Sunday, March 26, 2017

Mistaking the Mother for the Maid

4th Sunday in Lent (A) (2nd Scrutiny)

My dear friends, have you ever failed to recognise someone? Or have you ever mistaken someone for somebody else? Do you know what it feels like? How it happens? Often it has to do with having certain mistaken assumptions or expectations. Take for example, that video that recently went viral. You may have seen it. Professor Robert Kelly, an expert on East Asian politics, is being interviewed live on BBC World. He’s answering questions from what appears to be a room in his own home.

In the middle of the interview, his 4-year-old daughter happily wanders in, and tries to get her daddy’s attention. She is followed closely by her baby brother. Stumbling in on a walker. Then, moments later, an obviously panic-stricken Asian woman dashes into the room and proceeds to hurriedly herd the children out. While trying valiantly to crouch down as close to the ground as possible. In a vain attempt at avoiding being caught on camera.

The video raised quite a few laughs online. Many found it highly amusing. Which it is. But what’s also interesting is that a good number of those who posted comments on the video somehow assumed that the Asian woman in it is the children’s nanny. She’s not. Her name is Kim Jung-a. And she’s their mother.

Now, just to be clear, I bring this up not to point fingers at those who mistook the mother for the maid. To be honest, I could very easily have made the same mistake. It just seems to me that these reactions illustrate how easy it is to mistake someone for somebody else. How difficult it can be to recognise someone for who s/he really is. Often, this results from certain mistaken assumptions that I hold. Such as thinking that an Asian woman staying with a caucasian family must be the maid. We might say that assumptions like these keep me in the dark. Blind me to a person’s true identity.

This is not unlike the darkness and blindness that we find in our Mass readings on this 4th Sunday of Lent. When you, our elect, are celebrating your 2nd Scrutiny. We find a clear reference to this in the second reading. Which describes Christians as children of the light. And encourages them–encourages us–to try to discover what the Lord wants of us, having nothing to do with the futile works of darkness but exposing them by contrast

To keep moving from darkness to light. This is also what we find the prophet Samuel doing in the first reading. God sends him to anoint a new king from the sons of Jesse. But Jesse has eight sons. And Samuel has no idea which of them God wants. So he falls back on his own assumptions. Thinking, at first, that perhaps the oldest boy might be the one. Since he’s tall and handsome. But God has other plans. Samuel is told that God does not see as man sees: man looks at appearances but the Lord looks at the heart. Gradually, God leads Samuel from the darkness of his own mistaken assumptions to the joyful light of true recognition. Following God’s guidance, Samuel finally acknowledges and anoints David as king. And the people receive a great blessing.

This movement from darkness to light is also what the gospel invites us to ponder. The reading begins with the healing of a man who was born blind. Someone who has never seen the light of day. After washing his eyes, he is given new sight. But this physical healing, which takes place instantly, points us to a deeper spiritual healing. One that happens only gradually.

We see this especially in how the man born blind is gradually led to recognise Jesus as Lord. At first, when questioned by his neighbours, he refers to Jesus simply as the man. A little later, in response to the Pharisees, he calls Jesus a prophet. Then, when pressured by the religious authorities, he argues that Jesus must be from God. And, eventually, when he meets Jesus a second time, the man finally calls him Lord. He declares his belief in Jesus. And he worships him.

Like Samuel in the first reading, the man in the gospel is led to recognise and to acclaim the chosen one of God. Gradually, he is guided out of darkness and into light. Joyfully, he receives the gift of true spiritual sight. And the good news, my dear friends, is that this gift is something that we Christians believe we too have received. When we were washed in the waters of our baptism. The gift of recognising Jesus for who he really is. The Chosen One of God. Sent to lead us into the fullness of life. This is the same gift that we are preparing ourselves to receive anew. When we renew our baptismal promises at Easter. And this is also the gift that you, our beloved elect, are preparing yourselves to receive, when you too are washed, in the waters of baptism, at the Easter Vigil.

This preparation to receive the gift of recognising the Lord is something that we all need very much. Baptised and unbaptised alike. For, whether we care to admit it or not, there are certain forces that hinder us from making the crucial shift from darkness to light. From blindness to sight. Things that keep us from letting go of our mistaken assumptions. Isn’t this what we find in the gospel reading? Consider, for example, the parents of the man born blind. They know for a fact that he has somehow been cured of his blindness. And yet, they are reluctant to acknowledge in public the One responsible for his healing. We are told that that his parents spoke like this out of fear of being expelled from the synagogue.

And what about the authorities themselves? They too refuse to recognise Jesus. Even though the evidence is laid out before them. In the words of the man born blind: if this man were not from God, he couldn’t do a thing. And yet, the religious authorities still reject Jesus. Considering him a sinner for healing on a sabbath day. They stubbornly insist on remaining in the darkness of their own mistaken assumptions. Which is as ridiculous as if I were to continue to insist that Kim Jung-a, that Asian woman in the viral video, is a maid. Even after being told that she is actually the children’s mother.

Fear and stubborn pride. These are the obstacles that keep the people in the gospel from acknowledging Jesus. Fear and pride. These are among the things that I need to resist even today. For I too have mistaken assumptions that I need to let go of. Things that keep me from recognising Christ in my daily life. Such as the thought that God can be present only when things go smoothly. Only in times of success. Only when money flows freely. Only when praise is showered upon me. These assumptions seem so very reasonable. But are also so very mistaken. They keep me from recognising the Christ who willingly walks the Way of the Cross. Lovingly climbs the slopes of Calvary. Before triumphantly rising from the shadows of the Tomb.

To be brought out of the darkness of mistaken assumptions and into the light of true recognition. This is the joyful gift that is being offered to us. My dear sisters and brothers, baptised and elect alike. What must we do to truly receive this gift? To stop mistaking the mother for the maid today?

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Supermarket or Carpark

Solemnity of the Annunciation of the Lord
(1st Profession of Religious Vows in the Society of Jesus)

Readings: Isaiah 7:10-14,8:10; Psalm 39(40):7-11; Hebrews 10:4-10; Luke 1:26-38
Picture: cc Simon ShekEthelRedThePetrolHead

My dear friends, can you tell me the difference between a supermarket and a carpark? Of course, the differences are many. But I am thinking of one in particular. I’m thinking of what we look for in each of these things. What do you look for when you visit a supermarket? And what do you look for when you drive into a carpark? Have you ever noticed the difference between the two?

Usually, when I go to a supermarket, what I hope to find are shelves filled with goods. Many different kinds of goods. The greater the variety the better. Imagine how surprising, even alarming, it would be if I entered a supermarket only to find all the shelves empty… In contrast, when I drive into a carpark, what I hope to find is quite the opposite. What I’m looking for is not more and more stuff. But space. Well, at least one empty space. A safe place where I can park my car.

At supermarkets I look for stuff. But at carparks space. Strange as it may sound, sisters and brothers, this difference is not unlike what we find in our Mass readings today. On this Solemn Feast of the Annunciation of the Lord, as might be expected, the readings are all about how Christ comes to be conceived and born into the world. How the eternal Word becomes flesh, and dwells among us. How the Most-High Almighty God comes close to God’s people. Truly becomes Emmanuel, God-with-us.

For some reason, God chooses to do this by seeking the cooperation of human beings. By looking for a particular kind of human response. What does this response look like? The kind that allows Christ to be conceived and to be born into the world? The readings help us to ponder this question by presenting us with a striking contrast between two different kinds of response.

Echoing the responsorial psalm, the second reading describes this contrast in these words: You took no pleasure in holocausts or sacrifices for sin; then I said… ‘God, here I am! I am coming to obey your will.’ The contrast is between holocausts and sacrifices on the one hand, and presence and obedience on the other. You do not ask for sacrifice and offerings but an open ear. You do not ask for holocaust and victim. Instead, here am I. Rather than plenty of stuff offered up in sacrifice, God prefers instead simply an empty space. An open ear. A heart docile enough to listen to God’s word. A person humble enough to carry out God’s will. What God is looking for is not a supermarket. But a carpark. Not plenty of stuff. But simply a receptive space.

And what the psalm and the second reading describe in the abstract, the first reading and the gospel portray for us in more concrete terms. The contrast is between King Ahaz in the first reading, and the Virgin Mary, in the gospel. Ahaz is the king of Judah. A kingdom that is in imminent danger of being attacked by its neighbours, Syria and Israel. In this time of grave peril, God invites Ahaz to put his trust in God. To pray for a sign of God’s protection. But Ahaz refuses. Not so much because the king doesn’t want to test God. But because he has actually already made other plans. He has already decided to ally himself with the Assyrians. The king’s heart is so full of fear, and so full of his own desperately concocted schemes, that he is unable to put his trust in God. He is unable to receive the gracious assistance that God is offering him and his people. It’s as though, when the Vehicle of the Divine Presence arrives at Ahaz’s heart, it finds there no empty space. The carpark is full. As we might expect a supermarket to be full.

In the gospel, when the angel Gabriel visits Mary, she too is deeply disturbed by the angel’s words. She too does not understand how God’s plan could possibly be carried out. As a virgin, how is she to conceive and bear a human child? Let alone the Son of God? And yet, disturbed and confused though she may be, Mary somehow receives the grace to converse with the angel. And eventually to say yes to God. I am the handmaid of the Lord, let what you have said be done to me. What God finds in Mary is precisely what is lacking in Ahaz. An empty space. An open heart. An obedient will. This is what makes all the difference. This is how Christ comes to be conceived and born into the world. What it takes is not so much plenty of stuff. But simply a receptive space. Not a supermarket. But a carpark.

All of which might serve as a providential reminder for us, who are gathered here for the first profession of religious vows of our brothers Joel and Leonard. What are they really doing today? What do they hope to achieve by professing these simple vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, in the Society of Jesus? I think you will all agree with me, my dear friends, when I say that both Joel and Leonard are very gifted and talented men. Both are university graduates. One even has a graduate degree. Another is a member of a well-respected profession. And we are most grateful to God for all these gifts of theirs. We are grateful also especially to their families, for allowing them to choose this life in the Society of Jesus.

And yet, Joel and Leonard, talented though you may be, what the Society is looking for from you, what we hope you are offering to God today, is not just all of your gifts and talents. All that, of course, goes without saying. But there is something far more important. Something without which–if you may permit me to be brutally honest–something without which all the talent and giftedness in the world, may actually be more of a hindrance than a help. What we are looking for is not so much more and more stuff. More and more talents and gifts. More and more plans and schemes. But rather, first of all, an open and receptive space. A humble and lowly heart. A person committed to living poor and chaste and obedient in the sight of God and of God’s Church, in the Society of Jesus.

For it is our conviction, that it is only to hearts such as these. Only to hearts committed to imitating the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Only to hearts dedicated to following the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus. It is only to hearts such as these, that God’s will can be more completely revealed. It is only through hearts such as these, that God’s plan can be more fully accomplished. So that Christ might continue to be conceived and to be born into our world today.

My dear sisters and brothers, Joel and Leonard, on this Solemn Feast of the Annunciation of the Lord. As we gather joyously for this first profession of religious vows in the Society of Jesus. Perhaps it is helpful for us, for all of us, to ponder together this question: 

In each of our own lives, whatever our chosen vocation may be, what are we really offering to God? A whole load of stuff, or a truly open space? A crowded supermarket, or a receptive carpark today?

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Denying Cookie Cravings to Satisfy Hungry Hearts

3rd Sunday of Lent (A) (1st Scrutiny)

Picture: cc amanda tipton

My dear friends, have you ever come across parents who stubbornly refuse to give their child a cookie? Even when the child cries very pitifully. Complaining that it’s really hungry. Why do you think parents do that? Why do they seem so cruel as to ignore their child’s hunger pangs? I’m sure the parents among us can answer this question quite easily, right? It may be that it’s almost dinnertime. And you don’t want to ruin your child’s appetite. Rather than tormenting the child. You are actually teaching it an important lesson. How to deny a little craving, in order to satisfy a bigger hunger. A deeper yearning.

This lesson is not unlike what God is teaching the people of Israel in the first reading. Like a hungry child craving a cookie, the people are tormented by thirst. And they grumble to Moses. They ask him a question that the poor man doesn’t seem to know how to answer. A question similar to the one we asked about those parents earlier. The question is Why? Why refuse your child a cookie? Why bring us out of Egypt? Why torment us with thirst?

Instead of telling the people the answer to their question, Moses prays to God. And God teaches him how to get water for the people to drink. So that, at first glance, it seems that God gives in to the people’s craving. But still, the question remains, doesn’t it? The question Why? Why bring the people into the wilderness to be tormented by thirst in the first place? Could it be that it’s because, like any good parent, God allows the people to experience a temporary thirst, in order to prepare them for a more substantial drink? Could it be that God is teaching them to endure the more obvious thirst of their throats, so that God can quench the deeper yearning of their hearts? The yearning not just for water, but for love. For God’s love.

And, of course, this is a yearning that is present not just in the Israelites. But also in all of us. In you and in me. It is the same yearning that the second reading says God has already taken steps to satisfy. For the love of God has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit which has been given to us. How did this happen? It happened when at his appointed moment… Christ died for us while we were still sinners. Proving, once and for all, how much God really loves us.

Which is why it’s not quite accurate to say that the people’s question in the first reading is left unanswered. Why bring us out of Egypt? Why torment us with thirst? Although Moses doesn’t seem to answer the question by his words, he does so through his actions. In the steps that he takes to provide water for the people to drink. The early Fathers of the Church saw in Moses’ actions in the wilderness a foreshadowing of what would happen to Christ on the Cross. Just as Moses struck the rock with his staff, causing water to flow for the people to drink. So too was Christ, the rock of our salvation, struck by a spear. And from his side flowed blood and water. Signs of God’s forgiving love. Symbols of God’s life-giving Spirit. Poured out so selflessly to satisfy all thirsty hearts. Why bring us out of Egypt? Why torment us with thirst? So that you may enjoy a more satisfying drink.

And it is this same drink, this living water of his own self-sacrificing love, that Jesus offers the Samaritan woman in the gospel. Like the Israelites in the wilderness, she too is thirsty. Isn’t this why she has come to the well to draw water? And yet, Jesus insists on chatting her up. On distracting her from her immediate concern. Which is to quench her thirst. And, once again, we might ask Why? Why torment the people of Israel? Why delay the woman at the well?  The answer becomes clear as the reading progresses. Jesus delays the woman’s efforts at quenching the thirst of her throat, because he wishes to help her satisfy the deeper yearning of her heart. The yearning for love. God’s love.

A yearning that she has tried so desperately and so unsuccessfully to satisfy on her own. In each of the five husbands she has had in the past. And in the man with whom she is living now. The one who is not her husband. Somehow, in the course of their conversation, Jesus manages to help the woman to recognise her own deep yearning for love. And, more importantly, to believe that he is the One who can satisfy it. Anyone who drinks the water that I shall give will never be thirsty again, the water that I shall give will turn into a spring inside, welling up to eternal life.

As they speak, the woman is gradually led from guarded suspicion to tentative interest, and then to joyful excitement. We’re told that she puts down her water jar. She forgets the thirst of her throat. And she hurries back to the town to tell the people. To share with them the deep stirrings of her own heart. This shift in the woman’s reaction is all the more striking because she had earlier gone to the well at the hottest part of the day. When there would be no one else there. Presumably to avoid her neighbours. Probably because her scandalous marital situation was a subject of local gossip. And yet, here she is now, rushing so eagerly to speak to the very people she had been so carefully avoiding earlier.

To leave our water jar. To forget the thirst of our throats. To deny our craving for cookies. This too is what we do in Lent. Through prayer and fasting and almsgiving. We do it not to torment ourselves. But to turn away from sin. To make space for God. To let go of our greed for material things, for example. Our thirst for revenge. To acknowledge that we have a deeper yearning that only God alone can satisfy. A yearning that God has already satisfied. Through the selfless sacrifice of Christ the Son.

And this is also what the Scrutinies are meant to do for you, the elect. You who are preparing for baptism. By celebrating these rites, we hope to distract you the way the Lord distracted the woman at the well. We invite you to leave your water jars. To forget the thirst of your throats. To deny your craving for cookies. And we do this not to torment you. But so that, especially in these days of more intense preparation, you may allow yourselves to be filled more completely with the love of God. To surrender yourselves more fully to the warmth of the Lord’s embrace. So that, like that Samaritan woman at the well, you too might eventually rush eagerly to tell others of the One who has awakened such joyful stirrings in your heart.

My dear sisters and brothers, this is something that we all know quite well: Parents sometimes refuse their child a cookie not to torment it, but to train it. Is there perhaps a cookie craving that God is inviting you to deny today?

Sunday, March 05, 2017

Of Poisoning & Purification

1st Sunday of Lent (A)

Picture : cc smif

My dear friends, have you ever heard of people who are mysteriously found dead in their cars, with the air conditioner on, and the engine running? Do you know how they are killed? In most cases, these people don’t actually set out to commit suicide. Very likely it all begins with a temptation. A temptation that, I must confess, I myself have felt. Perhaps they are tired. And the weather is hot. So rather than suffer in the heat, they decide to take a nap. While enjoying the cool breeze produced by the car’s AC. But, unfortunately for them, the exhaust fumes must have somehow leaked into the car while they slept. And suffocated them.

And we know how this suffocation takes place. By a colourless, odourless, and tasteless gas called carbon monoxide. As you know, healthy blood contains a protein called haemoglobin. Which allows the blood to carry oxygen throughout the body. Oxygen that the body needs to survive. But once carbon monoxide is inhaled, it poisons the blood by clinging to the haemoglobin. Preventing it from absorbing oxygen. It’s as though the carbon monoxide snatches the breath from the body. Suffocating it. And killing the person.

So this is more or less how those unfortunate people are killed. It involves three steps. First they are tempted by something good. Or apparently better than what nature offers. The cool breeze in the car. Instead of the hot and humid air outdoors. But then, unintentionally, they get poisoned by something else that the car produces: carbon monoxide. And, as a result, they are suffocated to death. Temptation, poisoning and death. Three steps by which they lose their life. Have their breath snatched away from them.

Now, there is, of course, no mention of cars or carbon monoxide in our our readings today. But there is a reference to something that kills people spiritually. Something that the second reading calls sin. Sin entered the world… and through sin death… And, strangely enough, the way in which sin kills people is quite similar to that of carbon monoxide. Isn’t this what we find in the first reading?

Notice how it all begins with a temptation. A temptation not with something bad, but with something apparently good. The woman saw that the tree was good to eat and pleasing to the eye… And not just good in itself. But better than the life that God had already provided for them. And then, once the woman and the man eat of the forbidden fruit. Once they decide to cling to something other than what has already been provided for them. They are poisoned. Outwardly, of course, it may seem as though they are still alive. But, in reality, their disobedience, their sin, suffocates them spiritually. Not unlike how carbon monoxide suffocates us. By clinging to them, and preventing them from enjoying the breath of life that God has already breathed into them. The same breath by which they become living beings.

Temptation, poisoning and death. This is how sin kills us spiritually. Stubbornly clinging to us. Preventing us from enjoying the true life that is God’s precious gift. Thankfully, for those of us who suffer in this way, there is a way out. An antidote. As you may know, the treatment for carbon monoxide poisoning is actually pure oxygen. Which purifies the blood of the poisonous carbon monoxide. Allowing the haemoglobin to recover its ability to carry life giving oxygen to the whole body. In other words, the body is given a new breath of life. Treatment, purification, and life. Three healing steps to reverse the effects of the poison.

But if pure oxygen is the treatment for carbon monoxide, then what is the antidote for sin? We find the answer to this question in the second reading. What reverses the effects of sin is the divine grace, coming through the one man, Jesus Christ. The grace that has come to us as an abundant free gift. And the gospel shows us what it looks like when this divine grace is at work. Specifically, in the example given by Jesus’ own response to temptation.

Notice again how all the temptations he experiences are temptations to apparently good things. He is hungry and needs to eat. Why not turn stones into bread to feed himself? He has come into the world to gather disciples. What could be more effective than a spectacular miracle involving being rescued by angels after plunging from a height? And why not worship the devil, if this can win him all the kingdoms of the world? Isn’t this also what he has come into the world to do? To build a kingdom?

Yet, in every case, Jesus sees through the devil's deception. He refuses to choose to produce something for himself. Contenting himself instead to receive what he needs from his heavenly Father. Insisting on clinging to the breath of life that is the Spirit living and moving in him. The same Spirit that has led him into the wilderness to be tempted. Giving him power to fulfil his mission even in the face of strong opposition. As a result, the devil is defeated, and angels appear and look after him.

In Jesus’ obedience in the face of temptation, we find an awe-inspiring demonstration of the power of the Breath of the Spirit. The Breath of Life. And the good news for us all is that Jesus has already breathed this same Spirit into the world. Especially when he gave his life for us on the Cross. When, after crying out with a loud voice, he breathed his last (Mt 27:50).

All of which might give us a better understanding of what we are doing in this holy season of Lent. Through our lenten discipline of prayer, and fasting, and almsgiving, we are not so much trying to produce something for ourselves. We are not trying to make ourselves holier. Or more pious. Or more spiritually impressive. What we are doing is making time and space for us to inhale more deeply the Breath of Christ. The Breath of the Spirit. The Breath of Life. The same Breath that is for us effective treatment against the poison of sin. Purification from all that clings to us and prevents us from experiencing the love, and joy and peace of God. The fullness of life that is God’s free gift to us and to our world.

My dear sisters and brothers, as we begin this holy season of Lent, how does the Lord wish to save us from carbon monoxide poisoning today?