Sunday, June 25, 2023

Being Outstanding

12th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Readings: Jeremiah 20:10-13; Psalm 68 (69):8-10, 14, 17, 33-35; Romans 5:12-15; Matthew 10:26-33

Picture: By Yustinus Tjiuwanda on Unsplash

My dear friends, did you see the report in yesterday’s Straits Times, about the hundreds of students flocking to tuition centres to take mock mid-year exams, because these are no longer offered in local primary and secondary schools? What do you think about that? I must confess that I’m not surprised, though I do find it both amusing and revealing that one of the tuition centres mentioned is named Overmugged. I too might be drawn to register with Overmugged, if I had a child preparing to sit for a major exam at the end of the year. The motivation is easy to understand, right? It’s likely a curious mix of a desire to stand out, and a fear of losing out. We want to excel without being different from others. In other words, we want simply to be more of the same.

Coincidentally or not, our scriptures today also encourage us to stand out. But in an opposite way. Not by being more of the same, but by being so different as to become a sign that is opposed (Lk 2:34). Isn’t this the experience of Jeremiah? Isn’t this why he suffers so terribly? Feeling besieged from every side, as though everyone is out to get him? And they are. For he insists on offering his opponents the word of God, even when they firmly resist it. How does he find the courage to keep doing this? The prophet himself provides the answer: the Lord is at my side, a mighty hero…

Jeremiah is able to stand out before others, because he trusts that God is standing by him, to deliver him. And we know that his trust is not misplaced. For, as St Paul reminds us, God’s fidelity is clearly shown in Jesus, through whom God firmly and forever stands by God’s people. Even to the point of shedding his own blood, and forsaking his own life. Undoing the tragic effects of the fall of Adam, by a singular work of divine grace, lovingly offered for all as an abundant free gift.

Which is why, if we Christians do stand out among others, it’s not for its own sake, but only so that we might keep standing by the One who chose to stand by us. As his Blessed Mother did. In the moving words of that hymn we sing in Lent: At the Cross her station keeping, stood that mournful mother weeping, close to Jesus to the last… It’s only by carefully tending the flame of this desire to stand by him, as well as those whose suffering he has chosen to share, that we can properly heed the Lord’s call in the gospel. A call he issues no less than three times: Do not be afraid. For everything that is now covered will be uncovered, and everything now hidden will be made clear… And if, due to our weakness, we still feel fearful, we can make our own these words from another familiar prayer: O good Jesus hear me, within your wounds hide me, do not allow me to be separated from you…

In a world where it often feels as though sin and death continue to reign supreme, the Lord still calls us to stand out, so as to keep standing by him, and within the wounds he bore for love of us. Sisters and brothers, even as students drive themselves to excel in their exams, what are we doing to prepare for that final meeting with our Divine Examiner? Where will we choose to stand today?

Sunday, June 18, 2023

Landmarks to Liberation

11th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Readings: Exodus 19: 2-6; Psalm 99 (100): 2-3, 5; Romans 5: 6-11; Matthew 9: 36-10: 8

Picture: By Beth Macdonald on Unsplash

My dear friends, have you ever given someone directions before? How did you do it? Very likely, landmarks were used, right? At the T-junction, turn left… At the petrol station, turn right… And notice how, each time a landmark is recognised, there’s an action to perform. Turn left… Turn right… Similarly, landmarks are what we find in our scriptures today. The first reading refers to places like Rephidim and Sinai and Egypt. But more important than these physical locations is the spiritual landmark they represent. To recognise it, we need to recall what happens to the Israelites at each place.

In Egypt, they are oppressed and can’t break free. At Rephidim, they have no water to quench their thirst. Yet each time, in their helplessness, God rescues them. God frees them from the Egyptians, and makes water flow from the rock. Helplessness and rescue. This is the first landmark. And as with any set of directions, once a landmark is recognised, there’s an action to perform. So at Sinai, God invites the people to obey God’s voice and hold fast to God’s covenant. To trust and submit to God. This is what the Israelites are asked to do at the first landmark. And not just the Israelites, but we Christians as well. For God has rescued us too. As St Paul reminds us, we were still helpless when… Christ died for (sinners)… Like the Israelites, we have good reason to trust and to surrender our lives to the Lord.

But that’s not all. There’s also a second landmark. We find a hint of it already in the first reading, when God tells the Israelites they will be a kingdom of priests. For priests are consecrated not just for God, but also for other people. This second landmark is recognised by the twin experiences in the gospel. First, the compassion of Jesus at the sight of the crowds, because they are harassed and dejected. According to another translation (NRSV), they are harassed and helpless. And second, we have the call that Jesus issues to the Twelve, telling them to go and proclaim that the kingdom of heaven is close at hand… Compassion and call. This is the second landmark. And once it is recognised, the appropriate response is to commit and to serve, to proclaim and to heal. To truly become God’s consecrated priests to the harassed and helpless crowds among whom we live.

Helplessness and rescue, compassion and call. These are the landmarks on the spiritual path from oppression to freedom. A timely reminder for us, even as we hear of the tragic sinking of yet another boat in the Mediterranean, overloaded with desperate people seeking better lives, including many children. Nor do we have to look that far to uncover oppression. According to the philosopher Byung-Chul Han, this digital society in which we live actually trains us to oppress ourselves. According to him, ours is an achievement society that makes us exploit ourselves until we collapse. We develop auto-aggressive traits that often lead to suicide…

Sisters and brothers, in our helplessness, Christ has set us free. How is he calling us now to help one another recognise and follow the landmarks along the way to true freedom?

Sunday, June 11, 2023

Never To Let Us Go

Solemnity of the Most Holy Body & Blood of Christ (A)

Readings: Deuteronomy 8: 2-3, 14-16; Psalm 147: 12-15, 19-20; 1 Corinthians 10: 16-17; John 6:51-58

Picture: Brooke Cagle on Unsplash

Well, you only need the light when it's burning low,

Only miss the sun when it starts to snow,

Only know you love her when you let her go…

And you let her go…

My dear friends, do these lines sound familiar? They're from a song by the English singer-songwriter, Passenger. They speak of a man’s regret at having taken his lover for granted, at realising what she really means to him, only after she’s gone. Released in 2012, the song eventually topped the charts in many countries around the world. Perhaps a sign that many of us know what it feels like to forget to cherish the people we love… until it’s too late. Sadly, this tendency to take love for granted often extends beyond the people in our lives, to include even the God who keeps us all alive.

Isn’t this why, in the first reading, Moses anxiously tells the Israelites to remember how God had led them for forty years in the wilderness to humble them, to make them understand that man lives on everything that comes from the mouth of the Lord? Moses has good reason to worry. For the Israelites are about to enter the Promised Land, a place where milk and honey flow. It had been difficult enough for them to obey God in the wilderness, where they were often hungry. What more in a land of plenty, when their bellies will be full?

Well, we all know the story, right? We know that the people did, indeed, forsake God. But the good news is that despite their forgetfulness of God, God refused to forget them. Again and again, God sent prophets to remind them of their need for God. And when they rejected these, God even sent God’s only Son. And when he too was persecuted and put to death, God not only raised him to life, but also made him forever present and accessible to God’s people–to all of us–especially in the celebration of the Eucharist.

As the second reading reminds us, the blessing-cup that we bless is a communion with the blood of Christ, and the bread that we break is a communion with the body of Christ. By partaking in the Eucharist, we draw life from Christ, just as he draws life from the Father. Enabling us to become part of the corpus christi, the body of Christ, here on earth. Giving us power to live as he lived, and to love as he loved.

Isn’t this what we are celebrating today? Not some obnoxious obligation to drag ourselves out of bed on a sleepy Sunday morning, but a powerful expression of a love that refuses to let us go. Which brings to mind these words from another song. A song not of regret, but of wonder and praise, of gratitude and hope…

Could the Lord ever leave you?

Could the Lord forget his love?

Though a mother forsake her child,

He will not abandon you…

Sisters and brothers, the Eucharist is a precious gift from a Lord who refuses to let us go. What must we do to keep clinging ever more tightly to him, today and everyday?