Sunday, April 17, 2022

Between Instantaneous & Gradual

Easter Sunday
(Mass During the Day)

Readings: Acts 10:34,37-43; Psalm 117 (118): 1-2, 16-17, 22-23; Colossians 3:1-4; John 20:1-9

Picture: cc Krista

My dear friends, what’s the difference between the instantaneous and the gradual? As you know, it’s all about duration. The instantaneous occurs in a flash. The gradual takes longer. And even if something happens instantaneously, its effects may still be felt only gradually. For example, have you ever polished off a delicious bowl of super spicy curry in the day, only to feel the full explosive effects later that night?

Similarly, although the scriptures don’t tell us exactly, we may imagine that the Resurrection took place instantaneously. In a flash, the stone is rolled away, the Lord escapes the bonds of death, and reconciles the world to God, once and for all. And yet, when we ponder what the scriptures do tell us, we see that even if the Resurrection may have happened instantaneously, its full effects are felt only very gradually.

In the nine verses of that short gospel passage that we heard earlier, the word saw occurs no less than four times. And each time, seeing happens differently. When Mary of Magdala saw that the stone had been moved away from the tomb, she is still tightly wrapped in the darkness of grief. Anxiously, she runs to seek help. Then when the beloved disciple and Simon Peter each saw the state of the burial cloths, especially how one was neatly rolled up in a place by itself, we’re not told their exact feelings. But it’s clear that something is happening within them. They are not as anxious as Mary was. The reading ends with the beloved disciple entering the empty tomb. He saw and he believed. Gradually, he comes to understand… that (Jesus) must rise from the dead.

In the first reading, from the Acts of the Apostles, we find Peter bravely bearing witness to Jesus’ Life, Death and Resurrection. And it’s important to consider not just what Peter is doing, but also where and why. Peter has gone into a gentile’s house, which is forbidden for a Jew. And he does it because he had earlier seen a vision from God, telling him that he should stop making distinctions between clean and unclean people. Even some time after Peter’s visit to the Empty Tomb, the effects of the Resurrection continue to unfold, guiding the Church towards ongoing renewal.

Isn’t this such a consoling thought? That as confused and anxious, as burdened and discouraged as I sometimes may be, it always remains possible for me – for us – to experience anew the power of the Resurrection. Perhaps this is why Easter lasts even longer than Lent. It’s so that we have ample time to learn what the second reading encourages us to do. To keep pondering the events of this earthly life, always in the light of heavenly things. And we do this not just by stubbornly soldiering on alone, amid grief and pain, but also by coming together, as we are doing now, to share our struggles, and to experience again the power of the Crucified and Risen Lord.

Sisters and brothers, perhaps more welcome than the fearsome results of spicy curry, but no less explosive, the Resurrection is often felt only very gradually. What must we do to better experience its powerful effects this Easter?

Sunday, April 10, 2022

Learning By Contrasts

Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion (C)

Readings: Luke 19:28-40; Isaiah 50:4-7; Psalm 21(22):8-9,17-20,23-24; Philippians 2:6-11; Luke 23:1-49

Picture: YouTube LittleJerryFan92

[At the Entrance:] My dear friends, as we enter this holiest week of the church’s liturgical year, the gospel reading we’ve just heard begins by telling us that Jesus went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem… We all know, of course, why Jesus goes up to Jerusalem. As we heard earlier, he goes there to accomplish his Passion and Resurrection, to save us and the rest of the world. But why does he go on ahead? Why not stay in the middle, or follow from behind? The prayer that we will offer shortly, at the sanctuary, gives us a good indication why. The prayer tells us that Jesus goes to Jerusalem also to offer us an example of humility and a lesson of patient suffering. It is to offer us an example to follow, and a lesson to learn, that the Lord goes on ahead of us. So let us follow him closely on his journey to Jerusalem, and let us pay careful attention to all that he has to teach us…

[At the Ambo:] My dear friends, does anyone here still remember a game called three of these things belong together? It’s often played on that popular children’s show, Sesame Street. In the game, children are shown four objects, out of which they have to pick the one that doesn’t belong. What the game demonstrates is that effective learning often happens by considering contrasts.

Similarly, the scriptures today help us to learn more effectively the lesson that Jesus teaches in Holy Week, by offering us three contrasts. The first is between the colt that Jesus rides into Jerusalem, and the cock that alerts Peter to his own denial. On the one hand, by riding that young donkey, Jesus shows his courage in steadfastly walking the Way of the Cross right to the end. Throughout the journey, he offers no resistance, but empties himself. And he is able to do this, because he draws strength from his heavenly Father, as we see him doing at Gethsemane. In contrast, Peter fails to persevere, because he relies on his own meagre resources.

The second contrast is between the kingdom, about which Jesus preaches, and the kiss, by which Judas betrays his Lord. In his farewell speech at the Last Supper, we see just how authentic is Jesus’ care and concern for others. He goes to the Cross, not just to claim a kingdom for himself, but also to confer that same kingdom on his disciples, on you and me. In contrast, the kiss that Judas offers is not just an act of hostility, but one disguised as friendship. The kiss not only betrays the one who receives it, it also uncovers the self-centredness and hypocrisy of the one who offers it.

Finally, we see a third contrast between the sword, which Jesus tells his disciples to prepare, and the sleep that overcomes them. It’s puzzling, isn’t it, to see how Jesus tells his disciples to prepare a sword, and yet seems unhappy when they make use of it? Perhaps the sword that Jesus means is really a metaphorical one. Not a literal weapon of steel, but that sharpness of insight, that enables the Lord to pierce the dark night of sin and deception enveloping the world. That clarity of perception that allows him to penetrate Peter’s hollow show of heroism, and Judas’ deceptive display of affection. In contrast, the disciples avoid facing the painful reality of their Master’s suffering, by allowing themselves to be overcome by sleep. Similarly, both Pilate and Herod are, in a sense, asleep as well. Both refuse to wake up to the truth of the Lord’s innocence. Pilate is made drowsy by moral cowardice, and Herod by apathy and self-indulgence.

So colt and cock, kingdom and kiss, sword and sleep. Three striking contrasts that speak to us respectively of the importance of courage, and care, and clarity. Courage: to persevere in doing what is right. Care: to place the interests of the common good before one’s own. And clarity: to recognise and stand on the side of truth. As in that game from Sesame Street, these three qualities belong together. They characterise Jesus, and all those who belong to him. They enable Christians to stand out as witnesses to the Light, in a world often still engulfed in Darkness.

Sisters and brothers, as we accompany the Lord to Jerusalem this week, what must we do to beg for and accept these same gifts, so that we may truly belong to him, and to no other?

Saturday, April 02, 2022

Escaping Our Enclosures

5th Sunday in Lent (C)

Readings: Isaiah 43:16-21; Psalm 125 (126); Philippians 3:8-14; John 8:1-11

Picture: cc Charlie Marshall

My dear friends, when was the last time you visited a zoo? As you know, back in the day, zoo animals were kept in cages. Then, gradually, this began to change. Cruel cages were replaced with more comfortable enclosures, crude iron bars with less obvious barriers. Nowadays, enclosures are even arranged to resemble the animals’ natural habitat. Which makes me wonder what would happen, if animals kept in such enclosures were suddenly set free. Will they escape, or will they prefer to remain in their cosy surroundings? Do they even know or care that they are being held captive?

I ask these questions, because our scriptures today are filled with people in captivity of one kind or another. In the first reading, people stranded in a foreign land receive a  reassuring promise from God. Just as, in the past, God rescued their ancestors from slavery in Egypt, by making a way through the waters of the Red Sea, so does God now promise to blaze a path for them through the wilderness of exile, allowing them to eventually return safely home.

In the gospel too, we find people in captivity, people in need of rescue. The most obvious of whom is that poor woman caught in the very act of committing adultery. Like a caged animal, this unnamed woman is held captive not just by her own sin, but also by the callous indifference and cruel condemnation of the scribes and Pharisees. Thankfully, with great tenderness and compassion, Jesus sets her free. Has no one condemned you?… Neither do I condemn you… go away, and do not sin any more.

But, like that woman, her accusers are captives too. Except that their captivity is far less obvious, and their enclosure much more comfortable. So that, in order for them to be set free, a different approach is needed. In contrast to the tenderness shown to the woman, towards her accusers, the Lord responds first with a firm refusal to engage them on their terms. Instead, he simply writes on the ground with his finger. Then he finally disrupts their devious plans with an incisive comment: If there is one of you who has not sinned, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.

We may recall that this approach resembles what the apostle Paul experienced on the road to Damascus, when he heard the crucified and risen Christ ask him, Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? Setting him free from his obsession with the Law, and enabling him to start running the race of faith, trying to capture the prize for which Christ Jesus captured him. 

And what about us, our families and communities, our church and society? In what ways are we also being held captive by sinful habits of one kind or another? How is Christ caring for us, not just by showing us tenderness and compassion, but also by sometimes choosing to disrupt our well-laid plans?

Sisters and brothers, as with zoo animals, cosy enclosures can keep us captive even more effectively than cruel cages. How does Christ wish to set us free from them all today?