Sunday, January 31, 2021

From Exclusion to Enhancement

My dear friends, some of us may remember the story of the king who showed his three sons a large empty room, and told them that the one who could best fill it up would inherit the kingdom. The first son tried to fill the room with rocks, and the second with feathers. But the third son simply lit a candle, the light of which filled the room most completely.

Close your eyes for a moment, if you will, and imagine what the scene looks like. See the empty room… filled first with rocks… then with feathers… and finally with light… The contrast is striking, isn’t it? Light operates very differently from rocks and feathers. Instead of forcefully occupying a space, to the exclusion of others, light gently enhances it. And all that’s needed is the willingness to strike a match.

Pondering this amazing quality of light can help us deepen our understanding of what we find in our readings today. At first glance, what is perhaps most striking is authority. The authority of Jesus’ teaching in the gospel. The authority that flows from his true identity as the only Son of God. The authority by which he can even cast out unclean spirits.

But our readings are not just about authority. They are also about its necessary counterpart. For the effects of authority to be felt, it needs first to be recognised. It requires undivided attention. And there are various obstacles to such attention.

In the first reading, the obstacle is distance. The Israelites had complained that God’s appearance, high up on Mount Horeb, was too forceful and intimidating for them. Today, we may consider God not so much intimidating as irrelevant. Too far removed from the practical concerns of our daily life. We find it difficult to relate the time we spend here in church on Sunday to the rest of our busy week. Such that we may treat God the way someone simply tolerates a roomful of rocks.

In the second reading, the obstacle comes in the form of  distraction. Believing that the Second Coming is imminent, Paul advises single Christians not to bother getting married, for fear that engagement in the world’s affairs will distract them from attending to the Lord’s. Isn’t this a concern with which many of us can identify? According to this view, God is again not much different from rocks and feathers. Making more space in my life for God means having less space for everything and everybody else. And vice versa.

Which is why it’s important for us to remember, that Christ’s authority is most clearly seen, his power most effectively felt, when the Lord hangs lifeless on the Cross. Having poured out his love to the last drop of his precious blood. In so doing, Christ shines a light that enhances without excluding. A light that we receive anew, and in which we bask and are sent out on mission, whenever we gather for Mass.

Sisters and brothers, at a time when so many are anxiously fighting to occupy more space for themselves, what must we do to keep striking a match today?

Sunday, January 17, 2021

Discovering Water

2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

Readings: 1 Samuel 3:3-10,19; Psalm 39(40):2,4,7-10; 1 Corinthians 6:13-15,17-20; John 1:35-42

Picture: cc Ryndon Ricks

My dear friends, do you know what water is? Believe it or not, this is how a famous college graduation speech in the US begins. Actually, to be more exact, the speech begins with a story of two young fish, who happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way. Morning, boys! says the senior, How’s the water? The juniors swim a little further along, then turn to each other and ask, What the hell is water?

The point of the story, the speaker goes on to explain, is that the most obvious important realities are often the ones that are the hardest to see and talk about. The young fish are surrounded by water. They swim in it. They are filled and sustained by it. Yet they have no knowledge of it. They’re not even conscious of its presence…

And can we not say the same about God? The Bible tells us that in God we live and move and have our being (Ac 17:28). Yet how many of us are actually conscious of God’s presence? How often do we recognise God’s voice, heed God’s call? Learning to recognise and to respond positively to God’s presence, God’s call. This is also the subject of our readings today. What is needed for this to happen?

Perhaps the first and most obvious thing is guidance. Just as the younger fish have the older one in the story, so too does Samuel have Eli in the first reading. The Corinthians have Paul in the second reading. The first disciples have John the Baptist and Jesus in the gospel. But it’s important to see the form that such helpful guidance takes. Notice how it’s less about expounding on complex ideas than pointing out obvious things that often go unnoticed. Less about providing easy answers than posing evocative questions. Look, there is the lamb of God… Our bodies are members making up the body of Christ… Your body… is the temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you… What do you want?

Even so, on its own, guidance is not enough. It needs to be accompanied by receptivity. A willingness to learn, to look and to listen, to ponder and to question. And to keep doing so, even if an answer is not immediately forthcoming… What the hell is water? … Speak, Lord, your servant is listening… I waited, I waited for the Lord… Rabbi, where do you live? … Also, receptivity needs to be expressed in a willingness to make time and space. As the first disciples did, when they came and saw, and stayed with Jesus for the rest of that day.

Guidance and receptivity, time and space. These are some of the more important things by which we learn to recognise and to heed God’s call. Not just in spectacular extraordinary experiences. But also, and more importantly, in the mundane humdrum routine that characterises daily life. If all this is true, then what are its implications for how we cultivate and share our faith, how we teach our children, promote vocations...?

Sisters and brothers, what must we do to better help one another deepen our experience of water today?

Saturday, January 09, 2021

Between Vaccination & Belief

Feast of the Baptism of the Lord

Readings: Isaiah 55:1-11; Isaiah 12; 1 John 5:1-9; Mark 1:7-11

Picture: cc Arne Müseler

My dear friends, have you made up your mind yet? Have you decided whether or not to get vaccinated against Covid-19? What will affect your choice? As you know, this new virus has made our world a more dangerous place. And the vaccine promises us safety from danger, immunity against infection. But some may still hesitate to get vaccinated, because they are unsure how safe the vaccine is. Various voices tell us different things. Some say it’s safe. Others otherwise. Yet others say it depends on which vaccine we get. So our decision will likely depend on which voice we choose to trust.

Danger and safety, promise and trust. We find these same things in our readings today. In the gospel, when Jesus allows himself to be immersed in the waters of the Jordan, something new is happening. For though the baptism performed by John signifies repentance from sin, Jesus is without sin. So what does the Lord’s baptism mean?

The second reading helps to explain, by reminding us that our world is a dangerous place. Not just because of Covid-19, but because of the virus of selfishness and sin, of deceit and division. The deadly effects of which we saw painfully played out in the US Capitol this past week. Yet the reading also says that, in Christ, we Christians find safety. By our faith, we can overcome the world.

And it is to assure us of this that Jesus allows himself to be immersed in the waters of the Jordan. He does so not so much to demonstrate his desire to repent, as to promise his followers immunity against infection. The voice from heaven further strengthens this assurance. You are my Son, the Beloved; my favour rests on you.

But that’s not all. The second reading goes on to remind us that we can trust in the Lord’s assurance, especially because his promise to accompany us in the troubled waters of our sinful world leads also to the shedding of his precious blood, the laying down of his own spotless life. As a result of which, we his followers now enjoy a share in the power of his Spirit.

Danger and safety, promise and trust. All this helps us to better respond to the call, in the first reading, for us to come to the water. What does this mean, if not to first accept the assurances of Christ, to receive the generous gift of his life and love, as we are doing here at this Mass. From which we then gain the strength and courage we need, in the Spirit, to follow in the Lord’s footsteps. To allow ourselves to be immersed, not just in the peaceful pool of sacramental baptism, but also in the turbulent reality of social engagement. To become witnesses in the world to the power of his love.

Sisters and brothers, could it be that becoming a Christian is much like deciding to get vaccinated against Covid-19? The decision we make depends on whom we choose to trust. If so, then in whose voice will you place your trust today?

Saturday, January 02, 2021

Unseen But Not (Necessarily) Invisible

Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord

Readings: Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 71(72):1-2,7-8,10-13; Ephesians 3:2-3,5-6; Matthew 2:1-12

Picture: cc Frédérick Poirot

My dear friends, you may remember that back in 2011 we started using a new English text for Mass. And in the new version of the Creed, the words seen and unseen were replaced with visible and invisible. But what’s the difference between the unseen and the invisible?… The answer is found, I think, when we consider how people often meet with accidents these days, simply because they insist on fixing their eyes on their phones, instead of on where they’re going. These distracted people end up crashing into things that, though unseen by them, are clearly not invisible.

Which may help us to ponder a similar question that the gospel poses to us today. When that mysterious star, announcing the messiah’s birth, rises and shines brightly in the night sky, how is it that Herod and his scribes don’t seem able to see it? Clearly, the star was not invisible, since those wise men from a foreign land saw it, and experienced great joy in doing so. Why then did it remain unseen by Herod?

I’m not sure, my dear friends, but I wonder if it has something to do with another difference between the wise men and Herod. Could it be that the wise men were able to see the star, because they were willing to pay homage to the One to whom it led? As their gifts indicate, the wise men were eager to hail the infant as king, and even to worship him as God.

In contrast, like someone with his eyes glued to his phone, Herod was too distracted to do the same. Too anxious to defend his own privileged position, he was unable to see the star for what it was. That it announced the long-awaited fulfilment of the promise made by God in the first reading. The coming of a Light that would not only bring the Israelites home from exile, but also unite all peoples in paying homage to the one true God. As the second reading tells us, the mystery of Christ’s coming in the flesh means that pagans now share the same inheritance, that they are parts of the same body, and that the same promise has been made to them (to us), in Jesus Christ, through the gospel.

A Light that points to the consolation of homecoming, and communion in homage paid to God. Isn’t this also what we gather to celebrate at this Mass? But it’s important for us to see that the brilliance of this Light shines not just here, in our Scriptures and Sacraments. It also shines out there, in our pandemic-darkened world, where Covid-19 has proven to be a largely equal opportunity infection. It does not discriminate among nationalities or races or those of different social status. We will be truly safe only when everyone is safe. And yet, on the other hand, the virus has also revealed how much more vulnerable are those who, through no fault of their own, do not have enough space for safe and sane distancing, or soap and water for proper sanitising.

Sisters and brothers, if it is true that the Light of Christ shines, unseen but not totally invisible, even amid the shadows of our ailing world, then what must we do to recognise it more clearly, and to worship Him more wholeheartedly today?