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?