Saturday, March 24, 2018

Taking a Step Back

Saturday in the 5th Week of Lent
(Aaron Lee’s Profession of First Vows in the Society of Jesus)

Picture: cc Frankie Roberto

My dear friends, do you know what it feels like to be so close to something that you can’t see it clearly? Have you ever felt like you needed to take a step back, in order to see a bigger picture? I recently felt this way while trying to watch a movie on a plane. The screen was fixed to the seat in front of me, and the person in that seat suddenly decided to recline it. Which brought the screen a few inches away from my face. Making it very difficult for me to enjoy the movie. I tried to recline my own seat, but it was stuck. So, after a few minutes, I gave up watching the movie, and picked up a book to read instead.

To be too close to something to see it clearly. I wonder if something like that is also what is happening in the gospel today. As you know, the passage comes immediately after Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead. But we’re told that despite seeing or hearing about this mighty work, some people still refuse to believe in Jesus. Why? It may be that they’re too close to what they are looking at. If not physically, then at least spiritually. What does this mean? How do we know? Notice the reactions of the chief priests and the Pharisees. Instead of being amazed, they actually become agitated and anxious. Here is this man working all these signs and what are we doing? If we let him go on in this way everybody will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy the Holy Place and our nation.’

A man has just been raised from the dead, but the chief priests and Pharisees see nothing more than danger and destruction, leading to death and despair. Why? Isn’t it because they allow their own ego, their own self-centred concerns, to obstruct their view? Their focus is only on themselves and what they need to do. In the words of the high priest, they do not seem to have grasped the situation at all. They are too close to see the bigger picture.

In contrast, the Mass readings invite us to take a step back, in order to see a bigger picture. To focus not so much on what actions we have to take, but rather to first consider what exactly God is and has been doing. The gospel reminds us that, in Christ, God was to gather together in unity the scattered children of God. In other words, in Christ, God was fulfilling the great promise that God makes to the people in the first reading. To gather the scattered. To bring home the lost. To rescue the unfaithful. To cleanse the sinful. The focus is first on God’s might works. How God guards us as a shepherd guards his flock. Turning mourning into joy. Giving gladness for grief. The readings paint a very different picture from the one that the scribes and Pharisees see. Not danger and destruction, death and despair. But return and restoration, rescue and reconciliation. Leading to gladness and rejoicing.

Taking a step back in order to see a bigger picture. This is also something that we need in order to better appreciate what our dear brother Aaron will soon be doing here at this Mass. For it is possible to approach his profession of vows in a  way that is similar to the Pharisees’ reaction to Jesus. To be too close to see clearly. To focus first on what he is doing. The sacrifice he is making. And when we do this, at least two reactions are possible. If we are non-believers, then poverty, chastity and obedience make no sense at all. Why would anyone in his right mind want to give up his right to have his own belongings. To marry a spouse and have children. To make up one's own mind about what one wishes to do. On the other hand, if we are believers, then we might see the vows as only a heroic sacrifice. Something to admire from afar. Or to try in vain to emulate.

But this is not quite the complete picture. For the vows that will soon be professed here today are not in the first place Aaron’s vows. Nor Jesuit vows. They are called, first and foremost, evangelical counsels. Evangelical. From the word that means good news. And the good news is not first of all about what Aaron or the rest of us are doing. The good news is first of all about what God has done and is doing in Christ. The merciful love and compassion of God in gathering the scattered, in bringing home the lost, in uniting the divided… A picture that brings us great gladness and joy, if only we have the eyes to see it. Motivating us to make a response of love for love. To bear witness to the good news with our lives.

And what is true of the evangelical counsels is true too of other vows that we Christians make. It’s true, for example, of marital vows. As those here who are married know better than I do, the focus in a Christian marriage is not so much on what the spouses have to do for each other. Important though this may be. The focus is instead first of all on the love of God that has brought them together, and in which they live their married life.

The same can be said about the vows that we are all now preparing ourselves to renew at Easter. Our baptismal vows. Do you reject Satan… and all his works… and all his empty promises… Again, at first glance, it may appear that baptismal vows have to do with what actions we need to take. But that’s not quite the complete picture. What they are really about is first of all what God has done and is doing. The good news of God’s merciful love shown to us in Christ Jesus. A powerful and moving image that we can only see clearly when we allow God to move our egos out of the way. Isn't this what Lent is for?

My dear friends, even as we rejoice with Aaron on his first vows, and even as we express heartfelt thanks to Aaron’s family for their generosity in letting him profess them, how might God be inviting each of us to take a step back, in order to see the mighty works of God unfolding in our own lives today?

Sunday, March 11, 2018

The Importance of Being Sentimental

4th Sunday in Lent (B)

My dear friends, would you consider yourself a sentimental person? Do you, for example, have items that you keep for purely sentimental reasons? If you do, what happens to you when you look at them? What effect do they have on you?

Those of us who’ve had the opportunity to watch the movie Wonder Woman may recall that it begins and ends with just such an object. Something that has sentimental value. A faded old black-and-white photograph, which Wonder Woman receives as a gift at the beginning of the movie. And this object has a particular effect on our hero. It causes her to recall significant scenes from her past. Indeed the whole movie is an extended flashback. A retelling of the moving background story that gives that old photograph its deep meaning. Its sentimental value. A story that motivates Wonder Woman to continue fighting to save the world.

Sentimental objects that evoke significant memories and deep feelings. Filling people with the power they need to fulfil their mission. This is also what we find in our prayers and readings on this 4th Sunday in Lent. As we mentioned at the beginning, today is Laetare Sunday, from our entrance antiphon, which calls us all to rejoice! To be joyful! To exult and be satisfied! But how do we do all that? How do we make ourselves joyful and satisfied, especially if we happen to be sad or angry? Stressed out or frustrated? Sleepy or just plain bored?

Perhaps we need to do what Wonder Woman did in the movie. Perhaps we need to look at something with real sentimental value. Something like what we find in the first reading, which makes repeated references to the Temple in Jerusalem. A building that evokes very significant memories for the people of Judah. Reminding them of the story of their past. A story that the reading retells in a very moving way. A story of the people’s infidelity to God and, in sharp contrast, of God’s steadfast loyalty to them.

A story of how they kept insisting on worshipping idols. Of how they even defiled the Temple, the holy place where God had chosen to live among them. And yet, in spite of their stubborn disobedience, God did not hold the people’s sin against them. God kept sending messengers to call them back. Even when their rebellious ways eventually led to the destruction of the Temple, and their own exile in Babylon, God still refused to forget them. Refused to abandon them. But arranged instead for them to eventually return to Jerusalem, and to rebuild the Temple. A new sacred place for them to meet and to worship God. A fresh expression of God’s undying love and mercy towards them.

So that, for the people of Judah, the new Temple becomes something like what that faded old photograph was for Wonder Woman. An object of great sentimental value. Evoking significant memories and deep feelings. Giving them the power to carry out their mission. To live joyfully as a light to the nations. Bearing witness to God’s love in the world. Provided they know how to appreciate the Temple. Provided they allow themselves to be sentimental.

And it’s not just the people of Judah who are blessed in this way. The readings remind us that we Christians are too. That we also have been given something that can fill us with a similar power. Something of great sentimental value. Isn’t this what Jesus is saying to Nicodemus in the gospel? The Son of Man must be lifted up as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him. What does this mean, if not that the image of Christ on the Cross serves a similar purpose for us as the new Temple in Jerusalem did for the people of Judah. That it has, or should have, for us great sentimental value.

It should have the power to evoke significant memories and deep feelings in us, provided we believe wholeheartedly in the One that the image depicts, the One who was lifted up on the Cross. Provided we take the trouble to remember the moving background story of his Dying and Rising. And how it relates to us. The same story that the second reading summarises for us. The story of God’s indestructible love and mercy shown to us in Christ Jesus. When we were dead through our sins, he brought us to life with Christ… 

The image of Christ on the Cross, this should be for us an image of great sentimental value. It should evoke in us significant memories and deep feelings. The same memories and feelings that should permeate our every celebration of the Holy Eucharist. The same memories and feelings that have the power to fill our hearts with joy and gratitude. Motivating us to live our God-given mission to the full. To live by the truth. To live in the light. To show the world that everything we do is indeed done in God. In God’s love and mercy. In Christ Jesus.

But in order for this image to have its desired effect, we must first have the capacity to be moved by it. To become sentimental. Which isn’t always easy for us. We who often allow the distractions and difficulties of daily life to cause us to become jaded and hardened. Forgetful of the moving story of our salvation. And immune to the deep feelings it should evoke in us. As a result of which, we may sometimes come to Mass purely as a matter of routine, or obligation, without a true appreciation of its deeper meaning and awesome power. 

Isn’t this why we need this great season of Lent? A time for us to pause and allow ourselves once again to recall our story. To remember God’s love. And to regain the capacity to truly rejoice in the Lord. For if even a superhero like Wonder Woman must draw her power from sentimental things, then what more mere mortals like you and me.

My dear sisters and brothers, what must we do to allow the Lord to renew our capacity for experiencing true and godly sentiment today?

Sunday, March 04, 2018

Recognising Reservations

3rd Sunday in Lent (B)

Picture: cc Kevin Lim

My dear friends, if you were to go to a crowded foodcourt or a hawker centre, and you see an empty table with a packet of tissues placed on top of it, what would you do? Would you sit there? I’m not sure, but I suspect that many people in Singapore would not. And we know why. It’s because we recognise what those tissues mean. We realise they’re a sign that the table has already been reserved by someone else. For someone else. And respecting the sign, we leave the table empty.

Have you ever marvelled at the great power that little packet of tissues has, especially in a place like Singapore, where space is in such short supply? Where, even in a church like ours, people often insist on parking their cars in forbidden places. Have you ever wondered why, even though many of us refuse to respect yellow boxes or no-parking signs, we still somehow choose to give way when we see a simple tissue-packet? From where does this humble object receive its mysterious authority to reserve a precious space?

Believe it or not, sisters and brothers, it is a similar question that we find in our Mass readings today. For isn’t there a deeper meaning to those Ten Commandments that God is giving to the people of Israel in the first reading? These commandments are not just so many rules that the people are obliged to follow on pain of punishment. Rather, by inviting them to keep these commandments, God is actually claiming the people for himself. Reserving them as a precious space belonging only to God. By keeping the commandments, the people prove to the other nations that God dwells among them. And that they have no god except the Lord.

But to do this is not easy. Just as it’s not easy, in a crowded foodcourt, to walk past a table occupied only by a packet of tissues. It’s also not easy to keep the commandments in the way they are meant to be kept. To keep not just the letter of the Law, but more importantly also its spirit. To live in such a way that one’s heart and one’s life is always maintained as a sacred space reserved for God alone. To truly have no gods except the Lord. This is not an easy thing to do. For isn’t it true that I can be very good at keeping the rules, and still care nothing for the One who gave them to me? Isn’t it true that I can come to church every Sunday, perhaps even every day, and still be filled with anger and resentment towards others? Isn’t it true that I can scrupulously go for regular confessions, and still refuse to be moved by the plight of those who suffer? Simply because I am too preoccupied with my own concerns.

To keep the commandments the way they are meant to be kept is not an easy thing to do. Isn’t this also what we find in the gospel? Strictly speaking there is no law against buying and selling in the outer court of the Temple. Why then does Jesus get so worked up about it? Isn’t it because this practice reflects what is going on in the lives of many of those who pride themselves in keeping the Law? Even though they may follow the rules, their hearts and their lives are occupied by other concerns. Commercial concerns. Selfish concerns.  Idolatrous concerns. Repeatedly, in their own lives, they turn the Father’s house into a market.

So that by cleansing the Temple, Jesus is not just reclaiming a physical space. He is signalling to people what he has come to do. He is showing them, and us, the mission he has received from his Father. To reclaim not just a Temple, but a whole people. And not just a people, but the whole of creation. To reclaim all of reality as a sacred space reserved for his heavenly Father alone. By first calling people to turn their lives over to God. By giving them the power to keep the commandments the way they are meant to be kept. And so to truly become children of God.

Which brings us to the question with which we began. The same question that the opponents of Jesus address to him in the gospel. What sign can you show us to justify what you have done? Or, in other words, what gives you the right to you reserve this space for yourself? By what authority do you expect us to obey you? This is a question that we all need to ask. Especially when we ourselves find it difficult to keep God’s commandments in the way they are meant to be kept. When we find our hearts being filled more and more with worry and anxiety, or arrogance and ambition. When we allow the cares and concerns of daily life to cause us to forget that we belong to God. That God has reserved us for himself.

In times like these, where can we find the strength, the motivation to turn back to God? To allow the Lord to cleanse the Temple of our hearts and our lives from the influence of false gods, and to reclaim us for himself? Destroy this sanctuary, Jesus tells his opponents, and in three days I will raise it up. A reference to his own Dying and Rising. His self-sacrifice on the Cross. It is here that we find the secret of his power. It is here that we find the authority we need to turn our hearts and lives over to God. For as the second reading reminds us, we preach a crucified Christ, who is the power and the wisdom of God. The power by which we can once more be reclaimed as a sacred space reserved for God alone.

Isn’t this what this great season of Lent is really about? Not so much a time for us to cleanse ourselves. We have neither the strength nor the authority to do this on our own. But rather, a time for us to allow God to reclaim us. By constantly recalling and reflecting upon the great love and mercy shown to us in the crucified Christ. That divine foolishness that is so much wiser than human wisdom. That divine weakness that is so much stronger than human strength. That great Mystery which we are gathered here this morning to celebrate at this Mass.

My dear friends, if a humble packet of tissues can have the power to reserve a precious space in a crowded foodcourt, perhaps it’s not so incredible to believe that Christ’s loving sacrifice on the Cross has the power to reclaim our hearts and our lives for God alone.

What must we do to draw ever more deeply and ever more effectively from this amazing power today?