Sunday, April 30, 2017

Claiming the Promise


3rd Sunday of Easter (A)

Readings: Acts 2:14, 22-33; Psalm 16:1-2, 5, 7-8, 9-10, 11; 1 Peter 1:17-21; Luke 24:13-35
When you're down and troubled,
And you need some lovin’ care.
And nothing, nothing is going right.
Just close your eyes and think of me,
And soon I will be there
To brighten up even your darkest night.
You just call out my name,
And you know wherever I am,
I'll come running, to see you again.
Winter, spring, summer or fall,
All you've got to do is call.
And I'll be there. You’ve got a friend.
My dear friends, I think some of you may recognise these words. They are taken from a song from the 1970s. Do you remember what the song is about? It’s meaning can perhaps be summed up in four words. All beginning with the letter “P”. The first word is promise. The song is a promise made by someone to someone else.

And this promise has to do with a kind of power. The power to transform sadness to joy. Darkness to light. Loneliness to companionship. The one who is down and troubled, the one who needs some lovin’ care, is promised the power to brighten up even the darkest night. How does this happen? It happens through the third “P” word: presence. Not just any presence. But the presence of someone who cares. Someone who will come running in times of trouble.

But in order for this presence and power to be felt, the promise needs to be claimed. The person going through a hard time has to do something. To engage in certain practices. The fourth “P” word. Close your eyes and think of me… just call out my name… Winter, spring, summer or fall, all you've got to do is call. And I'll be there. You’ve got a friend…

A moving promise of power flowing from presence and practice. Promise and power. Presence and practice. This is what the song is about. And this is also what we find in our readings on this third Sunday of Easter. As we ponder more deeply what the Resurrection of Christ means for us. 

In the responsorial psalm, we find someone in trouble. What does the person do? He engages in certain practices. He cries out to God. Preserve me God, I take refuge in you. He takes shelter in God. And he experiences the fulfilment of God’s promise. He feels the powerful presence of God. Changing sadness to joy. Darkness to light. You will show me the path of life, the fullness of joy in your presence, at your right hand happiness for ever.

In the first reading, Peter interprets the words of this psalm as applying to Christ the Lord. Jesus is the one who faced the darkness of the Cross. And, in his suffering, the Lord engaged in the practice of crying out to his Father. Who came running to his side. Allowing him to experience God’s powerful presence transforming death into life. You killed him, but God raised him up.

But Jesus is not the only one in our readings who experiences the fulfilment of this wonderful promise. His disciples do too. At the beginning of the gospel reading, Cleopas and his unnamed companion are in a very dark place. Their Master and Lord has been crucified. Their hopes have been dashed. And they are walking away from Jerusalem. The place of their dreams. Yet, in their darkness, something happens to them. They somehow receive power.

At the end of the reading, we find them changing directions. Even thought night has already fallen, they run excitedly back to the place from which they had been trying to escape. How does this come about? This power comes to them when they are brought into the presence of the Crucified and Risen Lord. A presence that they experience by engaging in certain practices. As they walk together on the road, they share their disappointments with one another. And this openness somehow attracts the Lord to them. He helps them to let the Scriptures shed light on their pain. Was it not ordained that the Christ should suffer and so enter into his glory? And gradually, they are transformed. Their broken hearts burn once again with faith and hope.

But that’s not all, after they’ve reached Emmaus, the two disciples engage in further practices. They invite Jesus to break bread with them. And as they are gathered around the table with the Lord, their once unseeing eyes finally recognise the gentle yet powerful presence of a friend.

Power and presence. Coming to those who engage in certain practices. This is how God’s promise is fulfilled. The same promise that is fulfilled in the Death and Resurrection of Christ. The promise that darkness will be changed to Light. Death transformed into Life. This same promise is addressed to us as well. To you and to me. And to all who may find ourselves facing difficult times.

But in order for this promise to be fulfilled, we need to claim it for ourselves. By engaging in the right practices. As the second reading tells us, we must be scrupulously careful to remember that the ransom paid to free us was not paid in silver nor gold, but in the precious blood of a lamb without spot or stain…

We need to call out to Christ, by remembering the price he paid to set us free. Isn’t this what we do here at Mass? As we allow ourselves to be gathered by the Lord, around this ambo and that altar, we bring with us our broken hearts. The places in our lives where we have been touched by darkness and death. And we cry out to the Lord. We allow him to explain the Scriptures to us. To show us how it relates to our lives. We watch as he breaks the bread of his Body. The Real Presence of Christ that becomes food for our souls. Mending our broken hearts. Setting them on fire with the power to go out and to do the same for others.

Winter, spring, summer or fall, all you've got to do is call. And He'll be there. You’ve got a friend…

My dear sisters and brothers, how shall we continue calling upon Jesus, our Crucified and Risen Friend, today?

Saturday, April 15, 2017

From Place to Place


Easter Vigil (A)


Heal the world. Make it a better place,
for you and for me, and the entire human race…

My dear friends, do any of you still remember these words? They are taken, of course, from the chorus of an old Michael Jackson song from the 1990s. Do you remember what the song is about? It calls everyone to do something important. Something urgent. To heal the world. To make it a better place. And it’s not difficult to see why. It’s because the world is broken. There are people dying. From starvation and disease. From war and conflict. From loneliness and neglect. People are dying. So heal the world. Make it a better place…

And how do we do this? Where do we start? The song tells us in its opening verse…

There's a place in your heart, and I know that it is love. And this place could be much brighter than tomorrow. And if you really try, you’ll find there's no need to cry.
In this place you will feel there's no hurt or sorrow…

According to the song, we heal the broken exterior place that is our world by first finding a safe interior place. A location within our hearts that the song calls love. Apparently, if we really try to find this place inside ourselves, we will also discover the energy we need to reach out and to heal the world. So goes the song.

To move from inner place to outer place. To first find love here in our hearts. In order to then move out and heal the world out there. Sounds like a plan. Except that it’s easier said than done. For isn’t brokenness to be found not just in the big bad and pitiful world out there, but also in our own hearts as well? Don’t we often struggle to find and to sustain the love that we need to care for our own family and friends on a daily basis? Let alone to repair the whole wide world? Don’t our best efforts at reaching out sometimes result in more harm than good? We exploit instead of repair. Oppress rather than heal.

If the healing of the world truly depends on love, then surely we need to find a more reliable and consistent source. A better place than our own poor broken hearts. A place where love flows without pause or limit or hidden agenda. Where brokenness finds true healing… Where exactly is this place? What does it look like? How can it be found? These are the questions that our readings help us to ponder on this joyous Easter night.

Notice how, in all our readings tonight, reference is made to various places. Places that God provides. Places in which human beings can live and flourish. In the first reading this place is called the earth. God goes to great lengths to make it fit for human life. But to live in this place is not just a physical project. It is also a spiritual one. It requires obedience to God’s command. Be fruitful and multiply. Fill the earth and conquer it. Care for this place as a God-given responsibility. Instead of selfishly exploiting it as a mere resource.

In the second reading, God invites Abraham to go to a particular place. A certain mountain in the land of Moriah. Again, this is not just a geographic location, but a spiritual place. The place of trust and obedience. Of worship and sacrifice. Abraham is able to find and to remain in this place, because he trusts God enough to obey God’s command. He holds nothing back. Not even his only and much beloved son, Isaac. As a result, Abraham experiences God’s generous providence. On the mountain, the Lord provides

In the third reading too, we find God providing people with safe places. Pursued by the Egyptian army, the Israelites are led into the waters of the Red Sea. But instead of drowning, they find safe passage. God creates a road for them. A way from danger to safety. From certain death to new life. Eventually leading them to the Promised Land.

But, again, it’s important to see that the Promised Land is not just a physical place. It is, above all, a spiritual one. To live there is to remain faithful to God. But the people fail. They worship false gods. And end up in exile. Not just exile from their homeland. But exile from God. In the four readings from the prophets, God promises to bring the people back. But notice how this is described in terms of relationship. I did forsake you for a brief moment, God says, but with great love I will take you back… My love for you will never leave you… Pay attention, come to me…  listen, and your soul will live… Had you walked in the way of God, you would have lived in peace for ever… God promises to gather the people back to God himself. Enfolding them in God’s embrace.

And God promises to do this by cleansing them. By pouring clean water over them. By giving them a new heart. By putting a new spirit in them. For us Christians, this promise finds its fulfilment in baptism. Which for us is much more than just getting our heads and clothes wet. As St. Paul reminds us, when we were baptised we went into the tomb with Christ. We joined him in death. We died to our old selfish ways of life. So that as Christ was raised from the dead… we too might live a new life. A life of love. A life with Christ in God.

To be baptised–as you, our beloved elect will be, later tonight–to be baptised, is to be transported to a location in Mystery. To be brought to live in a special spiritual Place. A Place that is also a Person. The Crucified and Risen Christ. From whose pierced side flows the constant stream of God’s undying love. Here we finally arrive at that place that Michael Jackson was looking for in human hearts. That truly reliable and consistent source of love that alone is capable of healing our world. Except that this place is more than just an interior space.

Notice how, when the two Mary’s visit the tomb of Jesus in the gospel, they are told by an angel to go to a another location. To go to Galilee. Again, this is a spiritual place. Galilee is where Jesus carried out his public ministry. And, after his Dying and Rising, this ministry now extends to the whole world. To go to Galilee is to do what Jesus did. The same thing that Michael Jackson wanted everyone to do. To heal the world. Except that now, this work of healing doesn’t have to be something draining. No. Through the Dying and Rising of Christ, the work of healing has become instead something that energises. For the angel promises that, even out there in Galilee, we will see him. There, in the work of healing the world, we find Christ the Lord himself. Continually filling us with his power. Faithfully energising us to share his merciful love with a broken world.

Heal the world. Make it a better place, for you and for me, and the entire human race… To do this is to allow ourselves to be brought to that other Place who is Christ. Christ Crucified and Risen. Whom we joyously celebrate on this most holy night.

My dear sister and brothers, what must we do to continue seeking and remaining in this marvellous and mysterious Place, today and every day, for the rest of our lives?

Sunday, April 09, 2017

The Delicacy Beyond Disgust


Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord (A)

Picture: cc momovieman

[Brief Homily at Solemn Entrance: The Importance of the Donkey

My dear children, brothers and sisters. We have with us today a VVIA. A very very important animal. Do you know what it is? Yes, it’s a little donkey. And do you know why this donkey is important. Not all donkeys are important. But this particular donkey is important, because it has been chosen by the King. Chosen to carry the King.

And this is a very unusual choice. Because kings usually ride big horses. Not little donkeys. The choice of the little donkey shows us the kind of king we have. The kind of king described in the gospel reading. A king who is not proud and haughty. But lowly and humble. Not bossy and arrogant. But loving and kind. A king who comes not be served but to serve. And to give his life to set us free.

My friends, this is why this little donkey is important. It reminds us of the kind of king we have. And it invites us to follow this king more closely. To be loving and kind to one another. To love and to serve others. Together, let us now follow this donkey. Especially as we begin Holy Week. Let us follow this donkey. As it leads us nearer to our king. And draws us closer to one another…]

********************

My dear friends, do you like durians? Even if you do, don’t you sometimes marvel at the different reactions that they evoke? On the one hand, because of their strong smell, many people actually feel disgusted by them. Find them repulsive. But then, on the other hand, there are also many who love them. Think they are delicious. For some reason, these people are able to overcome their repulsion. They manage to enjoy the delicacy buried beneath that disgusting smell. How do they do it?

To find and to savour the delicacy in what at first may look like an object of disgust. I’m not sure if you will agree with me, sisters and brothers. But I believe that this is also the challenge that Holy Week presents to us. For, over the next seven days, what our liturgy invites us to do is to listen to a marvellous story. To watch an inspiring drama. The story and the drama of Jesus’ final hours on this earth. The Passion, Death and Resurrection of Christ.

And isn’t it true that, not unlike the smell of durians, this story, this drama, is something that some of us may actually find repulsive? For what can be more difficult to stomach than the sight of a lively intelligent young man, being cruelly cut down in the prime of his life? Tortured and killed by his enemies. After having been betrayed and abandoned by his friends.

Nor is this the only reason why we may find it difficult to listen to this story. To watch this drama. For isn’t it true that, beyond the tragedy of torture and the pain of betrayal, what some of us may find even more off-putting is simply the fact that we know this story so very well. Or at least we think we do. Having heard it told again and again, so many times before. As they say, familiarity breeds contempt. So that the moment we hear the story’s beginning, our eyes quickly glaze over with boredom. Our minds drift into daydreams and distraction.

Nor does it help that the reading of the Lord’s Passion is so very long. So much longer than what we are used to on an ordinary Sunday. And what’s even worse is that, in Holy Week, we are made to listen to this same old story being recounted, exactly as we find it in the gospels, not just once, but twice. In two different versions. Matthew’s version today. And John’s on Good Friday. How can we reasonably be expected to endure such torture? Let alone find meaning in what we hear. Or be touched by the earth-shattering events that are being retold? How can we go beyond our disgust? In order to truly enjoy the delicacy buried beneath?

Perhaps what we need is what the prophet says God has given him, in the first reading. Each morning (the Lord) wakes me to hear, to listen like a disciple. The Lord has opened my ear…. For my part I made no resistance….  Open and unresisting ears allowing him to listen like a disciple. This is what the prophet receives from God. And, especially in Holy Week, this is also what we need most of all. What we need to pray for most earnestly. To beg God to open the eyes and ears of our hearts. So that we can listen more closely. Can see more deeply. So that we may truly be moved by the story of Christ’s Dying and Rising. May truly enjoy the delicacy hidden beneath what may at first appear to be nothing more than a cause for boredom. An object of disgust.

To see and to hear, to savour and even to enjoy the profound mystery that is described so powerfully in the second reading. The mystery of the selfless sacrifice of Christ. The story of how the One whose state was divine did not cling to his equality with God but emptied himself to assume the condition of a slave. Laying down his life for me. So that I might live.

To be able to appreciate this wondrous mystery in the liturgy is truly a great blessing. For when my senses are opened in this way, not only will I be able to find Christ in the readings and prayers recited in church. More importantly, I will also be able to find and to meet the Lord, as he continues dying and rising in the ordinary situations of my daily life. And, in meeting him, I will be better able to find meaning in even the most routine of days. The most challenging of circumstances.

My dear friends, although some may be disgusted by durians, others find in them a delicacy. In this most holy of weeks, what must we do, you and I, to find and to enjoy the delicacy who is Christ? The One who dies and rises to set his people free?

Sunday, April 02, 2017

When Someone Weeps...


5th Sunday in Lent (A) (3rd Scrutiny)

Picture: cc Phil Warren

My dear friends, have you ever come across a grown person weeping? Perhaps a spouse or a sibling. A friend or a colleague. How do you react? What do you do? How do you feel? I’m not sure about you, but I have to confess that my typical first reaction is to do one of two things. The first is to avoid the person. I may tell myself that he/she needs to be left alone. Given space to let it all out, without feeling embarrassed. 

But, if avoidance is not possible, the second typical reaction is to try to figure out and to solve the problem. Whatever it is that’s making the person cry. Of course, this isn’t always possible. For example, the person may be crying because a loved one is stricken with terminal cancer. No way for me to solve that. What to do? Well, the next best thing, it seems, is to give advice. I may tell the person to seek a second medical opinion. Or look on the bright side. Or pray. Pray to God. Pray to Mary. Pray to St. Jude, the patron saint of desperate cases. Go for a healing service…

Of course, in my quieter moments, I realise why I react like this. Why I choose either to avoid or to solve the problem. Both reactions are born of the same thing: my own discomfort. For some reason tears make me uncomfortable. Avoidance and problem-solving or advice-giving are just my ways of dealing with the discomfort. And, by doing this, by acting only out of my own discomfort, I fail to pay proper attention to the one weeping.

To actually pay attention to the one who is weeping. To simply be present to the person as he/she weeps. To allow the person to choose to be silent or to speak. To be open enough even to feel whatever it is the person may be feeling. In other words to first be willing to accompany and to be affected by the person. That’s the challenge I face whenever I encounter someone weeping. The challenge first to listen and to feel. To accompany and to be affected. Before deciding what other actions to take.

This seems also to be the challenge posed to us by our Mass readings today. For here too, we find people weeping. In particular, we find Jesus himself weeping. What is our reaction to this? How do we feel? What do we do? Again, perhaps the temptation for me is to allow my discomfort to get the better of me. Causing me to avoid the weeping. Or to problem-solve. To simply ignore the tears. Or to try to distract myself from them. But what happens when I actually pay attention? What happens when I allow myself to be affected by the tears? These are the questions that help me reflect more deeply on our readings. To penetrate the profound mystery that they contain.

What happens when we remain with Jesus, the Word-Made-Flesh and Splendour-of-the-Father, the Son-of-God and Son-of-Mary, as he weeps at the tomb of his friend Lazarus? Very likely, we will each have different initial reactions. Mine is strangely one of puzzlement. There is something I don’t understand. Something I want to ask the One weeping. The question is why? Why are you weeping, Lord? The gospel tells us that you experience great distress, when you see the tears of Mary and her companions. And that this distress moves you to shed tears at the tomb. And yet, don’t you know already that you are about to raise your friend to life? In fact, didn’t you deliberately delay your arrival at Bethany by two days? Presumably to allow Lazarus to die, so that you might raise him up again? Why then do you weep? What is the true cause of your grief?

I can’t be sure, sisters and brothers, but when I address this question to the Lord, he seems to invite me to find the answer in the rest of our readings. Through the first reading, he reminds me that it is not just individual persons who die. That there is a kind of death that afflicts whole peoples as well. The kind that afflicted the people to whom the prophet Ezekiel was sent. A people in exile. Far from God. A people who seem to be alive. But whom God considers dead. As dead as a bunch of bones, strewn out in the open, and dried by the scorching sun. It is to these dry bones, this dead people, that God’s promise in the first reading is addressed: I am going to raise you from your graves, my people…. I shall put my spirit in you, and you will live… 

But what exactly does this kind of death look and feel like? Does it afflict only the people of long ago? Or does it not also afflict us as well. We the people of this modern day? We who seem so very much alive. More alive than any of our ancestors ever were. We who enjoy the benefits of science and technology. Which enable us to live longer and healthier than ever before.

And yet, the second reading reminds us that to truly be alive is not just a matter of carrying out the biological functions of breath and digestion, of movement and thought. But to be able somehow to please God. And we’re told that people who are interested in unspiritual things can never be pleasing to God. People whose attention is focused only on the mechanics of daily living. However important these may be. People whose every waking moment is occupied by thoughts of eating and drinking. Of buying and selling. Of work and entertainment. People whose lives have become so painfully empty and so desperately dry. Without them even realising it. People whose self-centredness have gradually made them lose the capacity to feel, to truly feel, the pain of others. To be moved, as Jesus was moved, to accompany those who suffer. To be affected by the sorrows of another.

Could it be that it is also for all these spiritually dead people, among whom I may include myself? Could it be that it is also for them, for me, that Jesus weeps? Could it be that it is my suffering that causes the Lord to be moved to the very depths of his being. Causing him to experience deep distress. And to sigh. And to cry. And not just to cry. But also, soon after, to climb up that lonely hill called Calvary. And there to lay down his life on a cruel Cross, that I may live. May truly live, to the full, the life he calls me to live. The life in God’s Spirit. The life of love and joy and peace in the sight of God and of God’s people.

And while Jesus may have been confident that Lazarus would respond when he called to him. Perhaps the Lord is as yet unsure of how the rest of us will respond. Of how I will respond when he calls me out. Perhaps he knows quite well that there will be some who will refuse to come forth. Those who, having become so accustomed to the darkness, will actually be reluctant to walk into the light. Will choose to cling to selfish concerns, instead of coming to the Lord, and reaching out to those in need.

Isn’t this why we continue with our Lenten discipline? Which is fast coming to a close. Isn’t this why you, the Elect, are celebrating your 3rd and final scrutiny today? We prepare our hearts to respond ever more courageously and generously to the Lord, as he calls us from darkness to light. From death to life.

My dear friends, there is Someone among us who stands before us weeping. He weeps not just for Lazarus. But also for us. For you and for me. How will you respond to his call today?

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Mistaking the Mother for the Maid


4th Sunday in Lent (A) (2nd Scrutiny)


My dear friends, have you ever failed to recognise someone? Or have you ever mistaken someone for somebody else? Do you know what it feels like? How it happens? Often it has to do with having certain mistaken assumptions or expectations. Take for example, that video that recently went viral. You may have seen it. Professor Robert Kelly, an expert on East Asian politics, is being interviewed live on BBC World. He’s answering questions from what appears to be a room in his own home.

In the middle of the interview, his 4-year-old daughter happily wanders in, and tries to get her daddy’s attention. She is followed closely by her baby brother. Stumbling in on a walker. Then, moments later, an obviously panic-stricken Asian woman dashes into the room and proceeds to hurriedly herd the children out. While trying valiantly to crouch down as close to the ground as possible. In a vain attempt at avoiding being caught on camera.

The video raised quite a few laughs online. Many found it highly amusing. Which it is. But what’s also interesting is that a good number of those who posted comments on the video somehow assumed that the Asian woman in it is the children’s nanny. She’s not. Her name is Kim Jung-a. And she’s their mother.

Now, just to be clear, I bring this up not to point fingers at those who mistook the mother for the maid. To be honest, I could very easily have made the same mistake. It just seems to me that these reactions illustrate how easy it is to mistake someone for somebody else. How difficult it can be to recognise someone for who s/he really is. Often, this results from certain mistaken assumptions that I hold. Such as thinking that an Asian woman staying with a caucasian family must be the maid. We might say that assumptions like these keep me in the dark. Blind me to a person’s true identity.

This is not unlike the darkness and blindness that we find in our Mass readings on this 4th Sunday of Lent. When you, our elect, are celebrating your 2nd Scrutiny. We find a clear reference to this in the second reading. Which describes Christians as children of the light. And encourages them–encourages us–to try to discover what the Lord wants of us, having nothing to do with the futile works of darkness but exposing them by contrast

To keep moving from darkness to light. This is also what we find the prophet Samuel doing in the first reading. God sends him to anoint a new king from the sons of Jesse. But Jesse has eight sons. And Samuel has no idea which of them God wants. So he falls back on his own assumptions. Thinking, at first, that perhaps the oldest boy might be the one. Since he’s tall and handsome. But God has other plans. Samuel is told that God does not see as man sees: man looks at appearances but the Lord looks at the heart. Gradually, God leads Samuel from the darkness of his own mistaken assumptions to the joyful light of true recognition. Following God’s guidance, Samuel finally acknowledges and anoints David as king. And the people receive a great blessing.

This movement from darkness to light is also what the gospel invites us to ponder. The reading begins with the healing of a man who was born blind. Someone who has never seen the light of day. After washing his eyes, he is given new sight. But this physical healing, which takes place instantly, points us to a deeper spiritual healing. One that happens only gradually.

We see this especially in how the man born blind is gradually led to recognise Jesus as Lord. At first, when questioned by his neighbours, he refers to Jesus simply as the man. A little later, in response to the Pharisees, he calls Jesus a prophet. Then, when pressured by the religious authorities, he argues that Jesus must be from God. And, eventually, when he meets Jesus a second time, the man finally calls him Lord. He declares his belief in Jesus. And he worships him.

Like Samuel in the first reading, the man in the gospel is led to recognise and to acclaim the chosen one of God. Gradually, he is guided out of darkness and into light. Joyfully, he receives the gift of true spiritual sight. And the good news, my dear friends, is that this gift is something that we Christians believe we too have received. When we were washed in the waters of our baptism. The gift of recognising Jesus for who he really is. The Chosen One of God. Sent to lead us into the fullness of life. This is the same gift that we are preparing ourselves to receive anew. When we renew our baptismal promises at Easter. And this is also the gift that you, our beloved elect, are preparing yourselves to receive, when you too are washed, in the waters of baptism, at the Easter Vigil.

This preparation to receive the gift of recognising the Lord is something that we all need very much. Baptised and unbaptised alike. For, whether we care to admit it or not, there are certain forces that hinder us from making the crucial shift from darkness to light. From blindness to sight. Things that keep us from letting go of our mistaken assumptions. Isn’t this what we find in the gospel reading? Consider, for example, the parents of the man born blind. They know for a fact that he has somehow been cured of his blindness. And yet, they are reluctant to acknowledge in public the One responsible for his healing. We are told that that his parents spoke like this out of fear of being expelled from the synagogue.

And what about the authorities themselves? They too refuse to recognise Jesus. Even though the evidence is laid out before them. In the words of the man born blind: if this man were not from God, he couldn’t do a thing. And yet, the religious authorities still reject Jesus. Considering him a sinner for healing on a sabbath day. They stubbornly insist on remaining in the darkness of their own mistaken assumptions. Which is as ridiculous as if I were to continue to insist that Kim Jung-a, that Asian woman in the viral video, is a maid. Even after being told that she is actually the children’s mother.

Fear and stubborn pride. These are the obstacles that keep the people in the gospel from acknowledging Jesus. Fear and pride. These are among the things that I need to resist even today. For I too have mistaken assumptions that I need to let go of. Things that keep me from recognising Christ in my daily life. Such as the thought that God can be present only when things go smoothly. Only in times of success. Only when money flows freely. Only when praise is showered upon me. These assumptions seem so very reasonable. But are also so very mistaken. They keep me from recognising the Christ who willingly walks the Way of the Cross. Lovingly climbs the slopes of Calvary. Before triumphantly rising from the shadows of the Tomb.

To be brought out of the darkness of mistaken assumptions and into the light of true recognition. This is the joyful gift that is being offered to us. My dear sisters and brothers, baptised and elect alike. What must we do to truly receive this gift? To stop mistaking the mother for the maid today?

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Supermarket or Carpark


Solemnity of the Annunciation of the Lord
(1st Profession of Religious Vows in the Society of Jesus)

Readings: Isaiah 7:10-14,8:10; Psalm 39(40):7-11; Hebrews 10:4-10; Luke 1:26-38
Picture: cc Simon ShekEthelRedThePetrolHead


My dear friends, can you tell me the difference between a supermarket and a carpark? Of course, the differences are many. But I am thinking of one in particular. I’m thinking of what we look for in each of these things. What do you look for when you visit a supermarket? And what do you look for when you drive into a carpark? Have you ever noticed the difference between the two?

Usually, when I go to a supermarket, what I hope to find are shelves filled with goods. Many different kinds of goods. The greater the variety the better. Imagine how surprising, even alarming, it would be if I entered a supermarket only to find all the shelves empty… In contrast, when I drive into a carpark, what I hope to find is quite the opposite. What I’m looking for is not more and more stuff. But space. Well, at least one empty space. A safe place where I can park my car.

At supermarkets I look for stuff. But at carparks space. Strange as it may sound, sisters and brothers, this difference is not unlike what we find in our Mass readings today. On this Solemn Feast of the Annunciation of the Lord, as might be expected, the readings are all about how Christ comes to be conceived and born into the world. How the eternal Word becomes flesh, and dwells among us. How the Most-High Almighty God comes close to God’s people. Truly becomes Emmanuel, God-with-us.

For some reason, God chooses to do this by seeking the cooperation of human beings. By looking for a particular kind of human response. What does this response look like? The kind that allows Christ to be conceived and to be born into the world? The readings help us to ponder this question by presenting us with a striking contrast between two different kinds of response.

Echoing the responsorial psalm, the second reading describes this contrast in these words: You took no pleasure in holocausts or sacrifices for sin; then I said… ‘God, here I am! I am coming to obey your will.’ The contrast is between holocausts and sacrifices on the one hand, and presence and obedience on the other. You do not ask for sacrifice and offerings but an open ear. You do not ask for holocaust and victim. Instead, here am I. Rather than plenty of stuff offered up in sacrifice, God prefers instead simply an empty space. An open ear. A heart docile enough to listen to God’s word. A person humble enough to carry out God’s will. What God is looking for is not a supermarket. But a carpark. Not plenty of stuff. But simply a receptive space.

And what the psalm and the second reading describe in the abstract, the first reading and the gospel portray for us in more concrete terms. The contrast is between King Ahaz in the first reading, and the Virgin Mary, in the gospel. Ahaz is the king of Judah. A kingdom that is in imminent danger of being attacked by its neighbours, Syria and Israel. In this time of grave peril, God invites Ahaz to put his trust in God. To pray for a sign of God’s protection. But Ahaz refuses. Not so much because the king doesn’t want to test God. But because he has actually already made other plans. He has already decided to ally himself with the Assyrians. The king’s heart is so full of fear, and so full of his own desperately concocted schemes, that he is unable to put his trust in God. He is unable to receive the gracious assistance that God is offering him and his people. It’s as though, when the Vehicle of the Divine Presence arrives at Ahaz’s heart, it finds there no empty space. The carpark is full. As we might expect a supermarket to be full.

In the gospel, when the angel Gabriel visits Mary, she too is deeply disturbed by the angel’s words. She too does not understand how God’s plan could possibly be carried out. As a virgin, how is she to conceive and bear a human child? Let alone the Son of God? And yet, disturbed and confused though she may be, Mary somehow receives the grace to converse with the angel. And eventually to say yes to God. I am the handmaid of the Lord, let what you have said be done to me. What God finds in Mary is precisely what is lacking in Ahaz. An empty space. An open heart. An obedient will. This is what makes all the difference. This is how Christ comes to be conceived and born into the world. What it takes is not so much plenty of stuff. But simply a receptive space. Not a supermarket. But a carpark.

All of which might serve as a providential reminder for us, who are gathered here for the first profession of religious vows of our brothers Joel and Leonard. What are they really doing today? What do they hope to achieve by professing these simple vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, in the Society of Jesus? I think you will all agree with me, my dear friends, when I say that both Joel and Leonard are very gifted and talented men. Both are university graduates. One even has a graduate degree. Another is a member of a well-respected profession. And we are most grateful to God for all these gifts of theirs. We are grateful also especially to their families, for allowing them to choose this life in the Society of Jesus.

And yet, Joel and Leonard, talented though you may be, what the Society is looking for from you, what we hope you are offering to God today, is not just all of your gifts and talents. All that, of course, goes without saying. But there is something far more important. Something without which–if you may permit me to be brutally honest–something without which all the talent and giftedness in the world, may actually be more of a hindrance than a help. What we are looking for is not so much more and more stuff. More and more talents and gifts. More and more plans and schemes. But rather, first of all, an open and receptive space. A humble and lowly heart. A person committed to living poor and chaste and obedient in the sight of God and of God’s Church, in the Society of Jesus.

For it is our conviction, that it is only to hearts such as these. Only to hearts committed to imitating the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Only to hearts dedicated to following the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus. It is only to hearts such as these, that God’s will can be more completely revealed. It is only through hearts such as these, that God’s plan can be more fully accomplished. So that Christ might continue to be conceived and to be born into our world today.

My dear sisters and brothers, Joel and Leonard, on this Solemn Feast of the Annunciation of the Lord. As we gather joyously for this first profession of religious vows in the Society of Jesus. Perhaps it is helpful for us, for all of us, to ponder together this question: 

In each of our own lives, whatever our chosen vocation may be, what are we really offering to God? A whole load of stuff, or a truly open space? A crowded supermarket, or a receptive carpark today?

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