Sunday, April 28, 2019

Stand By Me

2nd Sunday of Easter
(Divine Mercy Sunday)
Video: YouTube fdbormand

When the night has come, and the land is dark,
And the moon is the only light we'll see.
No, I won't be afraid. No, I won't be afraid.
Just as long as you stand, stand by me….

My dear friends, do any of you still remember these words? As you may recall, they are taken from a song released in the 1960s, entitled Stand By Me. They describe a particular kind of experience that’s perhaps not always easy to understand. We may call it an experience of the power of presence. The one who is singing claims to feel no fear, even when facing situations as scary as the coming of the night, and the collapse of the mountains into the sea. And why is there no fear? Simply because of the presence of the one who is loved. I won’t be afraid… Just as long as you stand… by me.

The power of presence to keep fear at bay. This is what the song is about. But it’s important to note that it is not just any kind of presence that will do. It is only the presence of the one who is loved. So that the song is really about the power of relationship. The power of love. And this is also what we find in our readings on this 2nd Sunday of Easter.

In the second reading, John is exiled to the island of Patmos, for having preached God’s word and witnessed for Jesus. In the gospel, the disciples have hidden themselves in a room, for fear of the Jews. Yet, in both these readings, those facing scary situations also experience the power of presence.

In the lonely desolation of exile, John hears the consoling voice of the Crucified and Risen Christ, who continues to stand by him. Surrounded by seven golden lamp-stands, which symbolise the seven churches of God. Telling John not to be afraid, but to use his exile as an opportunity to take a sabbatical. To write a book. So that the good news might spread even further and wider.

In the terror of their self-imposed imprisonment, the disciples experience Jesus coming and standing among them. Transforming their fear into joy and peace. And not just joy and peace. For doesn’t the gospel find its continuation in the first reading? Doesn’t the initial fear of the disciples in the upper room eventually give way to their courageous ministry at the Portico of Solomon? Just as they experience Jesus standing by them and liberating them from their fear, the disciples, in their turn, go forth and stand by others, setting them free from their various afflictions.

The liberating power of presence, transforming fear into joy, and peace, and concrete acts of mercy. This is what we find in our readings today. But that’s not all. If it were, then perhaps the gospel would be so much easier for us to put into practice. For we cannot deny that the Crucified and Risen Christ is no longer present among us in exactly the same way as he was to the early disciples. They were able, it would seem, to see and to touch him. To even place their fingers into his wounds, if they wanted to. But we do not have this luxury now, do we?

And yet, our readings challenge us to continue allowing the stone which the builders rejected to become the cornerstone of our lives. To bear witness to the power of the Lord’s enduring presence among us. A presence that we now experience, no longer through physical proof, but instead only by persistent faith. Happy are those who have not seen and yet believe. Happy are you who, even though you no longer have the joyful privilege of touching the Lord in his physical body, are now offered the awesome ability to recognise his liberating presence in the Body of His Church. Not just in the sacramental forms of Bread and Wine, offered here at Mass. But also in the merciful acts performed out there in the world, by all who stand by others in their time of need.

Isn’t this new and mysterious presence an even greater testimony to the power of love? A power that enables the  radiance of the beloved’s presence to be recognised even beyond the darkness of the tomb. And isn’t this the same grace we are invited to claim for ourselves, as we celebrate Divine Mercy Sunday? The grace to acknowledge the different ways in which the Crucified and Risen Lord insists on standing by us in the dark and scary moments of our lives, changing our fear into joy and peace and mercy.

And isn’t this something that we need especially today, when we find ourselves reeling from the news of those horrific acts of terror perpetrated on our brothers and sisters in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday? Precisely on the holiest and most brilliant of days in the Christian calendar, some have attempted to smother us in the dark night of hatred and violence and death. How should we respond? As Christians, perhaps we can do no better than to claim the gift offered to us especially at Easter. To experience anew the consoling presence of the Lord of Mercy standing in the midst of us.

When the night has come, and the land is dark,
And the moon is the only light we'll see.
No, I won't be afraid, No, I won't be afraid.
Just as long as you stand, stand by me….

Sisters and brothers, especially at Easter, we joyously celebrate our belief that Christ our Light has indeed risen! Firmly, we cling to our faith that, even in the darkest of nights, the Lord of Mercy continues to stand by us. What must we do, you and I, to better acknowledge and announce his liberating presence among us today?

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Head to Heart to Hands

Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord (C)
Brief Homily at Solemn Entrance

Reading: Luke 19:28-40

The Lord has need of it. This is the answer that the disciples give to the one who asks them why they are untying the colt, the young donkey. But why, we may wonder, does the Lord need the colt? Why doesn’t he just walk like everyone else on the road to Jerusalem? The answer to this question is clear. The Lord needs the donkey not so much as a means of transport, but more as a sign of deeper meaning.

By riding into the city of Jerusalem on a donkey, the Lord wants to signal to everyone the deeper meaning of what is about to happen to him in the coming week. He wants to show us that by being condemned as a criminal, he is actually also being crowned as king. That by submitting himself to the reign of darkness, he is actually ushering in the kingdom of God. A kingdom of justice and love and peace.

Isn’t this why the Lord refuses to silence his disciples when they cry out loudly in joyful acclamation? And isn’t this also why it is fitting that we too are gathered here this morning to do the same? Like those early disciples, we too want to rejoice and praise God for the mighty works that we have seen. We too want to exclaim: Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest! 

Main Homily

Picture: cc Sprogz

My dear friends, as you know, it’s sometimes said that the longest journey is the one from the head to the heart. And perhaps many of us would agree. For example, even though I may know very well that God loves me, don’t I still sometimes feel envious that God seems to favour someone else over me? Or insecure and anxious about my life, as though God has somehow forgotten or forsaken me? Don’t these reactions of mine indicate that the knowledge of God’s love, which I have in my head, still has a ways to go to penetrate my heart?

And yet, long though the distance from head to heart may be, isn’t the journey from the heart to the hands no less difficult? Isn’t this the experience of Simon Peter? Lord, I would be ready to go to prison with you, and to death, the first pope boldly tells Jesus at the Last Supper. No doubt expressing an intention he firmly holds in his heart. And yet, when faced with the possibility of actually sharing the Lord’s fate, Peter backs down. Three times he disowns his Master, before bitterly weeping over his own cowardice. Regretting his failure to translate his good intentions into concrete action.

Nor is Peter the only one who finds this difficult. Doesn’t the Roman governor experience the same thing? Pontius Pilate knows very well that the Lord is innocent. And he is even anxious to set Jesus free. Yet, although he has the authority to do so, like Peter, Pilate finally backs down. He succumbs to popular pressure. He hands Jesus over to those who want to kill him.

And lest I be too quick to point fingers at Peter and Pilate, don’t I too so often stumble on the road between heart and hands? Don’t I too find it difficult to translate the beliefs I profess every Sunday into faithful practice on the other days of the week? And isn’t this one good reason why I need to pay close attention to all that Jesus goes through in Holy Week? For if there is one striking thing about the Lord’s experience over these most solemn and holiest of days, it is that he courageously carries out every loving intention in his Sacred Heart.

I have longed to eat this passover with you before I suffer. These words of Jesus, at the beginning of today’s gospel, show us what the Lord holds in his heart. He longs not just to share a meal with us, but to commit his whole life to us. This is my body which will be given for you… This cup is the new covenant in my blood which will be poured out for you… And all the love that the Lord holds in his heart, he faithfully transmits, not just through his hands, but through every part of his tortured body. I offered my back to those who struck me, my cheeks to those who tore at my beard; I did not cover my face against insult and spittle… The Lord empties himself, even to accepting death on a cross…

And lest I am tempted to think that it was easier for him than it is for me, the gospel reminds us that, on the Mount of Olives, Jesus was in such anguish that his sweat fell to the ground like great drops of blood. No, it was not easier for him. What made it perhaps more bearable, was that he was humble enough to acknowledge his anguish in prayer before his heavenly Father, and to receive and rely on the strength the angel brought him.

Sisters and brothers, it has also been said that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. As we accompany Jesus on the way of the Cross this week, what step will you be taking today?

Saturday, April 06, 2019

Pulled from the Pit

5th Sunday in Lent (C)
Video: YouTube The Telegraph

My dear friends, do you know what it feels like to be rescued from a trap? Recently, there was a report in the news about six baby elephants found trapped in a pit of mud in Thailand. They were stranded. Unable to climb out on their own. Thankfully, some kind park rangers managed to dig them out. My dear friends, how do you think those baby elephants felt when they were stuck in the mud? And how do you think they felt when they were finally able to get out? … And what about us? How do we feel, for example, when we find ourselves stranded on a train or in an elevator that breaks down? And how do we feel when we’re finally set free? What is it like to be trapped, and what is it like to be rescued? These are the questions that our readings invite us to ponder on this 5th Sunday in Lent.

In the first reading, the people of Israel are pitifully trapped in Exile in Babylon. Not only are they stranded in a foreign country, they are stuck in the pit of their own sinfulness, their worship of foreign gods. But instead of condemning them, God promises to rescue them. Just as God had made a way for their ancestors across the Red Sea in the past, so does God promise to rescue them now. I am making a road in the wilderness, paths in the wilds. God will set them free, so that they might turn away from worshipping idols to sing the praises of God alone.

This experience of being trapped, of being rescued, and of being moved to sing the praises of God is also what St Paul is writing about in the second reading. This is the supreme advantage of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For, although Paul was a highly religious person even before his conversion to Christ, he was actually trapped in his own prejudice. Stuck in his narrow interpretation of the Law. As a result, he ended up persecuting Christians. But the Lord appeared to Paul on the road to Damascus and rescued him. Gave him new eyes to see. So that Paul now lives his life as a song of praise to God alone. All I want is to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and to share his sufferings by reproducing the pattern of his death.

What Paul writes about in the second reading is also what the adulterous woman experiences in the gospel. She too is trapped. Trapped not only in her own sin, but also by the injustice of her own society. Trapped by the self-righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, who treat her not as a person in need of help, but as a weapon to be used for attacking Jesus. Trapped also by the discrimination of her male-dominated society, which seeks to punish only the woman for adultery but not the man.

My dear friends, what do you think this poor woman is feeling, as she stands accused, not just by others, but also by her own conscience? And how do you think she feels when Jesus comes to her rescue? What is it like for her to finally experience someone speaking up on her behalf? Making a way for her, as the park rangers did for those baby elephants. A path out the deadly pit of worldly condemnation, to the safety of God’s mercy and compassion? Has no one condemned you? Neither do I condemn you, go… and do not sin any more.

To ponder the experience of being trapped and of being rescued. To recall what it’s like to be stranded in the sinfulness of my life and of my world, and then of being rescued by the merciful love of God, so powerfully expressed in the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross. Isn’t this why I submit myself to the discipline of Lent? I pray and fast and give to the poor, not to torture myself, but to remember the supreme advantage of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. So that I might turn away from the worship of idols – and the idols I'm tempted to worship are many – and live my life as a song of praise to the one true God. But in order for me to experience all this, I must first recognise the ways in which I may still remain trapped. Stuck in the self-centred ambitions and ceaseless anxieties, the accumulated anger and stubborn resentments, of my daily life. I need to recognise also how the Lord wishes to rescue me. To set me free.

My dear friends, in the gospel, the adulterous woman is not the only one who is trapped. The scribes and Pharisees are too. Highly religious though they may be, they remain stranded, as much in their jealousy and animosity towards Jesus, as in their abuse of the adulterous woman. However, unlike the woman, they are stuck but do not realise it.

And yet, the Lord wishes to rescue them too. Isn’t this also why he says, If there is one of you who has not sinned, let him be the first to throw a stone at her? The Lord utters these words not just to save the woman, much less to condemn her accusers, but rather to rescue them all from their sins. Unfortunately, instead of turning to Christ and confessing their sins, the scribes and Pharisees choose instead to leave quietly. Possibly to save face. The holy men turn away, and remain trapped. The sinful woman stays with the Lord, and is saved.

My dear friends, as you know, this fifth week of Lent is also typically the time for penitential services. A time when we gather to examine our hearts and our lives, to see where we may still be trapped, and how the Lord wishes to rescue us.

Sisters and brothers, as we prepare to celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation this week, are there in our lives perhaps some baby elephants that need to be pulled out of the mud today?