Sunday, June 30, 2019

Shooting Satellites into Space

13th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)
Picture: cc NASA Goddard

My dear friends, do you know what a satellite is? We rely on these objects orbiting around the earth to perform many different functions. There are, for example, weather satellites, communications satellites, observation satellites, military satellites, and so on. But how do all these heavy gadgets get up into space? It’s not easy, because, as you know, in order for them not to fall back to the earth, they must somehow escape its gravitational pull. And for that to happen, the satellite needs to be connected to a rocket that is strong enough to overcome gravity. So it’s the rocket that does all the work. What the satellite has to do is really just to maintain a strong connection to the rocket, so as to allow itself to be carried to its destination.

Getting into space by hanging on tightly to a rocket. It may sound strange, my dear friends, but isn’t this something like what we find in our readings today? Both Elijah, in the first reading, and Jesus, in the gospel, are actually on their way to the same destination. The first reading is taken from somewhere near the end of the first book of Kings. Later, early in the second book of Kings (2 Kg 2:1ff), we’re told that, after completing his mission on earth, Elijah is taken up into heaven. Similarly, in the gospel, we’re told that the time drew near for (Jesus) to be taken up to heaven.

Like rockets, both Elijah and Jesus are about to shoot straight up into the sky. How do they do this? Elijah, as you know, undergoes many trials and persecutions, in order to carry out the mission given to him by God. And, similarly for Jesus, the gospel says that he resolutely took the road for Jerusalem. He is determined to walk the lonely and painful Way of the Cross. In the readings, like powerful rockets, both Elijah and Jesus are able to blast their way up into the heavens, only by laying down their lives on the earth.

But, again like rockets, they don’t just depart this earth on their own. As they go, each of them takes the trouble to call disciples. To lead others to the place where they are going. To share with chosen companions the same glory and happiness that is their proper reward. In the words of the responsorial psalm, you will show me the path of life, the fullness of joy in your presence, at your right hand happiness for ever.

Could this be why both Elijah and Jesus appear to make such unreasonable demands on their disciples? Elijah doesn’t allow Elisha to kiss his parents goodbye. And, even worse, when the one Jesus calls asks for time to bury his father, the Lord tells him to leave the dead to bury their dead. Why so demanding? Why so unreasonable? Could it be because, just as the connection between a satellite and its rocket needs to be strong enough to survive the journey into the heavens, so too must the bond between the disciple and the master be stronger than any other attraction. Stronger even than one’s natural affection for, and filial duty towards, one’s parents. Important though these may be.

For just as a satellite needs to be tightly connected to its rocket, in order to escape the force of gravity, so too must we allow ourselves to be so closely bound to Christ in love, that we are enabled to finally escape the downward pull of selfishness and sin. Isn’t this what St Paul is writing about in the second reading, where he encourages the Galatians to exercise the freedom won for them by Christ, by serving one another in works of love? For it is only by being connected to Christ in this way, and by being guided by the Spirit, that they are able to escape the danger of yielding to self-indulgence.

All of which may help us to reflect on our own lives. We who so often struggle and fail to overcome our lower impulses. Our temptations to feed our egos, to nurse our resentments, and to stab our enemies both in the front and in the back. We who just as often struggle and fail to heed our higher calling. To feed the hungry, to welcome the stranger, and to lay down our lives for our friends.

What are we to do when, however hard we may struggle, we simply cannot seem to escape the gravitational pull of selfishness and sin? Perhaps the solution is not so much to burn ourselves out by applying ever more effort, as it is to deepen our relationship with the One who has already blazed a path for us from death into life. For just as satellites manage to reach their destination only by remaining connected to a rocket, so too are we able to enjoy the freedom of the children of God, only by clinging ever more tightly to God’s only begotten Son.

Sisters and brothers, what will you be doing to strengthen your bond with Christ our Rocket today?

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Of Cooking, Consuming & Corpus Christi

Solemnity of The Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ (C)
Photo: cc Katherine Lim

My dear friends, do you like to cook? Recently I was happy to hear someone speak very enthusiastically about how much he liked to prepare food for others to enjoy. But when he went on to ask me whether I did any cooking, I was too embarrassed to admit that I practised what you might call survival cooking. I cook only to stay alive. So I responded instead by telling him that we both would actually make a great team. Since he likes to cook, and I love to eat.

I was, of course, only joking. But, although I didn’t mean to at the time, I was also making a point, wasn’t I? The point being that I don’t have to know how to cook to know how to eat. In fact, I don’t even need to know where the food I eat comes from, let alone how it was prepared. For example, a survey done back in 2012 revealed that 36% of young adults in the UK between the ages of 16 and 23 did not know that bacon comes from pigs. While 11% of them didn’t know that eggs come from chickens. And yet, ignorant though they were of the origins of bacon and eggs, we can be sure that these same young people had no difficulty enjoying it for breakfast.

This is actually so obvious to us that we don’t need to be reminded of it. We all quite naturally assume that we don’t have to know how food is produced in order to consume it ourselves. And yet, it is precisely because of this assumption of ours that we need the solemn feast of Corpus Christi.

For isn’t it true that too many of us approach the Eucharist in the same way that I responded to my friend’s question? With the unspoken assumption that we can receive its benefits without being continually mindful of its origins? I can’t be completely sure, but I suspect many of us Catholics view the Eucharist the way our society teaches us to view all the other things in our lives. Merely as an object to be consumed and nothing more. And just as I can consume most things while remaining ignorant of how they are produced, so too with the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ. Or so I think.

Isn’t this why some of us find the Mass so boring? Although we may be commended for making the effort to come to church on Sunday, isn’t it true that some of us are so focused on receiving Holy Communion, that we don’t feel too bad if we miss some of the other stuff that happens before and after? Anything before the gospel perhaps. And definitely everything after the host has been safely deposited into our mouths.

And yet, isn’t this also why I may find it such a challenge to appreciate the significance of what happens at Mass on Sunday for everything else that goes on in my life the rest of the week? For if the Mass is nothing more than just another opportunity to consume something, then what additional value can it possibly have for me, who already spend the rest of my life continually consuming everything else anyway?

Could this be why it’s possible for me to even spend long periods in the adoration room, consuming the sacred host with my eyes, without necessarily experiencing any improvement in how I relate to the world outside? Without my becoming any less selfish and any more loving?

Could it be, my dear friends, that my tendency to separate the consumption of the Eucharist from its origins actually prevents me from receiving its benefits? For isn’t it striking that, in our Mass readings today, the consumption of spiritual food is intimately connected with its production?

In the second reading – which, as you know, is the same one we read on Holy Thursday – Jesus offers food to his disciples in a very particular way. First, the Lord performs several specific preparatory actions. The same actions that he performs in the gospel, and which the priest performs at Mass. The Lord takes and blesses (or gives thanks). He then breaks and gives. Second, the disciples are asked to do this as a memorial of me. To ensure that every time they prepare and consume the Eucharistic food, they bear firmly in their minds and hearts its true source. Its deeper origin, not just at the Table of the Last Supper on Holy Thursday, but also, ultimately, on the Wood of the Cross on Good Friday. For every time you eat this bread and drink this cup, you are proclaiming (the Lord’s) death.

It is only by doing this, by preparing food the way Christ prepares it – while simultaneously recalling the Lord’s loving sacrifice on the Cross – that we, who call ourselves his followers, are able to do what Jesus tells his disciples to do in the gospel. Give them something to eat yourselves. Not to remain focused only on consuming what is offered to us. But to also be mindful of the need to feed the crowds of people who still experience a hunger the world cannot satisfy.

At the Eucharistic Table, my dear friends, those who are fed are also motivated and empowered to feed others as well. Those who truly receive the Gift of Christ’s Life, are prompted to make a return gift of their own lives. Allowing themselves to be taken and blessed, broken and given. So that other lives might be nourished as well.

In this way, all of us who claim to follow Christ truly become his Body. Through him, with him, and in him, we too become priests like Melchizedek of old. A people whose lives are a blessing to God and to others. And, in this way too, the prayer that we offered at the beginning of Mass finds its answer. This is the proper way for us so to revere the sacred mysteries of (the Lord’s) Body and Blood, that we may always experience in ourselves the fruit of (His) redemption. For, contrary to the assumption I had when responding to my friend’s question, we can only be nourished by the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ by participating fully and actively in its production. At the Table of the Lord, I can only eat by also learning how to cook.

Sisters and brothers, if all this is true – if our being fed by the Lord is intimately connected to the feeding of others as well – then what must we do, both as individuals and as a community, to become better chefs today?

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Remembering the King

Solemnity of The Most Holy Trinity (C)
Video: YouTube Iftadulsadab Kashif

My dear friends, do you remember the story of King Kong? As you may recall, King Kong is the title of a movie first produced in 1933, and later remade by Peter Jackson in 2005. In the remake, a film crew travels by boat to a remote island, populated by prehistoric creatures, including King Kong, a majestic 25-foot gorilla. Unexpectedly, this gigantic ape falls in love with Ann, the lead actress on the film crew, and takes it upon himself to protect her from all harm. In a spectacular sequence, Kong successfully fights off a pack of giant flesh-eating dinosaurs, while continually passing the tiny actress from the safety of one huge hairy hand to another.

Unfortunately for Kong, however, his love for Ann results in him being captured and brought to New York City, where he promptly escapes and continues to do what he had been doing on the island. He keeps fighting to protect Ann. Eventually, he carries her up the Empire State Building, where Kong is tragically shot and killed by war planes. But not before ensuring that Ann is safely deposited at the top of the building.

The story is, of course, a work of fiction. But it may be helpful for us to imagine what it’s like to be Ann. What it’s like to be loved in such an inexplicable, total and self-sacrificing way. What does it feel like to be held in those powerful yet protective hands, to gaze into those fiercely determined yet tender eyes, and to watch the life gradually fade from them, all for one’s own sake?

It may sound strange, my dear friends, but I believe it is by pondering questions like these that we begin to appreciate the deep Mystery we are celebrating today. It is by placing ourselves in the shoes of someone like Ann – by recalling what it feels like to be loved in a similarly inexplicable, total and self-sacrificing way – that we can hope to penetrate the significance of our belief that God is a Trinity of Persons united in a single divine Substance.

For the doctrine of the Trinity can only be appreciated from a very particular location. The same spiritual place that St Paul describes in the second reading, when he says that it is by faith and through Jesus that we have entered this state of grace… What is this state of grace? Isn’t it that place of safety where we have been deposited by the love of God? The same inexplicable, total and self-sacrificing love expressed so eloquently and majestically in the Life, Death and Resurrection of Christ? Not unlike how King Kong leaves Ann safe at the top of the Empire State Building, even as he himself slowly slips away to his death?

Except that, we believe God does not simply slip away and abandon us. For, in the gospel, before going to his Passion, Jesus speaks to his disciples about the coming of the Spirit of truth, who will lead them to the complete truth. So that, if we were to think of Jesus and the Spirit as two hands that the loving Father stretches out, to hold us and to protect us, then it is as though the Father were passing us from the safety of one hand to another. Much like how King Kong passes his beloved Ann from one hand to another, even as he fights to protect her from the monsters that seek to devour her.

What does it feel like, my dear friends, to be at a spiritual location such as this? To find myself in this state of grace? What happens to me, when I begin to appreciate in some measure the inexplicable, total and self-sacrificing love that has been and continues to be showered upon me by God? The love that we have been pondering throughout the beautiful season of Easter, which ended last week with the feast of Pentecost?

Perhaps, when I do arrive at this place, I may be moved to ask the same question posed in the psalm: what is man that you should keep him in mind, mortal man that you care for him? Or, in other words, who am I, Lord, that you, who are so majestic and mighty, should l lay down your life for me in Christ? That you should commit yourself to remaining forever present to me in the Spirit? Who am I that you should keep protecting me from every evil that threatens to devour my life? Who am I that you should even delight to be with me, as the first reading assures me you do. I who sometimes can’t even abide my own company. Who am I that you, who are so full of life, should empty yourself so completely for me through Christ and in the Holy Spirit? Who am I, Lord, that you should love me in such an inexplicable, total and self-sacrificing way?

And what might happen to me, my dear friends, when I do indeed ask myself questions such as these? Perhaps then there will be ignited within me a tiny spark of that divine Love that blazes so intensely for me. And as I begin to burn with this same love, perhaps I will also learn to do what Paul asks the Romans to do in the second reading. To take pride in my sufferings, instead of constantly complaining about them, or trying to run away from them. For, when borne with love, these sufferings lead me closer to Christ.

Perhaps I will also learn to delight in the beauty of God’s creation. To delight even in the often messy circumstances of my own life, and of the lives of the people among whom I live and work every day. Perhaps I will also learn to reach out my hands, to protect those around me who are most at risk, even as God continues to reach out God’s hands to protect me.

My dear friends, at the end of the movie King Kong, as the great ape lies dead, a puzzled reporter asks, why did he do that…? To which someone else replies It was beauty killed the beast. Meaning, presumably, that it was because of the beauty of the actress that Kong died. But even if this may be true of the great ape, it is not quite what we believe about God. For we believe that God loves us not because of any merit or beauty of ours, but simply because God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them (1 John 4:16).

Sisters and brothers, as we celebrate the marvellous love that is the Most Holy Trinity, perhaps it is fitting that we should also ask ourselves where exactly are we choosing to abide today?

Sunday, June 09, 2019

Learning the Language of Love

Solemnity of Pentecost (C)
Video: YouTube uCatholic

My dear friends, do you know why we have two ears and only one mouth? According to a well-known saying, it’s so that we can listen twice as much as we speak. Which makes a lot of sense, when we stop to think about it. Seeing as how our ability to speak is so dependent upon our ability to hear, that those who are born deaf often have difficulties learning to talk.

This close connection between speaking and listening is something that we might do well to bear in mind today, as we celebrate this solemn feast of Pentecost. For perhaps one of the most striking effects of the coming of the Holy Spirit – at least as it is described in the first reading – is how the Spirit endows the disciples with the gift of speech. The power to speak foreign languages. To preach, in the respective native tongues of their listeners, about the marvels of God.

I’m not sure about you, my dear friends, but I find my attention easily captured by this apparently miraculous gift of tongues. On occasion, I even wonder to myself why I don’t seem to have this same useful power. Why it isn’t easier for me to learn a foreign tongue. To be honest, I find it a challenge just to hear confessions in a second language, let alone to preach in a third or a fourth

And yet, engrossed as I often am by this power to speak in different tongues, it’s easy for me to forget that speaking is not the only gift that the Spirit brings at Pentecost. A closer look at the first reading uncovers another blessing, as important as the first. Do you know what it is? No prizes for guessing, since it’s really quite obvious, if only we take the time to look.

While the first paragraph of the reading describes the effects of the Spirit’s coming upon the disciples, the second paragraph shifts our attention to their listeners. It tells us of the amazement and astonishment of these foreigners from every nation under heaven. Surely, they say to themselves, all these men speaking are Galileans? How does it happen that each of us hears them in his own native language?

The obvious answer to their question is, of course, the one provided in the first paragraph. They are able to understand the preaching, because the Holy Spirit has given the disciples the gift of speech. But isn’t it also reasonable to suppose that, along with the power of expression bestowed upon the disciples, the Spirit has also given to their listeners a corresponding power of receptivity?  That the gift of speech comes with an accompanying gift of hearing. How else to explain their openness to the Good News, if the Spirit were not simultaneously at work, as much in the listeners as in the speakers? Perhaps it is no accident, then, that the first reading calls these listeners devout.

Nor is it just the foreigners in the first reading who have been given the gift of hearing, the power of receptivity. Haven’t the disciples themselves received this same gift? Haven’t they been taught first to hear, in order that they might speak? Isn’t this the promise Jesus makes them in the gospel? The Advocate… will teach you everything and remind you of all I have said to you. In other words, even before the Spirit bestows the gift of speech, it helps the disciples to listen again to everything that Jesus has said to them in the past. Isn’t this what we ourselves have been doing the whole of Easter?

Just as any child learns to talk only by first learning to hear, so too do the disciples learn to proclaim the Good News by first being taught to hear it and to receive it, to recognise it in their own experience, and be renewed by it. This is how they learn to listen and speak in a very specific yet universally understood language. Do you know what this language is?

It is the same one through which Jesus expressed himself when he walked among us on this earth, and especially when he allowed himself to suffer, to die, and to be raised up on the Cross for us. It is also of this same language that he speaks in the gospel, when he tells his disciples, If anyone loves me he will keep my word and my Father will love him, and we shall come to him and make our home with him. This language of God’s love is also what Paul writes about in the second reading, when he encourages the Roman Christians to live spiritual lives. Lives that cry out, in the intimate family dialect of God’s love, Abba, Father! In contrast, those who speak only the unspiritual worldly lingo of selfishness are doomed to die.

All of which may help me to answer the question I asked myself at the start. Why don’t I seem to have the same gift of speech the disciples were given at Pentecost? For two possible reasons. First, it may be that I’m too focused on speaking foreign languages with my tongue, when I should really be more concerned about learning to communicate Christ’s love with my whole life. And, second, just as a child learns to talk by hearing, so too do I need to beg the Spirit for the ability first to better recognise and relish God’s loving presence in my own life. Only then can I hope to point it out to others in ways they can easily understand.

My dear sisters and brothers, in our Mass readings today, although there is a striking description of the gift of speech, we actually find even more references to the gift of hearing. A gift bestowed both upon the disciples and their listeners. So that the old saying still holds true. We are given two ears and one mouth, so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.

I’m reminded of these words from the late Fr John Veltri, SJ:

Teach me to listen, O God, to those nearest me,
my family, my friends, my co-workers.
Help me to be aware that no matter what words I hear,
the message is, “Accept the person I am. Listen to me.”
Teach me to listen, my caring God, to those far from me –
the whisper of the hopeless, the plea of the forgotten,
the cry of the anguished.
Teach me to listen, O God my Mother, to myself.
Help me to be less afraid to trust the voice inside —
in the deepest part of me.
Teach me to listen, Holy Spirit, for your voice —
in busyness and in boredom, in certainty and doubt,
in noise and in silence.
Teach me, Lord, to listen.

Sisters and brothers, as we bring the beautiful Season of Easter to a close, what must we do to keep allowing the Spirit to teach us to listen twice as much as we speak today?

Sunday, June 02, 2019

Where Do You Live? (Rerun)

7th Sunday in Easter (C)
Picture: cc Ade Rixon

My dear friends, if I were to ask you where you live, how would you answer? Assuming, of course, that you trust me enough to tell me the truth, and you don’t just tell me to mind my own business, very likely you’ll do what the rest of us would do. You’ll tell me your street address. But is that the only way to answer the question? What do you think?

Some of us may remember that story at the beginning of John’s Gospel, where Jesus answers this same question, where do you live, in a very different way. When two disciples of John the Baptist follow him, as the Lord is walking along the Jordan river, Jesus asks them what they are looking for. And they say to him, Rabbi, where do you live? Do you remember how Jesus responds? He doesn’t tell them his exact address. He doesn’t say Christ the King Church, 2221 Ang Mo Kio Ave 8. Instead, he invites them to come and see…

Why do you think he does that? When asked where he lives, why doesn’t Jesus just tell people his address? Perhaps it’s because he doesn’t have one. At this point in the story, he has already left his family home in Nazareth, to live the life of a wandering preacher. So, very likely, his address changes from day to day. He can’t say exactly where he lives. People have to come and see for themselves.

But could there be another deeper reason for the Lord’s response? Could it be that, for Jesus, the question where do you live cannot be adequately answered by repeating names and numbers? Could it be that what he wants to share with us is not his street address, but the location of his spiritual home? Not just where he lays his head from time to time. But where his heart finds rest all of the time. Could it be that what the Lord wants is to show us where he truly lives? Where he has always lived. Even from before the foundation of the world. His eternal resting place in the loving will of his heavenly Father. And the only way Jesus can do this is by inviting us to follow him… To come and see

To discover not so much the Lord’s street address, but his true spiritual home. So that we may live where he lives, and in the way that he lives. Isn’t this what Jesus is praying for, on our behalf, in the gospel today? Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, so that they may always see the glory you have given me… To be with me where I am. In other words, to live where the Lord himself lives. Not just to join him in heaven after we die – although that is a good thing to pray for – but to live with the Lord even now, on this earth. To live in his love, just as he lives in his Father’s love. This is the awesome gift that Jesus begs for us. For you and for me.

But what does this gift look like? Do we know? We find the answer in the other two readings. In the first reading, Stephen fearlessly proclaims the gospel, and is persecuted for it. He is dragged out of the city of Jerusalem, and cruelly stoned to death. And yet, the reading tells us that, even in the face of such terrible suffering, Stephen experiences the presence of God. I can see heaven thrown open, he declares, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God. Not only does Stephen see the glory of God, he is able also to imitate Jesus in forgiving his murderers. And even to pray for them. A sign that, even when he finds himself at a place of great trial, Stephen continues to make his home in the Lord. To live where Jesus lives.

We find something similar in the second reading, taken from the end of the book of Revelation. Here, the apostle John remains in exile on the island of Patmos. And yet, in his painful isolation, in his distant desolation, like Stephen, John too is able to experience the closeness of the Lord. At a time when he might so easily fall into depression and despair, John hears a voice reminding him of the identity of the One in whose hands he has entrusted his life. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End… This voice reassures John that he is not alone… I shall indeed be with you soon. And it also shows us that, even while on an island of exile, John continues to live where Jesus lives.

Sisters and brothers, in our readings today, it is clear that Stephen and John find themselves at different addresses. One is on an island, and the other is outside a city. Yet they both actually live in the same spiritual place. They share the same heavenly home. They live where Jesus lives, and in the same way that he lived. They bear witness to the good news of God’s merciful love for us. They able to look into the Lord’s glory, even as they lay down their lives for others. So that, what we find in their experience, is really the Father’s gracious answer to the Son’s fervent prayer in the gospel. Both in Stephen and in John, we find people who have received from God the gift to remain always in the presence of the Lord.

To constantly live where Jesus lives, even while we remain here on this earth. To keep making our home in the Lord, no matter what our street address may be. To somehow be able to see his face, and to hear his voice. To experience his presence, even in times of trial. Encouraging and consoling us. Accompanying and guiding us. Strengthening and inspiring us. Isn’t this what we all need so very much today? Especially those of us whose lives are often filled with stress and strain, or with loneliness and boredom. Those of us who may sometimes try to fill the emptiness within us with all sorts of apparently harmless activities that may soon become bad habits? Desperate diversions that may dull our pain for a short time, but can really do nothing to calm our restlessness, to shelter our homelessness, to heal our brokenness.

Perhaps it is especially for those of us who suffer in this way, that Jesus prays in the gospel. And the wonderful thing is that his prayer has already been heard. His request has already been granted. The gift has already been given. This is the good news that we are celebrating in this beautiful season of Easter. What we need to do is to keep taking the necessary steps to claim this gift for ourselves. To come to where the Lord lives. As did those first disciples in John’s gospel. To come and see. To surrender and to follow. And then to be sent out to help others do the same. Others who, like us, may be searching desperately for a spiritual home.

Sisters and brothers, on this 7th Sunday of Easter, if someone were to ask you where do you live?, what would your answer be?