Sunday, March 31, 2024

Were You There...?

Easter Sunday

Readings: Acts 10: 34, 37-43; Psalm 117 (118): 1-2, 16-17, 22-23; Colossians 3: 1-4; Colossians 3:1-4

Picture: By Stephen Mease on Unsplash

My dear friends, were any of you there to watch Taylor Swift perform at Marina Bay? I wasn’t. But I wonder what it would have been like if I was, and what steps I’d have to take to make the most of the experience. First, I imagine I’d have to carefully keep in mind who the star is. Whom everyone had come to see. So as not to be distracted by other things. Also, I’d have to try to be as present as possible, to soak in all the action. And, finally, I’d probably share the experience with others in some way… To be mindful of the star, to be present to the action, and to share with others. We find these same three steps in our scriptures today.

In the first reading, the word witness appears no less than four times. We are those witnesses, Peter says. And in his witnessing to Cornelius and his household, Peter takes three steps. First, he tells us exactly who the star is. Not Peter himself, but Jesus, who was anointed by God, and through whom God was at work, when he went about doing good. Jesus, who was killed by the wicked, but raised… to life by God. As the psalm reminds us: this day was made by the Lord. Not by us. This is why we rejoice and are glad. Jesus is the star. Not us. And what a humbling yet blessed relief it is to remember this! Especially when, despite our best efforts, we fail to dispel the darkness that so often threatens to engulf us.

Second, although his focus is on what God has done in Jesus, Peter also talks about what he and his companions have been through. How they have been present to the action, and even changed by it. We find an example of this in the gospel, where Mary, Peter and the beloved disciple are gradually drawn out of the darkness of unbelief, and into the light of faith. Gently led to understand… that he must rise from the dead. And we too can lay claim to this illuminating and liberating power. By allowing ourselves to be present to the action. If not in body, then at least in spirit. As when we return in prayer to those places in our hearts that may remain clouded by the darkness of unbelief.

Isn’t this the good news Peter has been ordered… to proclaim? The experience he is sharing with Cornelius, and that we, in our turn, are called to share with others? Not just in words, but also by our example. As when we keep looking for the things that are in heaven, while remaining engaged with the things on the earth. And isn’t it true that we cannot take this third step–of sharing with others–without also taking the earlier two steps, of being mindful of the star, and present to the action. Which may remind us of that haunting hymn we often sing on Good Friday, stopping at the question, Were you there when they laid him in the tomb?… But there’s one more verse, which we usually don’t sing… Were you there when the stone was rolled away? Were you there…? If not in body, then at least in spirit… Sometimes it causes me to tremble… and even to be changed… Were you there…?

Sisters and brothers, Taylor Swift’s fans often go to great lengths to be there at her concerts. What shall we do to be wherever the Lord is waiting to usher us into newness of life?

Sunday, March 24, 2024

Welcoming the Uncovered

Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord (B)

Readings: Mark 11: 1-10; Isaiah 50: 4-7; Psalm 21 (22) :8-9, 17-20, 23-24; Philippians 2: 6-11; Mark 14: 1-15: 47

Picture: By Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

(At the Entrance:) My dear friends, today our attention is usually focused on the palms we bless and hold in our hands. For the scriptures say that people used such branches to welcome Jesus as an anointed king. But more than just waving branches, they also took off their cloaks, and laid them on the road. Which indicates not just a welcoming, but also an uncovering. Similarly, our scriptures today will remind us that the Passion of the Lord has power to uncover previously hidden things. About God, and about ourselves. So let us pray for the grace to welcome such revelations, as together we enter this holiest week of our year.

(At the Ambo:) My dear friends, what would it feel like to see a naked person in public? Isn’t it true that, despite the proliferation of pornography today, the sight of a bare human body can still embarrass and unsettle us? Yet, in the gospel we just heard, we find not just one, but two naked bodies. First, at Gethsemane, when Jesus is arrested, a young man who followed him is forced to run away in his birthday suit. And then later, at Golgotha, after Jesus is crucified, we’re told that they shared out his clothing. Which implies that, as he hung on the Cross, our beloved Lord had nothing to wear.

Why does the gospel shine such an embarrassing spotlight on public nudity? Could it be that, like the laying down of garments, the baring of bodies points to an uncovering of hidden things? What does the nakedness of the Crucified Christ indicate, if not the uncovering of the previously under-appreciated depths of God’s love for us? A love that, moves Christ to empty himself to the point of accepting death… on a cross. So that all who acknowledge him as Lord, all who imitate him in learning to listen like a disciple, and in standing and speaking on the side of Truth, all who walk the Way of the Cross as he did, will also be raised to fullness of life in him?

And what does the nakedness of the young man indicate, if not the uncovering of the true extent of the disciples’ faith in their Lord. Something previously hidden even from themselves. The terrible weakness of their flesh, despite the eager willingness of their spirits. For the gospel tells us that, when Jesus was arrested, his (male) disciples all deserted him and ran away. Even Peter’s insistent profession of loyalty leads only to a regretful profusion of tears. Still, to be fair, the Lord’s Passion doesn’t just uncover the hidden cowardice of some. It also reveals the quiet courage of others. Such as that unnamed woman at Bethany, who braves public ridicule, to anoint his body for burial. And those other women, who used to look after him… in Galilee, and who followed him, watching from a distance, right to the end. As well as that Pharisee from Arimathea, who was a disciple only in secret (Jn 19:38), but who boldly went to Pilate to ask for his body.

Sisters and brothers, the Passion of our Lord has the unsettling but life-giving power to uncover previously hidden things. In this holiest of weeks, as we accompany Jesus on his Way, what is the Lord uncovering for us, and what shall we do to more humbly welcome his revelations?

Sunday, March 17, 2024

Between Missed Opportunities & Happy Coincidence

5th Sunday in Lent (B)

Readings: Jeremiah 31: 31-34; Psalm 50 (51): 3-4, 12-15; Hebrews 5: 7-9; John 12: 20-33

Picture: By on Tim Smurf Unsplash

My dear friends, what does it feel like to be blessed by a happy coincidence? Let’s say I’m in my car, desperately searching for a parking space. But the carpark is full. Then, just as I drive by a row of cars, one of them happens to move off. Isn’t that a good example of co-incidence? Two different events – me driving by, and a car vacating a lot – two different moments coinciding at the same time. How wonderful it is when that happens!… On the other hand, imagine how I’d feel if the car moves off, but I’m too far away, or too distracted to notice, and someone else gets there before me. No happy coincidence then. Just a missed opportunity…

Today, our scriptures point to the possible coincidence of two different events, two separate moments in time. The first is foretold by the prophet Jeremiah. The days are coming, he says, when God will plant God’s Law deep within the hearts of God’s people. And all of them – all of us – will know God. Will recognise God’s presence and action in our lives. And isn’t this also what the psalmist prays for? A pure heart create for me, O God… A heart uncluttered by sin. An unobstructed heart, that recognises and is drawn irresistibly to God… Whether we realise it or not, isn’t this what we all are seeking? With even more desperation than a motorist, still stuck in the parish carpark, at ten past twelve on a Sunday afternoon?

The second moment is announced by Jesus in the gospel. Now the hour has come, he says, for the Son of Man to be glorified. That paradoxical moment when the wheat grain falls on the ground and dies, to yield a rich harvest… When Jesus is lifted up to draw all people to himself… When, through the humiliation of God’s only Son, the name of God is glorified… When, by humbly and obediently emptying himself, Christ the Lord opens up for us a welcoming space in God’s embrace.

And how wonderful it is when these two moments coincide! When pure hearts recognise the glory of God revealed by Christ on the Cross. When God’s call is no longer dismissed as a clap of thunder, or ignored as a troublesome distraction. But receives, instead, a generous and courageous response. When this happens, so the second reading tells us, obedience is born in us, and the Crucified and Risen One becomes for us the source of eternal salvation.

Isn’t it precisely to prepare for such a happy coincidence that we observe this great season of Lent? By denying ourselves, confessing our sins, and sharing our blessings with others, we hope to dispose ourselves to recognise the Lord’s glory, revealed on the Cross. Not just in the solemn liturgies of Easter. But also in the ordinary events of daily life. Privileged moments when we may find ourselves touched by suffering – our own, as well as that of others. Moments in which our loving God gently calls us to follow Christ, and to open up more spaces for others, in our hearts, and in our world.

Sisters and brothers, in what remains of Lent, how shall we continue preparing to celebrate Easter as a truly happy coincidence, rather than just another missed opportunity?

Sunday, March 10, 2024

Of Crooked Ink & Innocent Blood

4th Sunday in Lent (B)

(Laetare Sunday)

Readings: 2 Chronicles 36: 14-16, 19-23; Psalm 136 (137): 1-6; Ephesians 2: 4-10; John 3: 14-21

Picture: By John Jennings on Unsplash

My dear friends, what’s the difference between a letter written in ink and one written in blood? Some of us may recall watching Chinese period dramas on TV, in which a righteous official is unjustly sentenced to death, for speaking the truth. To protest his innocence, the official composes a letter written in his own blood. Expressing not just the seriousness of the matter, but also his utter commitment to his cause. His willingness to sacrifice his own life, to shed his own innocent blood, for the sake of the truth… This story may help us ponder a challenging question found in our scriptures today.

In the psalm, the exiled people of Israel is asked to sing a joyful song of Zion. Prompting them to wonder, O how could we sing the song of the Lord on alien soil? Of course, one way is to simply ignore the truth of the Exile, to forget Jerusalem. But the people rightly refuse this way of apathy… If we are truthful, perhaps we will be moved to ask a similar question today, as our liturgy calls us to rejoice: How can we rejoice?… When our own hearts may remain burdened by worry, or broken by grief, or troubled by guilt? How can we rejoice?… While helpless children starve in war-torn lands, and desperate migrants drown in the depths of the sea? How can we rejoice?… Knowing that our comfortable lifestyles contribute to the ever growing quantity and intensity of natural disasters around the world? How can we rejoice?…

One response to this troubling question is expressed in the often heard saying, God writes straight with crooked lines. In the first reading, God uses the crooked lines of human history – the rise and fall of empires, and Israel’s own repeated episodes of infidelity – as an indelible ink with which to write the story of God’s steadfast love. To rejoice in the darkness, we need only recall God’s fidelity to us in the past, and trust that God’s light will eventually shine on us again in the future.

But – again if we are truthful – waiting in the dark often requires more trust than we ourselves can muster. Thankfully, in the gospel, Jesus reminds us that God’s love for us is written not just with the ink of crooked lines, but in the righteous blood of God’s only Son. The Son of Man must be lifted up as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert. As with the bronze serpent, God’s merciful love transforms the Cross of Christ from a cruel instrument of death to a secure gateway to New Life. So that even when we may be engulfed in darkness of any kind, we are not alone. The light of the Crucified and Risen One is already shining in the dark. Tenderly enfolding us in its healing rays. Offering us wisdom to recognise the truth, and courage to live by it. Enabling us to experience consolation, even in the darkness. Perhaps not quite the excitement one feels at a Taylor Swift concert. Nor the thrill one gets from a hard-won achievement. But joy, to be humbly received as a grace, as a pure gift from God.

Sisters and brothers, God’s steadfast love for us is expressed not just with crooked lines, but in the precious blood of Christ. What can we do to better allow this consoling truth to strengthen and sustain us in joy this Lent?

Sunday, March 03, 2024

When Fist Meets Palm

3rd Sunday in Lent (B)

Readings: Exodus 20: 1-17; Psalm 18 (19): 8-11; 1 Corinthians 1: 22-25; John 2: 13-25

Picture: cc affinity on Flickr

My dear friends, what’s the difference between an open palm and a closed fist? Well, a palm is typically soft and relaxed, a fist hard and tense. It’s with a palm, not a fist, that we caress a child’s cheek. But a palm can be firm too. Such as when a traffic assistant at a school raises a hand to stop traffic, creating a path for students to walk safely. Or when a sculptor’s hands lovingly mould a lump of clay, forming a new work of art. Here we see another difference between fist and palm. A palm makes or opens up space. A fist knows only to occupy it. So what happens when a fist meets a palm? This is the question our scriptures invite us to ponder today.

In the first reading, after freeing Israel from the iron fist of slavery in Egypt, and leading her to Mount Sinai, God now gives her a new Law. Through the Ten Commandments, the tender yet firm hand of God opens up a safe space for Israel to live in the land. By teaching her the proper way to relate to God and to neighbour, God bestows on Israel the precious gift of a new identity. Moulding her into God’s own work of art. If only she follows God’s Law, Israel herself will become an open palm, a sacred and safe space, where the loving presence and action of God can be experienced in the world.

But it’s not easy to remain open, to keep relying on God alone, through the many ups and downs of life. By the time Jesus arrives on the scene, the trustingly open palm has become an anxiously closed fist. God’s space-providing freedom-promoting Law has been turned into a stress-inducing life-cluttering collection of obligations. Which is why Jesus does what he does in the gospel. By raising a firm palm to interrupt the routine flow of business activity in the Temple, Jesus is not just reclaiming real estate for his heavenly Father. He is also reminding Israel of her own God-given identity as a sanctuary of the Lord. A privileged space dedicated to the worship of God, and to the care of others.

Of course, the Lord’s actions in the Temple immediately place him in direct conflict with the religious leaders. Opening up for him a path to the Cross. A difficult path of suffering and death. But also a safe and sure path to New Life. The same secure path on which Lent is training us to walk. For as the second reading reminds us, though others may see the crucified Christ as an obstacle, or even as madness, he remains for us the power and wisdom of God. To walk his path is to extend a tender hand of support to those who suffer, as well as to raise a firm hand of protest to those who cause the suffering. As when parents rightly call for an investigation, when they suspect their child is being abused at a preschool. And yet, isn’t it true that the dangerous fist of abuse can also appear in less obvious, but no less damaging ways? Including the unrealistic expectations some of us may unwittingly place, not just on our children, but even on our own already heavily laden shoulders as well?

Sisters and brothers, how is God continuing to make life-giving spaces, for us and for others, by transforming closed fists into open palms this Lent?