Sunday, February 26, 2023

Places, Pathways & Presences

1st Sunday of Lent (A)

Readings: Genesis 2: 7-9, 3: 1-7; Psalm 50 (51): 3-6, 12-14, 17; Romans 5: 12-19; Matthew 4:1-11

Pictures: Carlita Benazito & Ronan Furuta on Unsplash

My dear friends, what is the difference between care and control? I imagine that the parents of teenage children probably know best, from experience, what it’s like to grapple with this distinction. That although care and control can sometimes look very similar, they are actually as different as night and day. Our scriptures portray this difference in a particularly striking way, by presenting us with two contrasting places: the garden and the wilderness.

In the first reading, we’re told that, at the dawn of creation, God planted a garden, where God put the man he had fashioned. What makes this place a garden is the fact that it is cared for by God. And the reason God puts the man in the garden is so that he too can cultivate and take care of it (Gn 2:15 [JB]). But this plan is disrupted, and it’s important to see how this happens. What is the nature of the temptation to which the man and the woman succumb? What is so attractive about being like gods? After all, aren’t they already created in the image of God (Gn 1:27)? Don’t they already share in God’s work of caring for creation? Yet, for some mysterious reason, they’re not satisfied just to receive and to offer care. They want control. And as they worship the idol of control, their home is tragically changed into a wilderness.

In the gospel, at the dawn of his public ministry, the Word-of-God-Made-Flesh is led by the Spirit out into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And again it’s helpful to ponder the nature of these temptations. Notice how they are ever more obvious ways of seeking or flaunting control, culminating in a blatant demand for idolatrous worship. And notice also how, after Jesus dismisses the devil, angels appeared and looked after him. By his obedience, Jesus changes his surroundings from a wilderness of control, back into a garden of care.

So that, as the second reading reminds us, both Adam and Jesus offer us separate pathways from which to choose. Each leading to a different destination. Adam’s craving for control, leading to disobedience and sin, idolatry and banishment, versus Jesus’ exercise of care, leading to obedience and grace, right worship and closeness to God. And more than just external pathways, Adam and Jesus are also interior presences, or powers, that we each experience in our hearts and in our lives. One relentlessly driving us to cling anxiously to control. The other gently inviting us to trust, to submit and to share in the loving care of a merciful God.

All of which helps us to better understand the deeper meaning of this holy season of Lent. By entering together the wilderness of prayer, fasting and almsgiving, we seek to see more clearly, and to choose more wisely the places in which to live, the pathways along which to walk, and the presences from which to draw strength.

Sisters and brothers, how does God wish to transform our wildernesses of control back into gardens of care this Lent?

Sunday, February 19, 2023

The Transformation of Pain

7th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Readings: Leviticus 19: 1-2,17-18; Psalm 102 (103): 1-4, 8, 10, 12-13; 1 Corinthians 3: 16-23; Matthew 5: 38-48

Video: Spencer Nelson on YouTube

My dear friends, have you ever noticed how pain can become a prison? We’ve all experienced pain in one form or another. And we know, at least in theory, that it has a useful purpose. It draws our attention to what needs to be addressed. Like how a toothache is often a sign of a cavity. And yet pain can also hold us so tightly in its grip that we cannot escape. We fixate on the hurt we’ve suffered, and the one who may have caused it. We may even be driven to retaliate. To make the perpetrator suffer, as we have suffered. But retaliation only begets further retaliation, and the resulting cycle of violence becomes yet another prison. How then to break free?

The scriptures offer us a path in three steps. They widen our perspective, deepen our purpose, and propose to us a person. First, even as pain tends to narrow my vision, forcing me to focus only on myself, the readings offer a broader view. They invite me to look beyond what I suffer, to who God is, and what God does. They remind me that God is holy, and that God’s holiness is shown in God’s undying compassion and steadfast love toward me, even though I don’t deserve it. For he does not treat us according to our sins nor repay us according to our faults, but causes his sun to rise on bad… as well as good, and his rain to fall on honest and dishonest… alike.

Next, the readings also remind me that there is a deeper reason for my existence, beyond merely enjoying pleasure and avoiding pain. That by my baptism, I have become part of a people, called to be holy as God is holy. Called to be nothing less than the embodiment, in the world, of God’s mercy and compassion. So that, through us, all of creation may be set free. Didn’t you realise that you were God’s temple and that the Spirit of God was living among you?

And if, due to my own weakness and sinfulness, I find this call far too daunting, the readings reassure me that that’s to be expected. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness to God, and there is nothing to boast about in anything human. Instead, to fulfil this call, I need to let my attention shift away from myself to Someone Else. To the One who resisted evil to the point of sacrificing his life on the Cross, and who, even now, remains generously and humbly present to us in this Eucharist that we are gathered here to celebrate. A powerful reminder that we belong to Christ and Christ belongs to God.

Some of us here may still recall the biographical film, Gandhi, from back in the 1980s. In one particularly memorable scene, row after row of unarmed mostly Hindu and Muslim men, calmly and willingly submit to being savagely beaten by guards carrying cruel sticks. Inspired by the one they called Mahatma, or great soul, they turned the other cheek, in order to stand for truth and justice. As a result, the prison of their pain was transformed into a pathway toward national independence.

Sisters and brothers, what must we do to let the Crucified and Risen One transform our pain, and set us all on the path of true freedom today?

Sunday, February 12, 2023

From Nests Outgrown To A Tree To Call Home

6th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

(Solemnity of the 62nd Anniversary

of the Dedication of St Ignatius Church, Singapore)

Readings: Ecclesiasticus 15: 16-21; Psalm 118 (119): 1-2, 4-5, 17-18, 33-34; 1 Corinthians 2: 6-10; Matthew 5: 17-37

Picture: By Artem Beliaikin on Unsplash

My dear friends, how do we usually tell when a child has truly grown up? Isn’t it when she’s finally able to fend for herself? Isn’t this why we often speak of home as a nest that children are expected to leave once their wings are strong enough for flight? And why it’s an embarrassment when an able-bodied middle-aged person continues to sponge off his parents? Even good vocation-directors try to weed out candidates who see religious life as nothing more than a convenient way to avoid growing up, a cosy nest to call home.

Rightly or not, our modern western society often equates maturity with self-sufficiency. So that when we hear St Paul telling the Corinthians that the wisdom he preaches is meant for those who have reached maturity, it’s difficult not to think immediately of self-sufficient individuals. And when the first reading reminds us that it’s within our power to keep the commandments, consciously or not, we may quickly assume that we are expected to do so by our own strength alone.

But still, which of us can deny that the Lord’s teaching in the gospel today actually perplexes us, that it may even fill us with a certain degree of trepidation? And not just because it’s difficult to put into practice, but also because it’s not always clear to us what that practice actually looks like. For example, the call to tear out our eyes, and to cut off our hands if these should cause us to sin, is obviously not meant to be taken literally. Otherwise few if any of us would make it to adulthood with our bodies intact. Also, haven’t we come to realise that the loving response to a bully, or an abusive spouse, may actually be to stand up instead of backing down, or to walk away rather than to keep hanging around? And hasn’t the Catholic Church’s experience with the abuse of children taught us that seeking reconciliation can be a long and painful process that should not be concluded prematurely? Nor is reconciliation the same as condoning wrongdoing, or what’s worse, covering it up.

My dear friends, if we are honest, and paying close enough attention, then what we find in our scriptures can really shake our sense of self-sufficiency to its core. And there’s no shame in admitting that. On the contrary, the willingness to acknowledge our weakness and perplexity may well be a sign of Christian maturity. An indication that we’re finally growing in that virtue which exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, who were nothing if not smugly self-sufficient. A virtue founded on that poverty of spirit, which enables us to humbly recognise our need for God and for one another, and which eventually leads us into the kingdom of heaven. The same virtue that inspires our current efforts at walking more closely together as a synodal church rather than a clerical one.

Sisters and brothers, in the gospels, the kingdom of heaven is likened not to a temporary nest that we leave when we grow up, but to a tiny seed that becomes a great tree, where all can find refuge and rest (cf Mt 13:31-32). As we commemorate the anniversary of the dedication of our church, what must we do to better help one another tend and thrive in this life-giving tree today?

Sunday, February 05, 2023

Of Straying Symbols & Christ Crucified

5th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Readings: Isaiah 58:7-10; Psalm 111(112):4-9; 1 Corinthians 2:1-5; Matthew 5:13-16

Picture: Aziz Acharki on Unsplash

My dear friends, what’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word hijack? If you’re like me, perhaps it’s planes or trains. But those are not the only things that can be made to stray far from their intended destination, right? What about signs and symbols? How about the thumbs-up sign, for example, or the heart symbol? Traditional expressions of friendship and affection. Yet, in recent years, haven’t they acquired a new significance? On social media, aren’t they also a unit of measurement? An indication of popularity. Even a reflection of self-worth. And a reason for competition. So that what was once a means of drawing people closer, has somehow also become a subtle way of pulling us apart.

But if even signs and symbols can be hijacked, then how might we guard against it? This is the question the scriptures help us to ponder today. In the gospel, Jesus uses two familiar symbols to describe his disciples: salt and light. And in this media-saturated society of ours, it seems natural to equate the call to be light with the need for more publicity. How else to shine, except by letting more people know about us and what we do? How else to be salty, except by becoming media-influencers in our own right? Which may well be true. And yet, even if we cannot deny the crucial importance of communications today, isn’t it equally important not to let our efforts at publicising the gospel degenerate into a numbers game, or a subtle exercise in self-promotion or ego-inflation? 

In fact, isn’t this the issue St Paul is addressing in the second reading? Divisions caused by people trying to outshine one another. To which Paul responds by reminding his audience that their light finds its Source not in any purely human wisdom, but in the power of the Spirit, flowing from an interior knowledge of Christ crucified. And isn’t this the same experiential knowledge that is embodied in the people whom Jesus addresses in the gospel? As we may recall from last week, it is while gazing at his disciples that Jesus is moved to begin his Sermon on the Mount by congratulating the poor in spirit, those who hunger for justice, those who mourn its lack, and are persecuted for its sake. They are the ones who shine out in the world, not by self-promotion, but by self-sacrifice.

For isn’t the poor and humble Christ the prime exemplar of that good person described in the first reading and the psalm? Isn’t he the One whose light pierces the darkness, particularly when he mercifully lays down his life for all on Calvary? So that by drawing close to the poor, by giving bread to the hungry, shelter to the homeless, and relief to the oppressed, we draw close to him, who did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, so as to draw close to us. Which may explain why, already back in 2013, Pope Francis was quoted as saying that he would like to have a church that is poor and for the poor.

Sisters and brothers, in this publicity-obsessed world of ours, what more can we do to guard ourselves from going the way of the thumbs-up sign today?