Sunday, March 31, 2019

Reasons Why We Move

4th Sunday of Lent (Laetare Sunday) (C)

My dear friends, have you ever had to move to a foreign country? Do you know what it feels like? Even for those who like to travel, relocating can still be very challenging, right? To settle in a new place, I have to let go of many of the conveniences back home, which I so often take for granted, and adapt to unfamiliar conditions and people. Often, I also have to change my diet. For even if I may be able to find similar kinds of food in the new place, they don’t usually taste exactly the same as they do back home. For example, doesn’t fried Hokkien Mee look and taste quite different up north in Kuala Lumpur as compared to down here in Singapore?

But if it’s such a hassle to move, then why do people do it? Why not just stay put? Keep enjoying the comforts of home? Of course, people move for different reasons. But there are two in particular that are perhaps more common. The first applies as much to a refugee fleeing a war-torn country, as to an expatriate taking up an overseas posting. It is the hope of securing a better life, for oneself and for one’s family. The second reason is why many spouses move. They willingly uproot themselves from familiar surroundings, and heroically endure the struggles of living in a strange new place, all for the sake of being with the one whom they love.

To live a better life, and to be with the ones we love. These are two reasons why perfectly sensible people decide to change not just where they live, but also what they eat. And it’s helpful to keep this in mind, not just because our parish includes a good number of foreigners, but also because this is what we find in our Mass readings on this 4th Sunday in Lent.

The first reading describes that moment when the Israelites get their first taste of food from the land of Canaan. For more than forty long years, they have been constantly on the move. From Egypt into the wilderness, and from the wilderness into the Promised Land. And with each move there has been a corresponding change in diet. From the fleshpots of Egypt (Ex 16:3) to the manna in the desert, and now the unleavened bread and roasted corn of Canaan. This change both in location and diet has not been easy. Why have they subjected themselves to it? Like refugees and expatriates, is it not in the hope of securing a better life for themselves? And not just a better material life but, more importantly, a fuller spiritual one?

The change in the Israelites’ physical location and diet signals a deeper interior movement. A shift from slavery and idolatry in Egypt, to freedom and the worship of the one true God in Canaan. A change from feeding only on what their slave-drivers provide, to gradually learning to eat from out of the hand of the Lord. To trust in and rely totally on God alone. In the words of the psalm, to taste and see that the Lord is good.

Isn’t this also what happens to the younger son in the gospel parable? Like the Israelites, he too is on the move. From his father’s house to a distant country, and then back again. And this change in physical location signals a shift in the boy’s spiritual home, indicated by his modified diet. The greed and lust that fuel his move to a foreign land, leave him so hungry that he longs to be given what pigs eat. Just as the mercy and compassion he receives in his father’s warm embrace is as appetising to him as a tender calf fattened on grain. Like the Israelites, the younger son moves for the sake of a better life. And Jesus uses this experience to illustrate that of the tax collectors and sinners who seek out his company. Like the younger son, they too wish to change their location and their diet in order to enjoy a fuller spiritual life.

But sinners are not the only ones relocating in our readings. Isn’t it striking that, in the parable, the father too is constantly on the move? Repeatedly running out of his house to meet and speak with first one son and then the other. To reassure both of their father’s undying love for them. Quick! Bring out the best robe and put it on him… My son, you are with me always and all I have is yours… Why does the father do this? Isn’t it for the same reason that many spouses choose to relocate? In order to be with those he loves. And to ensure that each one eventually enjoys a fuller life.

Just as selfish sinners move, first in rebellion, and then in repentance, so too does our loving and merciful God match their movement in order to bring about reconciliation. And how does God reconcile, if not through the Mysteries we celebrate at this Mass? Through the life, death and resurrection of Christ. Who humbly passes over from heaven to earth, from earth to cross, from cross to grave, and from grave to sky. All for the sake of enfolding us in his Father’s embrace. To make us realise just how much we are loved.

All of which presents a fuller picture of what the great season of Lent is meant to foster in us. Not only are we sinners invited to turn back to God in repentance but, having experienced God’s mercy, we are also called to follow Christ in facilitating reconciliation. As the second reading tells us, It was God who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the work of handing on this reconciliation…. So we are ambassadors for Christ.… And, as you know, ambassadors relocate not just for themselves, but also to build better relations among others.

And isn’t this kind of reconciling movement so very important today? When so many of us often choose to remain stubbornly locked in our own comfortable ways of looking at and relating to the world? Using technology not so much to engage those who may be different from us, but instead to keep them at bay. Or, worse, to ridicule and bully them. And, in extreme cases, even to terrorise and to exterminate them. Sometimes under religious pretexts.

Like the Pharisees and the scribes in today’s gospel, are we not being called to leave behind the deadly comfort of our prejudices, in order to experience and to share God’s love with others? Like the older son in the gospel parable, is not the invitation to enter the Father’s house of mercy and reconciliation also extended to us as well?

My dear brothers and sisters, as we continue preparing to celebrate the joys of Easter, how are you being invited to relocate, to change your spiritual position, today?

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Saving a Doomed Duck

3rd Sunday of Lent (C)

Picture: cc Jeff S. PhotoArt

My dear friends, do you know how to save a doomed duck? The story is told of a wild duck, which was once flying across the sky with the rest of its flock, when it happened to spot a farm down below, where some tame ducks lived together in a barn. Attracted by the pleasant surroundings and the free food, and feeling tired from all the flying, the wild duck decided to rest at the farm, just for an hour or two. But the hour stretched on to a day, the day to a week and, before the duck realised it, several months had passed, and it still had not left the farm.

Then, one day, it saw a flock of wild ducks flying by, and it felt within its heart a stirring of desire, an insistent yearning to join them. So it immediately flapped its wings and rose up into the air. Unfortunately, the months of inactivity on the farm had made the duck fat and heavy, and it could rise no higher than the roof of the barn. Disappointed though it was, the duck consoled itself that it really wasn’t so bad to remain on the farm. As more time went by, it gradually forgot its desire to fly. It satisfied itself with the comfortable life of a tame farm duck. Although, from time to time, it couldn’t help feeling disturbed by the sight of the farmer walking off with one of the other ducks in one hand, and a sharpened knife in the other…

My dear friends, it’s not too difficult, is it, for us to predict how this story might end? To see that, if nothing changes, then it’s only a matter of time before the wild duck becomes a dead duck. But what if we were to take pity on it, and want to rescue it? How might we do that? How to convince the duck to lose some weight, and to re-train itself to fly? In order to escape its terrible fate? Perhaps we can do two things. The first is to warn the duck. To insist on drawing its attention to the other disappearing ducks. To help it to realise that whatever is happening to them will also soon happen to it. The second thing we could do is to remind the duck of its original wildness. To draw its attention to other wild ducks whenever they happen to fly by. So as to re-ignite in its heart its own burning desire to fly.

Warnings and reminders. These are also the two things that we find in our Mass readings, on this third Sunday of Lent. These are the two ways that our loving and merciful God uses to save people who are in danger of death. In the second reading, St Paul warns the Corinthian Christians not to be complacent. Not to think that they are safe, just because they have been baptised into Christ, and are fed regularly at the table of the Lord. For the Israelites in Moses’ day were also, in a sense, baptised. They too were fed with spiritual food and drink. And yet, most of them failed to please God, and died before reaching the Promised Land. In spite of the many spiritual benefits granted them, they were doomed, because they continued to harbour in their hearts wicked lusts for forbidden things. Like the wild duck in our story, they allowed themselves to be tamed by selfishness and sin.

Similarly, in the gospel, Jesus uses the victims of various disasters as examples to warn the people that they too will perish, if they do not repent without delay. For, like the fig tree in the Lord’s parable, God was mercifully giving them a graced time to change their lives, to turn to Christ, and to bear fruit in the vineyard of the Lord. Failing which they would be cut down.

These sobering warnings in the second reading and the gospel are matched by the inspiring reminder that we find in the first reading. The reminder that God gives to Moses at Horeb, the mountain of God. As you may recall, at this point in the story, Moses has not yet begun to fulfil the plan God has in mind for him. After murdering an Egyptian, he has become a fugitive in the wilderness. But even if Moses may have forgotten his own people, God has not forgotten him. God has not forgotten them. Through the burning bush, God re-ignites in Moses’ heart, his fiery passion to save God’s long-suffering people. To set them free from their oppressors. I have seen the miserable state of my people in Egypt, God says. Yes, I am well aware of their sufferings. I mean to deliver them… It is only by fulfilling this God-given calling that Moses attains his own salvation.

These sober warnings and inspiring reminders, which we find in our readings today, are addressed also to each and all of us. For, like the Corinthians, are we not also prone to complacency? Do we not also often think that we are safe, just by coming to Mass every Sunday? Without, at the same time, conscientiously examining our hearts, and letting go of our wicked lusts for forbidden things? Also, like Moses, do we not too easily forget our own God-given calling, as followers of Christ, to be witnesses of the Good News to all whom we meet? To pay  careful attention to those around us who may be oppressed in one way or another? Physically, or emotionally, or spiritually. And to share with them the freedom that comes from committing our lives to our Crucified and Risen Lord?

To pay attention to sober warnings and inspiring reminders. Is this not what the season of Lent is for? Is this not a privileged and graced time for us to allow ourselves to heed the warnings and reminders that God continues to send us every day? So that we might turn away from our habitual selfish preoccupations, and to begin bearing the fruit that God intends for us to bear?

Sisters and brothers, when we carefully examine our hearts and our lives this Lent, will we perhaps find a doomed duck that God wishes to save? What must we do to leave the farm of death, and to reclaim our God-given wildness today?

Sunday, March 17, 2019

The Destiny of Leftovers

2nd Sunday of Lent (C)

Readings: Genesis 15:5-12,17-18; Psalm 26:1,7-9,13-14; Philippians 3:17-4:1; Luke 9:28-36
Picture: cc Will Hastings

My dear friends, I hope you don’t mind me asking, but what does your family do with yesterday’s food? What do you do when it’s time to prepare lunch or dinner, and you find your fridge full of leftovers? What are your options? Apart from giving it all away, you have at least three choices, right? The first two are quite simple. One, reheat what you have and serve it again. Keep eating today, exactly what you had yesterday. Two, discard it all, and cook a fresh batch of food.

But can you guess what the third option is? It’s something that some home-cooks do very well. They take yesterday’s food and transform it into something just as appetising, and even more delicious. So appetising and delicious that we may not even realise we’re eating leftovers. So plain rice might be transformed into tasty fried rice. Steamed chicken might reappear covered in a savoury gravy of oyster sauce…

To retain… to discard… or to transform. These are three of the options we have when dealing with leftover food. And, in our Mass readings today, we find similar ways of dealing with something else. As you’ve probably noticed, each of our readings directs our attention to heaven. In the first reading, God tells Abram to look up to heaven… In the second reading, St Paul tells the Philippians that our homeland is in heaven… And, in the gospel, the apostles Peter, John and James are given a preview of the Lord’s heavenly glory.

But this focus on heaven presents us with a very important question. A question not unlike the one we have to consider when faced with a fridge full of leftover food. For if our ultimate goal is to live blissfully in heaven, then what are we to do with all the things of earth? How should we deal with our possessions, for example, or even our own bodies?

In the second reading, St Paul criticises people who choose the first option. People who keep clinging to earthly realities. People who want to keep eating worldly food, when they should be preparing to feast on heavenly delicacies. They are destined to be lost. They make foods into their god… the things they think important are earthly things. 

And don’t we know what this feels like? Aren’t we familiar with the experience of being so engrossed in the attractions and anxieties of daily living that we forget our Christian belief that here we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come (Hb 13:14)? We have a name for this kind of attitude, don’t we? We call it being materialistic.

And yet, even if we should not cling to earthly things, neither should we discard them completely either. As we may do with leftover food. Isn’t this what Peter tries to do in the gospel? Awestruck by the vision of the Lord’s glory, Peter proposes to build three tents on the mountain, so that they can remain there, and forsake everything else down below. But he doesn’t get the chance to put his plan into action. For what does the reading tell us regarding the conversation between Jesus and Moses and Elijah? It says they were speaking of the Lord’s passing which he was to accomplish, not on the mountain, but in Jerusalem. The Lord attains his glory only by first making a journey down the mountain, back to the earthly realities below.

And yet, which of us has not sometimes felt like Peter? Wishing we could somehow escape the duties and responsibilities, the trials and tribulations of this earthly life. Isn’t this why some of us indulge in various bad habits, which then develop into troublesome addictions? Isn’t this why an increasing number of our young people find life so meaningless and boring as to think of ending it all? Isn’t this also why the more pious among us may devote much time to prayer, but pay little attention to lending a hand to the poor, or speaking on behalf of the voiceless, or working to make our lifestyles more conducive to the preservation of mother earth?

But if we Christians are called neither simply to retain nor to discard earthly realities, then what are we to do? How are we to relate to them? This is the question that our readings help us to ponder on this Second Sunday of Lent. This is the deeper meaning of the Transfiguration. For what is transfigured on the mountain, what is transformed, what is changed into glory, is the Lord’s earthly body. Which he does not discard, but rather allows to take on a heavenly brilliance. And, as Paul reminds us, what happens to the Lord’s body, is meant to happen also to these wretched bodies of ours. And, indeed, to the whole material universe. Everything is to be transfigured, transformed into copies of God’s only Son.

What does this mean? How does it come about? Earthly realities are transfigured into heavenly ones when we see them no longer as prizes to be fought over, or burdens to be discarded. Rather, we need to look at them the way Abram is asked to consider the Promised Land. As an inheritance freely bequeathed by a loving God, who binds us to himself in a  Covenant, a loving relationship modelled on the one that Jesus has with his heavenly Father. Isn’t this why the Father reminds us that, This is my Son, the Chosen One. Listen to him? Earthly realities are transfigured into heavenly ones, when we relate to the Father the way Jesus does. This is how these familiar words we pray every day find their fulfilment: your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

Isn’t this why we need this great season of Lent? Why we fast and pray and give alms? Not just to make ourselves uncomfortable, but so that we continue to learn to relate with material things in the same way that Christ did. Seeing God in all things, and all things in God.

For we Christians are called neither simply to retain nor to discard the world, but rather to work to allow it to be transfigured by the love of God made visible to us in Christ.

Sisters and brothers, how will you be doing this today?

Sunday, March 03, 2019

The Right End of the Telescope

8th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)
Picture: cc Charles Nadeau

My dear friends, have you ever looked through the wrong end of a telescope? Even if you haven’t, it’s not too difficult to imagine what will happen if you do, right? A telescope is meant to help us see things more clearly, to make faraway things appear closer. But it works only if I look through the correct end of the telescope. If I look through the wrong end, then things that should look clearer actually become more difficult to see. And I may not even realise it.

I’m not sure, my dear friends, but I believe something like this is true also of our Mass readings today. In a way, the readings provide us with something like a telescope, which can help us see things more clearly. To look at the world more wisely. So as to be able to distinguish the good from the bad, the helpful from the harmful, the things that lead us to God from those that lead us astray. But we need to be careful not to look through the wrong end of the telescope.

As you’ve probably noticed, both the first reading and the gospel provide us with similar advice about how to discover what is in a person’s heart. How do we find out whether someone has good intentions or bad? The answer seems simple enough. Just wait for the person to speak, and then consider the quality of the words that come out of that person’s mouth. Or wait for a person to act, and then consider the effects of the person’s actions. For just as a tree can be judged by its fruit, so too can a person’s words and actions tell us what fills that person’s heart. Good fruit, good tree. Good words and actions, good heart.

But if this is all I get from the readings, then I may be  tempted to go around quickly judging everyone by their words and actions. Have you ever been tempted to do this? To allow what someone says and does to lead you to dismiss that person as evil and ungodly. Of course, when I do this, I may perhaps sometimes get it right. And yet, isn’t it true that I may just as often get it wrong? Indeed, when we examine the readings more closely, we begin to realise that seeing things in this way may actually be the same as looking through the wrong end of the telescope. It may make what should appear clearer even more difficult to see.

Notice how, in the gospel, for example, Jesus’s advice about judging a tree by its fruit, actually comes immediately after his warning to us not to be too quick to judge others. Why do you observe the splinter in your brother’s eye, the Lord says, and never notice the plank in your own? … Hypocrite! Take the plank out of your own eye first, and then you will see clearly enough to take out the splinter that is in your brother’s eye. These are very strong words, aren’t they? I have to confess that they make me uncomfortable.

And yet, it is important that I pay close attention to them, because they help me to better understand Jesus’s words about judging a tree by its fruit. If the Lord wants me to first remove the plank from my own eye, then doesn’t it follow that the tree I’m supposed to judge first of all, is not someone else’s heart but my own? And how do I judge my own heart? How do I take the plank out of my own eye? I who am at least as blind as the next person, if not even more so?

I can do this only by carefully and regularly examining the words that often come out of my own mouth, as well as the actions that I habitually perform in my own life. I need to pay special attention, not just to the words and actions that I may sometimes use to protect myself and to hurt others, but also to the times when I choose to remain silent, when I really should say something. Or when I choose to remain passive, when I really should do something. I need to allow all my destructive speeches and silences, my selfish actions and omissions to uncover for me the darker intentions of my own heart. So that I may repent of my sinfulness, and seek God’s mercy.

But that’s not all. When I do experience God’s mercy, which is freely offered to me, especially in the Dying and Rising of Christ the Lord, I may then be moved to raise my voice in praise and thanksgiving to God. As we are all gathered here this morning to do at this Mass. In the words of the responsorial psalm, to proclaim God’s love in the morning and God’s truth in the watches of the night…

And not only am I led to speak words of praise and thanks for God’s mercy, I may also be inspired to express that same gratitude in godly acts of mercy. Which includes taking steps to protect those who may suffer from the evil done by others and even by me. As the second reading tells us, to keep on working at the Lord’s work always, knowing that, in the Lord, you cannot be labouring in vain.

To be led first to search one’s own heart in honest self-examination and repentance, and then to speak earnest words of gratitude and praise, as well as to perform merciful actions in the Lord’s service. Isn’t this what it means to look through the correct end of the telescope? To begin by gazing into a mirror of self-examination, rather than by pointing a finger of accusation at others. Isn’t this the way by which we can see more clearly, judge more wisely, respond more properly to the many often confusing events that are happening around us today? Not just big events like the sexual abuse scandals currently rocking our Church. But also smaller, but no less important, events, like those that may take place in our own families and communities, our own workplaces and schools and parishes.

My dear sisters and brothers, what must we do to ensure that we  keep looking at our lives and at our world through the correct end of the telescope today?