. And you no longer feel the urge to turn away. In fact, some of us may actually find ourselves staring too long and too hard at it instead.

An optical illusion. That’s what it is. An image that has the power to transform itself. From ugliness to beauty. From repulsiveness to attraction. What it takes is the courage not to turn away. The willingness to stare longer than what feels comfortable.

I mention this, because our Mass readings present us with something very similar. To appreciate this, we must first recall what we have been hearing in the gospel readings of the past few Sundays. Today’s reading is taken from the end of chapter 10 of Mark’s gospel. Throughout chapters 8 to 10, two important things have been happening. On the one hand, Jesus and his disciples have been journeying to Jerusalem. In chapter 11, they will finally arrive there. On the other hand, all along the way, Jesus has been trying to teach his disciples a crucial but uncomfortable lesson. Three times, he has tried to tell them about what awaits him in the Holy City. That he will be handed over to cruel men. Be put to death. And then be raised up on the third day.

But Jesus’ message is too much for the disciples to bear. The image that he paints is just too ugly and repulsive for them to accept. You may recall that in last week’s reading, James and John react by asking Jesus for seats at his right and left. Prompting the other disciples to get upset with them. This reaction is really a turning away from the apparent ugliness of what Jesus had been telling them. And can we blame the disciples for turning away? Who among us would not feel the urge to turn away from such a terrible thing as the cruel torture and cold-blooded murder of an innocent man. And not just any innocent man. But the Messiah himself. Someone upon whom we have placed our hopes. Upon whom the fulfilment of all our dreams depend.

And yet, our readings invite us to resist the urge to turn away. To rest our eyes a little longer than what feels comfortable. And so to see a different image. An image not just of terror and despair. But of comfort and great rejoicing. Isn’t this the picture that the first reading paints for us? The Lord says this: Shout with joy for Jacob! Hail the chief of nations! Proclaim! Praise! Shout: ‘The Lord has saved his people, the remnant of Israel!’…. They had left in tears, I will comfort them as I lead them back…

Of course, these words apply first of all to the return of Israel from Exile. But they also apply to what we believe Jesus to be doing in the gospel. By journeying resolutely to Jerusalem. By submitting humbly to death. Jesus is actually fulfilling the promise proclaimed by Jeremiah. Jesus is gathering together again the scattered people of God. Freeing those held for long years in the bondage of sin and selfishness. Turning humiliated prisoners back into proud sons and daughters. Transforming tears into laughter. Sorrow into joy. Playing the role described in the second reading. The role of high priest. To act for men in their relations with God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. The gift and sacrifice of his own Body and Blood.

Terror and despair. Comfort and rejoicing. Two very different faces contained in the same image. Not unlike the optical illusion that we described earlier. But what does it take for us to see the beauty concealed in the ugliness? The hope hidden in the face of despair? We find the answers to this question in the experience of Bartimaeus. The one who was blind. And then was made to see again.

What was it that enabled Bartimaeus to experience the transformation of blindness into sight? How was he able to not turn away from Jesus? But instead to insist on shouting after the Lord. Even when other people were trying so hard to shut him up. The reading tells us two things that may have helped Bartimaeus.

The first is his blindness. He is unable to see. And so his mobility is restricted. The reading tells us that he was sitting at the side of the road. He has to keep still. Even as other people are busy rushing about. Including the Lord’s disciples and the large crowd. People apparently following Jesus. But not actually understanding where exactly it is the Lord is going. Geographically, they are walking the same road. But spiritually, they are moving in opposite directions. The Lord towards loving self-sacrifice. The others in the direction of greed and ambition. And anxious self-preservation.

In contrast, in his blindness, and in his stillness, Bartimaeus is blessed with a heightened sense of hearing. The reading says that he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth. Heard, not just with his ears, but also with his heart. Heard, and believed, so wholeheartedly, that he was willing to follow Jesus along the road. Not just the road to Jerusalem. But also the way of true discipleship. The Way of the Cross.

The second important thing we’re told about Bartimaeus is that he is a beggar. What does it mean to beg? It means first to acknowledge and accept one’s own helplessness. To recognise that no amount of effort and hard work will make a difference to one’s salvation. If God does not see fit to grant it. Isn’t this why Bartimaeus is not ashamed to keep shouting? He shouts loud. Because he recognises that his need is great. And, in shouting, he is heard. The Lord calls to him. And heals him. And accepts him as a true disciple. Someone blessed with the gift of seeing hope in despair. Joy in sorrow. And, having seen, is then given the courage to follow the Lord. To walk the Way to Calvary and Beyond.

And what about us, my dear sisters and brothers. Surely, we too have our share of ugly experiences. Situations from which we are sorely tempted to turn away. To reject and to deny. Troublesome feelings. Difficult people. Unpleasant circumstances. Things that we would rather not talk about. Let alone confront. And not just experiences in our own personal lives. But also situations of suffering and despair that we see all around the world today. Mistreated refugees and migrants. Victims of injustice and oppression. People who suffer simply because they were born in the wrong place and at the wrong time. Images that make us uncomfortable. Tempting us to turn our eyes away.

And yet, it is only when we insist on looking. On enduring the discomfort. That we receive the blessing that Bartimaeus received. The gift of seeing beauty in ugliness. Hope in the midst of despair. And, having seen, to receive the courage to walk the Way that Jesus walked. The Way of love and self-sacrifice for the sake of others. The only Way that leads to joy. And to the fullness of life.

Sisters and brothers, is there perhaps an optical illusion in your life that the Lord is inviting you to keep gazing upon today?

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Do You See The Gorilla? (Rerun)

29th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Isaiah 53:10-11; Psalm 32:4-5,18-20,22; Hebrews 4:14-16; Mark 10:35-45

Sisters and brothers, have you ever heard of the famous invisible gorilla experiment? Some years ago, two psychologists from Harvard University conducted an experiment. They gathered a group of people, and made them watch a video clip. The video showed six people moving around passing basketballs to one another. Three of the people wore white tops. And the other three black. The test subjects were asked to count the number of times the basketballs were passed between the people in white. After watching the video, they each gave their answer. But the psychologists then went on to ask them a further question. Did you see the gorilla? To which only half said they did. The other half didn’t know what the psychologists were talking about. So they played the video again. And, true enough, in the middle of the video, someone in a gorilla suit walks to the centre of the screen, thumps his chest, and then walks out again. Yet, half of the test subjects were so focused on the passing of the balls that they failed to notice the gorilla.

It may seem strange, but doesn’t this experiment mirror what we see happening in the gospel today? To recognise the similarity we need to first situate today’s passage in the wider context of Mark’s gospel. We need to consider what has gone before and what will come after. For some time now, Jesus and his disciples have been on a journey. Moving ever closer to Jerusalem. In the very next chapter they will finally enter the Holy City. And, all along the way, in addition to ministering to the crowds with his wise words and his healing touch, Jesus has also been trying very hard to tell his companions about what awaits him in Jerusalem.

In fact, today’s gospel passage follows immediately after the Lord’s third prediction of his own Passion, Death and Resurrection. Jesus tells his closest companions that the Son of man is about to be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the gentiles, who will mock him and spit at him and scourge him and put him to death; and after three days he will rise again (10:33f.). And, in the gospel proclaimed just now, we heard the response of Jesus' friends to this bone-chilling revelation. Their beloved Master has just told them, for the third time no less, that he will soon die a horrible death. And James and John respond by asking him to let them sit one at your right hand and the other at your left in your glory. Not only that, we are also told that the other ten began to feel indignant with James and John. They are upset not because of the insensitivity. But because the brothers were trying to get ahead at their expense.

In other words, even though, all along their journey to Jerusalem, the reality of Jesus’ impending suffering and death had actually taken center stage in their conversations with the Lord, the disciples had missed it. Not unlike the people who missed the gorilla. Even though it walked by, right in front of them. Like those test subjects, the disciples’ were more interested in something else. They were concentrating on the popularity that Jesus was enjoying in his public ministry. Seeing earthly praise already being received, they wanted also to share in the heavenly glory that was still to come. Obsessed with their dream of a glorious Messiah in the distant future, they missed the heartbreaking sight of the Suffering Servant closer at hand. Concentrating only on their own ambitions for glory, they missed the opportunity to do what friends might do in such situations. If not to help, then at least to try to empathise with the one who is suffering.

It’s not surprising then that when the Lord’s predictions eventually come to pass. When he is finally arrested in Gethsemane. The gospel tells us that they all deserted him and ran away (14:50). They ran because they hadn’t heard what Jesus had been trying to tell them. Focused as they were only on the passing on to them of the ball of the Lord’s glory, they had missed the intruding gorilla of His Passion and Death on the Cross.

And perhaps this insensitivity of the first disciples is something we may find in ourselves as well. We too are often so focused on our own pressing concerns that we have no time to think of anything else. According to a report on the front page of today’s Straits Times, for example, the number of women in Singapore who remain childless is almost three times what it was twenty years ago. And one reason for the jump is that many are too focused on establishing their careers to start a family.

Sisters and brothers, without meaning to judge anyone, we cannot deny that our obsession with our own comfort and wellbeing, often blinds us to the needs and sufferings of others. Those who may live in our own country. Who occupy the same pews in church. Who eat at the same table. Who even sleep on the same bed. We fail to notice the suffering of those closest to us. What more those who are far away. Like the first disciples in the gospel, we concentrate so much on the ball of comfort and glory, that we fail to notice the gorilla of suffering.

And perhaps this would be all right, if not for the fact that there is a crucial difference between our situation and the gorilla experiment. A difference that our readings highlight for us quite strikingly. In the experiment, although the gorilla takes center stage at some point, it doesn’t have any real connection to the passing of the ball. Indeed, the gorilla is more of a distraction than anything else. The situation in our readings, however, is quite the opposite. Here, we find an intimate relationship between ball and gorilla. Glory and suffering.

In the first reading we’re told that it is by undergoing affliction for the sake of his people, that the Suffering Servant comes to see the light and be content. And the second reading reminds us that Christ has gone through the highest heaven. But only by sharing in our sufferings. By being tempted in every way that we are. And just as the Lord’s passing into glory depends on his endurance of suffering. So too does his passing on of glory to us also depend upon our willingness to share in the sufferings of others. As Jesus tells his disciples in the gospel, anyone who wants to become great among you must be your servant, and anyone who wants to be first among you must be slave to all. The message is clear. For us Christians, the way to glory passes through the service of others. Especially those who suffer. One must face the gorilla to get to the ball.

And truly there are many among us who suffer. And in so many different ways. There are those who suffer because they do not have enough to live on. And then there are also many others who suffer because they do not have enough to live for. It is to such as these that we are sent. Just as Christ was sent among us. To love and to serve the suffering. To be Christ to them. Sharing with them the Way to Life. This is who we are as Christians. This is our mission.

I’m reminded of these words from an old song popularised in the nineteen sixties by the rock group Jefferson Airplane: When the truth is found to be lies, and all the joy within you dies… you better find somebody to love… Especially when the going gets tough. Particularly when we might be sorely tempted to focus only on our own worries and ambitions. Our own comfort and wellbeing. We need to find somebody to love

Sisters and brothers, even as we continue to juggle the balls of our various activities and aspirations in life. How can we keep from ignoring the gorilla of suffering walking among us? Today, what must we do to keep finding somebody to love?

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Cheating Death

Funeral Mass of Lucy Chia Klemm

Readings: Romans 6:3-9; Psalm 22; Matthew 5:1-12
Picture: cc John C Bullas

Sisters and brothers, what would you say about someone who was involved in a serious car accident, but somehow managed to escape without a scratch? Or suffered only minor injuries. Perhaps the car was a total wreck. But the person survived. There’s a phrase that we use for such people, right? We say that they cheated death. Death reached out to grab them. But they managed to slip through its clutches and to go free. And this is something to celebrate. For even though the car might was lost. A life was saved.

Cheating death. This is also what we believe happens when Christians die. Our faith helps us to cheat death. To escape its terrifying clutches. And to go free. But what does this mean? And how does it happen? This is what our Mass readings help us to understand.

But first, we need to recognise something about death that we often tend to forget. Or to ignore. It has to do with when and how death happens. I’m not sure. But I think many of us see death as something that begins to happen only at the end of our life. Or only when we may fall critically ill. That’s when we start to think of dying. But isn’t it true that death is really a process that begins already from the time of our birth? Or even from conception? Right from our mother’s womb, we are already setting out on a journey that will end in our death. A one-way trip from which there is no return. Death begins right at the start of life. Whether we choose to recognise it or not, each one of us here is already dying.

For some of us, the destination of this journey will look like a terrible car accident. Nothing more than a dead-end. A total loss. Of all that we cherish and hold dear. All that we have spent our lives building and accumulating. But that’s not the only possibility. For others, death will be more like a new beginning. An open doorway. Leading to a fuller, freer, more joyful existence. For even though their bodies may be wrecked. The lives of such people will be saved. They will somehow manage to cheat death. How do they do it? What is it that helps them to escape the car-wreck? And to live a fuller life? This is the question that our Mass readings are helping us to answer today.

The first reading does this by reminding us of what we believe happens at baptism. We’re told that when we were baptised in Christ Jesus we were baptised in his death… so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the Father’s glory, we too might live a new life. We Christians see baptism not just as an empty ritual that happens once in a Christian’s life. Rather, it is an expression of the Christian’s commitment to living in the same way that Jesus lived. The Way of the Cross. The Way of laying down one’s life in loving self-sacrifice. For God and for neighbour. The Way of constantly dying to selfish desires. So as to live for the good of others.

Isn’t this also the message that we find in the gospel? Isn’t this what the Beatitudes are all about? What does it mean to be poor in spirit? If not to die to our need to be self-sufficient? To let go of the desire to not have to depend on anyone else. And yet, it is when we die in this way. When we humbly acknowledge our need for God. That we inherit the kingdom of heaven. What does it mean to be gentle? If not to die to our need to be in complete control our own destiny? To let go of our desire to dominate and manipulate others for our own benefit? And yet, it is when we die in this way that we are given the earth for our heritage

This is what we Christians believe. That, by our baptism, we are given the power to transform death. To change it. From a fearful termination, a terrifying car-wreck. To an entrance into the fullness of life and love. Which is why a Christian funeral is never an occasion only for mourning and grief. Yes, we do, of course, feel sad because the one we love has left us. But we also celebrate, because we believe that our dearly departed leaves us for a better place. A place where we ourselves are headed. A place where we can one day be reunited.

And this is true especially as we gather to celebrate this funeral Mass for our beloved sister, Lucy. Who lived to a ripe old age of 91. In faith, we believe that, throughout these 91 years, Lucy has been in fact been dying. Not just physically. But also spiritually. Dying to sin and selfishness. So that she might live in love for God and for others. And I’m sure that those of us who knew her will be able to recall experiences of Lucy’s dying and rising. Very likely we ourselves have benefitted from her self-denial. And this remembering gives us confidence. Confidence that, even as Lucy departs this earth, she yet remains firmly in the gentle embrace of God.

But that’s not all, my dear friends. The rebirth that we gather here to celebrate is not just Lucy’s. It is also our own. For what a tragedy it would be for us if, having celebrated Lucy’s entry into new life, we ourselves should fail to make it to the same destination. No. Today, we gather not just to celebrate Lucy. But also to commit ourselves to continue walking the same Way that she walked. To continue dying to sin and selfishness. So that we might rise to new life in God.

For the same gift that Lucy enjoys is offered also to us. The gift of escape from the clutches of death. So as to rejoice in the embrace of God.

My dear friends, as we bid farewell to Lucy, what must we ourselves do to continue cheating death today?

Saturday, October 10, 2015

The Cone is for The Ice-Cream

28th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

Picture: cc frankieleon

Sisters and brothers, do you know what is the most important part of an ice-cream cone? Well, you know what an ice-cream cone is for, right? Yes, it’s meant to be eaten. But not to be eaten in just any way. An ice-cream cone is designed to be eaten with a scoop of ice-cream. Which makes the most important part of the cone not really the solid portions. But rather the empty space on top. Because that’s where the scoop of ice-cream is meant to fit. So that what is sometimes said of a doughnut, is even more true of an ice-cream cone. The most important part is the hole in the middle.

And a good ice-cream cone is one where that hole is kept empty. Ready and waiting to be filled with ice-cream of different flavours. Imagine how disappointing it would be for you, if you tried to place a scoop of delicious ice-cream on top of your cone. Only to find that the hole had already been filled with something else. Bad enough if that something else was rice. Or potatoes. Or baked beans. But even worse, if it was something inedible. Like sand. Or cement. The cone would be ruined. No longer able to achieve the purpose for which it was made. To hold a scoop of ice-cream.

This much is true of an ice-cream cone. But what about a human being? What do you think is the most important part of a human being. Well, medically, I guess most would say that it’s the brain. Since a person is considered clinically dead, once the brain dies. Even though machines might continue to keep the rest of the body alive. But what about spiritually? Considered spiritually, what is the most important part of the human person? That is the question that I believe our Mass readings are inviting us to ponder today?

But to better appreciate this, we have to first recognise that the prayers and readings of our Mass speak to us about Something very precious. Nothing less than the powerful Presence of God Itself. And, like delicious ice-cream, the powerful Presence of God, makes Itself available to us in many different and delightful flavours. Known by various names. So, in the opening prayer just now, we mentioned one of these names. One of these flavours. We called it grace. We asked that God’s grace may at all times go before us and follow after us and make us always determined to do good works. God’s grace motivates us to do good things.

In the first reading, King Solomon prays for a taste of another flavour of God’s Presence. One that goes by the name Wisdom. Which Solomon considers the most valuable of all treasures. Since her radiance never sleeps. Wisdom allows Solomon to see and to judge worldly things according to the mind and heart of God.

The second reading sings the praises of yet another flavour of this heavenly Ice-Cream. Something that it calls the Word of God. Like Wisdom, the Word too, helps all who eat of it to penetrate and to judge hidden things. Even and especially our own secret emotions and thoughts. The ulterior motives and hidden agendas that we hide so well. Even from ourselves.

Then, in the responsorial psalm, we prayed for still another flavour of God’s Presence. In the morning, we said, fill us with your love; we shall exult and rejoice all our days. The love of God brings joy to our hearts, even when sorrow may threaten to darken our days.

And, finally, in the gospel, mention is made of two other flavours of God’s Presence. The first is found in the young man’s question. What must I do to inherit eternal life? He wants to know. The second is found in Jesus’ subsequent remarks to his disciples. How hard it is, the Lord says, for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God. Eternal life and the kingdom of God. Two other flavours of God’s Presence.

So Grace and Wisdom and Word. Love and Kingdom and Life. These are some of the different names, the different flavours, of God’s Presence that our readings present to us. But that’s not all. Our readings do not just inspire us to pray for these gifts. They also teach us what we must do to receive them. How do we do it? Well, we receive God’s Presence in much the same way that an ice-cream cone receives a scoop of ice-cream. By keeping the space at the centre of our hearts, empty and available. Ready to welcome God, whenever God chooses to grace us with God’s Presence. So that, spiritually speaking, a human being is not unlike an ice-cream cone. The most important part is really the hole in the middle.

Which helps us to understand what is really happening between Jesus and the rich man in today’s gospel. The man is rich not just in material wealth. But also in moral behaviour. He is able to tell Jesus that he has kept all the commandments from my earliest days. And Jesus loves him for it. And yet, the Lord still finds the man lacking. Why? And why make the poor fellow sell everything he owns? And why say that it’s difficult for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God? What’s so bad about being rich?

Perhaps the difficulty has to do with how, in the process of accumulating and maintaining all his riches, both material and moral, the man has somehow filled up the empty space in the middle of his heart. Filled it up with himself. With his own ego. Filled it up, so that it is no longer able to receive the Presence of God. Which explains why Jesus wishes him to sell everything. Not to torture him. But to set him free. Not because riches are bad in themselves. But because the man has allowed them to take up the space that is reserved for God alone. The Divine Dessert that sweetens our life. And makes it truly worth living.

There is also one more thing. Perhaps the most important. Notice that Jesus doesn’t just ask the man to sell everything and give the money to the poor. The Lord also tells the man to come, follow me. To walk the road that Jesus walks. To be concerned with the things with which Jesus is concerned. To make the Lord the centre of his life. To fill up the space that he has emptied out with Jesus himself. What does this tell us, sisters and brothers? If not that Jesus himself is the Presence of God. Jesus himself is the Premier Flavour of all Flavours of Ice-Cream. Wisdom-Incarnate. Word-Made-Flesh. Kingdom-In-Person. Fullness of Love and Life.

To be a truly human person is to have Jesus constantly occupying the centre of our hearts and our lives. For just as an ice-cream cone is made only for the ice-cream. So too is a human being made only for God.

Sisters and brothers, if it is true that the most important part of an ice-cream cone is really the hole in the middle. Then what exactly is occupying that crucial space in the cone of your life today?

Beyond "You and I"

Wedding Mass of Zhihua & Jie Xuan

Readings: Sirach 26:1-4, 13-16; Psalm 39:2, 4, 7-10 R. vv. 8, 9; 1 John 4:7-12; Matthew 5:13-16

Just you and I, sharing our love together.
And I know in time, we’ll build the dreams we treasure.
We’ll be alright. Just you and I.

Zhihua and Jie Xuan, my dear friends, it’s okay if you don’t recognise these words I’ve just spoken. You’ve got to be of a certain age to find them familiar. They come from an old love song from the early 1980s. The song is entitled You and I. And it was, apparently, very popular as a wedding theme song back in the day. One notable feature of the song is the repetition of the words, just you and I. Just you and I, sharing our love together… Just you and I, we can entrust each other…

I mention this song because, even though it may be old. And all but forgotten. The image of marriage that it paints is one that remains very much the norm today. What does marriage look like for many people? Well, it’s quite simple really. It’s all about you and I. Or, to be more grammatical, you and me. The bride and the groom. The husband and the wife. The man and the woman. And, of course, their love for each other. That’s all that matters in a marriage. Or so it seems.

In a sense, this is true. Marriage is about two people coming together as one. And the less interference from others the better. And yet, marriage is also much more. And it is this much more that you, Zhihua and Jie Xuan seem eager to bring to our attention today. Through your wise choice of readings for this Mass.

At first glance, the first reading appears to present to us nothing more than the usual image of marriage. It seems to focus on only two people. The good wife and her husband. Blessed the husband of a good wife… A worthy wife brings joy to her husband… The emphasis only on the benefits that the good wife brings to her husband is, of course, understandable. Given that the reading comes from a society that was very much male-dominated. For our purposes, we could perhaps, just as easily, switch the roles around and say: Blessed the wife of a good husband… A worthy husband brings joy to his wife… But even after we do that, we don’t quite erase the first impression that marriage is only about husband and wife. Or, as the song goes, just you and I.

And yet, such a first impression is really quite inaccurate. For the reading isn’t only about the husband and his wife. It speaks also of how a good wife is a generous gift bestowed upon him who fears the Lord. Again, we can switch the roles and say a good husband is a generous gift bestowed upon her who fears the Lord. But the point is that in this sentence we find reference to Someone other than the couple. Other than just you and I. More than just finding each other. Or giving themselves to one another. The good husband and wife are first of all gifts given to each other by God. It is God who brings them together. It is God who blesses them with each other. As a reward for fearing the Lord. For honouring and living according to the ways of God. For constantly praying and putting into practice those words from the response to the psalm: Here I am, Lord! I come to do your will.

Beyond just you and I, marriage is above all, a gift from above. The second reading goes even further. It tells us that it’s not just husband and wife who are God’s gift to each other. Even the love that they experience for each other is itself pure gift. In this is love: not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as expiation for our sins. The love between husband and wife has a higher Origin. A Divine Source. Apart from husband and wife. Beyond just you and I. So that, if a couple is to continue loving each other, they must first do whatever it takes to keep on receiving this gift. To keep remaining in close contact with its Source. Through personal prayer, for example. As well as through active involvement in the life of the Christian community.

And that’s not all. Not only does marriage have a definite Divine Origin. You, Zhihua and Jie Xuan, are also eager to remind us that marriage also has a specific goal. An aim that goes beyond husband and wife. Beyond just you and I. Isn’t this why you have chosen this particular gospel passage from the Sermon on the Mount? You are the salt of the earth, says Jesus. You are the light of the world… And not just you, as individuals. But even, and especially, you, as a couple. You, as this new creation. You, as two people joined as one body. The blessing of your union as husband and wife is not just a gift for you yourselves to enjoy. Just you and I. It is also an awesome task for you to perform. A joyful mission for you to fulfil. In the Church. And in the world. By loving each other, with the love that you continually receive from God, you show the world what a meaningful, purposeful, charitable life looks like. A life centred not on self. But on God. Not on ambition. But on service. Not on greed. But on generosity. The same kind of life that we celebrate at this and at every Mass. The life of Christ. Who emptied Himself. To become for us the Bread of Life. And the Cup of Salvation.

This, Zhihua and Jie Xuan, is the image of marriage that you are proposing to us today. This is the kind of life to which you are committing yourselves, as you profess your vows to each other. In the sight of God, and of family and friends. And we can imagine that you are able to do this. Able and willing to recognise and to embrace this Godly view of marriage. Able and willing to dedicate your lives to each other in this way. Only because you yourselves have already experienced something of this kind of love. In your long friendship and courtship. From the rough and tumble of the Judo Club at Raffles Junior College. Through the joys and struggles of keeping up a long-distance relationship. Even when it seemed that all you had to cling to was each other. Even then, it was never really just the two of you. Never just you and I. It was  always, and above all, with and through the loving presence and gentle yet powerful action God. Often working through chosen human instruments. Many of whom, I’m sure, are here, celebrating with us, today. It is God, who helped you to persevere. It is God, who kept you together through thick thin. It is God, who now empowers you with His Spirit. And sends you out to rejoice in, and to bear witness to, the wondrous power of Love.

I’m reminded of another old, and all but forgotten, song. It’s a hymn that we used to sing in church, when I was growing up. It goes like this:

Love it was that made us.
And it was love that saved us.
Love was God’s plan, when He made man.
God’s divine nature is love.
Born of God’s love, we must love Him.
That’s why He made us. To love Him.
But only when we love all men,
Can we partake of God’s love.
But only when we love all men,
Can we partake of God’s love.

Zhihua and Jie Xuan, my dear friends, what must we do to continue living in and out of this Love today?

Sunday, October 04, 2015

From Death To Completion (Rerun)

Sisters and brothers, have you ever heard that popular saying about marriage? It goes like this: A man is not complete until he gets married. And then he is finished! I think many of us laugh when we hear it for the first time. I did. We find it funny, because the word finished has a double meaning. The first meaning is the obvious romantic one. The one that people typically use at the beginning of intimate relationships. It’s what Tom Cruise meant in the feel-good movie Jerry Maguire. In a memorable scene, after Jerry tells Dorothy that he loves her, he goes on to immortalise in movie history those marvellously mushy (some would say cheesy), yet amazingly effective words: You complete me, he says. You complete me. In other words, you finish me.

The other meaning of the word finish is the opposite of the first. If the first is used at the birth of relationships, then the second is heard when they die. It’s the meaning that Meryl Streep had in mind, in that scene from the old movie about divorce. Kramer vs Kramer. Streep’s character, Joanna, is in the process of divorcing Ted. Her workaholic husband. Ted tries desperately to persuade Joanna to go back with him into their apartment. But she responds by pleading with him in these words: Please don’t make me go in there… If you do, I swear, one day, next week, maybe next year, I don’t know, I’ll go right out the window... I will go right out the window. In other words, if I go back to our marriage, I’ll commit suicide. I’ll die. I’ll be finished.

Finished. One simple word. Two very different meanings. And it is the context that tells us which one is intended. Jerry Maguire or Kramer vs Kramer. Romance or divorce. Completion or death.

No one is complete until they get married. And then they are finished!

More than just a (hopefully) stylish way to begin a homily, this line also happens to highlight a connection that we find in our readings today, if we look hard enough. It is a connection between two questions. The question concerning the death of a marriage. And the question about how to become a complete human being. I say if we look hard enough because, at first glance, our readings don’t seem to say much to us, beyond telling us that divorce is wrong. What God has united, man must not divide. It is true that, in the gospel, Jesus criticises the Jewish law which allowed a man to divorce his wife for the most trivial of reasons. And Jesus does this because this same law could result in the oppression and exploitation of women. But Jesus also takes the discussion of marriage and divorce to a whole new level. From death to completion

Like the Kramers in the movie, and many others undergoing a painful divorce, the Pharisees in the gospel are concerned about the law. Is it against the law for a man to divorce his wife? They want to know how a marriage can be ended. Legally finished. In many circumstances this is, of course, a legitimate concern. For instance, although we Catholics frown on divorce, Canon Law does admit certain narrow exceptions. There may also be certain situations where a civil divorce might actually be a prudent course of action. Even for a Catholic. Such as when s/he may be trapped in an abusive marriage. Provided, of course, that s/he does not remarry. Especially in cases like these, it is important to know what the law says. How to finish a marriage. How to bring it to an end.

But if we remain only at the level of the law. If we consider only one meaning of the word finish. Then we would have too narrow a view of what our scripture readings are saying to us today. For Jesus’ concern is not just with the ending of marriages. But also, and more importantly, with the beginning of creation. Jesus wants us to consider what the book of Genesis says. Not only about how marriages may or may not die. But also, beyond that, about how a person becomes a complete human being.

For Jesus, marriage is much more than a simple contractual alliance. More than just a joint bank account. Or a shared double bed. Marriage is a profound union, in which two people become one body. They are no longer two but one. A new creation. Sharing a common origin. And, as in the movie Jerry Maguire, this union is also somehow a process of completion. To see this, we need to pay close attention to the first reading.

Notice how, at the beginning of the reading, even though the man has already been created, he is still somehow incomplete. God says: It is not good for the man to be alone. And notice too, how the completion of the man is brought about. The process is not quite what Tom Cruise might have had in mind. It is not a filling of some inner emptiness in the man by some external creature. The attempt to do this with other animals fails. They are found to be unsuitable. They do not have enough in common with the man. He can only exert mastery over them. But no real partnership can be formed. No true intimacy is experienced. The man remains lonely. It is only when he falls into a deep sleep, and gives away something of himself, that success is achieved. Quite paradoxically, completion comes only with self-donation. And, with completion, comes true communion. He gives up a rib. And they become one body.

It is at this point that we finally arrive at the heart of what our readings are saying to us today. As you know, the early Fathers of the Church delighted in drawing parallels between the creation of the first couple, and the crucifixion of Christ. Just as the first man fell into a deep sleep. And the first woman was formed from his rib. So too did Christ fall asleep on the Cross. And the Church was born from the blood and water flowing from his side. And just as the first man was completed and came to share a common origin with the first woman, only by giving something of himself. So too was Christ made perfect, through suffering. Only by laying down his life for our sake. So that the one who sanctifies (Christ himself), and the ones who are sanctified (you and me) are of the same stock. Share a common origin.

It becomes clear then, sisters and brothers, that our readings have something very important to say to us today. Regardless of whether or not we have ever been married or divorced. Whether we are women or men. Young or old. For, as baptised Christians, we are all members of the Church of Christ. The same Church that was created when the Lord gave his life for us on the Cross. The same Church that Christ is destined to claim as his bride. To take to himself in marriage. When he comes again at the end of time. And, as members of this Church, the Bride of Christ, we are all called to become like him. To imitate him in giving of ourselves to others. For it is only in doing this that we become fully what we were meant to be. Completion comes through loving self-donation. The kind of self-giving out of which happy marriages are made.

No one is complete until they get married. And then they are finished...

Sisters and brothers, both as individual Christians, and as Church, what must we do to allow the Lord to do for us what Dorothy did for Jerry Maguire? To draw us further towards completion today?