Sunday, June 24, 2018

Meant for YOU!

Solemnity of the Nativity of St John the Baptist

Picture: cc hectore

My dear friends, have you ever found yourself at a party feeling bored out of your mind? Perhaps it’s an acquaintance’s birthday celebration, or the wedding banquet of a distant relative. And you just don’t see what all the fuss is about. You’ve managed to drag yourself to the place, but you just can’t bring yourself to celebrate. To truly share the joy. Instead, you feel like you couldn’t care less. You wish you were somewhere else. Or, worse still, you may even find yourself openly criticising the food or the service, the bride’s dress or her make-up… Ever feel like that?

I’m not sure why this happens. Why, at times, I just don’t seem able to do what appears to come so naturally to those neighbours and relations of Elizabeth in the gospel. To share someone else’s joy as if it were my own. Perhaps it’s a flaw in my personality, or in my society or culture. This tendency to self-absorption. This inability to care deeply about anything or anyone unless it has something to do with ME. Whatever may be the cause, the result is that I often need help. Help to enter the joy of a celebration like the one we have here today: the Solemnity of the Nativity of St John the Baptist. I need help to see what relevance this celebration has for us. For ME.

This, I believe, is precisely what our Mass readings provide for us today: Help to appreciate the deeper relevance of this celebration for me. And I receive this help by embarking on a path of reflection. Which I may begin by asking myself the question what? or whom? What or whom are we celebrating today? The answer may seem painfully obvious. We are celebrating a birth! The birth of John the Baptist! Which is true. And this alone should be enough to make us excited and joyful. Especially since we believe that John played a key role in preparing the way for Christ, our Lord and  Saviour.

But why then am I still not impressed? Not even interested? Perhaps I need to go on to see that our readings do not speak to us only about the day when John was born. Instead the gospel goes on to speak also about the events surrounding his circumcision, and even about what happened to him when he grew much older. Indeed, the first reading doesn’t even mention John the Baptist at all. How could it, since it was written a long time before John was born? Instead, the reading speaks about how a prophet receives or renews his vocation. And, more than that, how this vocation, this call of the prophet, is also a means of salvation. Salvation not just for the prophet himself. And not just for his own people. But for the whole world. I will make you the light of the nations so that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.

My dear friends, pondering our readings more deeply, we find that what we are celebrating today is not just the birth of a baby who lived thousands of years ago, but the beginnings of a vocation. A call, addressed not just to a single person in the past, but to every person down through the ages. Addressed directly even to us. To you and to me. A call that, once accepted, gains for us, for me, the gift of salvation, of fullness of life. What we celebrate today is the birth not just of a baby, but of a vocation. And not just of a vocation, but of salvation. Not just for him, or for them, but also for us, for me.

Even so, walking this path of reflection may still not be enough to awaken my interest. To cure my boredom. To help me appreciate the deeper significance of this celebration for me. For that to happen, perhaps what I need is to see possible points of contact between the readings and my own life. I need to ask myself the question where? Where do I find myself in this story of baby, vocation and salvation?

The readings provide us with at least three possible points of contact. The first is the place of preparation. A place that the readings call the womb. The Lord called me before I was born, from my mother’s womb… This is a place of silence and secrecy. Even of apparent barrenness and waiting. Contrary to what we may expect, this may not be such a comfortable place to be. Indeed, it may even be, for some of us, a place of self-doubt and discouragement. Where, after years of effort and hard work, like the prophet, I am led to think that I have toiled in vain, I have exhausted myself for nothing. Ever felt like that? For this place is not just a womb, but also a wilderness. A place where I am gradually, even painfully, fashioned in secret and moulded in the depths of the earth.

Thankfully, this is not a destination, but only a transition. When the time is right, the place of preparation gives way to the place of recognition. The place where the prophet finally realises his true calling. Where she finally receives her true name. Not just the name that is printed on a birth certificate or passport. But the one engraved on one’s heart. His name is John. A name celebrating not the achievements of humanity, but the graciousness of God (Yehohanan = The Lord is gracious). Graciousness not just in giving someone an assignment to complete, but an identity to assume. A relationship to embrace. So that, like Zechariah, I may be prompted to raise my voice in praise of God. And, with the prophet and psalmist, I may exclaim: all the while my cause was with the Lord, my reward with my God… I thank you for the wonder of my being, for the wonders of all your creation. Have you perhaps experienced what it’s like to finally recognise God’s call?

Then, eventually, if we are patient and generous enough, the places of preparation and recognition finally lead us to the place of action. Where the baby in the womb, and the youth in the wilderness, finally become the prophet in the world. Courageously and diligently proclaiming the tremendous good news of the coming king. I am not the one you imagine me to be; that one is coming after me and I am not fit to undo his sandal.

The birth of baby and vocation and salvation. The places of preparation and recognition and action. Processes and positions that produce the prophet of God. One ready to shine out with the light of the Lord’s coming, in a world still so often engulfed in the darkness of self-absorption. This is why we celebrate today. This is the cause of our joy. And, in the words of the second reading, this message of salvation is meant not just for others. It is meant for you! For us! For ME!

My dear friends, all you who fear God, what must we do to experience and enter more fully into this joyful mystery today?

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Friend or Foe?

Tuesday of the 11th Week of Ordinary Time
Closing Mass @ MAS Retreat 2018

Picture: cc Lauras Eye

My dear brothers, you’ve probably heard about the social media storm that was triggered about a week or so ago by little Prince George, the four-year-old son of William and Kate. Pictures had surfaced of the young prince playing with a toy gun. Photos of him happily pointing the gun at another boy, and at his sister, and even at his mother. Very quickly, people criticised Kate for letting this happen. Others, however, defended her. Saying that there was nothing wrong with it.

I’m not sure how you feel about all this, brothers. But when I first heard about it, I couldn’t help but find it highly ridiculous. So much fuss over a boy playing with a toy gun?! But, on further reflection, I began to see a bit better how those photos could be so offensive to some. Especially given the painful reality of gun violence in the United States and elsewhere. Even so, a part of me still wishes that life could be simpler. That a boy could play with a toy gun without drawing criticism. Pointing it at whomever he wishes, without having to consider who the target might be.

If only life were that simple. If only love was that simple. If only I could love everyone in exactly the same way. Without having to first figure out whether that person was a friend or an enemy. Just point and shoot. Which, I have to confess, is how I tend to understand what Jesus is saying in the gospel today. Love your enemies… for your Father in heaven… causes his sun to rise on bad men as well as good, and his rain to fall on honest and dishonest men alike. Doesn’t this imply that God loves both God’s friends and enemies in the same way? But what does it really mean to be a friend or an enemy of God? And does God really love both exactly the same?

Pondering these questions, I’m reminded of how Father Ignatius begins his Rules for the Discernment of Spirits. As you know, he begins (SpEx 314 & 315) not with a description of consolation and desolation–that comes later–but rather by first drawing a sharp but crucial distinction between two kinds of people, moving in opposite directions. One going from good to better, and the other from bad to worse. Isn’t this how a friend of God is distinguished from an enemy? By the direction in which one’s life is moving. And isn’t it striking how Ignatius says that the good spirit acts on each of these kinds of people in opposite ways? Encouraging and consoling the friend. But discouraging and even depressing the enemy. Indeed, don’t we find something similar in the first reading?

As much as we may consider Elijah a friend of God, Ahab is quite clearly God’s enemy. The king himself confirms it, when he says to Elijah, So you have found me out, O my enemy! And it’s quite clear why Ahab considers himself God’s enemy. It’s because, when Elijah meets him at Naboth’s vineyard, the king is moving in a direction contrary to that of God. He is on a path of death and destruction. After having allowed his wife to commit murder on his behalf, the king is in the process of swallowing up the victim’s property. And there’s a reason why he is doing this. Ahab consumes another’s land, because he himself is being consumed by the flames of greed. What is God’s response to all this? How does God love this enemy?

God makes the sun of God’s mercy to shine, and the rain of God’s compassion to fall, upon the wicked king. God sends Elijah to do two things. First to disrupt the king’s chosen destructive path. By uncovering his hidden sin, and the terrible consequences they will have for him and his household. Then to douse, to extinguish, the flames of the king’s idolatry. And to ignite, in their place, the pangs of conscience. To disrupt and to douse. These are the actions that God’s friend is sent to perform for God’s enemy. As a result, the king repents. But he could just as easily have refused to do so. And persecuted Elijah instead. The prophet would then have had to do something more. The same thing that Jesus does for us. Elijah would have to suffer and perhaps even to die… To disrupt, to douse, and to die. This is how God loves God’s enemies through God’s friends. This is how Jesus loves us, when he comes not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance (Lk 5:32).

Again, I’m not sure how you feel about all this, my dear brothers. But I must confess that these readings make me rather uncomfortable. Especially coming as they do at the end of our retreat. After 8 days praying together as friends in and of the Lord, why should we be drawn now to ponder how God treats enemies? What possible relevance might these reflections have for us? Perhaps their significance becomes clearer when we ask ourselves the question where? Where are God’s enemies to be found? Isn’t one likely place precisely where we will soon find ourselves returning ad dispersionem? In the world to which we are sent as servants of Christ’s saving mission. The same world that, in so many ways, remains stubbornly set on a course leading to destruction. Consumed by the flames of idolatry of various kinds, especially the worship of money. Like Elijah before us, are we not sent to proclaim a word that somehow disrupts this path? That douses this flame? And that may lead us to have to suffer and, in some way, to die? Doesn’t our ministry of consolation require us not just to comfort the afflicted, but also to afflict the comfortable?

But that’s not all. If we are truly honest with ourselves, shouldn’t we also acknowledge that God’s enemies are to be found not just ad extra, in our mission, but also ad intra, within our very lives as well? Both in our communal and personal lives. In those places where, like Ahab at Naboth’s vineyard, we may still be set on paths of self-destruction. So that even as we leave this retreat, do we not need to remain watchful for the ways in which God is inviting us to love one another, and to allow ourselves to be loved, not just as friends, but also as enemies? Needing to have our paths disrupted, our flames doused, else we cause suffering and death? 

My dear brothers, much as I wish that love were as simple as an innocent little boy shooting people with a harmless toy, the reality is far more complex. For isn’t it true that, all too often, before one can be loved as a friend, one must first be loved as an enemy? Before I can be loved as a saint, I must first learn to be loved as a sinner.

My brothers, if all this is indeed true, then what must we do–as individuals and communities, as apostolates and as a whole Region–what must we do, you and I, to keep growing, not just in the courage to love as friends in the Lord, but also, when necessary, in the humility to be loved as his enemies as well?

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Tactics for the Torn

Picture: cc Julia Manzerova

My dear friends, do any of you still remember this classic situation from those old Hong Kong drama serials of the past? The one where a happy bachelor finally gets married, only to find himself cruelly torn between his domineering mother on the one hand, and his equally stubborn wife on the other. Both of whom just can’t seem to get along. The poor guy doesn’t know what to do? Of course, this kind of thing never happens in real life, right? But still, do you know what it feels like to be pulled in different directions like that? To hear different voices, telling you to do opposite things?

For example, my friends may be inviting me out for a movie. But my parents are nagging me to stay home and study. Or lower COE prices signal me to buy a flashier car. But the sight of a feeble senior citizen, selling tissues at the hawker centre, may prompt me to think about setting aside more money for the poor instead. These are voices that come from the outside. There may also be voices from inside. Encouraging me to be patient and forgiving with an enemy, for example. Or pushing me to be angry and resentful. Even to seek revenge.

So what to do, sisters and brothers, when I find myself in a situation like that? Probably one of the first things I may need to do is, of course, to accept that I have to make a choice. Since the voices I hear are pulling me in opposite directions, I can’t follow them all. To try to do so is to be torn apart. The question, of course, is how to choose? What do I need to make the right choice? This is the question that our Mass readings invite us to ponder today. This is the kind of situation in which Jesus finds himself in the gospel.

His work of proclaiming the Good News of God’s love and mercy brings Jesus to his hometown. Where he hears various voices telling him different things. His relatives say he is crazy. The religious authorities accuse him of being possessed by the prince of devils. For their own respective reasons,  these voices want Jesus to stop his ministry. But, even though the voices are loud and insistent, the Lord resists them. And we know why. It’s because he is making a choice. He is choosing to listen to another voice. The voice of his heavenly Father, from whom he receives his mission. And it is also this divine voice that Jesus encourages his disciples, encourages you and me, to choose to follow. For this is how we become members of the Lord’s true family. Anyone who does the will of God, that person is my brother and sister and mother.

But isn’t it true, sisters and brothers, that it is not always easy to make this choice? How do I know, for example, which voice is God’s? Obviously, one thing I need is clarity. The same clarity that Jesus has. The ability to recognise the loving melody of the Father’s voice, amid the hostile or seductive clamour made by the voices of strangers. How does the Lord gain this clarity? Very likely in the same way that we often learn to recognise someone’s voice on the phone, even without looking at the caller ID. Simply by spending enough time talking to that person. Clarity often comes with close contact. With constant intimate communication with God. Something that we call prayer.

But clarity alone is not enough. For even if I am clear about what my parents or my children, my spouse or my God, want me to do, I may still choose to do the opposite instead. Isn’t this precisely the situation in the first reading? Where we’re told that the Lord God called to the man and the woman. But instead of responding at once, they get scared and hide themselves. I was afraid… so I hid. And the reason why they hide themselves is not because they have not recognised God’s voice. But because they are listening to other voices. Voices that tell them they are naked, unworthy of God’s regard. Voices that have earlier drawn them to disobey God. To suspect God’s instructions. To spurn God’s friendship.

For the man and the woman in the first reading, clarity alone is not enough for them to respond to God’s voice. They need something else. Something to help them overcome their fear. They need courage. The same courage with which Jesus resists his opponents. The same courage that we find also in St Paul in the second reading. The passage begins from verse 13 of chapter 4. Earlier, from verses 7 to 12, Paul writes about the many difficulties and problems that he has to encounter in his ministry. And yet, in today’s reading, he goes on to say that there is no weakening on his part. Despite all his trials, the apostle still chooses to persevere. The way Jesus perseveres in the gospel. Even unto death. From where does Paul get this courage? In the reading, he tells us that it is from faith. From his close relationship with Christ, his crucified and risen Lord. We… believe, Paul writes, and therefore we… speak.

Clarity and courage, giving us the ability to make a crucial choice. This is what we find in our readings today. The clarity and courage to choose, in our daily lives, always to follow no other voice than God’s alone. A voice continually calling us to walk the way of self-sacrificing service, instead of self-serving greed. The way of Christ’s humble Cross, instead of the devil’s prideful vanity. The way of downward mobility instead of upward ambition.

My dear sisters and brothers, if today you happen to find yourself hearing various voices pulling you in different directions, which one will you choose to follow?

Sunday, June 03, 2018

More Than Just A Place

Solemnity of the Most Holy Body & Blood of Christ (B)

My dear friends, do you still remember Uber? Well, before Uber was gobbled up by Grab, it actually produced a couple of pretty decent advertisements. Do you remember, for example, the one that focuses on Gillman Barracks?

A little boy dreams about becoming an artist, but gets discouraged and disillusioned when his friends tease and bully him. So, to help him find inspiration, his mother brings him to the art galleries at Gillman Barracks. At the same time, a retired soldier also travels to Gillman Barracks for a reunion with his army buddies. And it is at this former military base, now converted into a centre for contemporary art, that the novice searching for his dreams and the veteran reaching into his memories quite literally bump into each other. They meet in the present, even as one seeks to connect with his future, and the other with his past. And how do they get there? On Uber of course. It is Uber that brings them to where they need to be. As the narrator tells us near the end: where is more than just a place. Whether you’re going back to your best days, or starting your best ones, we’ll get you there.

It’s true, isn’t it, sisters and brothers? Whether or not we’ve ever used Uber. It’s true that where is more than just a place. More than a physical location. Where is also about making connections. About recalling our past and dreaming our future. The better to find new meaning and energy in the present.

Which is good to remember especially today, because as you may have noticed, the question where? appears twice in the gospel. Where, the disciples ask Jesus, do you want us to go and make the preparations for you to eat the passover? Where is my dining room…? The Lord instructs them to ask the owner of the house. And the reading gives us the obvious answer: a large upper room. And yet, if it is true that where is more than just a place, then perhaps the answer goes far deeper than the upper room. Perhaps pondering the question where? can lead us to the true significance of this marvellous feast that we celebrate today: the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ.

For what does the Eucharist do, if not enable us to make deep connections with our past and our future? The better to live more meaningfully and energetically in the present? Isn’t this what we find in our readings today? When Jesus gathers his friends to break the bread and share the wine, connections are made in different directions. The Lord’s actions hark back to those of Moses in the first reading. For just as Moses uses the blood of animals to seal an awesome connection between the people and their God, so too does Jesus allow his own blood to be used to do the same. But, this time, in an irreversible, indestructible, eternally enduring way.

And precisely because this new connection endures eternally, Jesus’ actions at the Last Supper, and at every celebration of the Eucharist, allow his friends–including you and me–to connect also with our promised future. As the second reading reminds us, The Lord brings a new covenant, as the mediator… so that the people who were called to an eternal inheritance may actually receive what was promised. Eternal life-giving connection with God. A promise the final fulfilment of which still awaits us in the kingdom to come. 

Also, even as the Eucharist draws us to recall our past renewed in the sacrifice of Christ, and to look forward to our marvellous future secured in the promise of God, it should also have a positive effect on our lives in the present. For the blood of Christ… can purify our inner self from dead actions so that we do our service to the living God. Here and now. So that, motivated by love and mercy, instead of selfishness and anxiety, our lives may be filled with deeper meaning, rather than superficial drudgery. Boundless energy, instead of constant discouragement and disillusionment.

Isn’t this the great wonder of the Eucharist? Perhaps similar in some ways to the wonder of a place like Gillman Barracks? Every time we gather to break the bread and raise the chalice, we proclaim the Lord’s death, the shedding of his blood for love of his friends and enemies alike. We connect deeply with a past and a future held securely and yet so tenderly in the reliable reassuring hands of our loving God. And it is in these connections, it is in these hands, that we find meaning and energy, clarity and courage, to face the challenges of each passing day.

Why then do some of us continue to find the Eucharist such a chore and such a bore? Perhaps it’s because presiders and preachers like me are just not competent or diligent enough. Something that we need to work harder to improve. But then again, perhaps it’s also because, just as the Uber driver cannot take us to Gillman Barracks unless we decide to board the vehicle, neither can the Eucharist take us to where we need to go, unless we make the necessary efforts to celebrate Mass with the attention and reverence it truly deserves.

My dear friends, where is, indeed, more than just a place. For us who are Christian, where is ultimately our deep connection with our loving life-giving God. An eternally enduring connection, sealed by the precious broken body and flowing blood of Christ. God is the destination, and the Eucharist is our means to get there. Not just the Eucharist as it is celebrated here in church. But also the Eucharist as it is meant to be lived out there in our daily lives.

Sisters and brothers, if it is true that God is our where, and the Eucharist is our how, then where are you going, and how are you getting there today?