Weekly Reflection (7 Mar 2021)

3rd Sunday of Lent Year B

Exodus 20:1-17
1 Corinthians 1:22-25
John 2:13-25

Is the path to faith through our eyes, our heads or our hearts?

My brothers and sisters. Is our path to faith achieved through our eyes and our heads? We are visual beings. We often say, “seeing in believing”. Moreover, our eyes are attracted to glamour and grandeur. By this argument, all it would take for all of us to become faithful believers is for God to manifest Himself in grandeur. On the other hand, some are us are attracted to intellect and logic. Our heads seek deep theological understanding of God’s teachings. Some of us believe that an in-depth understanding of God would make us faithful believers. However, history and experience tell us that even as our eyes witness the grandeur of God and our heads comprehend the wisdom of God, our hearts remained unconvinced.

In Exodus story, when the Israelites were escaping from Egypt, God came down as a pillar of cloud and fire (Ex 13:21-22), to guide the people and protect them from the pursuing Egyptian army. Later on, as the people approached the Red Sea, God parted the sea, so that “the Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left.” (Ex 14:22) As grandeur goes, these events of Ex 13-14 were very spectacular.

Later, as the people journeyed towards the Holy Land, God gave them the Ten Commandments. This week’s First Reading, taken from Ex 20, presents us the Ten Commandment. The first three of the Commandments address with our relationship with God; while the next seven address with our relationship with each other. The Ten Commandments are moral laws to help free the people from immoral practices they grew accustomed to in Egypt. In essence, the Ten Commandments say,

  1. Honour God
  2. Honour God’s name
  3. Honour God’s day
  4. Honour your father and mother
  5. Do not kill
  6. Do not commit adultery
  7. Do not steal
  8. Do not lie
  9. Do not wrongfully desire your neighbour’s wife
  10. Do not wrongfully desire your neighbour’s goods

The people have just witnessed spectacular miracles as they escaped from the Egyptians. Then God gave them the Ten Commandments. As wisdom goes, these Commandments embody deep theological truth. The miracles fed the people’s eyes and the Commandments feed the people’s heads. By themselves, did these make the people fervent followers of God? No! The people in fact were unfaithful to God. They fashioned and worshiped the golden calf (Ex 32:1-6); they complained about lack of food (Ex 16:2-3) and even the quality of food (Num 21:5)!

In the Second Reading this week, St Paul says, the “Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom” (verse 22), but these by themselves do not lead us to God. For what are signs but miracles of grandeur that satisfy the eye; and what is wisdom but food for the head? The truth is, the path to my conversion lies in my heart, not my eyes or my head. While I may lament how superficial the Jews were, in truth, as a modern Christian, I am no different. I seek miraculous signs, thinking they would make me a better Christian. I seek theological knowledge, thinking I can reason myself into believing. But this is not so. To be a believer, I need to open my heart to encountering God. The euphoria of witnessing a miraculous sign does not endure the passage of time. Similarly, the intellect cannot override a heart that is darkened. Have we ever wondered why in our society, no matter how severe the punishment for a particular crime is, no matter how aware a would-be criminal is of the severe punishment, there are always people committing that crime? The intellect cannot override a darkened heart.

“Then some of the scribes and Pharisees said to him, ‘Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.’” (Mt 12:38) Like the Pharisees and the Scribes in Jesus’ time, I too demand a sign to make my heart believe. But if I am not prepared to open my heart to God, I am only deceiving myself. In response to the request for a sign, Jesus answered, “No sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For just as Jonah was for three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so for three days and three nights the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth.” (Mt 12:39-40) Just as Jonah entered into the tomb of the big fish for three days, Jesus entered into His tomb for three days. Again, in the Gospel this week, we hear how after Jesus drove out the traders and moneychangers from the temple (verse 14-15), the Jews asked him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” (verse 18) Jesus answered, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (verse 19). In response to a request for a sign, Jesus again referred to His suffering, death and resurrection.

My brothers and sisters, the sign Jesus referred to in both stories – the sign of His suffering, death and resurrection – is not just a sign for my eyes, it is the sign for my heart. His suffering, death and resurrection speaks to our hearts of God’s mercy and love. In order to be a true believer, I must follow in Jesus’ footsteps, that I deny myself, pick up the cross and follow Him (Mt 16:24). Let us reflect on how we can follow in Jesus’ footsteps in our daily life. If I truly love my neighbour, I could serve without seeking recognition or reward. If I truly love my enemy, I could accept injustice inflicted upon me without seeking revenge. And if I truly love God, I could forgive all who wronged me even without seeking an apology. This is what the sign of Jesus in the tomb teaches me. Otherwise, if my heart is darkened by greed, pride or vengeance, grandeur miracles and theological intellect cannot heal my heart. I cannot find true peace and happiness. This is why the prophet Isaiah said, “Make the mind of this people dull, and stop their ears, and shut their eyes, so that they may not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and comprehend with their minds, and turn and be healed.’ (Isa 6:10)

In the Second Reading, St Paul proclaims the crucified Christ as the answer to the Jews who demanded sign and the Greek who demanded wisdom. “For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.” (verse 25). If we reason the Commandments of God in our heads, they remain only in our heads, extraneous to our hearts. Let Jesus speak to our hearts as He sums up the Ten Commandments perfectly like this, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. … You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” (Matthew 22:37,39)

Let us open our hearts to Jesus. Amen.

Weekly Reflection (28 Feb 2021)

2nd Sunday of Lent Year B

Genesis 22:1-2,9-13,15-18
Romans 8:31-34
Mark 9:2-10

Grow in our faith by embracing the mystery of our faith.

My dear brothers and sisters. Our faith is a mystery. Often, we see this most vividly when God blesses us in mysterious ways. Let us ask ourselves, were there times in my life that I ask God for a favour but God made me wait? Were there times in my life where I do not understand God’s plan in my life? Were there times in my life where God blesses me in ironical ways, when blessings come in the form of challenges, difficulties or even misfortunates? It is times like these that we are called to trust in God’s divine providence. But this is not easy. Our faith is a mystery and unlike a puzzle, a mystery is not something for us to solve. Rather, a mystery is something for us to embrace. And it is only with trust in God that we can embrace a mystery of faith.

Abraham is known as the father of faith. However, Abraham’s journey to faith is a trying one. In Gen 15:2, Abraham lamented to God that he was childless, and his servant Eliezer would become his heir. But God’s made a promise to Abraham, that not only will Abraham have a child of his own, but his descendants will number as the stars in heaven (Gen 15:4-5) God made this as a covenant promise to Abraham, as God Himself, appearing as a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch, passed between the sacrificial animals that Abraham prepared (Gen 15:9-17). But after ten years, when Abraham and Sarah were 100 years and 90 years of age respectively, they were still childless. So the couple took matters into their own hands, Sarah gave her slave girl Hagar to Abraham and Hagar conceived. (Gen 16:3-4) In spite of Abraham’s lack of faith, God remained ever faithful to Abraham. God again promised Abraham, that Sarah will bear a son “and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her” (Gen 17:16). Abraham laughed (Gen 17:17). Later on, when God visited the couple, He repeated his promise. Sarah laughed. (Gen 18:10-12). In spite of Abraham’s and Sarah’s lack of faith, true to His words, Sarah conceived soon after and Isaac was born (Gen 21:2-5)

We may feel that Abraham’s and Sarah’s lack of faith were excusable. After all, they remained childless for ten years after God first made His covenant promise to them. But yet as St Peter said, “with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day” (2 Pt 3:8) Yes, my dear friends, as the popular saying goes, “good things come to those who wait.” The season of waiting is a blessing from God. God makes us wait for a reason. The season of waiting nurtures fidelity and patience in our faith. Single people called to marriage sometimes have to wait for many years to meet the right partner. Married couples called to parenthood sometimes have to wait for many years before they conceive a child. Ambitious young professionals called to serve the community sometimes have to wait for many years for a career breakthrough. In truth, Abraham’s faith journey mirrors many of ours. But like Abraham, we are impatient. We like to take shortcuts and we suffer the consequences. Because of his lack of patience and trust, Abraham laid with the slave girl Hagar who bore him a son Ishmael. The conception of Ishmael brought great challenges. (But this a reflection for another time.)

After the birth of Isaac, in the First Reading this week, we hear how God nurtured Abraham’s faith through a stern test. God demanded Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. This request must have been both shocking and confusing for Abraham. After being promised descendants as numerous of the stars in heaven; after waiting for ten long years, a child was finally born to Abraham. Then God asked Abraham to sacrifice the child! Abraham did not complain. He did not protest. Unlike the previous occasions, Abraham responded in obedience and trust. Nevertheless, Isaac is Abraham’s beloved son. Imagine the heavy heart Abraham would be carrying, as he went about the preparation work to sacrifice his son! In truth, God who is all knowing, knew Abraham’s heart. God knew that Abraham was by then a man of great faith, that he would not withhold anything from God, not even his beloved son. In fact, this stern test was not for God to know Abraham’s heart; it was for Abraham to know his own heart. God wanted Abraham to know how far his faith has grown. And what an agonising process it was for Abraham. Such is the mystery of our faith!

But God is never outdone in generosity. Where Abraham doubted God, God blessed him with a child. Where Abraham trusted God, God rewarded him with offspring “as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore” (verse 17). The Second Reading draws a parallel between the fatherly sacrifice of Abraham and God the Father: “He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us” (verse 32) Just as Abraham did not hold back his son Isaac out of his love for God, God did not hold back His Son out of His love for humankind. As St Augustine reflected, God spared Abraham’s son, but for sake of humanity, did not spare His own Son. Whereas God providing a ram to save Issacs; He did not hold back His own Son; but providing Jesus as a Lamb to save all of humankind. While we empathise with Abraham for having to make the difficult choice of sacrificing his son, let me marvel at the faithful love of God for us for sacrificing His own Son. God is never outdone in generosity.

This week’s Gospel story of the Transfiguration is another example of how God blesses us in mysterious ways. The Transfiguration is recorded in all three synoptic Gospels of Matthew (17:1-8), Mark (9:2-8) and Luke (9:28-36); and is always read on the second week of Lent. The Transfiguration occurred at a time when Jesus was about to face his gruesome death. It is in this context that God sent Moses and Elijah to strengthen him. Like Abraham in the First Reading, at the Transfiguration, God the Father was making preparation to sacrifice His Son. In the midst of the great mystery of the Transfiguration, we were told that Peter in his ignorance (Luke 9:33, Mk 9:6) proposed to build three tents for Jesus, Moses and Elijah respectively. Peter was ignorant. Firstly, to build three tents would be putting Jesus on par with Moses and Elijah. Secondly, while the Transfiguration is an awe-inspiring event, Jesus, Peter, James and John were never meant to remain on the mountain. Jesus has to come down from the mountain to face his sufferings so as to reconcile man to God. Peter too needs to come down from the mountain to face the tests God prepared for him, so that he may grow into the great leader God was grooming him to be.

My brothers and sisters, let us conclude with a self-reflection. Faith is a mystery that God progressively unveils to us. As I move closer to Good Friday on my Lenten walk, let me recognise that Jesus is laying a path for me to follow, for me to carry my crosses and follow Him (Lk 9:23), in fidelity, in patience and in trust. There is no resurrection without death; and no glorification without suffering. “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (Jn 12:24) Dear friends, this is our faith.

Weekly Reflection (21 Feb 2021)

1st Sunday of Lent Year B

Genesis 9:8-15
1 Peter 3:18-22
Mark 1:12-15

We have began our Lenten journey. Our renewal and restoration journey starts now. It starts here.

Many of us are proud. So proud are we that we let our pride blind us from recognising our sins. So proud are we that we judge everyone else’s sins but ours. So proud are we that we close ourselves from the healing touch of Jesus. Or perhaps our sins so shameful that we buried them deep in our consciousness? As a result, our sins continue to hurt us and hurt those around us, especially those we love most. We carry our sins into our families and into our communities, we hurt our spouses, our friends, our brothers and sisters. Our children watch us, learn from us and repeat the same mistakes. In due course, they too hurt themselves and those they love. We passed our sins onto our children, and in turn, they onto their children. This is the true tragedy of Original Sin.

Reading the above, what are your thoughts right at this moment? Are you thinking: I know of this and that other person who is doing exactly that – sinning and not recognising his/her sins, hurting those he/she loves. My dear friends, why am I looking elsewhere for such a person? Am I the one who is so proud or shameful that I fail to recognise my own sins? Do not look elsewhere, look inside ourselves instead.

This was the people’s attitude when Noah was building the Ark. In Noah’s time, the world was filled with evil. Yet they were oblivion, unaware of their sins. Like the proverbial frog in water slowly being brought to boil, Jesus said this about the people, “For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man.” (Mt 24:38-39)

We have entered the season of Lent, a preparation period for Easter. On Good Friday, Christ died for our sins. As this week’s Second Reading put it, “For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God.” (verse 18) We go through our Lenten observance each year – praying, almsgiving, self-denying – often without truly internalising the meaning of our Lenten observance. Jesus’ resurrection on Easter is meaningless without his death on Good Friday. Likewise, our Lenten observance is meaningless without our repentance. We fail to acknowledge our sins – no, not the trivial ones that we tend to bring to Confession time and time again – but the truly grave sins that we are too proud or too ashamed to admit.

So, what must I do? Here is a three-step process. Firstly, I must clear away all the obstacles to God’s grace. We often put up excuses: “I am ok, I don’t need this.” “I am too busy right now, another time.” “Now is not a good time.” These are but manifestations of my pride, my shame. I am hiding from my own sins, not prepared to face up to them. The next step is to lay down my pride. To be healed, I must be prepared to be vulnerable. Speak to Jesus and say, Lord I need healing. In spite of my shortcomings, speak to Jesus the same way the father of a possessed child spoke to him, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mk 9:24) Finally, after I have cleared away the obstacles and stand vulnerable before God, all is left for me is to truly open myself to His grace. Invite Him into my heart and my mind, and be ready to be renewed and restored.

In the story of Noah, God sent the water of the great flood to cleanse the world of evil. The First Reading speaks of God establishing a covenant with his creations: that the world will never be flooded again; and that death and destruction will never again befall upon his people (verse 12-15). The Second Reading draws a parallel between the water of Noah’s time and the water of our baptism (verse 21). Like the water of the flood, the water of baptism washes away our sins and cleanses us of evil. It is only when we are truly open the God’s grace that we are able to internalise these priceless teachings of the Church. For as the Second Reading explained, sin is not like dirt that we can just wash away. Sin brings hurt, hurt brings pain and pain brings suffering. This is why Jesus took upon my sins. The Gospel tells the story of how Jesus allowed Himself to be tempted like us, as He wandered in the wilderness for 40 days. But Jesus did not succumb to temptations. “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.” (Heb 4:15) Even though He is without sin Himself, He took upon my sins and suffered on my behalf on the cross, so that I may be freed from sin and death.

“And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.” (Php 2:7-8)

My dear brothers and sisters, without removing the obstacles, without becoming vulnerable and laying open to God’s grace, I cannot truly understand the significance of Jesus’ death on the cross and my rebirth through the water of baptism. We are at the beginning of our Lenten journey. I pray for all who are reading this reflection that you may experience true renewal this Lent. Jesus said in the Gospel this week, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” (verse 15). Our restoration to grace starts here. It starts now. Let us embark on our Lenten journey.

Weekly Reflection (14 Feb 2021)

6th Sunday Year B

Leviticus 13:1-2,44-46
1 Corinthians 10:31-11:1
Mark 1:40-45

If you judge people, you have no time to love them.

Leprosy was a much-dreaded disease in Biblical times. It was highly contagious and there was no cure. As the disease progresses, the victim lays helpless as disfigurement and paralysis set in. With the world grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic today, we can fully appreciate how leprosy stroke fear in the people’s heart in those times. The First Reading this week describes the diagnosis process and subsequent social distance measures imposed on the leper (verse 2, 44-46). Once diagnosed, the leper becomes a social outcast living away from the community; he would wear torn clothes, kept his hair dishevelled; and cry out “unclean, unclean” to warn others of his presence so that others may stay clear. As harsh as these measures may sound, we can appreciate the rationale behind them, especially in those days of limited medical resources and hygiene capabilities.

Added to the practical considerations of containing a communicable disease is the Jewish belief that misfortunate befalls on a person because he/she is a sinner. Hence, if a person contracts a dreaded disease such as leprosy, as reason goes, that person must have committed sins and is therefore unclean. That is why rather than crying out “leprosy” or “infected”, the person cries out “unclean”. And anyone who touches the leper is also considered unclean. In this way, the leper is ostracised by the community and lives apart from the community.

Today, with modern medical science and hygiene practices, a person with a communicable disease no longer needs to leave apart from the community. However, for those we deem to have committed grave sins, the stigma we attach to immoral behaviours remains. My brothers and sisters, let us ask ourselves, in my mind, who are the “lepers” today? Who are those I ostracise from my community because I deem them unworthy? Perhaps it is the materialistic those who pursue money more than they pursue God? Perhaps it is the divorced and broke up their sacramental marriages? Perhaps it is the homosexuals who are living with a partner of the same sex? Perhaps it is the criminals who illegal acts? On more trivial matters, perhaps it is those who dress inappropriately to church, come late the church or behave in a disrespectful manner in church? Perhaps it is anyone I deem unholy? Hence, I appoint myself jury, judge and executioner, keeping the person out of my social circle and out of the church community.

My dear friends, this week’s Scripture challenges us to examine our conscience. Am I guilty of any of the above behaviours? God loves the sinners but hate the sins. Of course, we must object to sinful behaviours. But as we do so, let us ask ourselves: Am I doing it out of love; or am I doing it out of pride? In other words, am I doing it to convey God’s love? Or am I conveying the message, that I am holier than the sinner? In committing the sin of pride, I am but a sinner myself. I am not really holier than anyone. I am like any other sinners, in need of God’s mercy. On the other hand, if I am doing it out of love, I would understand that turning away from sins takes time. I would understand that the person needs to be accepted into our Christian community, for it is love that will ultimately turn a person away from sins. As Jesus said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” (Mk 2:17)

The practice of ostracising the sinners is not new. This week’s Second Reading is the conclusion to a long argument put forward by St Paul regarding the practice of eating meat from the worshipping of idols (1 Cor 8:7). In First Century Corinth, as it is now, there was the tendency to denounce immoral practices. An ultimatum was put before the person: denounce the practice or be denounced. There was no gradual conversion, no loving acceptance of the person, no ifs, no buts. In the passage, St Paul urges his followers to not obstruct anyone from forming a relationship with God. St Paul urges sensitivity to those who inadvertently took part in the practice of idol worshipping. He urges his followers not to be offended by the practice (verse 10:32); so as not to let the practice become an obstacle to the person forming a relationship with God. For it is in encountering Jesus that we may experience His love and mercy. And it is love and mercy that will turn us away from sins. Let us ask ourselves this: If a person struggles with an immoral practice, do I become judgemental and deem this person not worthy of Christ? As one body in Christ, we should always support each other, rather than jumping to judgement of the person’s soul. For if we do that, what differentiate us from the Old Testament Jews in the First Reading, who concluded that a person has sinned just because he has an unpleasant looking disease on the skin? Instead of judging a person by the appearance of the skin, let us look into his or her heart instead.

This was what Jesus did in the Gospel. A leper came before Jesus (verse 40). Just think about that, he did not shout “unclean, unclean”, he did not avoid the crowd. So strong was his hunger for Jesus that he disobeyed the social norm imposed upon him and he came before our Lord. In response, Jesus too ignored the social norm, He touched and healed the leper (verse 41-42). If He so wish, Jesus could have healed the leper without coming into contact with him. However, in defiant of the old law of not touching a leper, Jesus healed him by touching him. In so doing, Jesus not only showed great compassion, and importantly, He dispelled the erroneous notion that one’s illness is brought upon by one’s sins.

St Theresa of Calcutta once said, “If you judge people, you have no time to love them”. If I am one who ostracise other people I deem unworthy, let me learn to give my patience and my time. Pray for them and pray with them, so that in due course God will reveal His truth to them and turn them away from all immoralities that are in their lives. If I am one who witness the ostracising of other people and do nothing, let me learn from Jesus, who ignore the rules imposed upon him and reach out to the leper. He touched the leper and show him that God cares. If I am the sinner who stayed away from God’s church because I feel the absence of God. Let me remember that God has never been absent. God does not shut me out, it is my sin who shut me out of God. Like the leper, take courage, make that first step and come to Jesus, where I will find mercy, forgiveness and ultimately, true joy.

My brothers and sisters, the Eucharist is the Body of Christ. It is made up of many grains of wheat milled into one Bread. As we partake in the Eucharist, let us never forget that this Bread is who we are. Whether we are the one ostracising, the one ostracised or a do-nothing bystander – we are in fact one with Christ. Let us not put up human rules that keep others out. Amen.

Weekly Reflection (7 Feb 2021)

5th Sunday Year B

Job 7:1-4,6-7
1 Corinthians 9:16-19,22-23
Mark 1:29-39

Docility in Christian living.

My brothers and sisters, are we docile in our Christian living? In the commercial world, the causal relationship among effort-result-reward is very clearly understood. If we put in a great effort, most times, we expect a good result. And we produce a good result, we expect a reward, in terms of a commendation, a raise or a promotion. What does this have to do with Christian living? Christian living involves walking in the footsteps of Jesus. It involves givingreceiving and accepting. For those of us who aspire to true Christian living, sometimes we are so used to the effort-result-reward model of the secular world that we bring that expectation to our Christian lives. It becomes detrimental to our faith life. We lose docility in our Christian living.

Firstly, Christian living involves giving. Some of us are called to give up our time and effort to help homeless and the poor. Some of us are called to serve in church ministries – to help in worship services, in teaching and in evangelisation work. As many of us who have been involved in such work will testify, they do not conform well to the effort-result-reward model of the secular world. Take evangelisation work as an example, I may put lots of effort into evangelisation, only to see those I evangelised gaining a lukewarm faith. Often too, the ministry work I do may take a long time to yield result, sometimes beyond my tenure or even beyond my lifetime. In spite of my effort, I could not see tangible results. I could not see the fruits of our labour and get discouraged. This is when we need docility in service. When we are docile, we can accept that we are but a small part in God’s greater plan. All I need to do is to play that part God has given me and do it well. I may not be granted the vision of God’s greater plan, but that is ok. As Jesus said, “For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ I sent you to reap that for which you did not labour. Others have laboured, and you have entered into their labour.” (Jn 4:37-38)

The Gospel this week provides us two great examples of generous giving through service. We hear that Simon’s mother-in-law was ill with a fever. Jesus came and cured her. Upon being cured, she got up immediately and “began to serve them” (verse 30-31). Imagine, she just witnessed a miracle performed on her, but she did not make a big deal out of it. She did not draw any attention to herself but simply got up and serve Jesus. This is a great example in docile Christian service. The Gospel passage this week follows immediately after last week’s. In last week’s passage, we hear that Jesus has just exorcized an unclean spirit from a possessed man in the synagogue. This week, we read that “as soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew” (verse 29) and healed Simon’s mother-in-law. It has been a long day and we can imagine Jesus must be very tired by the evening. Yet, “that evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door” (verse 32-33). Jesus got to work immediately and healed them. With the whole city gathered at the door, it must have been a very long night! After working so hard, Jesus could have stayed with Simon Peter for a few days, take a break. But instead, he said to the disciples the following day, “Let us go on to the neighbouring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” (verse 38). What tireless docile service our Lord has shown us! What about me? In my Christian service, have I shown the same tireless dedication and docility?

Before his dramatic conversion experience on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:1-22), St Paul was a respected member of the Pharisee. He was also a Roman citizen, which carried great prestige in that time. St Paul’s conversion experience brought an about-change in him. In the Second Reading this week, reflecting on his calling to share the Gospel, St Paul said, “If I proclaim the gospel, this gives me no ground for boasting, for an obligation is laid on me, and woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel!” (verse 16) Such is the humility and docility in St Paul that he gave up the privileges he used to enjoy as a Pharisee and Roman citizen. As he said, “I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.” (verse 19-23) St Paul realised that the way to win the hearts of the people is not to talk down to them from the stand, but to come down and become one of them. For those of us called to preach and teach, let us ask ourselves, what is my attitude when I exercise my calling? Am I docile like St Paul? Or am I too proud to come down from the stand?

Secondly, Christian living is about receiving. We receive from God in many ways. I may be going through a rough patch in my life and I needed a helping hand from those that God sends in my way. Am I too proud to acknowledge my moment of weakness? Am I too proud to accept help from others? Besides receiving practical help, we also receive spiritually from God. My dear friends, have you wondered why Jesus was able to serve with such selfless dedication that we witnessed in the Gospel? In the Gospel passage, we read that “in the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.” (verse 35). That is right, my brothers and sisters, to serve as He did, Jesus needed constant spiritual nourishment. To constantly form ourselves spiritually, we need to constantly contemplate on God’s word. God’s word comes to us in many forms, through scripture reflection piece such as this; through our own contemplation; from bible sharing sessions; or from a sermon delivered from the pulpit. Like the self-righteous Paul on his way to Damascus, God is calling me to conversion. God has a message for me through His word. But am I so proud that I choose not to listen? Do I say to myself, “This message suits this person and that other person. As for me, my behaviour is exemplary. This message is not for me.” Let us heed to the call of the Psalmist, “O that today you would listen to his voice! Do not harden your hearts” (Ps 95:8-9)

Thirdly, Christian living is also about accepting God’s plan in our life. Often, our lives do not work out the way we planned. This is especially hard when through no fault of my own, misfortunate and disasters befall upon me. What do I do? Do I complain to God bitterly? Or do I accept God’s plan in my life in docility? As God said through the words of prophet Isaiah, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isa 55:8-9)

Job was a very faithful man. As a test of his faithfulness, God allowed the devil to test Job by inflicting a series of mishaps and bodily pains upon him. In the First Reading this week, Job was lamenting on the sufferings he endured. The Jews in Biblical times believed that one’s sufferings are a result of one’s sin. Hence, when sufferings befell upon Job, his friends assumed that Job must have sinned. Though Job himself did not understand the purpose of all his misfortunes, he remained faithful to God. Job lamented, “Like a slave who longs for the shadow, and like laborers who look for their wages, so I am allotted months of emptiness, and nights of misery are apportioned to me.” (verse 2-3) Often, in spite of my faith, and in spite of my service to God, things do not work out in my life the way I expect. Especially when misfortunate and disasters befall upon us, it is natural that we feel discouraged as Job was in this week’s Scripture. But importantly, Job never lose faith. He was always docile in accepting God’s plan for him. In the end, as a reward for his faithfulness, God restored Job’s health and endowed him with wealth many times over what he originally had. Jesus had a similar experience in the Garden of Gethsemane on the eve of His Passion. As hard as it was for Jesus, in docility and for the sake of the greater good, He accepted the Father’s will and walked the way of the cross.

My dear friends, Christian living is about being docile to the Lord always, whether we are giving, receiving or just accepting. In Jesus’ life, whether He was administering to the inflicted, receiving spiritual nourishment from the Father or in the end, accepting the cross, Jesus was always docile. Let us heed Jesus’ example and walk in his footsteps in our own faith journey. Amen.

Weekly Reflection (31 Jan 2021)

4th Sunday Year B

Deuteronomy 18:15-20
1 Corinthians 7:32-35
Mark 1:21-28

Am I a prophet of God? Why and why not?

In the Old Testament, there were many great prophets – Samuel, Nathan, Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel, and many more. These prophets are attentive to God’s word and speak His word to the people, calling for conversion, repentance and faith in God. In the New Testament, Jesus came as a priest, prophet and king. And curiously, both in the New Testament and these modern times, we do not hear much about prophets anymore. Why is this the case?

In the First Reading, God promised the people that He will raise up a prophet, one that speaks God’s word (verse 18). Who is this prophet? Let us contemplate. In New Testament times, we read of men and women prophesying when the Holy Spirit descended upon them. When Mary visited her cousin Elizabeth, “Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.’” (Lk 1:41-42) And again, when the Holy Spirit descended upon the Apostles on Pentecost Day, they began to speak of “God’s deeds of power” (Acts 2:11). Before Jesus was taken into heaven, He commanded the disciples to baptise all nations “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Mt 28:19). We know that at our baptism, the Holy Spirit descended upon us. So, where do we go to seek out the modern day prophet? My brothers and sisters, seek no longer. In truth, while “prophet” is a title given to a very select few in the Old Testament, in these post-incarnation times, all who have been baptised are called to be prophets of God. Jesus assumes the three-fold office priest, prophet and king. Hence, all baptised share in Jesus’ prophetic office. Like the prophets of the Old Testaments, we are tasked with calling others to conversion, repentance and faith in God. If all baptised are called to be prophet, what kind of prophet am I called to be? In the First Reading, God calls us to be his prophet by speaking His command: “I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their own people; I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak to them everything that I command.” Alas, in this era of fake news, there are many who abuse their gifts of the Holy Spirit. Instead of speaking God’s truth, they spread lies, hatred, vengefulness and suspicion. Have I been such a false prophet? In my social circle, have I harshly judged another person and injure his or her reputation? In church, when a capable person steps forward to serve God, because of my pride or insecurity, have I acted as an obstacle to thwarting his or her effort? In the office, to cover up my mistake, have I engaged in acts of deception through lies, blame-shifting and misdirection? At home, have I hurt those I love with harsh words?

Beyond our personal space, we see false prophets at work every day in our relativist society. There are those who promote freedom, but are talking about freedom to terminate the lives of the elderly, the sick and the unborn. There are those who promote love, but are talking are about perverted sexual love outside marriage, between two person of the same sex, and even polygamous and incestuous relationships. Lured by popularist sentiments and the false pretence of freedom and love, have I been fooled into supporting such false notions of freedom and love? Perhaps even more devious are those who purport to be speaking in God’s name but are misquoting Scripture to spread falsehood. These are taking a leaf out of the playbook of the devil himself. For when the devil tried to tempt Jesus into sin, the devil too quoted Scripture (Mt 4:1-11). Let us heed this warning from the Old Testament: “But any prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, or who presumes to speak in my name a word that I have not commanded the prophet to speak – that prophet shall die.” (First Reading, verse 20)

So, how can I be a prophet that proclaim the truth? Firstly, we have to pray, contemplate and discern God’s word constantly. The Latin phrase “Nemo dat quod non habet” holds true. We cannot give to others what we do not possess ourselves. To be a good prophet that speak God’s truth, we need to engage in constant reflection and formation ourselves.

Secondly, we need to pick the right moment to exercise our prophetic work. In the parable of the sower (Mt 13:3-9), the same seeds fell on the path, on rocky ground, among thorns and on good soil. Not all yielded good fruits. Sometimes, even when we are well-formed, well-prepared and give an insightful reflection, not everyone in our audience is touched by God. Sometimes, the problem lies not in the message but in the listener. This is why the prophet must always be open to the prompting of the Holy Spirit, so that I may speak the right word at the right time and in the right context.

Thirdly, a true prophet never draw attention to himself or herself, but glorify God in everything that he or she does. Otherwise, as the prophet draws attention to himself or herself, human weakness and pride set in. And soon, the prophet is no longer working for the glory of God but for his/her own glory. The other danger of personal fame and glory is, they can become obstacles to the prophet’s work. How so? Take Jesus’ experience in this week Gospel. Before He cleansed a man of an unclean spirit, the spirit shrieked, “I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” (verse 24). As a result of the uncleaned spirit’s revelation, Jesus’ fame began to spread (verse 28). Jesus’ fame became an obstacle to His work. Everyone searched out for Him (Mk 1:37), dictating his schedule and actions (Mk 1:32-33). As a result, Jesus had to go to another neighbouring town (Mk 1:38). This is perhaps why after the incident in this week’s Gospel, in subsequent exorcisms he performed, Jesus “would not permit the demons to speak” (Mk 1:34).

Last but not least, to convey an efficacious message, a prophet is sometimes called upon to undertake personal sacrifice. Jesus our True Prophet went to the cross so that we may witness with our own eyes the extent of God’s love. And for a selected group of prophets, God gifted them with the very special grace of celibacy. This is why though we are all called to be messengers of God, our priests are given a particularly special role in that. Anointed by God, the ordained priest is given a special charism in celibacy. Sure, celibacy is a great personal sacrifice. It is also a great charism given to only a few. In the Second Reading, St Paul exulted the virtue of celibacy. Celibacy is not only St Paul’s way of life, but it is also Jesus’. Jesus himself values celibacy, he exulted those “who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 19:12). Far from being a suppressive imposition, as St Paul explained in verse 32-34, with this charism, the celibate person’s interest is undivided, devoted solely to the affairs of the Lord. For those of us who are called to celibacy, treasure this gift. It is God’s special gift and charism. And because it is such a powerful gift of God, the devil will always seek to disrupt and destroy – and lust is a powerful temptation that the devil uses. For the rest of us who are not given the gift of celibacy, we are nevertheless called to exercise sacrifices in our own way. For by our sacrifice, we complete Jesus’ sufferings (Col 1:24) and join our prophetic work with his.

May Christ our Emmanuel be with us as we go forth, spreading the Good News and be courageous prophets of God in these challenging times. Amen.

Weekly Reflection (24 Jan 2021)

3rd Sunday Year B

Jonah 3:1-5,10
1 Corinthians 7:29-31
Mark 1:14-20

Through sin, the world is conditioned into unbelieving. What is my response?

It is actually not hard to believe there is a God. If we care to look, we see God’s hand everywhere: the wonders of nature, the vastness of the universe, the intricacy of our human biology and the very existence of life itself. And for those of us who are interested in space and science, astrophysicists now say that at the Big Bang, if the four major forces of gravity, electromagnetic force, ‘strong’ and ‘weak’ nuclear forces were off by even 1:100,000,000,000,000,000, no stars could ever be formed and we would not exist. For this to happen by chance, it would be like tossing a coin and having it come up heads 10 quintillion times in a row! (In case you are wondering, 10 quintillion is 1 followed by 19 zeros!)

So, why doesn’t everyone believe in God then? The truth is, in one way of another, many of us are conditioned into unbelieving. This can happen in many ways.

Firstly, there are those of us who find it inconvenient to believe in God. All religion in the world has a moral code and a system of worship. For Christians, we preach the adherence to God’s Commandments; the repentance of sins; and the worship of God through prayers and church attendance on Sunday. This can be very inconvenient indeed, especially if I lead a busy life, juggling my time among career, family and leisure. So, I turn a blind eye and pretend God is not there. For those of us who conveniently forget about God, often God does not enter our consciousness unless there is a birth, marriage, death and crisis in our lives.

Secondly, there are those of us who are disenchanted by religion because of unpleasant past experiences. Perhaps I witnessed members of the Church behaving badly and was turned off by the hypocrisy. Perhaps someone in church did or said something that hurt me. Even more damaging is when we witness people in leadership positions in the Church committing wrongful acts and got away with them because of inaction or covering up by those who were in position to do something. This is not restricted to paedophilia which received much focus in recent times, but also other wrongdoings such as corruption, money laundering and other sexual crimes.

Thirdly, but not mutual exclusively, some of us took a deliberate decision to denounce God and His Church, in defiance of our hearts. Lured or misled by anti-Christian political activism, we mount campaigns to discredit and undermine God and the Church. We do so because Church teachings are inconsistent with how we want to lead our lives; or more cynically, because discrediting God and the Church earns us favours or helps advance our careers. It is perhaps not surprising that many of these who discredit God and the Church in fact have Christian upbringing. In Australia, we witness professed Christian politicians legislate against the sanctity of life and freedom of religion. In Tasmania, we witness a political activist hurling a church leader before the Equal Opportunity Commission for doing no more than simply stating Christian teaching on marriage. More recently in Western Australia, we witness a Christian charity organisation refused a government grant solely on the basis of its church leader’s biblical views on marriage. And for anyone who cares to look, such examples are abound.

In all these ways where the world is conditioned into unbelieving, there is one common driving force – it is sin, both within and outside the Church. Blinded by the sin of pride, anger, lust, greed, sloth and envy, the world has elevated human wishes and preferences beyond God’s. We have replaced the worship of God with the worship of self. This is in fact a modern form of zoolatry – the worship of animal deities. “Claiming to be wise, they became fools; and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles.” (Rom 1:22-23)

What is the solution to this world trend? Firstly, we need to turn away from sin. My brothers and sisters. Many of us are like the people of Nineveh in the First Reading. We live in sins but are conditioned into complacency and oblivion. If so, let this week’s Scripture message be like Jonah’s message to the people of Nineveh. Let us heed the call of St Paul to the Romans, “it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armour of light; let us live honourably as in the day, not in revelling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarrelling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” (Rom 13:11-14) In the Second Reading, St Paul emphasises on the urgency of conversion. He said, “the appointed time has grown short” (verse 29). He urged us to abandon all our other pursuits, whether we are mourning, rejoicing or dealing, “for the present form of this world is passing away” (verse 30-31). In the Gospel, Jesus conveyed a similar message before He called His first disciples: “the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” (verse 15).

Secondly, having “put on the armour of light” (Rom 13:12), God is calling us to be His prophets. Christianity needs a new generation of prophets in every sphere of modern life. We need church leaders who dare to venture beyond the comfort of their church compound to preach God’s love to the world. Within the Church, we need strong and principled leaders who dare to take strong actions to snub out wrongdoings of church members and other church leaders. In business, we need Christian business leaders who uphold ethics and do not succumb to the lure of greed and power. In politics, we need Christian politicians who dare to act out their Christian convictions. In social circles, we need Christians who dare to exhibit and share the joy of Jesus with their non-believing friends.

My dear friends, whatever is our sphere of life, we have a role to play. Let us ask ourselves: Is God calling me to be his prophet? What is my response? Do I look at the challenges before me and ask God to look elsewhere? Am I like Moses who said to God, “O my Lord, I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor even now that you have spoken to your servant; but I am slow of speech and slow of tongue” (Ex 4:10)? Or perhaps, I am like Jonah in this week’s First Reading. Nineveh was an Assyrian city whose inhabitants led evil ways of lives. God called Jonah to convert them, but Jonah preferred the people of Nineveh to be punished for their sins, so he tried to ran away. Perhaps Jonah was also concerned about the potential hostile reception he might receive in Nineveh. Or perhaps Jonah was not confident of his chance of success. Whatever is Jonah’s reason for his initial reluctance, to his surprise, upon hearing from Jonah, the people of Nineveh accepted God’s message and repented (verse 5).

Just as Jesus called Simon Peter, Andrew, James and John in the Gospel, He is calling me. Perhaps like these fishermen, I too had my worldly reservations. In the Gospel, when Jesus called, Simon Peter and Andrew were casting their net into the sea (verse 16); while James and John were mending their nets (verse 19). Like me, these fishermen too must have led busy lives, worrying about their work, family and finances. However, upon being called by Jesus, they responded in the same way the people of Nineveh did – they abandoned all their worldly pursuits and followed God. Simon Peter and Andrew “immediately they left their nets and followed him.” (Verse 18); while James and John “left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men” and followed Jesus (verse 20).

How about me? What is my response to Jesus’ call?

Weekly Reflection (17 Jan 2021)

2nd Sunday Year B

1 Samuel 3:3-10,19
1 Corinthians 6:13-15,17-20
John 1:35-42

God is calling me. What is He calling me to? What is my response?

My dear brothers and sisters, has God called you? If so, what is God calling you to? Perhaps, He is calling you to serve Him in your vocation as a father, mother, spouse, church leaders, priest or religious? Or perhaps He is calling you to turn away from the sins of pride, lust, greed or envy? Or, if you have not heard the call of God, perhaps He is calling you but you have not heard Him?

The First Reading tells the story of God’s calling of Samuel to be His prophet. On the first three times God called, Samuel heard God, but he thought it was Eli who was calling him. This is the case with us sometimes. It is not because we did not hear God, but for one reason or another, we were not listening. In Samuel’s case, on the first three times, his impediment was that his heart was not open to God. Hence, while Samuel clearly heard God’s voice, he thought it was Eli who was calling him. As we reflect on this story, let us ask ourselves: if I have not heard the call of God, what are my impediments? Perhaps God is calling me to serve Him as a priest or religious, but I choose not to hear Him as I have other plans with my life. Perhaps God is calling me to be the carer of a sick member of my family, but I choose not to hear God’s voice because I am not willing to make the sacrifice. Or perhaps God is calling me to turn away from a particular sin I am struggling with, but I am too indulged in it or I am too proud to admit it.

“O that today you would listen to his voice! Do not harden your hearts.” (Ps 95:7-8)

If there are impediments to me hearing God’s voice, how do I overcome it? Ps 95:8 provides us the answer: “Do not harden your hearts.” Pray to God that we may open our hearts to His call. Often, when we pray to God, it is a monologue conversation. We come to God with our laundry list of wishes; and not only that, we sometimes even stipulate the manner in which God ought to answer our prayers! In doing so, little do we realise, we have become narcissists – we are more concerned with ourselves and our needs than about God’s providence. A self-serving and self-centred person is unable to hear God’s voice. All he can hear is his own voice. In this way, he is really is his own God! In humility, let us reflect: is this why I am not hearing God? How can we truly hear God’s voice? We have to listen to God with the ears of our heart. Let us learn from Samuel. On the final time God called him, Samuel answered, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening” (verse 9). From that point on in his life, Samuel was attentive to God’s call. “As Samuel grew up, the Lord was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground.” (verse 19)

There are some among us who hear and answer the call of God. (Praise be to God!) However, as time goes by, as our calling bears fruits by the grace of God, we become proud and self-serving. We marvel at our achievements and forget that it is God who blesses us with success. As we become more and more self-centred, as pride creeps more and more into our psych, it becomes more and more difficult for us to hear the voice of God. This is the case for some disciples of John the Baptist. John was called by God in a special way. He was called to be the pre-cursor to Jesus, to be “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’” (Jn 1:23). Then Jesus came to be baptised by John and began His public ministry. As Jesus gained popularity, John’s popularity waned. John’s waning popularity was in fact the direct result of him fulfilling his calling as the pre-cursor to Jesus. But some of John’s disciples were unsettled. Seeing Jesus as a competitor, they said to John, “Rabbi, the one who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you testified, here he is baptizing, and all are going to him” (Jn 3:26). John replied, “You yourselves are my witnesses that I said, ‘I am not the Messiah, but I have been sent ahead of him.’ He who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. For this reason my joy has been fulfilled. He must increase, but I must decrease.” (Jn 3:28-30) For those of us serving in church ministries, how often do we make the same mistake as these disciples of John? This is a common scenario: I serve my ministries diligent and faithfully for many years. Then someone else come along and is becoming more successful than I. What do I do? I should rejoice when God raises up another worker! This person could become my collaborator or even my successor. Instead, I see this person as a competitor. I feel threatened that my popularity is being eroded. So I try to undermine and sabotage his work.

Let us learn from John the Baptist. In this week’s Gospel, as Jesus walked by, John openly proclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” (verse 36) As a result, two of John disciples followed Jesus. One of them is Andrew, who was so inspired, that he became a follower of Jesus and told his brother Simon Peter, “We have found the Messiah” (verse 41). Andrew then brought Simon Peter to Jesus, who anointed Simon Peter as the future leader of the 12 Apostles: “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (verse 42). What do you think was Andrew’s calling? Andrew had received an importantly calling to be one of the 12 Apostles. Part of Andrew’s calling was also to bring Simon Peter to Jesus. Andrew was not jealous of Simon Peter. Andrew recognised that he and Simon Peter each has a different calling. As St Paul said, “The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith” (Eph 4:11-13) Not all of us are called to be apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors or teachers. We must learn to be comfortable to where and what God calls us to. Our calling is not a mean to bring glory, fame and recognition to ourselves. When we become obsessed with glory, fame and recognition, then we are just serving ourselves, not God.

But God’s calling is not always about ministry and mission. Like a loving parent, He often calls us to turn away from sins so that we may attain true happiness and fulfilment. The lure of sin is deceptive. It promises instant gratification but in effect rob us of true peace and happiness. This is true with all sins but perhaps more so with sexual sins. For example, the instant gratification of a casual sexual encounter outside marriage can extract a heavy price on the family. A single encounter can ruin the happiness of not just the couple but the children as well. The Second Reading was written by St Paul in response to the rather casual attitude the Corinthians had towards sex and marriages. The Corinthians had the misguided belief that bodily actions carry no moral value. They believed they may have sex with whoever they wish without any moral implications. Immoral sexual acts are prevalent in Corinth. They are probably even more prevalent in today’s secular and relativist world. In the Second Reading, St Paul preaches against fornication, which refers to sex outside marriage. But immoral sexual acts are not just confined to pre-marital and extra-marital sexual acts. In today’s context, St Paul’s teachings takes on a much wider scope. St Paul said our bodies are a member of Christ (verse 15). This union between Christ and man is our final eschatological destiny (Rev 21:2). Through his bodily infliction, Christ used his body to express his supreme love for his bride, the Church. We use our body to express love, most intimately in the case of sexual love. When a husband and a wife joint their bodies and spirit in sexual union, they are in fact foreshadowing the union between God and man at end-time. It is only within the context of marriage that the sexual act can become the total gift of oneself to the other, just as Christ made a total gift of Himself to us His Church. Immoral sexual acts – whether they are pre-marital sex, extra-marital sex, masturbation, or same-gender sexual acts – relegate sex to a mere act of bodily pleasure. As we reduce our body to a mere object for personal gratifications, we lost sight of our eschatological destiny and bring sufferings upon ourselves, our spouses and children. As the Second Reading quite bluntly put it, we must not take our bodies which are members of Christ and “make them members of a prostitute” (verse 15).

My dear friends, God is inviting you and I to open our hearts to his calling. Let us ask ourselves: what is God’s calling to? Is He calling me to serve my family, community and humanity? Is He calling me to turn away from sexual sins that has been imprisoning me? Am I prepared to respond positively to this call? Or am I going to ignore it, preferring the false comfort of the secular status quo? May the Holy Spirit be with us as we reflect and contemplate. Amen.

Weekly Reflection (10 Jan 2021)

Baptism Of The Lord, Year B

Isaiah 55:1-11
1 John 5:1-9
Mark 1:7-11

Let us contemplate on baptism – ours and Jesus’

Many of us were baptised as babies and do not remember our baptism. Then there are those of us who do remember our baptism, as we were baptised as teens or adults. Regardless of whether we remember our baptism, most of us do not often reflect on our baptism, if at all. The purpose of baptism is two-fold:

  1. Through the rite of baptism, the baptised is accepted into God’s family, as His adopted sons and daughters.
  2. Baptism cleanses the baptised of all sins, including Original Sin. As Jesus promised, “Repent, and be baptised every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 2:38)

This week, we celebrate the Baptism of our Lord Jesus. The Gospel passage recalls how Jesus was baptised: “In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’” (verse 9-11) If we examine the purposes of baptism, it is obvious that Jesus need not be baptised. The first purpose of Baptism is the acceptance of the baptised into God’s family – Jesus did not need that as He Himself is God. The other purpose of Baptism is to be cleansed of sins – Jesus did not need that either as He is sinless.

So, why did Jesus allow Himself to be baptised? It is an act of love. How so? You see, in order that we may be cleansed of our sins, Jesus the Sinless One took on all our sins and allowed Himself to be baptised. Eventually, He would die on account of all our sins that He took upon Himself. As Jesus said, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (Jn 15:13) This is love in its highest form. “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Cor 5:21) We are cleansed of our sins at our baptism because God has taken on our sins. Because Jesus has taken away our sins and laid them upon Himself, each time we approach God to confess our sins, we are forgiven and reconciled to Him once more – no conditions, no strings attached. Hence, to experience more deeply God’s great love and mercy for us, we should contemplate on baptism often – ours and Jesus’.

To take upon the sins of all humanity is no small sacrifice. You may ask, surely there is an easier way for God to help us encounter His mercy and love? Couldn’t He just shower us with blessings and miracles? But that was exactly what God did in the Old Testament! The First Reading was taken from an Old Testament Book written towards the end of exile of the Jews to Babylon. In the passage, God reminded the people of his everlasting covenant with David, that He will once again deliver them from their misery. The Jews were God’s first chosen people. God showered them with blessings upon blessings through the ages – gifting them with a Promised Land filled milk and honey; rescuing them from slavery in Egypt; feeding them with manna in the desert. But yet, when the Babylonians invaded, God lifted his protection of the Jews; and allowed the people to go into exile. Why did God allow that? It was because the people took God’s blessings for granted. In spite of God’s blessings, they forgot about God, engaged in immoral conducts and sinned against Him. So in 587BC, the Babylonians conquered the Jewish nation of Judah and the people went into exile.

My brothers and sisters, what about us? In spite of God’s love and mercy for me, have I forgotten about Him? Have I reduced Him to a ceremonial God, to whom I observe a few ritualistic rites and special holidays? Beyond these, do I contemplate Him often? By my baptism, I am an adopted son or daughter of God. However, in my life outside the Church, did I behave like a son or daughter of God? Or are my behaviour and priorities no difference from the rest of the world? Do I behave like Abel, who gifted God with the best he could offer? Or am I like Cain, diverting my best energy and endeavours towards the attainment of fame, fortune, power and sex, and only offering God my leftover? (Gen 4:3-5) My dear friends, if we are behaving like Cain, let us reflect and reprioritise. “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labour for that which does not satisfy?” (First Reading, verse 2)

We might think that God is cruel by allowing the Jews to suffer the pains of the Babylonian exile. We might think God is cruel when we suffer defeats and losses in our lives. But this is how much God love us. He loves us so much that it pains Him to see us suffer. Yet, He allows us to suffer so that we may perfect our love in Him. And as the final straw, He Himself would take on the greatest suffering so that we may recognise His great love for us. As we reflect on Jesus’ baptism this week, let us ask ourselves: have I abandoned the pursuit of God, in preference to the pursuit of earthly rewards? Let us heed the call of prophet Isaiah in this week’s First Reading: “Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.” (Verse 6-7)

So, using the words of Isaiah, how do we forsake our wicked ways and return to the Lord? We do it with love. In the preceding verse to this week’s Second Reading, St John gave a discourse on love, in which he said, “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.” (1 John 4:20) My dear brothers and sisters, we are all beloved children of God, created to love God and love each other, including our enemies and even those who hurt us. It is not difficult to love someone who loves us. But Jesus said, “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have?” (Mt 5:46) So how do we find the grace to love our enemies and those who hurt us? It is by contemplating how God loves us: “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8) Or as St John said in his discourse on love, “We love because he first loved us.” (1 Jn 4:19)

St John said in the Second Reading this week, “we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments” (verse 2). And curiously, St John followed on by saying, “For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome” (verse 3) How so? Many of us struggles to obey the commandments of God. How can his commandments not be burdensome? If we are struggling to obey God’s commandments, it is because we are failing our baptismal promises. If we are failing our baptismal promises, it is because we are yet to born of God. In other words, we are still born of the world, “for whatever is born of God conquers the world. And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith.” (verse 4) St John asked: “Who is it that conquers the world”? It is “the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God” (verse 5). And since Christ is “the one who came by water and blood” (verse 6). This is what we are called to. Yes, my brother and sisters, our baptism by water is only the beginning of our faith journey. As we embrace the water of rebirth at baptism, we also called to embrace the blood. This is the reason we suffer, so that we can be perfected in our love for God and for each other. Jesus, said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (Mt 16:24) And above all, “the Spirit is the one that testifies” (verse 6). It only when we experience the water of rebirth and the blood of the cross, then strengthened by the Holy Spirit, we may be truly born of God: “There are three that testify: the Spirit and the water and the blood, and these three agree.” (verse 7-8) Only then we are able to obey his Commandment in love, that it is not burdensome, that we may truly experience healing and love.

“It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Gal 2:20)

Glory be unto God. Amen.

Weekly Reflection (3 Jan 2021)

Epiphany Of The Lord

Isaiah 60:1-6
Ephesians 3:2-3,5-6
Matthew 2:1-12

God reveals himself to believers and non-believers alike. He calls us to be true believers, to know Jesus personally.

What is my attitude towards non-believers? As a believer, do I assume a superior complex toward non-believers and adopt a holier-than-thou attitude towards them? Do I look down on others who do not know God, or worse, assume that they will be damned?

This week, we celebrate the Epiphany of the Lord, which marks the revelation of our Lord to the gentiles. The term “gentile” literally refers to someone who is not of the Jewish race. The Jews believe that only those who were members of the Jewish religion may be saved. Gentiles therefore cannot be saved. This is a misunderstanding that persisted through generations. As St Paul said in this week’s Second Reading, “In former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit: that is, the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” (verse 5-6) Since most of us are not of Jewish decent, we are in fact gentiles. Hence the revelation from St Paul should be of great comfort to us – we gentiles are in fact “fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus”.

But what about the non-believers among us? Can they be saved? To answer this question, we need to interpret this week’s Scripture from a modern-day context. From a modern-day context, “gentile” takes on a wider definition – it does not refer to just a non-Jewish person but also any person who does not (yet) know God. In other words, a gentile refers to any non-believer. Like the Jews of Biblical time, many believers today believe that only members of their respective religion may be saved. St Paul’s teaching in the Second Reading refutes that belief. Not only that, through this week’s Solenmity of the Epiphany, God is calling all non-believers to Him as all are “fellow heirs … in the promise in Christ Jesus”.

Who are the non-believers? As Christians, many of us would regard anyone who does not believe in God or has not been baptised a non-believer. In doing so, we are equating “believing in God” to “knowing about God”. The truth is, having knowledge of God does not equate to believing in God. In fact, even for a person who possesses in-depth theological understanding of God, the best that can be said is that the person knows a lot about God. For what is theology? “Theo” means God while “-logy” means the study of, in other words, the study of God. God said in the Old Testament, “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isa 55:9). Human understanding of God, no matter how profound, can only scratch the surface of who God really is. As mere humans, we can never know everything about God. And thankfully, we need not know everything about God in order to believe in Him, to personally know Him. Allow me to use an example to illustrate. For those of us who are interested in finding out, we can find out a lot about a certain celebrity – a sports personality, movie star or politician. But does that mean we know that celebrity person personally? Of course not. And just like knowing a celebrity, the fact that I have an in-depth knowledge about God does not mean I have a personal relationship with Him.

Hence, the definition of a non-believer is not confined to those who are yet to be baptised. A non-believer is also someone who is baptised into the faith and yet do not know Jesus personally. What about me? Do I know Jesus personally? Or do I just know about Him? Truth is, many of us do not know Jesus personally. While I may attend church regularly, know all the prayers and liturgies or perhaps even serve in church ministries; but who is Jesus to me really?

For many of us, our life is a dichotomy. Our life in church and outside the church are very distinct and different. In church, I am pious and holy. Outside the church, in my business and social life, I am unscrupulous, self-serving and vengeful. St John said, “God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true” (1 Jn 1:5-6) In other words, to be a believer is to know Jesus personally; to know Jesus personally is to live and love like Him. In fact, as St John said, if I said I am a believer but yet live my life in darkness, I am in fact living a lie. This week, Jesus is calling us to be true disciples, to let His light shine on all parts of our life. As St John wrote, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” (Jn 1:5)

The historical background of the First Reading is the period when the Jews had just returned from their exile to Babylon. The sight that confronted them upon their return must have been rather disheartening – their city ruined and the temple destroyed. This passage offers the people a word of encouragement – that the Lord will once again lead them to greatness. If I am living a double life, am I in fact also living in exile like the Jews? Do not be disheartened, as the prophet Isaiah encourages us, “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you” (verse 1). In the passage, as the Jews renewed their relationship with God in verse 6, they are joined by non-believers coming from Midian, Ephah and Sheba, coming with gifts to pay homage to the Lord. What a beautiful sight it is – believers and non-believers coming to God together! Such is God’s great mercy. It does not matter whether we are non-believers or believers who has yet to develop an intimate relationship with Jesus. “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal 3:28) Regardless of the state of our faith life, we are all sons and daughters of God. Such is a beauty of universal salvation. Like the wise men in the Gospel, let us seek out Jesus, presenting Him our gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. In presenting Jesus with our gold, we present to Him our victories and accomplishments in thanksgiving. In presenting Jesus with our frankincense, we present to Him our worship and praise him in adoration. Most importantly, we present to Him our myrrh. Myrrh are spices used in preparing the body for burial. As we come to Jesus, let us die to our old unscrupulous, self-serving and vengeful self, as we present to Him our failures, our sins, our insecurity, our hurt and our pains – in repentance.

The Solenmity of Epiphany calls us to be like the two disciples of John the Baptist. They know about Jesus, but they wanted more, they wanted to know Him personally. So, one day, as Jesus walked by, the two disciples followed Jesus (Jn 1:36-37). “They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day” (Jn 1:39). As the two disciples showed us, knowing Jesus personally does not require a theological degree. They just spent time with Jesus. They saw where He lived, learned how He interacted with people, how He conducted Himself, and how He love. The Solenmity of Epiphany inspires us to do the same. In fact, Andrew, one of the two disciples who followed Jesus that day was so inspired that he decided to call his brother to join him in following Jesus. That brother is none other than Simon Peter, who would become the leader of the 12 Apostles. My dear brothers and sisters, we cannot earn salvation through our racial, cultural or even religious heritage; neither can we earn salvation through in-depth theological study. Rather we are saved by what we believe and how we live out those beliefs. At Epiphany, let us walk closer to Jesus and help others develop a closer relationship with Him. Amen.