Sunday, August 27, 2023

Beyond The Blindfolds

CHIJ Alumni Association Pre-Exam Mass 2023

21st Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Readings: Isaiah 22:19-23; Psalm 137 (138):1-3, 6, 8; Romans 11:33-36; Matthew 16:13-20

Picture: By Valentin Fernandez on Unsplash

My dear friends, do you know who Julia Roberts is? How about George Clooney? As you may have heard, apart from being famous actors, they also happen to be close friends of each other. About a year ago, their friendship was put to a light-hearted test, when they both appeared on a talkshow together. Julia was blindfolded, and asked to identify George from out of a line-up of several men, just by feeling their faces with her hands. Somehow she managed to do it.

To know someone well enough to be able to recognise him or her even through a blindfold. This, I believe, is something like what Jesus is training Peter and the other disciples to do, in the gospel today. To see this, we need first to realise that we’ve reached an important turning point in the gospel. Till now, the Lord has been fruitfully ministering to great crowds of people. But even as his popularity has been growing, so too has opposition from the religious authorities. And now, his focus begins to shift, away from the crowds, to his own disciples. He starts telling them, repeatedly, that he will soon have to suffer and die, before being raised. In other words, the Cross will soon become something like a blindfold, cruelly covering the disciples’ eyes, making it difficult for them to recognise and follow Jesus. How will they learn to persevere?

The two questions that Jesus poses mark an important step in their journey. Who do people say the Son of Man is? This first query seeks information, or results. It’s the kind of question that can be answered by conducting a Google search, or an online poll. The second question is very different. But you, who do you say I am? This isn’t a request for information, but an offer of friendship. A call to deeper, more intimate, relationship. And not just any relationship, but the most significant one possible. The one that brings with it the keys to God’s kingdom. Granting access to that place where true gladness is found. For, as St Paul asks rhetorically,  who could ever know the mind of God? Nobody, except the One who comes to uncover God’s face to us.

All of which may help us better appreciate why we are here this evening. On the one hand, a Pre-Exam Mass can simply be an occasion to pray, for retentive minds and good results. And to calm anxious hearts, of students as well as parents and teachers alike. These are valid reasons to offer a Mass. But could there be another reason? Doesn’t the stress of major exams often become for us something like a blindfold? Preventing us from recognising the presence and action of Christ in our lives here and now? If so, by coming together to pray, we humbly receive the training Jesus offers us. Enabling us to better recognise and respond to his call. Not just in the coming exams, but also in the various trials that life may throw in our path in the days and years ahead.

Sisters and brothers, like major exams in the life of a student, blindfolds are an unavoidable part of the life of a Christian. What must we do to keep helping one another persevere in recognising and following the Lord through them all?

Sunday, August 20, 2023

Guarding The Keys to Our Hearts

20th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Readings: Isaiah 56:1, 6-7; Psalm 66 (67):2-3, 5-6, 8; Romans 11:13-15, 29-32; Matthew 15:21-28

Picture: By Fa Barboza on Unsplash

My dear friends, how do people fall in love? Of course, I myself can’t claim to have extensive experience in such matters. But in the movies, there are two ways. Often, it happens all at once. Like when Jack catches sight of Rose on the Titanic. As though struck by lightning, the poor guy is suddenly smitten, never to be the same again. But there’s also that classic scene from Fiddler on the Roof, where a man irritates his wife of 25 years, by asking if she loves him. And it’s only as she recalls how she has spent the last 25 years caring for him in many routine ways, that she realises she does, in fact, love her husband. To fall in love is to hand over the key to one’s heart to someone else. And this can happen all at once or gradually, consciously or even imperceptibly.

Which helps us ponder two nagging questions that the gospel leaves unanswered. First, why is Jesus so rude to the Canaanite woman? He ignores her, then insults her, before finally giving her what she wants. Different explanations are possible. The one I like takes into account where Jesus is, and why he’s there. We’re told that Jesus left Gennesaret and withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. And the reason the Lord retreats into gentile territory, is because his teaching had offended the Jewish authorities (Mt 15:12). But if he was sent only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel, then isn’t Jesus in the wrong place? And wouldn’t he be busy figuring out when and how he might return to the right one? If so, then perhaps his apparent rudeness is simply the result of being preoccupied with his mission. A sign that Jesus has handed over the key to his heart to the One who sent him.

And can’t we say the same about St Paul? Although troubled by the disobedience of his fellow Israelites, he still takes pride in being sent to the pagans as their apostle. Isn’t Paul’s fidelity to his mission a sign of his love for Christ? Just as the Canaanite woman’s persistence is a sign of her love for her daughter. A love that brings her to Jesus. Allowing her to claim the salvation promised, in the first reading, to all foreigners who cling to (God’s) covenant. Salvation not just for herself, but for her tormented daughter as well.

Which leads us to the second troubling question: How did the woman’s daughter come to be tormented? In another translation, she is possessed. But isn’t possession also a handing over of the key to one’s heart? If so, then, like falling in love, possession too can happen all at once or gradually, consciously or even imperceptibly. Either way, one ends up placing one’s heart and one’s life in the wrong hands. And doesn’t a similar risk haunt our children even today? Exposed as they are, for example, to online influences that are unwholesome, if not downright sinister? And, whether or not we are parents, is there any better way to safeguard our children, than for us all to hand over the keys of our hearts to Christ? To share in his mission of spreading the Good News?

Sisters and brothers, if both love and possession are truly more similar than we usually realise, then what steps are we taking to fall and remain in love with the Lord today?

Sunday, August 13, 2023

Fishing in The Waters of Chaos

19th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Readings: 1 Kings 19:9, 11-13; Psalm 84 (85):9-14; Romans 9:1-5; Matthew 14:22-33

Picture: By Rio Lecatompessy on Unsplash

Give someone a fish, and we feed him for a day… My dear friends, what’s the line that comes after this? Many of us know it, right? Give someone a fish, and we feed him for a day; teach someone to fish, and we feed her for a lifetime. This familiar saying compares two complementary responses to hunger. The first meets the urgent need, by providing food. The second addresses the longer term lack, by offering formation. Giving a fish, and teaching to fish. Food and formation. This saying is often used in the context of caring for empty bellies growling for bread. But doesn’t it also apply to hungry hearts searching for God? Which is what we find in our scriptures today.

In the gospel, Jesus makes the disciples go on ahead without him. As a result, they are left to battle a heavy sea on their own. And Jesus himself is also facing a heavy sea of his own. For he has only recently been rejected by the people of his hometown (13:53-58), and then received disturbing news that John the Baptist has been beheaded (14:1-12). It’s really not a good time for prophets. Which is also the case in the first reading, where Elijah is fleeing for his life, because the queen wants to kill him. And isn’t Paul also in a difficult situation in the second reading? He experiences deep anguish, at the thought that his fellow Israelites might be cut off from Christ.

In each of our readings today, we find people threatened by the waters of chaos. People searching for meaning. People hungrily asking, where is our God? And, as in that saying, the readings show us two ways of responding. On the one hand, when the disciples are fearful because they mistake Jesus for a ghost, the Lord immediately reassures them. Courage! It is I! Do not be afraid. And when Peter begins to sink, and cries for help, Jesus rescues him at once.

In contrast, for Elijah and Jesus, the ability to find God in a time of trouble, to walk on the waters of chaos, comes only after a period of fishing. A process consisting of three parts. The first is prayerful solitude. One is led to withdraw, up the mountain of God, and into the cave of the heart. Then, one patiently sifts through the various voices resounding in one’s consciousness. Voices that may feel as insistent as a mighty wind, or a terrifying earthquake, or devastating fire. But after these have been allowed to pass, it becomes possible to hear yet another sound. A voice that speaks of peace. Bringing with it the clarity and courage one needs, to take a persevering step with renewed faith and trust in God.

Prayerful solitude, patient sifting, and perseverance in stepping out. This is how Elijah and Jesus seek and find God in times of trouble. This is how they each walk on the waters of chaos. Offering us the formation we need to do the same. Formation we can receive here in this Eucharist, as well as beyond. Both as individuals, and also as Church.

Sisters and brothers, much as we may prefer to be given a fish to fill our hungry hearts, how might we also help each other to receive the formation that God is offering us today?