Sunday, June 09, 2024

Something Wrong With the Water?

10th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Genesis 3: 9-15; Psalm 129 (130); 2 Corinthians 4: 13-5: 1; Mark 3: 20-35

Picture: By on Jason Leung Unsplash

My dear friends, given a choice, which would you prefer? To feel at home or not at home? To be like a fish swimming happily in water, or struggling desperately out of water? At first glance, the answer seems obvious, doesn’t it? Surely the preference must be to feel at home. Who in their right mind wants to be a fish out of water? And yet, if we were to give it a little more thought, doesn’t our answer have to depend also on the quality of the water? If the water is pure and clean and wholesome, then it’s natural for a fish to feel at home in it. But what if it’s a boiling hot pot of soup? What kind of fish will actually feel at home in that, except a dead one?

People feeling like fish out of water… This is what we find in our scriptures today. In the first reading, there are clear signs that the man and the woman no longer feel at ease in the garden of Eden, that safe and beautiful place, which God had given them to care for, and to call home (Gn 2:8, 15). They are so ashamed of their own nakedness, that they hide themselves from God. They also point accusing fingers at others, and even at God, for their own wrongdoing. It was the woman you put with me; she gave me the fruit, and I ate it… So that even before God actually drives them out of Eden (Gn 3:23-24), the man and the woman are already interiorly exiled from it. They no longer feel at home in their God-given home. Similarly, after telling us that Jesus went home with his disciples, the gospel goes on to describe how the cosy little kampong where the Lord grew up has become for him a very uncomfortable and unsafe place. Not only do his friends and relatives want to take charge of him, because they think he’s crazy, the scribes visiting from Jerusalem accuse him of being possessed and manipulated by the prince of devils. So that, like Adam and Eve in Eden, Jesus too feels like a stranger in his own earthly home.

But even if both our first parents and Jesus share the same feeling of being like fish out of water, there is a sharp contrast in the quality of the water. Unlike Adam and Eve, who feel out of place in the idyllic garden specially created for them by God, the water in which Jesus finds himself is very different. Speaking in parables, Jesus refers to it as a kingdom, and a household, ruled by Satan, the strong man. A place that is plainly unsuited for dignified human living. Like how boiling hot soup is unsuited for fish to live in. And there’s a difference not just in where they are, but also in why they feel the way they do. Whereas Adam and Eve are exiled from Eden, as a result of their disobedience, Jesus enters Satan’s domain in obedience to his heavenly Father. And he does this in order to tie up the strong man, and burgle his house. Adam and Eve have committed a selfish act of rebellion. But Jesus is engaged in a merciful mission of rescue. He plunges into the dangerous waters of our troubled world, to seek out and save the lost. To gather and lead us back into the wholesome life-giving waters of the Father’s will. Helping us to reclaim our God-given dignity, and even to become members of the Lord’s own family. Anyone who does the will of God, that person is my brother and sister and mother…

All of which might lead us to reflect on our own lives in this passing world. Which, despite its impressive advances in science and technology, still shows clear signs of Satan’s insidious influence. Not just in painful conflicts between nations, but also in petty rivalries among individuals. Not just in the terrible damage we inflict on our planet, but also in the unreasonable burdens we place on our families. Not just in the obvious suffering of migrants and refugees, but also in the often hidden distress of those saddled with addictions and afflictions of various kinds. Side-effects of the struggle to cope with the demands of life in our hyper-modern world.

Faced with such an environment, what are we to do? Could it be that beyond just continually driving ourselves and our children to do our utmost to swim more happily through it, we also need to entertain the possibility that there might be something wrong with the water? So that together we might find ways to change it for the better. To do what we asked God to help us do, in the prayer we offered earlier: At God’s prompting, to discern what is right, and with God’s guidance, to do it. Learning to test the waters of our world against the values of the gospel. And even to share in the Lord’s experience of being homeless here. So that we might make our home in God. For as the second reading reminds us, when this tent we live in on earth is folded up, there is a house built by God for us, an everlasting home not made by human hands, in the heavens.

Sisters and brothers, perhaps it’s not always a bad thing to feel like fish out of water. Depending on the water, it may even be a sign we’re still alive. What can we do to continue testing the water, so as to truly make our home in God today?

Support For The Suddenly Shaken

Funeral Mass for Simon Teo

Readings: Wisdom 4: 7-15; Psalm 22; 1 Corinthians 15: 51-57; John 11: 17-27

Picture: By Ina Carolino on Unsplash

My dear friends, have you ever found yourself in a moving vehicle–say a bus, or a train, or even a car–which happens to jerk or brake very suddenly? We know what that feels like, don’t we? It’s as though, not just our body, but even our heart is violently shaken out of place. And our natural reaction is to reach out and try to hold onto to something for support. Similarly, as we move through the routine of daily life, we sometimes encounter situations that throw us off-balance. Not just physically, but also mentally, emotionally, even spiritually. And something inside us spontaneously reaches out for support. Perhaps this is also how we’re feeling, as we face the shock of our brother Simon’s sudden passing. Even if we may not realise it–possibly because we are preoccupied with the many important practical details associated with a funeral–our hearts still yearn for something that can steady us. Something to help us keep our balance, even as we grieve and mourn. This is what the scriptures offer us today.

The first reading aptly speaks of someone who dies before his time. Which some may see as a sign of God’s displeasure. For if a long life is a blessing, then shouldn’t a short life be considered a punishment? But the reading suggests a different view. By calling to their heavenly home those still relatively young, God is removing them from the evils and temptations of this passing world. For grace and mercy await the chosen of the Lord, and protection his holy ones. God’s desire is not to punish, but to preserve and to protect.

The second reading offers us further spiritual support by reminding us that, for us Christians, death is more like a comma than a full-stop. A full-stop brings a sentence to an abrupt end. But a comma marks a pause. It may even bring about a transformation, a radical change of direction. For we Christians believe that we are not all going to die, but we shall all be changed… because our present perishable nature must put on imperishabilityDeath is swallowed up in victory. The full-stop becomes a comma. And this happens not because of our own holiness, important as that may be, but through our faith in the Lord Jesus.

Isn’t this why, amid Martha’s confusion and grief, Jesus takes the time to tenderly engage her in conversation? What is the Lord doing for his beloved friend, if not helping her to keep her balance. Gently drawing out of her the faith that lies hidden in her heart. That God-given ability to hold onto the Lord. The One who, through his own Dying and Rising, has the power to console us and steady us, amid the many unpredictable ups and downs of our earthly existence. I am the resurrection and the life. If anyone believes in me, even though he dies he shall live… Do you believe this?

Do you believe this? This is the Lord’s response to all who who mourn. Do you believe this? A question that can steady us, when we are shaken out of place. Do you believe this? Sisters and brothers, even as we move through the process of grieving, how might we also help one another to keep pondering this powerful question in the days ahead?

Sunday, June 02, 2024

Preparing For The Food That Tenderises

Solemnity Of The Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ

Readings: Exodus 24:3-8; Psalm 115 (116): 12-13, 15-18; Hebrews 9: 11-15; Mark 14: 12-16, 22-26

Picture: By Sara Cervera on Unsplash

My dear friends, do you like kiwifruit? I recently watched a documentary that taught me something about kiwifruit that I didn’t know before. Not only can it be eaten as food, it can also be used as a tenderiser. In the documentary, some kiwifruit was mashed into a paste, and then spread onto a thin slice of meat. After just a few minutes of coming in contact with the fruit, the meat could be pulled apart very easily. Along with this amazing tenderising power, there were two other things in this experiment that I found striking. The first is the way the kiwifruit took effect. It’s possible to tenderise meat by pounding it violently with a mallet. But the kiwifruit worked in a much more quiet, hidden way. On the surface, nothing seemed to be happening. It was only later, when the meat was examined, that it became clear how tender it had become. The second is how some preparatory steps had to be taken, for the experiment to work. The meat had to be sliced, the fruit mashed, and then left on the meat for some time… Tenderising power, hidden effects, and preparatory steps. Today, our scriptures tell us that the Body and Blood of Christ has these same three characteristics.

In the first reading, the ritual actions performed by Moses at Mount Sinai have a clear tenderising effect. Together, the teaching of the commands of the Lord, and the sprinkling of the blood of sacrificed animals–first on the altar, and then on the people–result in a softening of the people’s hearts. Causing them to agree to observe all that the Lord has decreed. Making them more acceptable in God’s sight. Drawing them into a tighter communion with and in the Lord. And this tenderising process takes place in a quiet, hidden way, in the hearts and lives of the people. Also, to facilitate this process, preparatory steps had to be taken earlier, which include the washing of their clothes (Ex 20:14ff). All so that the people might be led more fully by God, out of the slavery of Egypt, and into the freedom of the Promised Land.

Tenderising power, hidden effects, and preparatory steps. We find these same three characteristics in the actions of Jesus in the gospel. By sharing a ritual meal with his disciples, on the evening before he suffers, Jesus gives them, and us, something to remember him by. A way to recall, and make present again, his deep love and selfless sacrifice for us. So that, amid the often troubling, traumatic, soul-hardening experiences of life, our hearts might still remain tender enough for us to continue submitting ourselves to God. As the second reading tells us, the blood of Christ… can purify our inner self from dead actions so that we do our service to the living God. The Eucharist has the power to keep us from being enslaved by various obsessions and compulsions–such as with work and money, status and luxury–and to enable us to live in the freedom of the love of God.

And this tenderising power of the Eucharist often takes effect in a quiet, hidden way. For example, in Luke’s gospel, how do the two disciples on the Road to Emmaus come to recognise the Crucified and Risen Christ, when he breaks bread with them? Could it be it was because their earlier experience of the Last Supper had tenderised their hearts in a hidden way? So that after suffering the trauma of the Lord’s Crucifixion, they were better able to experience the comfort of his Resurrected Presence. Motivating them to reverse the initial direction of their journey. Away from the darkness of despair, and back into the light of hope (24:30-33). Isn’t this also what we believe can happen to us, when we gather for the Eucharist? Through the repetitive, seemingly boring, actions we perform every week, we believe hidden changes take place within and among us. Gradual transformations that may become clear only later, perhaps in moments of crisis.

But for this to happen, important preparatory steps need to be taken. Like what the two disciples in the gospel were sent to do. As well as all the work that goes into our own celebration of Mass every Sunday. From the greetings we exchange, to the songs we sing. From the clothes we wear, to the items we use. From the postures we adopt, to the procedures we follow. From the prayers we boldly offer, to the Word we reverently receive and proclaim… And whether we serve in the sanctuary, or participate from the pews, don’t we all need to do our part to carefully dispose our hearts and minds and bodies for worship? Such as by prayerfully reading in advance the scriptures assigned for that Mass. For just as the kiwifruit has to be mashed, and the meat sliced thin, so too do steps need to be taken to make the Divine Presence more accessible to us, and our hearts more receptive to God.

Sisters and brothers, if the Body and Blood of Christ is truly offered to us both as nutritious food, and an effective tenderiser, then what can we do to better prepare ourselves to experience its benefits more fully at every Mass?

Sunday, May 26, 2024

The Embrace

Solemnity of The Most Holy Trinity

(Caritas Social Mission Conference)

Readings: Deuteronomy 4: 32-34, 39-40; Psalm 32 (33): 4-6, 9, 18-20, 22; Romans 8: 14-17; Matthew 28: 16-20

Picture: By Jordan Whitt on Unsplash

My dear friends, this may sound like a strange question to ask, but how does a child come to know its parent has two arms? I’m not sure, but I wonder if it involves a process like this… Imagine a little toddler, crying. We’re not sure why. Perhaps it’s hungry or lonely, lost or afraid… Very quickly, its parent rushes over, gathers the child into the parent’s arms, and comforts it. Gradually, the wailing subsides into sniffles, which turn into smiles, and even escalate into giggles. Soon the child feels secure enough to ask to be let down, so that it can explore the world. Except that it’s not just the world the child is exploring, but also the true extent and endurance of its parent’s embrace. The child is discovering how far it can go, while still feeling the warmth of its parent’s arms around its body. And, provided it continues to sense this loving presence and unconditional acceptance, the child might feel secure enough to share, in its own way, something of that warmth with others. Bringing them amusement and joy. Becoming an extension of its parent’s embrace… Could it be that it is by repeatedly undergoing such a process, of entering, exploring and extending an embrace, that a child comes to know its parent has two arms?

Which brings us to a question this feast invites us to ponder today. How do we come to know that the God we worship is both one and three? A Trinity of Father, Son, and Spirit? In the opening prayer we offered just now, we were reminded that it is by sending into the world the Word of truth and the Spirit of Sanctification that God the Father made known to the human race God’s wondrous mystery. Like a parent using both arms to gather a troubled child into a loving embrace, so too does the Father gather us to God’s self, through the Word, and in the Spirit. Isn’t this also what we find in the scriptures?

In the first reading, Moses reminds the people of Israel that, when they were helpless and in distress, it was God who gathered them, with mighty hand and outstretched arm, into the safety of God’s own embrace. Addressing them with God’s majestic word. Speaking to them in God’s powerful voice. Bringing them out of Egypt, through the wilderness, and now to the doorstep of the Promised Land. So powerful is this experience of being embraced by God that, many generations later, the psalmist is moved to sing of how, not just Israel, but the whole of creation itself is embraced by God: The Lord loves justice and right and fills the earth with his love. By his word the heavens were made, by the breath of his mouth all the stars By a comforting word, and with a caressing breath God continually embraces creation into existence.

And yet, down through the ages, God’s people repeatedly fails to remain in God’s embrace. They keep straying. Causing, and suffering, great distress as a result. So God does something most remarkable. In the power of the Spirit, God’s Word becomes flesh. And by the Word’s Living, Dying, and Rising, the Father draws all of creation even more tightly into God’s embrace. Giving all those who submit to the embrace, the power to call God by the intimate name, Abba!, Daddy! Making them – making us – adopted children of God, and heirs to God’s glory. People who are able, not just to enter the safety of God’s embrace, but also to keep exploring the richness of its blessings, and to extend this same embrace to others. Particularly those most vulnerable, those in greater distress, including the whole of creation itself.

Isn’t this the deeper significance of the evangelising mission entrusted by the Crucified and Risen Jesus to the Eleven in the gospel? Isn’t this what it means to baptise and to teach all the nations? Beyond just performing a religious ritual, important as that may be, it is to usher others ever more securely into the safety of God’s embrace. Helping everyone, even creation itself, to know that our God is a loving Father, who has two arms. By which he keeps gathering everyone to God’s self. Through the Son. And in the Spirit.

And isn’t this also why we are gathered here at this conference? Not just because we are interested in a so-called social mission. As though it were possible to divide God’s embrace into two, one spiritual and another social. Rather, isn’t it more accurate to say, as Pope Francis takes care to point out, in The Joy of the Gospel, that ours is a single evangelising mission, which has an indispensable social dimension (EG, Ch 4)? So that, even if we may decide, for convenience, to set up different organisations. Making some responsible for the spiritual, and others for the social. It’s important that we heed Pope Francis’ warning, and avoid the constant risk of distorting the authentic and integral meaning of the mission of evangelisation (EG, 139). For if evangelisation has an indispensable social dimension, then we cannot truly bear witness to Christ without also paying attention and responding to prevailing social realities and needs.

Conversely, our efforts at addressing social needs will be truly Christian, only to the extent that they are somehow motivated and informed by the values and processes of the gospel. Only to the extent that we and those we assist are somehow helped to enter, explore and extend the embrace of God. Otherwise, our organisations will be no different from NGOs. Which is not to say that we must always speak explicitly about Christ. It’s not always opportune, or even appropriate, to do so. Nor is it the case that everyone must first have entered God’s embrace, before they can engage in Christian social action. For isn’t it true that, when we reach out to those in need, even when we ourselves may be feeling lost, that very encounter can become a privileged occasion for us to be gathered again, even more closely, into God’s embrace?

And yet, it remains important for us to intentionally cultivate organisational cultures and processes that facilitate evangelisation. Ways of proceeding that help us and others experience God’s embrace. Developing our own capacity to discern together the promptings of the Spirit. Allowing us to grow into an ever more synodal church.

Sisters and brothers, even now, through the Son, and in the Spirit, God our loving Father is gathering creation to God’s very self. What can we do, in the days ahead, to keep entering, exploring and extending this tender embrace?

Friday, May 24, 2024

The Hidden Work of Art

60th Wedding Anniversary of Charles & Suzanne

Readings: Ecclesiasticus 26: 1-4, 13-16; Colossians 3: 12-17; John 15: 9-17

Picture: By Brandon Smith on Unsplash

Charles & Suzanne, my dear friends, what does beauty look like? If someone were to ask us to imagine something beautiful right now, what would come to mind? … In the novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, the story is told of an exceptionally handsome young man, who vainly gets his own portrait painted, and then expresses a willingness to sell his own soul, if only he can keep looking young and beautiful forever. Somehow, his wish is granted. Even though Dorian lives a selfish, immoral, pleasure-seeking life, he never ages. His physical appearance remains exactly the same, year after year. What does change, however, is his portrait, which he never shows to anyone. Though, outwardly Dorian remains as beautiful as ever, the more bad things he does, the uglier the hidden picture of him becomes… Although this story is, of course, only a work of fiction, it does contain some truth, doesn’t it? It prompts us to ponder what true beauty looks like. And isn’t this also what our scripture readings invite us to do today? To ponder what true beauty looks like?

I hope Suzanne doesn’t mind me sharing this. But I must confess to being more than a little amused, when I read her email to me, containing the readings for this jubilee Mass. In it she informed me that it was Charles who had chosen the first reading, and that, in response, she had reminded him that, contrary to what we find in the reading, she is not a silent wife. And yet, in the first reading, what is perhaps more striking than the wife’s silence, is her beauty: Like the sun rising over the mountains of the Lord is the beauty of a good wife in a well-kept house…

I hope I’m not embarrassing him too much by making this observation but, by choosing this reading, isn’t Charles telling us that his spouse – who, as we know, is an artist – is as beautiful as a brilliant sunrise? And aren’t these words all the more striking, when we remember that they’re chosen not for a wedding, but for a diamond jubilee? At a wedding, the couple typically has no first-hand experience of married life. Together, they’re both looking only ahead. So any mention of a beautiful life together must be no more than an aspiration, a hope, something to aim towards, and to pray for. On the other hand, after 60 years of marriage, these same words are no longer only aspirational. They’re also an affirmation, a reason to rejoice, and to give thanks. Thanks to one’s partner, and thanks to God.

The same can be said about the other readings as well. While the first reading helps us imagine beauty by drawing our attention to a work of nature – the sunrise – the second reading points to something made by human hands. It uses the image of a stylishly cut suit of clothes to help us imagine what the lovely virtues of Christian living look like. Virtues that, presumably, Charles and Suzanne have cultivated and experienced, in their 60 years together as husband and wife. Virtues like sincere compassion… kindness and humility, gentleness and patience and, above all, love.

Not so much the romantic kind of love, which may wax and wane like the phases of the moon, important though that may be. But more the love that Jesus professes in the gospel. The love that he tells his disciples to treat as a place in which to live. As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you. Remain in my love. The love of constant commitment, which prompts a person even to go so far as to lay down one’s life for one’s friend. Which can be done not only by dying a physical death, but also by persevering in sharing a meaningful life of mutual self-sacrifice, for the sake of the other. Isn’t this what the readings tell us true beauty looks like? Isn’t this the reason why we are gathered to celebrate and give thanks?

All of which may point to another grain of truth we find in the fictional story of Dorian Gray. Could it be that, just as Dorian's mysterious portrait served as a hidden record of all the ugliness he brought into his own life, so too is a lasting record kept – deep within our hearts, and enfolded in God’s embrace – of all the beauty we cultivate in our lives. Beauty that often remains hidden to the naked eye, yet endures and deepens with the passing of the years. As St Paul reminds us in his second letter to the Corinthians, (e)ven though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day…. because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal (4:16, 18, NRSV).

Sisters and brothers, as we join Suzanne and Charles today, to joyously celebrate and give thanks for their years of fruitful married life, how might we also help one another cultivate, in our own lives, the beauty that endures unto eternity?

Sunday, May 19, 2024

The Power of Place

Pentecost Sunday

Readings: Acts 2: 1-11; Psalm 103 (104): 1, 24, 29-31, 34; Galatians 5: 16-25; John 15: 26-27, 16:12-15

Picture: By Becca Ayalah on Unsplash

I'd like to teach the world to sing, in perfect harmony.

I'd like to hold it in my arms, and keep it company…

My dear friends, I wonder if any of us still remembers these words, taken from a song released way back in 1971. The song began as a jingle, advertising a famous soft drink. But it became so popular, its writers added more words to it, removed the references to the soft drink, and transformed it into a chart-topping pop song. How did this happen? How did the focus shift from marketing yet another commercial product to sharing an inspiring message of unity and peace? I don’t know. But I hope it’s not too naive to think that perhaps it had something to do with the power of place. That instead of a world where everyone drinks the same sweet fizzy beverage, we realised we much prefer one where we can all live together in harmony. A place of caring and communion, rather than endless consumption and cut-throat competition.

The attractive power of place. We find something similar in our scriptures today. It’s not exactly clear what is happening in the first reading. The Spirit brings about something mysterious. Somehow, simultaneously, the marvels of God are proclaimed in many different languages. On the one hand, the reading tells us that this is the result of the power of speech. The disciples received a gift, allowing them to preach in foreign languages. But it’s also possible that their listeners were given the power of hearing. Allowing them to understand the gospel in their respective native tongues.

And more than just speech or hearing, there's also the power of place. The reading tells us that the disciples had all met in one room. In another translation (RSV), they were all together in one place. What is this place? At one level, the answer seems obvious. They were likely gathered in the upper room, where the Last Supper had been eaten. But could it be that more than just their physical location, the reading is pointing us to a spiritual place. The same place to which their listeners – devout Jews from every nation under heaven – were all drawn to assemble. The same place that Jesus had talked about at the Last Supper, when he told his friends to remain in him, as branches in the vine. For as long as they remain in this place, the Spirit of truth will lead them to the complete truth. Reminding them of everything the Lord had taught them. Deepening, not just their understanding of his teaching, but their relationship with and in him. (The Spirit) will glorify me, since all he tells you will be taken from what is mine…

More than just a miraculous gift of speech or hearing, what we see at Pentecost is the power of place. Not just any place, but that special spiritual location that we have devoted all of the forty days of Lent and the fifty days of Easter to finding and occupying. Why else have we spent all this time devoutly focusing our hearts and minds and bodies on the great Mystery of the Lord’s Passion, Death and Resurrection? Why, if not to help one another find and remain in the Lord? Trusting in his promise that, if only we keep doing this, we too will experience anew what the early Church received: the awesome power of the Spirit, moving in this place.

Giving us courage to keep doing what the second reading tells us we need to do. To reject self-indulgence, and to choose instead to be led by the Spirit. So that we might belong to Christ Jesus, and inherit the kingdom of God. To keep choosing to work for a world where the wholesome fruit of the Spirit flourishes, instead of one marked only by the deadly obvious results of self-indulgence. A world that’s truly safe for everyone. Which may sound too much for us to do. Busy and distracted enough as we are. And perhaps it is. But hasn’t our observance of Lent taught us to focus less on what we have to give up, and more on what the Lord is offering us? The promise of unending love and unity and peace, found in Christ, found in God’s kingdom. The attractive power of place.

I’d like to teach the world to sing… These words are actually from the song’s second verse. In the first and third verses, we find clearer references to placeI’d like to build the world a home, and furnish it with love. Grow apple trees and honey bees, and snow-white turtle doves…. I’d like to see the world for once, all standing hand-in-hand; and hear them echo through the hills, for peace throughout the land… Could it be that, just as it was more than fifty years ago, a song like this still has the power to attract and inspire us? Not just to work to build such a glorious place – wherever we may find ourselves – but also to keep singing about it, in the power of the Spirit, so that others too may join our joyful endeavour?

Sisters and brothers, as the beautiful season of Easter draws to a close, how is the Spirit renewing in us the precious experience of the power of place today? 

Sunday, May 12, 2024

Of Persons, Places & Presence

7th Sunday in Easter (B)

Readings: Acts 1: 15-17, 20-26; Psalm 102 (103): 1-2, 11-12, 19-20; 1 John 4: 11-16; John 17: 11-19

Picture: By Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

My dear friends, have you ever noticed how certain events in our lives have the power to turn a person into a place? What do I mean? Consider, for example, what happens in the early days of a romance… or when a baby is born… or when a loved one falls seriously ill. In each of these situations, doesn’t a certain person become the centre of attention for someone else? The partners in the romance for each other… the new baby for its parents… the sick person for the caregiver. It’s as if each of these persons becomes a place around which the life of the other keeps revolving. So that even when physically absent, the person still remains somehow present. If not at the top of the mind, then surely close to the heart. We might say that certain events in our lives have the mysterious power to connect persons, places and presence. And don’t the events we celebrate at Easter have a similar effect in the life of Jesus?

Somewhat like how the birth of a baby attracts its parents’ continuing presence to it, even when they may be physically absent, so too does the Lord’s Life, Death and Resurrection cause him to remain present to all those for whom he gave his life. So that, even though he is no longer with us in the same physical way that he was with his early disciples, we believe he hasn’t left us. As the opening prayer reminded us earlier, before his Ascension, Jesus had promised to be abidingly present among us, even until the end of the world. This is what we dare to believe: that God’s love for us is so strong and so enduring, that even now, centuries after his Ascension, even in this chaotic and uncertain world in which we live, Christ remains somehow present to us. Our challenge is to find ways to translate this belief into experience. How do we remain present to Jesus, who is always present to us? What can we do to let the person of Christ be the privileged place around which our lives revolve? These are questions our scriptures help us to ponder today.

One striking feature of the first reading is how the fate of Judas is described in terms of a change of place. Peter says that Judas abandoned his ministry and apostolate to go to his proper place. He left one spiritual place to go to another. And we know that this change of place was also a failure to remain present to a person. Judas betrayed and deserted the Lord. In contrast, the one prerequisite for Judas’ successor is that he must have been with us the whole time that the Lord Jesus was travelling round with us. He must have remained in place, faithfully present to the person of Jesus. To remain present to the Lord, so that he becomes the place around which our whole life revolves. This was difficult enough for the disciples before the Lord’s Ascension, when they could still see and hear and touch him. What more now, when we can’t? How are we to remain present to Jesus, to allow our lives to revolve around him, when he is no longer physically with us?

The second reading provides a first response by telling us that God is love and anyone who lives in love lives in God, and God lives in him. Even if Jesus is no longer physically with us, we can continue to experience his abiding presence, by allowing his love for us to draw us to live in love. By loving God, loving others, and loving even ourselves. Which sounds simple enough, but is by no means easy. Not only is it difficult to put love into practice, at times it’s hard even to know what love requires in a given situation. For example, when a spouse, or a close family member, or a boss makes certain demands of us, does love require us to always give in? Or could there be certain situations where the loving response might well be to say no? And, if so, then how do we recognise such situations? What would Jesus do?

To properly respond to questions like these, at least one thing is indispensable. We have to be able and willing to accept and act according to the truth. Even when it may be inconvenient or costly for us to do so. Isn’t this why, in the gospel, Jesus not only consecrates himself, he also asks his Father to consecrate us in the truth? To strive to live both in love and in truth. This is how we experience the Lord’s abiding presence to us. And this has important social implications. As the late Pope Benedict XVI taught, to live in love and truth is also to work for justice and the common good. For I cannot “give” what is mine to the other, without first giving him what pertains to him in justice. If we love others with charity, then first of all we are just towards them… (CV, 6). And (t)he more we strive to secure a common good corresponding to the real needs of our neighbours, the more effectively we love them (CV, 7).

Sisters and brothers, like the beginnings of a romance, and the birth of a baby, the Lord’s Dying and Rising has power to keep us in the Lord’s presence. What shall we do to submit ourselves more fully to this life-sustaining power today? 

Sunday, May 05, 2024

Love Finds A Way…

6th Sunday in Easter (B)

Readings: Acts 10: 25-26, 34-35, 44-48; Psalm 97 (98):1-4; 1 John 4: 7-10; John 15: 9-17

Picture: By American Jael on Unsplash

Through the concrete, through the rubble and dust, a flower will grow. It’s a hard world, to make sense of sometimes, but I want you to know.… love finds a way… My dear friends, how do these words make you feel? They’re taken from a song, released in 2017 by an English musician named Jamie Lawson. The words compare love to a flower that’s able to grow even through a crack in a hard dusty pavement. What does it feel like to look at such a sight?

I’m not sure, but isn’t it possible to feel burdened by it? To look at that brave flower, and to think too quickly of how I have to imitate it? To look at love only as an obligation that I have to fulfil? Which is actually the opposite of what the song intends to convey. In the first verse, we find these words, presumably addressed to someone preparing for bed, after a long hard day: Close your eyes now. Let the day fall away. You’ve done all you can do… And from the final verse: When you’re all out of pride, broken inside, at the end of the day, love finds a way… Rather than imposing an obligation, the song seeks to offer consolation. Inviting us to believe that, even when our own efforts may come up short, there is yet a bigger, wiser, more merciful power we can count on. One that gently gathers and guides everything, gradually bringing forth fruit in due season. Love finds a way… 

Isn’t this also what we find in our scriptures today? In the gospel, which continues from where we left off last week, Jesus invites his disciples – which includes all of us – to remain in his love, by keeping his commandments. And perhaps because we live in such a work-obsessed culture, it’s easy for us to hear, in this call, nothing more than an obligation we must fulfil. One that burdens us, and may even keep us awake at night. But the Lord’s intention is not to burden, but to console. Isn’t this why he goes on to call us his friends, carefully emphasising that this friendship is not the result of our initiative, but his? Not only did he choose and commission us, he also laid down his life for us. As a result, God raised him from the dead. So that from of the cruel rubble of the Cross, the beautiful flower of the Resurrection springs forth. Isn’t this what we celebrate at Easter?

And it's only by recalling his sacrifice, by tapping into the power flowing from it, that we are able to bear fruit. Isn’t this what the second reading means, when it tells us that the love we are talking about is not our love for God – not our fulfilment of an obligation – but God’s love for us – God’s consoling gift, given to us – when he sent his Son to take our sins away. The love in which we are called to live doesn’t originate from us. It comes from beyond us. Yet it’s also ever close to us. Constantly enfolding us in its embrace. And what a consolation it is to remember this, particularly when the day feels long, fruitless, and even too painful or confusing to bear.

In case all this sounds too abstract, the first reading shows us what it can look like in the concrete. How does Cornelius’ household come to be baptised? How does an observant Jew like Peter end up visiting a gentile? And not just any gentile, but a commander in the occupying Roman army. It’s as though a Ukrainian villager were to visit and preach to a Russian military officer in a Russian-occupied part of Ukraine! The reading makes it clear that, behind and beyond all human efforts, it is the power and influence of the Spirit that succeeds in bringing this about. Arranging it such that out of the rubble of sharp religious differences, and tense political conflict, the flower of faith begins to grow. Love finds a way

Which brings to mind these words written by George Antone, a Palestinian Catholic, whose family has been taking refuge, for the past seven months, in the only Catholic Church in Gaza: We strive hard to provide our children with safety and protection. I am not sure if we succeed in doing so every time, but we try with all our strength and love. We lack any military or capital power to protect them. All we have is to tell them that we love them above all else, and that our Lord Jesus Christ and his mother are with us in these difficult and uncertain moments…. The idea of leaving, of emigration, crosses the minds of many Christians. We are determined to preserve the Christian presence in Palestine. This is our homeland… We are the salt that helps the whole community, Christians and Muslims together. If we go, who will show Jesus to the people of Gaza?… (The Tablet, 23 March, 2024). Out of the terrible rubble of war, the fragile yet courageous flower of hope still grows. In the words of the song with which we began, it truly is a hard world, to make sense of sometimes, but.… love finds a way…

Sisters and brothers, as we gaze deep into our own lives, and out onto our troubled world, what do we see? How is love still finding a way, and how are we called to respond today?