Saturday, July 30, 2016

Don't Try This At Home?

Solemnity of St. Ignatius of Loyola (Parish Feast)

Readings: Jeremiah 20:7-9; Psalm 34 (33):2-3, 4-5, 6-7. 8-9, 10-11; 1 Corinthians 10:31-11:1; Luke 14:25-33
Picture: cc C├ęsar Astudillo

My dear friends, have you ever come across TV shows or commercials that include a warning? Typically something that goes like this: The stunts shown here are performed by trained professionals. Please do not try this at home! Why do you think they do this? Why bother to warn people not to imitate what they see on the show? The answer is simple, right? The producers know that the stunts are impressive enough for people to want to copy them. But they are also dangerous enough that, if attempted without the proper training, these same exciting stunts are likely to cause serious injury. Even death. And the producers don’t want to get sued. So they post a warning: To safely pull off these stunts you need to be someone who does this for a living. Someone who has dedicated his or her whole life to perfecting the art. Professionals only. Amateurs risk certain death. Don’t try this at home!

It may sound strange,  sisters and brothers, but don’t we find something similar in our readings today? In the gospel, we’re told that large crowds flock to Jesus. Perhaps hoping to witness miracles. Spectacular stunts. And Jesus issues them a warning. In no uncertain terms, he tells them how incredibly difficult it is to follow him. To try to imitate the kind of life he leads. Not only must his disciples hate even the members of their immediate family. Meaning that they have to give Jesus and the preaching of the gospel the highest priority in their lives. Higher even than the closest of family ties. They are expected also to give up all their possessions. To recognise that their possessions don’t really belong to them, but to God. Entrusted to them for the common good. Then they have to carry the cross and follow him.

In the first reading, the prophet Jeremiah models for us what this teaching looks like. God has sent him to preach a very hard message. And he suffers rejection and persecution as a result. The word of the Lord has become for me a reproach and derision all day long. Not only do people ridicule and mock him. They even plot to have him killed. Such is the danger and difficulty of the prophet’s mission. It demands all of him. Not just all his possessions. But the whole of his life.

Not just some things some of the time. But all things all of the time. This is what it takes to be a disciple of the Lord. Isn’t this what St. Paul is saying too in the second reading? Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God. Not just some things. But everything. All for the glory of God. If this is true then, contrary to popular belief, there really is no such thing as a Sunday-Catholic. Someone who practices Catholicism for only one hour or less a week. People who carefully time their presence at Mass in such a way as to satisfy only the barest of minimum requirements.

To do this is not much different from amateurs trying to perform dangerous stunts without proper training. It’s highly dangerous. In a spiritual sense. It may even cost us our eternal salvation. Not least by lulling us into complacency. On the contrary, to be a true follower of Christ requires true professionalism. The dedication of our every action. Renunciation of all our possessions. Devotion of all of our time. To aspire to anything less is to fall far short of discipleship. To put it more bluntly, a Sunday-Christian is not a true Christian. Christianity is not for amateurs. Only professionals. Those willing to offer all. To expend everything. In the service of the Lord. For the glory of God.

But this is also where our readings depart from those warnings we see on TV. And in a surprising way. The warnings are meant to discourage people from imitating what they see on TV. Our readings, however, aim for the opposite effect. Not discouragement but encouragement. Be imitators of me, St. Paul writes in the second reading, as I am of Christ. It’s as though our readings turn the television warnings on their heads. Not this is difficult. It requires specialised and dedicated training. Don’t try it at home! But, instead, yes, discipleship is indeed difficult. It will take nothing less than your whole life. Very likely you won’t have what it takes. So… what are you waiting for? Come follow me!

This approach will, of course, make no sense to us. Especially not if we consider it only in light of secular marketing strategies. People don’t usually try to encourage others to do something by telling them how dangerous and difficult it’s going to be. Let alone that they will very likely lose their lives in the process. Except that there is another important aspect to our readings that we haven’t explored. Something all-important. In the first reading, after complaining very bitterly about all the terrible things he has had to suffer. And just when we might expect him to throw in the towel. The prophet Jeremiah makes a surprising declaration: Within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary of holding it in, and I cannot.

Why does the prophet not simply give up his mission? Difficult and dangerous as it is? The short answer is that he cannot. He finds himself impelled to do what he has been sent to do. Why? Is he being oppressed or blackmailed in some way? An internet scam perhaps? No. Jeremiah speaks not of oppression but enticement. Seduction. Not of blackmail but love. Quite simply, he has fallen head-over-heels in love with God. And, as anyone who has ever been in love might understand, he is unable to refuse his Beloved.

This then is what it takes to be a true follower of Christ. Not just professionalism. But also passion. Not just the willingness to dedicate one’s whole life. But also the experience of being set on fire with the love of the Lord. Professionalism and passion. Two indispensable characteristics of true discipleship. Both of which are closely connected to each other. The professionalism flows from the passion. The deep love is what energises the total dedication. All of which should help us to understand the kind of training we need to become true followers of Christ. Authentic imitators of his life.

We must somehow be guided not just to work ever harder. Not just to give more and more of ourselves. But also, and first of all, to be set on fire. To be moved by passion. To fall deeply in love with the Lord. So that, impelled by love, the same love we are gathered here to celebrate at this Mass, we can make a generous offering of ourselves.

And it is in this process of setting hearts on fire that our patron, Ignatius of Loyola, was an expert. He excelled in helping people to receive and to burn with the love of the Lord. To be overwhelmed with gratitude. So as to serve with generosity. Which is why the church recognises him as a master of spirituality and retreat ministry. This is the Ignatian charism that is our precious heritage. This is what we are supposed to be experiencing regularly, as members of this parish. This is also what we are supposed to be sharing consistently with others. Not just in church. Not just at home. But also, and most of all, out in the world. Wherever we may find ourselves. Wherever our Lord may see fit to send us. To help set others on fire. To enable them to burn with passion. So as to serve with professionalism.

To fall in love with Christ. And to dedicate our lives to the service of his mission. This is what it means to be a member of an Ignatian parish. This is who we are. What we are called to do. This is what we celebrate today.

Sisters and brothers, on this the feast day of our parish, our readings should really come with a warning: These things can only be performed by passionate disciples. Trained professionals…

As individuals and as a parish, what must we do to continue receiving the training that we need today?

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Adoption Process

17th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

Picture: cc Janah Hattingh

My dear friends, do you know what it takes to adopt a child as your own? Do you know what the adoption process is like? Perhaps some of you do. The story is told of a married couple who, out of the kindness of their hearts, decide to adopt an orphan boy from a foreign country. Just to give him a better life. As you might expect, there are considerable legal procedures to go through. Official documents to file. Governmental departments to satisfy. Both in the foreign country as well as in their own. But even after all the official hurdles have been crossed, the process isn’t complete. In fact, as the couple soon realise, it has only just begun.

For even after the law already recognises the boy as their son, the child himself needs more time to do the same. Having spent the early years of his life in an orphanage, the boy is used to having to fend for himself. He’s constantly on guard. Always wary of strangers. So when his new parents first take him into their home, he keeps to himself. Not only does he not speak, he also starts to steal. Nothing of great value really. But simple things. Like an apple. Or a slice of bread. A spoon. Or a mug. He quietly takes these things, and hides them away. Saving them for a rainy day.

Patiently, his adoptive parents help him to understand that he is now their son. A member of their family. That he belongs in their home. And that they are responsible for caring for him. That they want only what’s best for him. So that whatever he needs, he has only to ask them for it. He doesn’t have to steal. It takes him a while. But gradually the boy begins to come around. He stops stealing and learns to ask for the things he needs.

Of course, like any good parents, the couple don’t always give him what he wants. Sometimes they refuse. For his own good. But just by learning to ask for what he needs, the boy receives something far more precious than the things for which he asks. Something that children of good parents often take for granted. He learns what it feels like to belong to a family. To have a home. To be able to entrust his life to people who love him. In learning to ask his parents for what he needs, the boy receives the one thing that he needs perhaps most of all. He learns what it means to truly be a son.

My dear friends, I tell this story because it helps me understand something in our Mass readings that may at first seem rather puzzling. As you’ve probably already noticed, the readings are about prayer. Especially petitionary prayer. The kind of prayer where we ask God for what we need. For ourselves and for others. The readings tell us not only that we should ask, but also how to ask.

In the gospel, Jesus says ask, and it will be given to you search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened to you… And the Lord also says that, if we ask and search and knock persistently, without giving up, we will receive. For the one who asks always receives; the one who searches always finds; the one who knocks will always have the door opened to him. Don’t you find it striking, sisters and brothers? How the word always is repeated? Again and again. And yet, isn’t this precisely what makes the reading difficult to understand?

For Jesus seems to be saying that we have only to keep asking God for what we want, and God will always give it to us. But is this true? Is this what we experience in our own lives? If I were to ask God for a million dollars, will I really receive it? If so, then why do we even bother to do any fund-raising? As we will be doing at our parish carnival next week. And if I don’t always get what I ask for, then is Jesus mistaken? Or, worse, could he be misleading us? Even lying to us? What do you think, sisters and brothers?

I’m not sure, but I think the problem here is that I misunderstand what Jesus is saying in the gospel. Jesus is not saying that I will get whatever I ask God for. What he is saying is that I will receive if I ask. But receive what? Not necessarily the exact thing for which I ask. Just as that adopted child in the story doesn’t always get what he asks for from his parents. In the gospel, Jesus says that the heavenly Father will give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him. And it’s important for us to understand the role and function of the Holy Spirit.

You may recall that, at the beginning of Luke’s gospel, it is by the power of the Holy Spirit that the virgin Mary conceives Jesus in her womb. This is what the Spirit does. It enables Mary to bear Christ, the only-begotten Son of God. But that’s not all. The same Spirit who produces in Mary the life of God’s Son, also reproduces the very same life of Christ in each one of us who have been baptised. So that, in Christ, we all become adopted sons and daughters of the Father.

Isn’t this what the second reading is telling us? You have been buried with Christ, when you were baptised; and by baptism, too, you have been raised up with him…. He has overridden the Law, and cancelled every record of the debt that we had to pay… In other words, by his Dying and Rising, Christ has satisfied all the legal requirements for our adoption as children of God. But that’s not the end of it. It’s only the beginning. For, like the boy in our story, we ourselves need time to learn what the Law already recognises. And this is why we need the Holy Spirit. It is by the Spirit, that we learn what it means to be adopted children of our heavenly Father.

Isn’t this why St. Paul can write, in the letter to the Romans, that we have all received the Spirit of adoption, enabling us to cry out, 'Abba, Father!’ (8:15)? For by giving us the Holy Spirit, our heavenly Father helps us to realise our own identity, our dignity, as His adopted children. And, like that adopted boy in our story, we receive this precious gift by learning how to ask our Father for what we need. The more we ask, the more we open ourselves to receive the Spirit. And the more we become children of God.

Which helps us to understand what is really going on in the first reading. Here Abraham begs God to show mercy to the people of Sodom. And yet, although God gives in to all of Abraham’s demands, Abraham doesn’t actually receive what he wants. For he wants God to spare the city. But, unfortunately, not even ten just people can be found there So Sodom is destroyed. Does this mean then that, for all his persistence in asking, Abraham receives nothing from God? No. By interceding so fervently for the people of Sodom, sinful though they are, Abraham shows himself to be a true son of God. He demonstrates that he is merciful, as his heavenly adopted Father is merciful. By asking God for what he wants, Abraham becomes more and more an adopted child of God.

All of which should help us to understand the true and deeper significance of petitionary prayer. We engage in it not to manipulate God into giving us what we want. But more to allow ourselves to learn what it means to be adopted sons and daughters of a merciful and loving God. We pray not in order to change God’s mind. But to allow God to change our hearts. Remaking us more and more into the image of God. Reproducing in us more and more the life of Christ, the only-begotten Son of God.

My dear friends, if it is indeed true that prayer is not so much a tactic for manipulation as a process of adoption. Then what must we do to allow ourselves to be transformed, more and more, from mere orphans into true sons and daughters of God, our loving and merciful Father today?

Sunday, July 17, 2016

5-Star Service (Rerun)

16th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

Picture: cc Alan Light

My dear friends, what do you think makes the difference between 4-star and 5-star service? When you visit a restaurant, or a hotel, what kind of service impresses you? What are the things the staff might do that make you sit up and take notice? In a good way. Perhaps even prompt you to take the trouble to write a complimentary note of thanks?

For me, the difference lies between 2 things: provision and reception. What do I mean? I may be wrong, but I suspect that many of us often think of service in terms only of provision. We speak, after all, of providing a service. And that is, in a way, accurate. Good service does mean providing something. And providing it well. When I eat at a restaurant, I expect the food to be tasty. And served in a timely fashion. The staff polite and knowledgeable. The premises clean. The ambience inviting… These are things I expect a good restaurant to provide. And I judge the quality of service by how well such provisions are made.

But these are things that any reasonable patron might expect from any good restaurant. What makes the difference between a good restaurant like that and an even better one? What makes the difference between 4-star and 5-star service? Perhaps we may think that the difference lies merely in the provision of more things. Like maybe offering free lemonade instead of just water. Or scented towels instead of paper ones.

I’m not sure. I tend to think the difference lies rather in how well the restaurant responds not just to the usual, but also to the unusual. Not just to the ordinary, but also to the extra-ordinary. If I have a food allergy, for example. How able and willing is the restaurant to change its menu to cater to my need? For me, great service is not just about providing more things. But providing what meets the specific desires of the one being served. Which means truly receiving the particular patron. Who may have very particular, even unusual needs. 4-star service may be only about provision. But 5-star service is really about reception.

I mention this because, as you have probably noticed, our Mass readings for today are all about service. In the first reading, when God appears in the form of three unknown travellers, Abraham welcomes them by saying, Do not pass your servant by. In the second reading, Paul speaks about how he became the servant of the church. And, in the gospel, we hear about how Martha was distracted with all the serving. What’s more, our readings are about service rendered to not just anyone. But to God. The divine Patron. Also, our readings are not just about ordinary service. Not just about good service. But better service. Greater service. 5-star service.

At first glance, it may seem that service of God is really only a matter of provision. And more provision. The first reading, for example, gives us a very detailed description of the many things that Abraham provided for his three guests. He offered them bread and meat. Cream and milk. And then he stood by and waited upon them while they ate. In the second reading, Paul describes his service in terms of a responsibility. God made me responsible, he says, for delivering God’s message to you. To provide people with God’s good news of salvation in Christ Jesus. This is Paul’s service.

So that we could probably be forgiven for thinking that service is only about provision. Were it not for the gospel. For here, the one who seems to be doing her very best to provide for her guest, is precisely the one whom Jesus gently reprimands for offering the less satisfactory service. Martha is doing all the work. And very important work. She busies herself preparing everything necessary for feeding the Lord. Much like Abraham does in the first reading. Without Martha’s work, Jesus would go hungry. And yet, the Lord says that it is Mary who has chosen the better part. It is Mary who has provided the greater service.

One way to resolve this apparent contradiction is to look beyond the activities of provision to the attentiveness of reception. Consider again what exactly it is that makes Abraham’s service stand out in the first reading. Notice the unusual nature of the situation. Notice how God chooses to arrive during the hottest part of the day. A time when people in their right minds would be resting. As Abraham himself appears to have been doing. Sitting by the entrance to his tent. Instead of running around. Working up a sweat. Struggling to prepare a meal. And yet, this is exactly what Abraham ends up doing when these unexpected visitors arrive. Abraham responds generously to the very particular needs of his very particular guests. He receives them even though they choose to arrive at a very inconvenient time. Reception and not just provision. This is what makes Abraham’s service greater.

But there’s something even more. Despite the already high level of  hospitality shown by Abraham and his wife Sarah, God calls them to an even greater receptivity. Notice how the reading ends with a promise. Not enough that Abraham should be willing to receive God in the heat of the noonday sun. He and his wife are called to go even further. They who are long past the age of childbirth are invited to receive into their hearts an incredible idea. To welcome into their lives an impossible gift. I shall visit you again next year without fail, Abraham is told, and your wife will then have a son.

A post-menopausal woman bearing a child. This is an idea that not even Sarah herself is able to receive. At least not at first. Further on in the book of Exodus, we’re told that she laughed to herself when she heard this. It was too incredible to be true. And yet, this was the hospitality that God required of her and her husband. This was the greater service she was being asked to provide. A service she could perform only by first being willing to receive God’s unbelievable gift.

And isn’t receptivity also what sets Mary apart from Martha in the gospel? Even though it may seem that Mary does nothing useful, she provides the Lord with the one thing for which he hungers most. For Jesus is no ordinary guest. He is God’s greatest Gift to us. The Present-from-on-High who wants to be received. The Word-Made-Flesh, who yearns above all to be heard and heeded. To be received and put into practice. By allowing herself to be distracted with all the serving, side-tracked by all the providing, Martha fails to give the Lord what he wants most of all. Even if she may have provided everything else that an ordinary guest might have required. And so her hospitality remains good. But Mary’s is even better. Mary’s is the 5-star service. 

I’m not sure, my dear friends, but I suspect that many of us find this difficult to understand and accept. I know I do. Especially because we live in Singapore. Where so much emphasis is often placed on being busy and active. Where parents may work very hard to provide for their children. But have no time to pay them much attention. And where, whenever we think of serving God, what often comes to mind are thoughts of adding more activities to our daily schedule. More events to our parish calendar. More ministries to the list of those we wish to join. Never mind if this is what God really wants of us. And yet, our readings remind us that perhaps more than doing more things for God, what we first need to consider is what God has done and is doing for us. What God is offering us. The better to receive God’s generous gift. To listen to God’s empowering call. To respond to God’s inspiring initiative. And, in so doing, to render God the greater service.

Sisters and brothers, as individuals and as a parish, what must we do to better receive the presence of God into our lives? How shall we move from 4-star to 5-star service today?


Wedding of Abel & Huimin

Readings: Song of Songs 2:8-10,14, 16, 8:6-7; 1 Corinthians 12:31-13:8; John 15:9-12
Picture: cc premasagar

It only takes a spark to get a fire going.
And soon all those around can warm up in its glowing…

Abel and Huimin, my dear friends, are you familiar with these words? Perhaps some of us may recognise them as the opening lines to a hymn, entitled Pass It On. When I was growing up, this hymn was also a very popular campfire song. And it’s not difficult to understand why. Imagine for a moment that you are a teenager sitting in front of a huge campfire late into the night. Feeling the crackling heat of the flames in front of you. Enjoying the warm companionship of all your friends around you. At that moment, the song really seems to get it just right. It only takes a spark to get a fire going. And soon all those around can warm up in its glowing...

It sounds so nice, doesn’t it, sisters and brothers? Even romantic, if the setting is right. But is it true? Does it really take only a spark to get a fire going? I suspect that those of us who have ever tried to start a fire from scratch will probably disagree. Especially if the wood we were using was damp. In such a situation, you can quite easily use up a whole box of matches–many many sparks!–and still not succeed in getting the fire started. All you’d get is a lot smoke to drive the mosquitoes away. The reason for this is that, contrary to what the song may tell us, starting a fire actually requires more than just a spark. You also need flammable. Material that can catch fire easily. Like dried leaves. Or paper. Or kerosene. And, once the fire is started, you also need to keep feeding it. Otherwise it will quickly die out.

It actually takes more than a spark to get, and to keep, a fire going. Isn’t this also the message that we find in these Mass readings that you, Huimin and Abel, have so wisely chosen for our celebration this afternoon? As is fitting for a wedding, the readings you have chosen speak to us about love. About the unmistakable signs and the powerful effects of love. What does love look like? How do we know when love is present? The first reading, from the Song of Songs, tells us that love is like a fire. A fire burning within a lover’s heart. Powerfully moving him into action. Energising him to leap on the mountains, in search of his beloved. And, having found his beloved, this fire also inspires him to lift up his voice to call her out from wherever she may be hiding.

As I listen to this reading, I cannot help but be reminded of something that you, Abel shared with me about how you courted Huimin. I hope you don’t mind if I share this with the rest. I had met Huimin at a friend's birthday party. It was in late 2006, when I was still in my second year of university. I was from Singapore Management University in Orchard Road and she was from Nanyang Technological University in Jurong East…. We continued to date whilst she was staying in the hall at Jurong. The commute to Jurong weekly was a killer but it was worth it. Although Abel did not leap over mountains like that lover in the first reading, he did make an arduous weekly pilgrimage from Orchard to Jurong. And even found it worthwhile. A sure sign of love, don’t you think?

And that’s not all. The second reading goes on to tell us even more about the powerful effects of this fire. Love, we’re told, is patient and kind; it is never jealous… never boastful or conceited… never rude or selfish... it is always ready to excuse, to trust, to hope, and to endure whatever comes. How a wonderful power love is! What a fantastic fire! Able to accomplish such incredible things!

This time, I’m reminded about something that you, Huimin shared with me. I hope I won’t embarrass you by sharing it. Abel has always been a strong pillar of support in my life as he supports me in whatever I do. Although he is not one who openly shows his care and love for me, but he does show it through little actions of love such as by cooking dinners for me and being very accommodating to me. Isn’t this a good example of love being ready to excuse, to trust, to hope, and to endure whatever comes.

And yet, as those here who are already married will be able to tell us, the power of love does not come about without continual effort. Easy enough perhaps, in the dizzy days of courtship, to leap on the mountains (or into your car, or onto the train) and to rush off in search of your beloved. Easy enough perhaps, when your love is still young, to repeatedly lift up your voice (or your handphone) to call or text your beloved out of hiding. But not so easy to continue doing all this, after a long day has been spent at work, satisfying a demanding boss. Or a tiring night has been endured at home, comforting a crying child. Not so easy, at those times, to even think about getting off the couch. Or out of bed. Let alone leaping on mountains, or lifting up your voice. Not so easy to continue being patient and kind. To remain ready to excuse, to trust, to hope, and to endure whatever comes.

Which is why it’s so very important to recognise something else that we find in our readings today. This fire of love that we celebrate is no ordinary fire. We do not produce it for ourselves. The way we may manufacture a box of matches, for example. The first reading tells us that this fire is nothing less than a flame of the Lord himself. Which means that this love that celebrate, this love that has brought the two of you together, Huimin and Abel, is not something that you accomplish yourselves. No. It is first of all a gift. Generously and mercifully bestowed on you, on all of us, by God.

It is God who is the First Lover. It is God who, in the Dying and Rising of Christ, continues tirelessly to demonstrate his infinite patience and kindness, his endless gentleness and compassion, toward us. Persistently calling us out of the many hiding places of our selfishness and sin into the warmth of his loving embrace. This, my dear friends, is the fire that we are celebrating. A fire that is first of all the precious gift of God. A fire that truly no flood can quench, no torrents drown. A fire that does not come to an end.

And if it is true that this fire is a nothing less than a gift from God, then our part is to keep making ourselves ready to receive this gift. To somehow ensure that we are always flammable enough to be set alight by the spark of God’s love. Set on fire. So that we can, in turn, set fire to the rest of our world. How do we do this, my dear friends? We find the answer in the gospel reading that you have chosen. Where Jesus says, As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you. Remain in my love. If you keep my commandments you will remain in my love. To remain faithful in keeping the commandments of God. Especially to try our best to put God at the centre of our hearts and of our lives. For without God, the fire of love will very quickly go out.

So, my dear friends, perhaps this is also what we are here to do today. We remind ourselves. And we commit ourselves to continue reminding one another in the days ahead. To remind ourselves that we can do nothing without God. To remind ourselves that this love among us, this love between you, Abel and Huimin, will only be able to survive and to thrive, to the extent that we continue to keep nourishing within us the fire of God's love.

Abel and Huimin, my dear friends, it actually takes more than a spark to get a fire going. What more must we do to make ourselves catch fire more easily today?

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Native Language Or Foreign Tongue?

15th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

Picture: cc TeachAgPSU

My dear friends, I once asked a Korean classmate of mine what I now know was a stupid question. At least from his point of view. I didn’t realise this at the time. I was only trying to be sociable. To make conversation. To break the ice… Korean is a very difficult language to speak, right? I asked. To which my friend quickly replied, with a very straight face, Actually, no, it’s very easy. Every morning, when I wake up, the words just come to me. I don’t even have to think about it.

I think I laughed out loud when I heard his reply. I laughed, because I was struck by the simple yet undeniable truth of what he had said. And I laughed also at how he had so easily uncovered the obvious stupidity of my question. Of course the Korean language was not difficult for him. Of course it came naturally. The words bubbling up effortlessly in his mind. And then flowing out smoothly through his lips. It was, after all, his native language! What a stupid question to ask a Korean!

Why then did I ask it in the first place? Was I really that dumb? I’d like to think not. When I asked the question I wasn’t thinking about it from my friend’s point of view. But from my own. And my own point of view was, of course, the point of view of a non-Korean. It was quite understandable that I should think that Korean is difficult. Because, for me, it is not a native language. But a foreign tongue.

The difference between speaking a native language and a foreign tongue. The first is easy. The second much more difficult. One comes naturally. The other only with great effort. My dear friends, I bring this difference to our attention because I think that it may help us make sense of something rather puzzling in our Mass readings today. Something that at first appears to be a contradiction.

As you may have noticed, the readings focus on the Law of the Lord. In the first reading, Moses reminds the people of Israel to obey the commandments of the Lord. To keep the Law of the Lord. But he also says something that may seem rather surprising. This Law that I enjoin on you today is not beyond your strength or beyond your reach… No, the Word is very near to you, it is in your mouth and in your heart for your observance. For Moses, the keeping of the Law of the Lord is something that should not be too difficult for the people to do. Something that comes naturally to them.

And yet, we don’t have to be experts in the Bible to know that throughout the Old Testament the people of Israel found it extremely difficult to keep the Law. Repeatedly, they broke the Covenant made between God and their ancestors. Consistently, they turned away from worship of the One True God, to bow down before foreign idols. False gods. Made in their own image and likeness. And this is true not just of the common people. But also, and especially, of their leaders. Kings and priests alike. People who should really have known better.

Isn’t this what we see happening in the gospel as well? Here, Jesus is questioned by an opponent. And not just any opponent. But a lawyer. A legal expert. And yet, in his conversation with Jesus, it becomes very clear that this expert, doesn’t really understand the Law at all. For although he is able to say quite rightly that what is central to the Law is love. You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbour as yourself. He acts quite differently. He questions Jesus about the Law only in order to disconcert him. The lawyer uses what should be an instrument of love and life as a weapon. To do violence and to destroy.

My dear friends, doesn’t there seem to be a contradiction here in our readings? How is it that Moses can insist that the Law is easy to keep. And yet, even an expert like that lawyer finds it so difficult to penetrate its meaning? What do you think, sisters and brothers? Is it easy or difficult to keep the Law? I’m not sure. But I think the answer is yes.

Yes, it is easy to keep the Law. And yes, it is also difficult. Just as it is both difficult and easy to speak Korean. Korean is easy when spoken as a native language. But it can be very difficult when treated like a foreign tongue. Perhaps love is the same. Isn’t this clearly illustrated in that parable that Jesus tells in the gospel? The one we all know so well. Or think we do. The one captured so vividly by Vincent van Gogh in that painting hanging in our Place of Gathering. The Parable of the Good Samaritan.

In the story, three people encounter someone in dire need and great distress. And this encounter becomes for them a test. A test of their understanding of the Law. Of how closely they follow its commands. The result is as surprising as it is clear. Although the first two people, the priest and the Levite, are professionals and experts in the law, they fail the test. Only the third person, the Samaritan, considered by Jews to be an outcaste and a heretic, only he passes.

And isn’t it striking that, although the Samaritan goes to great lengths to help the one in need, he seems to do everything without too much strain? Like a Korean speaking his native language, it all seems to come quite naturally to him. Beginning with his willingness to allow himself to be moved with pity. To feel compassion for his fellow human being who is suffering. To be moved interiorly to do the right thing. The loving thing. And so, to keep the Law.

What about the priest and the Levite? They too are actually trying to keep the Law. Very likely, they passed by on the other side of the road not out of disrespect for the Law. But for fear that they might break it. They are afraid that they would be made ritually unclean by contact with a dead body. And then be unable to fulfil their ritual duties. Yet, in struggling so hard to satisfy the letter of the Law, they fail so miserably to keep its spirit. Not unlike how I might struggle to master Korean grammar. While my classmate doesn’t even have to think about it.

Love is easy when spoken as a native language. And difficult, perhaps even impossible, to learn as a foreign tongue. But the good news is that love is actually our native language. For we believe that the love of Christ has already been hardwired deep within us. Deep within the whole of Creation. Isn’t this what the second reading tells us? Christ Jesus is the image of the unseen God and the first-born of all creation, for in him were created all things in heaven and on earth. All things were created through him, and with him and in him. All created things bear the mark of Christ. The mark of the Cross. The mark of love. Which means that the language of love is really already embedded deep within us. The capacity to feel compassion. To be moved to make a return of love to the God who has saved us in Christ. For we are that man who was left for dead. And Christ is the Samaritan who went out of his way to save us. By dying on the Cross and being raised to life, Christ has written the Law of Love deep within our hearts.

So that if we find love difficult it is only because we have forgotten our native language. And we try too hard to speak it as a foreign tongue. We focus too much on the rules and regulations. When what we need to do instead, is to deepen our knowledge of Christ. Whom we encounter here at Mass. In this gathering of his Body. In the proclamation of the Word. And in the breaking and sharing of the Bread. We experience Him in here, so that we may also find and serve Him out there. In our world. Filled as it is with broken people. Waiting by the side of the road for someone to help them.

My dear friends, what must we do continue living the Law of Love less as a foreign tongue and more as our native language today?

Saturday, July 02, 2016

Between Passing Showers & Champagne Towers

14th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

Picture: cc kenichi nobusue

My dear friends, do you know what a champagne tower is? Do you know what it looks like? It’s usually seen at wedding dinners and receptions. Glasses are stacked up in the shape of a pyramid. And then champagne is poured into the top glass until it overflows and fills all the others below. It’s quite a striking sight. Something that really adds to the joy of the occasion.

And what’s so striking about it is the way in which the champagne overflows first one glass, and then another, and another. Until all the glasses are filled. Every glass, except the first, is filled only through the overflow of the ones before it. Each glass receives champagne until it is too full to hold anymore. Then, from its own fullness, it shares what it has received with those that come after it. A continual overflow of joy. A truly impressive sight!

Of course, we don’t really need all those glasses to celebrate the occasion. To spread the joy. We could also do what those winners of Formula One races do. Just pop open the champagne bottle and spray the liquid onto everyone around. That’s quite enjoyable too. But then the moment would pass far too quickly, wouldn’t it? And the champagne would be lost. We wouldn’t be able to save it. To savour it. To share it. The glasses are important, because they allow us to receive and to hold the champagne. To sip it slowly. Together. And then to pass it on to others. Without glasses we experience only a brief spray. A passing shower. Instead of an abundant overflow of joy.

A tower of champagne glasses overflowing with joy. This is the image that our Mass readings bring to mind today. In the first reading, God calls the city of Jerusalem and all those associated with her to rejoice. For Jerusalem is like a mother nursing her children from her luscious breasts. Breasts filled with the milk of joy. But from where does this joy come? It doesn’t originate from Jerusalem herself. It comes instead from God. Who promises to send peace flowing like a mighty river. Flowing into the Holy City. Filling her, and causing her to overflow to others.

Peace and joy poured out by God into Jerusalem. And then overflowing from Jerusalem to all her children. Much like how champagne is poured first into the top-most glass of a tower of glasses. And then overflows to the others that come after it. A powerful and consoling image. Of joy and peace gratefully received. And then generously shared with others.

Isn’t this what Jesus is asking of the seventy-two in the gospel? The Lord himself is filled to overflowing with the love, joy and peace that are the fruit of the Spirit. And out of his own fullness, he calls disciples and fills them. Fills them, and then sends them out. To share what they have received with others. To fill them so that they too can overflow.

This is how God operates. This is how the Lord chooses to spread his Kingdom. Not just by spraying champagne all around. But by inviting people to allow themselves to become champagne glasses. Privileged receptacles. Ready to receive and to be filled. And then to share what has been received with others. Isn’t this what Jesus means when he tells his disciples to ask the Lord of the harvest to send labourers to his harvest? What does it mean to be a labourer in the Lord’s harvest, if not to allow oneself to be filled with love and joy and peace. And then, to simply let what we have received overflow to others.

To be a champagne glass in a tower of glasses. To be filled. To overflow. And to fill others. What do you think, sisters and brothers? Isn’t this an attractive invitation? Doesn’t it sound surprisingly simple? Why then do so many of us seem so reluctant, even resistant, to share with others what we have received? Why does it so often seem as though we Catholics come to Mass looking only to be sprayed? And not to be filled. Only to satisfy an obligation. And not to experience joy. Or, as someone has put it rather cleverly, only looking at what’s in it for me. Instead of what’s in me for it. Why do we need to be constantly reminded of our duty to share our faith? To evangelise. Shouldn’t evangelisation come naturally to us? As a joyful overflow of all we continue to receive?

How then do I become a more effective champagne glass? How can I better allow myself to be filled? To overflow? So as to fill everyone around me with the joy of the Lord? Perhaps we can find an answer by examining a champagne glass more closely. What makes a glass a glass is, of course, the empty space at its centre. The space into which the champagne is poured. The space out of which it overflows. To be a glass is to first have a space. Which can pose quite a problem for us. For our lives often seem far too full. Full of preoccupations and distractions. Full of activities and responsibilities. Full of people and things. How then to make space to receive? Let alone to overflow?

And yet, isn’t it also true that, as full as they may seem to be, our lives are also often marked by worries and disappointments. By sorrow and pain. By restlessness and boredom. Areas over which we have little or no control. Uncomfortably empty spaces that we often desperately try to fill in various ways. Sometimes sinfully. Usually unsuccessfully. Could this be where we need to begin? We stand in these empty spaces. And we cry out to God. Cry out with our complaints and our questions. Our protests and our lamentations.

And, if we are patient enough, we will hear God’s answer. Which is really always the same answer. The answer is simply I love you. Except that this answer is given not just in an abstract sentence. But in a living Word. A Word that has become flesh. And laid down his life for us on a cruel Cross. Which is why St. Paul can say, in the second reading, that the only thing I can boast about is the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. For it is in and through the Cross of Christ that Paul has found the answer to all his questions. It is in and through the powerful love of Christ that Paul has been filled to overflowing. Allowing him to fill others.

The experience of God’s love, in the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross. The same experience that we gather to celebrate at every Mass. Especially when we listen to the living Word of God. And receive the precious Body of Christ. This, my dear friends, is how self-absorbed people are transformed into true champagne glasses. Ready to receive, to overflow, and to fill others with God’s love and joy and peace.

My sisters and brothers, how ready are you to overflow today?