Sunday, January 26, 2020

From Analgesic to Antidote

3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)
Picture: cc Basheer Tome

My dear friends, given a choice, which do you think a sick person would prefer to receive, an analgesic or an antidote? As you know, an analgesic, such as Panadol, relieves pain, while an antidote counteracts the effects of poison. The first helps only to treat a symptom. The second actually provides a cure. So which do you think a sick person would choose, an analgesic or an antidote?

You may have heard the story of the man who complains to his doctor saying, Doctor, doctor, every time I drink coffee, I experience a sharp pain in my eye. Please help me! In response, the wise doctor leads the patient to a pantry, where she asks him to make himself a cup of coffee and drink it. Sure enough, as soon as he does so, the patient again reports experiencing a sharp pain in his eye. The doctor then smiles at him reassuringly, and says, I know the cause of your ailment. The next time you make coffee, remember to do one thing before you drink it. What is it? Asks the patient. Be sure to first remove the spoon from the cup.

In this story, if we were to think of the spoon as the poison, then the doctor’s advice is the antidote. But what if the patient stubbornly refuses to follow the doctor’s advice? What if he asks for Panadol instead? Then we could say that the patient is choosing an analgesic over the antidote. Which may not be such an unreasonable thing to do, since it’s probably much easier to pop a couple of pills into one’s mouth than to change one’s habitual behaviour.

I’m not sure, my dear friends, but I believe we find something like this difference between an analgesic and an antidote in our Mass readings today. The gospel describes Jesus’ decision to settle in the town of Capernaum as the fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecy in the first reading. The people that lived in darkness has seen a great light… So if we were to think of darkness as a poison, then the light of Christ is the antidote. But what is this darkness? What is this poison? And in what way is Jesus the antidote?

At first glance, the answer seems clear enough. For at the end of the reading, we’re told that Jesus went round the whole of Galilee… curing all kinds of diseases and sickness among the people. So it would seem that disease is the darkness to which Jesus is the light. Sickness is the poison for which Christ is the antidote. Which is great news for us. For then, every time we are sick, we have only to bring our illnesses to Jesus in prayer, and we can expect to be made well again.

And yet, perhaps it’s important to notice that the curing of diseases is only one of several things that Jesus does in the gospel. Along with healing the sick, the Lord also proclaims good news. Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is close at hand. And, along with healing and preaching, Jesus also calls disciples. Follow me and I will make you fishers of men.

Of course, it’s possible for me to think of all these activities of Jesus – the preaching, the calling, and the healing – as having no connection with one another. Such that I can be cured of my sickness without hearing the Lord’s message of repentance, or heeding his call to discipleship. That may be possible. But what happens then? Could it be that, even if I were cured of my bodily ailments, even if I were in the pink of health, I could still remain very much in the dark? I could still suffer the effects of a different kind of poisoning?

We find a useful illustration of this in the second reading. As we will see further on in this letter, in St Paul’s day, the Corinthian community was blessed with many gifts and charisms, perhaps including even the power to heal. And yet, here at the beginning of the letter, Paul is quick to point out an area of darkness in which the Corinthians remain trapped. (I)t is clear, Paul writes, that there are serious differences among you… Abundantly gifted though they may be, the Corinthians are severely divided among themselves.

It is upon this darkness of conflict, that Paul shines the light of the gospel. Like that doctor in the story we shared earlier, Paul advises the Corinthians to remove the spoon of their divisive attitudes and behaviours, and to be united again in… belief and practice. But repenting of such habitual behaviour is, of course, much easier said than done. To help his patients to follow his advice, Paul reminds them of Christ’s crucifixion, into which they have all been baptised. Implicitly, Paul invites them to allow themselves to listen again to the voice of Jesus, who calls them to discipleship. So that, like Peter and Andrew, James and John, they too might leave everything and follow the Lord… To counteract the poison of division, Paul prescribes the Good News of Christ as the antidote.

What does this show us, my dear friends, if not that the Lord’s proclamation of the Good News, his calling of disciples, and his curing of the sick are all part of a single ministry of reconciliation, a single work of deeper healing, by which Christ offers himself – his own life and death and resurrection – as the only effective cure for my selfishness and sin.

But, to be honest, it’s not always easy for me to see this. It’s not easy to recognise the deeper connections between the Lord’s words and actions, as they are recorded in the scriptures, and the challenges of my daily life. And even when I do see the connections, it’s not always easy to put them into practice. To do so, I need to dedicate time and space to meditate on God’s Word. To allow the message I hear with my ears to penetrate more deeply into my mind and heart. So that it can eventually find its way to my hands.

Isn’t this one good reason why I need something like this newly instituted Sunday of the Word of God? For even though every Sunday is dedicated to the Word of God, it’s still helpful to have a special day on which to be reminded that, for us Christians, the Word we receive, is not just a dead letter to be read off a dusty page, but God’s only Begotten Son. The One who continues to live among us in the flesh. And who keeps calling me to embrace a fuller life, by leaving everything to follow him.

Sisters and brothers, isn’t it true that, even if a doctor’s advice may be effective for curing our illness, it’s still not always easy for us to follow it? Is there perhaps a spoon that you need to remove from your coffee-cup today?

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Moving To Be Still

2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)
Video: YouTube G5AppleMac

My dear friends, which do you think is more difficult to do, which takes more effort, more energy? To keep moving about, or to be still? To shift continually from one location to another, or to remain in the same place? What do you think?

At first glance, the answer seems obvious, doesn’t it? Surely moving about takes more energy than staying still. And yet, have you ever tried to remain in one spot, while standing up in a jerky bus or a speeding MRT train? Not so simple then, right? Easy enough to keep still when my surroundings are stationery. But far more difficult when everything around me is in rapid motion. For then, I need to know how to continually make just the right adjustments to my body, in order to stay in one place. Too much movement in one direction, or too little in another, and I end up losing my balance. I get dis-placed.

When everything around me is in motion, I too need to keep moving in order just to be still. This is a useful thing to remember, given what we find in the second reading, taken from the beginning of St Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. Here, Paul greets the Christians at Corinth in a very particular way. He tells them that they, together with Christians everywhere else, are called to be saints, called to be holy. The translation we are using, taken from the Jerusalem Bible, expresses this sentiment in an interesting turn of phrase. Paul says the Corinthians are called to take their place among all the saints. So the second reading presents holiness as a place, a location, at which we, the followers of Christ, are called to remain, to be still.

But what does this spiritual place look like? And how does one remain there? The other readings offer some indications. In the first reading, the Servant of God also receives a call to remain engaged in a mission. To be the light of the nations. What does this entail? How does one take and remain in this place, the place of a light?

John the Baptist gives us a helpful illustration in the gospel. For what is John doing, if not acting as a light to those around him? And notice that he does this by engaging in a series of significant actions. We may say that he remains in one place by making certain distinctive movements. Perhaps the most obvious of these movements is how John points others to the presence of Jesus among them. Look, he says, there is the lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world.

And even if the reading doesn’t mention it explicitly, we can sense the excitement in John’s words and actions. He points Jesus out not just in a mechanical, matter-of-fact kind of way. Not just how some of us may sometimes drag ourselves to work on a weekday, or to church on a Sunday. Not as a burdensome duty. But rather, in a way that plainly shows his own enthusiasm and joy. His gratitude at being given the privilege to serve in this way. So that we can easily imagine John uttering these words from the responsorial psalm: He put a new song in my mouth, praise of our God.

Pointing and praising. This is perhaps the most obvious movement that John makes as a light. But it is by no means the only one. For I can point someone out only to the extent that I am first able to recognise that person. This is also what happens to John. This is how the gospel passage begins. Seeing Jesus coming towards him, John said… Out of the crowds of people flocking to him, John is somehow able to identify Jesus as the lamb of God, as the Salvation that God is offering to the world. Before the pointing and praising, there is a perceiving and knowing.

But, even so, it’s important for us also to notice that John did not always recognise Jesus. Not just once but twice, John openly confesses that I did not know him myself. So how did John come to recognise the One whom he initially did not know. Again John himself makes it clear that he was able to do so only through a revelation from God. God taught him the distinguishing characteristic of the Lord’s coming. The one on whom you see the Spirit come down and rest is the one…

Which suggests to us that even before perceiving and knowing Jesus, John was already in constant communication with God. John was making the same movement that the psalmist claims to have been making in the opening verses of the responsorial psalm. I waited, I waited for the Lord and he stooped down to me; he heard my cry… Before the pointing and praising, before the perceiving and knowing, there is first a pleading and waiting. A yearning and a begging to see the Lord’s face, to hear the Lord’s voice, to discover God’s true location. The better to keep moving and remaining there.

My dear friends, could it be that, if we were to imagine holiness as a spiritual place we are all called to occupy, then we remain in this place only by moving in the same ways that John the Baptist does in the gospel? By pleading and waiting. By perceiving and knowing. By pointing and praising. Could it be that progress in the spiritual life actually requires constant movement, in order to remain in exactly the same place?

Which should not surprise us. We who live in such a fast-paced society, where things keep changing so rapidly that it’s often difficult to keep up. How do we cope? How do we strive for holiness? Perhaps the lesson in our readings today is that we need to avoid two opposite extremes. First, the tendency to allow ourselves to be swept along by the tide. To move simply because that’s what everyone else is doing. And, second, the contrary tendency to refuse to move. To cling stubbornly to familiar and comfortable ways for their own sake. Even when it may become clear that they are no longer helpful for keeping us close to God.

Instead, we are called to move, to adjust ourselves, but only as much as is necessary for us to remain where God wants us to be. I’m reminded of these words from a hymn that we sometimes sing…

Be still for the power of the Lord is moving in this place.
He comes to cleanse and heal, to minister His grace.
No work too hard for Him. In faith receive from Him.
Be still for the power of the Lord is moving in this place.

Sisters and brothers, if life is really like a speeding train, then what must we do to keep moving in order to be still today?

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Entering the Embrace

Feast of The Baptism Of The Lord (A)
(Catechetical Sunday)

Readings: Isaiah 42:1-4,6-7; Psalm 28(29):1-4,9-10; Acts 10:34-38; Matthew 3:13-17
Video: YouTube Chris Lee

My dear friends, do you ever feel like you are badly in need of a hug? Ever feel lost or lonely or depressed? Or perhaps discouraged by a significant failure? Or maybe anxious at starting something new? Whatever it is, you’d like nothing better than for someone who cares for you to give you a hug, a long, loving, reassuring embrace… Have you ever felt like that? Perhaps you’re feeling it even now…

A long, loving, reassuring embrace. That is what comes to mind when I ask myself the question that some of you may be asking too. Why do we celebrate the Baptism of the Lord so soon after Christmas Day? After gazing so intently, for the past two weeks, at a tiny helpless baby, isn’t it more than a little jarring to see him suddenly all grown up? Why shift so quickly from the newborn infant lying in the manger to the young adult emerging from the water? What do you think? …

This Christmas, I received two similar images of the Holy Family. Both of which I like very much. They are simple and yet beautiful. Beautiful in their simplicity. They each depict the child surrounded by his parents, in a way that makes the whole scene look like an embrace. With the baby Jesus at the centre. Can you imagine it? Perhaps you’ve seen something similar. Mary wraps Jesus in her arms, and Joseph enfolds both Mary and Jesus in his.

A long, loving, reassuring embrace. This is also something like what the gospel describes for us today. After Jesus is baptised by John, we’re told that the heavens opened, and the Lord is immediately enfolded, both by the Holy Spirit descending upon him like a dove, and by the voice of his heavenly Father saying, This is my Son, the Beloved, my favour rests on him.

Don’t you find it striking, my dear friends, that both at his birth, and again as he is about to begin his public ministry, Jesus allows himself to be enfolded in a long, loving, reassuring embrace? And notice that the Lord enters this embrace in a very particular way. In a way that may be fittingly described as an immersion. Not only does Jesus immerse himself into the waters of the river Jordan, he also immerses himself into the reality of our human condition. Humbly taking upon himself all our weakness and sinfulness, all our suffering and pain.

But that’s not all. In submitting himself as much to the embrace of God as to that of his earthly parents, Jesus also assumes the identity and mission of the servant, described in the first reading. The Lord comes to us as one whom God sends to bring true justice to the nations. To usher everyone into the peace and joy of right relationship. Right relationship with God. Right relationship with others. Right relationship with the whole of Creation.

So that not only does the Lord’s life and mission proceed from an embrace, he himself reaches out to embrace others. Indeed he himself is the Ultimate Embrace, offered by God to everyone. Jesus is the embodiment of that consoling message that Peter proclaims to Cornelius in the second reading… That God has no favourites, but that anybody of any nationality who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to him. Through Christ, with Christ, and in Christ, God reaches out to gather everyone into God’s long, loving, reassuring embrace.

And isn’t this what the Christian life is really all about? Isn’t this what it means to be baptised? Isn’t this what we celebrate specially at Christmas, but also every time we gather for the Eucharist? To be a Christian is nothing more or less than to enjoy and to enter more deeply into right relationship with God. And to do this by imitating Christ, by continually and courageously allowing ourselves to be immersed in the often challenging and painful reality of our world. Reaching out to help usher others – especially those most in need of a hug – into the loving arms of God.

And isn’t this also the work that our brave and generous catechists will soon be committing themselves to undertake in a few short moments? Their task is not so much to convey the doctrines of our faith in the same way someone might post various pieces of information on social media. No. By dedicating themselves to the work of catechesis, they are choosing to fulfil in a perhaps slightly more formal way the same awesome responsibility that we all share by virtue of our baptism. The responsibility to usher others into the same embrace in which we have all been enfolded by God in Christ.

I’m reminded of these words from an old hymn that we still sometimes sing…

O let the Son of God enfold you with his spirit and his love.
Let him fill your heart and satisfy your soul.
O let him have the things that hold you,
and his Spirit like a dove,
will descend upon your life and make you whole.

Sisters and brothers, as we bring our celebration of Christmas to an end, what will you do to continue allowing yourself to be enfolded in God’s long, loving, reassuring embrace today?