Sunday, August 19, 2018

Watching What & How We Eat

20th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

My dear friends, if I were to ask you, which part of your body you use to eat, what would you say? To be honest, until quite recently, I would have considered this a stupid question. Which other part of my body can I eat with if not my mouth?! Of course, I’m aware that patients in hospitals sometimes need to be fed through a tube in a nostril, or a needle in the arm. But those occasions are rare. For the most part, we all eat only with our mouths… don’t we?

And yet, as anyone who has ever watched a cooking competition on TV, or posted a photograph of their favourite dish on social media, knows very well, before food ever passes into our mouths, we often devour it first with our eyes. Isn’t this why the home-cooks on MasterChef are judged not just on culinary technique, but also on plating skills? Not just on how their food tastes, but also on how it looks? And don’t we all know what it feels like to salivate at the mere sight of a delicious bowl of curry laksa, or chilli crab? All of which gives a whole new meaning to the words, watching what we eat!

Increasingly, perhaps now more than ever, people are realising that we eat not just with our mouths, but also with our eyes. Involving not just our sense of taste, but also our senses of sight and smell, of touch and hearing as well. But if this is true of the food that fills my belly, what about the kind that satisfies my soul? With which part of myself do I eat spiritual food? This, I believe, is the crucially important question that our Mass readings invite us to ponder today.

As he has been doing over the past two Sundays, in the gospel, Jesus continues to encourage people, encourage us, to eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood. For unless we do, we cannot have life. As a result, his listeners are filled with shock and dismay. How can this man give us his flesh to eat?, they ask. And I have to confess that there’s a part of me that feels superior to these people. A part of me that considers theirs a stupid question. For, as a Catholic who regularly receives Holy Communion, I think I know exactly what Jesus means. What else can it mean to eat the Lord’s flesh and to drink his blood, if not to join the queue at the right time at Mass, and to pop a communion wafer into my mouth, after mumbling an Amen in response to the words The Body of Christ?

And yet, if this is all it takes to eat the Lord’s flesh and to drink his blood, then isn’t it the same as saying that, unlike material food, spiritual nourishment can be eaten with one’s mouth alone? But can it? Really? Careful attention to the other Mass readings actually leads us to the opposite conclusion.

In the first reading, after building a restaurant, and preparing a gourmet menu, we’re told that Lady Wisdom then invites the foolish and the ignorant–all those who have no knowledge of the ways of God–to feast at her table. And, once again, it’s helpful for us to pose the question, With which part of themselves are the invited diners expected to eat this food? Lady Wisdom herself provides the answer at the end of the reading. Leave your folly and you will live, she says, walk in the ways of perception. 

But which part of my body must I use to obey this instruction? How do I go about forsaking foolish, worldly, self-indulgent ways? How do I walk instead in the ways of God, the way of Christ, the Source of heavenly Wisdom, who himself walked the Way of the Cross, the way of loving self-sacrifice? Can I do this with my mouth? Yes, of course. And not just by placing a communion wafer on my tongue. But also, as the psalmist reminds us, by blessing the Lord at all times. By allowing God’s praise to be always on my lips. This is how one can taste and see that the Lord is good. Even so, it’s also quite obvious that it’s not enough to walk in the ways of Wisdom simply with my mouth. I need to do it also with every other part of my body. With my arms and my legs. With my mind and my heart. And yes, with my whole life as well!

Isn’t this also what we find in the second reading, which reminds us to be very careful, not just about what we put into our mouths, but also about the sort of lives we lead And notice how the reading proceeds to present us with several sharp contrasts. Between senseless and intelligent people. Between those who are thoughtless and those who are able to recognise what is the will of the Lord. Between those who live lives of dissipation and self-indulgence, and those who are filled with the Spirit, who allow their lives to be directed by the love of God. In other words, what is the second reading encouraging us to do, sisters and brothers, if not to watch what we eat? To watch not just what we put into our mouths, but also what we allow to occupy our minds and hearts. How we lead our very lives.

All of which might prompt us to examine our celebration of the Sunday Eucharist. And, in particular, how we receive Holy Communion. For, if it is indeed true that I’m called to eat and drink spiritual food not just with my mouth, but also with my mind and heart and life, then perhaps Communion requires from me not just my reception, but also my commitment. So that when I say Amen to The Body of Christ, I’m not just expressing my belief in the Real Presence of Christ here in this church, but also everywhere else in my life. By saying Amen, I am also expressing my desire and determination to be mindful of that loving and merciful Presence wherever I go. Pointing it out to whomever I meet. Ever pondering and praising the wonders of God in my life and in our world.

Sisters and brothers, many people these days quite literally watch what they eat, by enthusiastically sharing and devouring colourful images of delicious food on social media. As we prepare to approach the Altar of the Lord in a few moments, what must we do, you and I, not just to watch what we eat, but also how we go about eating it today?

Saturday, August 11, 2018

When The Baby Won't Eat

19th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

Picture: cc Owen and Aki

My dear friends, have you ever seen someone trying to coax a moody baby to eat? Perhaps you’ve done it yourself. It can be quite a challenge. The adult knows that the infant needs food to grow. But, for some reason, it refuses to eat. Maybe it’s sleepy, or distracted, or in a bad mood. What to do? One common tactic I’ve seen people use is to tickle the baby’s lips with a spoon to make it laugh. And when it does laugh, to quickly insert the food into its open mouth. Then there is also that classic move, where you wave a spoonful of food around as though it’s an aeroplane, accompanied by the appropriate sound effects. Whatever the method, whether it’s by touching or through make-believe, the aim is the same. To get the baby to open its mouth and eat. To convince it to accept the nourishment it needs to grow healthy and strong.

In case you’re wondering, sisters and brothers, there are no babies in our Mass readings today. But what we do find are people who refuse to eat. In the first reading, the prophet Elijah has been very busy doing God’s work. He has called down a drought on the land, and also made it rain again. He has caused a famine to break out, and also multiplied food. He has raised a dead boy to life, and also defeated and killed 450 false prophets. He has confronted a sinful king, foiling his evil plans, and calling him to repent. As a result, the king is now out to kill Elijah. And the prophet has to flee for his life. 

Yes, Elijah has indeed been very busy. It’s no wonder that, when we meet him in the first reading, the prophet is completely and utterly burnt out. I have had enough, he says. All he wants to do is to lie down and go to sleep. He even wishes he were dead. And, in a way, he is already spiritually dead. He no longer has the capacity to care about anything or anyone anymore. Have you ever felt like this? As though you’ve simply had enough? Ready to throw in the towel? And isn’t it possible for me to continue walking around, apparently busy with many things, while actually already fast asleep? Spiritually dead? Unable to truly love anyone or care about anything anymore?

But Elijah’s journey is not yet over. God still has plans for him. So that, instead of letting the prophet sleep, God sends an angel to feed him. And it’s helpful to notice how this is done. Not once, but twice, we’re told that the angel touched him and said ‘Get up and eat…’ What does it feel like to be touched by an angel? Perhaps it’s not unlike how a baby might feel when it’s lips are tickled with a spoon. For Elijah, the experience rouses him. He awakens and eats, and gains the strength to walk for forty days and forty nights to the mountain of God, where he receives a new mission from the Lord.

As you may recall from the readings of last week, in the gospel, Jesus too has been trying to persuade people to eat. He offers himself to them as the Bread of Life. The spiritual Food that they need, to give their lives true purpose and deep meaning. To eat this Bread, to feed on this Food, is to come to Jesus and to believe in him. To believe that, in him, God has loved the world so much that he sent his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life (Jn 3:16).

As with the angel’s touch in the first reading, in Christ, God the Father draws people, draws you and me, to himself. Coaxing us to feast on the spiritual nourishment that is God’s only begotten Son. Unfortunately, unlike Elijah, the people in the gospel are too distracted to get up and eat. Believing that they know everything about Jesus, they cannot bring themselves to accept that he has indeed come down from heaven. Stubbornly clinging to their own prejudices, they refuse to eat.

Overwork and burn-out in the first reading. Distraction and prejudice in the gospel. These are some of the reasons why people stop eating. Why they prefer to remain asleep. Why they cannot receive the nourishment God provides. The food we all need to live life to the full. The kind of life described in the second reading, which tells us to never have grudges against others, or to lose our temper. But instead to forgive each other as readily as God forgave us in Christ. Following Christ in loving as he loved us, giving himself up in our place as a fragrant offering and a sacrifice to God.

To live a loving self-sacrificing life like this is not easy. It requires spiritual energy. The energy we receive by regularly feeding on Christ. Not just by gathering to receive Holy Communion every week. But by doing it with minds and hearts that are open enough to receive God’s love. Attentive enough to recall the ways in which God showers blessings and gifts upon us, both as individuals and as a community. And unless we do this, unless we truly feed on Christ in this way, we fail to receive the nourishment we need to live as Christ lives. To love as Christ loves. As a result, all the busy-ness that we may engage in every day drains us, the way it drained Elijah.  Perhaps even making us more angry and resentful, rather than more patient and kind.

Thankfully, God refuses to let us remain asleep. God continues to insist on drawing us. On sending an angel to touch us. Often we experience this touch in the desires that we find stirring in our hearts. Desires for a different kind of life. Desires that are the flip-side of the sins we may confess when we celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Desires that are actually placed in our hearts by God. To rouse us from sleep. To draw us to Christ. To coax us to get up and to eat.

My dear sisters and brothers, just as good parents will insist on feeding a baby, even when it refuses to eat. So too does our merciful God insist on feeding us, even when we may forget our need for food. How is God touching you and drawing you to receive his love today?

Saturday, August 04, 2018

The Itch We Cannot Scratch...

18th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)
Picture: cc sarahluv

My dear friends, have you ever had an itch that you just can’t seem to scratch? Do you know what it feels like? It can be quite frustrating. No matter how hard or how often I may drag my fingernails across that spot on my body, where I think the itch is located, I get no relief. I may even scratch so hard that my skin gets broken and infected. But the itch remains. And it may be because the sensation I’m feeling is not actually found on my skin, but somewhere else. I don’t know where. In my nerves perhaps. Or even in my mind. The itch may be neurological or psychological. So that it can’t be relieved in a superficial way. But only by going deeper. 

Strange as it may sound, sisters and brothers, I believe we find something similar in our Mass readings today. People experiencing a deep itch, and trying to scratch it in a superficial way. Both in the first reading and the gospel, people are feeling hungry. And, quite naturally, they assume that their hunger can be satisfied by filling their mouths with food, their bellies with bread. In the first reading, the whole community of Israelites complain to Moses and Aaron that they have no food. And, in the gospel, crowds of people follow Jesus across the Lake of Galilee, because he had earlier given them all the bread they wanted to eat. With just five barley loaves and two fish, he had fed five thousand.

Both in the first reading and the gospel, people are anxious to scratch an itch. And yet, all the scratching in the world, all the food on this earth, can bring them no permanent relief. For the sensation they are feeling is not something that can be removed by meat and bread alone. Theirs is not really a hunger for food, but a yearning for meaning. A deep desire for a life that has a definite direction. A life filled with true purpose. Something that has the power to gather up all the broken disconnected pieces of one’s existence, and to unify them into an inspiring story, a beautiful work of art.

How do we know this? We see it in the way in which God responds to the peoples’ complaint. Notice how, in the first reading, although God provides meat and manna to fill the Israelites’ bellies, God does this in a very particular way. God gives detailed instructions for how the food is to be gathered, distributed, and consumed. By doing this, God provides the people not just with nourishment, but also with a precious opportunity to practice obedience. To learn how to live a life that is not just centred on one’s own selfish interests, but that revolves around God’s loving and merciful will instead. I propose to test them in this way, God tells Moses, to see whether they will follow my law or not. Scripture scholars tell us that the sending of manna from heaven actually points to the precious gift of the Law, through which God provides the people with the guidance that they need to live a meaningful and purposeful life in the Promised Land.

Isn’t this also what Jesus is trying to do in the gospel? He encourages the people to work not for food that cannot last, but for food that endures to eternal life. And to do this by believing in him, the one God has sent. For Jesus himself is the true bread… which comes down from heaven. He alone is the living embodiment of the Law. Those who come to him, those who truly believe in him, those who allow their lives to be moulded according to his example, they are the ones who will never be hungry. They are the ones who will never thirst. They are the ones whose itch God will help them to scratch.

All of which may help us connect better with our Mass readings today. We who live in a place like Singapore. Blessed as we are to have such an abundant variety of tasty food to eat. Let’s face it, many of us here are rich enough, such that we have to worry less about getting enough to eat than about choosing which particular delicacies to enjoy at any given meal. And yet, isn’t it true that, both as individuals and as a society, we continue to experience a hunger for meaning and purpose and direction? Don’t many of us try to satisfy this deep yearning in superficial and less than helpful ways? Isn’t this why, for many of us, life is characterised by compulsive consumption? Not just in matters of food and drink, or handbags and watches, or cars and entertainment. But also in the way we relate to work, and even to religion. Could this also be the reason why we have to obsessively check the screens of our mobile devices every few seconds? Not so much because there is an urgent message for us to read. But to scratch an itch that simple refuses to go away.

If this is true, then perhaps it is important for us to heed the message in the second reading. Which reminds us not to go on living the aimless kind of life that pagans live. The kind of life that dissipates itself in so many different directions, because it is focused only on the satisfaction of illusory desires. On superficially scratching an itch which refuses to go away. Instead, we are called to put on a new self, to live a new life in Christ, created in God’s way, in the goodness and holiness of the truth. The truth that life is not about food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit (Rm 14:17). Isn’t this why we take the time to gather here this evening? To allow our loving and merciful Lord to feed us with the bread from heaven. The true nourishment that fills our lives with deeper meaning.

My dear sisters and brothers, whether we realise it or not, we all have within us an itch that we cannot scratch. A yearning that we cannot satisfy. At least not on our own. No matter how hard we may try. For it has been placed in us by God. What must we do, you and I, to allow God to scratch our itch today?