Sunday, October 28, 2018

The Road (Rerun)

30th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

Picture: cc Tim RT

There is someone sitting by the side of the road... It’s a strange sight. The road is meant for travelling, not camping. Yet there he is. Setting up shop. Who is he? Where is he from? What’s wrong with him? … No time to ask. I’m in a rush. I’m on the road. I’ve work to do. And mouths to feed. Got to move on…

And there he is again, that person along the road. Doesn’t he know how unsightly he is? Sitting there in his rags? Doesn’t he have anywhere else to go? I wish I didn’t have to see him everyday. He makes me uncomfortable. But only for a moment. I’ve work to do. Mouths to feed. Bills to pay. Got to move on…

But there’s just no escaping him. Day after day, he sits by the side of the road. Although sometimes I’m in such a hurry, I don’t notice him at all. But he’s there all the same. What to do? Can’t stop to chat. So little time. So much stress. Work to do. Mouths to feed. Bills to pay. Dreams to live. Got to go…

Then one day it happens… The market crashes… A job is lost… A child dies… A spouse leaves… A tumour is discovered… All this while, rushing headlong along this road, desperately trying to get somewhere. Thinking I really have somewhere to get. Now I’ve hit a dead end. Drained and heartbroken. Close to despair. I can’t see a way forward. It’s as though I’m blind. Darkness engulfs me… I collapse in a heap… 

Again, there’s someone by the side of the road. Someone who cannot see. And that someone is me…

How foolish I’ve been. Did I really think I could escape what the letter to the Hebrews calls the limitations of weakness? Did I think that I could cheat even suffering and death? If only I set my mind to it? If only I work hard enough? If only I focus my efforts? I never really give it much thought. But isn’t this how I live my life? Thinking I can buy my own happiness? Earn my own salvation? How foolish and how blind! Only now I begin to see that it is really true, what is written in the scriptures, that no one takes this honour on himself, but each one is called by God.

No matter how hard you work. How rich you are. You cannot save yourself. You need to be called.

So when they tell me that Jesus of Nazareth is passing by I do not hesitate. I do not care what others might think. He is my only hope, I say to myself. He is my salvation! He will show me a way out. He will let me see again. So, shamelessly, I cry out as loudly as I can. In a voice choked with emotion, I beg him to have pity on me.

And, wonder of wonders, he calls me over. Jesus of Nazareth. The promised Saviour. He actually calls me. What do you want me to do for you? He asks. I’m not sure how he will react when I tell him. At first I think he’ll simply point me in the direction I need to go. Open my eyes to a road I’ve not seen before. But he does so much more. He leads me along the way. He is the way.

It is a mysterious path. Narrow and winding. But as long as I hold onto him. Sometimes tightly grasping his hand. Sometimes barely hanging on to the edge of his cloak. As long as I cling to him, I do not fall. Steep as it sometimes is, with him leading me, I persevere on the road. And as we travel on together, I can’t help but be reminded of that verse from Jeremiah: I will bring them back… all of them: the blind and the lame… women in labour… I will comfort them as I lead them back, by a smooth path where they will not stumble.

Even so, as the road wears on, parts of it seem strangely familiar. In some ways it looks like the same road on which I’d fallen those many days, or was it months, or even years, ago. I’m reminded of that very spot where I’d collapsed by the side of the road. And fear grips my heart. But the Saviour’s steps remain sure. His guiding hands gentle yet firm.

At the crucial point where I think I will again collapse under the weight of my difficulties, he takes my place. He offers his shoulder to the dark wood. His hands and feet to the cold steel. His life in exchange for my own.

And yet, miracle of miracles, in spite of his sacrifice – or rather, because of it – he lives! And so do I!

In the words of the psalmist, What marvels the Lord worked for us! Indeed we were glad… Then was our mouth filled with laughter, on our lips there were songs. 

Yes, there is so much for which to be grateful. So many reasons to rejoice. So much to remember and to celebrate. Which is what I do especially in church every Sunday. But even as I join others in celebration, I need also to remain in motion. On the road. No longer in anxiety and ambition. But now in mercy and compassion. For there are others wishing so desperately to see again. Many more waiting to hear the call of salvation.

Yes, there is still someone sitting by the side of the road…

What am I going to do about it today?

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Stepping On You Vs Laying Me Down

29th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)
(Mission Sunday)

When you're weary, feeling small,
When tears are in your eyes, I will dry them all.
I'm on your side, when times get rough,
and friends just can't be found.
Like a bridge over troubled water, I will lay me down.

My dear friends, do any of you still remember these words? They are the opening lines to that old song by Simon and Garfunkel, Bridge Over Troubled Water. As you may recall, the song is a promise made by one friend to another. A promise to stand by that friend in difficult times. Not to run away. But to remain by the friend’s side. Even when the going gets tough. This is one possible response I can make, when someone is in trouble. Instead of turning away, I can get involved. Like a bridge over troubled water, I will lay me down. Has anyone ever done this for you? Or have you ever done it for someone else? What does it feel like?

Of course, laying myself down is not the only response I can make when someone is in trouble. Can you think of any others? Apart from turning away, isn’t it true that I can also use that person for my own benefit? Instead of laying myself down to help, I can actually step on the one in trouble, in order to get to where I want to go. Like when a parent is dying, and all the children are fighting over their inheritance. Has something like that ever happened to you? Being used by someone like that? What’s it like?

Laying myself down versus stepping on another. Helping versus exploiting someone in trouble. This is the striking contrast that we find in our Mass readings today. A contrast between two very different responses to suffering. In the gospel, James and John come to Jesus with a request. But, before looking at the request, it’s important for us first to recall what has happened earlier. The reading begins at verse 35. From verses 32 to 34, Jesus has, for the third time, shared with his disciples what will happen to him in Jerusalem. He will be handed over to his enemies, who will humiliate and torture and kill him. And, after three days, he will rise again.

Jesus has just told his friends that he is getting into deep trouble. And what is their response? Master, we want you to do us a favour… Allow us to sit one at your right hand and the other at your left in your glory. What does this look like, sisters and brothers, if not stepping on someone in trouble, in order to get ahead? Using someone’s suffering to benefit myself?

But why, we may ask, is Jesus getting into trouble? It’s not because of any wrong that he himself has done. We believe that Jesus is the suffering servant mentioned in the first reading. Who humbly offers his life in atonement for our sins. So that by his sufferings he may justify many, taking their faults on himself. Taking my faults upon himself. By going to Jerusalem. By walking resolutely the Way of the Cross. Jesus lays himself down for me. Like a bridge over troubled water.

Laying myself down like Jesus, versus stepping on someone in trouble like James and John. Not only is this the contrast that we find in our readings, it is also the choice that they present to us today. To you and to me. For now that Jesus has sacrificed himself for our sake, there is a proper response that we Christians need to make. The second reading tells us what this response should be. We must never let go of the faith we have professed… What does it mean? What does it look like to never let go of our faith?

Let us be confident, the reading continues. Let us be confident… in approaching the throne of grace, that we shall have mercy from him and find grace when we are in need of help. To cling to our faith in Jesus is first to do what we said in the psalm. To place all our hope in the Lord. To trust and to rely on him in our every difficulty. But is that all? Does having faith in Jesus mean only to lean on him when I am in trouble? Does it mean only to fulfil my religious duties by coming to church every Sunday and Day of Obligation, so that I don’t have to go to Confession? Or going to Confession regularly, for fear of ending up in hell when I die?

If that’s the case, am I not simply using the Lord as a stepping stone to get to where I need to go? How different is that from what James and John are doing in the gospel? Making use of the Lord only for my own benefit. When I do this, when I remain focused only on my own salvation, have I really crossed over the bridge of the Lord’s loving self-sacrifice on the Cross? Or am I not still stuck in the troubled water of my own selfishness and anxiety and ambition? Caught up only in my own narrow concerns. Unable to see anything beyond.

No, my dear friends, as you know, to have faith is more than just to engage in the right religious practices for my own sake. Or even for the sake of my immediate family. To have faith is also to put into practice the Lord’s words at the end of today’s gospel: Anyone who wants to become great among you must be your servant… For the Son of Man himself did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. To have faith is not just to receive help from the Lord. It is also to imitate him in helping those who are in trouble. Especially those nearest me. Those within my reach. Not just those who may be poor and hungry and homeless. But also those who are lost and lonely and friendless. Those seeking deeper meaning in life. Those searching for God, perhaps without even realising it. Do you know anybody like that?

Isn’t this what it means to be on mission? Isn’t this why we celebrate Mission Sunday? To be on mission doesn’t necessarily mean helping needy people in some faraway place. Often the needy can be found much closer to home. Mission is also about reaching out to them. Being there for them, as they struggle with their burdens. Just as Christ continues to help me bear my own.

When you're weary, feeling small,
When tears are in your eyes, I will dry them all.
I'm on your side, when times get rough,
and friends just can't be found.
Like a bridge over troubled water, I will lay me down.

My dear sisters and brothers, by being raised up on the Cross, Christ the Lord has already laid himself down for us. How is he calling us to lay ourselves down for others today?

Sunday, October 07, 2018

Between Principle & Practice

27th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

My dear friends, do you know the difference between principle and practice? I was led to ponder this question a few nights ago, when I happened to watch a documentary on Channel NewsAsia, entitled China On Film. The programme showed some old film footage of China in the late 1920s, which was, as you know, a very tumultuous time. A time of civil war and conflict. The Nationalists were fighting the regional warlords and the Communists. The Japanese were threatening to invade. And caught in the middle of the resulting violence and bloodshed were the poor defenceless Chinese people.

The film clips showed masses of Chinese refugees fleeing their homes. Where did they go? One ironic source of safety was actually the foreign settlements. Which were under international protection, and closed to Chinese troops. One commentator pointed out that although, in principle, almost all Chinese deeply resented the foreign occupation of Chinese soil, in practice, they had to flee into foreign-controlled areas to save their lives. In principle, resentment. In practice, refuge.

Sisters and brothers, what do you think of this contradiction between principle and practice? If you were a Chinese refugee, wouldn’t you do the same? I know I would. And if you were in charge of a foreign settlement at that time, wouldn’t you do your best to save lives? Or would you be so hardhearted as to insist that people stick to their principle… and die?

I’m not sure, sisters and brothers, but it seems to me that, in order to live a truly human life, we often have to strike a delicate balance between both principle and practice. We can’t have one without the other. Which is also what we find in our Mass readings today. At first glance, the readings seem to involve nothing more than an argument over principle. The question is whether or not a man may divorce his wife. The Pharisees assume that the answer must be yes. But Jesus disagrees. For him, any person who divorces a spouse and marries another is guilty of adultery against that spouse.

For us Catholics, the general principle is clear, isn’t it? Marriage is for life. Divorce is prohibited on pain of sin. We all know this. But does this mean that all that’s left for us is simply to keep the principle, and to enforce it as best we can? And yet, the readings actually go beyond a mere argument over principle. Consider, for example, how Jesus responds to the Pharisees’ challenge. He doesn’t just propose to them a contrary principle. Instead he focuses their attention on what has been God’s practice from the dawn of creation. From the beginning… God made them male and female… and the two become one body… But why did God act in this way?

The first reading explains the origin of the different sexes and of marriage in a very interesting way. In creating the man and the woman, God wasn’t so much following a principle as God was responding, in practice, to a felt need. A need that we all have, don’t we? The need for true and deep and intimate companionship. It is not good that the man should be alone… It is out of a merciful desire to fill this deep need for connection that God helps the man to put his own ego to sleep, in order that the man may donate a part of himself to another. For true companionship cannot result from selfishness. It has to be born of loving self-sacrifice. But the point is that the man can't do this on his own. God has to help him.

Isn’t this why it’s so fitting that our second reading should speak to us of the self-sacrifice of Christ? For just as the first man fell asleep and donated a rib to form the first woman. So too does Jesus fall into the sleep of death on the cross, and pour out every last drop of his blood to form the church. To form you and me. And to take us to himself in true companionship and friendship. As the reading tells us, by God’s grace he had to experience death for all mankind… For the one who sanctifies, and the ones who are sanctified, are of the same stock; that is why he openly calls them brothers… 

Seen from this perspective, my dear friends, our readings are really less about explaining and enforcing a burdensome principle than they are about celebrating God’s practice of mercy. God’s ongoing desire to satisfy our deep need for connection and companionship. This is what God has been doing, right from the beginning of Creation to the climax of our redemption in Christ. And isn’t this also what we celebrate here at this Mass? The same kind of practice of mercy that we are all expected to engage in after we leave this church?

My dear friends, to live a truly human life, a truly Christian life, it is not enough for us to cling stubbornly to a certain set of principles. Important though these principles may be. In today’s gospel, it is the Pharisees who do that. Which leads Jesus to call them unteachable. A word that is better translated as hardhearted. In contrast, it is Jesus who remains ever mindful of God’s practice of mercy. Even as he models for us the great principle of love of God and of neigbour. It is Jesus who is himself the great expression of the practice of mercy. Jesus, who comes to call not the righteous, but sinners (Mt 9:13).

My dear friends, it’s difficult to deny that, in many ways, we live in a time that’s no less tumultuous than China in the 1920s. Many people are in flight, if not physically, then surely spiritually. Anxiously searching for a place of safety and rest. Desperately looking to establish meaningful connections. And precisely at a chaotic time like this, when the gap between principle and practice often seems to be at its widest, the temptation is great for those of us who feel like we have all the answers to cling stubbornly to a certain set of principles. Whatever these may be. And to seek to impose them on others. For this is what often seems to offer us the best form of security and safety.

And yet we Christians are called to do more. To act differently, For we follow a crucified and risen Lord, who came to seek out and to save the lost. We believe in a loving and merciful God, who continually flings open the doors of his Kingdom, so that pitiful refugees might enter, to enjoy true hospitality and safety and security. And to learn to share the same with others who are in need.

Sisters and brothers, what do we have to do, you and I, to continue striking that delicate but much needed balance between principle and practice today?