Sunday, March 26, 2023

Of Places & People

5th Sunday of Lent (A)

Readings: Ezekiel 37:12-14; Psalm 129 (130); Romans 8:8-11; John 11:1-45

Video: TODAYonline on YouTube

My dear friends, do you recall that flaming-red HDB lift lobby in Tampines, which went viral some weeks ago? Initially, residents complained that it was too creepy, and the authorities responded by repainting the ceiling white. But then some others were actually attracted to the place, and started using it for fashion shoots. From an eery haunted house to a stylish photography studio. Isn’t it interesting how a place can seem so different when the people are changed?

In our scriptures too, we find places being transformed through a change in people. The promise God makes in the first reading comes at the end of a vision received by the prophet Ezekiel. He sees a scary place. A valley filled with dry human bones. An abandoned battlefield where, as an act of humiliation, the dead bodies of the losers had been left to rot in the sun. But then breath enters the bones. The corpses are given new life. The place undergoes a radical transformation, from humiliating graveyard to rejuvenating spa. And God goes on to explain that this vision is less about the dead than it is about the living. The broken remnants of God’s people, living in exile. God promises to raise them from their metaphorical graves, and to resettle them in their homeland. How? By first putting God’s spirit in them. By changing them into a holy place, a faithful temple, a true house of God.

In the gospel, a cave used as a tomb becomes a womb, from which a corpse is brought back to life. And this transformation of place is again effected by a change in people. A process involving several steps. First, there is a delay. Jesus waits till his dear friend has died, before visiting. And even after he arrives, instead of heading directly to the tomb, the Lord hangs back and engages people in dialogue. The delay allows mourning. The dialogue deepens trust. All of which serve to heighten receptivity to the Spirit, to awaken faith. I am the resurrection and the life… Do you believe this? Eventually a gracious invitation is extended: Where have you put him? Lord, come and see… So the Lord goes. He draws near. And through the power of his presence, coupled with the fervour of their faith, death gives way to new life.

Delay, dialogue and drawing near. Isn’t this also how we hope to be changed in Lent? A time when we prepare to faithfully accompany the Lord who, through his Dying and Rising, keeps drawing near. We hope to undergo that same life-giving change, which he effected in his friends at Bethany. Allowing the Spirit of Christ to dwell in us and to possess us. So that he who raised Jesus from the dead (might) give life to (our) own mortal bodies through his Spirit living in (us). And this change in us is not just for us. It is also so that this conflict-ridden disaster-prone world of ours, including our society and Church, our schools and homes and workplaces, might all be transformed into the Kingdom of God.

Sisters and brothers, much as we may sometimes have to change places to appease people, how shall we let God transform the world, by first effecting changes in us this Lent?

Sunday, March 19, 2023

Between Condition & Choice

4th Sunday of Lent (A)

Readings: 1 Samuel 16:1, 6-7, 10-13; Psalm 22 (23); Ephesians 5:8-14; John 9:1-41

Video: Movie Buff Guy on YouTube

My dear friends, which do you think is worse? To be blind in one eye or in both? The answer seems obvious, right? And yet we also know that to close one eye is to look the other way. To ignore something we know to be true. Perhaps a mistake or a misdeed of some sort. Whether it’s because we want to give someone a second chance, or due to laziness or apathy, fear or favour, whatever the reason, to close one eye is to remain blind by choice. And this is one of the two different kinds of blindness we find in our scriptures today.

But let us consider the other kind first. We may call it blindness as a condition. One example is that unnamed man in the gospel, who was blind in both eyes. A condition he did not choose. He was born that way. But when the Lord tells him what he must do to be healed, he obeys without hesitation. As a result, he eventually receives not just his sight, but also the grace to recognise, worship and follow Jesus as Lord. Through humble obedience, a physical disability becomes a channel of great spiritual blessing.

But blindness is not just a physical condition, right? It is often also a social one. Why does Samuel want to anoint Jesse’s eldest son? Isn’t it because the prophet is socially conditioned to be blinded by Eliab’s imposing physique? Such that Samuel is unable, at least initially, to adopt God’s perspective. For the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart (NRSV). Thankfully, again through humble obedience, Samuel overcomes his social conditioning. The prophet receives new spiritual sight, and the nation its rightful king.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about the other characters in the gospel. Unlike Samuel, the blind man’s neighbours, his parents, and the religious leaders all fail to get past their social conditioning. Though faced with the undeniable fact of the blind man’s healing, they still lack the honesty and humility to accept Jesus as Lord. The neighbours may be too distracted by the busyness of daily life. The parents are too fearful of being expelled from the synagogue. The leaders are too attached to their own status. Whatever the reason, they all end up closing one eye to the truth. And their blindness gets worse. It progresses beyond a received condition, to a guilty personal choice.

It’s clear then that what our scriptures offer us today is at once a joyful promise and a sobering warning. The promise is that the Lord can and wants to help us transcend our conditioning, to give us new spiritual sight. And the warning is that the choice remains ours to make. Whether to be like children of light… having nothing to do with the futile works of darkness but exposing them by contrast, or to keep ignoring the Lord’s illuminating presence and action in our daily lives.

Sisters and brothers, strange as it may sound, in the spiritual life, it's probably far more dangerous to be blind in one eye than in both. What must we do to let the Lord open both our eyes this Lent?

Sunday, March 05, 2023

Remembering To Run The Race

2nd Sunday of Lent (A)

Readings: Genesis 12: 1-4; Psalm 32 (33): 4-5,18-20, 22; 2 Timothy 1: 8-10; Matthew 17:1-9

Picture: David Utt on Unsplash

My dear friends, have you ever noticed how, in marathons and other long-distance road races, water stations are set up all along the route? These provide not just drinks, but sometimes also food. What do you think will happen if, out of the blue, a passerby were to walk up to such a station and start helping himself to the refreshments? Very likely, he’ll gently be told that they are only for those running the race.

This close connection between sustenance provided and a race to be run is central to the Transfiguration. In the gospel, the reason why Jesus leads Peter, James and John up a high mountain is to encourage and energise them. To provide them with the sustenance they need to keep following him. On the mountain, not only are they shown the Lord in his glory, they are also given assurance that Jesus is indeed the fulfilment of God’s promises in the scriptures. Even more, they are given a further unspoken promise that they will share the Lord’s glory, if only they listen to him.

But listen to him say what? To answer this question, we need to consider what happens in the gospel both before and after the Transfiguration. We need to recall that, before going up the mountain, Jesus had led his disciples to a place called Caesarea Philippi, where he asks them, who do you say that I am? (16:15). After which, he reveals to them, for the first time, that he must go to Jerusalem… undergo great suffering… be killed, and on the third day be raised (16:21). He also tells them that those who want to be his followers, must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow him (16:24). Then, after coming down the mountain, Jesus tells them a second time that he is going to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and on the third day he will be raised (17:22-23). So the experiences on the mountain are meant to help the disciples follow Jesus to Calvary.

This close connection between a sustaining promise of glory and a challenging call to discipleship is central not just to the Transfiguration. We find it in the other readings as well. God’s promise to make Abram a great nation is offered to spur him to obey the call to leave home for an undisclosed destination. And the power of God’s grace revealed in Christ is what gives Timothy the strength to answer Paul’s call to join him in bearing hardships for the sake of the Good News.

Just as the water stations in a marathon are for those who run the race, the consolations of the Transfiguration are for those who follow Christ to the Cross. And we experience this close connection not just at extraordinary moments, such as while on retreat, but also ordinarily, every time we gather for the Eucharist. But to appreciate the connection, to enjoy the sustenance, we need to keep following the Lord. Otherwise, how not to feel bored and distracted at Mass?

Sisters and brothers, the water stations are meant for those who run the race. In this season of Lent, what must we do to better enjoy the sustenance the Lord provides us, so as to bravely take up our cross everyday and follow him?