Sunday, December 25, 2016

Matchmaker Make Me A Match

Nativity of the Lord (Mass During the Day)

My dear friends, do you know how young people these days decide to get married? I recently met a happily engaged couple, who are excitedly looking forward to their wedding day next year. When I asked them how they met, I was a little surprised at their reply. They told me that a mutual friend had set them up. This good samaritan had guessed that the two might hit it off. And he was right. The couple discovered that they had actually been schoolmates years before. And that they had many other friends in common. Which led them to think that, if they could both get along with so many of the same people, there was a good chance they would also enjoy each other’s company as well. And they did. They agreed to meet… And now they find themselves eagerly looking forward to marriage.

So how do young people, in this day and age, come to meet and then decide to get married? Well, at least for this pair, what made all the difference was that kaypoh mutual friend of theirs. That self-appointed matchmaker. Having studied in the same school, it’s likely that the couple would probably have seen each other many times before. Yet they didn’t recognise one another as potential partners for life. Not till someone took it upon himself to arrange their first meeting. Helping each of them to recognise and accept the other as a candidate for marriage. And, by the way, this same couple is now looking to return the favour. I’m told that strenuous efforts are currently being made to set up that mutual friend of theirs. To matchmake the matchmaker. Who happens to still be single and available.

Who would have thought that, even in this modern day and age, where almost everyone is supposedly plugged in and connected to one another, a matchmaker could still help to transform mundane meetings into exciting engagements and joyful marriages? But what has all this got to do with Christmas? Well, it’s true that, in our Mass readings today, no mention is made of matchmakers. Much less of meetings leading to marriages. And yet, we do find a process that looks very similar. If not meetings resulting in marriages, then a seeing that leads to song.

In the first reading, we’re told that the watchmen of Jerusalem raise their voices, they shout for joy together. Why? For they see the Lord face to face. And the responsorial psalm tells us to sing a new song to the Lord. Why? For he has worked wonders. And all the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God. A profound seeing that leads to joyful song. This is what we find in our readings today. This is what all of us Christians are supposed to experience on a regular basis. Seeing our God coming to save us, we ought to find ourselves moved to raise our voices in joyful song. And not just our voices, but our whole lives should be lived as songs of praise offered to God. Not unlike how, having met each other for the first time, that young couple was moved to recognise one another as spousal material. And to eventually decide to joyfully commit themselves to each other in marriage.

A seeing that leads to joyful song. This is how the Christian life is supposed to be lived. And yet, my dear friends, how many of us actually experience this on a regular basis? In the ups and downs of daily living, how many of us can honestly say that we are able to see the Lord coming to save us? How many of us find ourselves moved to sing the praises of God? Are we not just as likely to relate to God in the same way that those two former schoolmates treated each other before they were formally introduced? Even if we may see, again and again, the saving presence of our God, we are often unable to recognise it as such. And with this failure of recognition comes the inability to rejoice. The reluctance to sing. Indeed, are we not more likely to raise our voices in complaint than in praise?

Yet we are not alone in feeling this way. The gospel tells us that this was also the experience of many people at the Lord’s first coming. He was in the world that had its being through him, and the world did not know him. He came to his own domain and his own people did not accept him. Like us, they too saw but could not sing. And can we blame them? For when the Word was made flesh and lived among us, for some mysterious reason, he chose to come as a helpless baby. One unable to find a better birthplace than in a manger surrounded by filthy farm animals. One who would, when he had grown up, challenge the religious authorities of his day. And then be executed as a convicted criminal. Only to be rumoured to have been raised to life on the third day. Someone who lived between obscurity and controversy. Is it any wonder that people refused to accept him?

Even so, there were those who did. Those who were able to see and recognise him as the One that the second reading calls the radiant light of God’s glory. The First-Born Son, whom all the angels of God worship. And the gospel tells us that to all these fortunate people, who were able to recognise and accept him, he gave power to become children of God. Power, in other words, to rejoice and to sing the praises of their heavenly Father. And not just with their voices. But in the way they lived their lives.

But how, we may ask, did these people succeed where so many others failed? How were they able to see in so profound a way as to be led to break out in joyful song? They didn’t do it on their own. They had help. The first reading speaks of a joyful messenger bringing news of peace. How beautiful on the mountains, are the feet of one who brings good news, who heralds peace, brings happiness, proclaims salvation… And the gospel points us more specifically to the person of John the Baptist. The one who comes as a witness. Helping others to recognise the Light when it shines upon them… Just as that happily engaged couple benefitted from the efforts of a matchmaker, so too did those who recognise Christ at his first coming benefit from the ministry of John the Baptist.

And what about us? Could this be the real reason why we celebrate Christmas? Why we need to celebrate Christmas? And celebrate not just today, but for all of the next two weeks of the Christmas Season? During this time, we will allow the liturgy to become our holy matchmaker. Helping us to see and to recognise Emmanuel. The God who regularly enters our lives to save us. To save us from our burdensome self-absorption. Our often soul-crushing routine. As we gaze upon the Christmas crib. As we ponder over the readings and prayers at Mass. We allow all of these to become our John the Baptist. To help us recognise how God comes to save us. Perhaps not in spectacular ways. But in ordinary yet mighty ways. Mighty in the way that a baby lying on a bed of straw can be mighty. Having the power to penetrate hearts so often hardened by the cares and distractions of life. To penetrate and to disarm them. To turn them from darkness to light. From self-centredness to compassion. From blindness to sight. From complaint to praise.

My dear friends, if it is indeed true that Christmas is about being led from meeting to marriage, from seeing to song. Then what must we do to pay closer attention to the matchmaker this Christmas?

Sunday, December 11, 2016

The Grace to Wag our Tails (Rerun)

3rd Sunday in Advent (A) (Gaudete Sunday)

Sisters and brothers, have you ever come across people leaving their dogs outside a store or a restaurant, while they go in to shop or eat? It’s not so common here in Singapore. But I once lived in a place where this happened quite frequently. And I remember being fascinated by the different reactions of those poor dogs. Some of them would just lie down on the ground, put their heads on their paws, and look really depressed at being left behind. Others did the exact opposite. They became very excited and distracted by everything around them. Sniffing at the trees, the dustbins, and the people passing by. You just knew that, if they weren’t on a leash, they’d probably run off without turning back. Then there were also the really impatient and demanding ones. Who wouldn’t stop barking loudly. Until their owners came out to get them.

But, every so often, if you were really lucky, you’d come across a dog who behaved quite differently from all the rest. This fellow neither barks nor makes a fuss. It doesn’t get impatient or distracted. Nor does it look depressed. On the contrary, even though it’s left outside, the dog remains calm. Its attention focused on one thing. Its body is positioned firmly in the direction of the doorway through which its owner entered. And, if there is a glass window, the dog keeps looking through it eagerly. Carefully scanning the interior. Watching for signs of its master.

What I find most impressive of all is that, very often, even while it watches and waits, this dog continues to express its happiness by wagging its tail. Imagine that. Left all alone outside on a sidewalk, while its owner is inside having fun. And this fellow not only keeps watching and waiting, it even continues to wag its tail when it catches sight of its owner through the window. I’m not sure about you, but I find that truly impressive. Not least because I myself am often unable to do the same. Difficult enough to remain patiently watchful in an uncomfortable situation. But to be joyful as well? I find that a tough act to follow.

And yet this is precisely the kind of grace we are praying for on this 3rd Sunday of Advent. As we said earlier, today is also called Gaudete Sunday. From the first word of the entrance antiphon, meaning Rejoice! Even as you watch and wait for the Lord’s coming, Rejoice! Even if you happen to find yourself in a difficult and uncomfortable situation right now, Rejoice!

That is the central message of our celebration today. And if, like me, you find this call more than a little difficult to answer, then we need to pay closer attention to what our readings tell us. For, as you’ve probably noticed, most of the people in our readings are also in really difficult situations. In the first reading, the people of Israel are living in exile, far away from home, in Babylon. The Christians, to whom the second reading is addressed, are undergoing persecution for their faith. And, in the gospel, not only is John the Baptist in prison for speaking against King Herod. But he will soon have his head chopped off.

Finding themselves stuck in bad situations. Not unlike those dogs left all alone on the sidewalk. It must be truly tempting for all these people either to give in to depression and despair, or to get distracted by everything that’s going on around them, and to give up their faith in God. But even as they continue to suffer, all of these people receive calls to persevere. Those in the first reading are told to strengthen all weary hands. To steady all trembling knees. And to say to all faint hearts, “Courage! Do not be afraid.” The people in the second reading are encouraged to be patient. And not to lose heart. And, in the gospel, Jesus promises John the Baptist that the one who doesn’t lose faith in the Lord is happy.

All of which is easier said than done. And yet, all these people are not left alone to do the impossible. A gift is being offered to them to help them. A secret for obtaining the grace to stand firm. The grace to rejoice even in the midst of their suffering. The grace to do what those impressive dogs we mentioned earlier seem to be able to do as if by instinct. When it feels as though we’ve been left behind by our Master. When we find ourselves in a difficult situation. How do we keep waiting patiently without giving up hope? How do we find joy in the midst of our distress? Well, much depends on where we choose to look.

If we simply put our heads on our paws, and stare only inward at our own difficult situations, we will naturally get depressed. And if, on the other hand, our focus is only outward. On the many things going on around us. The things that often keep us so very busy. Then we’ll just get distracted. But if we are able to imitate those impressive dogs, and keep eagerly looking forward. If we carefully keep watch for the signs of the Master’s coming. Then perhaps we will receive the incredible ability, the unbelievable courage, not just to remain calm. But even to wag our tails in joyful expectation.

In the first reading, for example, although the people may feel as though they are living in a barren and desolate place, the prophet calls them to look forward to a time when the wilderness and the dry-lands will exult. And the wasteland rejoice and bloom.  A day when the Lord will return them to their homes. When joy and gladness will go with them and sorrow and lament will be ended. In the second reading, although the people may feel that God has left them all alone on the sidewalk of persecution. They are reminded to continue looking for the Lord, who is already to be seen waiting at the gates. And, in the gospel, Jesus has a similar message for John. To the one who is suffering so much in prison, Jesus sends news of the many blessings already being showered on those outside: the blind see again… the lame walk… lepers are cleansed… the deaf hear… the dead are raised to life and the Good News is proclaimed to the poor…

Sisters and brothers, when we look closely at our lives. When we gaze deeply into our hearts. When we survey carefully the world around us. It is likely that we will find much to depress and distract us. But this doesn’t mean that we should just close our eyes and stop looking. We should, rather, insist on looking even more closely. Looking even more deeply. Looking even more carefully. To the Lord. To the One who has already come. And who will come again. The same Lord, by whose life, death and resurrection every tear is wiped away. And everything is made new. Especially in this third week of Advent, we need to keep looking for signs of his coming. In our hearts. In our lives. And in our world.

I’m reminded of these words from an old hymn written by Sr. Miriam Therese Winter: I saw Christ in wind and thunder. Joy is tried by storm. Christ asleep within my boat, whipped by wind, yet still afloat. Joy is tried by storm. I saw raindrops on a river. Joy is like the rain. Bit by bit the river grows, 'til all at once it overflows. Joy is like the rain.

Sisters and brothers, today is Gaudete Sunday. Today, whatever the trials we may be facing, we are all called to rejoice. For the Lord is close. What must we do to keep looking out for him, and to keep joyfully wagging our tails in welcome today?

Sunday, December 04, 2016


2nd Sunday of Advent (A)

Picture: cc Mark Morgan

My dear friends, are you familiar with the Bat-Signal? Do you know what it is? It’s something found in the Batman comics. You know, of course, who the Batman is, right? That fictional crime-fighting superhero, who protects the people of Gotham City. Whenever there is a serious crime wave. A crisis that even the police cannot handle on their own. The Police Commissioner switches on a special searchlight. Which projects the shape of a bat high up into the night sky. This is the Bat-Signal. It is, first of all, a sign of distress. A cry for help. A call to the Batman to come and save a city engulfed in darkness.

And the citizens of Gotham know that they can rely on this signal. They know that, once the sign of the bat flashes in the sky, the Batman will come to save them. Which is why the signal is not just a call for help. Not just a cry of distress. It is also a sign of hope. A promise to the people that their suffering will soon be ended. That help is on its way. That justice will eventually be meted out. And peace restored once again.

Of course, for the criminals in the city, on the other hand, for those responsible in some way for the people’s suffering, the bat-signal sends a very different message. It serves as a warning to the bad guys. Giving them due notice that their days of oppressing the good citizens of Gotham are quickly coming to an end. That they themselves will be sternly dealt with. Provided they turn over a new leaf. Provided they stop ignoring the rights of the poor. Provided they take steps to reach out and to help the needy. To restore justice. To work for peace.

A single signal shining in the dark, communicating different things to different people: A cry for help. A message of hope. A call to repentance. This is what the Bat-Signal stands for. This is what we find in the comic books. But not just in the comic books. Believe it or not, my dear friends, we find something similar in our Mass readings on this second Sunday in Advent.

The first reading speaks of a shoot springing from the stock of Jesse. The rise of a descendant of the father of King David. Someone who becomes a meaningful signal for a defeated nation. A country overrun by its enemies. A people walking in the darkness of exile. Someone who becomes a sign of their deep distress. Expressing their fervent cries for help. A sign simultaneously promising them that their suffering will soon be ended. That judgment will eventually be given in their favour. That justice will be meted out. A verdict for the poor of the land. A rod that strikes the ruthless. Sentences that bring death to the wicked. Which is why this same signal is also a warning to their enemies. Calling them to change their ways. To cease preying on the weak. To stop feeding on the flesh of the poor. To become like the lion who learns to eat straw like the ox. So that both predator and prey can live together. Enjoying the justice and peace that come to those who fear the Lord.

A single signal shining in the dark, communicating different things to different people: A cry for help. A message of hope. A call to repentance. We find the same thing in the gospel. This time, the signal comes in the person of John the Baptist. He is the voice that cries in the wilderness. He is the signal shining out in the darkness of the people’s distress. For not only is their land occupied by the Roman army. More importantly, their hearts and their lives are oppressed by the tyranny of sin and selfishness. Of ignorance and self-righteousness.

To them John offers a message of hope. Hope in the coming of the Lord. Who dispels the night of sin with the bright light of love. And, like the Bat-Signal, John’s is not just a message of hope for the oppressed. It is also a call to repentance for their oppressors. An alarm meant to awaken those who are asleep. Those still trapped in their own complacency. Those who assume they have nothing to fear, simply because they are the children of Abraham. The chosen people God. (Or simply because they are baptised, and faithfully go to Mass every Sunday.) To these, John issues a dire warning: Even now, he says, the axe is laid to the roots of the trees, so that any tree which fails to produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown on the fire…

A single signal shining in the dark, communicating different things to different people: A cry for help. A message of hope. A call to repentance. This is what we find in each of our readings today. And this signal is meant not only for us, who are gathered here this evening. Not only for our parish. Not only for the rest of the Catholic Church. This signal is meant for the whole world. As the first reading tells us, the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples. It will be sought out by the nations. And the second reading reminds us that Christ became the servant of circumcised Jews not just to fulfil the promises made to the patriarchs. But also to get the pagans to give glory to God for his mercy. The signal that we find in our readings today is meant not just for us, but also for the rest of the world. A world that remains plunged in the darkness of war and conflict. Of ignorance and disbelief. Of greed and lust for power. Of selfishness and sin.

But how can we expect our world to see and to recognise this signal? Provided, of course, that we are able to see and to recognise it first for ourselves. To see and to recognise it not just as it is proclaimed here in this church. But also as it continues to shine out in our world. I’m reminded, for example, of that encouraging news report in today’s issue of the Straits Times. Which tells the story of Jaycie Tay and John Shu. Of how, in 2013,  29-year-old twice-divorced and twice-incarcerated mother of four, Jaycie, happens to meet 47-year-old married father of two, John, at a bus-stop in Yishun. Jaycie is nearing the end of an 18-month sentence for drug offences. And waiting for a bus to take her back to her half-way house. John has to take a bus that day, because his motorcycle is in the shop.

They strike up a conversation. And John learns of Jaycie’s difficulties, as well as her desire to pursue a diploma, to give her children a better future. The two become friends. A few months into their friendship, John, who earns just over $2,000 a month, gives Jaycie $6,000 to pay for her diploma and other expenses. Why should I calculate so much about helping others? He says. I see Jaycie as a family member, like my younger sister. On her part, Jaycie completes her diploma, and has recently embarked on a part-time programme towards a degree in Business Studies. I never thought a stranger (who became a friend) would help me so much, she says. I hope that by sharing my story, other former offenders can also feel there is hope in life.

A signal shining in the dark, communicating different things to different people: A cry for help. A message of hope. A call to repentance. Isn’t this also what the story of John and Jaycie can be for us? Are there not similar stories in our own lives? Similar cries for help. Similar messages of hope. Similar calls to repentance. To recognise these signs and to respond adequately to them. Isn’t this what it means to celebrate Advent?

My dear friends, even in the midst of the darkness of our world, the Bat-Signal is already shining clearly in the sky. How are we being called to respond to it today?