Sunday, November 26, 2023

Starting With The One in The Mirror

Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ,

King of the Universe

Readings: Ezekiel 34: 11-12, 15-17; Psalm 22 (23): 1-3a, 5-6; 1 Corinthians 15: 20-26, 28; Matthew 25: 31-46

Picture: By Edgar Pereira on Unsplash

My dear friends, do the words Man in the Mirror ring a bell for you? Those of us of a certain age may recognise them as the title of an old song sung by the late Michael Jackson. The song offers a simple recipe for changing the world by first changing oneself: I'm starting with the man in the mirror. I'm asking him to change his ways…. If you wanna make the world a better place, take a look at yourself and then make a change… Sounds simple, but far from easy to follow. Is it even true? And, if it is true, how are we to change ourselves? I believe these are among the questions our scriptures help us ponder on this final Sunday of our liturgical year.

To start, the second reading tells us that, at the end of time, the Crucified and Risen Christ will come and change the whole of creation in a full and final way. By first subjecting everything to himself as King, destroying all his enemies, including death itself, and then handing over his kingdom to his heavenly Father, so that God may be all in all. The other readings describe a similar process of universal change by using the image of a shepherd. When Christ comes in his glory, he will act like a shepherd in at least two ways.

First, like a shepherd calling and tending his sheep, Christ the King will gather to himself all who belong to him. Taking special care of those who are confused and lost, oppressed and neglected, helpless and hurting. Not just respectable Catholics like us, who enjoy the fresh pastures and restful waters of the Eucharist, even as we walk in the dark valley of an increasingly uncertain and dangerous world. Christ gathers even those who do not consider themselves his disciples. Isn’t this what we find in the gospel, where the Son of Man assembles not just Christians, but all the nations?

Second, like a shepherd separating sheep from goats, Christ will judge between those who do belong to him, and those who do not. The former he will lead to eternal life. The latter he will send to eternal punishment. But how does one become a sheep? Again the answer is simple, but not easy to follow. To become a sheep, one must walk the narrow path of change that Jesus himself walked. The path of mercy shown to those most in need. I was hungry and you gave me food… a stranger and you made me welcome… The same path that led the Lord of the Universe to become poor, to make us rich (2 Cor 8:9). And all who walk this path, do not just serve Christ. They can also somehow be nourished by him. Just as we are nourished, whenever we serve at his Eucharistic table.

Isn’t this what we celebrate today? The consoling belief that Christ will eventually transform this troubled world of ours–burdened by so much war and conflict, deception and greed–into the truth and freedom, the peace and justice of God’s kingdom. Our part is to join this process, by starting with the one we see in the mirror. By nudging him (or her) to change his (often self-centred) ways.

Sisters and brothers, on this final Sunday of our church’s year, how shall we help one another to truly submit to change, so as to better receive the King of the Universe whenever he comes?

Sunday, November 19, 2023

Beyond The Duck Test

33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

(7th World Day of the Poor)

Readings: Proverbs 31:10-13, 19-20, 30-31; Psalm 127 (128):1-5; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-6; Matthew 25:14-30

Picture: By Marketa Vranova on Unsplash

My dear friends, can you complete this sentence? If it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and swims like a duck, it…? That’s right, it probably is a duck. Which seems to make a lot of sense, right? But we may also recall the story of the ugly duckling. Which looked and acted enough like a duck that everyone treated it as such. Until, of course, it grew into a swan! Which goes to show that sometimes what looks and acts like one thing, may turn out to be something else.

The same can be said about our scriptures today. At first glance, all they seem to offer us is a stern call to hard work. Isn’t this what distinguishes the perfect wife in the first reading from the good-for-nothing servant in the gospel? The wife works hard. She’s always busy. Caring not just for her own household, but also for the poor and needy. The servant, on the other hand, is lazy. He buries the treasure his master entrusts him, instead of working to make it grow. The lesson seems simple: work hard! Work hard for God, just as we work hard for our bosses, our teachers, our families, our nation… Work hard! Sounds like a reasonable message, except that, on its own, it looks suspiciously similar to the religion practiced by Jesus’ enemies in the gospel. They lay heavy burdens on people’s shoulders, and do nothing to move them (Mt 23:4). And isn’t it possible to bury God’s gifts not just in the soil of sloth, but also under the mountain of overwork?

But if hard work alone isn’t the point, then what is? To answer this question, we need to consider not only what is being done (or not done), but also why, and who. Why is the wife so diligent, and the servant so negligent? The readings say it’s because of fear. The servant is afraid of what his master will do to him if he messes up. And the wife too is moved by fear, but of a different kind. The reading praises her for being wise (31:31). In another translation, she’s praised because she fears the Lord (RSV). So how is her fear different from his?

The servant imagines his master to be a tyrant, so he’s afraid of being punished. In contrast, the wife knows from experience that her Lord is a tender Provider, who blesses all who walk in his ways. What she fears is less being punished than breaking the Lord’s Covenant with Israel, made when Moses led Israel out of slavery in Egypt. Unlike the servant, the wife is focused first on all the good the Lord has done for her, to which her own activity is a joyful response. So what at first looks like a burdensome warning to work hard, is really a beautiful lesson in right worship and righteous living. A call to remember and trust more in God’s Providence, instead of being driven by worldly pride and ambition. To keep drawing strength and inspiration from the generous sacrifice of Christ, who though he was rich became poor to enrich us (2 Cor 8:9). To truly live as children of the light, ever ready to welcome the Lord, particularly when he comes in the guise of the poor.

Sisters and brothers, sometimes what looks and acts like one thing, may turn out to be something else. What can we do to help one another truly recognise and encounter, in the ugly duckling, the face of the beautiful swan today?

Sunday, November 12, 2023

Of Meetings & Pre-Meetings, Helplessness & Hope

32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Readings: Wisdom 6: 12-16; Psalm 62 (63): 2-8; 1 Thessalonians 4: 13-18; Matthew 25: 1-13

Picture: By Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

My dear friends, how do you feel when you hear the word meeting, or pre-meeting? You know, a prior meeting to prepare for the actual meeting? Perhaps corporate culture has conditioned many of us to be turned off by these words. We associate them with other words, like going round in circles, and total waste of time. Still, not all work meetings are pointless. And not all meetings have to do with work. Such as a friendly catch-up over coffee. It’s good to keep this in mind, as the word meet appears in all three of our readings today.

In the gospel, Jesus compares the kingdom of heaven to two groups of bridesmaids going out to meet a bridegroom. The wise ones are prepared for the meeting, but the foolish ones are not. In the second reading, St Paul imagines what it’ll look like at the end of time, when the Lord comes in glory to meet all who belong to him. Those still alive, as well as those who have already died in Christ. And the first reading assures us that Wisdom graciously shows herself to all who seek her, coming to meet them in every thought they might have.

So whether it’s at the end of time, or at every moment of every passing day, there are ample opportunities for us to enter God’s kingdom. But we have to be prepared for the meeting. We need oil for our lamps. In the gospel, oil likely refers to good works done out of love for God and neighbour. And isn’t oil itself the product of a meeting? How is olive oil made, if not by applying pressure to the fruit of the olive tree?

This meeting between pressure and fruit resembles what we find in the psalm. Here the psalmist compares his longing for God to a dry, weary land without water. A touching image that resonates with those who know what it’s like to feel helpless. Helpless either in the face of one’s own stubborn personal problems, or the needless sufferings of others. Such as the many children in the Middle East, tragically caught in the deadly crossfire of war. Even so, the psalmist doesn’t let his helplessness plunge him into despair. He directs his gaze at the Lord’s presence in the sanctuary of the Temple. And, through the night, he remembers and muses on the Lord’s steadfast love. This meeting between his own helpless longing and his memories of God’s undying love produces in the psalmist hope. Moving him to praise God with joy.

And isn’t or shouldn’t this be our experience too, whenever we gather for the Eucharist? Here we allow the pressures of our own helpless longing to come in contact with the fruitful memory of Christ’s loving sacrifice for us on the Cross. A meeting that engenders in us a joyful hope for the future. However volatile or uncertain that future may seem to be. Hope which can then be expressed not just in a cheerful mood, but in concrete acts of charity and mercy. Following the example of the One who first showed mercy to us. Producing the oil we need for the lamp of our Christian life.

Sisters and brothers, even if we may be turned off by some meetings, what can we do to help one another better prepare to welcome the Lord, whenever he comes to meet us?

Sunday, November 05, 2023

Between The Delicious & The Dreadful

31st Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Readings: Malachi 1:14-2:2, 8-10; Psalm 130 (131); 1 Thessalonians 2:7-9, 13; Matthew 23:1-12

Picture: By Zachary Spears on Unsplash

My dear friends, is a sandwich a blessing or a curse? It depends, right? For example, we know how delicious a BLT can be: crispy bacon, fresh lettuce and juicy tomato, all pressed between lightly toasted slices of bread. But we also speak about the plight of the so-called sandwich generation. People between the ages of 35 and 59, stressed out from having to care for both growing children and aging parents. So it seems a sandwich can change from a blessing to a curse. How does it happen? Can it be prevented or reversed? These are the questions our scriptures help us ponder today.

In the first reading, the descendants of Levi are called to be a sandwich people. A tribe of priests, standing between God and the rest of Israel. To offer the people’s sacrifices to God, and God’s teaching to the people. And this call is meant to be a blessing for all. Sadly, their wayward appetites lead the priests astray. They greedily keep the best of the people’s offerings for themselves, and sacrifice to God animals that are lame and sick. As a result, their priesthood is changed from a blessing to a curse. Similarly, although not all of them are priests, the religious leaders in the gospel also stand between God and the people. And they too allow their appetites to lead them astray. Instead of glorifying God, they draw attention to themselves. They feed their own egos, and end up burdening those they are sent to serve.

It’s hard to hear this and not be reminded of that dreadful recently released report, which estimates that more than 200,000 children have been sexually abused by Catholic clergy in Spain since 1940. Still, it’s important to remember that there are forms of abuse other than the sexual, including the financial, the moral and spiritual. And it’s not just ordained clergy who are called to be priests. By virtue of our baptism, all of us Christians belong to a priestly people. Called to stand between God and the rest of creation. How then are we to live this sandwich vocation of ours as a blessing for all?

The scriptures show us how by offering us the image of a mother with an infant at her breast. The psalmist uses this image to describe his own relationship with God. Like a weaned child–who has learned not to insist on milk, but obediently feeds on whatever its mother chooses to offer it–the psalmist patiently and humbly waits to be fed by God’s loving hand. In the second reading, St Paul uses the same image to describe his ministry among the Thessalonians. Like a nursing mother–who feeds her baby with her very self–Paul and his companions are eager to hand over to the Thessalonians, not only the Good News but their whole lives as well. And, in doing so, Paul is only imitating Jesus, our great high priest, whose humble sacrifice on the Cross changes the curse of Death into the blessing of New Life. To be like a weaned child before God, and a nursing mother for others. This is the gift of Christ we need to beg from God.

Sisters and brothers, if ours is truly a sandwich vocation, then what shall we do to remain a delicious blessing, instead of becoming a dreadful curse today?