Sunday, January 28, 2024

Devotion Amid Distractions

4th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

Readings: Deuteronomy 18: 15-20; Psalm 94 (95): 1-2, 6-9; 1 Corinthians 7: 32-35; Mark 1: 21-28

Picture: By Tong Su on Unsplash

My dear friends, do you like to watch dragon dances? We’ll probably see more of them soon, when we usher in the Year of the Dragon. A dragon dance, as you know, requires focus. Each dancer has to carefully follow the movements of the one in front, without being distracted. Can you imagine what will happen if just one dancer suddenly decides to stop to check his phone? This challenge to stay focused and avoid distraction is also what we find in our scriptures today.

Why does St Paul advise the single Christians of Corinth not to marry? He assumes that Jesus will be returning very soon. So why marry, and have to deal with worldly affairs? Better to just give one’s undivided attention to the Lord. To be totally devoted to Christ without distraction. This is Paul’s concern. Of course, two thousand years later, not only are we still waiting for the Lord’s return, we’ve also come to see that marriage is not a distraction. We celebrate it as a sacrament. A privileged channel of grace, through which we can love and be loved by the Lord, in and through others. Still, Paul’s concern remains valid, even if his advice may not. For whether we are single or married, clergy or lay, don’t we all have to face the challenge of staying devoted to the Lord, without being distracted by worries over worldly affairs? Such as the craving for wealth or success, fame or popularity?

In the first reading, God has a reason for promising to raise up for the people a prophet like Moses. It’s because the people can’t bear to deal directly with God. They complain that the sound of God’s voice, and the sight of God’s glory are too much for them. Causing them to fear for their lives. Distracting them from paying attention to God. Again the concern is to help the people avoid distraction, so as to truly listen to the Lord. As Christians, we believe this promise is fulfilled in Jesus. But even Jesus has to deal with distractions.

In the gospel, why does he command the unclean spirit to be quiet? Why doesn’t he want people to know that he is the Holy One of God? Isn’t it because they’re expecting a military leader to help them drive out the Romans? But Jesus brings salvation of a different kind. Something that will become clear only after his Dying and Rising. Just as the people in the first reading are put off because God is too much, those in the gospel risk being scandalised because Jesus seems too little.

Which goes to show that we can be distracted not just by the worries of the world, but also by our own mistaken notions about God. In either case, the challenge remains the same: to stay focused, and to avoid distraction. How? Perhaps by heeding the call of the psalmist, and keeping a close watch over our hearts. Learning, through constant practice, to follow only those desires that lead us to the praise and glory of God. Just as we are practising here and now, at this Mass.

Sisters and brothers, if the life of faith is truly like a dragon dance, requiring us to remain focused on the Lord, then what more can we do to help one another avoid being distracted?

Sunday, January 21, 2024

Seasoned By The Sauce

3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

(Sunday of the Word of God)

Readings: Jonah 3: 1-5, 10; Psalm 24 (25): 4-6, 7b-9; 1 Corinthians 7: 29-31; Mark 1: 14-20

Picture: By GoodEats YQR on Unsplash

My dear friends, what does soy sauce do? As you know, it’s a powerful seasoning. Many of us use it as a condiment. We add it to soup, or dip our pork ribs in it, before eating. Used in this way, it gives flavour instantly. And soy sauce can also act as a marinade. We soak meat in it before cooking. Letting it work more gradually and deeply. Allowing its flavour to infuse the meat, and transform it… The instant but more superficial workings of a condiment, as well as the gradual and more profound effects of a marinade. These are two qualities of the word of God found in our scriptures today.

When Jonah hears the word of the Lord, in the first reading, he obeys immediately. And when he conveys God’s word to the Ninevites, the effects are also instant. The whole city repents, even the animals. Similarly, in the gospel, when Jesus, the Word-of-God-Made-Flesh, calls his first disciples, they drop everything and follow him at once. How does this instant condiment-like effect of God’s word make us feel? Very likely, we’ve had similar experiences. Somehow we receive a clear sense of what God wants us to do, and the courage and energy to do it. But aren’t there also times when God seems silent and distant? Or when we may know what God wants, but are unable to comply. And our weakness makes us feel unworthy of God. We may stop praying, and even give up following the Lord.

Which is why it’s important to see that God’s word can work in another way. In the opening line of the first reading, there are actually three words missing: a second time. The word of the Lord was addressed to Jonah a second time. The first time Jonah heard God’s word, he responded by boarding a ship and running away (1:3). But God pursued him. He was thrown into the sea, and swallowed by a fish. And for three days and three nights, in the belly of the fish, Jonah prayed. He was marinated in the Word of God. Until God spoke to the fish, which then vomited Jonah onto dry land, finally ready to hear and obey (2:10). Similarly, when Jesus calls the four fishermen in the gospel, he promises that I will make you fishers of men. And Jesus spends the rest of the gospel doing this–including the three days between his Dying and Rising. Continually marinating them in the Lord’s own company. Gradually transforming them into true missionary disciples, ready and able to walk in their Master’s footsteps.

So we needn’t be discouraged, either by God’s apparent silence or our own stubborn resistance. We need instead to find ways to keep soaking ourselves in God’s word. To allow the flavours of God’s kingdom to infuse us, even and especially when we have to remain immersed in the affairs of this world, the present shape of which is passing away.

Sisters and brothers, if the word of God can really work like soy sauce, then beyond just occasionally dipping into it like a condiment, what can we do to allow it to marinate us more consistently and more completely, today and everyday?

Sunday, January 14, 2024

Between the Stillness & the Storm

2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

Readings: 1 Samuel 3: 3-10, 19; Psalm 39 (40): 2, 4 , 7-10; 1 Corinthians 6: 13-15, 17-20; John 1: 35-42

Picture: By Torsten Dederichs on Unsplash

My dear friends, given a choice, would you prefer to be calm and contented–like the surface of a still pond–or restless and unsettled–like a stormy ocean? Sounds like a silly question, right? Who in their right mind wants to be disturbed? And yet, down through the centuries, people have crossed stormy oceans, just because they had heard and responded to the call of the sea. This close connection between restlessness and call is also what we find in our scriptures today.

It’s perhaps most obvious in the first reading, where the boy Samuel is having a sleepless night. In the stillness of the sanctuary of the Lord, he keeps hearing someone call his name. And since he hasn’t yet learned to recognise God’s voice, the boy wakes the only other person around. The priest, Eli. But, as it turns out, it is God who is disturbing Samuel. And for good reason. God has a message for him to convey. A word of admonishment for Eli and his household (3:13). By enduring the disturbance, Samuel receives God’s call, and grows up to become a prophet of the Lord (3:20).

In the second reading, St Paul unsettles the Christians at Corinth. He shakes them out of their complacency and arrogance (5:2). For Paul has received reports of grave immorality among them. Behaviour even non-believers would find objectionable, but that they have chosen to ignore (5:1-2). In reminding them about the proper use of the physical human body, Paul is really admonishing them for allowing Christ’s spiritual body to suffer harm. By unsettling the Corinthians, Paul is actually calling them to conversion.

In the gospel, when the two disciples of John the Baptist hear him identify Jesus as the lamb of God, it’s as though they are stirred by an inner restlessness. Immediately, they leave their master and go after Jesus. And when they catch up to the Lord, they allow him to unsettle them further, with the question, what do you want?, staying with him the rest of that day. As a result, not only do they become his disciples, they are moved to call others to discipleship.

A sleepless night leading to the birth of a prophet. A stern reminder that’s also a loving nudge toward conversion. A personal encounter resulting in a transfer of discipleship. In each of these instances, experiences of disturbance and restlessness conceal a blessed call to deeper relationship with God. And to properly receive and respond to this call it’s important to be willing to wait upon the Lord. To make space for him to speak. To say, speak, Lord, your servant is listening. But how many of us are able to do this, when we live such crowded lives? When even our children are often driven to exhaustion and burnout? Which brings to mind something a wise person once wrote: If you want to build a ship, don’t just ask people to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Also teach them to yearn for the immensity of the sea.

Sisters and brothers, how might the Lord be disturbing the stillness of our ponds, and calling us to follow him across the stormy ocean today?

Sunday, January 07, 2024

The Significance of Sorting Shapes

Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord

Readings: Isaiah 60: 1-6; Psalm 71 (72): 1-2, 7-8, 10-13; Ephesians 3: 2-3, 5-6; Matthew 2: 1-12

Picture: cc Ella's Dad on Flickr

My dear friends, have you ever watched a child playing with a shape sorter? You know, those toys that require us to place blocks of different shapes into their corresponding holes? It seems that by the age of about two years, kids already begin to acquire the ability to do this. To recognise, to sort, and to fit various shapes into the right spaces. We find something similar in our scriptures today.

In each reading, a significant event is described in a different way. The first speaks of the coming of a glorious light. The second, the revealing of a profound mystery. And the gospel, the birth of an infant king. But whether it’s light, mystery or king, one thing is made clear. A single consoling message rings out: This event is meant for all… The light attracts everyone. Kings and commoners, sons and daughters, nearby residents and faraway exiles, locals and foreigners alike… The mystery does not discriminate. It gives both Jews and gentiles a share in the same inheritance, a place in the same body, a claim to the same promise… And even if the baby is called king of the Jews, gentiles travel a great distance to do him homage. It’s as though, despite the many differences that often divide us–including age and gender, colour and creed–we all have in each of our hearts the same Christ-shaped hole, which the Lord comes to fill completely.

This consoling message of radical inclusion presents us with a challenging task. Much like the one presented by a child’s shape sorter. Requiring the ability to recognise, to sort, and to fit the right shape into its proper hole. Isn’t this what the wise men do so well? Among the countless stars in the night sky, they somehow recognise the one that points them to Christ. Courageously, they follow it to faraway Jerusalem. Humbly, they consult strangers. Shrewdly, they sort out useful information from dangerous deception. Before piously falling to their knees in worship. Expressing with their bodies, what they long for in their hearts. To commit their lives to the Lord. Allowing him to fit them to his plans and purposes.

In contrast, the political and religious leaders in the gospel fail the challenge. They have the needed information, but not the wisdom to perform the task. Instead of receiving Christ as a blessing, they see him as a threat. Why? Isn’t it because they have foolishly forced onto their own hearts shapes that do not fit? Wealth and popularity, success and comfort, power and control… As a result, not only do they reject Christ, they also do violence to themselves, and to others as well.

A consoling message of radical inclusion, together with the challenging task of sorting shapes. Isn’t this the two-fold gift of the Lord’s Epiphany? A gift that we still need so urgently today. Living as we do amid an increasingly confusing array of seductive shapes, around which we are often driven to order our lives, without considering how well they truly fit.

Sisters and brothers, from a tender age, we acquire the ability to sort different physical shapes. How is the Lord helping us to learn to do the same with spiritual ones this Christmas?