Dec 31, 2016
Mary, Mother of God
Still within the Season of Christmas, the enduring image of the baby Jesus remains very much with us. It is "captured" in the manger scene before us. Indeed, for a whole week, Mary and Joseph, the shepherds, the ox and the donkey haven't moved one inch! They seem to have frozen in time as they gaze into the crib where the child has been perfectly positioned, as if someone has pressed the pause button. Rather than listening to the conversations, real or imagined, that take place inside the Bethlehem stable, or listening to the music of angels in the background, we are allowed instead to meditate on the relationships between each of those present.
Today, at the beginning of a New Year, we reflect on the most natural relationship a baby can have with anyone. We see this again and again in the enduring image of Mary holding the Christ child, close to her. Mary's femininity can never be divorced from her motherhood - bringing this child into the world is what every cell in her body has prepared for.
Even though her arms cradle the little child, God's Word that has now become Flesh in Jesus, does not speak in sentences, sermons or soundbites. At least, not for now. This baby must first be nurtured, fed, loved, allowed to grow strong in earthly wisdom and strength to become the world's savior. This does not happen overnight, nor within a vacuum. It begins within the natural embrace of this holy mother and child and the trust that deepens and evolves between them.
But this is not just the natural trust between a mother and her child. It is a divine trust as this child is the physical embodiment of "God with us". God does not simply use Mary as a means to enter into our world. That would make Mary simply a surrogate. Instead, God entrusts himself, his physical well being to her. He trusts her with Himself. He allows Himself, as a small and vulnerable child, to be subject to her, to be influenced by her, to be taught by her.
Under her supervision, the Son of God, will learn to pray in the Jewish tradition and how to read the Sacred Scriptures. Under her watchful eye, the Son of God will learn the social skills to engage with other children, families, elders, friends and strangers. God allows Himself to be mothered by Mary. In doing so, God trusts Himself and His whole plan of salvation for humanity completely to Mary's motherhood and in doing so allows her to cooperate in our salvation.
For each of us who are baptized, our baptism is not a simple membership status in the Church. Through baptism, we take upon ourselves the image of Christ himself. We become Christ to others, to the world. We are not self made Christians. With so many influences around us, before us, in front of us, each providing so many lessons of how to live the Christian life, let us not forget that Christ is not an orphan child. He is the Son of God the Father and the Son of Mary His Mother.
And if we are likewise to grow and mature into the image and likeness of Christ by God’s grace, will not Mary's motherhood also extend to us because she sees and loves her son in us. If God can trust her motherhood, what stops us allowing her to be also our own mother, to reach out to us, to hold us and teach us as she taught her Son, how to pray, how to listen, how to walk, and how to speak and proclaim the message of salvation to the waiting world.
Dec 30, 2016
From Baby to Boy to Man
Of course, with the celebration of Christmas is still permeating the air and the image of the baby Jesus still glowing in our minds, today's celebration of the feast of the Holy Family fast-forwards 12 years. Much can happen in a few days!
Having lost sight of him for a few days, all of a sudden Joseph and Mary are shocked to find Jesus standing up and talking to and questioning the elders in the temple - not as a child, but as their equal, and he does so with authority. Mother is confused, hurt and even naturally upset, having probably worried for those three long days with heartache about what could've happened her "baby". But baby, he is no more.
Notice what mother says to him "son, why have you done this to us?" What brought about the anxiety in the hearts of Joseph and Mary? I suspect because they knew that one day, he would reveal himself to the world as the Messiah. And Mary knew in her heart her son would have to suffer and make the ultimate sacrifice for the salvation of the world. But to do so at only 12 years old? Her mother's heart and instinct would not allow this - not yet. However, Jesus now speaks to her, not with baby talk, but as an adult to his mother and so, without any hint of rebellion, but with clear headedness he says, "why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my father's house?”
Jesus, aware of his identity, is now able to articulate clearly who his true father is - not Joseph (although his role was as a father figure, and a very good one). The young Jesus becomes acutely aware of his heavenly Father. We are told that Joseph and Mary do not understand this answer. Remarkably, Jesus did not try to wrestle himself away from the natural instinct for Joseph and Mary to protect him. In fact, we are told, "he went down with them and came to Nazareth and was obedient to them." And this is often the greatest challenge children must always make – obedience. Not blind obedience, but out of respect and honor for our parents – for God did use them as instruments to bring us into this world and to keep us safe.
Obedient still, the young man Jesus could now be confident, for he was now holding tightly to the grip of his heavenly Father's hand. Mary must have understood this. She does not interfere, but simply ponders these entire things in her heart. Jesus is no longer her little boy.
But what about Joseph? Interestingly, once Jesus clearly is able to articulate his relationship with his ultimate Father, we never hear from Joseph again. He has fulfilled his responsibility to his own manhood and as a father figure -- a guardian and a protector. The boy has become a man -- he knows who he is and in doing so we are told "Jesus advanced in wisdom and age in favor before God and man”.
To follow Jesus is to allow him to show us his Father whom he presents to you and me as our Father. Through this Holy Mass, we are invited right into the midst of it. Through our baptism, our heavenly Father sees his Son in you and in me. In the Spirit of Jesus, we call out at last without fear, "Abba-Father", and gathered around the Altar, our family life is restored through the sacrifice of Christ our Lord. And where the family of the Lord is, be it in the stable of Bethlehem, the house of Nazareth, at the cross on Calvary, or the upper room on the day of Pentecost, our mother Mary is there.
Dec 25, 2016
Throughout the years, there has been a lot of imaginative and creative thinking about what it would be like if our planet were to be visited by a life beyond the stars.
We often think that such an encounter would surely be on a terrifying, gigantic scale. One can easily imagine hug mothership breaking through the heavens and appearing right before us like a mighty fortified battleship, shining in power, fully operational.
What are its intentions? How can we communicate with it? Could it, that any moment unleashing its destructive power? It speaks the language of strength and domination. Our response would naturally be overwhelming fear, panic, dread.
But this will not be how the battle between good and evil, light and darkness, begins. This is not how the God of the universe arrives. Instead, we can imagine that God comes like a little message in a bottle, slowly, carefully pushed by a gentle tide up onto a sandy beach, and found by a curious young girl who was dancing casually in the shallow pools collecting sea shells. God arrives into our world, quietly, discreetly, small.
To put this into perspective, yesterday when I went to find a last minute Christmas gift for a family friend, when a shopkeeper who saw me in my priest collar verbally attacked me from every angle, through insults about the Pope, the Catholic Church, priests. Then came a barrage of memorized Scripture verses thrown at me in rapid fire -it was holy mud slinging!
It could have got very messy. Some might say that the shopkeeper would have been no match for this Irishman! But actually, for me it had already a very long day, visiting parish homebound for Christmas, and, because of the ferocious winds we had yesterday with dust and dirt everywhere, my sinuses were playing up big time - I was actually too tired and too weak to fight back or defend myself. All I could do was put my finger over my lips and say “Shhhhh. Please… Peace”.
I later thought to myself, on my way home, that maybe the poor shopkeeper was not really trying to pick a fight - but instead, he was crying out from the depth of a deep wound. Maybe, he could only manage his pain with fear, anger, control, paranoia, seeing conspiracies where there were none.
This is far from the picture of God painted for us in Bethlehem. Like the innocent up and down wonderings of a ladybug on our fingers and then a quick nudge into the air to see it catch the breeze - God comes to us. God is embodied in a baby, the smallest, most vulnerable, most defenseless member of our human family. Why? So that no one would be afraid to approach him. “Come closer”, Mary says, “He doesn't bite! Shhhhh. Hush. Gently gently”.
Peace is Christ’s gift to this crazy and loud world. May God’s gentle peace be yours this Christmas time, and may nothing or nobody ever disturb you or distract you from what God has already promised to the peacemakers of this world. Blessed are the peacemakers.
Dec 17, 2016
Joseph and the formation of conscience.
Isaac Newton's First Law of Motion states that a body at rest will remain at rest unless an outside force acts on it. This law of physics also applies to making decisions. It's like coming to a stop sign at an intersection. Do you go right, or left? The longer you delay, the more cars line up behind you - you feel the pressure. What do you do? But doing nothing also has consequences.
To help put this into context, the "baby boomers" might recall It's a Wonderful Life with Jimmy Stewart being shown how the present world would be if one wast not born. The Generation X might recall Groundhog Day, waking up repeating the same day where every action has repercussions. Generation Y might remember the iconic words, "You take the blue pill, the story ends. You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland". Maybe it's too early for the millennial generation to realize the impact of every choice, action and decision! Time will certainly tell, whether we are around to tell of it or not.
This is not a hypothetical exercise. We wrestle with consequential decisions throughout life and even every day. Where do I send my kids to school? Which university do I attend? What career should I follow? Do I follow orders? Should I get done on one knee and propose? Do I hit the send button on this text message or email?
Take our leading character in today's Gospel - Saint Joseph. How will he respond when he receives news that his intended bride, Mary, is pregnant, and he knows he is not the father? He is free to wash his hands of her and leave Mary to her public shame and embarrassment. He is free to reluctantly marry her, since the invitations have been sent out and the reception paid for. He is free to have access to the religious laws and have the village elders decide the case.
However, Joseph is described by the Scriptures as a “righteous man”. To be righteous is essentially to be in right relationship with God, in right relationship with God’s world, to be in right relationship with those God has placed around us. Whatever the circumstances, his choices and decisions, like the patient fine tuning of a stringed instrument, Joseph profoundly respects the necessary tension of grace.
Even before an angel of God appeared to him in a dream, Joseph had divorced himself of anger, jealousy or any indignation. He kept his passions in check. He didn't “fly off the handle”. He was determined to conduct himself with restraint, patience, and discretion - not for his own sake, but for Mary’s. Not wishing her to be exposed to harm, Joseph had reached a certainty in his conscience that he must break off the engagement. But he would do so quietly. Maybe, he concluded, this would give Mary the necessary time to find a safe place to have her child in secret without drawing any attention.
In the ordinary, everyday circumstances of life, what Joseph decided to do was commendable, to his credit. But what he did not know, was that Mary’s pregnancy was anything but ordinary. Joseph was not in a position to understand the uniqueness of Mary’s pregnancy. It was impossible for him to do so.
Although he was not quick to judge and never asked God for a sign, Joseph was given one. The very same angel who had secretly spoken with Mary, informed Joseph in the secret of his conscience, of the “big picture”. He now could put Mary’s virginity into its correct context and see the whole chain of events from the unique perspective of even God himself! Joseph had wrestled not with his emotions or with the village elders. Unconsciously, he wrestled with God. Yet, as difficult as it was, God did not harm him. Instead, God taught Joseph how to cooperate with grace - how to dance with grace.
As we draw nearer to the Christmas festivities, our focus always leads us to Jesus and Mary and God’s message of salvation for the whole world. We might often times feel overwhelmed by the mystery of God, even confused as to where we find ourselves within His plan. Maybe there are times we feel we have to go it alone. But St. Joseph is there to accompany us in our trials and uncertainties and to teach us how to patiently turn our wrestling into dance! All in good time, St. Joseph will come to eventually hold Christ in his hands and embrace the divine child in tender and holy union. May our preparation for the Sacraments of encounter with God lead us likewise along this same path to Bethlehem.
Dec 12, 2016
Matthew 11:25 sets the theme for the reflection on children who are vulnerable to many forces and tugs of war not of their own making: "Blessed are you Father, Lord of heaven and earth; for you have revealed to little ones the mysteries of the kingdom."
A child’s face, no matter what nationality, is naturally, an attention grabber. The photographer knows this. A child’s life, regardless of the environment, is presumed to be first protected by the gentleness of their parent’s tender love and within the sanctuary of a secure and stable family in an environment they know to be welcoming and nurturing. But often this is not the case.
Recently, there has been much attention in the news about children - children separated from their families, children made vulnerable to political and moral exploitation. Children caught in the crossfire between rockets and missiles in the Middle East. Children caught in no-man’s-land between Mexico and the U.S, or being forcefully separated from loved ones because, growing up in a country they called home they now find their place at home unwelcoming.
Some will say, “Why should we be looking after someone else’s kids when we can barely look after our own?” And maybe that is indeed the reason - that, regardless of the photo op, we are not every good at looking after our own children. Sometimes, we have to be taught a lesson. And God is, perhaps, giving the class an opportunity for a fieldtrip to learn how it’s done!
Maybe, when we are forced to care for the stranger, the child and the abandoned, then we might be rudely awakened to the fact that even our own laws at home, particularly regarding marriage, family life and immigration are not as secure and comforting as we thought.
Christ has told us in no uncertain terms, "Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.” Luke 18:16. Christ even got angry with his disciples when they were preventing this from happening.
There are times, in our own charity and goodwill towards the children in our care, that Christ is angry with us - when we put our own needs and neediness first and forget too easily, the promise that was made at the baptism of our children. We promising to raise our children according to the commandments of the Lord and the practice of the faith - which includes welcoming the stranger and sheltering the homeless. Our children are watching us. We are teaching them first by our example in what we do and in what we fail to do.
We as Catholics should also take note that when vulnerable families arrive in the United States, (particularly if they are Catholic children), if the first Christians to meet them, who clothe them, feed them and offer them an embrace of love, are a battalion of religious or political fundamentalists, then Christ is justified in His anger against us for neglecting our own brothers and sisters, our own children.
There are also children who get drawn into custody battles, children who battle for attention from parents who are sometimes overworked or constantly distracted, children who battle with mental illness and sickness, children who are exposed to violence, to abuse, neglect and deportation. In a world of Facebook and Instagram, these are the faces of the children we forget or ignore, because its easier to “overlook them” than actually “see them” in front of us, staring at us without us even noticing.
When every Catholic at home or abroad, responds to the Lord’s demand that children be actually protected within their own families, from the evil and from the barrage of impure influences now very much common in our world - when we are proactive and protective, then we are moving towards the salvation of humanity rather than just moving dust around our home. Let us pray that when children do get lost or abandoned and the wolf chases them through the dark forest, that they will find not just a place to hide, but a safe place to call home.
Prayer from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops:
"Loving Father, in your infinite compassion, we seek your divine protection for refugee children who are often alone and afraid. Provide solace to those who have been witnesses to violence and destruction,who have lost parents, family, friends, home, and all they cherish due to war or persecution. Comfort them in their sorrow, and bring help in their time
of need. Show mercy to unaccompanied migrant children, too, Lord. Reunite them with their families and loved ones. Guide those children who are strangers in a foreign land to a place of peace and safety. Comfort them in their sorrow, and bring help in their time of need. Show us how we might reach out to these precious and vulnerable children. Open our hearts to migrant and refugee children in need, so that we might see in them your own migrant Son. Give us courage to stand up in their defense against those who would do them harm. For this we pray through our Lord Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen. "
Dec 10, 2016
In today’s fast moving, multi-media world, where inconceivable masses of information travel at incredible speed past us, around us, and even through us, what if you could reach your hand into a stream of information and grab some of it. And if you opened your hand to inspect its contents would it make sense? It might be like reaching into the fireball of the big bang at the beginning of the universe (or like being captured in the fifth dimensional library imagined in the movie Interstellar) - you glimpse something from the time's beginning, the present and the end all at once. It can be amazing, complexing, confusing and mysterious - but you don’t know what to do with it!
Enter John the Baptist. Inspired by and responding to the promptings of the Holy Spirit, he spent his whole life, in a way, writing a code for a program that would be the ultimate platform to usher in the salvation of all creation. In his mind, it all made sense. He was a spiritual prodigy! (I am thinking, for example, of my nephew, a computer genius who did his university internship with microsoft and now writes in software programing language as easily as Mozart composes symphonies.) But in the Gospel we have heard this Sunday, John the Baptist, who has been arrested and behinds bars, seems confused, even a little unhinged. His cousin Jesus has now appeared on the scene and miracles are exploding here, there and everywhere - the code of creation itself, that had been corrupted by the virus of sin and evil is now being rewritten - “the blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them.”
All of a sudden the divine program for salvation is up and running without John having downloaded all the protocols and pressed the return key. Has it been hacked? Surely God would follow the predictable sequence of 1. divine judgement for the world followed by 2. justice handed down and then 3. mercy for those who deserved it? But what John sees and hears is not logical! But of course it’s not! Who can understand the logic of God? Christ was reminding his cousin John, in not too subtle ways, of what was pronounced by the Prophet Isaiah (whose spirit John was to emulate) “Who dares to think they can direct the Spirit of the Lord, or offer Him advice that He should take?” (Isaiah 40:13)
In a way, John the Baptist has been put in his place. And what is his place? It is the place where we all are. Having glimpsed, even in our dreams and imagination, the big and beautiful picture of the universe and ourselves embracing the wonder of our creation as made in the image and likeness of God, we, like John the Baptist, often find ourselves restrained behind bars - sometimes forced, beyond our control, to live our lives with the burden of a heavy chain, often not of our own making, that we cannot with our own strength remove. We can only dream of freedom.
This is why the words of encouragement from St. James in the Second Reading are so necessary to hear, reminding us, regardless of the weight of our sins or suffering, “You too must be patient. Make your hearts firm, because the coming of the Lord is at hand. Do not complain… [Christ who is merciful and just] is standing before the gates.”
So what is our prayer and petition this Sunday at Mass? Maybe we find it best articulated in the words we need to say every Sunday that follow the “Our Father” just before Holy Communion. We ask that we might be delivered from every past, present and future evil, that we might be granted peace and finally spared from all anxiety, never despairing or losing hope, so that, even from behind bars, we can “await in blessed hope for the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ”.
Dec 7, 2016
You go to your mailbox. You carry back to your home a bundle of mail. Ruffling through it, you anticipate that maybe someone has actually written to you. From experience, we have learnt to quickly dismiss the computer generated ones directed to “The current resident of…”. But there might be a particular letter that actually has your name printed on it. It assures you in bold tellers, that you have been, for example, “Pre-Approved”. Really? Someone actually went out of their way to find out who you are and were so impressed with your history and life that, out of the generosity of their heart, they wanted to give you a gift that keeps on giving? But you read the small print, “Certain conditions apply!” In other words, jump through the hoops and prove you can be trusted and you might just get, if you are lucky, yet another credit card!
In this day of emails and text messages, what are the chances of finding an old fashioned letter penned by hand from an old friend or acquaintance, someone who actually sat down, and with pen and paper wrote you a real letter. Not typed or printed with a quick signature at the end, but in careful selective handwriting, in every word they were thinking about you - that their love, their joy and appreciation were infused into the very ink of their pen, threaded through every word, every comma, every exclamation mark.
Now put this into context from the perspective of God. Borrowing from the imagery St. Paul evokes in our Second Reading (Ephesians 1:36, 11-12), before time began, God who is perfect love, was dreaming of each one of us, seeing you and me through the lens of His divine purity and holiness. And what a beautiful vision it must have been.
In a way, God could not wait to write to us a personal love letter - His Word. He brought everything into existence just to send His Word to us - of how much He loves and delights in us - that I am truly pre-approved by Him!
Unfortunately, on our side of the letter box, because of the sin of Adam and Eve, we have grown suspicious of every word, every letter, every postcard and greeting that has come our way. We are not good at sorting it all out. But God’s love is eternally persistent.
From all eternity, along with us, He likewise dreamt of the Virgin Mary. As a love letter is so uniquely matched to its envelope, God’s Word would be sealed within her. And written through every immaculate cell of her body is a name and address -, along with her own is also yours and mine - it reads with my name, "Care of: Mother Mary the New Eve”.
Dear friends, know that God dreamt of you before the foundation of the world, created the whole universe to reach you, and sent you His loving Word, sealed within Mary and opened by her on behalf of all humanity. Amid all the junk mail, text messages and emails that complete for our attention, seek out and listen to His Word, a handwritten love letter written personally by God to you and me through the very life of Christ our Lord.
As you listen to His Word, do not disregard His envelope! It still carries the full aroma of grace. Keep them both safe together! To Jesus, through Mary!
Dec 3, 2016
At this time of the year, with preparations underway for the Christmas festivities, the holiday lights that adorn some of our homes of course only make sense when the sun goes down and it's dark outside. The usual string of lights often serve to draw our attention away from the scrapes and scratches on the door, the streaks on the glass of the window and the dead leaves in the gutters that, thank God, nobody sees, unless they are up a ladder! As beautiful and charming as the holiday lights are and a welcome delight to see, communicating to the outside world a hint of warmth and festive cheer, they do not always reflect that same ideal spirit working behind the scenes, inside the house, in the kitchen, living room or dining room for example. At times, the lights are on, but nobody’s home!
Maybe this is why the images painted by the Prophet Isaiah in the first reading are so beautiful to imagine - the wolf shall be a guest of the lamb, the calf and the young lion grazing together guided by a little child - but we know instinctively that’s not going to happen anytime soon. And even on this side of the aisle the adornment of this sacred space, the particular colors we choose, the placement of the candles and lingering waft of incense, are all very visible to our eye and simulate our senses to look upward and beyond. But sometimes they too can betray the hidden tension, the struggles and challenges we often live with in the secret of our heart and souls.
Light and darkness are not always opposed to each other. Sometimes, they actually compliment each other, work with each other, making visible subtle details, texture, adding shape and dimension of what might otherwise be presumed as flat and uninteresting. The interplay between light and darkness, even in our own lives, defines our heart and soul - our character.
To help tease this out, the prophet John the Baptist takes center stage in the Gospel this Sunday. To the untrained eye one might think of him as an uncompromising short of guy. Far from it! It is unfortunately sometimes easy, if not convenient, to build up an image a holy man in “black and white” terms, for then I have already made up my mind. I have a readymade excuse just to listen to his words without reflecting upon the deeper meaning of what he is saying to me. With God’s grace, what in my conscience, in my soul, is awakened, aroused when I not only listen, but reflect on his message? Maybe my own arrogance has allowed me to see only what I want to see and hear only what I want to hear!
But there is something quite tender in the message of John the Baptist. Whereas we can use stones to build up great structures to protect ourselves, or use stones to throw at people, John the Baptist reminds us that God can also use these very same hardened stones - and turn them into children! What does that say? God seeks to transform the hardened heart into a complex and intricate heart of flesh - for it is a heart humble and contrite He will never turn away.
But finally, because we need, not a tug of war, but instead a sacred sense of tension in our hearts, John the Baptist provides us with an image of a mighty axe that seems poised and ready to do its job. Yet even while bringing it so near in a mighty swoop, it stops short, inches away from the root of the tree, as if frozen in time. Maybe that is because God’s grace comes to us, not like a lightning bolt to tear us apart but rather like an unquenchable flame that we can warm up to gradually - allowing it to comfort, as well as slowly cleansing us of all our impurities outside as well as inside. So, let us ask God to rescue us, even from ourselves, by finding a hidden way into our hearts and souls so that, with His grace, we might judge wisely the things of earth in all their goodness while holding on to the things of heaven that are eternal.
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