Sunday, December 25, 2022

Redemption of Benefits–Benefits of Redemption

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: 1-18

Picture: cc Christchurch City Libraries on Flickr

My dear friends, do you remember when you last received a shopping voucher? How did you feel? Did it set your heart racing with excitement? Recently, I bought something online, and received the offer of a $5 discount on my next purchase. To enjoy this benefit, I only have to remember to redeem the voucher, the next time I buy something on the website. Benefits and redemption, two words that should be familiar to anyone who has ever used a voucher.

I realise that this mention of such an apparently secular activity like shopping–and on Christmas Day, no less–may puzzle and even upset some of us. But it’s not my intention to scandalise or to scold. I think we all know well enough that, contrary to what the advertisements may say, Christmas is not just an excuse to buy more things, but a celebration of the birthday of a special person. The One whose coming brings considerable benefits, as our scriptures remind us…

How beautiful on the mountains, are the feet of one who brings good news, who heralds peace, brings happiness, proclaims salvation…. they shout for joy together…. for the Lord is consoling his people… Peace and happiness, salvation, joy and consolation… In case all these benefits don’t sound juicy enough to set our hearts racing with excitement, the gospel goes even further. It tells us that he gave power to become children of God… Power to become children of God. Could anything be greater than that?

And yet, although these benefits are offered to everyone, they need to be redeemed before they can be enjoyed. How? According to the gospel, it is by accepting him, by believing in his name, by submitting to his authority over all of Creation. By truly letting him become the Lord of my life. In other words, to do here on earth, what the second reading says all the angels of God are doing in heaven: to worship him.

To worship him with our hearts and minds and voices, as we do whenever we gather here to celebrate the Eucharist. And to continue worshipping him with our whole lives, even after we leave this sacred place. For since the Eternal Word has become flesh, and after he has completed his loving pilgrimage from cross to grave to sky, every place is now made sacred by his presence. Even the darkness of death cannot overcome the power of his light.

But to truly worship him, I need to stop paying homage to other gods, like money, power and popularity. I need to stop acting as if I were God, trying to control and manipulate everything and everyone for my own purposes. True worship requires a heart made poor and humble by suffering, embraced in love and trust. Isn’t this what that beautiful Christmas crib conveys to all those who have the eyes to see?

Sisters and brothers, much as shopping vouchers may set some hearts racing with excitement, even they will soon expire if left unredeemed. What must we do to truly welcome and worship the poor and humble Jesus this Christmas?

Sunday, December 18, 2022

Soothing the Soreness of the Heart

4th Sunday in Advent (A)

Readings: Isaiah 7: 10-14; Psalm 23 (24): 1-6; Romans 1: 1-7; Matthew 1: 18-24

Picture: cc Mira Pangkey

My dear friends, has your throat ever felt so sore that it was difficult to swallow, let alone to speak? What did you do? Sometimes lozenges can help, right? Placed in the mouth, and allowed to slowly dissolve on the tongue, a good lozenge can soothe the throat, making it easier to swallow and speak.

Although there is no mention of sore throats or lozenges in our scriptures today, it is clear that both Ahaz and Joseph are having difficulty swallowing God’s will. Shortly after Ahaz is crowned king of Judah, his northern neighbours, Israel and Aram (Syria), join forces to invade him. In a panic, he seeks the help of the mighty Assyrians. The prophet Isaiah tries to persuade him to turn to God instead. But, with his enemies already at his doorstep, Ahaz can’t accept the prophet’s assurances. His fear gets the better of him. Rather than trust in an unseen God, he submits instead to a foreign power.

Like Ahaz, Joseph also finds it difficult to accept God’s will. He wants to send the pregnant Mary away, because he thinks that’s what the Law requires. But he eventually changes his mind, and accepts Mary. And he is able to do this because, unlike Ahaz, Joseph receives the words of the angel the way someone with a sore throat might suck on a lozenge. He truly takes them to heart, allowing them to soothe away his misgivings. Do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife

Like Ahaz and Joseph, we too are called not just to keep welcoming the Lord into our hearts and lives, but also to proclaim the good news of his coming. As the second reading reminds us, through (Christ) we received grace and our apostolic mission to preach the obedience of faith to all pagan nations in honour of his name. But, again like Ahaz and Joseph, we may find this call difficult to swallow. Especially if our hearts are sore, burdened by worries and hurts, doubts and misgivings of one kind or another, including the lingering unexamined trauma caused by the pandemic. 

Thankfully, the scriptures offer us soothing lozenges, in the form of three names. The first is David, which appears in all three readings. As we ponder this name, we realise that, in speaking to Ahaz and Joseph, God isn’t just interacting with isolated individuals, but with the single household, which they represent, the House of David. And God’s love is so steadfast, God’s patience so enduring, that despite being rejected again and again, God still keeps reaching out. Until, many generations after Ahaz, a true Saviour and Messiah can finally be born. Isn’t this what the name Jesus Christ means? Not just any saviour, but the long foretold anointed one, born of the House of David. By whose Dying and Rising, God truly becomes Emmanuel, the God who is eternally present to all who have the courage to receive him.

DavidJesus ChristEmmanuel. Sisters and brothers, as Advent draws to a close, how might we allow these powerful lozenges to soothe our sore and tired hearts, making us ever more receptive to the Lord today?

Sunday, December 11, 2022

Between Sleep & Joy

3rd Sunday in Advent (A)

(Gaudete Sunday)

Readings: Isaiah 35: 1-6,10; Psalm 145 (146): 6-10; James 5: 7-10; Matthew 11: 2-11

Picture: By Tony Tran on Unsplash

My dear friends, have you ever had trouble sleeping? Anyone who has will know that sleeping is not exactly the same as eating or drinking, both of which I can usually do whenever I wish. But sleep is not within my control in quite the same way. When I tell someone, I am going to sleep, what I really mean is that I am preparing to welcome sleep when it comes. This usually involves being in a particular place, and adopting a certain posture. I go to bed, lie down, and wait for sleep to come. Bed and lying down. Place and posture.

But why talk about sleep in Advent, when we are so often told to stay awake? It’s because, in Advent, we are also told to do something else. Especially today, our liturgy is filled with calls to rejoice. And our readings show us that joy is rather like sleep, the coming of which we can only prepare for, by waiting at a particular place, and adopting a certain posture.

In the first reading, those asked to rejoice are actually in the wilderness of Exile, while the people in the second reading are enduring trials of some sort. And, in the gospel, John the Baptist is stuck in jail, for speaking out against King Herod. It’s also helpful to note that, just as I can decide whether or not to go to bed, all these people can actually choose to leave this uncomfortable spiritual place. By forgetting about the homeland from which they have been exiled, or forsaking the faith for which they are being persecuted. 

But the joy promised them is not the kind that comes from escape or avoidance. Rather than distracting themselves or running away, they are encouraged to adopt a certain spiritual posture, comprising at least 3 aspects: courage, patience, and alertness to the signs of the Lord’s coming. Strengthen all weary hands, steady all trembling knees and say to all faint hearts, ‘Courage! Do not be afraid. Look, your God is coming… to save you.’ … You… have to be patient; do not lose heart…. Go back and tell John what you hear and see…. and (blessed) is the (one) who does not lose faith in me…

Choosing to remain in a painful place of trial, while adopting a  courageous posture of faith. To do this is also to follow the example of the prophets of old. And not just the prophets, but Christ himself, who has already died and risen to life to set us free. Preparing for joy, through place and posture. Perhaps this is what Pope Francis was doing, when he recently shed tears while praying before a statue of the Immaculate Conception for the people of Ukraine.

Place and posture, prophets and prayer. This is how we Christians welcome joy. Something we do well to remember particularly in these troubled and troubling times, when the temptation is great to turn to cheaper, shallower, less enduring, and far more dangerous forms of consolation.

Sisters and brothers, if rejoicing is truly more like sleeping than eating and drinking, then how might we better welcome the joy of the Lord into our hearts and homes this Advent?

Sunday, December 04, 2022

Of Viruses & Vipers, Protection & Peace...

2nd Sunday in Advent (A)

Readings: Isaiah 11: 1-10; Psalm 71 (72): 1-2, 7-8, 12-13, 17; Romans 15: 4-9; Matthew 3:1-12

Picture: by LN on Unsplash

My dear friends, do you feel safe here? Without giving it much thought, perhaps some of us will quickly say yes. And yet, aren’t many of us, including me, still wearing our masks and sanitising our hands? Why, if not because even this sacred place is not as safe as it looks? There remains at least a hidden threat of viral infection, requiring measures to make the space safer, especially for those more vulnerable.

It’s helpful to keep this in mind, as we ponder the scriptures today. For that consoling picture of peace that Isaiah paints in the first reading is also an image of safety. Safety from threats both obvious and hidden. Safety for children and those more vulnerable. In this vision, the lamb finds it safe to live with the wolf. The young child suffers no harm when it places its hand into the viper’s lair. And a little boy is allowed to lead them. How is this wonderfully safe space created? It results from the wise rule of the coming king, whose reign is marked by discerning impartial judgment, and responsible courageous action to protect the vulnerable, and keep the dangerous in check. He does not judge by appearances… but judges the wretched with integrity… His word is a rod that strikes the ruthless, his sentences bring death to the wicked.

We see something similar in John the Baptist's interaction with the Pharisees and Sadducees. By calling them a brood of vipers, John indicates that, like poisonous snakes (and coronaviruses too), they pose a hidden threat to the vulnerable. They hide their self-promoting other-exploiting intentions under pious appearances. Yet without a true change of heart, simply going through the motions of being baptised in water will do them no good. The Lord who is coming will test them in the purifying fire of the Holy Spirit, and they will be burnt up, unless they repent.

All of which may help us better understand what the second reading is asking of us. More than just tolerating and being friendly with everyone, we are to welcome one another as Christ welcomes us. Christ, who did not condone our wrongdoing, but mercifully and courageously bore the cross-shaped consequences of calling us to repentance. So as to lead us into the Reign of God, where everyone, particularly children and the more vulnerable, finds true safety.

I’m reminded of these words spoken by the Archbishop of Canterbury, on his visit to Ukraine: There will be no peace till we stop lying. You’ve got to tell the truth, however painful. There can never be a way forward built on lies… Beyond countries torn by war, can’t the same be said of other spaces haunted by less obvious threats? Spaces both religious and secular, real and virtual, public and domestic? Just as mask-wearing and hand-sanitising help keep us safe in a pandemic, so too do truth-seeking and truth-speaking enable us to blaze a surer path from danger to safety, from conflict to peace.

Sisters and brothers, what must we do to help one another receive the courage to walk this path together more faithfully this Advent? 

Sunday, November 27, 2022

Negotiating the Junctions of New Life

1st Sunday in Advent (A)

Readings: Isaiah 2: 1-5; Psalm 121 (122): 1-2, 4-5, 6-9; Romans 13: 11-14; Matthew 24: 37-44

Pictures: By Pawel Czerwinski & Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

My dear friends, can you predict what will happen in a situation like this? Let’s say two cars are waiting, side-by-side, at a traffic junction. What will happen when the lights turn green? In the past, we could say with some confidence that both vehicles will quickly make their way across the junction. But these days isn’t it just as likely to find at least one car staying put? And we know why, right? Speaking from embarrassing personal experience, it’s because the driver’s eyes are fixed not on the lights, but on his phone.

Strangely or not, this is the image that initially comes to mind, when one hears the gospel speak of how, at the Son of Man’s coming, of two men in the fields one is taken, one left; of two women at the millstone grinding, one is taken, one left. But notice how all four people are equally engaged in the ordinary busyness of daily life. Yet, somehow, two manage to remain alert to their master’s coming, and are ready to welcome him when he finally arrives. How do they do it?

Perhaps it’s by first taking to heart the crucially important, yet too easily forgotten, message of the second reading. Which reminds us that, whether we happen to be working in the fields or grinding at the millstone, gathered round a conference table or conversing on Zoom, we are always also simultaneously waiting at a junction, at the borderlands between darkness and light, between selfishness and love. Where to remain alert and ready is to strive continually, not just to resist one’s own self-indulgent tendencies, but also to abide by and actively promote gospel values, such as justice, mercy and peace. To let our armour be the Lord Jesus Christ.

To do this is to allow our lives in this passing world to be informed by the vision of the eternal kingdom that is to come. As a result of which, something happens to us. Our hearts and desires take on a certain shape, gradually moulded into the image of Christ. Moving us to yearn for what Christ earnestly desires, and to be repelled by what distresses him.

So that even if, despite our best efforts to change the world for the better, we may seem to make little progress, we will yet find ourselves eagerly awaiting the fulfilment of that consoling vision of peace described in the first reading. The time when our loving and compassionate God will truly wield authority over the nations and adjudicate between many peoples. When nation will not lift sword against nation, and there will be no more training for war. And with hearts filled with true Advent hope, we too will cry out with the psalmist: I rejoiced when I heard them say, ‘Let us go to God’s house.’

All of which may bring to mind junctions of a different sort. Not those so easily obstructed by distracted drivers like me, but the ones occupied by uncertain yet hopeful spouses, clinging tightly to each other, as they share in the joyful pain of bringing new life to birth.

Sisters and brothers, what must we do to help one another find and wait expectantly at such places this Advent?

Saturday, November 12, 2022

Between the PSLE & the Parousia

33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

Readings: Malachi 3: 19-20; Psalm 97 (98): 5-9; 2 Thessalonians 3: 7-12; Luke 21: 5-19

Picture: Rohit Farmer on Unsplash

My dear friends, what do you think an anxious parent will say to a child preparing for the PSLE next year? I’m not sure, since I don’t have kids of my own. But, rightly or not, drawing from my memories of what was said to me, back when I was a student facing a major exam, two things come to mind. The first is the seriousness of the matter, the dire consequences of failure versus the rewards of success. The second is the need for constant effort, to not leave things till it’s too late.

Consequences and constancy. Coincidentally or not, these are also what we find in our readings today. As usual, as the liturgical year draws to a close, we are led to consider the end of time, and how to prepare well for it. The first reading does this by describing a sharp contrast in consequences. On the one hand, for the arrogant and the evil-doers, the day of the Lord will be like a fiery furnace, burning them all up like dry grass, leaving neither root nor stalk. On the other hand, those who fear the Lord will experience this same fire as a welcome sun of righteousness, gently caressing them with healing in its rays. The message could not be clearer. Be prepared, because the consequences will be serious.

Although the second reading doesn’t directly mention the end of time, its message is no less relevant. For it highlights the need for constant effort. Paul tells the Thessalonians not to live in idleness, doing no work themselves but interfering with everyone else’s. Instead they should imitate Paul and his companions, who work night and day… so as not to be a burden to others. But if preparing for the end of time really means no more than working hard everyday, then we can probably breathe a sigh of relief since, for many of us here in Singapore, work is practically an addiction. So, if not just work, then what does constant effort really look like?

We find the answer in the gospel. Here what’s perhaps most striking is how closely the scary conditions Jesus describes mirror what we see in our world today. Nation (fighting) against nation, and kingdom against kingdom…. great earthquakes and plagues and famines here and there… And yet, the Lord makes it clear that the end is not so soon. Facing these terrible calamities, we disciples of Jesus need first to guard ourselves from being deceived. Not to blindly follow influencers of one kind or another. But to persevere in bearing witness to the Lord. Even if doing so may attract hatred and persecution, even from our own family. Constantly trying to live according to the Lord’s values, instead of those of the world. Regularly sparing at least a thought and a prayer, if not a hand of assistance, for those who suffer.

Still, as serious as the consequences may be, watching for the end of time should not be all doom and gloom. However stressful it may be to study for the PSLE, preparing for the Lord’s coming should also bring us deep joy, at the presence of the Lord. For, as our opening prayer reminds us, it is full and lasting happiness to serve with constancy the author of all that is good. Sisters and brothers, how might we help one another to receive and experience this grace today?

Sunday, October 23, 2022

Of Safety & Hiding


30th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C) 

(World Mission Sunday)

Readings: Ecclesiasticus 35: 12-14, 16-19; Psalm 33 (34): 2-3,17-19, 23; 2 Timothy 4: 6-8, 16-18; Luke 18: 9-14

Picture: cc Flickr United Nations Photo

My dear friends, what is it like to feel threatened, and have nowhere to hide? No place to feel safe and secure, sheltered and supported? Perhaps it’ll help if we pause and imagine, just for a moment, what it may be like for people living in the many troubled spots of our world today. Such as famine-stricken Somalia, or flood-inundated Pakistan, or military-oppressed Myanmar. We may think also of children living in less troubled, more affluent places, but who still don’t feel safe, at home or in school. Whether it’s because of gun-violence, or familial-abuse, or cyber-bullying, or pressure due to unrealistic parental expectations. We may also consider those who suffer from addictions of one kind or another. What does it feel like not to have a safe place in which to hide? …

In case we may wonder why we are posing such an uninviting question on this relaxing long Deepavali weekend, it’s because we find similar people in our scriptures today. People in danger, with no safe place to hide. The first reading and the psalm speak of orphans, widows, and the poor in general. People whose very existence is under threat, and whose options are few. Yet this obvious disadvantage is also a prime advantage. For having nowhere else to turn, they cry out to God, and God does not disappoint. For the Lord is close to the broken-hearted. Those who hide in him shall not be condemned. By humbly acknowledging their helplessness before God, the poor find true safety.

And isn’t this what separates the two men in Jesus’ parable? Just as the poor are threatened materially, the tax-collector is in danger spiritually, and he knows it. Conscious of his own status as a public sinner, he humbly acknowledges his helplessness, and throws himself before the mercy of God. As a result, he finds true safety. He goes home at rights with God. In contrast, it is the pious Pharisee who remains in danger. By pridefully hiding behind his superficial religious practices, he ends up hiding from the mercy of God.

Even so, we should take care not to misunderstand. Finding refuge in God doesn't mean the end of all our problems. It may, in fact, lead to the opposite. In the second reading, it is precisely because Paul chooses to follow the crucified and risen Christ in allowing his own life to be poured away as a sacrificial offering, that he finds himself in danger and all alone, without a single witness to support him. Yet, amid his trials, Paul is given the Lord’s power to proclaim the gospel for all the pagans to hear. By embracing danger for love of Christ, not only is Paul assured that the Lord will bring him safely to his heavenly kingdom, he also enables others to enjoy the same assurance of safety. Through humble service a scary place of danger becomes a fruitful point of mission.

Isn’t this the paradoxical lesson offered to us today? That true safety is found when we humbly cry out to God from the various dangerous places in our lives and in our world. But if this is true, sisters and brothers, then how shall we help each other to resist the temptation to hide from such places today?

Sunday, October 16, 2022

Between Insanity & Hope

29th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

Readings: Exodus 17: 8-13; Psalm 120 (121); 2 Timothy 3: 14-4: 2; Luke 18:1-8

Picture: cc Flickr badjonni

My dear friends, do you know the popular definition of insanity? According to an often-quoted saying, it is to keep doing the same thing over and over, expecting a different result. I imagine it’s like repeatedly banging my head against a brick wall, expecting more than just to get bruised and bloodied. But is it really always insane to keep doing the same thing, and expect a different result? Are there exceptions? It may already be obvious to some of us why I’m asking this question. It’s because, in our scriptures today, we find people who keep doing the same thing. 

In the first reading, Joshua is asked to march out and to keep engaging the Amalekites in battle. At the same time, on a hilltop, with the help of Aaron and Hur, Moses keeps raising his arms in prayer. Praying on a hill-top, and fighting on the plain. If these repeated actions don’t look insane, it’s only because their positive effects are seen immediately. As long as Moses keeps his arms raised, Joshua keeps winning the battle. But what if Moses insists on keeping his arms raised, and Joshua stubbornly keeps on fighting, even when the Amalekites seem to keep winning? Would that be insane?

And what about the situation in the gospel? Despite being repeatedly rebuffed for a long time, the widow still keeps pestering the unjust judge for justice, expecting a different result. And Jesus uses her example to illustrate the importance of persisting in praying for justice, even when God delays to help. To keep crying out to God, even when we may seem to be ignored. Is that insane?

Even more, in the second reading, Timothy is encouraged to keep doing the same thing too. Not just to persevere in prayer, but to keep living according to the gospel, and to keep patiently proclaiming its message – to refute falsehood, to correct error, to call to obedience. And to persist in doing all this even when unwelcome! To insist on proclaiming a rejected message. Even one that may attract persecution. Isn’t this like repeatedly banging one’s head against a wall?

It’s difficult to deny, isn’t it, that what the scriptures are asking of us looks a lot like insanity? And yet, don’t oppressed people continue to do similar things around the world? And don’t we Christians, in particular, have good reason to heed this call? It’s the same reason we gather around this Table of Word and Sacrament. Whether it’s in the face of global issues like the climate crisis or oppression, or in cosier but no less challenging settings of family, work and parish, if we foolishly choose to keep bruising our heads against a wall, isn’t it because Christ first allowed his body to be broken for us on the Cross? We follow his example, expecting no less than what he received when he was raised to life. For what popular opinion calls insane, faith sees as hope born of love.

Sisters and brothers, the gospel ends with Jesus posing this poignant question, when the Son of Man comes, will he find any faith on earth? How might we give the Lord a better response by embracing just a little insanity in our lives today?

Sunday, October 09, 2022

Pathways of Return

28th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

Readings: 2 Kings 5: 14-17; Psalm 97 (98): 1-4; 2 Timothy 2: 8-13; Luke 17: 11-19

Video: YouTube mikedye1

My dear friends, have you ever watched a boomerang flying back to the one who threw it? It can be quite fascinating. But according to Wikipedia, not all boomerangs return when thrown, only those that are designed to do so. So if a boomerang does return, it is acting according to its original design. We might even say that it is coming back to itself.

Can the same also be said about us? We may recall that, in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, found in Luke 15, it is when the younger son came to himself that he also finally returns to his father (Lk 15:17 NRSV). So to truly find and come back to ourselves is also to return to our heavenly Father. The prodigal does this through repentance. In today’s scriptures, we see people doing it in other ways.

Like boomerangs, both the Syrian in the first reading, and the Samaritan in the gospel, return to the one who cured them of leprosy. But they do this not so much to repent, as to say thank you. And it’s important that we carefully ponder their actions, to realise to whom they are actually returning.

The first reading ends with Naaman expressing a solemn commitment to worship no other god except the Lord. Likewise, the Samaritan turned back praising God at the top of his voice and threw himself at the feet of Jesus in a sincere expression of worship. All of which clearly indicate to us that both of them believed they were returning not just to any earthly healer, but to God. As a result, not only were they cured of their ailments, they also came back to themselves. By returning to God in thanksgiving, they were able to claim the salvation that the Lord has shown to the nations.

And gratitude isn't the only other way to make a return. When Elisha refuses to claim credit for Naaman’s healing, when he declines to accept a present for it, isn’t he returning all glory and praise to God instead? And when, in the second reading, Paul bravely bears his own hardships, even to being chained like a criminal, isn’t he remaining true to himself by returning all glory and praise to the Crucified and Risen One, who had sent him out on mission, and whose example he is following?

So not just repentance for mistakes made, but also gratitude for gifts received, gratuity in service rendered, and generosity in enduring trials for the sake of the Good News. These are the paths taken by the people in our readings to return to God. Gratitude, gratuity and generosity. These narrow and rocky trails present a sharp contrast to the broad and smooth expressways of cutthroat competition, relentless profit-making and anxious self-gratification to which many of us are drawn by default, even as we keep yearning and searching for that authenticity and peace that often seems to remain stubbornly and frustratingly just out of our reach.

Sisters and brothers, with all due respect to Wikipedia, do you know what some people call a boomerang that does not return? A stick. What can we do to help one another become more of a boomerang and less of a stick today?

Sunday, October 02, 2022

Between A Rock & A Receptive Space

27th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

Readings: Habakkuk 1: 2-3, 2:2-4; Psalm 94 (95): 1-2, 6-9; 2 Timothy 1: 6-8, 13-14; Luke 17: 5-10

Picture: Wikipedia

My dear friends, if you had to move a mountain, which would you need more, something hard or something soft? Some of us may remember that classic Chinese story about the fool who moved a mountain (愚公移山). One day, an old man, living at the foot of a mountain, decides that it’s too much of an obstacle, and resolves to remove it. So he mobilises his whole family, and sets to work. His neighbours laugh at him for attempting the impossible at an advanced age. But he replies that, even if he dies before completing the project, his family will persevere and get it done. Clearly, what the story values is hardness. Not just the hardness of shovels and pickaxes, but that of firm resolve and persistent effort.

In our scriptures too, we find obstacles that require moving, both external and internal. The first reading speaks of oppression and injustice, tyranny, outrage and violence… Strong words that well describe the external realities we find in our world today. The obstacle in the gospel, on the other hand, is more of an interior one. For what prompts the dialogue in the reading is the Lord’s command in the previous verse, where he says that, if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, “I repent”, you must forgive’ (Lk 17:4 NRSV). We must let go of our grudges, and forgive.

And whether the task is to remove the mountain of injustice out in the world, or to uproot the mulberry tree of resentment deep within my heart, the scriptures invite us to rely on the same effective tool: faith. But what does authentic Christian faith look and feel like? How does it work? I’m not sure, but I suspect that, for a good number of us, faith works like the old man in that Chinese story. It moves mountains only through the hardness of my own firm resolve and persistent effort. But what if my resolve and efforts are just not hard enough?

Interestingly, when our readings speak of hardness, it’s only in reference to the power of God. Come, ring out our joy to the Lord; hail the rock who saves us… In contrast, what God asks of us is more of a softening, a greater receptivity. O that today you would listen to his voice! ‘Harden not your hearts.’ So, in the first reading, faced with a mountain of injustice, the helpless prophet is asked to wait patiently and faithfully, until he receives a new vision. Also, in the gospel, Jesus speaks of the need to adopt the humble disposition of a slave, ever ready to receive the master’s further instructions. And, in the second reading, although Paul speaks of a Spirit of power, and love, and self-control, this comes not as the result of one’s own hard work, but only as a gift from God in Christ Jesus. A gift that brings both the clarity to know what to do, as well as the courage and conviction to do it. Even to bear hardships for the Good News, relying on the power of God. 

Sisters and brothers, although we may be hemmed in by mountains of various kinds, both external and internal, we believe that God continues to save us in Christ. What must we do to allow God to soften our hearts, so that we might be more receptive to the power of his love and mercy today?

Sunday, September 25, 2022

Between the Fiddle & the Fire

26th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)
(World Day of Migrants & Refugees)

Readings: Amos 6: 1, 4-7; Psalm 145 (146): 7-10; 1 Timothy 6: 11-16; Luke 16: 19-31

Picture: cc paurian on Flickr

My dear friends, what do you think? Is there anything wrong with playing the violin? Of course not, right? And yet, haven’t we heard the phrase, to fiddle while Rome burns? It means to do something relatively trivial or irresponsible in the midst of a crisis or an emergency. On its own, fiddling is not a sin. But to do it when I should really be helping to put out a raging fire must surely be wrong, if not possibly a sign of insanity.

To fiddle while Rome burns. This is also the sinful tendency highlighted in both the first reading and the gospel. And I have to confess that I say this with a certain tremor in my heart, because I find this tendency in myself as well. The tendency to be so absorbed in seeking, securing and savouring my own comfort, success and enjoyment – including that of my family, my community and country – that I become oblivious to the suffering of many others around me. The readings speak of sprawling on cosy beds, dressing in fine clothes, feasting on sumptuous foods, even inventing musical instruments, without caring about the ruin of Joseph, or the misery of poor Lazarus. Fiddling while Rome burns.

And isn’t it truly sobering to consider how easy it is to fall into this sin today? Continually, we receive news from around the world of people suffering terribly from the effects of climate-change, of economic disparity, of war and conflict. Effects which, I’m told, my own lifestyle somehow contributes to exacerbating, even if only in small ways. Surely, it can’t be right for me to focus only on enjoying my own life, without somehow attending to all this suffering.

What then am I to do? The scriptures offer not so much a prescription of solutions as a process of growth. A process that begins with what the rich man was hoping to do for his brothers, after his death. He wanted to help them repent. To turn their apathy into compassion. Beginning perhaps with a tremor in the heart. So that they might be more receptive to the voice of the Lord, and the cries of those who suffer, including the migrants and refugees we especially remember today. For the Lord protects the stranger… upholds the widow and orphan but thwarts the path of the wicked.

And that’s not all. Beyond repentance and receptivity, there is yet another step in the process. We find it in the second reading, where Paul reminds Timothy of his God-given duty. A duty we all share, by virtue of our baptism. The duty to fight the good fight of faith. To engage in an ongoing struggle, first against my own selfish and narcissistic tendencies, and then to bravely bear witness to the truth in the world, as Jesus did before Pontius Pilate. To share in the Cross of Christ, so as to share in his Resurrection, giving glory and praise to our God… Repentance, receptivity and struggle. This is the pilgrim journey that the scriptures mark out for us.

Sisters and brothers, amid the fires engulfing our world, what must we do to help one another focus less on our fiddles, so as to walk this path together more resolutely today?

Sunday, September 04, 2022

Letting Go

23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

Readings: Wisdom 9:13-18; Psalm 89 (90): 3-6,12-14,17; Philemon 9-10,12-17; Luke 14:25-33

Picture: Photo by Seth Doyle on Unsplash

My dear friends, do you remember when you first learned how to swim? What did you find most challenging? For me, it’s learning how to float. Using my arms and legs to propel myself through the water is easy enough, because I remain in control. But floating requires letting go, and there's something inside me that resists that. Yet, without knowing how to float, I move through the water only with much tension and anxiety.

I believe this anxiety, this need to be in control, is also what our scriptures help us to ponder today. The first reading talks about how difficult it is for us humans to know the intentions of God…. (For the) reasonings of mortals are unsure and our intentions unstable. Isn’t this instability of intention due, at least in part, to my own anxious need for control? Which affects not just how I relate with God, but also with things and people. At home, at work, and even at play. Whether I realise it or not, when I seek to control everything and everyone in my life–even those I may profess to love very much–I end up treating them like my personal property. As a result, I turn them into obstacles that keep me from drawing close to God.

Isn’t this is why Jesus says that I cannot become his disciple without first hating my father, mother, wife, children, brothers, sisters, and even my own life as well? Perhaps what needs to be hated, or set aside, is not the people themselves, but my need to control them, to treat them as mine. For none of us can be a disciple unless we give up all our possessions.

But if it is really so difficult, how does one learn to let go? The readings offer at least three insights. The first is that it’s helpful to have a companion and guide. Which is the role that Paul plays in the second reading. Someone who, whenever I may find myself stuck in my own anxiety, gently nudges me to contemplate a fresh perspective. Reminding me to consider that, in God’s eyes, a thousand years are like yesterday, come and gone, no more than a watch in the night. Inviting me to pray for the grace to know the shortness of my life, that I may gain wisdom of heart.

Also, in addition to companionship and contemplation, a third insight is the usefulness of a crisis, such as the one faced by Philemon in the second reading. He has been separated from his slave, Onesimus. And, like someone teaching another to float in deep water, Paul shrewdly makes use of this crisis to challenge Philemon to let go. To surrender his ownership of Onesimus, and to treat him as a brother-in-the Lord, instead of just another piece of property.

Companionship, contemplation and crisis. Aren’t these insights particularly relevant for us, who live in such anxiety-provoking times? They offer us a path by which we may be set free. The better to reach out and to connect with others, with our world, and with God, in humility, mercy, and love.

Sisters and brothers, even as we may find ourselves immersed in deep and troubled waters, how might we help one another float more freely in God’s tender embrace today?

Sunday, August 21, 2022

Passport Renewal

21st Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

Readings: Isaiah 66:18-21; Psalm 116 (117); Hebrews 12:5-7, 11-13; Luke 13:22-30

Picture: Photo by ConvertKit on Unsplash

My dear friends, do you need to renew your passport? As you know, it was announced just a few days ago that those whose passports are valid for only six months or less should apply for a new one now, if they wish to travel in December… We all know that a valid passport is crucial, not only for travel abroad, but also in order to return home. For a passport is what gains us recognition and access.

And isn’t the failure to gain recognition and access precisely the problem in the gospel? Jesus tells us to enter by the narrow door. For once the door is locked, you may find yourself knocking, but the master of the house will say (and he says it twice), I do not know where you come from. It’s as though the Lord is reminding us to renew our passports, so that we may be recognised and granted entry into God’s kingdom. How do we do this? What does it mean to enter by the narrow door?

It’s important to remember that, if the door is narrow, it’s not because those wishing to enter are too many, or the master too stingy. In the first reading, the Lord is so generous that passports are granted freely and widely, not just to the people of Israel, but also to everyone else. I am coming, the Lord says, to gather the nations of every language…. I will give them a sign and send (them) to the nations.

We Christians believe that this sign, this door, this God-granted passport is none other than Jesus himself. Who tells us in John’s gospel, I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved (10:9). Isn’t this why the door is narrow? It’s narrow because, to enter it, I have to walk the way Jesus walked, the way of humility and loving service, the Way of the Cross.

Unlike official travel documents, the passport that gains me entry into heaven is not printed on paper, nor can it be carried in my pocket or purse. No, the passport into heaven consists in a life moulded into the shape of Christ’s, and a heart made tender, like the one that was pierced through for our faults, and crushed for our sins.

And how is this moulding of life, this tenderising of the heart accomplished, if not by the method described in the second reading. Suffering, we’re told, is part of (our) training; God is treating you as his sons. Suffering, borne patiently, humbly and hopefully, in union with the crucified Christ, bears fruit in peace and goodness. Precious gifts that we can share with those around us who may be suffering even more. Such as those whom the pandemic has left much lonelier and more vulnerable, or those most affected by rising costs of living. 

Sisters and brothers, even as some of us may be rushing to obtain a new travel document, in order to enjoy a brief vacation overseas, what steps should we be taking to help one another ensure that our heavenly passports remain valid for entry into our eternal home?