Saturday, November 30, 2019

From Snoozing to Running

1st Sunday of Advent (A)
Video: YouTube The Straits Times

My dear friends, are you familiar with the phrase to hit the ground running? As you know, it means to start doing something with great speed and enthusiasm, as soon as the opportunity presents itself. We find a striking image of this in today’s issue of The Straits Times, which carries a photograph of 29-year old Mr Jonathan Tan, dashing joyously into the Robinson’s store on Orchard Road, as soon as its doors opened at 7am yesterday morning. Mr Tan was the triumphant first customer at the store’s Black Friday Sale. We might say that, once the sale began, Mr Tan hit the ground running

And it was not by chance that he was able to do this. In order to be first, Mr Tan had taken the trouble to start queuing at the store’s entrance as early as 4am the previous day. No less than 27 hours before opening time! What kept him going?  What motivated him to endure the discomfort? According to The Straits Times, Mr Tan is getting married soon, and was looking for a new mattress and some home appliances. Still, we may wonder whether you really need to camp out overnight just for that.

I’m not sure, my dear friends, but perhaps another commonly used saying can help explain Mr Tan’s endurance and enthusiasm. You may have heard or used it before yourself. The saying is, you snooze, you… lose! It may be that, like any hot-blooded Singaporean, including me, Mr Tan was motivated not just by the hope for great bargains, but also by the desire not to snooze and lose.

Strenuously preparing to hit the ground running, so as to avoid snoozing and losing. Something like this is also what we find in our Mass readings today. The first reading speaks of a day in the future when all the nations will be dashing to the mountain of the Lord, seeking admission to the Temple of the God of Jacob. They go there not to shop for bargains, but to submit to God’s authority. To walk in the paths of the Lord.

And God encourages the House of Jacob to prepare for this day that is still to come, by making every effort to walk in the light of the Lord now. Like those eager shoppers camping outside Robinson’s, Jacob is asked to endure the discomfort of walking in God’s ways in the present, so that when the day of the Lord finally arrives, like Mr Jonathan Tan, Jacob too might be able to hit the ground running.

The other readings issue a similar call to the followers of Christ. To you and to me. As with the House of Jacob, we too are told that a day is coming when the darkness of sin and selfishness will be banished, and the light of God’s love will bathe the whole world in its brilliance. And it’s helpful for us to imagine, if only for a moment, what this day might be like… When pain and suffering are no more… When conflict and terror and war are ended… When hunger and homelessness, apathy and inequality are eradicated… And every tear wiped away… When God’s kingdom will come in all its fullness…

Like enthusiastic shoppers, ready to brave the elements for the sake of gaining their hearts’ desire, our readings warn us to prepare conscientiously for this day’s dawning. Not to allow ourselves to be caught napping. Not to snooze and lose. But what is the spiritual equivalent of roughing it out at the doorstep of Robinson’s, while everyone else sleeps comfortably in their beds?

The second reading offers an answer, by telling us to live in the darkness of our world, as though we were already in the light… Let us live decently as people do in the daytime: no drunken orgies, no promiscuity or licentiousness, and no wrangling or jealousy. Or, to put it another way, allow your desires to be rightly ordered, by centring them on God. Strive to make God your first priority, just as shoppers joyfully make the grabbing of bargains theirs.

And yet, to be fair, my dear friends, preparing for the coming of the Lord is, in some sense, even more demanding than queuing for a Black Friday Sale. For the shoppers waiting outside Robinson’s at least know exactly when the doors will open. Whereas, for us, Jesus says that the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect. So that, while shoppers need to be vigilant only when big sales come around. Perhaps no more than a few times a year. A Christian’s whole existence is one long preparation for the coming of the Lord. Ours is a life of constant vigilance. You snooze, you lose!

Thankfully, there is at least one crucially important point, where a Christian actually has it better than a bargain-hunter. Do you know what it is? For shoppers waiting outside a store, the fulfilment of all their hopes happens only when the sale actually begins. Only when those magical doors are finally thrown open. But things are quite different for us Christians. For we believe that our Prize is not just waiting for us behind some closed door that is yet to be opened. On the contrary, we believe that Christ has already come to us. Has already pitched his tent among us. Has already poured out his love and life for us on the Cross. Isn’t this why we gather every week to celebrate the Eucharist? As we give thanks for what we have already received, and continue to receive, in Christ, we help one another to do what the second reading encourages us to do. We prepare for the Lord’s coming again, by letting our armour be the Lord Jesus Christ.

Even so, it’s not easy to remain ever mindful of all these things. Especially not when we may find ourselves overwhelmed by the many cares of daily life. Or distracted by the various passing fancies, unceasingly paraded before our eyes by expert advertising. Which is why we very much need this season of Advent that we are now beginning. A precious time to help us continue preparing to receive the God who is coming, by staying close to the God who has already arrived.

Sisters and brothers, perhaps it’s not too much of a stretch to say that to be a Christian is really to move continually from snoozing and losing to preparing to hit the ground running. What must we do, you and I, to continue moving from one to the other this Advent?

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Do You Like Dogs?

Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe (C)

My dear friends, do you like dogs? Here in Singapore, if I were to say that I like dogs, I think you all would understand what I mean, right? I probably mean that, given a chance, I’ll be happy to have a dog as a pet. But, as you know, in certain other parts of the world, when people say that they like dogs, they may actually have something very different in mind. Do you know what it is? Yes, in some cultures, a dog is seen not primarily as a pet, on which to shower one’s affection, but more as a delicacy, with which to tingle one’s tastebuds.

This is just one example of something that we all know quite well. Different people, looking at exactly the same thing, often see something very different. What looks like an object of affection to some, might be seen by others as food… or a nuisance… or even a cause for fear. And I’m not sure if you’ll agree with me when I say this, but the reason for these differences is because we see things not just with our eyes, but also through our appetites or desires, shaped as these are by the particular culture or society to which we belong.

All of which may help us to ponder more deeply what we find in the gospel reading today. The scene is actually quite straightforward. A condemned criminal named Jesus is being put to death on a cross. But the writer takes pains to describe the different reactions of various groups to this same scene.

First, we’re told that there are people who just stayed there before the cross watching. We’re not told what they are thinking or feeling. All we know is they simply stand and look, without getting involved. Just as passers-by might gather around the scene of an accident today. Some even taking pictures, and posting them on social media. Perhaps, for these people, the scene serves only to feed their curiosity.

Next, we’re told that the religious leaders jeered at him. They make fun of Jesus, whose condemnation they themselves had a hand in orchestrating. For them, perhaps, the scene serves as much to gratify their lust for power, as to allay their fear of losing it. And the soldiers carrying out the execution join the religious leaders in mocking Jesus, by urging him to save himself. Perhaps these military men are so bored by their dull daily routine, that they hope to find, in the misery of a dying person, the possibility of some brief mindless diversion.

Then, our attention is drawn to the sharp contrast between the respective reactions of the two other condemned criminals crucified with Jesus. We’re told that the first of these abuses him. It’s as though he sees Jesus as a kind of punching bag on which to vent his anger and resentment. His disappointment and disillusionment with his own wasted life.

Finally, and most incredibly, the second criminal, looking at the exact same scene, sees something very different from all the others before him. In the gruesome and tragic sight of a crucified man, this criminal sees what the second reading calls the image of the unseen God and the firstborn of all creation. More than that, he even goes so far as to say to Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.

Looking on, as our Lord dies painfully and shamefully on the cross, this criminal is somehow able to see a king in the process of entering his kingdom. And he is moved to do on Calvary what the Israelites in the first reading did at Hebron. In his heart, he crowns Jesus as his king. And, in so doing, he is taken out of the power of darkness and brought into the kingdom of the Son. Whereas others may see nothing more than an object of curiosity or a threat to power, a distraction from boredom or an outlet for resentment, this criminal is able to see and to seize a precious opportunity to sneak into heaven by acknowledging Christ as king.

Incredible as it may seem, this marvellous ability, demonstrated by the second criminal in the gospel, is actually something that should characterise every Christian. For to be a follower of Christ is precisely to be able to recognise in every situation an opportunity to crown as king the One who made peace by his death on the cross. And isn’t this something that our world still needs so much today? For even though more than two thousand years have passed since that fateful afternoon on Calvary, when Jesus died on his cross, don’t we continue to encounter many similar scenes of suffering and conflict?

The situation in Hong Kong perhaps comes most readily to mind. As do the various examples of the international ecological crisis – wildfires and drought in Australia… severe storms and flooding all over the world… But so too do the recently released results of that important study done by NUS Assistant Professor Ng Kok Hoe. According to which there are now no less than 1,000 homeless people in Singapore.

And I’m sure each of us can match these more public scenes of suffering and conflict with other more personal ones we each encounter everyday. Scenes from work and home. Scenes involving clients and colleagues, friends and family alike. Scenes that offer precious opportunities for us to choose to imitate that second criminal in recognising and crowning Christ as king.

My dear friends, just as the future of dogs may well depend on human appetites, so too does the fate of our world depend on our willingness to centre our desires on Christ. As the second reading reminds us, God wanted all things to be reconciled in the Cross of Christ, everything in heaven and everything on earth…

Sisters and brothers, what must we do to allow God to keep shaping our appetites and desires, so that, in every situation we face, we may see Christ more clearly and crown him more wholeheartedly as king today?

Saturday, November 16, 2019

Beyond Days of Reckoning

33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

My dear friends, do you know what a day of reckoning is? It’s a day of judgment. A time when wrongdoers are made to pay for all the bad things they have done, and those who have been good are rewarded for their efforts. I’m not sure, but I suspect that there are some of us here for whom we already know exactly when the day of reckoning is going to take place. It’s this coming Thursday, the 21st of November. Do you know why? That’s when the PSLE results will be released. For isn’t it true that many of us see this particular day as a time when misdeeds are punished, and hard work rewarded? I’m referring, of course, not so much to the children who sat for the exams, but more to their poor parents!

It’s sad but true, isn’t it, that so many of us seem to consider the PSLE as nothing more, or less, than a stress-producing, anxiety-inducing preparation to face a fearsome day of reckoning? Of course, it’s easy for me to talk, since I’m not a parent myself. And yet, don’t some of us wonder whether it really has to be this way? Whether the process of educating our children could be less burdensome? Don’t we wish someone would find a way help our kids cultivate a love for learning, by making it just a little bit more enjoyable?

I mention this not to make fun of those who may still be recovering from the trauma of the PSLE. But more because, as I’m sure you’ve already noticed, our readings today describe something that looks a lot like a day of reckoning, a day when spiritual exam results are released. We see this perhaps most clearly in the first reading, which speaks of a day that is coming like a blazing sun. Burning up evil-doers, on one hand, and healing good people, on the other.

In the gospel too, Jesus describes the coming destruction of the city of Jerusalem by the Romans in the year 70 AD, as something like a day of reckoning. A day when the fidelity of disciples is tested. Those who remain faithful to the Lord’s name, even in the face of terrible trials – including being betrayed by their closest relatives and friends – all these faithful disciples will be rewarded. Their endurance will win them their lives. The implication being that those who do not endure, those who fail to remain faithful, will be punished.

So we can perhaps be forgiven, my dear friends, if we were to see the coming of the Lord as nothing more than a fearsome day of reckoning. A time for the bad to be punished, and the good to be rewarded. So that, in order to prepare for this terrible day, we have to do what many children and parents in Singapore force themselves to do to get ready for the PSLE. We need to put in great effort. We need to endure the unavoidable pain of hard work.

In other words, we need to do something like what St Paul is asking the Thessalonians to do in the second reading. We need to go on quietly working and earning the food that we eat. Except that the work we have to do is not just the kind that puts money in our bank accounts, and food in our stomachs, but the kind that will help us obtain a good score when the heavenly PSLE results are released. We need to engage regularly in fervent prayer and in charitable works.

All of which is, of course, not wrong. We do need to prepare to face the Last Judgment. And just as it’s proper to work hard to get ready for the PSLE, so too is it appropriate to think that we need to work hard to prepare ourselves to stand before the Lord when he comes. But still, just as we may wonder whether there’s more to the PSLE than a traumatic process of pain and suffering (especially for parents), might we not also wonder whether the spiritual life is really meant to be all doom and gloom? Is there not perhaps some truth in that old saying that all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy?

Thankfully, the opening prayer that we offered earlier, helps to give us a more balanced view of what preparing for the Day of the Lord should feel like. For it seems significant that, in this prayer, we prayed not so much for the diligence to engage in hard work, or for the capacity to endure pain and suffering. Important though these may be. Instead, what we prayed for is the constant gladness of being devoted to (God), for it is full and lasting happiness to serve with constancy the author of all that is good… 

Constant gladness and lasting happiness born of service with constancy. This is what we prayed for. And what does this suggest, if not that – surprising as it may sound – our efforts to prepare for the coming of the Lord should really bring us joy, even in the midst of trial? Of course, this joy is not the kind of passing pleasure that we may get from indulging in various addictions, like shopping or gaming. It is instead perhaps more like the interior calm and profound peace that comes from being rooted in the love of God. From living a loving, purposeful, God-centred life, in which even trials and tribulations are considered joyful opportunities to bear witness. Consoling occasions for experiencing the presence of the Lord, who promises to give us, in time of trouble, an eloquence and a wisdom that none of our opponents will be able to resist or contradict…

I’m reminded of these consoling words from an old Christian song written by Michael Card…

There is a joy in the journey.
There's a light we can love on the way.
There is a wonder and wildness to life.
And freedom for those who obey.
And freedom for those who obey.

Sisters and brothers, even if we may rightly consider the coming of the Lord as a day of reckoning, perhaps our preparations to face it can be far more peaceful and joyful than the experience of the PSLE. What can we do to claim this gift of peace and joy for ourselves, as we continue preparing for the Lord’s coming today and everyday?

Sunday, November 10, 2019

When Destination Determines Direction

32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

My dear friends, if you were to get into a car that I happen to be driving, and I promise to take you wherever you want to go, do you know how to tell whether or not I’m keeping my promise? Of course you do, right? How will you do it? By simply observing the direction in which I’m going. By paying attention to the landmarks and the street signs we pass along the way. So, for example, if I agree to take you to the airport, but you notice that I’m heading west instead of east, and the signs tell you we’re on the way to Tuas instead of to Changi, then you probably have good reason to be suspicious.

In other words, we can tell the destination someone intends to reach, not just by accepting what the person has to say, but also by considering the direction in which that person chooses to travel. By paying attention to the signs along the way. This, I believe, is also what we find in our Mass readings today.

In the gospel, a group of Sadducees pick a fight with Jesus about the resurrection from the dead. As you know, Jesus and many of the Jews of his day, firmly believed in the resurrection. But the Sadducees did not. And it’s important for us to realise that this is not just a difference in some abstract incidental belief. Rather, it is a fundamental disagreement over humanity’s final destination. One side aims to go no further than the boundaries of this world. The other hopes to reach far beyond.

To their credit, the Sadducees made no attempt to hide their disbelief. They professed it openly. As they do in the gospel. And we know that the wealthy and worldly Sadducees testified to their disbelief not just by the things they said, but also by the materialistic direction in which they chose to steer their daily lives. As we see in the scornful argument they use against Jesus in the gospel, the Sadducees’ minds and hearts were filled only with worldly perspectives and temporal concerns.

So that if we were to imagine, just for a moment, that the Sadducees were placed in the same position as that heroic mother and her seven sons in the first reading, it’s difficult for us to imagine them reacting in the same way, right? Forced to choose between apostasy on the one hand, and torture and death on the other, we may be forgiven for expecting the Sadducees to quickly choose apostasy. After all, without the hope in the resurrection to sustain them, from where will they draw the strength they need to suffer and to die?

In contrast, the mother and her seven sons demonstrate their belief in the resurrection, not just by what they say, but especially by how they choose to live, and how they choose to die. Their heroic sacrifice is an eloquent sign of the firmness of their faith, of the stability of their hope in God’s promise of new life. So that those moving words from the responsorial psalm can quite easily be placed on each of their lips: I kept my feet firmly in your paths; there was no faltering in my steps…. As for me, in my justice I shall see your face and be filled, when I awake, with the sight of your glory.

Again, my dear friends, we discern someone’s intended destination, not just by accepting whatever that person happens to say, but also by considering the direction in which that person chooses to travel. By reading the road signs in that person’s life. If this is true of the people in our readings, then what about us? What about me? I who, at Mass every Sunday, together with the whole congregation, publicly profess that I look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. Amen. To what extent does the reality of my life actually match this faith that I so regularly profess?

When I consider the direction in which I choose to steer my life everyday, what do I find? What are the things I typically allow to occupy my mind and heart? How do I decide where to channel the energies and resources at my disposal? What perspectives and concerns do I consider? What do I worry about? What keeps me up at night? And, perhaps most significantly, how do I react when I encounter those difficulties and trials that, from time to time, life inevitably places in my path? How do I handle those often subtle temptations to compromise my beliefs, to give in to the materialistic and self-centred demands of the world, at the expense of my Christian faith?

In other words, when I honestly consider all the road signs in my own life’s journey, what do they tell me about the destination towards which I am actually heading? How firmly do I believe in the resurrection? Of course, I must acknowledge that, unlike the angels, I am made of flesh and blood. I live in the material world. But still, to what extent do I allow my decisions in time to be informed by the vast yet consoling horizon of eternity?

And what if all the signs in my life indicate, perhaps to my great surprise, that my chosen path is closer to that of the Sadducees than that of the mother and her seven sons? What then? Is there a way for me to change course, if I want to? From where do I find the courage and strength to do that? We find a helpful answer to these questions in the second reading which, as you’ve probably already noticed, begins and ends with sentences starting with the word may. May our Lord Jesus Christ himself, and God our Father… comfort you and strengthen you in everything good that you do or say.… May the Lord turn your hearts towards the love of God and the fortitude of Christ.

In other words, the reading begins and ends with words of prayer offered for those to whom the reading is addressed. Not only prayer for comfort and strength, but also prayer that their hearts might be pointed in the right direction. What’s more, in between these words of prayer, we find, at the heart of the reading, a heartfelt appeal for more prayers to be offered, this time for the author and his collaborators. Pray for us; pray that the Lord’s message may spread quickly… pray that we may be preserved from the interference of… evil people.

What does this tell us, my dear friends, if not that the road to eternal life is paved not just by our good intentions, or by our inspiring words – important as these may be – but more by our loving choices sustained by insistent and humble prayer. Prayer such as the one we are gathered here at this Mass to offer. The ultimate sacrifice of the One who came from heaven to earth, in order to bridge for us the distance between time and eternity. To blaze for us a path from death into life.

Sisters and brothers, if we were to each take some time to consider the direction in which our life is heading, what will we find? To which destination are you truly heading today?

Sunday, November 03, 2019

Homeward Bound

31st Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)
Picture: YouTube Simon & Garfunkel 

My dear friends, have you ever suffered from homesickness? Do you know what it feels like? Perhaps there are some of us here who are feeling it even now. As you know, homesickness is what happens to people living away from home for an extended period of time. Foreign students, for example, or migrant workers. Or even those who move into a new estate, or join a new parish. Those who find themselves in a strange environment, surrounded by unfamiliar people. In such situations, it’s understandable to feel like a fish out of water. It’s natural even to feel sad. To miss the familiar comforts of home.

And yet, uncomfortable though it may be, homesickness is not always a bad thing. Of course, if I am working or studying in a foreign country, I should try to get over my homesickness quickly, in order to concentrate on what I have to do. But isn’t it a good thing for me to feel homesick from time to time? To not allow myself to get too comfortable in the new place? To miss the family and friends, the spouse and children, whom I may have left behind? Isn’t homesickness a useful reminder to me of where I truly belong, of where I eventually need to return?

I mention this, because I wonder if it may not be something like what Zacchaeus is going through in the gospel. We’re told that he is one of the senior tax collectors and a wealthy man. Actually, he may even be the head or commissioner of the tax office. And yet, when this important government official finds his access to Jesus blocked, he runs ahead and climbs a tree just to get a better view. Surely such conduct is unbecoming of someone in his position. Can you imagine one of our Members of Parliament doing this? Why does Zacchaeus do it? What makes him so anxious to see Jesus?

I’m not sure, my dear friends. But perhaps it’s because, rich and important though he may be, Zacchaeus is feeling spiritually homesick. Perhaps there is a part of him that longs for a different way of life. A life sustained no longer by compromise, and corruption, and collusion with foreign powers. A life less comfortable perhaps, but more authentic. A life rooted in his own God-given desires for love and acceptance, for truth and justice and peace. Could this be why Zacchaeus is so generous? Even to the extent of offering to give half his property to the poor, and repaying those he may have cheated four times over? Could it be that Zacchaeus is willing to do all this, just so that he can return home to God?

In the first reading, we are told that, little by little, God mercifully corrects those who offend. Or, in other words, God brings back those who have strayed away from home. How does God do this? What does this little by little conversion look like? Could it be that what we see in the gospel are precisely the external signs of this gradual interior process? Could it be that even before Jesus spots Zacchaeus up in the tree, God had already reached into the tax collector’s heart, and disturbed his comfortable life? Could it be that, for Zacchaeus, the discomfort of homesickness is really the first step on the road home?

If this is true, then what does it mean for me? I who spend so much time trying to make my own life as comfortable as possible? Of course, there isn’t anything necessarily wrong with being comfortable. But isn’t it possible for me to become so comfortable in this world, as to forget that my true home lies in God? Isn’t it possible for me to become so used to the poverty and injustice, the pain and conflict that I see in the world around me, that I no longer feel disturbed by it, much less yearn for something different?

And when I allow myself to become comfortable and complacent in this way, am I not doing precisely what St Paul tells the Thessalonians not to do, at the end of the second reading? Am I not living as though the Day of the Lord has already arrived? As though I have already reached my final destination? As though there is nothing left to work towards?

And yet, at the end of the gospel, Jesus takes care to remind his listeners that the Son of Man has come to seek out and save what was lost. Which of us can deny that this work is not yet complete? Which of us can deny that we ourselves – pious Catholics though we may be – still have quite a distance to travel to reach our heavenly goal? Which of us can deny that there are still many people around us who, comfortable though they may be, still suffer terribly from homesickness? And which of us can deny that, if we do not notice any of this, it’s only because we have allowed ourselves to become far too comfortable, even as we remain far away from home.

Sisters and brothers, perhaps it’s not such a bad thing to feel homesick from time to time. Sometimes, as it was for Zacchaeus, homesickness may even be a great blessing. What will you do to beg and better receive this blessing from God today?