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Saturday, January 14, 2017

2nd Ordinary Sunday, Year A, 15.01.2017

Isaiah 49:3, 5-6 / 1 Cor 1:1-3 / John 1:29-34

According to the Chinese zodiac, this is the tail end of the Year of the Monkey. The Year of the Monkey began last year with the Chinese New Year and will end with the coming Chinese New Year.

As some will say, monkey business is coming to an end.

Of all the animals in the Chinese zodiac, the monkey is considered the most intelligent. 

And there is some theory that says that human beings were evolved from apes. Hmmm … if that is true, then why are there still apes?  ;)

But let us not go to that topic. No matter how intelligent the monkey is, it is certainly not a match against human intelligence.

The natives of an island have a way to catch monkeys in a very unusual way. 

Most of the monkeys are sold to zoos, so the hunters avoid using ordinary traps which can cause disfiguring injuries. Instead, they hollow out a football-sized coconut, leaving a hole in one end just big enough for a monkey to slip in its hand. Inside the hollowed-out coconut, the hunters put delicious green bananas, the monkey's favorite food. Then they fasten a chain to the other end of the coconut to a nearby tree. 

A monkey will pick up the baited coconut, put its hand through the hole in one end, and clutch the bananas inside with its fist. 

However, when it tries to pull out the delicious fruit, it quickly discovers that the hole in the coconut is too small for it to withdraw its banana-filled hand. All the monkey has to do to escape is open its fist and let go of the bananas. Then it can easily pull out its hand.

But the greedy monkey almost never does the logical thing. It tries to carry off the coconut, but of course, it is chained securely to a tree. It struggles, it screams, it rages, it tugs and pulls at the coconut until it is exhausted. Then the hunters come to put a sack over the monkey who's been caught by its own fist.

The monkey could, of course, let go of the bananas and run before getting caught. But it hangs on to the bananas until the sack goes over its head. Why? Because the banana has value to the monkey and the monkey is unwilling to let go of that value. So unwilling that it gets trapped for it. 

So much for a monkey trap. So even though the monkey can be quite intelligent, it can still fall for a simple trap.

In the gospel, when John the Baptist saw Jesus coming towards him, John said: Look, there is the lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world.

John the Baptist was called the greatest of all the prophets because it was he who pointed out the Lamb of God, the Saviour of the world.

But before Jesus came onto the scene, John the Baptist had the people in his hand. He preached about repentance, he baptized people, and the people even thought that he was the Saviour.

But when John the Baptist saw Jesus coming towards him, he had to make a choice. He could look away and hold on to the limelight and the attention that he was getting from the people.

But he made the choice to let go and to be freed from the clutches of pride and ego. It was in letting go that he was able to point out the Lamb of God.

Therein lies his greatness. He was humble enough to let go and make way for Jesus when He appeared.

There is one statement from John the Baptist that expressed his understanding of the whole matter. He said: A man can lay claim only to what is given to him from above (Jn 3:27).

Indeed, we can only have what is given to us from above. As for the rest, we will have to let go.

It is only in letting go that we can be freed from the trap of the clutches of our own hand.

We have an intelligence higher than that of the monkey, and yet we often fall into the trap like how the monkey is trapped by the banana in the coconut.

John the Baptist said that Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

So what is this sin that he is talking about? Certainly when it comes to sin in its broadest understanding, it is what separates us from God.

And when we look at how John the Baptist was able to let go of himself and point out Jesus as the Lamb of God, then we can see particular strand of sin is self-obsession. 

There is this story of the last three wishes of Alexander the Great. After conquering many kingdoms, he was returning home. On the way, he fell ill and it took him to his death bed. With death staring him in his face, Alexander realized how his conquests, his great army, his sharp sword and all his wealth were of no consequence. 

So, the mighty conqueror lay prostrate and pale, helplessly waiting to breathe his last.

He called his generals and said, "I will depart from this world soon, I have three wishes, please carry them out without fail.”

1) "My first desire is that", said Alexander, "My physicians alone must" carry my coffin."

2) After a pause, he continued, "Secondly, I desire that when my coffin is being carried to the grave, the path leading to the graveyard be strewn with gold, silver and precious stones which I have collected in my treasury".

3) "My third and last wish is that both my hands be kept dangling out of my coffin".

Alexander's favorite general asked, "O king, we assure you that all your wishes will be fulfilled. But tell us why do you make such strange wishes?"

At this Alexander took a deep breath and said: "I would like the world to know of the three lessons I have just learnt. Lessons to be learnt from last 3 wishes of King Alexander. I want my physicians to carry my coffin because people should realize that no doctor on this earth can save a person from the clutches of death. So let not people take life for granted.

The second wish of strewing gold, silver and other riches on the path to the graveyard is to tell people that not even a fraction of gold will come with me. I spent all my life greedy for power, earning riches but cannot take anything with me. Let people realize that it is a sheer waste of time to chase wealth.

About my third wish of having my hands dangling out of the coffin, I wish people to know that I came empty handed into this world and empty handed I go out of this world". With these words, the king closed his eyes, and death conquered him and he breathed his last.

What you do for yourself, dies with you. But what you do for others will live forever. John the Baptist showed us how to let go so as to point out Jesus to others. May we do likewise. 

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Epiphany, Year A, 08.01.2017

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

By now we would have already opened up all our Christmas presents. 

If we were not surprised by the presents that we got, then we may not be aware of Murphy’s principle about Christmas presents – “we always get the most of what we need the least”. And maybe there is also another one – we never get what we want. The irony of Christmas presents.

Nonetheless, it is still quite exciting to tear away the wrappers and see what is the gift, even though we may already know that it is a box of chocolates, or a bottle of wine, or a shirt, or several pairs of socks, (seems like I am talking about what I got for presents …)

Anyway if we got our presents before Christmas Day, would we wait for that day to open our presents? Well, we should, but being pragmatic Singaporeans, we would open up the presents before Christmas Day and then see if we can “recycle” those presents!

But the spirit of Christmas is to give something precious isn’t it? 

A 5-year-old boy was telling his 3-year-old brother: “Let’s play Christmas. I’ll be Santa Claus and you’ll be a present, and I’ll give you away.” So much about giving away something precious …

To put it business-like, the deadline for giving Christmas presents is Christmas Day. 

Nonetheless, belated Christmas presents are still welcomed, but don’t wait till next Christmas.

Although it is not stated anywhere, but the last day for giving Christmas presents would be today, on the feast of Epiphany.

Today the Nativity Scene is a little more crowded than on Christmas Day because of three additional figurines. The three wise men have finally appeared, together with their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

And their appearance is really a contrast to the rest of the figurines in the Nativity Scene. They have crowns on their heads, their robes are royal and elegant, their gifts are exotic and mystical.

These three wise men (let’s just take it at three) capture our attention, and they also stir up our imagination, and they also lead us on to a reflection.

Although they appeared at the end of the Christmas season, their journey actually began much earlier and they would give us something to think about at the start of Advent.

They saw a star, it was “His star” in their own words, and they began the journey to look for the infant king of the Jews.

The star stirred them to go on a journey of a search and to look for this king of the Jews. But it was not a straight-forward journey on first-class.

Because it meant crossing the harsh desert sands to Israel to look for this king.

Also the directions were not clear for them. The star was not there for them all the time. They had no clear indication of where the infant king of the Jews was. 

They came to Jerusalem thinking He was there. King Herod came to know who they were looking for and he schemed to make use of them to get to know the whereabouts of this infant king of the Jews.

Unlike the shepherds who had a vision of angels and were told in detail how and where to look for Jesus, the wise men had to be redirected to Bethlehem.

And it was in the final stages of their search that the star appeared again to lead them to their destination.

The wise men presented gifts of symbolic and mystical meaning. Gold points to the kingship of Jesus; incense points to the divinity of Jesus; and myrrh points to the humanity of Jesus. 

But the wise men are also gifts to us because we see in them the aspects of our faith. Our faith is one of searching and it also entails a struggling.

We too search of answers to our prayers. We search for answers to quell our doubts. We struggle with the fundamental questions of sickness, suffering and death, with hurting and broken relationships, with terrorism and wars and hunger and poverty, and recession and retrenchment. 

We search for answers to the things that say that there can’t be a God, if God is the one who allows miscarriages and babies to be born with severe defects and illness.

We struggle with the anxiety and worry of job security, financial security and emotional security.

Yes, we search and we struggle for the answers to life and its burdens, challenges and difficulties.

The wise men also had to search and struggle for answers and directions.

But they appear in this feast of Epiphany with a message for us. Epiphany means revelation. 

And their message for us is this: You will face your greatest opposition when you are closest to your greatest revelation.

Yes, like the wise men, we will face our darkness, our uncertainties, the Herods who will manipulate us.

But on this feast of Epiphany, the wise men had this message for us – they found what they are looking for; they found who they were looking for.

And so will we. Jesus will reveal Himself to us. That is His promise to us on this feast of Epiphany.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Mary, Mother of God, Year A, 01.01.2017

Numbers 6:22-27 / Galatians 44-7 / Luke 2:16-21

By now, we wouldn’t be hearing any more Christmas carols. In fact, what we are hearing are the Chinese New Year songs with the unmistakable drums and cymbals.

Also Christmas décor has made way for CNY décor with those big-headed dolls and fire-crackers and dancing lions and chili-red banners.

Just eight days after Christmas, Christmas carols sound rather odd, Christmas décor look rather worn out, and it seems like Christmas is over and done with.

Even in church, to wish someone “Merry Christmas” sounds off-beat. What we hear is “Season’s greetings” although it is not clear what that season refers to. Because in Singapore, there is no winter season, so could it be the rainy season, or could it be the hot season? We have both... Well, so much for “season’s greetings”.

So for the world, Christmas is over and done with, making way for New Year celebrations with last night’s count-down and then it’s back to work and back to school.

And about those New Year resolutions, it’s usually one year in and one year out. Anyway, may all your troubles last as long as your New Year’s resolutions.

But for the Church, we have continued the celebration of Christmas for eight days, or what is called the Christmas Octave, and today is the eighth day.

And on this day, we honour Mary with the title “Mother of God”. That title is certainly not new, in fact it goes all the way back to the year 431 when the Council of Ephesus formally proclaimed that title for Mary.

That title says much about who Mary is, but it also says much more about who Jesus is – that Jesus is God, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity.

Mary is honoured as Mother of God on the eighth day of the Christmas Octave and there is a reason for it.

The number 8 has a peculiar biblical meaning. God created the world in seven days. The eighth day represents a new creation or a re-creation.

We heard in the gospel that when the eighth day came and the child was to be circumcised, they gave Him the name Jesus, the name the angel had given Him before His conception. So the Saviour is given a name eight days after His birth.

Similarly with John the Baptist, on the eighth day, his mother Elizabeth gave him that name and confirmed by his father Zechariah.

Also eight days after the His Resurrection, Jesus appeared again to His disciples and especially to Thomas and he made that proclamation: My Lord and my God.

Mary is honoured as Mother of God on this eighth day of the Christmas Octave because as Elizabeth said this of her:
“Blessed is she who believed that the promises made to her by the Lord would be fulfilled.”

And Mary has this to say: Yes, from this day forward, all generations will call me blessed, for the Almighty has done great things for me.

And so year after year, as we begin each new year, we bless Mary and we honour her as Mother of God and also as our Mother.

In the gospel, we heard that Mary treasured all that had happened and pondered them in her heart. 

Mary had to wait for what God has to reveal to her. Meanwhile, she treasured and she pondered. She prayed and waited. And now she finally understood. Indeed the Almighty has done great things for her.

And as the Mother of God, she now prays for us that we will also treasure all that has happened and ponder over it and that we will see the great things that the Almighty will do for us.

But we have to pray and wait. There is something about this word “wait”. We can make an acronym out of it, as in WAIT can mean “will arrive in time”.

We have prayed for many of our needs. And to make our prayer more tangible, we write out petition slips and put them in the petition box. And then like Mary, we have to keep praying, keep treasuring, keep pondering and keep waiting.

But after a while, we may forget what we have prayed for. And even when God has answered our prayer, we may not even realize it because we have no record of it.

So why not keep a record of it? We can use the camera on our mobile phones and take a photo of our petition slips or Mass offerings and when we pray we ponder over it.

And when we see how God answers our prayers, then we will give thanks and like Mary, we can say that the Almighty has done great things for us.

I was talking with Robert, one of our church workers, that he had done much, in the absence of Francis, the other worker, in putting up the Christmas décor and all that. Now that Francis is back, he can ask Francis to keep the décor after Epiphany.

His reply astounded me. He said that he has been working here for two and a half years already, and he had never been ill or had any accidents. God had indeed blessed him. Even for Francis, God has also blessed him because he went back to India to get married. So Robert said that he cannot be calculative with God and that he will do whatever work that needs to be done so that he will receive more blessings from God.

That is truly inspiring from a simple and hardworking man. And so I wrote a petition for him that in time to come God will find him a good girl and get married. I took a photo of the petition slip, I will pray and I will wait, and I know that God will do great things for him and that the prayer “will arrive in time”.

So on this feast of Mary the Mother of God and on this first day of the year, let us write our prayer intentions on the petition slips and we wait for God to do great things for us.

So instead of making New Year resolutions, let us make New Year petitions. 

With Mary the Mother of God and our Mother praying for us, let us treasure our blessings, let us ponder on our needs, and let us wait for God to do great things for us.

A Happy & Blessed New Year to All!
From left: Fr Stephen Yim, Fr Paul Tong, Fr KS Michaelraj
Mary's Shrine, Church of the Sacred Heart, Singapore

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Christmas, Year A, 25.12.2016

Isaiah 9:2-7 / Titus 2:11-14 / Luke 2:1-14

Once a year, at this time, the Nativity Scene makes its appearance in church.

And at the beginning of the midnight Mass, the figure of the baby Jesus was reverently carried and put into the central place of the Nativity Scene and rightly so. 

After all it’s the celebration of our Saviour’s birth and it reminds us of that first Christmas when God came to earth as a helpless baby.

In that helpless baby, we see the Word of God made flesh and lived among us.

And the Nativity Scene symbolizes all that. Surrounding the baby Jesus are Mary and Joseph, and the shepherds who came to see this wonderful sign, and the poor and humble surroundings of the manger with the donkey and the cow and a couple of sheep. The three wise men would make their appearance later at the Epiphany.

And the Nativity Scene draws our attention. Some Nativity Scenes are quite elaborate with backdrop and lights and life-sized figures.

Some even want to have an updated version: one had a shepherd on the mobile phone calling “Pizza Hut”, and another with a wise man on his laptop checking Google Maps for directions to Bethlehem.

No, no, we are not going to have all that fancy stuff. We are going on traditional. And that means what we have there in front of the sanctuary.

But there was a little issue when we were setting up the Nativity Scene. Because of the size of the Nativity Scene in relation to the sanctuary, we couldn’t have a backdrop of the manger, as some bigger ones might have, complete with the roof and all that.

And because there is no backdrop, then one figure in the Nativity Scene would be difficult for it to find a place.

And that would be the angel. For those with the roof, then the angel would be placed on the roof and holding that sign “Gloria in excelsis Deo”.

So we have a figure of an angel but we don’t really know where to put it since there is no roof to place it on.

Or should we put it there at the Scene? Nobody would really notice it if there is no angel isn’t it?

After all, most would be looking at the baby Jesus, or Mary and Joseph, or the shepherds, or the cow and the donkey or whatever.

But the presence of the angel is significant to the whole Christmas story. It was an angel who announced to Mary that she was chosen to be the Mother of God. It was an angel who appeared to the shepherds and brought them the joyful news of the birth of the Saviour.

Yes, the angels are the messengers of God to announce the fulfillment of the promise of God to send the Saviour. And so for our Nativity Scene we have put the figure of the angel behind the main characters of the Christmas story.

But that does not mean that the messenger is forgotten, nor must the message of Christmas become just a backdrop.

All the characters of the Christmas story heard the message and they played a part in the birth of Jesus. 

Mary accepted the will of God; Joseph had to change his plans; the shepherds went to see the sign.

And we have come to celebrate this wonderful story and to hear the message of Christmas again. And having heard the message, we in turn have become the messengers. We are now the “angels” of the Christmas story.

The angels sang at the birth of Jesus: Glory to God in the highest heavens, and peace to men who enjoy His favour.

Yes, we want to be the people who enjoy God’s favour, the people who are blessed by God, the people who despite the challenges and difficulties of life will join the characters in the Nativity Scene and worship the Saviour and be filled with peace because Jesus is the Prince of Peace.

There is this story that just before Christmas God was looking down at Earth and saw all of the evil that was going on.  He decided to send an angel down to Earth to check it out.  So He called one of His angels and sent the angel to Earth for a time.  When he returned he told God, yes it is bad on Earth, 90% is bad and 10% is good.

God thought for a moment and said, maybe it is better to send down a second angel to get another opinion.  So God called another angel and sent him to Earth for a time too. When the angel returned he went to God and told Him yes, the Earth was in decline, 90% was bad and 10% was good.

God said this was not good. So He decided to email the 10% that were good and He wanted to send them a message to encourage them, and to bless them and give them something to help them keep going.

Do you know what God said in that email?

No?!? Oh, so you didn't get that email? Oops!

Hmmm, it seems that we are in that 90% category. But that is what Christmas is about – that Jesus came not for the virtuous but for sinners.

And because of Jesus, then we have to change that 90% bad into 90% good. And that is the message of Christmas – that Jesus came to change the bad into good.

Today we hear the message, and it is the message of peace to people of goodwill. As we gather around the altar, Jesus is born again in our hearts to bring us peace and to restore the goodness in us.

And let us also be messengers of this news of great joy. We have heard that 2/3 of Catholics in Singapore don’t come to church.

Let us be that Christmas angel to bring them to come and see the Nativity Scene and its message.

Let us pray that the peace, joy and blessing of Jesus will move their hearts to experience His love.

Jesus came to save sinners. And He also calls sinners to be His messengers. 

May Jesus, the Prince of Peace, fill our hearts with His peace and may we go forth to bring to others this news of great joy.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

4th Sunday of Advent, Year A, 18.12.2016

Isaiah 7:10-14 / Romans 1:1-7 / Matthew 1:18-25

To have a roof over our heads and a house to live in is not just one of the basic needs.

It gives us a sense of comfort and security in which we can call our home.

And especially so in land scarce Singapore, to have a house that we can call home is indeed something to be cherished.

However in Singapore, there is also this trend of buying and selling houses, whether it is for upgrading or downgrading. 

When it comes to HDB flats, the selling and buying can be a rather anxious time. Because you can end up selling your flat but the new flat is not ready; or that the new flat is ready to be occupied but you can’t find a buyer for the old flat yet.

If it is the case of looking for a buyer for the old flat, then maybe we might consider praying to St. Joseph.

We know that St. Joseph is the patron saint of workers and the protector of the Catholic Church. But we might not know that he is also the patron saint of selling homes.

It seems that there is this very old Catholic tradition of burying a St. Joseph statue upside down to expedite selling property. 

Around 1500 A.D., European nuns living at a cloister needed more land on which to plant vegetable gardens and raise livestock. They had medals made that were imprinted with Saint Joseph’s image and wondered if burying them in the ground would help their prayers be heard and answered more quickly. Evidently, it worked because they nuns gained more land after burying their medals and were able to remain self-sufficient at their cloister. 

However, why the medals were substituted for statues of St. Joseph is unclear. By engaging in this ritual, the nuns essentially reinforced the concept of turning something over to the will of God. Catholics and anyone else who believes that having faith can cause good things to happen believe that it is not the act of burying a medal or statue that results in the sale of house but that it is faith in the Lord and His saints which propels the materialization of desired property transactions.

But for us, burying a statue of St. Joseph in the ground does not seem respectful, and if we are selling a HDB flat, burying the statue in a flower pot is certainly out of the question!

Certainly it would be enough to place a statue of St. Joseph in a respectful place in the house and say a prayer to him for a speedy sale of the house.

What has St. Joseph to say about all this, we can’t be too sure. But there is no harm to ask him to help us in our need, even if it is in selling the house.

But certainly St. Joseph would want our house to be a home. He too had a house and he had plans to make it into a home for him and Mary, his betrothed. 

And then he found out that Mary was with child. And being a man of honour and wanting to spare her publicity, he decided to divorce her informally.

It was then that the Lord intervened and the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and told him to take Mary home as his wife. And when he woke up he did what the angel of the Lord told him to do – he took Mary to his home. And in doing so, he also took Jesus into his home.

The gospel described St. Joseph as a man of honour. Being a male is a matter of birth. Being a man is a matter of age. But being a man of honour is a matter of choice.

St. Joseph showed that he was a man of honour when he chose to do what God wanted of him although he didn’t fully understand what it meant by what was conceived in Mary was by the Holy Spirit.

Nonetheless he prepared a home for Mary and Jesus, and he kept watch and guarded what was entrusted to him.

Probably his thoughts can be expressed by this quote of Mother Teresa: I know God won’t give me anything I can’t handle. But I didn’t know He trust me so much.

St. Joseph would also have taught Jesus how to be a man of honour and how to build a home. He would also have taught Jesus how to work with wood, for his trade was a carpenter.

And Jesus did work with wood. Because with just two pieces of wood, He built a bridge to our heavenly home.

As we come to the 4th Sunday of Advent, let us also make our final preparations to invite Jesus and Mary and Joseph into our homes.

Let us give a sign to them that we want them in our homes by putting up the Nativity Crib if we have yet to do so.

And with Jesus, Mary and Joseph in our homes, let us work for righteousness and love and we will find life, prosperity and honour.

Let our homes be the home of the Emmanuel, the “God-is-with-us” so that there will be peace and joy at home.

Yes, we can sell our house and buy a new house, but we can’t buy a home.

And let us remember why Jesus came. He came so that He can bring us home; He came to bring us to our eternal home.

But first, let us welcome Him and Mary and Joseph into our homes. Then we will look forward to our eternal home.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

3rd Sunday of Advent, Year A, 11.12.2016

Isaiah 35:1-6, 10 / James 5:7-10 / Matthw 11:2-11

This weekend of the 3rd Sunday of Advent finds us between two significant dates in the Catholic calendar.

Just a couple of days ago, the Church celebrated the feast of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Back in 1854, on the 8th December, Pope Pius IX formally proclaimed the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary as a dogma of the Roman Catholic Church.

Essentially, the doctrine here is that from the moment when she was conceived in the womb of her mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary was kept free from original sin and was filled with the sanctifying grace normally conferred during baptism.

Although the belief was widely accepted by the Church as early as the 4th century, it was only in 1854 that it was formally proclaimed.

This doctrine of the Immaculate Conception gained additional significance from the apparitions of Our Lady of Lourdes in 1858. 

At Lourdes a 14-year-old girl, Bernadette Soubirous, claimed that a beautiful woman appeared to her and said, "I am the Immaculate Conception".

That was the 8th December. Monday is the 12th December. It is another feast-day that is connected with Mary under the title of “Our Lady of Guadalupe”.

On the 12th December 1531, a peasant Juan Diego went to see his bishop for the third time. The bishop had asked for a sign that Juan Diego had a vision of Our Lady who asked that a church be built on the hill of the apparition.

Our Lady had told Juan Diego to pick the roses that were growing on the hill (which was unlikely in December) and she arranged the roses in his tilma (or cloak) for him to bring to the bishop as a sign.

For the third time, Juan Diego was ushered in to see the bishop. 

The bishop was skeptical and had waited for two days to see what sign Our Lady has for him. So Juan Diego opened his tilma, letting the roses cascade to the floor. But more than the roses, both men are astonished to see what is painted on his humble tilma - an exquisite image of Our Lady, which is now known as the miraculous image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, indeed a divine artwork.

On display at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City built on the site of her apparition, it is a place for Mary to hear the petitions and to heal the sufferings of the Mexican people and to the millions more who make pilgrimages over the next five centuries to see the miraculous tilma, and to honour Our Lady of Guadalupe. Great miracles continue to occur, even till today.

So with such a rich spiritual history, the Catholic Church continued to grow. But now there seems to be signs that this growth is plateauing off and maybe even declining to a crisis.

We see it in other countries where there are big beautiful churches but not much of a congregation.

And from the recent survey that the archdiocese conducted, there is something disturbing. Statistics have it that there are over 370,000 Catholics in Singapore but only about 125,000 attend Church on Sundays. It means to say that only one out of three are practising Catholics.

Well, we know of at least someone who don’t come to Church. We also know that a number had gone over to other Christian churches. 

To say the least the signs are worrying and disturbing.

What is this looming crisis that the Church is Singapore is facing? Or in short, what is the problem?

In the gospel, John the Baptist also had a problem, or a crisis actually. He was in prison and he had heard what Jesus was doing and he sent his disciples to ask Him, “Are you the one who is to come, or have we got to wait for someone else?”

Maybe we too, in times of crisis, will ask a sort of similar question, like, “Am I in the right church, or would it be better to go to another church which is more happening? Or would it be better that I don’t go to church at all.”

Jesus told John’s disciples, “Go back and tell John what you hear and see: the blind see again, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life and the Good News is proclaimed to the poor, and happy is the man who does not lose faith in me.”

We too want to hear and see all that. We want to see signs and wonders so that we won’t lose faith in Jesus and in the Church.

This made me recall the occasion when an excited lady came to see me on a Monday, the 13th December 1999.

She had just come back from a holiday trip in Australia the night before. She was baptized earlier in the year at Easter but over the months the fervour of her faith had dwindled.

She went for a holiday in Australia and the day before, 12th December was the last day of her trip. She wondered off from her hotel early in the morning to catch the sights before going back later in the afternoon.

She had brought more than enough of money in her purse so she toured around. Then by chance she came to a church and so she went in but Mass was already halfway through. After Mass, she walked around the church and came across a rather strange picture and the words below the picture were “Our Lady of Guadalupe”. 

Not knowing the story behind the picture, she nonetheless said a short prayer to Our Lady. And since there was a donation box below the picture, she thought it would be good to give something. 

So she took out a $50 Australian note from her purse and since she had some time, she did a little origami on the note and folded it into a small triangle, since the triangle is a symbol of the Trinity, and then she put it into the box and went off to continue her sight-seeing.

She went to a flea market that is rather crowded and she stopped to look at some souvenirs and decided to buy something. It was then to her horror that she discover that her purse that contained all her money was missing.

She panicked because now she had no money to go back to the hotel and she was all alone in a foreign country. But in her helplessness she remembered the picture at the church and asked Our Lady of Guadalupe to help her.

Hoping against hope, she dug into her pockets to see if by chance she had some money. Then she felt something in one of her pockets. She took it out, and she couldn’t quite believe what she saw. It was a $50 Australian note folded into a shape of a triangle, much like the one that she put into the donation box.

Whatever it was, it was enough to get her back to the hotel and in time to catch the flight back to Singapore. As she told me the story, she ended off by saying that her faith in God was renewed through the prayers of Our Lady of Guadalupe. 

I did some checking up, and then I told her that it happened to her on the 12th December, the feast-day of Our Lady of Guadalupe. 

Certainly it was no coincidence.

In the story of Guadalupe, when Juan Diego was disappointed and afraid to see the bishop, Our Lady said to him, "Am I not your mother? ... Are you not in the crossing of my arms?"

On this 3rd Sunday of Advent, as the celebration of the birth of Jesus draws nearer, let us rejoice and be glad.

It is not the old church dying, but a new church coming to birth.  

May Our Lady who is the Immaculate Conception and who is also the Lady of Guadalupe pray for us that we will not lose faith in Jesus and that we will be able to see the signs and wonders He has in store for us.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

2nd Sunday of Advent (Year A), 04.12.2016

Isaiah 11:1-10 / Romans 15:4-9 / Matthew 3:1-12

By this weekend, we ought to have taken out our Christmas decorations from the store room. Yes, taken out, unwrapped, and hopefully the fairy lights, and whatever lights, still work.

Come to think of it, putting up the decorations can be like a good spiritual preparation for Christmas. Because we will have to learn how to handle the frustrations and disappointments that comes with the season. 

And Christmas may seem to be just like our job at the office, as in we do all the work and the fat guy with the suit gets all the credit. 

Still we will try to numb the nagging reality of life by trying to get into the festive mood, so we distract ourselves with putting up the festive decorations.

At least we will try to put up a Christmas tree. Certainly not a real tree as real trees are costly and times are tough.

But an artificial tree will do, just like the one that is outside. And we try to decorate it to give it a Christmassy look.

And that should be enough to bring us through the season. At least we hope that the lights won’t burn out before Christmas Day, or at least the lights won’t burn down the tree. 

But what is the big fuss over the Christmas tree?  What kind of biblical or religious significance has it got?

Well, the Christmas tree is used to symbolize Jesus. He is the shoot that springs from the stock of Jesse, the scion that trusts from Jesse’s roots, as the prophet Isaiah said in the 1st reading.

Jesse was the father of King David, whose reign brought about the golden age of Israel. But after his reign, Israel declined and the kingdom was split and was overrun by her enemies over and over again.

Eventually when Israel was exiled into Babylon, King David’s descendants became an obscurity.
But the prophet Isaiah wrote of hope, that one day a shoot will spring forth from the stump of Jesse and bring about Israel’s glory.

Jesus was that shoot that sprang into a tree, a life-giving tree, a hope-giving tree. And that is why the Christmas tree is an appropriate symbol for the season.

Besides being an evergreen tree that retains its colour in the midst of winter, it is also a sign of life and hope, when everything seems to come to a standstill.

And that is why we decorate our Christmas tree with other meaningful symbols like the star, lights, and those other things that symbolize what Jesus is about and what He came to give us.

One of the things that we surely won’t find, and nor would we put under the Christmas tree, is a gift-wrapped, ribbon-tied sharp axe. The kind of axe that John the Baptist talked about in today’s gospel, the kind of axe for chopping down trees.

Somehow, John the Baptist is interested in our Christmas trees. Whether real tree or otherwise, he is ready to chop it down, if our Christmas tree do not symbolize anything about our Christian belief, or about our Christian way of life.

Not that he is jealous just because Christmas trees cannot be found in the desert, because that is where he stays.

But what he couldn’t stand is that we so-called “fake” our Christmas, by having nicely decorated Christmas trees that have no meaning in our lives whatsoever.

So for example, we put a big star at the top of the Christmas tree.  That star is a symbol of the star of Bethlehem that led the wise men to find the infant Jesus.

As we put up the star, are we going to tell our children and our family members that we are going to have family prayers from now on, and follow Jesus in His way of love.

As we put up the lights on the tree, are we also going to tell our family members and our children that we are going to make our home a place of warmth, joy and peace.

And the gifts that we put beneath the Christmas tree, do they symbolize the self-giving love of Jesus?

John the Baptist may be welding his axe and demanding that we show our repentance by bearing good fruits, yet that repentance can be a beautiful spiritual experience when we understand God’s self-giving love in the beautiful mystery of the Incarnation at Christmas. There  is a beautiful story that reflects the self-giving love of God at Christmas.

Once there was a tree, and she loved a little boy. And every day the boy would come and he would gather her leaves and make them into crowns and play king of the forest. He would climb up her trunk and swing from her branches and eat apples. And when he was tired, he would sleep in her shade. And the boy loved the tree very much. And the tree was happy.

But time went by. And the boy grew older. And the tree was often alone. Then one day the boy came to the tree, and the tree said, "Come, Boy, come and climb up my trunk and swing from my branches and eat apples and play in my shade and be happy."

"I am too big to climb and play" said the boy. "I want to buy things and have fun. I want some money." "I'm sorry," said the tree, "but I have no money. I have only leaves and apples. Take my apples, Boy, and sell them in the city. Then you will have money and you will be happy." And so the boy climbed up the tree and gathered her apples and carried them away. And the tree was happy. But the boy stayed away for a long time, and the tree was sad.

And then one day the boy came back and the tree shook with joy and she said, "Come, Boy, climb up my trunk, and swing from my branches and be happy." "I am too busy to climb trees," said the boy. "I want a house to keep me warm," he said. "I want a wife and I want children, and so I need a house. Can you give me a house?"

"I have no house," said the tree. "The forest is my house, but you may cut off my branches and build a house. Then you will be happy." And so the boy cut off her branches and carried them away to build his house. And the tree was happy. 

But the boy stayed away for a long time. And when he came back, the tree was so happy she could hardly speak. "Come, Boy," she whispered, "come and play." "I am too old and sad to play," said the boy. "I want a boat that will take me far away from here. Can you give me a boat?" "Cut down my trunk and make a boat," said the tree. "Then you can sail away... and be happy." And so the boy cut down her trunk and made a boat and sailed away. And the tree was happy ... but not really.

And after a long time the boy came back again. "I am sorry, Boy," said the tree," but I have nothing left to give you - My apples are gone." "My teeth are too weak for apples," said the boy. "My branches are gone," said the tree. "You cannot swing on them." "I am too old to swing on branches," said the boy. "My trunk is gone," said the tree. "You cannot climb." "I am too tired to climb" said the boy.

"I am sorry," sighed the tree. "I wish that I could give you something .... but I have nothing left. I am just an old stump." "I don't need very much now," said the boy, "just a quiet place to sit and rest. I am very tired." "Well," said the tree, straightening herself up as much as she could, "well, an old stump is good for sitting and resting. Come, Boy, sit down. Sit down and rest." And the boy did, and he was happy. And the tree was happy.

Yes, at Christmas, God gave us His only Son out of love for us. On Good Friday, Jesus allowed Himself to be chopped down and reduced to a stump in order to save us.

Yet out of this stump, Jesus rose, and He wants us to rise with Him. May our Christmas trees symbolize who Jesus is to us. May it also symbolize who we really are to others, as we give of ourselves, just as Jesus gave Himself for us.