Sunday, December 31, 2023

Holiness As Amplification

Feast of The Holy Family of Jesus, Mary & Joseph (B)

Readings: Genesis 15: 1-6, 21: 1-3; Psalm 104 (105): 1-6, 8-9; Hebrews 11: 8, 11-12, 17-19; Luke 2: 22-40

Picture: By Jason Rosewell on Unsplash

My dear friends, can you hear me? If you can, isn’t it thanks to the sound system we have here in church? It lets us hear clearly, without anyone needing to shout. And though they come in different forms, ranging from a humble loudhailer to the sophisticated equipment used at live concerts, every sound system performs the same basic function. It amplifies sound. We might say it faithfully receives sound, resonates with it, before letting it reverberate more loudly and widely.

Reception, resonance and reverberation. This is also how holy families respond to the word of God, in our scriptures today. The family of Abraham and Sarah, and that of Joseph and Mary. But first it’s helpful to see the differences between them. Abraham is rich (Gn 13:2). His household includes many servants (Gn 12:16). He even has a child by Sarah’s Egyptian maid. A boy he names Ishmael (Gn 16:15). Joseph, however, is not rich. The sacrifice he and Mary bring to the Temple is the offering of the poor. Joseph’s household also seems small. And though Jesus is Mary’s first-born son, Joseph is not his biological father. Still, despite these differences, both families respond to God in similar ways.

The first two readings tell us that every time God speaks to him, Abraham and his family faithfully receive and resonate with God’s word. They hear and they obey. It is by faith that Abraham uproots his family, setting out without knowing where he’s going. It’s also by faith that he trusts in God’s promise of an heir, through whom he will father a multitude of descendants. Just as it’s by faith that he and Sarah conceive Isaac. And again by faith that he agrees to sacrifice Isaac, while believing that God's promise will be fulfilled. Through the reception and resonance of Abraham’s family, God’s word reverberates down through the ages, even to the present day.

We find this same high-fidelity reception, resonance and reverberation in the family of Joseph and Mary as well. In the gospel, we see how carefully they follow all that the Law of the Lord requires. We may also recall how faithfully Mary had earlier responded to God’s call at the Annunciation (Lk 1:38), and how Joseph had done the same, after waking from a dream (Mt 1:24). Through their reception and resonance, Joseph and Mary allow the Word of God to come among us in the flesh. So that the gospel reverberates with the praises of God. First in the Temple, through the voices of Simeon and Anna. And then at home in Nazareth, through the daily routine of the family, in which the Word-Made-Flesh is allowed to grow to maturity. To amplify over time. Until he’s ready to reverberate further throughout the world, and unto eternity.

Despite their differences, the families of Abraham and Joseph respond to God’s word in similar ways. Perhaps that’s why the gospel considers them not two but one (Lk 3:34). A single family of faith, of which we too are called to be a part.

Sisters and brothers, if the amplification of God’s Word is truly what characterises a holy family, then what can we do to let God make our own families just a little more holy today?

Monday, December 25, 2023

Between the Holiday & the Feast

The Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ

(Mass During the Day)

Readings: Isaiah 52: 7-10; Psalm 97 (98): 1-6; Hebrews 1: 1-6; John 1:1-18

Picture: By Emmanuel Bior on Unsplash

My dear friends, have you ever come across someone who may be facing a serious health issue, but refuses to consult a doctor? What about a boss who chooses to close one eye, even though there’s reason to suspect some hanky-panky going on at work? Perhaps, like me, you’ve even been tempted to do the same. Why do we do this? Why not find out for sure what exactly is going on, and face it head-on? Isn’t it because not knowing often feels better than knowing? As they say, ignorance is bliss. And isn’t it especially tempting to indulge in the bliss of ignorance this Christmas? When the headlines are filled with so much troubling news. Why not take a break from all that, if only for a couple of days? After all, isn’t Christmas a holiday? A time for us to relax, to let our hair down, and to engage in joyous celebration.

It’s true, of course. Christmas is a holiday. But for us Christians, it’s not just that. It’s also a solemn feast. And the joy the feast brings is actually quite different from the blissful ignorance of the holiday. Sort of like how meeting someone face-to-face is very different from gazing at an image in which all the flaws have been carefully edited out. Isn’t this what we find in our scriptures today? Why are the people in the first reading told to rejoice? It’s not because they’ve somehow managed to forget their sufferings. Rather, it’s because they see clear signs that God has not forgotten them. That God is coming to console them, and to save them.

And the second reading tells us that what is true for the people in exile, has always been true for the Hebrews. Down through the ages, despite their infidelity, God has continually been speaking to them, reaching out to them, lovingly and mercifully accompanying them. Culminating in the sending of God’s own Son, whom the gospel tells us is the eternal Word, through whom all things were created. This divine Word, who is nearest the Father’s heart, has come among us in the flesh. So that we are all now forever inscribed on God’s heart. Impossible to be forgotten. All of us, regardless of gender or age, colour or creed. And it’s when we realise how close God is to us, particularly when we feel helpless, that joy is born in our hearts. Joy springing not from ignorance, but from a deep appreciation of God’s solidarity with us.

Which is not to say that we shouldn’t take a break over Christmas, to relax and to have fun. Many of us badly need to, don’t we? Just as we also need to make time, over the next couple of weeks, to quietly contemplate the tiny helpless baby in the manger. To bring our sufferings and those of the world to him. Asking him to strengthen us in faith and hope and charity. To help us see that we are not alone. And to move us to somehow express our solidarity with others who suffer, if not in material assistance, then at least in prayer.

Sisters and brothers, as tempting as it may be to indulge in blissful ignorance, how might we help one another to immerse ourselves ever more deeply in the joy of God’s solidarity this Christmas?

Sunday, December 24, 2023

From The Genie To The Flame

4th Sunday of Advent (B)

Readings: 2 Samuel 7: 1-5, 8-12, 14, 16; Psalm 88 (89): 2-5, 27, 29; Romans 16: 25-27; Luke 1: 26-38

Picture: By Ahmed Zayan on Unsplash

You better watch out; you better not cry; you better not pout; I’m telling you why… My dear friends, do you know why? That’s right. Santa Claus is coming to town. And what does Santa do when he comes? Well, if we’re good, he brings us presents. This is how a popular song teaches us to imagine Christmas. To associate it with the presence of someone who acts like a genie in a lamp. Someone who makes us happy by making our wishes come true. But even if this image may hold a grain of truth, it’s quite different from the one our scriptures paint for us on this final Sunday of Advent.

To see this, notice first how both king David and the virgin Mary are told the same thing at the start. Words very similar to what we hear at Mass. The Lord is with you. God is already with them. But instead of making their wishes come true, God begins by disrupting their plans. David wants to build a Temple. God says, no. Mary is betrothed to Joseph. Which means they’re already married, just not yet living together. Still God asks her to conceive and bear a son by the Holy Spirit, and so run the risk being accused of adultery.

Thankfully, God doesn’t only disrupt their plans. God also expands their vision. God shifts their attention from what they want to do to what God is doing. Instead of letting David occupy himself with a construction project lasting for years, God promises to establish for him a dynasty that will endure forever. A promise that will be fulfilled through Mary. For beyond being the wife of a distant long-forgotten descendant of royalty, she is to become the mother of a king whose origin is hidden in God, and whose reign will have no end.

By thus expanding their vision, God also ignites their passion. By reminding them of all that God has done and is doing, God fills their hearts with wonder, gratitude and hope. Enabling them to honestly address their concerns to God in prayer, and to humbly accept God’s will in action. To become God’s handmaid. To be brought to the obedience of faith. To be moved to give glory to God. To sing joyfully of God’s steadfast love, not just with their voices, but also through their lives. In other words, God does for David and Mary what the second reading says God is able to do for us all. God gives them the strength to live according to the Good News.

The presence of One who disrupts our plans, expands our vision, and ignites our passion. Isn’t this what we celebrate at Christmas? Which shouldn’t be all that surprising, right? For doesn’t a baby often do the same to its parents? Disruption, expansion, and ignition. Together they bring to mind these words from another song, one we don’t often associate with Christmas: Give me oil in my lamp, keep me burning. Give me oil in my lamp, I pray. Give me oil in my lamp, keep me burning. Keep me burning till the break of day…

Sisters and brothers, could it be that the One for whom we are waiting is more like an illuminating and purifying fire than an indulgent genie? If so, then what must we do to give him a proper welcome this Christmas?

Sunday, December 17, 2023

The Doorkeeper Has Two Faces

3rd Sunday of Advent (B)

Readings: Isaiah 61: 1-2, 10-11; Luke 1: 46-50, 53-54; 1 Thessalonians 5: 16-24; John 1: 6-8, 19-28

Picture: cc John on Flickr

My dear friends, what do personal assistants and doorkeepers have in common? The answer is obvious, right? PAs often do for their bosses what doorkeepers do for buildings. They control access. Like doorkeepers, PAs have two faces. They let people in, and they keep people out. They fix appointments, and they screen calls. They can either facilitate an encounter with the boss, or prevent it. It’s helpful to keep this in mind today, when the scriptures encourage us not just to rejoice, but to rejoice in the Lord. Meaning that the joy we are being offered comes from an encounter between us and God, between our darkness and the light of the Lord.

Isn’t this what we see in the first reading? To a people living in the darkness of Exile, God sends an assistant with a joyful message. Bringing good news to the poor, healing to broken hearts, and freedom to captives. Offering the promise of an encounter with God. And it’s enough simply to accept this appointment, to believe this message, to humbly allow its consoling light to pierce the darkness of one’s heart, for it to spark joy. Joy not in one’s own achievements, but in the Lord. For as the earth makes fresh things grow… so will the Lord make… both integrity and praise spring up…

Similarly, in the gospel, John the Baptist comes as a witness to speak for the light. An assistant, sent by God to schedule a meeting with the people. To facilitate a life-giving encounter between those who live in darkness and the one true Light. Isn’t this why he cries in the wilderness? John calls everyone to enter and to face the untamed and barren areas of our hearts, our lives, our world. Those chaotic spaces where sin and selfishness, greed and deception still cast a long shadow. And where we often feel helpless and ashamed. For it is in this darkness that the Light wishes to shine, that Joy chooses to be born. Just as in the devastation of Gaza, some are still struggling to bring relief. And in our own scandal-stricken Church, there are yet those working for reform.

But the Pharisees refuse to meet John in the wilderness. They send assistants instead, who interrogate the Baptist the way a PA might screen an annoying caller. Who are you?, they insist on knowing. So that even as John works to facilitate an encounter, his opponents seek to prevent it. They do what the second reading tells us not to do. They try to suppress the Spirit. And they end up forfeiting the joy the Spirit brings.

Which may remind us of that old story of the woman walking home one night, who sees her neighbour on all fours, frantically searching for something under a streetlamp. I’ve lost my key, he says. So the woman decides to help. And after a long fruitless search, she asks where exactly he dropped his key. To which, the neighbour gestures vaguely into the dark. Back in my house, he says. Then why are you searching out here?, she asks. It’s brighter here, he replies.

Sisters and brothers, if both doorkeepers and PAs really have two faces, then what must we do to help one another turn the right one to the Lord this Advent?

Sunday, December 10, 2023

Good News Or Bad?

2nd Sunday of Advent (B)

Readings: Isaiah 40: 1-5, 9-11; Psalm 84 (85): 9-14; 2 Peter 3: 8-14; Mark 1: 1-8

Picture: By hossein azarbad on Unsplash

My dear friends, what makes a piece of news sound good or bad? Doesn’t it depend not just on the news itself, but also on those who receive it? For example, we may recall that last year the then government of New Zealand passed a law that would have effectively banned the sale of cigarettes to future generations of Kiwis. Does this sound like good news or bad? Many in New Zealand and around the world thought it was great news. Many. But not all. Just weeks ago, a new government announced its intention to scrap the smoking ban to fund tax cuts. Clearly, to those somehow invested in the status quo, the ban had sounded like really bad news.


It’s helpful to keep this in mind on this 2nd Sunday of Advent, when our scriptures speak to us of good news. To a people living in exile, the first reading offers a tender word of consolation. To those who consider themselves punished by God for their own sinfulness, a joyful message is proclaimed, from the mouth of the Lord. God is coming to save them. To dry their tears. To heal their wounds. To finally bring them home. Good news, right? And yet, isn’t it likely that there are those who’ve settled comfortably in the foreign land? Built new lives for themselves and their families? And forgotten the place from which their ancestors came? To such people, won’t the prospect of relocation sound like really bad news?

In the gospel, St Mark begins his account of the life of Jesus by calling it Good News (the literal meaning of the word, gospel). The powerful story of the Son of Man’s first coming. The One who ushers in God’s kingdom of justice and peace. But there are those who consider this really bad news. Those for whom it brings desolation, instead of consolation. Isn’t this why John the Baptist eventually gets beheaded? And Jesus is crowned with thorns, and enthroned on a cross?

Still, the good news cannot be cancelled. Not only is the Lord raised from the dead, and taken up to heaven, we believe he will come again. Isn’t this what the second reading warns us to never forget? The belief that, just as Jesus ushered in God’s kingdom at his first coming, he will unveil this same kingdom in the fullness of its glory at his second. An event that will happen suddenly, like a thief. When everything will come to an end. To be replaced by new heavens and new earth, the place where righteousness will (finally) be at home.

Does this sound like good news or bad? Well, that will depend on where we choose to rest our hearts, and invest our lives. Whether on things that will eventually pass away, or on those that will endure to eternity. On our willingness to live as exiles in a foreign land, where righteousness is not yet at home. Isn’t this why, in each of our readings, we find a call to repentance? And why, in the coming week, we will gather for penitential services? To allow the Spirit to renovate our hearts and lives in the direction of greater justice and peace.

Sisters and brothers, unlike a ban on smoking, the Lord’s second coming cannot be scrapped. What must we do to prepare to welcome him as our true gospel this Advent?

Sunday, December 03, 2023

The (Not Quite) Auto Door

1st Sunday of Advent (B)

Readings: Isaiah 63: 16-17,64: 1, 3-8; Psalm 79 (80): 2-3, 15-16, 18-19; 1 Corinthians 1: 3-9; Mark 13: 33-37

Picture: By Kelvin Chan on Unsplash

My dear friends, have you ever been confused by the doors we find at the entrances to many buildings these days? They consist of two sliding glass panels and a black button, on which two words are printed: press and auto. The first word is easy enough to understand. What puzzles me is the second. Can a door really be considered auto, if you have to press a button to open it? … After many sleepless nights pondering this mystery, I’ve come to realise that my expectations are too high. I want an auto door to open on its own, the moment I stand in front of it. But for some, it’s probably enough that it opens electronically, without having to be pushed manually.

A double door that opens for me only when I learn to temper my expectations. Our scriptures bring to mind a similar image today. Two panels between which we need to pass, to enter the holy season of Advent. The first panel is described most clearly in the second reading, where St Paul tells the Corinthians that he never stops thanking God for all the graces they have received through Jesus Christ. Gratitude for gifts already received. Gratitude expressed not just in words, but also in action. By using one’s gifts as God intends. In the case of the Corinthians, their many spiritual gifts are meant for building up the church. Unfortunately, they abuse their gifts. Using them to compete with one another for popularity and power. And so end up dividing the community instead.

Which is why, in his letter, Paul goes on to beg them to be united in Christ. And this fervent desire for unity is an example of the second panel through which we need to walk. A heartfelt yearning for blessings yet to be claimed. Much like the yearning that's so poignantly expressed in the first reading. After gratefully recalling how God has been both Father and Redeemer to Israel in the past, the prophet now begs God to tear the heavens open and come down again. To turn the people’s hardened hearts away from sin, and back to God. As Christians, we believe that this prayer has been answered in Jesus. Whose second coming we now await. Not just in prayer, but also through works of mercy.

Sincere gratitude for gifts already received, and deep yearning for blessings not yet fully claimed. These are the twin panels of Advent’s door, which readily slide open for us, provided we do our part. For how can we be grateful, unless we recall what we have received? And how can we yearn, unless we ponder the godly gifts we may still lack? To pray for and actively cultivate the gifts of gratitude and yearning. This is the button we need to press. Not just to gain entry into Advent hope, but also to open our hearts to the King of Glory, whenever he chooses to come. Could this be what it means to stay awake? Could it be that we cannot truly enter Advent the way many of us are now accustomed to walking down the street? With our eyes glued to our phones. Expecting everything and everyone to automatically make way.

Sisters and brothers, how might we help one another to temper our expectations, so that we may walk together through the twin doors of Advent today?