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?