Friday, January 19, 2018

Time-Lapse Video

Funeral Mass for Francis Yap Chwee Tee

Readings: Apocalypse 21:1-7; Psalm 26; John 12:23-28

My dear sisters and brothers, do you know what a time-lapse video is? Have you ever seen one? As you know, a time-lapse video is filmed using a special technique that allows us to compress time. To speed up events that usually unfold only very slowly and gradually. To help us to see things that we would otherwise tend to miss, because we have neither the time nor the patience to observe them as they are happening in real time. A flower may take several hours to bloom. Or a chick to hatch from an egg. A caterpillar can take quite a few days to turn into a butterfly. Or a seed to grow into a young plant. But a time-lapse video can show these slow processes taking place in a matter of minutes or even seconds. So that the changes appear more striking to us. So that we can better appreciate all that is happening. So that we may even be moved to praise and thank God for the wonder of creation.

This probably sounds a little strange, sisters and brothers, but in a certain sense, I believe that the Christian Funeral is meant to function like a time-lapse video. Precisely at a moment when we may find ourselves overcome by grief at the loss of our loved one, the Christian Funeral (which, by the way, includes not just this funeral Mass, but also the wake that came before it, the final commendation that will follow it, and even the interment or burial that takes place after that) supports us in our pain. By helping us to compress time. By inviting us to look back at the life of our beloved relative or friend in a certain way. To better appreciate something that has been happening, perhaps without our being aware of it. What is this something? It is the same process that we find unfolding in each of our Mass readings today.

In the gospel, Jesus says that the hour has come. By this he means his death on the Cross. Which is, for him, the same moment when both he and the Father will be glorified. But how can Jesus say that? How can a cruel, painful death on the Cross be a moment of glory? Perhaps because, the striking scene of Jesus hanging on the Cross functions like a time-lapse video. It draws everyone who gazes upon it with an open heart to look back on the whole life of Christ. From his birth on Christmas Day, to his death and burial on Good Friday. From the many miracles he worked, to the moving words he spoke. To watch this flashback, and to realise that, throughout Jesus’ life on this earth, something striking had been unfolding. Something that most people did not realise at the time. That throughout the Lord’s life on earth, a grain of wheat had been falling into the ground and dying. Emptying itself out in love. So that all might enjoy a rich harvest of eternal life. By gazing on the Cross of Christ, we see the glorious process of God’s self-emptying love.

We find something similar in the first reading as well. The apostle John is in exile on the island of Patmos. And it’s a particularly difficult time for Christians. A time of persecution. Yet, as John thinks of the suffering of his people, he is given a striking vision. A vision of a new heaven and a new earth. A vision that functions not unlike the Cross of Christ. Not unlike a time-lapse video. Inviting John and his fellow Christians to look back on their experiences of persecution and exile in a particular way. Reminding them that all the suffering that they are undergoing, is actually part of a larger, more mysterious process. The same process that Christ the Lord experiences in the gospel. The process of dying and rising. The process of allowing an old life of sin and selfishness to pass away. So that the new life of love and joy and peace can flourish. A process by which God is wiping away all tears from their eyes, and making the whole of creation new…

The Cross of Christ and the vision of John. Both these images function like time-lapse videos. They help those who gaze upon them to see the deep Mystery of God’s immense love, poured out for us in the dying and rising of the Lord. But this Mystery does not unfold only in the lives of Jesus and John. We believe that it continues to unfold in the life of every Christian. But, because it usually happens so very slowly and gradually, we often don’t realise it. We don’t pay enough attention to it. We allow it to pass us by unnoticed.

Which is why, it’s such a great help to us that, when a Christian dies, our prayers and readings and rituals invite us to look back on the life of our loved one who has gone before us. To recall scenes from the life of our beloved Francis. Our husband and father and father-in-law. Our grandfather and great-grandfather and friend. Our beloved Francis, who by any standards lived a long and full life. At this moment, when we mourn his passing, our prayers and readings and rituals draws us to look back on Francis’ life as we would a time-lapse video. To allow ourselves to be reminded of the great Mystery that has been unfolding in his life, so slowly and gradually. The powerful love that has been pouring itself out, so quietly and generously. Dying so that others might live. Passing away so that all things might be made new. To gaze upon the life of our beloved dead, and to catch there a glimpse of the Mystery of God’s love. The power of the Cross of Christ. Moving us to joyful praise and thanksgiving. As well as generous commitment.

My dear brothers and sisters, relatives and friends of our beloved Francis, time-lapse videos can often move us to praise and thank God for the wonder of creation. How are your memories of our beloved Francis moving you to plunge more deeply into the love of God today?

Sunday, January 07, 2018

Between Country Club & Community Centre

Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord

Picture: cc Jnzl's Photos

My dear friends, if you had a choice, and if money wasn’t an issue, which would you prefer to join? A country club or a community club? We all know the differences between the two, right? One important difference is, of course, the quality and range of facilities available. Typically, in addition to the usual swimming pools, tennis courts, billiard tables and so on, a country club also offers a golf course, and much much more. A community club? Well… much much less. Which is one reason why country club memberships usually cost an arm and a leg.

But the facilities are not the only reason why people are willing to pay such a high premium to join a country club. There is actually another reason. Do you know what it is? It’s called exclusivity. As you know, community clubs used to be called community centres. They cater to the recreational needs of the ordinary man and woman in the street. Which is why fees are deliberately kept low. So that as many people as possible can join. In contrast, a country club membership is expensive, not just because the facilities are good. But also to keep most people away.

Inclusivity versus exclusivity. Isn’t this the key difference between a community club and a country club? Isn’t this why people are willing to pay so much more for one over the other? Imagine, for example, if you joined a country club, which suddenly announced one day that it was lowering its fees, and opening its doors to everyone. How would you react? Would you want to remain a member? I have to confess that I would probably think twice.

But it’s not only a matter of club memberships. Our desire for exclusivity expresses itself in other ways as well. For example, could it also have something to do with the results of that recent study that has uncovered a clear class divide in Singapore? Sociologist, Vincent Chua, one of the researchers responsible for the study, was reported in the newspapers as saying, We have shifted from a society based on race to one based also on class…. Even if you give people equal opportunities, they will still gravitate to hang out with their own kind…. People like to be with people like themselves…

People like to be with people like themselves… What’s wrong with that? I like that too. Described in this way, exclusivity may sound harmless enough. Until we allow ourselves to ponder its deeper implications. Its more serious consequences. Which is precisely what our Mass readings help us to do today. As you’ve probably already noticed, on this solemn feast of the Epiphany, our readings draw a very sharp contrast between light and darkness, day and night. In the first reading, Jerusalem is told to arise, shine out. For, though night still covers the earth and darkness the peoples, Jerusalem’s light has come, the glory of the Lord is rising on you.

But what does this light, this glory of the Lord, look like? For us Christians, the glory of the Lord is seen above all in the coming of Christ. Which is nothing if not an act of merciful inclusivity on the part of God. For God is clearly in a class far far above our own. And yet, rather than excluding us, God chooses to reach out to us in Christ. To even come among us as a helpless baby, in order to make us members of that Divine Community Club that is the Holy Trinity. In the words of the psalm, God has pity on the weak and saves the lives of the poor… Not just the weak and poor of Jerusalem, but of all the nations. All those previously thought to be excluded. People, by the way, like you and me. In the words of the second reading, pagans (like us) now share the same inheritance… they are parts of the same body, and… the same promise has been made to them, in Jesus Christ…

Perhaps more than anything else, the solemn feast of the Epiphany highlights to us the incredible inclusivity of God’s merciful love. A love that then calls its recipients to respond in the same way. Notice how Jerusalem is expected to react to the hordes of people streaming towards her from every nation. She is told that, at this sight (at the sight of these strangers coming to join her country club) you will grow radiant, your heart throbbing and full, since the riches of the sea will flow to you, the wealth of the nations come to you… Jerusalem is expected to see the approach of foreigners not as threats and liabilities, but as gifts and blessings. Their coming should fill her not with fear but with joy. This is what it means for her to arise and shine out. To choose to bask in the inclusive light of the glory of the Lord.

But if inclusivity is what the light looks like, then what about the darkness? The gospel describes this in a very striking way. At the beginning of the reading, we’re told that after Jesus had been born… (after the light had come) during the reign of King Herod, some wise men came to Jerusalem from the east… It is possible, I think, to read this reference to King Herod not just as a description of the political situation, but also of the spiritual condition, of Jerusalem at the time. The reign of Herod is the exact opposite of the glory of the Lord. It’s another way of saying that night still covers the earth and darkness the peoples… What is this night? What does this darkness look like?

We see it most clearly in Herod’s response to the wise men. We’re told that when King Herod heard what they had to say, he was perturbed, and so was the whole of Jerusalem. Herod feels threatened by the birth of an infant king. And, out of his anxiety, he deviously plots to have the baby killed. If the light that Christmas brings is God’s precious gift of inclusivity, then surely, the night that Christ comes to dispel is the darkness of exclusivity. The desire of people like Herod to want to be only with people like themselves. A desire that leads not only to worry and anxiety, conflict and division, but also to violence and death.

The reign of King Herod. Isn’t this a night that continues to cover the earth today? The craving for exclusivity that leads to the cruel expulsion of people from their homes. The rejection of refugees who have nowhere else to go. The hardening of borders of every kind. Geographical and political. Social and economic. Even religious and cultural… And yet, within the current darkness of exclusivity, we Christians dare to celebrate the solemn feast of God’s inclusivity. The coming among us of a light that challenges us to arise and to shine out. To reach out to, and to hang out with, those who may be different from us in some way. Especially those who may be most in need of our help. To allow them to join our company. Just as Christ came to draw us into his.

My dear sisters and brothers, perhaps there is nothing really wrong with being members of an exclusive club. Provided that we also take care to cultivate open hearts, and to live inclusive lives. What steps are we taking to keep doing this today?