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?