Our Cinderella Story

Ash Wednesday (A) 2020

Jesus said to his disciples:

‘Be careful not to parade your good deeds before men to attract their notice; by doing this you will lose all reward from your Father in heaven. So when you give alms, do not have it trumpeted before you; this is what the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets to win men’s admiration. I tell you solemnly, they have had their reward.

But when you give alms, your left hand must not know what your right is doing; your almsgiving must be secret, and your Father who sees all that is done in secret will reward you.

‘And when you pray, do not imitate the hypocrites: they love to say their prayers standing up in the synagogues and at the street corners for people to see them. I tell you solemnly, they have had their reward. But when you pray, go to your private room and, when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in that secret place, and your Father who sees all that is done in secret will reward you.

‘When you fast do not put on a gloomy look as the hypocrites do: they pull long faces to let men know they are fasting. I tell you solemnly, they have had their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that no one will know you are fasting except your Father who sees all that is done in secret; and your Father who sees all that is done in secret will reward you.’


WE all know the story of Cinderella, right? A daughter of a loving father but became a victim of a wicked stepmum and stepsisters. She was made a slave; forced to sleep in the ashes. In fact, that is how she got her name—Cinderella, ash girl. Eventually, somebody rescued her—the fairy godmother—turned degradation into glory and freeing Cinderella from slavery and helping her to be the bride of the prince. If we try to reflect the story of Cinderella, we might recognise ourselves with her.

We are children of a loving Father. Yet we are enslaved. Although our enslavement was not primary the doing of somebody else but most of the time, our own choosing. I am enslaved to sin, to self-centredness and selfishness, slaved to laziness, to fear. I am—we are—controlled by advertising, by social expectations, by wrong notions of what is truth, faith and love or by wrong notions of what constitute happiness. We are created into the image and likeness of God and we are called to eternal joy, but we prefer to be enslaved—crouch in the debris of burnt-out hopes and dreams. We prefer to live in ashes.

Today we smear ashes on our foreheads as a reminder of who we are. “Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return.” That means of course, that I will die and decay—we all will. But it also describes our whole life till then. As the Canadian psychologist puts it: life is suffering. We are all Cinderella. But is that it? Are ashes our whole story? Is that where the similarity ends? Is there a godmother who will save us?

Well, welcome to Lent, a time to reflect on our ashiness and our salvation. From now on till the start of the Sacred Triduum we will remember that we are Cinderella sitting in sin. But we are also called to remember the great invitation and promise. “Repent and believe in the Gospel!” Yes, Lent reminds us of the horrible reality of what life could be without God. Emptiness. Nothingness; “Remember that you are dust” could be the whole story—our whole story. But Lent also insists that there is a way out of the ashiness of our lives. In fact, it has already been given, through baptism. The Prefaces for Lent speaks of “this joyful season.” Our loving Father already rescued us through Jesus Christ. All we to do is to want, to respond to the call of conversion, to respond to His invitation.

Brothers and sisters, as sons and daughters of a loving Father we will renew our claim to that heavenly inheritance at Easter. We know that ashes are not the whole story. But many others think they are. So Lent gives us a chance to taste the emptiness of their lives—by prayer, fasting, and almsgiving— so that we will be motivated to share the good news with them that they, like we, are invited to leave our ashes behind and take part in a glorious dance of joy and an unlimited future in God’s love.

In the end, Ash Wednesday and Lent is trying to tell us that we can and we will live happily ever after.

Agape: Love of Wanting the Good of the Other

7th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A) 2020

Readings Lev 19:1-2, 17-18; Ps 102; 1 Cor 3:16-23; Mt 5:38-48

JESUS said to his disciples: ‘You have learnt how it was said: Eye for eye and tooth for tooth. But I say this to you: offer the wicked man no resistance. On the contrary, if anyone hits you on the right cheek, offer him the other as well; if a man takes you to law and would have your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone orders you to go one mile, go two miles with him. Give to anyone who asks, and if anyone wants to borrow, do not turn away.

‘You have learnt how it was said: You must love your neighbour and hate your enemy. But I say this to you: love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you; in this way you will be sons of your Father in heaven, for he causes his sun to rise on bad men as well as good, and his rain to fall on honest and dishonest men alike. For if you love those who love you, what right have you to claim any credit? Even the tax collectors do as much, do they not? And if you save your greetings for your brothers, are you doing anything exceptional? Even the pagans do as much, do they not? You must therefore be perfect just as your heavenly Father is perfect.’


HOW often do we hear the accusation: “Jesus speaks of love and yet the Church speaks unlovingly” or not being “nice” whether on hard issues like same sex attraction, IVF, abortion, death penalty or even the seeming trivial issues such as proper church etiquette? And because of this, church critics—and sometimes even ourselves—feel justified saying that we love Jesus but, not the church.

Today we heard in the gospel Jesus saying: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you; in this way you will be sons of your Father in heaven.” It is certainly true that there is no other passage in the New testament that contains such a concentrated expression of Christian ethic.

This passage describes essential Christianity in action and at its centre is the word LOVE. All people, even those who do not come to Church, know that Jesus said this, and very often use this passage to condemn professing Christians like you and I for falling so far short of its demand. But maybe the Church—or even religion itself—is seen in a negative way because of our misunderstanding of the word “love”. And if there is a distortion of the meaning of the word—love in this case, that is where all the problem begins.

That is why we must go back to scripture. We must try to find out what Jesus was really saying and what he was demanding of his followers. If we must live the authentic Christian life, we must then first be quite clear as to what it is being asked of us. In other words, what does Jesus mean by loving, in general and loving our enemies in particular? Why is this important? Love is love, anyway, yes? Well, not really. Did you know that in Greek, there are four different words for love? There is the noun storge or stergein, words that describes the love of a parent for a child and a child for a parent—family love if you like. There is eros and the accompanying verb eran—words that describe the love between male and female; there is always passion there. In these words, there is nothing essentially bad; they just simply describe the passion of human love. The problem is, eros is often gets confused with the idea of lust rather than love. Hence we get words like erotic or eroticism that are distortions of what the words really mean. Then there is word philia or philein. These are the warmest and best Greek words for love. It mean’s real affection, real love. It is the word of warm, tender affection, the highest kind of love.

But Jesus did not use these words. The original Greek used in our gospel is agape—a word that indicates unconquerable benevolence, invincible goodwill. If we then regard people with agape, it means that no matter what they do to us, no matter how they treat us, no matter if they insult us or injure us or grieve us, we are called to never allow any bitterness against them to invade our hearts. Instead, we are being encouraged to regard them with unconquerable benevolence and goodwill. Why? Because agape is the word for love which always seek the good—no, the highest good of the other. Agape or Christian love is willing the highest good for the other and doing something concretely about it. Love is something we do. It is not simply an emotion or an attitude.

This is also the reason why agape is compatible with not always being “nice”. Because we always seek the good of the other, we can still correct, admonish, discipline; to speak and act against evil. That is why we can—or rather should speak up strongly against sin and confront an evil, especially if being committed by those who are dear to us. Just think about our dads or mums disciplining us. Think about teachers who are being strict with their students academically and behaviorally. That is not hate. That is not being mean. On the contrary, that is love—call it tough love, yes, especially if we really mean the good of our children, family, friends, our students, our co-workers, our co-parishioners. Because, living out agape, we want everyone to be perfect just like our heavenly father. And we want everyone to share in the glory of our Father in heaven.

Brothers and sisters, we may not always seem to be lovable or seen as a “nice” person. But we can sure try our hardest best to live out this Christian love. And even if we cannot love as God does, in gratitude I can try—we can try. And that willingness to try to live out agape is perfection enough to satisfy our God, our Father.

Build Our Faith on God’s Power, not Human Wisdom

5th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Readings: Is 58:7-10; Ps 111; 1 Cor 2:1-5; Gospel: Mt 5:13-16

SECOND READING

I came to you to proclaim Christ crucified.


WHEN
I came to you, brothers, it was not with any show of oratory or philosophy, but simply to tell you what God had guaranteed. During my stay with you, the only knowledge I claimed to have was about Jesus, and only about him as the crucified Christ. Far from relying on any power of my own, I came among you in great ‘fear and trembling’ and in my speeches and the sermons that I gave, there were none of the arguments that belong to philosophy; only a demonstration of the power of the Spirit. And I did this so that your faith should not depend on human philosophy but on the power of God.


ST PAUL paints an interesting picture of himself in today’s Second Reading. He tells the Christians in Corinth that when he came to preach the gospel to them, he came in “weakness and fear and much trembling.”

This doesn’t correspond to the super-apostle and miracle-worker image that we tend to have of St Paul. Even the reason why he wrote this First Letter to the Corinthians doesn’t fit with that Herculean image. He wrote the Letter because he had to defend himself against critics who were turning the Christians in Corinth against him.

But his self-defense is kind of strange, isn’t it? He doesn’t point to any special achievements or outstanding personal qualities. Instead, he points to his weakness and his lack of special qualities. It’s as if he were saying: “I didn’t graduate from prestigious colleges or win any major awards; I wasn’t listed in Fortune 500 Magazine and never had my own TV show. So, from a strictly human perspective, I don’t have any qualifications or credentials.” It’s almost as if he is agreeing with his critics!

But then he makes his point, which is very simple, and very important. Precisely because he was such an unimpressive figure, they know that the gospel he preached is true: it is based on God’s power, he says, not human wisdom. The faith of the Christians in Corinth, and the faith of every Christian—including ourselves—needs to be built on the unshakeable foundation of God and His revelation, not on fancy arguments, not in emotional comforts, or human satisfactions.

Each of us needs to ask ourselves: What is the foundation of my Catholic faith? A deep, personal conviction that God is real, that Jesus really died on the cross for my redemption, that God really cares about me? Or something else? It’s not easy to build our lives on God’s power, because our faith doesn’t always make sense in terms of merely human wisdom. That is why we need to constantly look at Christ crucified.

Pope Benedict XVI once said: “Every man and every woman needs to find a deep meaning for their own existence… And for this, books are not enough, not even sacred Scripture. The Child of Bethlehem reveals and communicates to us the true ‘face’ of the good and faithful God, who loves us and who does not abandon us even in death.” (Angelus, 4 January 2009)

So, brothers and sisters again, let us each ask ourselves, what kind of foundation are we building on: God’s power, or fragile human wisdom?

Three litmus tests can help us answer this question accurately. First, prayer. Do we take time out of our busy schedule to spend with God in prayer every day? Do we even know how to pray? Do we pray better now than we did ten years ago? If other things, even good things, continuously crowd personal, heartfelt prayer out of our daily life, we can be sure that we aren’t building on God’s power.

Second, obedience. Christ’s path of redemption was traveled through obedience to his Father’s will, even to the point of dying on the cross. As his followers, we are also called to be obedient to God’s will, even when it’s hard. We can ask ourselves: Are we obeying all of the Ten Commandments, or do we habitually break one or two of them? Are we obeying Church teaching regarding the tough issues of our day? Do we even know or try to find out the reasons behind those teachings? Or do we just go with the flow or worse, misrepresent Church teachings, or stubbornly cling to the version of Church that we want? Obedience is truly a foundational Christian virtue.

Third, the sacraments. If we eagerly look forward and prepare ourselves to receive Christ in the Eucharist each Sunday, and if we make use of the amazing sacrament of confession on a regular basis, then that is a sure sign that we are building our lives on God’s power, not on fragile human wisdom.

Prayer, obedience, and the sacraments. As we continue with this Mass, let’s ask God to enlighten our hearts, to show us how we can live these virtues more intelligently and actively, so that we are sure to build our lives on a supernatural foundation that will last into eternity.