Saturday, December 25, 2021

When Time Touches Eternity

Solemnity of the Nativity of the Lord

(Mass During the Day)

Readings: Isaiah 52:7-10; Psalm 97(98):1-6; Hebrews 1:1-6; John 1:1-5,9-14


Give me one moment in time, when I'm racing with destiny. Then in that one moment of time, I will feel, I will feel eternity...

My dear friends, do you remember these words? They’re taken from a song written for the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, and sung by the late Whitney Houston. The song expresses an athlete’s desire for sporting achievement. To feel eternity in one moment of time. I imagine this is what Loh Kean Yew must have felt, when he became the first Singaporean badminton world champion. But it’s not just athletes who desire this, right? We all do. Isn’t this why we get all excited when our team wins? We want to know what it’s like to triumph, especially if our life is stressful, and filled with more defeats than victories, more failures than successes. We want to share the experience of eternity.

And yet, we also know that, however intense the victory, however great the achievement, it will all eventually fade away. The touch of eternity is only a figure of speech. We remain creatures of time. Which is why the Mystery we celebrate today is so precious. For what is the Birth of Christ, if not that moment in history when Eternity literally steps into time? Isn’t this what our readings help us to appreciate?

At various times in the past… God spoke… through the prophets; but in our own time… he has spoken to us through his Son. The Word, who was with God in the beginning, and through whom all things came to be… was made flesh, and lived among us… Through the fragile little baby, laid in the manger at Bethlehem, the eternal God reaches into time, to touch a people who have suffered not just military defeat, but moral and spiritual failure. Prompted by steadfast love and mercy, through this helpless infant, the Lord has made known his salvation, the Lord is consoling his people.

It is no accident then, that the Nativity scene is so important to our celebration. For when we gaze upon that baby with the eyes of faith, and recall what his birth means for us, we truly allow ourselves to touch Eternity. And it’s important to see that we do this not through any achievement of our own. For like the people of Israel, we too know failure. For example, the failure to work together, as an international community, to ensure a more even distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, and to prevent the growth of more variants like Omicron.

No, when we gaze upon the baby in the manger, it’s not to glory in our own triumphs, but to wonder at all that God has suffered and won for us. It is to savour not just the Word’s Incarnation, but also his Passion, Death and Resurrection. It is to claim the power he offers us, to become children of God. To obtain the strength to shine out in the world with the light of his love. To live no longer only in time, but also for eternity.

Sisters and brothers, it’s likely that whenever Loh Kean Yew replays that moment of his victory, either in his mind or on a screen, he finds the courage and energy to keep on striving. This Christmas, what will we do to faithfully revisit that moment in time, when Eternity comes to energise us?

Sunday, December 19, 2021

Embracing the Empty

4th Sunday of Advent (C)

Readings: Micah 5:1-4; Psalm 79(80):2-3,15-16,18-19; Hebrews 10:5-10; Luke 1:39-45

Picture: cc Fred Jala

My dear friends, do you remember that often-told story about the teacup that’s too full? A learned scholar visits a spiritual guru to learn the secret of enlightenment. The guru greets his guest by quietly pouring him a cup of tea. And he keeps on pouring, even after the cup is full. Seeing the precious tea spill out all over the table, and onto the floor, the guest protests. To which the guru responds by saying that he can’t teach the scholar anything, because his cup is too full.

A cup can be filled only if it is empty or receptive enough. This holds true not just for a guru’s tea, but also the grace of God. Perhaps this is why, in each of our readings today, it is the lowly and humble who are blessed, instead of the high and mighty. In the first reading, God promises to send the people a great king, who will finally bring peace to the land. But this precious gift is to be poured out on the tiny town of Bethlehem, the home of the least of the clans of Judah. Why? Perhaps it’s because only this lowly place is humble or empty enough to receive the grace of God.

In the gospel, God’s power is poured into the wombs of two unlikely women. For one, it’s already too late for childbearing. For the other, it’s just too soon. But it is precisely in their weakness that God’s Spirit finds suitable resting places. Mary conceives the Messiah, and Elizabeth his Herald. And when these two lowly yet blessed women come together, like the clinking of champagne glasses, their encounter becomes an occasion for great rejoicing.

The second reading reminds us of the receptivity of Christ himself. Not only did he accept the bitter tea of his Father’s will, he received also the proper cup with which to carry it out. That same body, which Christ obediently offers on the cruel Wood of the Cross, he first humbly receives in the blessed womb of his mother. You who wanted no sacrifice or oblation, prepared a body for me… All of which makes it abundantly clear that salvation cannot be acquired through any purely human effort, however brave or heroic. It can only be humbly received as a merciful gift from God.

Perhaps this is why, on this final Sunday in Advent, we pray the way we did at the beginning of Mass. Do you remember what we said? Pour forth, we beseech you, O Lord, your grace into our hearts… We ask God to pour out the tea of God’s grace into the cups of our hearts. And to benefit from this prayer, we also need hearts that are empty enough to accept all that God wants to pour into them. We need to enter and embrace those areas in our lives, where we feel most vulnerable or lost, even helpless and out-of-control. Those places we prefer to avoid, or to fill up with our daily busyness and boastfulness. For it’s often into these hollowed-out crevices that God’s life-giving Spirit is poured.

Sisters and brothers, much like the scholar’s encounter with the guru, the season of Advent is meant to be for us a pilgrimage into greater receptivity. What must we do to allow the Lord to empty our teacups today?

Saturday, December 04, 2021

Beyond the Forces that Separate

2nd Sunday of Advent (C)

Readings: Baruch 5:1-9; Psalm 125(126); Philippians 1:4-6,8-11; Luke 3:1-6

Picture: Wikimedia Commons

My dear friends, do you know what a reunion feels like? I don’t mean the annual gatherings that happen, for example, at Thanksgiving, or on Lunar New Year’s Eve. What I have in mind is more like what the world witnessed back in 2018, when several dozen South Korean families were allowed to meet their North Korean relatives, whom they had not seen for sixty to seventy years. Even on a video screen, I found the scenes truly heartbreaking. Images of people – bound by the closest ties of blood, yet cruelly separated by forces beyond their control – now finally allowed to meet again face to face. Can you imagine what it feels like to be one of those people?

It’s helpful to try, because we find something similar in the scriptures today. The first reading promises a joyful reunion for the city of Jerusalem, which is portrayed as a grieving mother. Although her children have been painfully torn from her side by forces beyond her control, she is told to rejoice now, because God will guide them safely home. This promised reunion is more than just a physical return. For Jerusalem is not just any ordinary city. She is the holy land, where God’s Temple is built. She is the sacred place, where heaven comes in contact with earth. To return and live in Jerusalem is to reunite with God, to live in God’s ways, to put on the cloak of integrity that God provides for God’s people.

A joyous reunion between Creator and creation is also what is foretold in the gospel. Although powerful political and even religious forces continue to hold sway in the world, often working to separate heaven from earth, God promises to bring about a new reunion. This time, instead of people returning to a particular place, God comes to them through a chosen person, Jesus the Christ, at once both fully human and fully divine. To believe and to follow him is to put on the cloak of integrity that God provides for all nations to wear.

But we also believe that this reunion has already been brought about. For Jesus has already been born for us, has already lived, and died, and been raised for us. Which is why, in the second reading, although he writes from prison, Paul can still claim to pray with joy. For though powerful forces separate him from his readers, Paul knows that he remains united to them in the love of Christ, and in their shared work of spreading the Good News of reunion with God.

Even so, this same reunion is not yet complete. Neither within, among nor around us. We still await a Second Coming. Which is why we need Advent. Not just to prepare us to receive and live this Good News more fully, but also to move us to share it with others more courageously. For our world remains divided by powerful forces. Not only biological viruses like the omicron variant, but also spiritual afflictions, like selfishness, greed, ignorance, deceitfulness and despair.

Sisters and brothers, like the people of Korea, our world continues to yearn for reunion. What must we do to better prepare ourselves to receive the One who comes to unite heaven and earth this Advent?

Sunday, November 28, 2021

With Blinders Removed

1st Sunday of Advent (C)

Readings: Jeremiah 33:14-16; Psalm 24(25):4-5,8-9,10,14; 1 Thessalonians 3:12-4:2; Luke 21:25-28,34-36

Pictures: cc City of St Louis Missouri

My dear friends, do you know what blinkers or blinders are? They are sometimes put around a horse’s eyes, so that it can see only what is directly ahead. This prevents the horse from getting distracted or startled by its surroundings. Which may be a good thing, except that it narrows the view of the horse.

I don’t know if you’ll agree with me, but I think we often look at Christmas, as though we too were wearing blinders. Commercially, Christmas is presented as a season for giving and merry-making. Which makes it a precious time for buying and selling. That’s only to be expected. But I suspect that even those of us, who may be more religious, will be surprised, if we were told that Christmas is more than just a celebration of the birth of Christ two thousand years ago.

Which is one good reason why we need Advent, and especially this first Sunday of Advent. As you may have noticed, in our readings today, there is no mention of a baby in a manger. Indeed, our attention is directed, at least initially, less to the past, than to the future. The gospel begins with a rather disturbing, and even scary, description of the end times. Jesus says that people on earth will be dying of fear as they await what menaces the world, for the powers of heaven will be shaken… How do you feel when you hear these words?

I confess that I’m tempted simply to ignore them. To skip ahead to the less troubling parts of the gospel. Which is, of course, just another way of putting on blinders, isn’t it? And I know why I do this. It’s the same reason horses do it. To avoid being scared and distracted. Distracted from what exactly? From the routine busyness and stress of daily living.

And yet, in the gospel, Jesus offers a different antidote to fear. Instead of covering our eyes, he strengthens our hearts, and guides our steps. He strengthens our hearts by telling us that, if we truly follow him, then the end times are not to be feared, but welcomed: When these things begin to take place, stand erect, hold your heads high, because your liberation is near at hand. And he guides our steps, by warning us that the routine busyness of daily living can itself be a distraction: Watch yourselves, or your hearts will be coarsened with debauchery and drunkenness and the cares of life…

In effect, Jesus is reminding us that the promise made in the first reading has already been fulfilled in him. That we, the body-of-Christ on earth, we too bear the name the-Lord-our-integrity. For Jesus has already shown us how to face the end without fear. By living the kind of life we are meant to live: the life that God wants. By continually asking God to increase our love, making us love one another and the whole human race.

Sisters and brothers, we don’t really have to wait till the end times to see scary signs. We can already see them now: the growing climate crisis, multiplying COVID-19 variants, desperate migrants drowning in the sea… Still, Christ is with us already. What must we do to let God remove our blinders, and better prepare for the Lord’s coming again today?

Sunday, November 14, 2021


33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

Readings: Daniel 12:1-3; Psalm 15(16):5,8-11; Hebrews 10:11-14,18; Mark 13:24-32

Picture: cc Jernej Furman

My dear friends, have you taken an A-R-T yet? What did it feel like? What result did you get? As you know, A-R-T stands for antigen rapid test, which is a quick way to detect a possible COVID-19 infection. Similarly, our Mass readings also provide us with a kind of A-R-T, a convenient test to indicate whether or not we have a certain kind of infection.

As you’ve probably already noticed, the first reading and the gospel share certain characteristics. They are both examples of apocalyptic literature. This type of writing is addressed to a particular kind of audience, to people suffering persecution, people at the bottom of the prevailing societal order. Scholars tell us that the first reading was originally intended for Jews who had been conquered by the Greeks, and the gospel for those being oppressed by Roman rule.

To such people, the apocalyptic message is simple. Yes, you are suffering now, but do not to be afraid, because the current world order will not last forever. A time is coming, a time of great distress, when everything will be disrupted, turned upside down, when even those who are powerful now will be made powerless. After which, God’s previously hidden presence will be made manifest. And those who had remained faithful to God will be gathered and rewarded. While those who had been unfaithful will be punished.

How do you think you would feel, if you heard this message? Well it depends, right? If I were suffering for being faithful to God in a hostile world, then I might feel encouraged and hopeful, I might find the strength I need to persevere. But if I were unfaithful, if I had somehow allowed myself to become a friend of the world, then I’d likely feel anxious and afraid, or I might perhaps try to ignore the message. Whatever it is, my reaction serves as an indicator of a possible infection. It tells me whether I have been contaminated by the world.

My dear friends, I think this is also what our readings can do for us today. They serve as an A-R-T. Not an antigen rapid test, but an apocalyptic reading test. My reaction to them may indicate how faithful I am to God, whether I am truly striving for that eternal perfection won by the single sacrifice of Christ, or whether I have been infected by the world.

And in case this test, this A-R-T, isn’t reliable enough, I can supplement it with a P-R-T, a pandemic reaction test. I may examine my reaction to the distress and disruption caused by the pandemic. Am I, like most others, looking forward only to things going back to the way they were before? Is my idea of the new normal just another version of the comfortable past? Or am I also yearning for a radically different future, where the poor will be better provided for, the environment better cared for, where God’s kingdom will more fully come, God’s will be more truly done, on earth as it is in heaven?

Sisters and brothers, if we were to honestly submit ourselves to a spiritual A-R-T today, what will it feel like? What result will we get? How might we draw ever closer to Christ, today?

Sunday, November 07, 2021

Checking Our Cheese...

32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

Readings: 1 Kings 17:10-16; Psalm 145 (146): 7-10; Hebrews 9:24-28; Mark 12:38-44

Picture: cc Marco Verch Professional Photographer

My dear friends, do you know when cheese is not really cheese? I must confess that I was very surprised, when I was told the answer not long ago. Apparently, a popular brand of individually packed cheese slices actually contains so little cheese, that it has to be called a cheese product. Which just goes to show how important it is for us not to simply take things at face value. Just because something is described as cheese, doesn’t mean it actually contains real cheese. Better to take a closer look, to find out more… Otherwise we may end up eating something far less nutritious than advertised.

I mention this because food is also a central feature of our readings today. We see this most clearly in the first reading. In a time of famine – a dire shortage of food – caused by drought, the prophet Elijah begs a poor Sidonian widow to feed him. And she willingly shares with him the little food she has. But why, we may ask, does the prophet beg from such a poor person? And why is this particular widow so generous?

The reading begins at verse 10. We find the answers to our questions in verses 8 and 9. There we are told that it was the Lord, who instructed Elijah to seek out the widow, and that it was also the Lord, who commanded her to feed him. All of which indicates that both Elijah and the widow did not simply share the same food for their stomachs. They also shared the same nourishment for their souls. By acting as they did, they were both obeying, feeding on, the word of the Lord.

In the gospel too, we find a poor widow, who generously donates to the Temple all she had to live on. The gospel doesn’t tell us why she does this. But we may assume a similar motive to those of Elijah and the first widow. Like them, she probably thinks she is obeying God, that she is feeding on the word of the Lord. But notice what Jesus says at the beginning of the reading. He tells his disciples to beware of the scribes, to guard against the very people responsible for the financial system the widow is obeying. Why? It’s because of the food they eat… They swallow the property of widows, while making a show of lengthy prayers… Instead of feeding on the word of God, these religious leaders feast on the livelihoods of the poor, whom they fool into thinking they are obeying God. Which is not so different from selling cheese that’s not real cheese, right?

Unfortunately, such things still happen today. The recent case of that poor woman, who became very sick after buying and ingesting the drug Ivermectin, as protection against Covid-19, is just one, more obvious, example. She did this on the advice of Catholic friends, who led her to believe it was what God wanted. Thankfully, by generously sacrificing himself once and for all, Christ has established this eucharistic table, from which we are fed, and at which we are given what we need to judge the true nutritional value of every other food.

Sisters and brothers, what must we do to be more vigilant, and to help one another to carefully check our cheese today?

Sunday, October 24, 2021

Between Hentak Kaki & Cepat Jalan

30th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

(World Mission Sunday)

Readings: Jeremiah 31:7-9; Psalm 125(126); Hebrews 5:1-6; Mark 10:46-52

Picture: cc Richard Lee

My dear friends, do you know what hentak kaki means? For those who don’t, it’s a command in Malay, given to soldiers on parade, telling them to march on the spot. Which they are then expected to do, until they receive a further command, for example, to cepat jalan, to resume marching forward briskly. Anyone who has ever hentak kaki before, knows how tiring and frustrating it can be, especially under the hot sun. But this term is not just confined to the military. It’s also used at the workplace, to describe those who are repeatedly passed over for promotion. Like soldiers marching on the spot, such employees are also said to hentak kaki

The frustration and fatigue, the sense of futility and even hopelessness that often results from remaining stuck in the same place, for a protracted period of time, despite making strenuous efforts to move ahead. This is also the experience of the people we meet in our readings today. In the first reading, the Word of God is addressed to the remnant of Israel, a people stuck in exile. God promises to comfort and care for them, to gather them and to guide them safely home.

Similarly, in the gospel, more than just being blind, Bartimaeus is also stuck by the side of the road. Thankfully, though his eyes are sightless, his faith enables him to recognise his Rescuer. At a word from Jesus, the stranded beggar receives not only his sight, but also his freedom. He is able to jump up, and to gratefully follow Jesus along the road. As a result, Bartimaeus becomes not only a disciple of Christ, but also an adopted child of God.

The proclamation of release to captives, of recovery of sight to the blind, and of freedom to the oppressed (Lk 4:18). This is the marvellous mission that Jesus carries out in our readings today. The mission given to the only begotten Son of God, who descends among us as high priest, appointed by God to set stranded people free. This is also what we recall especially today, on World Mission Sunday. Not our mission, but the mission of God, entrusted by the Father, to the Son, in the Holy Spirit. This is the mission from which we ourselves have benefitted, as Bartimaeus did. By virtue of our baptism into Christ, we too receive adoption as children of God, washed in the blood of the Lamb, and made partakers at his eucharistic Table.

More than any sense of obligation, it is deep gratitude for the mission entrusted by God to the Crucified and Risen Christ that then impels us to share the Good News of liberation with those who may remain stranded. As Pope Francis reminds us, to be ‘in a state of mission’ is a reflection of gratitude. It is in gratitude for gifts received that we, in our turn, accept and act on the command to become missionaries to those in need, especially in these trying times. People overwhelmed by fatigue and frustration, whether by the lack of work or by too much of it. People oppressed by a sense of futility, either because their options are too few or far too many...

Sisters and brothers, at a time when many remain stranded, how are we being commanded to cepat jalan today?

Saturday, October 16, 2021

The Games People Play

29th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

Readings: Isaiah 53:10-11; Psalm 32(33):4-5,18-20,22; Hebrews 4:14-16; Mark 10:35-45

Picture: cc woodleywonderworks

My dear friends, if you happen to come across a group of people running around on a basketball court, passing a ball to one another, is it safe to assume that they are playing basketball? The answer, of course, is no, not necessarily. They could, for example, also be playing a game called futsal. A scaled-down version of soccer, played on a hard court. Which goes to show that, if we want to determine what game people are playing, it’s not enough just to consider where they are. It’s also important to look at what they do. Are they using their hands, or their feet? Are they throwing a ball through a hoop, or kicking it between two posts?

The same can be said about what we find in our readings today. But first, it may be helpful to recall that, in chapter one of Mark’s gospel, Jesus had called James and John, the sons of Zebedee, to leave their fishing boat, and to become fishers of people. From then on, we might say that, the brothers had left their old field of play, and joined Jesus in a new one.

And yet, here in chapter ten, we see them engaging in what amounts to a brazen act of shameless self-promotion. Which indicates that, though they may be sharing the same field as the Lord, they aren't actually playing the same game. As a result, Jesus takes the trouble to gather all twelve apostles, to teach them how to distinguish between two very different games, by considering how authority is exercised in each one.

In the game of worldly competition, authority is exercised through domination. The so-called rulers lord it over their subjects, as James and John were probably hoping to do. In contrast, in the game that Jesus plays, authority is exercised through service. (A)nyone who wants to be great among you… must be… servant… and… slave to all.

And the Lord teaches this lesson not just with his words, but also by his actions: his life, death and resurrection. As the other readings tell us, he is the supreme high priest who has gone through the highest heaven, but only by first descending into the depths of the earth. By allowing himself to be tempted in every way that we are, though without sin. By offering his life in atonement, so that by his sufferings, he is able to reconcile us to God and to one another.

This is the same game that we Christians are called to play, in all the different arenas of daily life. At home or at work, in church or on the streets. To consistently choose loving self-sacrificing service over shameless self-promoting domination. And we probably all know this well enough in theory. It’s just that we don’t always see how it translates into practice. Which is why we really need this synod on synodality, for which we are beginning to prepare today. As we go through the process together, we hope to learn, as a church, how the game is played. How both leaders and subjects alike can find God, by truly listening and speaking with one another, and with the world.

Sisters and brothers, if it is true that a game is determined less by the field of play than by the actions of the players, then what game are we playing, everywhere and everyday?

Sunday, October 10, 2021

Whose Journey?

28th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

Readings: Wisdom 7:7-11; Psalm 89 (90):12-17; Hebrews 4:12-13; Mark 10:17-27

Picture: cc TimOve

My dear friends, what do you think about when you hear the words epidemic, pandemic, and endemic? For many, they mark stages in our ongoing journey of coping with Covid-19. And I confess that, when I hear them, I tend to focus first on myself. I want to know what I can and cannot do. Can I travel, or am I grounded? Can I eat out, or must I take home?… And yet, the word epi-demic literally means upon or above a people. Pan-demic means all people. And en-demic means in a people. So, at least linguistically, these words actually refer, first of all, to a journey made by the virus. The passage from an epidemic to a pandemic implies that a virus has become much more pervasive. Whereas progressing into endemicity marks its deeper penetration and greater persistence.

The image of a journey is also central to our prayers and readings today. At first glance, perhaps the more obvious journey is that of the seeker. In the first reading, King Solomon describes his own pursuit of Wisdom. He desires it so much, prays for it so fervently, prioritises it above all material wealth and health and beauty, that he finds what he seeks. He successfully reaches his destination.

Like Solomon, the rich man in the gospel is also a seeker. He too desires to inherit eternal life. The secret of which he begs Jesus, on bended knee, to reveal to him. Unfortunately, at this point in his journey, unlike Solomon, the rich man is unable to prioritise God. He cannot let go of his wealth. Despite having faithfully kept many of the Commandments, he has somehow allowed his possessions to possess him.

If our reflection stops here, then the lesson seems as clear as it is challenging. Don’t be like the rich man, who can’t complete his journey, because he’s too attached to his riches. Be like King Solomon. Let go, and let God! But how many of us can do this? Isn’t letting go precisely what we find so difficult, living as we do in this hyper-modern consumeristic society of ours, where many are possessed, not just by present wealth, but even by dreams of riches yet to come? Isn’t this why a single math exam can leave so many of our twelve-year-olds, and their parents, so badly shaken?

Thankfully, seekers are not the only ones on the move. God is as well! This is how the gospel begins: Jesus was setting out on a journey… More than a change in geographical location, we may think of this as part of the Word of God’s fruitfully circular passage, from Heaven to Earth, from Cross to Grave, and beyond. And even if Jesus’ loving gaze on the road fails to move the rich man to dispossess himself, perhaps the Lord’s broken Body, on the Cross and in the poor, can yet succeed. Perhaps this is how the Word of God becomes truly alive and active among us. Penetrating and moving us to do even the impossible. All the more if we make it a point to gaze upon Him intently and courageously, regularly and together. Here, at this Mass, and out there, in the world.

Sisters and brothers, much more than any virus, God’s Word also wishes to become pan-demic and en-demic. How shall we better follow and facilitate His passing among us today? 

Sunday, October 03, 2021

Between Boon & Bane

27th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

Readings: Genesis 2:18-24; Psalm 127(128); Hebrews 2:9-11; Mark 10:2-16

Video: YouTube DIRKWORKS2

I beg your pardon, I never promised you a rose garden. Along with the sunshine, there’s gotta be a little rain some time…

My dear friends, I won’t ask you whether you know these lines from a song that topped the charts back in 1970. You may risk revealing your age... Suffice to say that the song refers to that time in life when a blessing begins to feel like a burden, when sunshine turns to rain. Have you ever experienced this before? A family is thrilled, for example, when it first receives a puppy. But it later realises that, in addition to looking cute, puppies also bark incessantly, chew indiscriminately, and require patient toilet-training. What to do then? Return the gift? But what if, instead of a puppy, the gift is a human baby… or a spouse… or life itself?

What to do when blessings start to feel like burdens? This is also a question our readings invite us to ponder today. At first glance, the gospel presents little more than the all-too-familiar Catholic teaching on marriage. The repeating of which often risks alienating the divorced, depressing the single, and tempting the still-married to feel just a little too self-satisfied. But the gospel also offers us two contrasting responses to the moment when blessings become burdens.

For the Pharisees, if you are a man, and your wife starts to feel like a burden, the Law allows you to discard her and marry another. In effect, treating the woman more like property than a person. But the Lord's approach is different. By setting the question of marriage within the context of Creation, Jesus reminds us that, not just marriage, but life itself is, first of all, a generous gift from a loving God. From this perspective, important insights follow.

In the first reading, God doesn’t just present the man with the gift of another person, a woman. God actually teaches the man the proper process for building a loving relationship with an equal. The process involves three steps. First, the ego must be put to sleep. Then there needs to be a donation of oneself, signified by the rib. And only after these two steps are taken, can there be a true recognition of another as bone from my bones, and flesh from my flesh.

Strikingly, the second reading reminds us that these are also the same three steps that Jesus takes to save us. On the Cross, he submits to the sleep of Death. From his pierced side, flow blood and water. And at his Rising, his followers gain recognition as his adopted brothers and sisters, members of his Body. To recall this tremendous gift of Jesus, as we do now, is to receive a further gift. The gift of power, power to receive and to live life as it is meant to be lived, in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health, till death brings us before the One who gave us all.

Along with the sunshine, there’s gotta be a little rain some time… It’s unavoidable that life sometimes feels more like a burden than a blessing. As it probably does now, for many, in these trying times. Yet life remains a precious gift to be reverently received and courageously shared with others.  What must we do to live this gift ever more fully today?

Sunday, September 19, 2021

The Challenging Gift of Correction

25th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

Readings: Wisdom 2:12,17-20; Psalm 53 (54):3-6,8; James 3:16-4:3; Mark 9:30-37

Picture: cc Martin Hricko

My dear friends, have you ever gone the wrong way without realising it? Maybe you make a wrong turn while walking or driving, or you board the wrong train. Whatever it is, you unwittingly end up heading in a wrong direction… How would you react, if someone were to point out to you your mistake?

I ask, because this is more or less the kind of situation in which the disciples of Jesus find themselves in the gospel. Although they appear to be travelling along the same geographical route as Jesus – through Galilee, and into Capernaum – the reading makes it clear that the disciples are walking a very different spiritual path from their Master.

To see the difference we have only to compare what they and Jesus talk about. For the second time in Mark’s gospel, Jesus speaks movingly about being delivered into the hands of men, for the sake of the gospel. The disciples, however, argue among themselves about which of them is the greatest. What a sharp contrast between the self-sacrificing love of the Lord, and the self-promoting competition among his friends!

We find the same contrast in the first reading. Where the righteous life of the virtuous man attracts the anger of the godless, who make plans to test him with cruelty and with torture. Much like how the enemies of Jesus will test him, eventually subjecting him to a shameful death on the Cross.

The second reading then gives us a fuller picture of these two opposing spiritual itineraries, by tracing the external actions of both the virtuous and the godless, back to their respective roots. Disharmony, and wicked things of every kind, are traced back to jealousy and ambition, and all other disordered desires fighting inside the human heart. Whereas peace and kindness, consideration and compassion for others flow out from within those who allow themselves to be filled with the wisdom that comes down from above. The Wisdom personified by Jesus himself.

All of which enables us to better appreciate the precious gift that Jesus is offering his disciples. By asking them to review their argument on the road, the Lord is helping them to realise that they are on the wrong path. But, understandably, the disciples find it hard to accept this gift. Isn’t this why their first reaction to the Lord’s question is an embarrassed silence? So the Lord responds by inviting them to become more like little children. To be less afraid of admitting one’s own error, and to be more willing to rely on the merciful guidance of God.

And what about us? On the long difficult road of pandemic life that we have been walking together, there are surely many opportunities for both selfless sacrifice and selfish ambition. How is the Lord inviting us – as individuals and families, as church and society – to review our words and actions, our desires and motivations, so as to uncover the moments when we may have inadvertently taken the wrong path?

Sisters and brothers, what must we do to better accept the Lord’s precious yet challenging gift of correction today?

Sunday, August 08, 2021

Angels Against Anorexia

19th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

Readings: 1 Kings 19:4-8; Psalm 33(34):2-9; Ephesians 4:30-5:2; John 6:41-51

Picture: cc Ilya Kuzniatsou

My dear friends, do you know what it feels like to lose your appetite? When I lose my appetite, it doesn’t mean that I’m not hungry, or that I don’t need food. I do. It’s just that, at that moment, I somehow forget the natural connection between hunger and food. This may happen when I’m overwhelmed by some stronger feeling. Such as when I’m too excited or too tired. It's quite understandable then, once in a while, to forget to eat. But a prolonged loss of appetite can be dangerous. An example is the life-threatening condition known as anorexia.

I mention this, because a loss of appetite is what we find in our readings today. In the first reading, Elijah is on the run. Hunted by Queen Jezebel, who wants to kill him, the prophet is so overwhelmed by exhaustion that he loses even his appetite for life, let alone for food. Thankfully, God refuses to let Elijah give up. Repeatedly, an angel is sent to rouse him from sleep, to remind him to eat, and to refresh him, so that he is again able to experience God.

In the gospel, it’s clear that what has been lost is the appetite for spiritual food. And this condition has become chronic, particularly among the religious leaders. It’s as though they are suffering from a spiritual anorexia. Having lost their taste for spiritual food, they’re unable to recognise the bread of life, even when it stands in front of them. Instead of welcoming and partaking of it, they complain. They feel threatened by it. Perhaps they are overwhelmed by other hungers, anxious to satisfy other appetites.

But still Jesus refuses to give up. Relying on the power of God, he continues to invite people to eat. For just as God had sent an angel to feed Elijah, so too does the heavenly Father continue to draw people to Jesus, teaching them to follow the One whose Dying and Rising leads them into eternal life. Not just life beyond the grave, but that fullness of life that begins already here and now. The kind of life described in the second reading, which reminds us to be friends with one another, and kind, forgiving each other as readily as God forgave you in Christ. A life of love, lived in right relationship – with God, with others, and with all of Creation.

All of which presents us at once with a great consolation and a serious challenge. It’s a great consolation to know that even now, God keeps working tirelessly to draw starving people to Christ. For isn’t this what is so sorely needed even here, in our own apparently affluent and advanced country? Where a growing number of us – particularly our school-going children – seem to be losing their appetite for life? And much as we may blame this on the pandemic, hasn’t Covid-19 only exacerbated a pre-existing condition? And doesn’t this situation pose a serious challenge to us Christians? First to truly allow Christ to nourish us, to faithfully live that fullness of life he offers, and to generously share it with others.

Sisters and brothers, like Elijah in the first reading, there are many exhausted people around us, who desperately need a messenger from God to remind them to get up and eat. What must we do to become such angels against anorexia today?

Sunday, July 18, 2021

Submitting to the Shepherd's Stress

16th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

Readings: Jeremiah 23:1-6; Psalm 22(23); Ephesians 2:13-18; Mark 6:30-34

Picture: cc Matt Clark

My dear friends, are you tense? Do you ever have moments when you wish that all the tension in your life was removed forever? Perhaps we’ve all felt like that at one time or another. And especially so in these days of Covid-stress. Yet not all tensions are bad. Some may even be necessary. For example, isn’t the tension in the strings of a guitar what allows it to produce such beautiful sounds?

And music-making is not the only activity that involves tension. The same can be said about shepherding, which is what our readings talk about today. In the first reading, God accuses the leaders of Israel for being lazy shepherds. For failing to accept the tension that comes with caring for God’s people. For allowing the Lord’s flock to be scattered. God then promises to raise up a new line of kings, who will properly care for the sheep. A promise that finds its fulfilment in the gospel, where Jesus appears as the Good Shepherd.

But have you noticed how Jesus himself experiences tension while shepherding? The reading begins with the Lord inviting his disciples to retreat to a lonely place to rest for a while. By doing this, he shows his care for them. He shepherds them. But having arrived at their chosen vacation spot, they are confronted with a large crowd. The sight of which moves the Lord’s heart with pity, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. And he decides to postpone the vacation, and to teach them at some length.

Isn’t there a tension here between the Lord’s concern for his disciples and his pity for the people? And isn’t this but one example in a life lived in constant tension? Indeed, could we not say that the Lord’s very existence is one of tension? Tension between both the divine and human natures present in a single person. A merciful tension, embraced out of love and compassion for us. A courageous tension, culminating in Death, Resurrection, and Remembrance at the Eucharist. A reconciling tension that unites both Jews and Gentiles.

Which is not to say that we should embrace all tensions indiscriminately. No, some tensions are oppressive, and need to be challenged. Such as those that may result from the unjust working conditions that some employers may inflict on their employees. Or the unrealistic expectations that some families may place on their children.

What our readings invite us to recognise is that, as followers of Jesus, we need to learn to graciously acknowledge and accept the unavoidable tensions that come with caring for others. Whether at home, at work, or wherever there are people in need of our help. And we can only bear these tensions fruitfully, if we continually bring them to the Lord in prayer. Allowing him to revive our drooping spirits, and to guide us along the right path, the path of Christ’s peace.

Sisters and brothers, a guitar must be tuned before it is played. What must we do to let the Lord tune us, so that we too may produce sweet music to the glory of God today?