Saturday, December 26, 2020

Locating the Heart

Feast of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary & Joseph (B)

Readings: Genesis 15:1-6,21:1-3; Psalm 104(105):1-6,8-9; Hebrews 11:8,11-12,17-19; Luke 2:22-40

Picture: cc Sarah

My dear friends, have you ever wondered why sometimes absence makes the heart grow fonder, and at other times it’s out of sight out of mind? During the circuit-breaker, for example, when we weren’t able to meet our friends, or to celebrate Mass, or to go to Confession, why did some react with such longing, and others… simply forget? I’m not sure if you’ll agree with me, but I believe that one’s reaction to absence is a good indicator of the location of one’s heart.

Which may help us better appreciate what’s going on in our readings today. As you’ve probably noticed, they are filled with longing. In the first reading, Abraham longs for an heir. In the gospel, Simeon longs for Israel’s comforting. And it’s tempting, for me at least, to conclude that the hearts of Abraham and Simeon find their rest in the respective objects of their longing. But that’s not exactly accurate.

For as the second reading reminds us, much as Abraham desired so much to have an heir, he was still willing to sacrifice Isaac, when God commanded him to do so. And that’s not all. The reading goes on to point out that Abraham was willing to sacrifice Isaac, while still believing God’s promise to make Abraham the father of a multitude of descendants through Isaac. This firm belief, this unshakeable trust in God, the reading calls faith. I like to think of it as an indicator of the true location of Abraham’s heart. 

Both his longing and his trust show us that Abraham’s heart finds its rest not in Isaac, the long-awaited heir, but in God, the One who remembers his covenant for ever. Even so, longing and trust are not the only indicators of the heart’s true location. In our readings we find at least two others.

When Jesus appears in the Temple in Jerusalem, his arrival quickly attracts the presence of Simeon and Anna. We’re told that Simeon came because he was prompted by the Holy Spirit, and that Anna, who never left the Temple, came by just at that moment and began to praise God. Presence and praise at the arrival of God. As with longing and trust, aren’t these also indicators of the heart’s true location?

Longing and trust, presence and praise. Reliable signs of restful hearts amid a restless world. Longing and trust, presence and praise. Encouraging signs that we find also in the members of the Holy Family, who even though they had to move repeatedly – from Bethlehem to Egypt to Nazareth to Jerusalem and back to Nazareth – always had their hearts set on God, the One who had brought and held them together.

Longing and trust, presence and praise. In a world filled with so many shiny and seductive things that often serve to unsettle our hearts, and even to tear our families apart, doesn’t the Holy Family show us what it might look like to truly find one’s rest in God?

Sisters and brothers, if the coming of Christ is indeed like a circuit-breaker, uncovering the true location of our hearts, then where do you find your heart on this Christmas Day?

Thursday, December 24, 2020

Courage to Accept Disruption

Christmas Day (Vigil Mass)

Readings: Isaiah 62:1-5; Psalm 88(89):4-5,16-17,27,29; Acts 13:16-17,22-25; Matthew 1:18-25

Picture: cc Mecklenburg County

My dear friends, as you know, several times this past year, the government has distributed masks for free. Did you go and collect them? All of them? Very likely, for many of us, doing so would have meant disrupting our usual routine, at least to some extent. Did you accept the disruption, and claim the gift? What made you decide to do it… or not?

I ask because we find something similar in our Mass readings for Christmas Eve. In the gospel, poor Joseph has to do something that any husband would find difficult. When his plans for a happy family are disrupted by the discovery that Mary is pregnant with someone else’s child, Joseph is told in a dream to accept the disruption. He is asked to do three things: To proceed with the wedding, to name the baby, and to establish both mother and child in his own household.

A wedding, a naming, and the establishing of a household. Strikingly, these are the same three things that we find in the first reading and the psalm. Sinful though Israel may be, God promises to accept her as bride. And not just to accept her, but even to delight in her. To rejoice in the integrity that God promises to bestow upon her. God also promises to give her a new and blessed name, and to establish for her an eternal and royal household. I will establish your dynasty for ever and set up your throne through all ages

In the second reading, we’re told that this incredible promise, made by God to Israel, finds its fulfilment in Christ. Which helps us to see the deeper significance of what Joseph was asked to do. Difficult and disruptive though it must have been for him to accept Mary & Jesus as his own, by doing so, Joseph claimed the gift that God had promised to Israel and, through Israel, to the whole world. Just as Mary’s acceptance allowed God to be born a human being, through Joseph’s acceptance, God was born into a human family.

In short, by accepting disruption, Joseph was able to claim a priceless gift for himself and for his household. The gift of eternal salvation. But what about us? We who dare to celebrate Christmas this year, while the world still reels from the effects of an ongoing pandemic. Could it be that it is precisely within the painful disruption, that Christ is choosing to be born? Could it be that it is only by somehow accepting disruption, as Joseph did, that we may also claim the gift? 

I’m reminded of these lines written by the Dutch Jesuit, Peter van Breemen

(The theologian, Paul) Tillich defines faith as "the courage to accept acceptance" and he means acceptance by God. We may think that such faith does not demand much courage. On the contrary, it may sound sweet and easy. But courage is required and very often it is courage that is lacking…

Sisters and brothers, at Christmas, God offers us something far costlier than a free mask. What must we do to obtain the courage to accept disruption, and to claim the gift, for ourselves, for our families, and for our world today?

Sunday, December 13, 2020


3rd Sunday of Advent (B)
(Gaudete Sunday)

Readings: Isaiah 61:1-2,10-11; Luke 1:46-50,53-54; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8,19-28

Picture: cc Wired Canvas

My dear friends, do you know what it feels like when things come together at the right moment to produce a good result? We see this in sports, for example, when a team finally wins a match, after a long losing streak. When asked how they did it, team members may say that somehow everything just came together for them. And things may come together like this for individuals as well. You may remember the story of Archimedes, who was so overjoyed, after making an important scientific discovery in the bathtub, that he ran out naked into the streets shouting, Eureka! Eureka! (I found it!)

Similarly, our Mass readings invite us to rejoice at how God is able to make things come together to produce good results. The first reading likens this awe-inspiring power of God to that of a garden. For as the earth makes fresh things grow, as a garden makes seeds spring up, so will the Lord make both integrity and praise spring up in the sight of the nations… In case all this sounds too abstract, the gospel shows us, more concretely, what the sprouting of integrity looks like in the life of John the Baptist.

At some point in the history of our world, when everything seemed dark and depressing, especially for the people of Israel, a man named John decides to become a witness to speak for the light. He does this by performing certain surprising actions: He distances himself from ordinary society. He calls everyone to repent. And he baptises people in the waters of the River Jordan.

But it’s important for us to see that these disturbing actions, performed by John externally, are actually inspired by a crucial discovery that he makes interiorly. The nature of this inner discovery is revealed to us in John’s response to the Pharisees’ questions: Who are you? Why are you baptising? I am… a voice that cries in the wilderness… I baptise with water; but… one… is coming after me; and I am not fit to undo his sandal-strap… At a certain point in John’s life, things seem to have come together for him, such that he realises his own true identity in the sight of God. And, with that realisation, comes both the insight into what he needs to do, as well as the courage to do it.

My dear friends, isn’t what we see in John an encouraging example of how, even in the darkest of times, God causes both integrity and praise to spring up in the sight of the nations? And isn’t this something that God continues to do even now, amid the depressing darkness of our own time? Motivating merciful activities that bear witness to the Light. Inspiring courageous voices that cry out in the wilderness, calling a sinful world to repent. And isn’t this also what God wishes to do in each and all of us, who make up the Body of Christ? Causing us to discover anew our own true identity before God, and energising us to act accordingly. Giving us good reason to be happy at all times. For even in darkness, the Light of the Lord continues to make good things grow.

Sisters and brothers, on this Gaudete Sunday, what will you do to claim from God your own eureka! moment today?

Sunday, December 06, 2020

Between Adventure & Nightmare

2nd Sunday of Advent (B)

Readings: Isaiah 40:1-5,9-11; Psalm 84(85):9-14; 2 Peter 3:8-14; Mark 1:1-8

Picture: cc susanjanegolding

My dear friends, imagine for a moment that you are a little child on a family outing, and you get separated from your parents. How will you feel if you were to suddenly hear them calling your name, telling you it’s time to go home? How will you react? I’m not sure if you’ll agree with me, but I think your reaction will depend very much on your own awareness of being lost. For it may be that, even before hearing your parents calling, you had already realised they were missing, and had been frantically searching for them. If so, then their voices will bring you great relief. But it’s also possible that you did not realise you were lost, that you still thought you were on some exciting adventure, instead of being trapped in a fearful nightmare. If that’s the case, you may choose to ignore your parents, perhaps even decide to run farther away.

I mention this because, as I’m sure you’ve already noticed, in each of our Mass readings, there is a voice crying in the wilderness. In the first reading this voice takes the form of the prophet Isaiah, consoling a people living in the wilderness of exile. In the second reading, the voice is found in the writings of an unknown author, using the name of the apostle Peter, offering guidance to those confused by false teaching. And in the gospel, John the Baptist cries out, not just in a physical wilderness of locusts and honey, and a political desert of foreign occupation, but also the spiritual barrenness of sin.

No matter the exact form it takes throughout history, the voice crying in the wilderness indicates the various ways in which God, our loving and merciful Father, continually calls his wayward children to return. Encouraging them to welcome and to follow Christ, the Way that leads them home. To that glorious place where justice and peace have embraced. But each child reacts according to its own awareness of being lost. Some will eagerly heed the call, while others just keep insisting on going their own way.

And what about us? In what form might this voice be taking in our lives today? In what wilderness is it resounding? Very likely, each of us will have our own personal answers to these questions. Even so, it’s difficult not to think of the pandemic that continues to devastate our world. To see COVID-19 as a desert in which many remain lost. But isn’t it true that, if we were to listen carefully, we might yet hear a quiet voice calling to us in this viral wilderness? Reminding us that we were lost long before the infections began. Highlighting to us the often ignored fault-lines that fracture our apparently ultra-modern world. Painful divisions between rich and poor, elite and common, local and migrant… As well as between humanity and nature, between creature and Creator… Encouraging us to dare to imagine new heavens and new earth… Showing us how urgently we need to change the way we live…

If so, then perhaps it’s also true that how we respond will depend on our own awareness of being lost, our own willingness to see that our modern adventure has turned into a fearful nightmare for so many. Sisters and brothers, this Advent, what must we do to heed the call of our heavenly Father, and to wake from troubled sleep today?

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Between Price & Process

Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe

My dear friends, do you know the difference between a big price-tag and a new recipe? Have you ever seen something you like in a store, and rushed over to check its price, only to discover that the item is way above your budget? What does it feel like? Or, on the other hand, have you ever received a detailed recipe, giving you all the instructions you need to prepare the food that you love? What is that like? I think it’s not difficult to imagine the contrasting feelings evoked by these experiences. Just as the price-tag may discourage and depress, so too is the recipe able to excite and to energise.

I mention this because, at first glance, our Mass readings may look a lot like no more than a big price-tag. The gospel presents us with an image of the king as a judge, who exacts a hefty price from those wishing to attain their hearts’ desire. To enter into eternal life, one must show mercy to those in need. To the hungry and thirsty, the lonely and naked, the sick and imprisoned… And perhaps there are those who may feel that this is a price far more than they can pay. Particularly those of us who may struggle just to bear the stresses and strains of daily living, and who fail to care enough even for themselves, as they’re too busy worrying about others.

Which is why it’s helpful to consider the other roles played by our heavenly king. In the first reading, before claiming to be a strict judge, God promises to serve his people as a loving and merciful shepherd. One who does exactly the things expected of those in the gospel. As shepherd, God takes painstaking care of his needy and vulnerable sheep. Feeding and healing, protecting and guiding them.

As we ponder this consoling image of the shepherd, perhaps we may be drawn to recall how, in so many concrete ways, we ourselves are shepherded by God. How we ourselves are shown mercy. Most of all through the sacrifice that we celebrate at this Mass. And, when we do this, when we remember all that we have received from the Good Shepherd, even over this past year of global pandemic, perhaps we will better understand and accept another role that the king plays in our readings today.

The second reading tells us that Christ will subject everything to himself and, eventually, to the Father. The role the king plays here is that of conqueror. Except that Christ conquers not with sharpened sword, or smoking gun, but with broken Body, and Blood outpoured. It is by pondering this image, of Christ on the Cross, that we receive the strength to submit our lives to him, and to be transformed by his example.

First, to receive the care of the shepherd. Next, to submit to the power of the conqueror. And, only then, to satisfy the requirements of the judge. Together, don’t these images appear less like a depressing price-tag, and more like an exciting recipe?

Sisters and brothers, as we rejoice in the reign of Christ the King, what will you do to prepare for his just judgment today?

Sunday, November 15, 2020

Dance Steps

33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)
(World Day of the Poor)

Picture: cc Juliana Chong

My dear friends, do you dance? As you know, dancing involves movement. But not all movement is dance. To dance is to move in a certain way. One’s movements must match the music heard in the ears… or in the heart. We might say that dancing begins not by wilfully performing some movement, but by humbly receiving a rhythm. First I listen to the music. Then I match my movements to what I hear.

Perhaps the same can be said about what we find in our readings today. Something that is described in different ways. The first reading and the psalm call it wisdom, and the fear of the Lord. The other readings speak of staying wide awake and sober, of being prepared for the master’s return.

At first glance, the readings may give us the impression that being well-prepared is all about movement. The first reading tells us that the perfect wife is always busy, not just with household chores, but also with reaching out to the poor. And it seems that the wicked servant in the gospel is punished only because he doesn’t do enough. Doesn’t move enough.

If our reflection were to go no deeper than this, then we might feel obliged simply to do more. To engage in more vigorous movement. Perhaps to join a new ministry in church, or to volunteer at a charity. All of which may actually be good and commendable actions, if we can sustain them. But could it be that, just as there is more to dancing than movement, there is also more to wisdom than simply engaging in more activity?

Consider where that wicked servant might actually have gone wrong. How did he become so paralysed by fear? Was it not because he failed to properly receive the precious gift that had been given to him? Commentators say that, in the parable, a talent signifies a very large sum of money. We might think of a million dollars, for example. Could it be that, if only the servant had considered the immense trust that must have accompanied the handing over to him of such a large sum, he might have been moved to match that gift with a more courageous and creative response?

Could it be that, if we find it difficult to reach out to the poor in more sustained and creative ways, it’s because we don’t ponder enough how much God has reached out to us, and continues to do so, especially here in the Eucharist? Preoccupied with securing our own greater comfort, we fail to listen to the silent cries of those who may lack even the most basic necessities. How then can we expect to match our movements to the rhythms of our merciful God?

I’m reminded of these words from a hymn we used to sing:

Dance, then, wherever you may be,

I am the Lord of the Dance, said he.

And I'll lead you all, wherever you may be.

And I'll lead you all in the Dance, said he.

Sisters and brothers, on this fourth World Day of the Poor, how might we better help one another to enter more fully into the Lord’s Dance today?

Sunday, November 08, 2020

Travelling in Truth

32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Readings: Wisdom 6:12-16; Psalm 62(63):2-8; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; Matthew 25:1-13

Video: Disney Movies on YouTube 

My dear friends, do you know what a seasoned traveller looks like? It’s usually someone who takes care to research a travel destination, so as to prepare well for the trip. Bringing warm clothes, when visiting a cold climate. Or sunscreen, if remaining in the tropics. But preparing well for a journey involves more than just bringing the right stuff. When planning a mountain-climbing expedition, for example, even more important than having proper equipment, is to ensure that one is in good physical condition. The body must be trained for the trek. Otherwise it won’t be able to keep up.

This wisdom of a seasoned traveller is something like what the first reading encourages us to cultivate. The wisdom to know where one is headed, in order to prepare well for the trip. And the second reading tells us that our ultimate destination is to be with God in Christ. So that it doesn’t matter whether we are alive or dead when Jesus comes again in glory. For, even if we were to die before then, Christ will raise us up again. If we remain faithful, we shall stay with the Lord for ever. But how to remain faithful?

If it is true that our life’s journey stretches beyond time into eternity, if our final goal is indeed hidden – beyond the struggles of this passing life – in the enduring embrace of God in Christ, then how should we prepare for the trip? This is the crucial question that the gospel helps us to ponder.

The parable teaches us that being well-prepared for the Lord’s coming is like having enough oil for a lamp. And scholars say this points to something the gospel writer has already highlighted much earlier. In chapter 5 verse 20 – in the Sermon on the Mount – Jesus tells his disciples, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

To have oil for our lamps is to be trained in the righteousness of Christ, and to resist the hypocrisy of his enemies. It is to cultivate right relationship – with God, with oneself, and with others. Today, righteousness is seen especially in compassion shown to those who suffer, including Mother Earth. But even more basic than that, righteousness is shown in the care one takes to speak the truth, even when it may be more convenient to tell a lie. All of which may explain why the wise bridesmaids did not share their oil with the foolish ones. They couldn’t. For righteousness is more like physical conditioning than sunscreen. It can’t be borrowed or lent.

Some of us may still remember the story of Pinocchio, the little wooden puppet on an exciting quest to become a fully human boy. An especially significant moment on the puppet’s journey is when it learns the importance of speaking the truth. For its nose grows longer whenever it tells a lie! In an age of so-called alternative facts and fake news, isn’t this lesson in integrity something that we urgently need to learn anew?

Sisters and brothers, as we continue our pilgrimage into eternity, what must we do to help one another become ever more seasoned travellers today?

Sunday, October 25, 2020

Reviewing Reception

30th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Readings: Exodus 22:20-26; Psalm 17(18):2-4,47,51; 1 Thessalonians 1:5-10; Matthew 22:34-40

Picture: cc @englishinvader

My dear friends, do you know the difference between good and bad reception? Back in the early days of television, before the arrival of cable, the quality of reception could mean the difference between a powerful movie experience, and an annoying struggle with a screen-full of static. Nowadays we might say the same about wifi.

This contrast between good and bad reception is also what we find in our Mass readings today. For when Jesus teaches that the greatest commandment of the Law consists both in loving God with one’s whole being, and loving one’s neighbour as oneself, the Lord isn’t really saying anything new. The first part of his teaching is already found in the book of Deuteronomy, and the second in Leviticus.

So why then do the Lord’s enemies want to kill him? If they know the Law so well, why are they unable to keep it? Isn’t this a question that we could ask ourselves too? Don’t we know the Law well enough? Why then do we fail to make time in our busy routines for God, and for the many who are in need of our help? Also, some say that our world already knows what is needed to eradicate hunger, and to address the global ecological crisis? Why then are we so slow to act?

The readings help to answer these questions by presenting us with a contrast between good and bad reception. In the first reading, God doesn’t just tell the people to be kind to the foreigners, widows and orphans living in their midst. God also tells them how to find the motivation to do so. By following God’s example. For God allows the cries of the needy to move God to respond mercifully. If he cries to me, I will listen, for I am full of pity. Isn’t this an example of good reception? 

In the second reading we’re told that it was with the joy of the Holy Spirit that (the Thessalonians) took to the gospel. Or, in another translation, they received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit. And because the Thessalonians received the gospel in this way, it becomes for them more than just empty words, but an invigorating power, energising them to do what is right. Another example of good reception.

In contrast, the gospel says the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees… They heard about the power of the Lord’s teaching. But instead of welcoming the message, they choose to find fault with the messenger. An example of bad reception. And just as good reception brings not just knowledge of the Law, but also the power to keep it, bad reception leads to hypocrisy. The failure to practice what we preach. The inability to faithfully live what we claim to believe.

In the award-winning film, Scent of a Woman, a blind retired army colonel, played by Al Pacino, utters these poignant lines: Now I have come to the crossroads in my life. I always knew what the right path was. Without exception, I knew. But I never took it. You know why? It was too damn hard... Sisters and brothers, many are saying that our world too has come to a major crossroads. What must we do to improve our reception, so as to take the right path today?

Sunday, October 18, 2020

Avoiding The High-Beam

29th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

(World Mission Sunday)

Readings: Isaiah 45:1,4-6; Psalm 95(96):1,3-5,7-10; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-5; Matthew 22:15-21

Picture: cc Rafiq Sarlie

My dear friends, do you know what you’re supposed to do, if you happen to be driving at night, and find yourself blinded by the high-beam headlights of an oncoming vehicle? Although the temptation is great to do so, the Highway Code suggests that you do not try to teach the inconsiderate driver a lesson by switching to high-beam yourself. Instead, the advice is to slow down, to turn your eyes away from the annoying lights in front of you, and to look instead at the kerb on the left. With the kerb as a guide, you can better keep safely to your own lane, and avoid an unnecessary collision.

I wonder if Jesus might not be doing something similar in the gospel today, to avoid falling into the trap that his enemies have set for him. The Pharisees and Herodians tempt him to say in public something that is possibly in the minds and mouths of many people at the time. They want him to advocate refusing to pay taxes to Rome. By doing this, Jesus would be acting like some leaders do, even in our world today. He would be setting popular power on a collision course with political power, and with explosive results.

But Jesus manages to resist this deadly temptation. Instead of being dazzled by the prospect of increasing his own popularity, he chooses to be guided instead by the truth. And the truth is that even a foreign power can have a place in God’s plan. Just as God can anoint the Persian king Cyrus to work for the benefit of the people, so too might God be using Caesar for the same purpose. Which is not to say that religious leaders should not speak out against unjust public policies. It’s just that we need to be clear that we’re doing it at the proper time and place, and for the right reasons.

By responding as he does, Jesus demonstrates the very thing that St Paul tells the Thessalonians in the second reading. The Good News that they have received – the same Good News we are gathered here to celebrate – is not just a matter of words to be bandied about. It is rather a power to be wielded in the Holy Spirit. A power that gives people both the brain and the backbone to avoid the trap of populism. A power that enables us to keep our eyes firmly focused on the Truth. Giving us the insight and courage, especially in times of crisis, to keep building bridges, rather than to erect walls.

And isn’t this the kind of power that needs to be wielded by leaders today? Not just in the national governments of our world, but also in homes and workplaces, in communities and parishes as well? Don’t we need leaders who are willing and able to do more than simply to say whatever different groups of people may want to hear? Pitting each one against the other for the leader’s own benefit? Don’t we need leaders who can, instead, do what we asked God to help us to do in the opening prayer just now? To always conform our will to yours and serve your majesty in sincerity of heart. Isn’t it also part of our mission to exercise and cultivate such leadership?

Sisters and brothers, as we celebrate World Mission Sunday, are there perhaps some blinding headlights in your life that you may need to deal with today?

Sunday, October 11, 2020

Old-Timer, Newcomer, Homemaker

28th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Readings: Isaiah 25:6-10; Psalm 22(23); Philippians 4:12-14,19-20; Matthew 22:1-14

Picture: cc Tanmoy Kumar Roy

My dear friends, if you had a choice, which would you rather be, an old-timer or a newcomer? Which of these do you think is more likely to succeed? Does it matter? At the workplace, for example, while an old-timer may have more experience, he may also tend to be more stubborn, less willing to change. And although a newcomer may be more energetic and creative, she may also lack prudence and perseverance. So perhaps success at work doesn’t depend so much on seniority, as it does on other more important things.

But if this is true of the workplace, what about our faith? Does it make a difference whether I am a decades-old cradle-Catholic or a recently baptised convert? A new parishioner or a parish priest? Which of these is more likely to remain faithful? Which is more likely to fall away? What do you think?

At first glance, it may seem that the gospel is biased against the veterans. For the reading begins as it did last Sunday, by telling us that Jesus began to speak to the chief priests and elders of the people. Through his parable, the Lord issues a stern warning to these old-timers. If they do not change, not only will they be excluded from God’s Kingdom, they will be destroyed. And this will happen because they allow their obsession with money and popularity and power to blind them to what is good. They fail to recognise in Jesus the fulfilment of that beautiful promise in the first reading. Jesus is the mountain on which God will wipe away the tears from every cheek. But the leaders are too busy to climb this mountain, too blind to beg forgiveness for their sins.

Even so, it’s also important to see that, just as the parable begins by rebuking some veterans, it also ends with a caution to novices. For isn’t the one thrown out into the dark a newcomer? And what do we learn from his fate, if not that inclusion in God’s Kingdom doesn’t depend only on turning up at the banquet. Just as it’s not enough for us simply to show up here at Mass. Difficult though it may be, these days. No, our salvation depends ultimately on true discipleship of Jesus. And true discipleship involves more than mere lip service or empty ritual. True discipleship should also express itself in good works, symbolised by that wedding garment, which the unfortunate guest failed to wear.

Isn’t this why, in our opening prayer just now, we asked that God’s grace may at all times go before us and follow after and make us always determined to carry out good works? What we are seeking is the same grace that makes St Paul ready to face any challenge, because there is nothing I cannot master with the help of the One who gives me strength. Continually to seek and to rely on God’s guidance. Isn’t this what it means to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life?

So, my dear sisters and brothers, in order for us to get into heaven, perhaps it matters less whether we are old-timers or newcomers. What’s more important is that, through our daily decisions, we keep making our home in Christ. But, if this is true, then where exactly are you making your home today?

Saturday, October 03, 2020

Subtle Warnings

27th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Readings: Isaiah 5:1-7; Psalm 79(80):9,12-16,19-20; Philippians 4:6-9; Matthew 21:33-43

Picture: cc Scott Davidson

My dear friends, do you know what a warning looks and sounds like? Actually, warnings come in many different forms. Some are very obvious. Such as a noisy fire alarm, or a piercing police siren, or a stern letter from an angry boss. They leave no room for doubt as to what we need to do. Escape the fire. Make way for the police car. Satisfy the boss. But other warnings are more subtle. Such as an occasional tightness in the chest, or a child who seems much quieter than usual, or more frequent and stronger hurricanes. These warnings are sometimes easier to ignore.

The same might be said about the warnings in our readings today. They too are easy for us to miss, if we don’t pay close enough attention. They take the apparently harmless form of a story about a vineyard. In the first telling of the story, the focus is on a particular society, a people, the House of Israel and Judah. God had delivered them from slavery in Egypt to safety in the Promised Land, where they were meant to live in such a way as to bear witness to the justice and integrity of God. Instead, they oppressed the poor and vulnerable in their midst. And, as a result, disaster befalls them.

The second telling of the story also involves a vineyard, but the focus is different. Not the people as a whole, but the leaders, the chief priests and elders. Whereas good leaders are supposed to bring their followers closer to God, these men are concerned only about furthering their own interests, increasing their own popularity and power. As a result, they are eventually replaced.

Harmless though it may seem, this story serves as a crucial reminder to us of how a society and its leaders ought to conduct themselves. How we ought to relate to one another. How we ought to relate to the poor and vulnerable, including Mother Earth. How we ought to relate to God. They warn us of the dire consequences of falling short of such right relationship. And, subtle though it may be, this biblical warning still finds echoes in our world today. For example, hasn’t the current experience of Covid-19 highlighted the pitiful plight of the poor and vulnerable, even in a nation as affluent and efficient as our own?

Thankfully, more than just warnings, the Mass texts also offer us guidance for how to respond. We see this especially in the advice that Paul offers the Philippians. In times of trouble, they are told to first bring their concerns to God in prayer and thanksgiving. We may consider, for example, the prayer we offered at the start of this Mass, when we asked God to pour out your mercy upon us to pardon what conscience dreads and to give what prayer does not dare to ask. The Philippians are also told to fill their minds with noble thoughts, and their hands with charitable deeds. So prayer and thanksgiving, contemplation and action. This is Paul's recipe for finding the peace of God and the God of peace in a chaotic world.

Sisters and brothers, if it is true that our readings present us with a subtle but urgent warning, then what must we do to better heed the Lord’s call to conversion today?

Sunday, September 20, 2020

Of Location, Life & Love

25th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Readings: Isaiah 55:6-9; Psalm 144(145):2-3,8-9,17-18; Philippians 1:20-24,27; Matthew 20:1-16

Picture: cc Caitee Smith

My dear friends, do you know how deep the sea is? It depends, of course, on one’s location. For example, according to Wikipedia, the deepest place in the oceans is about 11,000 metres deep. That’s 2,000 metres more than the height of Mount Everest. Which is very deep. On the other hand, if I were to go to the beach, and walk a few steps into the water, that’s not deep at all. But location is not the only factor. As you know, climate change is causing sea-levels to rise all over the world. And scientists tell us that climate change is caused mainly by human activities. So the distance between the surface of the sea and the ocean-floor depends not only on our location, but also on how we choose to live.

The same can be said about the distance mentioned in our Mass readings today: the distance between the ways of God and human ways. Like the depth of the sea, this too depends on one’s location. In the first reading, the wicked person is asked to abandon his way, to leave his own evil location, in order to move toward God. For the heavens are as high above earth as God’s ways are above the ways of the wicked.

And if wickedness is where the distance between God and humanity is greatest, then righteousness is where the distance is smallest. And no one is more righteous than Christ Jesus. For we believe that, in Christ, God and humanity unite. In Christ, the greatness of God, which cannot be measured, takes on human flesh. In Christ, we see in human form the loving God who is at once both just in all his ways, and compassionate to all his creatures.

Isn’t this why we gather for the Eucharist? We believe that here, around the Table of the Lord, we are brought to that privileged place where humanity coincides with God, where earth enjoys intimate contact with heaven, where the Lord truly comes close to all who call on him from their hearts.

Even so, the gospel reminds us how important it is that we understand this Eucharistic location correctly. It is not just about being in church. For all the workers in the parable also experienced a change in location. In response to the landowner’s call, they moved away from the market place in order to work in the vineyard. And yet, those hired first couldn’t help feeling envious of those who came later but received the same wage. Why? Isn’t it because, despite spending a whole day in the vineyard, these early birds had still not yet given up the mindset of the market place?

Which goes to show that the Eucharist is not only about what happens to us when we gather. It is also about how we live after we disperse. It is about following what St Paul says in the second reading. Choosing, as individuals and as a community, to live in such a way that Christ will be glorified in our bodies. For example, by treating the vulnerable with compassion, and by paying workers a just wage. 

Sisters and brothers, if it is true that, like the depth of the sea, our distance from God depends on where we are and how we live, then what must we do to keep drawing closer to God today?

Saturday, September 05, 2020

Heart Care

23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Readings: Ezekiel 33:7-9; Psalm 94(95):1-2,6-9; Romans 13:8-10; Matthew 18:15-20

Picture: cc Injurymap

My dear friends, have you ever considered how amazing the human heart is? As you know, the heart is responsible for circulating life-giving blood around the body. And, in order to do this, a healthy heart has to be both flexible and tough. It has to be flexible enough to receive blood, but also tough enough to keep pumping blood all over the body, all the time.

It’s helpful to keep this in mind, as we meditate on our readings today. For just as the human body requires a constant flow of blood to survive, so too does the Church, the Body of Christ, live by the circulation of love. As the second reading tells us, love… is the answer to every one of the commandments. Love is what the Body of Christ receives from God, circulates among all its members, and then shares with the rest of the world. Isn’t this what we believe happens when we gather for the Eucharist? Here, at the Table of Word and Sacrament, we receive God’s life-giving love, share it among ourselves, and then go forth to convey it to others.

But blood, as you know, doesn’t just bring life to the body in the form of oxygen. Blood also removes death in the form of carbon dioxide. Similarly, our readings speak of the need for us to love one another, not just by encouraging those who do right, but also by correcting those of who do wrong. In the first reading, God reminds the prophet of his duty to warn the wicked, to call the wrongdoer to repentance. And, in the gospel, Jesus suggests steps that a community can take to correct its own wayward members.

To do this is, of course, not easy at all. It is tough. It’s tough enough to challenge the misdeeds even of members of our own family, let alone those of others. Isn’t this why, around the world, our Church has suffered, not just from the terrible effects of the abuse of children, but also from our own failure to confront this evil, our misguided attempts to cover it up?

Even so, love requires more than toughness alone. For example, although many have expressed praise and support for all that Pope Francis has been doing and teaching, there are also a good number of Catholics, including prominent Church leaders, who oppose and seek to undermine him. While such acts may be signs of toughness, we may perhaps wonder to what extent they are true expressions of love.

At the end of the gospel reading, Jesus says, where two or three meet in my name, I shall be there with them. The important words here are in my name. They suggest that, before we venture to correct others, we need to develop that flexibility that enables us to question whether we are truly acting in conformity with the Lord’s life and teachings. What we say and do should actually reflect the will of God, and not just the prejudice of those who are resistant to life-giving change, people who stubbornly refuse to repent.

Sisters and brothers, if it is true that the Body of Christ functions much like a human heart, then what must we do to keep cultivating both the flexibility and toughness that are needed to keep God’s love circulating in our world today?