Sunday, May 13, 2018

The Way Home

7th Sunday of Easter
(World Social Communications Sunday)

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: cc ebenette

My dear friends, do you know how parents decide when the time is right to allow their kids to go out on their own? I’m sure there are parents among us here this morning. How do you decide? Are there particular signs that you look out for? Well, I don’t have any children of my own, but if I did, I think one minimum requirement I might set, before allowing them to go out on their own, would be that they must first know the way back home. Which is reasonable to expect, right? Otherwise, they’ll just go out and get lost.

Before going out on one’s own, one should first know the way back home. It’s good to bear this in mind today, because it can help us understand what’s going on in the gospel. As you may recall, the story takes place at the Last Supper. After having washed his disciples’ feet in chapter 13, and then giving them a long farewell speech till the end of chapter 16, here in chapter 17, Jesus offers a prayer to his heavenly Father, for all his disciples, including us. What does Jesus ask for? Only one thing, really. But expressed in at least 3 different ways…

Holy Father, keep those you have given me true to your name… protect them from the evil one… Consecrate them in the truth… To be kept true to the Father’s name… To be protected from the evil one… To be consecrated in the truth… What does all this mean? What does it look like when disciples are consecrated in truth? When we are protected from the evil one? When we remain true to God’s name?

To answer this question, it may be helpful to remember again that Jesus offers this prayer just before he leaves his disciples to go to the Father. In a way, the Lord’s situation in the gospel is not unlike that of a parent about to let his children go out into the world on their own. Before doing this, the one thing the parent wants to ensure is that the kids know the way back home. Isn’t this what Jesus is asking for? Isn’t this what the word truth is meant to signify?

To be consecrated in the truth is to know the way back home. Indeed, it is to remain at home, to remain in the presence of God, even while we may be roaming about in the world. And Jesus has already indicated earlier, in chapters 13 and 14, just how this is done. By first washing his disciples’ feet, a symbol of his own loving sacrifice on the Cross, and asking them to follow his example. And then, by telling them that he, Jesus himself, is the way, the truth, and the life. To be on the Way home, to be consecrated in the Truth, is simply to follow Jesus, the fullness of Life. To first allow him to wash my feet, and to let that deeply intimate and personal experience move me to then go out and wash the feet of others. To lovingly lay down my life for them. Just as the Lord has laid down his life for me. To love as Jesus loves. This is the way for us to remain at home.

Isn’t this also what the second reading tells us, when it says that God is love and anyone who lives in love lives in God, and God lives in him? So that it doesn’t matter even if I may be wandering about in the world. After all, where else can I go? As long as I continue receiving and returning God’s love, by loving others, I am actually always already on the Way home.

Which may help us to understand what may be the deeper meaning in the first reading. When Peter asks the community to choose someone to replace Judas, he sets only one requirement. The candidate must have been with us the whole time that the Lord Jesus was travelling round with us… until the day when he was taken up from us… At one level, this may mean simply what it says. That the candidate must have been physically present the whole time that Jesus was with us. But, as you know, physical presence alone is not enough. What is more important is spiritual presence. Presence rooted in God’s love. The kind of presence that Jesus is asking the Father in the gospel to grant us. After all, Judas too was physically present. And yet, he became lost. He abandoned his post to go to his proper place. He was unable to make his way home.

Before going out on one’s own, it’s crucially important that we first know the way home. But that’s not all. As you may have noticed, our readings are not just about how we can go out into the world and return safely home. They also speak about something else. Both in the first and second readings a particular reason is given for us to know the way home. We ourselves saw & we testify that the Father sent his Son as saviour of the world… It’s not just for our own benefit. It’s not just for our own safety. But it is also so that we may bear witness, so that we may testify, before the whole world, to the love of God shown to us so powerfully, and yet so tenderly, in the Dying and Rising of Christ.

And isn’t this what should set Christian social communications apart from all other forms of publicity? For communications to be truly Christian, it’s not enough that we mention the name of Christ, or that we publicise Christian images. We can do all that and still bully people. The one requirement for truly Christian social communications is that it always remain rooted in the truth of God’s love shown to us in Christ. That it testify constantly to that love. Not just in what it contains, but also in how it is carried out. So that it always remains capable of showing others the Way home.

My dear sisters and brothers, whether we like it or not, we all live and communicate in the world. We cannot avoid that. The important question we need to keep asking ourselves is, do we, do I, really know, the way home?

Well, do you?

Sunday, April 08, 2018

Sign of the Swimmer

2nd Sunday of Easter (B)
Divine Mercy Sunday

Picture: cc USAG-Humphreys

My dear friends, do you know the difference between swimming and drowning? If you see someone in a pool of water, for example, can you tell if that person is in distress? Usually there are some obvious signs. Typically, the person can be seen struggling in the water. But the actual difference between swimming and drowning is less obvious, right? It has to do not so much with the external movements of the body, as with what happens to it internally. When a person is swimming, even though the body is surrounded by water, the lungs are still being filled with air. In contrast, we say a person is drowning when the water on the outside begins to seep inside. Invading the space that should be reserved for air. Causing the person to suffocate.

But how then to save a drowning person? Usually someone has to jump into the pool to pull the person out. And then the water has to be driven out of the lungs, and replaced with air. Only then will the drowning person survive. And hopefully be able to swim again. In any case, the difference between swimming and drowning may be described perhaps in terms of overcoming and being overcome. To swim is to overcome the water, by holding one’s breath. To drown is to be overcome by it.

This difference between swimming and drowning, between overcoming and being overcome, can be seen not just in a swimming pool, but also in the spiritual life as well. In today’s gospel reading, we’re told that the doors were closed in the room where the disciples were… A powerful image of people struggling desperately, but unsuccessfully, to keep out the dangerous waters of the world. For it’s quite clear that they are drowning. They are being overcome. First of all by fear. Fear of the Jews. Fear that whatever happened to Jesus will happen also to them. Then, in the case of Thomas, overcome also by doubt. The inability to trust without proof, to believe without sight.

So that when Jesus mysteriously appears in that enclosed room, it is to achieve a very specific purpose. To rescue people from drowning. And it’s helpful for us to notice how this done. To see that it involves four steps. We’re told that first Jesus came and stood among them. In other words, Jesus moves in the same dangerous waters in which the disciples are struggling. The Lord then drives out the fear and doubt from their hearts, by saying to them repeatedly, Peace be with you.

And it’s important for us to realise how Jesus is able to do this. He is able to enter hearts that are closed, hearts that have been overcome by fear and doubt, because he has previously plunged into the perilous pool of human existence. He was born into the insecurity of a homeless refugee. Lived the quiet life of a manual labourer. Served, ever so briefly, as Healer of the sick, Comforter of the afflicted, Shepherd to the lost and forsaken. Only to then die the cruel death of a condemned criminal. And he did all this with a heart continually filled, not with the water of fear, but with the Breath of the Spirit. Clearly, Jesus is able to rescue drowning people, because he himself has first learned to swim in the dangerous waters of human reality.

Isn’t this the reason why the Lord is able not just to drive out from the disciples’ hearts the waters of fear and doubt, but also to replace those same waters with the Breath of Love and Life? Receive the Holy Spirit. As the Father has sent me, so am I sending you… In uttering these words, Jesus doesn’t just revive the drowning. He also sends them on a mission of their own. Calling them to remain in the dangerous waters of human existence. No longer to drown, but to swim. And to work for the rescue of others, as they themselves have been rescued. To teach others how to hold their breath, to remain centred on God, even as they navigate the perilous waters of daily life.

A plunging in and a driving out. A breathing upon and a sending forth. These are the four steps by which the Crucified and Risen Lord rescues his disciples, rescues us, from the danger that threatens to overcome them. Turning drowning people into graceful swimmers. Isn’t this the same process described in the second reading? Which tells us that anyone who has been begotten by God has already overcome the world. To overcome the world, instead of being overcome by it.

What does this mean, if not to learn how to swim in the worldly waters of trial and temptation, by continually holding within us the Breath of the Spirit? Resisting the waters of fear and doubt, or selfishness and greed, or whatever else may threaten to take God’s rightful place at the centre of our hearts?

And what the second reading describes in theory, the first reading paints for us in practice. This is what it looks like, in the concrete, when Christians overcome the world. When they learn how to swim instead of drown. The first reading tells us that all those who owned land or houses would sell them, and bring the money from them, to present it to the apostles; it was then distributed to any members who might be in need. Whereas the world teaches only how to consume and to hoard, the Christians in the first reading learn how to care and to share.

Here we find the sign that clearly distinguishes the swimmer from the one who is drowning. The sign that we celebrate most especially on this 2nd Sunday of Easter. The sign of divine mercy. The same mercy that brought Jesus from heaven to earth, from cross to grave, and from grave to that room where the doors were closed for fear of the Jews. The same mercy that then leads the early Christians to share their possessions with those in need. Mercy, my dear friends, is what changes drowning people into grace-filled swimmers. And mercy is also what we need so very much today. When so many of us continue to find ourselves overcome by the world. Drowning as much in its seductive attractions, as in the heavy demands it makes on us.

My dear sisters and brothers, if mercy is indeed what makes the difference between swimming and drowning, then how good a swimmer are you today?

Sunday, April 01, 2018

After The Cuppa

Easter Sunday

Picture: cc Mark Nye

My dear friends, are you a coffee drinker? If you are, then you probably know the powerful effects of that first cup of coffee in the morning. You know the huge difference between how the world looks before and after you’ve had your morning pick-me-up. You know that each day can actually be divided into two parts: before coffee, and after coffee. Before coffee, at least for some of us, everything looks gloomy and grey. Every sight and sound serves only to upset and irritate. Making us wish we could crawl back into bed and declare an early end to the day. But after coffee, the sun suddenly begins to shine. Darkness gives way to light. New possibilities emerge. Opportunities for making new beginnings. Along with the energy we need to seize them, and to make good things happen.

It’s quite incredible, isn’t it, when we stop to think about it? The power of that first cup of coffee to change how we look at the world. Turning night into day. Tiredness into energy. Dead-ends into new beginnings. It’s helpful for us to recall this experience, this transformation, because something like is also what happens to the disciples on the first Easter morning.

The gospel begins with the observation that it was still dark when Mary of Magdala came to the tomb. As you know, scholars say that this is not just a darkness of the sky, but the night of unbelief. Mary’s intense grief at the Lord’s death colours the way she looks at the world. It causes her to forget his promise that he would rise again. So that when Mary sees that the stone had been moved away from the tomb, she can draw only one depressing and discouraging conclusion: They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him.

In contrast, by the end of the reading, we’re told that, after entering the tomb and seeing the positions of the burial cloths, the beloved disciple saw and he believed. He begins to understand that what he’s looking at is not the scene of a robbery. But rather the signs that Jesus is alive. Like a first cup of coffee in the morning, belief in the Resurrection transforms the way the disciples look at the world. Even within the darkness of a tomb, they receive the power to see evidence of new life. Even while still feeling keenly the pain of absence and loss, they are given the ability to believe in, and to be energised by, the Lord’s ongoing presence in their lives and in the world.

And this transforming power is not just something that happens only once and then fades away into the distant past. Rather, even though the Lord is already risen and will never die again, the transforming power of the Resurrection is an ongoing experience. It can be felt daily. We see this clearly in the first reading, which tells the story of how Peter visits and baptises Cornelius and his whole household.

As you know, Cornelius is a Roman centurion. And, according to Jewish Law, to visit a gentile, like Cornelius, in his own home would make a Jew, like Peter, ritually unclean. Why then does Peter visit Cornelius anyway? The reason is that Peter has earlier received a vision, in which he is told that what God has made clean, you have no right to call profane. This vision radically changes Peter’s view of reality. So that what once looked like a dead-end, is transformed into a precious opportunity to make a new beginning. To share the good news of God’s love to more people.

Even though, at this point in the story, some time has passed since that first incident at the empty tomb. Yet Peter continues to experience the transforming effects of the Resurrection. Its power to change the way he looks at the world. Quite clearly, the Resurrection experience is something ongoing. Like a first cup of morning coffee, it is enjoyed not just once and for all, but again and again. Every single day. As long as one is willing to drink from the cup. To allow oneself to be transformed. To see and to relate to the world in new ways.

And more than just telling us when the transforming effects of the Resurrection can take place, our readings also show us what it moves us to do. It’s quite striking how often Peter uses the word witness in the first reading. I, and those with me, can witness to everything Jesus did… and also to the fact that they killed him… yet… God raised him to life and allowed him to be seen by certain witnesses… we are those witnesses

When I hear the word witness, I usually think only of someone who speaks about an event that happened in the past. But something more is meant here. For, as we said earlier, the Resurrection is not just something in the past. It’s power continues to be felt in the present. Daily, it changes how Christians look at the world. Moving us to live and behave in ways that show the Lord’s ongoing presence and action in our lives. And Peter bears witness to the Lord’s presence not just with his words, but also through his deeds. His willingness to look at Cornelius and his family in a new way. To visit their home, and to share his faith with them. This is what the Resurrection gives Peter the power to do. This is what it means to be a witness.

And this is also what means when the second reading tells us to look for the things that are in heaven, where Christ is… To look towards heaven is not really to look away from the earth. But rather to look at the world through the experience of the Lord’s Dying and Rising. So that we can begin to see light shining in darkness. New beginnings hidden in what may at first look like dead-ends. So that we can access the power of the Lord’s ongoing presence, even in his apparent absence. Allowing us to bear eloquent witness to the reality of the Resurrection. To our joyful belief that Christ our Lord has truly risen! Indeed he is risen! This is the significance of the beautiful season of Easter that we are beginning today. A time for us to allow our hearts and minds to be opened to the power of the Resurrection. To receive the gift of seeing the world in new ways.

My dear friends, as busy as we all are, many of us still take the time to drink our daily morning cup of coffee. And there’s a good reason for this. It’s because we know from experience that we need its power to change the way we look at life. To transform grumpy sleepyheads into energetic seizers of the day. But surely we need the power of the Resurrection just as much, if not even more!

Sisters and brothers, as we begin this joyful season of Easter, what must we do to drink more deeply from the cup of the Lord’s Dying and Rising in the days ahead?

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Taking a Step Back

Saturday in the 5th Week of Lent
(Aaron Lee’s Profession of First Vows in the Society of Jesus)

Picture: cc Frankie Roberto

My dear friends, do you know what it feels like to be so close to something that you can’t see it clearly? Have you ever felt like you needed to take a step back, in order to see a bigger picture? I recently felt this way while trying to watch a movie on a plane. The screen was fixed to the seat in front of me, and the person in that seat suddenly decided to recline it. Which brought the screen a few inches away from my face. Making it very difficult for me to enjoy the movie. I tried to recline my own seat, but it was stuck. So, after a few minutes, I gave up watching the movie, and picked up a book to read instead.

To be too close to something to see it clearly. I wonder if something like that is also what is happening in the gospel today. As you know, the passage comes immediately after Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead. But we’re told that despite seeing or hearing about this mighty work, some people still refuse to believe in Jesus. Why? It may be that they’re too close to what they are looking at. If not physically, then at least spiritually. What does this mean? How do we know? Notice the reactions of the chief priests and the Pharisees. Instead of being amazed, they actually become agitated and anxious. Here is this man working all these signs and what are we doing? If we let him go on in this way everybody will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy the Holy Place and our nation.’

A man has just been raised from the dead, but the chief priests and Pharisees see nothing more than danger and destruction, leading to death and despair. Why? Isn’t it because they allow their own ego, their own self-centred concerns, to obstruct their view? Their focus is only on themselves and what they need to do. In the words of the high priest, they do not seem to have grasped the situation at all. They are too close to see the bigger picture.

In contrast, the Mass readings invite us to take a step back, in order to see a bigger picture. To focus not so much on what actions we have to take, but rather to first consider what exactly God is and has been doing. The gospel reminds us that, in Christ, God was to gather together in unity the scattered children of God. In other words, in Christ, God was fulfilling the great promise that God makes to the people in the first reading. To gather the scattered. To bring home the lost. To rescue the unfaithful. To cleanse the sinful. The focus is first on God’s might works. How God guards us as a shepherd guards his flock. Turning mourning into joy. Giving gladness for grief. The readings paint a very different picture from the one that the scribes and Pharisees see. Not danger and destruction, death and despair. But return and restoration, rescue and reconciliation. Leading to gladness and rejoicing.

Taking a step back in order to see a bigger picture. This is also something that we need in order to better appreciate what our dear brother Aaron will soon be doing here at this Mass. For it is possible to approach his profession of vows in a  way that is similar to the Pharisees’ reaction to Jesus. To be too close to see clearly. To focus first on what he is doing. The sacrifice he is making. And when we do this, at least two reactions are possible. If we are non-believers, then poverty, chastity and obedience make no sense at all. Why would anyone in his right mind want to give up his right to have his own belongings. To marry a spouse and have children. To make up one's own mind about what one wishes to do. On the other hand, if we are believers, then we might see the vows as only a heroic sacrifice. Something to admire from afar. Or to try in vain to emulate.

But this is not quite the complete picture. For the vows that will soon be professed here today are not in the first place Aaron’s vows. Nor Jesuit vows. They are called, first and foremost, evangelical counsels. Evangelical. From the word that means good news. And the good news is not first of all about what Aaron or the rest of us are doing. The good news is first of all about what God has done and is doing in Christ. The merciful love and compassion of God in gathering the scattered, in bringing home the lost, in uniting the divided… A picture that brings us great gladness and joy, if only we have the eyes to see it. Motivating us to make a response of love for love. To bear witness to the good news with our lives.

And what is true of the evangelical counsels is true too of other vows that we Christians make. It’s true, for example, of marital vows. As those here who are married know better than I do, the focus in a Christian marriage is not so much on what the spouses have to do for each other. Important though this may be. The focus is instead first of all on the love of God that has brought them together, and in which they live their married life.

The same can be said about the vows that we are all now preparing ourselves to renew at Easter. Our baptismal vows. Do you reject Satan… and all his works… and all his empty promises… Again, at first glance, it may appear that baptismal vows have to do with what actions we need to take. But that’s not quite the complete picture. What they are really about is first of all what God has done and is doing. The good news of God’s merciful love shown to us in Christ Jesus. A powerful and moving image that we can only see clearly when we allow God to move our egos out of the way. Isn't this what Lent is for?

My dear friends, even as we rejoice with Aaron on his first vows, and even as we express heartfelt thanks to Aaron’s family for their generosity in letting him profess them, how might God be inviting each of us to take a step back, in order to see the mighty works of God unfolding in our own lives today?

Sunday, March 11, 2018

The Importance of Being Sentimental

4th Sunday in Lent (B)

My dear friends, would you consider yourself a sentimental person? Do you, for example, have items that you keep for purely sentimental reasons? If you do, what happens to you when you look at them? What effect do they have on you?

Those of us who’ve had the opportunity to watch the movie Wonder Woman may recall that it begins and ends with just such an object. Something that has sentimental value. A faded old black-and-white photograph, which Wonder Woman receives as a gift at the beginning of the movie. And this object has a particular effect on our hero. It causes her to recall significant scenes from her past. Indeed the whole movie is an extended flashback. A retelling of the moving background story that gives that old photograph its deep meaning. Its sentimental value. A story that motivates Wonder Woman to continue fighting to save the world.

Sentimental objects that evoke significant memories and deep feelings. Filling people with the power they need to fulfil their mission. This is also what we find in our prayers and readings on this 4th Sunday in Lent. As we mentioned at the beginning, today is Laetare Sunday, from our entrance antiphon, which calls us all to rejoice! To be joyful! To exult and be satisfied! But how do we do all that? How do we make ourselves joyful and satisfied, especially if we happen to be sad or angry? Stressed out or frustrated? Sleepy or just plain bored?

Perhaps we need to do what Wonder Woman did in the movie. Perhaps we need to look at something with real sentimental value. Something like what we find in the first reading, which makes repeated references to the Temple in Jerusalem. A building that evokes very significant memories for the people of Judah. Reminding them of the story of their past. A story that the reading retells in a very moving way. A story of the people’s infidelity to God and, in sharp contrast, of God’s steadfast loyalty to them.

A story of how they kept insisting on worshipping idols. Of how they even defiled the Temple, the holy place where God had chosen to live among them. And yet, in spite of their stubborn disobedience, God did not hold the people’s sin against them. God kept sending messengers to call them back. Even when their rebellious ways eventually led to the destruction of the Temple, and their own exile in Babylon, God still refused to forget them. Refused to abandon them. But arranged instead for them to eventually return to Jerusalem, and to rebuild the Temple. A new sacred place for them to meet and to worship God. A fresh expression of God’s undying love and mercy towards them.

So that, for the people of Judah, the new Temple becomes something like what that faded old photograph was for Wonder Woman. An object of great sentimental value. Evoking significant memories and deep feelings. Giving them the power to carry out their mission. To live joyfully as a light to the nations. Bearing witness to God’s love in the world. Provided they know how to appreciate the Temple. Provided they allow themselves to be sentimental.

And it’s not just the people of Judah who are blessed in this way. The readings remind us that we Christians are too. That we also have been given something that can fill us with a similar power. Something of great sentimental value. Isn’t this what Jesus is saying to Nicodemus in the gospel? The Son of Man must be lifted up as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him. What does this mean, if not that the image of Christ on the Cross serves a similar purpose for us as the new Temple in Jerusalem did for the people of Judah. That it has, or should have, for us great sentimental value.

It should have the power to evoke significant memories and deep feelings in us, provided we believe wholeheartedly in the One that the image depicts, the One who was lifted up on the Cross. Provided we take the trouble to remember the moving background story of his Dying and Rising. And how it relates to us. The same story that the second reading summarises for us. The story of God’s indestructible love and mercy shown to us in Christ Jesus. When we were dead through our sins, he brought us to life with Christ… 

The image of Christ on the Cross, this should be for us an image of great sentimental value. It should evoke in us significant memories and deep feelings. The same memories and feelings that should permeate our every celebration of the Holy Eucharist. The same memories and feelings that have the power to fill our hearts with joy and gratitude. Motivating us to live our God-given mission to the full. To live by the truth. To live in the light. To show the world that everything we do is indeed done in God. In God’s love and mercy. In Christ Jesus.

But in order for this image to have its desired effect, we must first have the capacity to be moved by it. To become sentimental. Which isn’t always easy for us. We who often allow the distractions and difficulties of daily life to cause us to become jaded and hardened. Forgetful of the moving story of our salvation. And immune to the deep feelings it should evoke in us. As a result of which, we may sometimes come to Mass purely as a matter of routine, or obligation, without a true appreciation of its deeper meaning and awesome power. 

Isn’t this why we need this great season of Lent? A time for us to pause and allow ourselves once again to recall our story. To remember God’s love. And to regain the capacity to truly rejoice in the Lord. For if even a superhero like Wonder Woman must draw her power from sentimental things, then what more mere mortals like you and me.

My dear sisters and brothers, what must we do to allow the Lord to renew our capacity for experiencing true and godly sentiment today?

Sunday, March 04, 2018

Recognising Reservations

3rd Sunday in Lent (B)

Picture: cc Kevin Lim

My dear friends, if you were to go to a crowded foodcourt or a hawker centre, and you see an empty table with a packet of tissues placed on top of it, what would you do? Would you sit there? I’m not sure, but I suspect that many people in Singapore would not. And we know why. It’s because we recognise what those tissues mean. We realise they’re a sign that the table has already been reserved by someone else. For someone else. And respecting the sign, we leave the table empty.

Have you ever marvelled at the great power that little packet of tissues has, especially in a place like Singapore, where space is in such short supply? Where, even in a church like ours, people often insist on parking their cars in forbidden places. Have you ever wondered why, even though many of us refuse to respect yellow boxes or no-parking signs, we still somehow choose to give way when we see a simple tissue-packet? From where does this humble object receive its mysterious authority to reserve a precious space?

Believe it or not, sisters and brothers, it is a similar question that we find in our Mass readings today. For isn’t there a deeper meaning to those Ten Commandments that God is giving to the people of Israel in the first reading? These commandments are not just so many rules that the people are obliged to follow on pain of punishment. Rather, by inviting them to keep these commandments, God is actually claiming the people for himself. Reserving them as a precious space belonging only to God. By keeping the commandments, the people prove to the other nations that God dwells among them. And that they have no god except the Lord.

But to do this is not easy. Just as it’s not easy, in a crowded foodcourt, to walk past a table occupied only by a packet of tissues. It’s also not easy to keep the commandments in the way they are meant to be kept. To keep not just the letter of the Law, but more importantly also its spirit. To live in such a way that one’s heart and one’s life is always maintained as a sacred space reserved for God alone. To truly have no gods except the Lord. This is not an easy thing to do. For isn’t it true that I can be very good at keeping the rules, and still care nothing for the One who gave them to me? Isn’t it true that I can come to church every Sunday, perhaps even every day, and still be filled with anger and resentment towards others? Isn’t it true that I can scrupulously go for regular confessions, and still refuse to be moved by the plight of those who suffer? Simply because I am too preoccupied with my own concerns.

To keep the commandments the way they are meant to be kept is not an easy thing to do. Isn’t this also what we find in the gospel? Strictly speaking there is no law against buying and selling in the outer court of the Temple. Why then does Jesus get so worked up about it? Isn’t it because this practice reflects what is going on in the lives of many of those who pride themselves in keeping the Law? Even though they may follow the rules, their hearts and their lives are occupied by other concerns. Commercial concerns. Selfish concerns.  Idolatrous concerns. Repeatedly, in their own lives, they turn the Father’s house into a market.

So that by cleansing the Temple, Jesus is not just reclaiming a physical space. He is signalling to people what he has come to do. He is showing them, and us, the mission he has received from his Father. To reclaim not just a Temple, but a whole people. And not just a people, but the whole of creation. To reclaim all of reality as a sacred space reserved for his heavenly Father alone. By first calling people to turn their lives over to God. By giving them the power to keep the commandments the way they are meant to be kept. And so to truly become children of God.

Which brings us to the question with which we began. The same question that the opponents of Jesus address to him in the gospel. What sign can you show us to justify what you have done? Or, in other words, what gives you the right to you reserve this space for yourself? By what authority do you expect us to obey you? This is a question that we all need to ask. Especially when we ourselves find it difficult to keep God’s commandments in the way they are meant to be kept. When we find our hearts being filled more and more with worry and anxiety, or arrogance and ambition. When we allow the cares and concerns of daily life to cause us to forget that we belong to God. That God has reserved us for himself.

In times like these, where can we find the strength, the motivation to turn back to God? To allow the Lord to cleanse the Temple of our hearts and our lives from the influence of false gods, and to reclaim us for himself? Destroy this sanctuary, Jesus tells his opponents, and in three days I will raise it up. A reference to his own Dying and Rising. His self-sacrifice on the Cross. It is here that we find the secret of his power. It is here that we find the authority we need to turn our hearts and lives over to God. For as the second reading reminds us, we preach a crucified Christ, who is the power and the wisdom of God. The power by which we can once more be reclaimed as a sacred space reserved for God alone.

Isn’t this what this great season of Lent is really about? Not so much a time for us to cleanse ourselves. We have neither the strength nor the authority to do this on our own. But rather, a time for us to allow God to reclaim us. By constantly recalling and reflecting upon the great love and mercy shown to us in the crucified Christ. That divine foolishness that is so much wiser than human wisdom. That divine weakness that is so much stronger than human strength. That great Mystery which we are gathered here this morning to celebrate at this Mass.

My dear friends, if a humble packet of tissues can have the power to reserve a precious space in a crowded foodcourt, perhaps it’s not so incredible to believe that Christ’s loving sacrifice on the Cross has the power to reclaim our hearts and our lives for God alone.

What must we do to draw ever more deeply and ever more effectively from this amazing power today? 

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Cataract Operation

2nd Sunday in Lent (B)

Picture: cc Heather Kennedy

My dear friends, do you know what a cataract is? It’s a condition where, due to age or illness, the normally clear lens in the eye becomes cloudy. So that one’s vision is blurred. And, if left untreated, the condition can eventually lead to blindness. Which is what happened recently to a dog belonging to someone I know. The poor animal developed cataracts in both eyes, and became blind. It kept bumping into things, and could no longer move around as freely as it used to. Out of pity, the owner decided to send the dog for eye surgery. The clouded lens in one of its eyes was replaced with a new one. And now the dog can see again. Can move about more freely.

I tell this story, my dear brothers and sisters, not because this is the Year of the Dog. But because I believe something like that is also happening in our Mass readings today. Something like a cataract operation. A procedure to replace the cloudy lenses in people’s spiritual eyes. So that they can see more clearly. Can move about more freely. And isn’t this what we prayed for just now in our Collect, our opening prayer? Nourish us inwardly by your word, we prayed, that, with spiritual sight made pure, we may rejoice to behold your glory

In the first reading, Abraham is made to undergo a trial, a test. And, at first glance, the test seems like a truly cruel one. Abraham is asked to sacrifice, to kill, his son Isaac. The same Isaac who was born only when Abraham was a hundred years old. The same son through whom God had earlier promised to make Abraham into a great nation. How could a loving God require such a terrible thing? And yet, there is perhaps another way of looking at the situation. For it may be that God is actually doing Abraham a favour. It may be that God is helping to clear Abraham’s spiritual vision, which, like ours, could so easily become clouded by the fear of losing the things and the people whom one considers the most precious.

It is precisely when he is able to trust in the goodness of God, and to let go even of his attachment to his beloved son, that Abraham receives new sight. We’re told that after obediently attempting to sacrifice Isaac, Abraham looked up and saw a ram caught by its horns in a bush, which he then takes and offers to God in place of his son. It’s as though, by making Abraham undergo this trial, God replaces the lenses of Abraham’s eyes with new ones. So that Abraham can see more clearly the generous love of God, who graciously supplies even the sacrificial offering itself. And who promises to continue providing for Abraham. Not just high up on the mountain of sacrifice, but also down below in the valley of everyday life. Not just now in the present moment, but also ever after, in the days ahead. And not just for Abraham’s own benefit, but also for the good of his descendants, and even of the whole world. I will shower blessings on you… All the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by your descendants…

A cataract operation is also something like what is happening in the gospel, taken from chapter 9 of Mark’s account. As you may recall, sisters and brothers, in Mark’s gospel there are two stories of blind men being healed. One in chapter 8 and one in chapter 10. Scholars tell us that this arrangement helps to highlight what Jesus is doing for his disciples in the three central chapters of Mark’s gospel. Repeatedly, in chapters 8, 9, and 10, Jesus predicts that he, the Son of Man, the saviour, has first to suffer and die, in order to rise again on the Third Day. In order to be a blessing to the whole world. To all who commit their lives to following Him.

But it’s not easy for the disciples to appreciate this. It is not easy for them to recognise a suffering saviour. Their vision is clouded by their expectations and attachments. And by their fear of suffering and death. Like Abraham, they need to undergo an operation. Their cloudy lenses must be replaced with new ones. Which is what the Transfiguration is meant to signify. Here, on a high mountain, Jesus’s three closest disciples, Peter, James and John, experience something even more brilliant than what Abraham encountered at Moriah. They see the glory of the Lord, and hear the Father’s words of identification and invitation. This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him. This is the Ram of Sacrifice. Lovingly offered to you that you may have life. Listen to him… Follow him… Let him be the lens through which you look at everything. So that even in the midst of your trials, you will continue to recognise God’s gracious providence. To experience God’s loving presence. In the words of the psalm, I trusted, even when I said: ‘I am sorely afflicted.’ …. I will walk in the presence of the Lord in the land of the living…

To be able to place our trust in God. To let go of the things to which we often cling so anxiously and so desperately. The craving for a more comfortable life, for example. The worry that our children may not perform well enough. The obsession with measuring up to the expectations of others… To let go of all these, and to receive, in their place, a new vision of God’s providence and care for us. To realise ever more deeply what the second reading reminds us. That God is on our side. And since God did not spare his own Son, but gave him up to benefit us all, we may be certain… that he will not refuse anything he can give. To realise this truth, and so to receive the courage to follow Christ on the Road to Calvary. On the Way of the Cross. On the Path that leads to the Fullness of Life. The Path that involves laying down our lives, as Christ did, for the good of others. Not just for our immediate family and closest friends. But also for those most in need. Clarity of sight, and courage in discipleship. This is the grace that we seek especially in this season of Lent.

My dear sisters and brothers, it’s not just dogs who develop blurred vision. People often do too. How might the Lord be inviting us, you and me, to submit to  a cataract operation today?

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