Sunday, February 25, 2024

The PT is for the Passover

2nd Sunday in Lent (B)

Readings: Genesis 22: 1-2, 9-13, 15-18; Psalm 115 (116): 10, 15-19; Romans 8: 31-34; Mark 9: 2-10

Picture: By on Shawn Levie Unsplash

My dear friends, what do physical training sessions and pep talks have in common? Apart from sharing the same initials – PT – they’re both also what athletes typically have to undergo before a competition. Together, the training and the talks form part of a process of preparation, or stretching. Just as the training stretches bodies, the talks broaden vision, and strengthen resolve. Preparing the athletes to face the challenges ahead. And the more they bear this larger purpose in mind, the more benefit they will be able to draw from both training and talks alike.

We find something similar in our scriptures today. What do the two mountains have in common – the mountain of testing in the first reading, and the mountain of transfiguration in the gospel? Like the PT that athletes undergo, we need to see what happens on each of these mountains as part of a single process of preparation. Otherwise, we can easily be misled. It’s easy to be scandalised, for example, by the apparently unreasonable demand God makes of Abraham, as well as by Abraham’s blind obedience. Yet, unlike our global economy, which so many often worship as an idol, our God does not require the taking of human life. Neither our own lives, nor those of our children, nor those of the poor victims of trafficking and war. Instead of torturing him, God is mysteriously training Abraham. Stretching his ability to trust, even when he's sorely afflicted. Preparing him to receive the gift of becoming the father of a multitude of descendants.

Similarly, seen in isolation, it’s easy to mistake the transfiguration as a final resting place. As Peter seems to do. Yet, before ascending the mountain, Jesus had already told his disciples about the challenges he would soon have to face. His Passion, Death and Resurrection (8:31). And it’s only to prepare them to face these challenges with him, that the Lord leads them up the mountain, and lets them hear the heavenly Father’s brief but powerful pep talk: This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him. Listen! Not only now, when he’s gloriously transfigured. But also later, when he’s cruelly rejected and crucified. And not just to him speaking in person. But also in all who suffer. Listen! So as to receive the incredible gift of God’s own Son, given up to benefit us all.

Like PT for athletes, both testing and transfiguration prepare disciples for the Passover of the Lord. And this can happen not just at Mass in Lent, but also in daily life. Whenever we encounter times of trial, or moments of glory. We need to recognise and treat these as precious opportunities for stretching. As St Augustine of Hippo tells us: Suppose you are going to fill some… container, and you know you will be given a large amount. Then you set about stretching your sack…. Why?… By stretching it… you increase the capacity… and this is how God deals with us…. (H)e increases our desire, which in turn enlarges the capacity of our soul, making it able to receive what is to be given to us…

Sisters and brothers, how might we better prepare for Easter, by graciously allowing the Lord to stretch us this Lent?

Sunday, February 18, 2024

Reaching to the Roots

1st Sunday in Lent (B)

Readings: Genesis 9: 8-15; Psalm 24 (25): 4-6, 7b-9; 1 Peter 3: 18-22; Mark 1: 12-15

Picture: By Lucia Sorrentino on Unsplash

My dear friends, can you imagine what the home of a hoarder looks like? Filled with so much clutter, there’s hardly any room for the residents to move around. Even the neighbours are affected. What to do? Will it be enough just to gather some volunteers to help clear out the junk, and clean up the house? Probably not. As the old Chinese proverb goes, weeds that are cut without removing their roots will grow again once the spring winds blow (斩草不除根,春风吹又生). And the roots of hoarding are often strong and complex. Requiring deeper engagement to adequately understand and properly address.

Isn’t this also what our scriptures tell us about sin? In the first reading, after having swept away all sinful flesh in a great flood, God offers Noah and the other survivors a fresh start, by entering into a Covenant with them. But we know that this ancient spring-cleaning project doesn't eradicate sin at its roots. Before long, the weeds will grow again. Even so, for us Christians, the story of Noah has a deeper meaning.

The second reading reminds us that the ancient waters of the flood point to the sacramental waters of Baptism, in which we have been washed, and for which our catechumens are now preparing. Sacred waters that draw their healing power from Christ himself. Whose innocent blood seals a new Covenant, just as the rainbow signals the one God made with Noah. Showing that though the roots of sin are strong and complex, God’s patience and loving mercy are even stronger and more enduring. Prompting Jesus to immerse himself in our human reality, and free us from the soul-cluttering effects of sin.

Isn’t this the deeper meaning of today’s gospel? Although himself without sin, Jesus submits to being baptised by John. Signifying the Lord’s deep immersion in our human fragility. But the roots of sin go beyond fragility. They’re also due to seduction by Evil. Which is why, immediately after his baptism, and before he begins his public ministry, the Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness. Where the Lord both suffers and also triumphs over temptation. Proving that, by his Life, Death and Resurrection, the Lord has the power to eradicate sin at its roots. And we can claim this power for ourselves, if only we keep submitting ourselves to Christ. Surrendering more and more of our lives to the workings of his Spirit.

Isn’t this why we observe Lent? Through the discipline of prayer, fasting and almsgiving, we allow Jesus to lead us into the wilderness of our own hearts. So often cluttered with attitudes and tendencies that prevent us from experiencing the peace and joy of the Spirit. Dispositions that may remain hidden even from ourselves. Through the self-denial of Lent, we allow Jesus to help us uncover the roots of our sinfulness. Such as the insecurity that may drive our anxious striving and obsessive need for control. Or the emptiness and pain that can lead us to fall prey to addictions of one kind or another.

Sisters and brothers, if sin is truly even more complex than hoarding, then how might we allow the Lord to touch and heal us from our roots this Lent? 

Sunday, February 11, 2024

From Hurdle to Home (Or The Pilgrim-Monkey’s Progress)

Dedication of The Cathedral of The Good Shepherd

Readings: 1 Kings 8: 22-23, 27-30; Psalm 83 (84): 3-5, 10-11; 1 Corinthians 3: 9-11, 16-17; Matthew 16: 13-19

Picture: cc Brian Walworth on Flickr

My dear friends, what does a pilgrimage look like? Some of us may remember the story of the monkey king and the buddha’s palm. After the powerful but arrogant monkey causes havoc in heaven, the buddha challenges him to jump out of the buddha’s palm. After leaping with all his might, the monkey sees five pillars rising to the heavens, which he thinks mark the end of the universe. To leave some evidence of his visit, he writes on one of the pillars, and urinates at its base. Only to find, upon his return, his own writing and urine on one of the buddha’s fingers. He had never left the buddha’s palm! Believing that he’s been tricked, the monkey protests. But the buddha transforms his palm into a mountain, under which the monkey is trapped for 500 years. Till he learns humility, and proves himself fit to accompany a monk on a journey to the west. So, long before the monkey travels to the west, he is already making a pilgrimage. Learning to see the buddha not as a hurdle to cross over, or a power to conquer and control, but as a home in which to live.

Our own scriptures offer us a similar lesson today. In the first reading, after finally completing the construction of the Temple in Jerusalem, King Solomon assembles the people, and offers a prayer to God. In his prayer, the king makes it clear that, in building the Temple, his intention is not to control or contain God. For even the heavens and their own heavens cannot contain God. Instead, if God’s presence can be felt in the Temple, it is only because of God’s steadfast love and kindness toward the people. This humble attitude is expressed even more clearly in the responsorial psalm, a song sung by pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem. Here, the Temple is seen not just as a dwelling-place for God, but also as a home for the sparrow and the pilgrims themselves. Every time the people go up to the Temple, they are learning to see God less as a hurdle to cross, and more as a home in which to find safety and rest.

And what the first reading and psalm do for the Temple, the second reading and gospel do for the Church. Especially with the coming of Jesus, God doesn’t just dwell in physical buildings, but in the community of disciples who make up the Church. This community is God’s temple, where the Spirit dwells, and to which Jesus has entrusted the keys of the kingdom of heaven, with authority to bind and loose (18:18). To belong to this community is to find one’s home in God.

All of which helps us to better appreciate what we are doing every time we come to this or any other place of worship. Rather than trying to appease, or control, or contain God, we are really learning to find rest and peace in God’s presence. Not just here, but also out there in the world. Gradually changing our view of God, from that of a hurdle that we must cross over and even leave behind, to that of a home in which we live. Like the monkey king, we are on a sacred journey, from pride to humility, from arrogance to true receptivity.

Sisters and brothers, how might we help one another to keep persevering on this blessed pilgrimage today?

Sunday, February 04, 2024

Between Head, Hands & Heart

5th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

Readings: Job 7: 1-4, 6-7; Psalm 146 (147): 1-6; 1 Corinthians 9: 16-19, 22-23; Mark 1: 29-39

Picture: By Langa Hlatshwayo on Unsplash

My dear friends, what’s the difference between how and why? It is said that someone who has a why to live for can endure almost any how? So what’s the difference? Isn’t the question how typically a matter of the head and hands, of the informational and practical? And these days, technology has made it easy to find answers to this question. A simple search on YouTube, and we quickly discover how to bake a cake, or set up our phone… But the question why relates to the heart, to motivation and meaning, to choice and direction.

Keeping this in mind may help us ponder a key contrast in our scriptures today. The contrast between Job and Paul. In the first reading, Job is suffering terribly. And we know how. In quick succession, he has lost all his wealth, his children, and his own physical health. But that’s not all. In Job’s circle, people had only one explanation for suffering. They saw it as a punishment for sin. Yet Job is a righteous person. So why is he suffering? Unable to find a satisfactory answer, Job’s heart is wracked with anguish. He compares his life to that of a slave, who has nothing worthwhile for which to live.

In the second reading, like Job, Paul also likens himself to a slave, since he works hard to offer the Good News to others, but accepts no payment for it. Yet, unlike Job, Paul sees his toil as a duty and a responsibility, which he freely accepts. It’s something he’s motivated to do. I still do this, he says, for the sake of the gospel, to have a share in its blessings. Isn’t this the difference between Job and Paul? That, unlike Job, Paul has a good enough reason to live, to suffer, and to die. And that reason is Christ, to whom Paul has surrendered his heart.

Which helps us better appreciate what Jesus is doing in the gospel. At first glance, the Lord’s ministry seems focused only on addressing the different ways that people suffer. He cures diseases and casts out devils. But a closer look tells us that beyond dealing with the how’s of their suffering, Jesus is providing them with a powerful why. Immediately after he raises Simon’s mother-in-law from her sick bed, she is moved to wait on them. Her healing finds its meaning in service. And what Jesus offers others, he experiences himself. Although already enjoying success and popularity in Capernaum, after an extended period of prayer, Jesus freely chooses to move his ministry elsewhere, for that is why I came. And we know that this heartfelt appreciation of his own why will soon lead Jesus to Gethsemane, and Calvary, and beyond.

And what about us? Even if we may not be as righteous as Job, or suffer as terribly, don’t we often engage in a similar struggle? We may know well what we have to do and how, yet often can’t find the motivation to do it. Could it be that so much of our lives, and those of our children, is focused only on matters of the head and hands, that we too easily forget to pay enough attention to the state of our hearts?

Sisters and brothers, the Lord Jesus has already laid down his life for us. How might he also be offering us his heart, and what can we do to receive it more gratefully today?