Apr 28, 2018

Going under the knife

5th Sunday of Easter:  

As you enter the enter the church piazza, you pass through the rose garden. I am grateful to the family who donated them, to our young scouting group that planted them, and to a few parishioners who are now looking after them.  

The reason why roses, like vines, need attention, is, if we simply leave them to grow on their own, they become tangled in on themselves. They might produce roses or grapes, but they will not be very beautiful and the grapes would tend to be bitter. When a vine grows into itself it crowds out the light from the center. It needs to be literally trained to branch out away from the center, to maximize its exposure to the sunlight and the air. And branches that want to grow inwards where it can become all tangled up, need to be pruned. If you don't, it not only looks a mess, it's ugly - it does not show forth it's beauty as God intends of it.  There are also other branches, that if untended, will grow fast in every direction, sometimes suffocating other plants, getting tangled up in fences and anything along their path.  I have, admittedly, only come to appreciate of late, the delicacy needed in cultivating roses. 

My understanding is that the same principles and practices also apply to cultivating vines to produce good grapes.  And California, of course, has some of the best vineyards producing an abundance of various wines. Whether the bouquet comes from the rose or the rose', this is what I have learnt about cultivating. It's not so much how to do it.  It's also, why.  The challenge is to apply this to our souls.

A better word used by other English versions of this passage in Scripture (Father John Knox's translation), instead of using the word "prune", they render it "to trim clean". Now let us apply Christ's analogy to ourselves.  Read again and mediate on our Lord's words, allowing him to access the state of the garden of your soul. The spiritual life needs discipline, nurturing, training. If we are to be rooted in Christ, not just planted in a flower pot, but deeply rooted in Him as the roots of a vine which go deep into the rich soil, we must allow ourselves to be, periodically, trimmed clean.

Nobody likes going under the knife. But the secret of trimming clean a part of a vine or a rose bush that is either going out of control or getting itself tied up in a knot, the secret is the type of blade that is used.  It's not  a kitchen knife or a pair of scissors from the drawer. The blade has to be carefully crafted, particularly sharp and immaculately clean, and not everyone is gifted as to how to use it with precision and to full effect.  

And so for the disciple - we have to trust this particular blade in His hands.  We even have to be willing to suffer a bit for the sake of heavenward growth and not be afraid of the gardener of our souls. Being trimmed clean by our Lord is always so that we might become stronger in our attachment to Him and more appreciative of His mercy in our lives.  

And even though at times we might feel spiritually dead or dormant, and at times have to weather sickness or disease or find ourselves all tied up or totally confused at times, if we remain planted in His vineyard and allow our souls to be trimmed clean by the Sacrament of His mercy and nourished by his Eucharistic Body and Blood, at the proper time, we will rejoice in producing a bounty of a rich harvest and bear much fruit.

Apr 21, 2018

The Easter Penguin!

Fourth Week of Easter


Not to be mistaken as a gathering of nuns on a day out, or a group of young gentlemen wearing tuxedos, I want you to think of penguins! Read penguins - those affable, wobbly  flightless birds, who dive into the arctic waters and jump out of holes in the ice with mouthfuls of fish.

But I’ve often wondered when I’ve seen images of thousands of penguins all huddled together on some Antarctic background, how do you tell them apart? But more particular, after the breeding season and there are equally thousands of young chicks who have not ventured into the waters to feed themselves, how do the parent penguins, returning to a penguin colony of thousands, be able to tell who’s who. Not only that, a returning parent with a mouthful of fish must be able to recognise their own chick and ignore all the thousands of other youngsters who are all indiscriminately crying out for food.

It seems, that, soon after birth, the parents have bonded so intimately with their young, that even when they leave them to search for food and later return to the thousands who are assembled on the edge of the icy water, the parent is able to distinguish, not by sight (that would be impossible), but by careful listening, the unique pitch and tone of their own offspring amid all the thousands of hungry squeals of chicks nervous and afraid that they have been abandoned.  No so.

By way of a similar image, our Lord assures us that, not only has He his eye on up, but that even if we should be lost in the valley of darkness, He can always find us. We will never be lost. He knows us personally, intimately. We are not just a huge mass of a flock. He knows each of us by name, what is hidden in our hearts, our hopes, fears and dreams and anxieties of life.  He is a shepherd, Who not only knows His flock. He knows, cares for, loves and is protective of each and every one of us Whom He knows, not by number, but by name.

Usually we call this Sunday after Easter, Good Shepherd Sunday. Indeed, Christ is the Good Shepherd. And that image of Him as such has inspired the most beautiful images and songs, poems and painting. But we should be careful not to stop there. Just because someone appears good, or brings us comfort and calms our fears, does not necessarily mean that we open our mouths and allow ourselves to be fed. Could one not deceive a vulnerable lamb that they are indeed a good Shepherd, and gently lure them away from the protection of the family by the sweetness of tender words, with promises of comfort and security? Might we not take a liking to a shepherd who showed himself as strong and mighty, chasing off the enemy with a show of strength and we would remark with relief that he was indeed a “good shepherd”?

Even throughout the political history of Israel, many individuals, from kings to politicians, from military commanders to revolutionaries, had at various times proclaimed themselves as good shepherds who were to lead their people to freedom. Christ calls them thieves and robbers! Instead of feeding the flock with true food, they themselves feed off the fears and vulnerabilities of others.  They are quickly unmasked and abandoned when we see their true colors and agenda.

Instead, He puts Himself forward, not simply as the Good Shepherd. He goes further. He presents Himself as the “True Shepherd”. Anyone can present themselves as a “good shepherd”. But Christ is only the Good Shepherd because He alone is the True Shepherd. How can you tell? Listen to His voice. Christ’s voice not only speaks the truth, but His voice, even if we do not fully understand it without minds, His voice reaches into the heart and soul. And we know, in our heart of hearts that we must follow Him, trust Him and love Him, even when we are still hungry and afraid. The True Shepherd will always keep His promises, and will even lay down His life, because He is a man of His Word.

And what is His Promise and His Word to us? “I have come that you may have life, and life abundantly”.  Here in this Eucharist, we call out to God who hears us, hears you and me crying out from the depth of our hearts and souls, “Feed me with everlasting life”. He responds to us most intimately through the Sacrament of the Eucharist, not only as a Good Shepherd who feeds us, but the True Shepherd who dares to nourish us with His own sacrificial Body and Blood. Because the Lord alone is my shepherd, there is nothing else I shall want, no-one else who hears me when I call, knows where I am, what I need, where I belong." Call to Him and you will be saved!

Apr 14, 2018

A New Body of Evidence


Third Sunday of Easter: With the crucifixion of Jesus, the disciples had been witnesses to great violence. Whether or not they actually were close enough to see the nails driven through our Blessed Lord’s hands and feet and his bloodied and punctured body, hoisted up on the cross, the curse of violence and the trauma of death were very much part of the their lives. How many times would they have to pass by the hanging corpses of victims of “Roman justice”?  

Growing up, living and constantly exposed to violence and death, be it real or imagined (on the case of violent video games) has an effect on the mind, the body and the soul. Think today of abused children, the families caught in war zones, refugees, or Christian martyrs in the Middle East, for example. Killings and executions, be they barbaric, ritualized or behind closed doors - whether they are rubber stamped by the halls of justice or carried out in a back alley, they corrode the beauty and dignity of at least two people - the one we presume innocent, and the one we presume guilty. 

It is into this culture of death, our Lord steps. He does so with a new body of evidence that can finally bring an end to conflicts, violence, wars and needless deaths.  This body of evidence he brings is his own body - his resurrected body, a transformed body. He is not a ghost of a past memory when all was peaceful and pleasant. Nor is he a dreamt up image of wishful thinking.  He gives his disciples solid food evidence that who they see before them is real, not a vision, or apparition nor the mind playing games.  Christ stands before them as God’s plan of victory for every conflict resolution not only throughout the world, but first within our lives (cf. “beginning in Jerusalem”) 

Standing before his disciples, our Lord now reaches into their troubled and wounded minds, with divine and brotherly compassion and gentleness. And deeper still, to touch His disciples in the depth of their lives, the Prince of Peace bestows upon them the gift of peace, a profound peace, a peace that this world can not give.

This gift of peace, given to the Church by our Lord is not simply for us to be strengthened and secured in our faith. We are duty bound to offer this gift of peace to the world, a world that still picks at its own wounds and often resists the gentle grace of God at work in so many unassuming ways. How?


Our Lord gives us clear instructions. “That repentance, for the forgiveness of sins, would be preached in his name to all the nations”. We preach to the world by our words and our actions, by how we live our lives, and even how we meet our death (as beautifully captured in the closing lines of the responsorial Psalm, “As soon as I lie down, I fall peacefully asleep, for you alone, O LORD, bring security to my dwelling”).

Let us ask for the prayers of our mother Mary. She witnessed, yes, the barbarity of her son’s violent death. But she witnessed the repentance of the good thief and Christ’s appeal to his heavenly Father for the forgiveness of those who crucified him. We must allow her openness to the grace of God’s words and her obedience to God’s commandments (cf. Second Reading), not simply to inspire us, but embolden us to continue and accomplish Christ’s vocation -  reconciling the world to His heavenly Father. His work is never done. As His witnesses, neither is ours!

Touching Fire



The Sunday after Easter we call Divine Mercy Sunday.  The actual picture of Divine Mercy is Christ himself. But this is not the simple theme for today's Sunday. Our Lord has always, is always and will always be merciful to us to approach him. Merciful love is at the "heart" of the nature of God's "personality".  

For this reason, the image the Church has adopted of Christ’s Divine Mercy shows a light that, while coming from the sacred open side of Christ, it also allows us to be drawn, beckoned by that same light into its very source. Here we can grasp the secret of divine mercy, the understanding that in Christ’s light, our own wounds are not erased from our bodies, but purified, healed, given a new meaning. No more fighting, shouting - no more anger - peace at last - Christ has fought all our battles, and won. 

Today's Gospel simply re-enforces this truth about God. Even after we betrayed our Lord and Savior by our cowardly faults and sins, and in our guilt find ourselves, like the apostles, locked up in a dark room of our choosing, He takes the initiative and enters into our prison wanting to release us. 

We can get so used to darkness. But God’s mercy, His love is a tender light, for He never wants to scare us. He finds us often tired and vulnerable, hurting and even closed up inside ourselves.  Even though we do not see Him, He sees us, gently looks at us. 

And if only we could see how He gazes at us - not with pity. No. Something much deeper and heartfelt - Christ gazes upon us with a deep, deep tenderness.  The gentle light He bathes us in is an embrace of peace.  “Peace be with you”, “Do not be afraid”. 

Having won His victory over the devil, over death, over sin, Christ enters into the place where His disciples have gathered - many of them are afraid and tired. They are probably embarrassment they had abandoned Him to the cross, that they ran away and hid.  This is the same Christ who never received mercy when He needed it most.  But now He returns, not to scold or to teach His disciples a lesson. Christ does not break down the door and shine a flashlight into our faces. No. He enters without disturbance.  His presence communicates gentleness, mercy - the tenderness of God’s love even to the most hardened criminal or to the most shamefaced sinner.   

And as if to make this point through an example, we are told about Thomas, who was called “the doubter”. It seems that he was determined to keep the door of his heart securely closed. Even the talk of Christ’s resurrection could not unhinge him. It took Christ himself to do so. But before Thomas could experience the full effects of the resurrection of His Lord, he first had to reach out and touch the Christ’s wounds – he had to join his suffering, his hurt, his pain to Christ’s - not to experience the agony of crucifixion, but the tenderness of reconciliation and peace.

All of us must do likewise. If we don’t, then we are only forensic scientists looking at Christ's wounds and taking notes.  No. Christ’s wounds are the tell-tale signs of a love and sacrifice for you and me.  Christ's wounds, communicate not the horror of crucifixion, but beauty of the resurrection - the depths of His love that knows no limit.  

This is why Christ is no martyr for love. His only suffering now, is that we do not, at times, realize how wonderfully loved we are, even when we lock ourselves away in our hiding places. 

Thomas was beckoned to reach out and join his own ugly wounds to the beautiful wounds of Christ. And maybe that’s why an image of divine love we often see is a heart radiating fire - It takes courage to put one's hand into a divine fire, but it takes faith to do so knowing that you will not be burnt. Courage and faith.  Christ beckons us to have faith and be courageous. Let us pray that the Holy Spirit will encourage us to be courageous and faithful.


Apr 1, 2018

Home for Easter


Every Sunday, the first day of the week, has been always dedicated to the Lord. That's why we call it the "Lord's Day".  It's not your day. It's not my day. It's the Lord's Day.  


It's also the first day of the week, the working week.  It's the first day of our heavenly Father's work, and that of His greatest work, rising Jesus Christ from the dead. God has done all the heavy lifting! We gather on Sundays to say "thank you", but also to tap into God's strength that can defeat the powers of darkness, the anger that comes from hatred, the fears that breed intolerance, the injustice that condemns the innocent.  


This does not come from people power. It comes from God's grace that alone can move mountains, defeat evil and raise the dead to life. Jesus Christ is living proof! What brings us here on Sunday, whether we realize it or not, is the Holy Spirit speaking through our conscience, our soul's desire to be filled of God's grace, to be be filled with His strength. For we know, that left to our own way of doing things, we will be always tired, never truly at peace or content with ourselves or our the world.


But whether you are here Sunday after Sunday, whether you arrived late or out of breath, have your favorite seat or find yourself hiding behind a pillar, or chasing your kids behind the glass doors in the children’s area, or even listening to the service from the outside speakers in the piazza, regardless where you have come from or where you find yourself in life, here and now, in this holy place, around this altar - the meeting place between heaven and earth, you are home - you can be at rest.


Here, in God's house, in His holy Church there’s room, a safe place for everyone. That’s why the word that best describes the Church is “catholic”, an ancient adjective that simply means “universal, belonging to all”. The Catholic Church was never and is never a denomination.


That's why, when we are at home, it’s the only place where our lives are real: faith and fear, love and hope, struggles and ideals.  It is here that we remember that God knows me by my name. It is here, like an oasis in the desert, where I can finally reflect on my life outside of the noise and craziness of the world. It is where sacred music and graceful movement, where the flickering of beeswax candles and the sweet smell of incense can raise our minds up towards a vision of a new heaven and a new earth.  


This is where we find assurance that God listens to our prayers, our worries, our hopes and even our fears.  This is where our souls can be fed, not with food for thought, but with food from heaven.  Here is where saints and sinners sit on the same bench - a family were we love and care for each other, and even, at times fight and wrestle among ourselves. And even though any one of us might have a thousand reasons not to be here, it only takes one reason to be here on Sunday.


We know that today marks, in a way, the event accomplished by Jesus Christ, who was killed on the cross and buried in a tomb on Friday, and on the third day, He miraculously and physically rose from the sleep of death. That’s the Resurrection. In fact, it's what we celebrate every Sunday. This is how we begin each working week, with the power of God that raises the dead to life, giving us new purpose in our daily life.


I would like to renew the invitation to keep returning to this sacred place, Sunday after Sunday - to keep this day sacred so that we can begin every working week with the strength that comes from Christ's victory over sin and death itself.


Open up your senses, and allow your sight, your hearing, your touch, smell, taste and posture to be purified by something sacred - not of this world. Open up your heart, and allow the gentle Spirit of God to slowly calm your fears and anxieties.  Open up your soul, to recognize your deepest longing for God, not for a brief moment – but for all eternity.  


Build upon this holy hour. Build upon this day. Build upon the Lord's Day, again and again. For even if you do not receive Holy Communion, keep coming back. Allow God's Church to help build up within you an appetite for a food and a suspense for what is eternal.  


I know it is not easy.  Sometimes it will take some time to slowly turn a big ship around.  But now that you are here and have begun this momentum, continue to come about.

And maybe this is what Easter is all about. Finding something that is predictably eternal when all about us in chaos and and crisis. Finding someone who was dead and then defeated its power and broke its hold - our point of reference to begin every week is not a concept, an idea, a feeling or emotion. It's a person - that's Jesus Christ our Lord. 

Here in this sacred place is where we hear His Word, meet Him face to face and receive the strength of His grace Sunday after Sunday to get through the week, again and again and again until that one eternal day comes upon us. May we be able to meet it head on, because we got a glimpse of it today, the Lord's Day.

Joseph

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