Jan 30, 2021

Faithful Surrender


Too often when we picture Jesus Christ, especially in our imaginations, we have the tendency to see Him as a reassuring presence, a friendly face, a comfort in the midst of the storm and challenges of life. 

Unfortunately, too often we have an unrealistic picture, often influenced by devotional pictures, religious imagery and artistic impressions. Granted, there are no actual  photographs of Jesus, apart from maybe the imprint of His likeness on His death shroud. 


Of course, we have the perspectives of the early apostles and disciples who wrote the New Testament portion of the Bible. They had the privilege of seeing Christ through the lense of His Resurrection from the dead, His ascension into heaven and could now see Him clearly through the gift of the Holy Spirit, Who helped them to understand and articulate the life and mission of Jesus even for us today. 


But we should not forget another point of reference, a unique perspective of seeing Christ which speaks volumes of the power of His personality and the invisible dynamics of His soul which were often on display. How did the demonic actually see Him when Our Lord stood before those unfortunately processed by them or influenced by evil spirits. 


Although the people who encountered Jesus did not know him as yet as “God with them”, the demons knew. They even shouted out in horror and fear, for they knew that through the eyes of Jesus of Nazareth, God was looking right at them! 


You see, the devil and his demons are theologians with true knowledge about God. They are not atheists!  They know that God exists.  In fact the devil is very spiritual. He knows about the complexities of the soul - his demons know the hidden fears of the human heart, the thirst and hunger each person has for God.  They are theological and spiritual experts. But they are without faith, forever obstinate, forever stubborn in their refusal of God's influence. These fallen angels are perpetually caught up in their own burning furnace of pride and arrogance and they refuse to let go of their recycling behavior. 


When Christ came upon those possessed by evil spirits and demons, what did He in fact actually see? What did God see through the eyes of Christ? Did He see demons before Him like frenzied hyenas with blood-red eyes and razor sharp fangs and claws, dark creatures with flattering bat-wings? 


I would say no.  The gaze of God saw, first and foremost, children with diseases, men and women suffering from sickness and epidemics, those enslaved by addictions and deep wounds.  In short, God saw first and foremost our injuries and our ailments. God looked at us through the eyes of Jesus and His gaze was one of compassion, not revulsion - His gaze was one of mercy, not disgust. The loving and tender gaze of Christ, like a powerful sword, cut through the devil's suffocating cloud. His word evaporated the demonic hold.  


God saw right through them and saw you and me, in all our weaknesses, our vulnerabilities and our broken spirits. God gives "us" the attention, not the demons. As we heard in the Gospel today, He doesn't even allow them to speak theology.  Christ will instead patiently wait for us to surrender to Him, not out of fear, but from faith in His strength and out of need of His love.


What does this tell us? We can not pride ourselves in simply having the true knowledge about God.  The devil, in fact, knows more than we do!  Instead, we should not be afraid to look at Christ, and to look at Him eye to eye.  But to do so takes great courage on our part, for we must, in a way, “capture” His gaze - allow it to purify us from any pride, selfishness and recklessness. Christ's gaze is disarming - it can be frightening and we might experience a battle of wills. But by laying down our arms, of all the things we often hide behind, and submitting to Him, then only we will find true liberation.  


So that we may see the face of God and live (cf. First Reading) may our preparation for Holy Communion with our Lord always begin with a careful examination of our souls, not simply in the light of our knowledge of the faith, but also and in particular, under the gaze of Christ’s patient mercy and healing, so generously made available in the Sacrament of Confession. 


Never be afraid of Confession. It reminds us, as St. Paul spoke in the second reading, that before anything or anyone else in this world, Christ claims you and me first. If today you hear his voice, harden not your heart. Stop fighting, surrender and claim the prize of victory, and peace of body and soul is assured.




4th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Jan 24, 2021

Fish out of water


Third Sunday in Ordinary Time:  
  
The story so far. John the Baptist has been arrested, silenced by his enemies. He no longer has a platform to preach to his followers. They now look to Christ to lead them. We read that the Lord withdraws to the most northern part of the country, Galilee. The Lord does not flee, he is not afraid for his own life now, nor is he on the run. In military language, perhaps His strategy might be termed “cover and move”.

Instead Christ resists the temptation to go fearlessly straight into the battle. To come face to face with his enemies at the beginning of his ministry, tempting as it may be, would not allow the Lord accomplish great things in the lives of others, such as with Peter, Andrew, James and John – the fishermen of Galilee.

And as He moves from town to town on His mission, what is His message. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand”. The Lord’s message highlights that there is time, but also that our days are numbered. His gift of a way out of darkness will cause joy for some or will or will cause others to seek out new hiding places, but not by the fishermen in the Gospel today. They recognized an opportunity for salvation, and they like fish jumped at the bait provided by God, even to the point of leaving behind all that was familiar in their lives. 

Why fishermen to be the first disciples? Peter, Andrew, James and John, understood the world of the sea and ocean. In a way, the creatures that live in the depths can reflect humanity living in darkness. The depths of the ocean, as beautiful as they may be to the underwater diver with snorkel and mask, it is a place where creatures live in constant fear of everything, where the inhabitants will either disguise themselves in their surroundings, armor themselves with beauty or with poison, or hide themselves in cracks and rocks afraid or lying in ambush. 

Caught in the tides and undercurrents, they are all swept along. Christ would instruct his fishermen-apostles to rescue men and women from such a life, and bring them to dry land where they would finally find their feet and stand upright in the light of day and be able to see the world from a heavenly perspective.

With the Season of Lent fast approaching, it would be wise to begin early our response to the call of the Lord to repent for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand. It is only the stubborn, the proud and the fearful who find refuge in darkness and to their own destruction. We, on the other hand, should be happy and grateful to be given the opportunity to respond to the Good News, the gift of salvation. “If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts” (Psalm 95)

Jan 17, 2021

You can’t teach sins away!


St. John the Baptist had attracted many people by his message of repentance and the need for conversion in preparation for the arrival of Christ. Now as the Lord has entered into the scene, John points his own followers in the direction of Christ. John, having attracted thousands of people now retreats back into obscurity. He has fulfilled his mission, to prepare the way for the Lord. 

He could have joined Christ, and the two of them could have been a powerful force together, but no. What Christ had now to do must come whole-heartedly from the motivation of God, not man. Even John the Baptist’s former disciples, could not look back, now that they have been introduced to the Lord. 

In the same way, there are many methods of prayer, of reading and appreciating the Scriptures, ways of preparing to receive the Sacraments. But once we make contact with Christ himself, we must be prepared to let our Lord teach us personally and allow him to lead the way.

And this He does through two great sacraments. St. John the Baptist helps us to understand these by identifying Jesus as the” Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” In Confession the sins of the repentant are taken away. “It is called the sacrament of conversion because it makes sacramentally present Jesus’ call to conversion, the first step in returning to the Father from whom one has strayed by sin.” CCC 1423

How does Christ do this? Does He just cover them up, delete them, wash them away? No. He puts them to death. Christ the Good Shepherd took the place of the most vulnerable lamb of the flock and gives His own life in sacrifice for the sins of the world. That sacrificial death is renewed, made present, in an un-bloody way in the Mass we offer to our Heavenly Father. By actively participating in His sacrifice with mind, body and soul, with sorrow for our sins, and repentance from them, our trespasses are forgiven and our life begins anew. 

We stand before the altar of God conscious of our “constant need” to be purified of our sins – the purification of our minds (for we carry the memories of bad choices we have made), the purification of our bodies (which too often bear the side affects of our sinful disposition) and the purification of our soul which cries out for union with God and is often ignored. Like the disciples in the Gospel today who left their past associations to follow Christ, we must allow our Lord to point us too in the right direction. And this takes time, thank God.

Even though Jesus is introduced as the Lamb of God, the disciples in the beginning chapters of the Fourth Gospel, at this beginning stage of their journey simply address him as “teacher”. Only a little later, when they are invited into his house, do they recognize him as the Messiah. But it will take the later chapters of their lives when they are introduced to the cross and the resurrection for the disciple to humbly acknowledge Jesus as “my Lord and my God”.

Having left the season of Christmas, the Church calendar today introduces us to the first part of Ordinary Time. It will take us to Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent. This journey is reflected in the color of green. It announces life, growth, looks forward to spring. It is a color which comes forth after storms and rain. It must mark our own journey of continuing conversion and growth, seeking deeper insight and renewed faith in Jesus Christ through the Church which he has made Holy by his presence in our midst and though the Sacrifice of the Mass. In this great sacrament he takes away the sins of the world, beginning with yours and mine, if we allow him to. Time will tell!

Jan 10, 2021

This world stinks!


Baptism of the Lord


Some time ago I had led a pilgrimage to the Holy Land to visit the historical sights associated with Christ. We visited the little cave in Bethlehem where Our Lord was born, wandered through the desert where He confronted Satan head on. We sat on the shores of the Sea of Galilee where our Lord preached. We walked the streets of Jerusalem, our feet touching the every stones which paved its streets two thousand years ago. We looked up at the ancient crumbling walls of what is left of the old temple and visited the place associated with the site of the Last Supper. We entered into the large church built over the hill of calvary where He was crucified to death and, one by one, passed into His empty tomb where he resurrected from the dead. We climbed the steep and winding path up the hill of the Mount of Olives where the Risen Lord was lifted up into heaven.


Of course, during our visits we share the road with tourists, holiday makers, Christians, Jews and Muslims, believers and nonbelievers. But as we read the scripture accounts, studied our surroundings and meditated on the significance of where we were, we could not help but be immersed into the very life, death and resurrection of Christ. What we had learnt in Sunday school, seen in holy pictures, read in the Bible, within the context of the holy sites we stood in, Christ became real, His life meaningful and His spirit and grace alive in those moments.


A rare opportunity was opened for us to also visit the river Jordan in whose waters Jesus was baptised, as we read in the Gospel today. We had even planned to wade into the river, to renew a sense of our own baptism in the waters that Christ had once been baptised in. As we approached the banks, we looked at the river. It was filthy! Parts of it were stagnant. You could see trash and plastic objects floating in it, even here and there a shimmer of oil on the surface. The water was brown and smelly, flies and insects danced on its surface. Even an occasional dead fish floated by! God only knew what lay beneath it. It was repugnant. Instinctively, I knew this place was a major health hazard.


Was I going to even touch this water, even dip my finger into it, to at least bless myself?  


I read and mediated on the Gospel we have just heard, recalling Christ being baptised in this river. It then occurred to me, during Christ’s time this very river that flowed into the desert was used by towns and villages upstream to dump their human waste. Now that I looked into this filthy dirty water before me, realizing how disgusting and more vile it must’ve been so 2000 years ago, used as a floating dumpster for humanity. What was Christ getting himself into?


As pilgrims, passing through this world, we can visit the sites associated with Christ’s life, death and resurrection but we can keep ourselves clean, sanitized, on the outside looking in or reviewing our Lord’s life like a picture book, a movie or walking through a museum. 


God did not tiptoe through the murky waters or walk carefully across stepping stones from one side of the river Jordan to the other. No. The word “baptism“ literally means “immersion”. God was no tourist to earth or a pilgrim visiting sites. The pure and the holy, the divine and sinless one, totally immersed Himself, plunged himself completely into the filth and horror, into the physical and spiritual (dare I call it…) excrement of the human condition, into the dark depths, into the very bowels of human sin. He was baptized, not only into our life, but into our sickness, our diseases, our sins, our death. 


Do we as Christians remain on the riverbank peering in from a distance, astonished, removed, or from the sidelines, simply full of admiration for what Christ did? Can we hear His voice again that calls to us saying, “come follow me”. What? Follow you into your baptism, that baptism? 


Yes. Do not be afraid, He would tell us. Despite its appearance from the shore, Christ has cleansed the sinful and dangerous waters of the human condition. He has absorbed into His very self all the sins of the world - He has put them to death. Through Him, they have no sticking power, but only if we allow ourselves to be immersed deeper and deeper into His life, His death and resurrection. 


That’s why we can not simply sit on the riverbank, or observe Christ’s life from a safe distance like tourists simply passing through. The grace initiated in our life when we were first baptised, still runs through us. Is that water still clean or does it stink?  That’s why it is also so important to regularly repent of, confess and do penance for our sins. Doing so safeguards us slipping or falling down a muddy bank into an uncharted river whose contents and direction we know not.


With the closing of the Christmas season now upon us, meditate on how God immersed himself into the complexities of our human lives. But do not be afraid to immerse yourself deeper and deeper into his, so that we may come to share in the heights of his divinity because He dared to plunge Himself into the depths of our humanity. 





Jan 2, 2021

2021 Which Way?

 


2021

Which Way now?


Sunday sees us celebrating the event when the “three wise men'' (often called the three kings or the Magi ) arrive on the scene of Christ’s birth in Bethlehem. Their journey to the Christmas manger was a careful choreography of following a star, making prudent inquiries from civic and religious authorities and exploring the scripture prophecies - all while the general population was on edge as to what all this would mean to the political, religious and cultural ideologies of the day. There were a lot of mechanisms at play, checks and balances, both by heaven and earth, by saints and sinners to set the stage for the coming of the Messiah. 


After they had paid their homage to the baby Jesus and paid their respects to the Virgin Mary and St. Joseph, the Wise Men disappear into the darkness and secretly return to their distant lands. Of course, this provokes the rage of the paranoid King Herod who, failing to track and trace the whereabouts of the newly born messiah, initiates the slaughter of all the newborn babies in the region of Bethlehem. Forewarned, St. Joseph quickly takes Mary and the child Jesus, escaping the impending bloodbath by retreating to Egypt. There they must wait until it is safe to return home. In the meantime, family life is far from normal. 


This has been, in so many ways, the story of our lives too, even at St. Margaret’s. During the past year, like the three wise men, we found ourselves carefully navigating our way through civic and religious complexities in order to encounter Christ in the sacraments, and in a manner that did not provoke outside intervention. 


Like the Holy Family, we know that our surroundings are not ideal but that they are temporary. Like them, we also have the sense that we can not return a sense of normality for some time yet. Both the Wise Men and the Holy Family must leave their Christmas of Bethlehem behind and take the long way home. That we also must do. 


What we have been through so far has inevitably changed us. It has reshaped and redefined our relationships with God, each other and the church. We might be tempted by muscle memory to dream of returning to the ways we had it in the past. But when the Wise Men returned to their distant lands and the Holy Family returned from their exile in Egypt, there would be no turning back the clock, no nostalgia for times past. 


If we are to allow God’s Word to again take root, grow and produce a great harvest, then we too must be open to new changes, a new environment, a different way experiencing divine grace and mercy with a better understanding of what it means to be a parish church. 


Like the Holy Family waiting out their time in Egypt or the Wise Men slowly navigating their way home through uncharted lands, when we eventually get settled back into parish life again, it definitely will not be the same as we left it. That’s because we will not be the same as when we left it. 


May this new year of grace, bring forth within us, at the right time and despite the challenges and uncertainties, a new and refreshing model of being a parish church, not just for ourselves, but for the new generations to come. 

Gardening Kingdom

  We often hear this phrase, “The Kingdom of God ''.  We even pray, “Thy Kingdom Come”.  This “Kingdom” was the hallmark of Our Lord...