Sunday, July 09, 2017

The Joy of Open Hands (Rerun)

14th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Picture: cc Hamed Saber

Sisters and brothers, if I may, l’d like to invite you to do something with me right now. At the count of 3, could you please clench your fists as tightly as you can? And then try to notice how you feel. Can you do that? Good. Ready? 1-2-3, clench! And hold... Notice how you feel... Now, again at the count of 3, slowly unclench your fists. And again notice how you feel. Ready? 1-2-3, slowly... open... How do you feel?...

So what is it like, sisters and brothers? What is it like to have your fists clenched? And then to open them up? Any difference? Of course there is, right? It’s the difference between stress and calm. Between exertion and rest. Between anxious grabbing and the willingness to let go…

It’s helpful to keep this contrast in mind, because it can help us appreciate something that our liturgy is inviting us to consider today. Have you noticed what it is? Recall what we asked God to do for us in the opening prayer: Fill your faithful with holy joy, we prayed, for on those you have rescued from slavery to sin you bestow eternal gladness. And, remember also, how the first reading begins. Rejoice heart and soul, daughter of Zion! Shout with gladness, daughter of Jerusalem!… Sisters and brothers, if there is one thing our liturgy is bringing to our attention today, it is joy.

And I think we can all agree that joy is something that everyone desires. Something we all seek. Except that we have different ways of doing it. Do you know what your own approach is? I’m not sure, but I think, for many of us, the way we seek to be happy is the way taught to us by the world. The way of constant effort. Of anxious exertion. The way of the clenched fist and the gritted teeth. We push ourselves hard, and our children as well, in order to to grab as many of life’s pleasures as possible. We believe that the harder we work, the more we grab, the happier we will be.

For many of us, joy is something we have to win for ourselves. Through sheer force of will. Through steely strength of determination. No one makes us happy. We earn it for ourselves. This is what we learn in society. And, more often than not, we assume that this must be true in the spiritual life as well. We think that happiness is only about effort. How to be more joyful? Well, spend more time in prayer. Give more money to the church. Get involved in more ministries in the parish... More time. More money. More effort. Must mean more joy, right? I’m not sure. Perhaps for some this approach does work. But, then again, isn’t it true that, it can also have the opposite effect? Very often, the demand for more only serves to make us more discouraged. More disillusioned. More depressed. Or, what’s worse, it can also make us more arrogant. More self-righteous. More judgmental.

Which is why it’s important for us to pay attention to the different approach presented to us in our readings today. Notice the reason why Zion is asked to rejoice in the first reading. It’s not because of anything she herself has done. Rather, Zion is invited to rejoice in the victory won for her by her king. Her joy is less something she earns than something she receives. Not only that. Notice also the very curious way in which her king is described. He rides not on a war-horse, but a baby donkey. His is an image not of power and might, but of humility and gentleness. Indeed, we may recall that this is the same passage of scripture applied to Jesus, as he enters Jerusalem on Passion Sunday. Quite clearly, the approach to joy being taught to us here is very different from the way of the world. It is less about exertion and grabbing than resting and receiving. Less about the clenched fist than the open hand.

And this is also the same approach that Jesus teaches in the gospel. Notice how the Lord begins by speaking not of our joy, but of God’s. Yes, Father, for this is what it pleased you to do... God rejoices in revealing Himself to mere children. And isn’t this the only true Source of our own joy? If we are able to rejoice, it is only by sharing in the joy of God. By humbly receiving God’s self-communication to us. Especially in the Mystery that we celebrate at this Eucharist. The Mystery of the Dying and Rising of Christ. And isn’t this why the learned and the clever fall short? Not because God doesn’t reveal himself to them. For the psalm tells us that the Lord is good to all, compassionate to all his creatures. If the learned and clever fail to rejoice, it is only because they are too focused on themselves. Too full of their own expertise. Too wrapped up in their own efforts. Too busy clenching their fists.

In contrast, Jesus issues a moving invitation to those who labour and are overburdened. Those of us who find ourselves desperately struggling to meet the demands of the clenched fist. And perhaps often failing. Jesus invites us to come to Him. To approach Him. The victorious yet humble King. The King who is victorious precisely because he is humble. Humble enough even to let Himself be nailed to a cruel cross to set His people free. We are invited to come to Him with open hands. To receive the joy that He has already won for us through His sacrifice. The joy of realising how much God loves us. Cherishes us. Takes pleasure in us. Wants to give us joy. Without our being able to earn it.

And, quite paradoxically, it is when we do this. When we allow God to open our hands and our hearts to receive God’s love. Especially here in the Eucharist. That we find the energy to do what needs to be done. No longer out of an oppressive burden of obligation. But out of a deep and enduring sense of gratitude. As the psalmist says, all your creatures shall thank you, O Lord, and your friends shall repeat their blessing. Isn’t this also what is described in the second reading? When we open ourselves to receive the love of God in Christ, our interests begin to change. We turn away from the unspiritual toward the spiritual. We allow the Spirit of God to make his home in us. To give us the strength to gradually put an end to the misdeeds of the body. To pray more devoutly. To give more wholeheartedly. To serve more selflessly. To experience, even here on earth, something of the joys of heaven.

Sisters and brothers, if I may, I’d just invite you now, once more, to clench your fists... And then to slowly open them up again… Notice how you feel... Two different postures. Two contrasting approaches. One grabbing… The other receiving… One anxious… The other trusting…

Which one will you choose for yourself today?

Sunday, July 02, 2017

Between Money Changer & Marriage Registry


13th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Pictures: cc PJ R & Matt Gibson

My dear friends, have you ever been to a money changer? Do you know what it’s like? How about the marriage registry? Ever been there? And if I were to ask you the difference between what goes on at each of these places, what would you say? How would you describe it? What is the difference between changing currencies and registering a marriage? 

It’s really quite simple, right? What happens between us and the money changer is basically a transaction. The surrender of one currency in exchange for another. The concern is with the management of assets. Which tends to be an impersonal activity. I don’t even have to do it myself. Someone else could do it for me. As long as I trust that person with my money. Also, what happens at the money changer is typically a one-off deal. I could, of course, keep going back to the same guy. But I don’t have to. Each transaction is complete in itself.

In contrast, the couples at the marriage registry aren’t just performing a transaction. At least we hope not. What they are doing is committing themselves to a new intimate relationship. That of marriage. Which is nothing if not deeply personal. The focus is not so much on the management of their assets as on the investment of their very selves. The donation of their very lives. Which is why what takes place at the registry is significant not just for that one day, important as it may be, but for the whole of the couple’s new life together.

Money changers handle transactions. Marriage registries mediate relationships. Transactions have to do with possessions. Relationships connect persons. The changing of currency can be a one-off affair. But marriages affect one’s whole life. For better or for worse. Till death do us part. It’s helpful and important to keep these differences in mind, as we ponder what our Mass readings are saying to us today. The message is quite clear, isn’t it? Or so it seems. There is an obvious recurring theme. Can you make out what it is?

Yes, it’s hospitality. Welcome. Welcome shown especially to God present in God’s representatives. In the gospel, Jesus tells his apostles, Anyone who welcomes you welcomes me; and those who welcome me welcome the one who sent me. In other words, those who show hospitality to the apostles are being hospitable to Jesus himself. And, in welcoming Jesus, they welcome the heavenly Father who sent him. But that’s not all. We’re also told that this hospitality shown to God actually attracts a reward. Anyone who welcomes a prophet because he is a prophet will have a prophet’s reward…

The first reading gives us a very helpful illustration of what all this looks like. The Shunamite woman welcomes the prophet Elisha precisely because he is a prophet, a man of God. She quite literally makes room for him in her home. As a result, she receives a reward. A great blessing. New life. This time next year, the prophet tells her, you will hold a son in your arms.

The message couldn’t be clearer, right? Show hospitality, and you will receive a reward. Which is an important message for us, especially today. When hospitality often seems to be in such short supply. Even as more and more people experience the dire need for it. The most striking example is, of course, refugees fleeing their war-torn and conflict-ridden countries, in the hope of finding a safe place in which to live.

But it’s not just faraway refugees who need hospitality. It’s also the strangers among us. Not just those who may bear different passports, but also those who think and speak and look different from us. Or even those unnoticed guests who come to our parish for Mass for the first time. And what about the members of our own family? Strange as it may sound, isn’t it true that our own spouses, and parents, and children also often yearn to receive a welcome from us? Dearly wish that we might give them room? Not just room in our homes, but room in our hearts. Room that we offer when we truly listen to what they might have to say. Truly receive and accept them as they are. Could it be that to welcome all these people is also to welcome God? And so to receive a reward?

And yet, much as all this may be true, it still falls short of the deeper message in our readings today. For it is possible to approach hospitality as I would a money changer. As though I were performing a transaction. Seeking to welcome others by focusing only on the transfer of my assets, instead of the investment of my own self. So that hospitality becomes something impersonal. And what’s worse is when I show hospitality to others only in the hope of receiving a reward. Not unlike how I might exchange one currency for another.

Of course, I don’t typically realise that this is what I’m doing at the time. But how do I react when things don’t go well for me despite all my good works? Am I not prone to anger and resentment? To doubt and depression? As though God owes me something for all the good that I have done?

The hospitality that our readings propose is quite different. It’s not a commercial transaction, but a loving relationship. A relationship initiated first of all by God. It is God who has shown hospitality to me. It is God who has made room for me, given me new life, through the dying and rising of Christ the Son. As the second reading reminds us, when we were baptised we went into the tomb with Christ… so that as Christ was raised from the dead… we too might live a new life.

Isn’t this the prophet’s reward? Not a cushy existence in the secular world, but an intimate relationship with God. A new life in God. A secure place in the kingdom of God. A kingdom of love, and justice, and peace, attained not through the exchange of assets, but by the loving self-donation of Christ. So that for us Christians, hospitality is not simply an occasional one-off activity, but a life-long commitment to follow Christ in laying down one’s life in love of others. In love for the Lord. To be hospitable is first to enjoy the hospitality of God in Christ. The same warm welcome that we are gathered here at this Mass to experience and to celebrate. And then to go out and to share it with the many who are in such great need of it.

My dear friends, there is a big difference between the money changer and the marriage registry. Between commercial transactions and true relationship. When we look at our own lives today, which of these do we see?