Sunday, November 29, 2015

Betting on the Shell Game of Life

1st Sunday in Advent (C)

Picture: cc Cat

Sisters and brothers, have you ever heard of a shell game? Do you know what it is? It’s a kind of gambling game. Where three identical containers are overturned on a flat surface. And a small ball, or some other object, is placed under one of them. The containers are then moved around quickly. And the players are asked to bet a sum of money on where they think the ball is. Whoever gets it right is paid. The others lose their bets.

It’s a simple enough game to play. And it’s a gamble, because the players don’t really know for sure where exactly the ball is. They have to guess. And to be willing to stake good money on their guesses. But, as you know, such games are easily rigged. They are often used to cheat people of their hard-earned money. So it’s actually better not to play. To choose instead to walk away. Not to place your bet. 

And yet, when we look at it from a certain angle, isn’t life itself something like a shell game? In which we all have no choice but to play. To place our bets. On what are we betting? What is the uncertain outcome? Well, none of us can really be sure what is going to happen to us at the end of our lives. Will there be life after death? Heaven and hell? Purgatory? Reincarnation? Or nothing at all? And does the way in which I live my life now determine how happy I’ll be then? No one really knows for sure. I can only guess.

And not just guess. I also have to gamble. To bet. To choose how I wish to live my life now. Whether to be honest or dishonest. To be selfish or caring. To be righteous or unscrupulous. And when will I know for sure whether or not I have chosen wisely? Probably only when the game is over. When the containers are uncovered. When the ball is revealed. When I breathe my last. For now, I can only keep guessing. Keep gambling. And with nothing less than life itself.

I’m not sure about you, sisters and brothers. But thinking of life in this way makes it seem quite scary. For I have no assurance. No security. No real confidence that I’m making the right choice. And what can sometimes make it feel even more difficult is when my own choices seem to cause me or my loved ones to suffer. Even as other people, who make different choices, may seem to succeed. For example, when I see the selfish and unscrupulous apparently enjoying life, doesn’t it become that much more difficult for me to continue to choose to be righteous and caring?

Which is why it is helpful for us to pay close attention to our Mass readings for this 1st Sunday of Advent. At the very beginning of our church’s liturgical year, our readings invite us to consider the end. Not just the end of our lives. But the very end of time itself. The day when all the containers will be uncovered. And the hidden ball finally revealed. What will happen then?

From the first reading, we learn that in those days God will fulfil the promise made to God’s people. The promise that all who remain faithful to God will be saved. Will dwell in confidence. Will be given a place to live in peace. A place in God. For in those days, God is going to raise up a good and great king. A gentle yet mighty ruler. A virtuous Branch of the House of king David. A leader who will practise honesty and integrity in the land.

in the gospel, Jesus reinforces this message, by describing what it’ll be like when he comes again at the end of time. He himself will be the coming king. The virtuous Branch of the House of David. And when he comes to rule the earth, many people will experience great anxiety and insecurity. Nations will be in agony. Men will be dying of fear… for the powers of heaven will be shaken. But all those who have placed their trust in God, those who have bet their lives on Christ, will be receive their reward. They will be able to stand erect. To hold their heads high. For their liberation is near at hand.

This is what we Christians believe will happen at the end. When the closed containers are uncovered. When the hidden ball is revealed. But for now, we have to persevere in placing our bets. In staking our lives on Christ. In living the way that he has taught us to live. The way that St. Paul urges the Thessalonians to live. May the Lord be generous in increasing your love, Paul writes in the second reading, and make you love one another and the whole human race as much as we love you. Finally… we urge you and appeal to you in the Lord Jesus to make more and more progress in the kind of life you are meant to live…

To make progress in loving not just one another, but the whole human race as well. This is what it means to bet our lives on Christ. And this will probably look a little different for each of us. A little different for a single man than for a family woman. A little different for a religious sister in a convent than for a lay person out in the world. A little different for a teenage student than for a retired senior. Whatever our state or situation in life, each of us has to decide for ourselves, how we wish to live our lives now. So that we may be able to stand erect and hold our heads high when time itself comes to an end. Each of us has to choose to spend our lives walking the way that Jesus walked. So that we can face him with confidence when he comes to meet us again.

And it’s not easy. Not easy to see clearly the way we need to walk. And not easy to have the courage to walk it. To recognise the exact people we are called to love. Our family. Our colleagues. Those who need our help. Both near and far. Not easy to accept the concrete sacrifices we are invited to make on their behalf. Which is why it is helpful for us to pray the prayer that the psalmist prays in the responsorial psalm. Lord, make me know your ways. Lord, teach me your paths. Make me walk in your truth and teach me: for you are God my saviour.

Isn’t this, sisters and brothers, what Advent is really about? More than just preparing for yet another annual celebration of Christmas, it is really about reviewing and renewing our choices in life. Choosing, again and again, and yet again, to commit ourselves to Christ. To love as he loves. To live as he lives. To place our hope where he places his hope. In God. And God alone.

Sisters and brothers, if it is true that life can be likened to a shell game, then where exactly are you choosing to place your bets today?

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Taking The Third Side

Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe (B)

Sisters and brothers, have you ever had to remind yourself that there’s always another side to the story? Imagine, for example, that you’re a parent. And one of your children comes running to you, complaining that a brother or sister has been bullying him or her. What would you do? Would you immediately go and scold that other child? Well, probably not, right? Not without first listening to what the accused has to say. Why? Because… there’s always another side to the story. Very sound advice.

But just how many sides are there to a story? What do you think? When I was growing up, I used to think that there were only two. A good side and a bad side. When I was watching a TV show, for example, without realising it, I would always be trying to separate the good guys from the bad guys. The Americans from the Germans. The Cowboys from the Indians. And no prizes for guessing which side I would support. The good guys, of course.

I have to confess that this tendency remains with me till this day. Even though I now know that reality is much more complex. I still sometimes tend to see things from the perspective of my childhood. Looking for good guys and bad guys. Seeing only two sides to a story. No more. No less.

I suspect that this is one reason why I’m so excited to hear that a new Star Wars movie will be released very soon. Excited because here’s a story in which the two sides are very clear. The Sith lords are the bad guys. The Jedi knights are the good. The Sith fight on the dark side. The Jedi on the side of light. And it’s usually quite easy to tell them apart because, like Cowboys and Indians, the different sides usually wear distinguishing uniforms.

Which is fine. After all, in the spiritual life too, there are really only two sides. The good and the bad. The righteous and the evil. But the trouble is that it’s not always easy to tell them apart. At least not as easy as separating Cowboys from Indians. Or Jedi from Sith. Reality is usually much more complex.  And very often the good are not all good. And the bad not all bad. Also, as the saying goes, there’s always another side to the story. A third side, if you wish.

Isn’t this what we find in our Mass readings for this last Sunday in our liturgical year? Are you the king of the Jews? Pilate asks Jesus in the gospel. Why is this such an important question for Pilate? It’s because the Roman governor is thinking in terms of two sides. The Jewish and the Roman. If Jesus declares himself to be the king of the Jews, then he is in rebellion against the Roman Emperor. He is on the wrong side. He needs to be sternly dealt with.

But Jesus isn’t really on the side of the Jews. And he’s not exactly on the side of the Romans either. At least not politically. Jesus is actually on a third side. The side of God. And God’s concern is to establish a kingdom that goes beyond these human distinctions. Mine is not a kingdom of this world, Jesus tells Pilate. My kingdom is not of this kind. Not the kind that Pilate and some of the Jews are fighting for and defending. Then what kind of kingdom is it?

The kind that is established not by the force of arms. But by the power of love. The kind that is rooted not in selfish ambition. But in selfless compassion. The kind that is ruled neither by the Jews, nor by the Romans, nor by any other single people. But by God alone. In the words of the Preface to the Eucharistic Prayer, which we will be praying shortly, it is a kingdom of truth and life… of holiness and grace… of justice, love and peace.

This is what Jesus is doing in the gospel. Inviting Pilate to look beyond the narrow view of two sides. Roman and Jew. Offering the governor a much broader and deeper vision of a third side. A far more wonderful kingdom. Where all peoples can live together in harmony and peace. Under the reign of God.

We find something similar in the first reading. Again, in the background, we find two opposing sides. The Jewish and the Babylonian. The prophet Daniel is a Jew who finds himself in Exile. His nation has been defeated in battle. His people deported to Babylon. But, as he gazes into the visions of the night, Daniel sees the establishment of a new kingdom. One that goes beyond Babylon and Israel. He sees a new king coming on the clouds of heaven. And men of all peoples, nations and languages will become his servants. His sovereignty is an eternal sovereignty which shall never pass away, nor will his empire ever be destroyed.

The second reading tells us the true identity of this new king. He belongs to neither of the two opposing sides exclusively. But to the whole human race. He is none other than Jesus Christ himself. The faithful witness, the First-born from the dead, the Ruler of the kings of the earth. He loves us and has washed away our sins with his blood. He is the one who is coming on the clouds. And by his selfless sacrifice, he establishes a different kind of kingdom. One that goes beyond Jew and Roman. Beyond Israel and Babylon. Beyond Jedi and Sith. Beyond Cowboy and Indian. One that includes all peoples. Embraces the whole of creation. Allowing all living creatures to live together in harmony and peace.

This, my dear friends, is the marvellous kingdom that we are celebrating today. The kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe. A kingdom that goes beyond any two opposing sides to a third. The side of God. The side of justice, love and peace.

And it’s important for us to remember this, especially today. When we are witnessing a terrible struggle, between what looks like two opposing sides. On one side, we have a group that insists on engaging in violent and deadly terrorist attacks. In order to realise its own vision of an Islamic State. As Christians, we are duty-bound to resist and to speak out against such deadly tactics. And to stand in solidarity with its victims.

But it’s important for us to also carefully recognise the problems and dangers that are to be found on the other side as well. The side of a global economic system, often identified with the West, that excludes and marginalises many other people in the world. To speak out against the terrorists does not mean that we should then blindly support the western civilisation to which they are opposed.

Instead, it is our vocation as Christians to see beyond these two sides to a third. The side of the Kingdom of God. The side of Jesus Christ, the Universal King. And to do this is to express outrage not just at the violence done occasionally by terrorists. But also at the suffering caused systematically by the global worship of money. And to share what we have with those who have not. For it is only when we do this that we prove ourselves to be truly on the right side. The third side. The side of God. The side of Christ. The side of truth. As the Lord says to Pilate before going to his death, all who are on the side of truth, listen to my voice.

My dear sisters and brothers, there is always another side to the story. As we come to the end of one liturgical year, and look forward to the next, which side will you be taking today?

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Just You Wait...

33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

Readings: Daniel 12:1-3; Psalm 15:5,8-11; Hebrews 10:11-14,18; Mark 13:24-32

Just you wait, Henry Higgins, just you wait.
You'll be sorry but your tears’ll be too late.
You'll be broke and I'll have money.
Will I help you? Don't be funny.
Just you wait, Henry Higgins, just you wait.

Sisters and brothers, I’m sure at least some of you still remember these words. They come from a song entitled Just You Wait. Sung by Eliza Doolittle. The lead character in the musical, My Fair Lady. Eliza sings this song at a time when she feels oppressed by Professor Henry Higgins. Who has been forcing her to recite her vowels. A, E, I, O, U… Again and again and again. Till she gets them right. Otherwise she is to be given no lunch, no dinner, and, more importantly, no chocolates. A, E, I, O, U… 

Poor, helpless, and tormented, Eliza dreams of a time in the future when the tables will be turned. A day when she will become rich. And the professor will be made poor. An hour when she will finally find favour, with no less than the King himself. Who will declare a public holiday in her name: Eliza Doolittle Day. And who will punish the heartless professor for his misdeeds. Right before her eyes.

So this is what the song is about. More than just wishful thinking, it is actually a form of non-violent resistance. An expression of hope in the face of suffering. Hope for a time of freedom. For a day of vindication. For an hour of triumph over the enemy. Hope that gives Eliza the strength to endure abuse and mistreatment. Just you wait, Henry Higgins! Just you wait! A, E, I, O, U…

Believe it or not, my dear friends, our Mass readings, on this second last Sunday of our liturgical year, are actually quite similar. Like Eliza’s song, they too are meant to offer hope and assurance to the poor and oppressed. Encouragement to persevere in the the face of persecution. There’s a special name for this kind of biblical writing. It’s called apocalyptic. And both the first reading and the gospel are prime examples of apocalyptic literature.

Scholars say that the first reading probably originated in the 2nd century before Christ. Composed by a Jewish community oppressed by a foreign king, Antiochus IV Epiphanes. Who not only occupied their land. But also forced the Jews to worship a foreign god. And even converted their holy Temple into a shrine to this god. The book of Daniel is the community’s song of non-violent resistance. Its way of expressing its confidence in God. Its hope that God will not forsake them. And that, at some time in the future, God will send a heavenly warrior to save them. At that time Michael will stand up, the great prince who mounts guard over your people…

Also, at that time, the tables will be turned. The powerful will be rendered powerless. The oppressed will be set free. The oppressor made to regret his actions. The important thing is for the community to keep clinging to its hope in God. To keep resisting the enemy. To keep singing, in their hearts, just you wait! Just you wait! Even as they are forced to recite their vowels. A, E, I, O, U…

Similarly, the gospel too is addressed to people undergoing persecution. Not so much Jews this time. But Christians. Believers being pressured to renounce their faith. To worship foreign gods. These people are reminded of Jesus’ prediction that, some time in the future, the tables will be turned. In those days, the Lord says, they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds with great power and glory… The One to whom they are struggling to remain faithful. And at great cost to themselves. This same Lord is coming to save them. To rescue them. To vindicate them. To gather them from the ends of the world to the ends of heaven.

But the Christians have even greater reason to be confident. To be hopeful. To keep resisting. For they believe that, through his Dying and Rising, Christ has already come. Already won the victory for us. Once and for all. As the second reading tells us, Christ… has offered one single sacrifice for sins…. has achieved the eternal perfection of all whom he is sanctifying… The important thing is to keep doing what the Jews were encouraged to do. To keep clinging to the one true God. To keep resisting the enemy. To keep singing, just you wait! Just you wait! Even as they may be forced to recite their vowels. A, E, I, O, U…

But what has all this to do with us, sisters and brothers? Although we may have heard of Christians in other parts of the world being persecuted for their faith. Surely we ourselves are in a very different position, aren’t we? We enjoy the freedom to worship our God. To profess and to practice our faith. Nobody is forcing us to do things that we don’t want to do. Why do we have to resist?

And yet, there are ways of manipulating and putting pressure on people beyond open persecution. Ways that are more devious, because they are far less obvious. Much more subtle. Such that we don’t even realise we are being manipulated. Oppressed. Persecuted. Made to worship a foreign god. Isn’t advertising a good example? Recently, for instance, I saw a newspaper report, telling me that fitness trackers will be very much in fashion in 2016. You know those things that you strap onto your wrist to record your heart-rate. And count the calories you burn. And the number of steps you walk? Before I saw that report, I didn’t know that I actually cannot live a healthy life without one of those things. But now, having seen the report, I just have to go out and buy one. How ridiculous!

But even more important than the things we buy, are the attitudes we develop. Attitudes toward ourselves. Toward others. Toward our world. Toward life. Such as the attitude by which I make the whole world revolve around myself. My wishes. My comfort… Or the belief that to be happy is to be successful in everything. So that even a single experience of failure means the end of everything. Leaving nothing else to live for. Such that I must push myself to succeed. At all costs. And not just myself. But also my children. My family. Succeed at all costs. Or die trying.

From where do these attitudes spring, sisters and brothers, if not the unseen conditioning, to which we are subjected everyday, in this modern society of ours? And many of us succumb to this conditioning without even realising it. Without questioning or resisting it. Obediently we recite our vowels. A, E, I, O, U… As though it is something that comes naturally to us. Something that we enjoy doing. Even without being asked. Daily we recite our vowels. Forgetting that we are created for something greater. A higher calling. A loftier dignity. To receive and to live out of God’s love. To make our lives a return of love. To God and to others. Especially those most in need of our help. As well as those we may consider our enemies.

Which is why, even if we may not suffer the same forms of persecution that other Christians do elsewhere in the world, our readings remain highly relevant to us. For they remind us of who we are meant to be. They give us hope and confidence in our God. And, most importantly, they impart to us courage and strength to persevere in resisting idolatry. In insisting on worshipping God alone.

Just you wait, Henry Higgins! Just you wait!

My dear sisters and brothers, how are you being invited to keep singing this song today?

Saturday, November 07, 2015

Anchoring The Tug-O-War

Funeral Mass for Mary Tong Yuet Eng

Readings: Romans 6:3-9; Psalm 27; John 11:17-27
Picture: cc Amy Claxton

Sisters and brothers, in a time of bereavement, such as this, we can often feel as though something precious has been taken away from us. Something that we love very much. Something with which we cannot bear to part. It’s as though we have been engaged in a terrible tug-of-war with Death. And lost. Our opponent has proven too strong for us. Although we have clung on very tightly. And pulled with all our might. It feels as though Death has torn the very rope out of our hands. What is this rope? It’s not just the one who has died. The one whom we love. Who is physically now no longer with us. But it’s also the bond of love between us. We grieve our loved one’s passing. Not only because she is no more. But also because we feel as though the bonds that joined us to her have somehow been broken by the terrible power of Death.

Which is why, my dear sisters and brothers, we gather for this funeral. Not just to mourn the passing of the one whom we love. Not just to celebrate the gift of her life. But also to allow ourselves to be reminded of what we believe as Christians. Something that is central to our Christian faith. Something that our Mass readings help to bring to our attention. The consoling Truth that, however heavy our hearts may be at this moment, however strongly we may be tempted to believe otherwise, the bonds of love are stronger even than Death itself.

Isn’t this what we find in the first reading from the letter to the Romans? Here, St. Paul reminds us of what we believe happens when we are baptised. For us, baptism is not just an empty ritual, where blessed water is poured over us. It is much more. Baptism has to do with the forging of an unbreakable bond. A union that is stronger even than Death. For when we were baptised we went into the tomb with Christ and joined him in death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the Father’s glory, we too might live a new life.

Through baptism, we commit ourselves to dying everyday to sin and self-centredness. So that we might live a new life of love and self-sacrifice. The same kind of life that Christ lived. And not just the same kind of life. But the very life of Christ itself. As St. Paul writes in the letter to the Galatians, it is no longer I, but Christ living in me (2:20). Through baptism, we live no longer with our own lives, but with the very life of Christ. Which is why the first reading is filled with words like join and union and with. Words that speak to us of relationship. The intimate bond between Christ and the baptised. And which the baptised enjoy with one another. Bonds that are so strong that not even Death can tear them apart. For Death has no power over Christ any more.

This is also the same belief that Jesus explains in the gospel. Shortly before he raises his beloved friend, Lazarus, from the dead, the Lord consoles Lazarus’ sister, Martha. He tells her, I am the resurrection and the life. If anyone believes in me, even though he dies he will live, and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. What is the Lord saying, if not that the bonds of love between him and those who believe in him are too strong to ever be broken? Too strong even for the painful experience of Death and Bereavement to tear apart. Such is the power of our baptism. Such is the power of our Belief.

It’s as though, in our tug-of-war with Death, the rope of relationship has been tied forever to a huge solid tree. A steady anchor. An immovable foundation. Such is the power of our Faith. Our belief in Christ. A belief that is professed not just in word and worship. But also, especially in the way in which we live our lives.

Which is why Jesus consoles Martha not just by telling her that everything will be all right. But, above all, by asking her a crucial question. Do you believe this? Do you believe that Christ is the resurrection and the life? Do you believe that the bonds of love in Christ are stronger even than the pains of Death? And are you resolved to live out of this belief? Out of this bond of love? Instead of the fear of death? Do you believe this?

And this is also the same question that the Lord is asking us today. Even as he comforts and consoles us in the pain of our loss. Do you believe that love is stronger than death? Are you committed to living out of this belief every day of your life? For if we are, then we can be sure that the bond between us and our departed love ones will forever remain intact.

As you know, it is this same confidence in the power of love in Christ that led our dearly departed Mary to ask for baptism. Seeing that her own husband had been baptised shortly before his passing, she too asked to be baptised. Why? Perhaps because she realised that she would, in this way, remain forever connected to her beloved husband. Connected even after his passing. Connected in the love of Christ. Into which they would both be baptised.

And isn’t this the same confidence that is expressed in the responsorial psalm? There is one thing I ask of the Lord, for this I long, to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life…. I am sure I shall see the Lord’s goodness in the land of the living. Hope in him, hold firm and take heart. Hope in the Lord. Isn’t this the same confidence we are all being invited to claim for our own?

Sisters and brothers, even as we continue to experience the tug-of-war of bereavement, how are we being invited to tie the rope of our relationships securely to the Tree of Christ’s Love today?