Tuesday, 4 September 2018

20th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B 2018

The theme for this Sunday’s Mass is the Eucharist as the Bread of Life. In saying so, we might have missed out a component without which the Eucharist can never be the Bread of Eternal Life. This is not Good Shepherd Sunday but it might as well be because the Gospel appears to lend itself to thinking about the priesthood and vocation. In general, this is a vocation losing its appeal as the priesthood is held up in contempt simply because of the sins of some us. 

If this can be described as re-branding, I assure you it is not. It is, if at all, to re-vision what it means to be a priest, why it is necessary that we have the priesthood and what goes into the priesthood of Jesus Christ.

As Church, we cannot run away from what is happening in the world because the Church and the world do not inhabit different spaces but are in fact sharing the same space. What we find in the world and perhaps detest, we find it in the Church as well. How many of you follow the Britain’s Got Talent franchise? America’s Got TalentIndia’s Got TalentAsia’s Got Talent. Hell, even Tg Pengerang’s Got Talent. Under a diversity and non-discriminatory narrative, there is a strong belief that such talent hunting is truly an exercise of democratic equalisation? Under the rule of the common, it is believed that everyone can be talented, or have access to showcase it. If you watched Ratatouille, you would know that everyone can cook. Talent scouting has uncovered some hitherto hidden talents—Susan Boyle for example? But behind this noble quest hides an insatiable chase for celebrity status. Celebrity is, as Hugh Jackman sings in the Greatest Showman, “... for years and years, I chased their cheers, the crazy speed of always needing more...”  And the step-sister of celebrity status is the personality cult. In a rugged-identity era, what are these but the search for individuality. Is the cult of personality not a reason for our fascination with the talents of our priests? Father X can sing like Josh Groban. Father Y can cook and curse like Gordon Ramsay. Fr Z can dance like Michael Jackson.

We want our priests to have pizzaz... holy pizzaz, hopefully. But what was a genius of the Tridentine Mass, the missa ad orientem, a Mass disparagingly described as priest with his backside to the people? Firstly, the missa versus populus which has been described to be more people-friendly has the disrespectful corollary in that it is 100% all right for the priest to show his backside to God. If it is not alright to show my backside to you, it is definitely alright to show it to God? Secondly, the priest weighed down by the heavy vestments finds his so-called personality in a manner of speaking shrouded in order than the faithful may perceive that truly Jesus Christ is present in the alter Christus and the only duty worth the priest’s salt is to do the one thing which Christ depends on him to and no one in the congregation can do—confect the Blessed Sacrament. No one in the crowd unless one is a priest. The bulkiness of the vestments is not because we like flowing robes. It is so that the personality of the priest might disappear under the vestments in order that Christ may become visible—He must increase, I must decrease.

Is that important? Through the fallible instrument of the priest, Christ gives us Himself so that we may avail of His strength to continue the work of salvation. St Paul in the 2nd Reading speaks of changing the world. Be the change you want the world to be. Redeem the world and in order that the work of redemption started by Christ can continue, we need the Eucharist and this mission cannot be done without the Catholic priesthood. 

Hence, either God is stupid or we are missing the bigger picture. The bigger picture is how can Jesus insist on the necessity of the Eucharist if He cannot find a way to provide it? If there are no vocations, it is not because God has stopped calling. We may have stopped listening.

The priesthood is not a club of the meritorious. It is not a reward of those who are saved. In the early 70s, the Society of Jesus asked this question “Who is a Jesuit”? The answer given was “A Jesuit is a sinner, yet called by God”. A Jesuit is a sinner because many a Jesuit come from broken families and chances are, people who are from broken families can be manipulative or sick. Is it any surprise that those who hold our trust fall prey to sin? Yes, one should expect that those who are in charge of the kitty do not steal. But Judas did and there have been Judases all through the centuries. In the same manner, we do not pick our priests from the tree of purity. A priest is definitely not your saviour, only Jesus is. But, despite the priest being a sinner, he stands alter Christus, as another Christ, so that ex opere operato, he can confect the Eucharist. 

Does the priesthood then need purification? Yes, it does. But so does society at large. If you want good priests, widen and deepen the pool of good families. But, for now, we need to understand that without the priesthood, there is no Eucharist, without the Eucharist, there is no Church. Without the Church, there is no salvation. That is ex opere operato.

A little clarification is needed. There is no guarantee that good family equates to good priests. The general rule we follow is that a good tree produces good fruits. Thus, the portraits of many of our priest are also testimonies of God’s grace. He takes the weak and make them strong to bear witness to Him.

Nevertheless, judging from sad state we are in, the Devil is laughing all the way down in hell because the destruction of the priesthood falls within his nefarious plans against God and humanity. Whilst there should be vigilance against clerical abuse—of all kinds—financial, sexual and even liturgical, we must be on guard not to sin against the priesthood. Not in the sense that priests should be put up for adulation, but rather in the sense that we must not lose faith in the necessity of the priesthood for the salvation of souls.

The best priest is not one who can cook or sing or dance or even do “great things”. The best priest is one who knows how to provide the sacraments when needed—especially the forgiveness of sins and the confection of the Eucharist. He is at his best when performing these actions because his priestly anointing sets him apart for this sublime duty—to make Christ present through the sacraments, especially through the Sacrament of sacraments—the Eucharist. For after all is said and done, when all scandals are exposed as they should be, when every wound is healed but the end result is that the laity has lost faith in the priesthood of Christ, the question to ask is, what is to become of the Body of Christ? I ask this question not to stifle whatever that needs to be done. (This might have been the same question asked by those who covered up the abuses, which explained the culture of silence). 

I ask it because in seeking to reform the culture associated with our priesthood, we need to recognise that priests are not plucked from the tree of perfect families. It calls for a conversion of the whole culture that provides for vocation. For example, the more divorces we have, chances are the more broken the priesthood will be. Ex opere operato, we will get the Eucharist even though it is celebrated by the most sinful priest because the priest is merely an instrument and it is Jesus Christ Himself who guarantees the “reality” of the sacrament. But ex opere operantis, we will have a credibility deficit—whereby faith is challenged not so much by the message but rather by the medium, that is, the Eucharist may be real but the priest who confects it makes it hard for people to believe that Christ can be present at all. In short, without a reform of family life and our culture, we will have shot ourselves in the foot!

The Church needs more holy priests. It must begin with holy families.

Tuesday, 21 August 2018

Assumption of Mary 2018

What is so important about the Assumption of Mary? What significance is there to this celebration?

Mary is both our strength and in an ignorant world, she is perceived to be our weakness. Before you conclude that I have committed a grave sin, let me clarify. Firstly, she definitely is our strength because of she is the Mother of God. Secondly, she is perceived to be our weakness because some ignorant Protestants believe that we worship her. The fact that this so-called dogma was proclaimed in 1950 might just lend itself to this perception. One cannot be further from truth when one holds this position.

Catholics hold her to be their strength, as mentioned earlier, not only because she is the Mother of God but because of who we are. Why? In a perfect paradise, in our prelapsarian innocence, humanity would be endowed with the preternatural gifts of integrity meaning that both our body and soul were united. But in our postlapsarian perdition, in our fallen state, there arose the discrepancy which St Paul so aptly described to the Romans, “For I do not do the good that I want to do. But the evil that I hate is what I do”.

This is our present state: We all struggle. But, somehow, in a self-help, positive-thinking, self-made environment, we seemed have banished the word “struggle” from our spiritual vocabulary. After all, like the Bionic Man, we can, if we think positively, help or reinvent ourselves. A line from the Salve Regina draws us back to our mundane morass—ad te suspiramus, gementes et flentes in hac lacrimarum valle—To thee do we send forth our sighs, mourning and weeping in this vale of tears.

Now, the two major Marian celebrations are in a sense holistic or integral in the treatment of the human person. In the Immaculate Conception, the feast touches on the human soul whereas today, the Assumption addresses the body that we have.

There is a war within us, a battle between good and evil which is waged daily in this lacrimarum valle. We like to think of ourselves as disciples but when we speak of discipleship, what is implied is discipline. In order to excel in a specialty or branch of knowledge, discipline is what we most need but it is also the least that we want. Ask any PhD candidate about what it means to write a thesis. Distraction, laziness and procrastination—all these are indications of a lack of discipline. But, it runs on logic that nobody likes “punishment” unless he is a masochist, that is, someone who enjoys punishment. True? And yet, when we want a beautiful body, it takes a lot of discipline and the funny thing is some are willing to pay that price for a perfect body to die in, but to follow the Lord closely it is another ball game altogether.

You see that the aim of the Assumption is not to promote a healthy body per se but to remind us that the body is part and parcel of the work of salvation brought about by Christ. When we die, even though the body may suffer corruption, at the Resurrection, our bodies will be reunited with our soul. Therein, the Catholic prohibition of scattering one’s ashes/“cremains” as if one were a free-spirited soul.

Two prefaces can be placed side by side. The Assumption and the Ascension. Part of the Assumption’s Preface reads like this:

For today the Virgin Mother of God
was assumed into heaven
as the beginning and image
of your Church’s coming to perfection
and a sign of sure hope and comfort to your pilgrim people.
This imagery draws its inspiration from the Preface of the Ascension which sounds goes like this: 

For the Lord Jesus, the King of glory,
conqueror of sin and death,
ascended to the highest heavens, ...
... he ascended, not to distance himself from our lowly state
but that we, his members, might be confident of following
where he, our Head and Founder, has gone before.

The discipline we endure in this life is in order that we may follow our Head and Founder and Mary being the foremost of Christ’s disciples is assumed into heaven because she alone is the one perfect dedication—body and soul—to her Lord and Saviour. There, she, who is everything like us except by the grace of God preserved from sin, becomes the beacon for those of us who are struggling in this valley of tears, hoping one day to follow. As a fellow pilgrim, this Mother of ours is certainly the most powerful advocate and also the greatest help we can ever have in our journey. As Lumen gentium gently reminds: Mary is now in a position to exercise fully her "motherhood in the order of grace," without interruption until the eternal fulfilment of all the elect (LG 62).

Finally, these days, people have been lamenting about the unusually warm weather that has resulted in many illnesses. If you feel that the heat is intolerable and your sickness uncomfortable, Assumption is truly a great reminder. Why? Hell or eternal damnation is not even an iota close to a trillion times worse. In fact, whatever we suffer now will be infinitely and infernally multiplied in hell. Hence, Assumption serves as a reminder to desire that which is boundlessly pleasing and joyful. Therefore, to Mary who is in heaven, we entrust the care of our souls and ask that despite our weaknesses, she never gives up on succouring us so that one day, bruised or battered, we may knock on heaven’s door and there, our Lord will open it for us and welcome us into the Kingdom which He has won by His life, death and resurrection.

19th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B 2018

Last week, I spoke of a vague rejection of the Resurrection. Here is another example of how unwittingly we do it. Since we live so close to our neighbour down south, some of us might tune in to their radio stations. [For me, it’s Class 95]. One of the things which they are trying to raise awareness of is pre-diabetes and we are told that it a condition which is reversible. The attempt to prevent the onslaught of this condition—Alzheimers/Parkinsons or that disease—cancer/AIDS is similar to what takes place at funerals—that is, we like to assign a cause for one’s death. "His son died from a car accident" or "her mother died from cancer". "Their father died from second-hand smoke of their chain-smoking mother". The fact is, with or without a condition or disease, everyone will die sooner or later. No matter how much we try to prevent it, death ultimately will claim us.

This week, our topic continues along the line of food and eating. It is ironical that we want to stave off death, that is, in yearning for earthly immortality, we are eating ourselves to death. The curse of a developed and developing nation is an insatiable appetite to eat and not just that, to eat more than we should. It is conceivable that our taste-buds have become jaded from over eating, hence our foods have to be super-flavourful—added sugar, added fat, added herb and spices, added salt and on top of that everything is supersized.
Today, in the interest of living longer and healthier but not in an effort to avoid death or an expression of a disbelief in the Resurrection, the first reading might just teach us how to avoid diabetes.

Elijah is on the run. He had managed to dis the prophets of Baal and Queen Jezebel was hounding him. To have done good and be punished for it, even the stoutest amongst us may just give in to discouragement and depression. He sits under a furze or gorse bush desiring to die. But the angel, woke up and told him to eat. Perhaps you realise why many of us are predisposed to pre-diabetes. We do not need angels to remind us that food can lift us out of our depression. Carbohydrates work wonders as a comfort food. But, instead of eating for strength, food has become the drug of the depressed.

In that case, how to avoid diabetes?

The French have two words which might help us make a transition—from comfort food to food for the journey. They are gourmand and gourmet. Both words are related to food. The former describes a person who is excessively fond of eating and drinking whereas the latter describes one who is a connoisseur of good food and drink. In other words, a gourmet is one who cultivates a discriminating palate whilst enjoying the finer things in life. Like Remy the rat in Ratatouille. All this relatives and friends are gourmands because they go for quantity unlike Remy who says that his mouth is made for better things. 

Now, just because one likes the finer things in life, they do not automatically elevate a person to the status of a gourmet. Najib and his wife (if Shafie were here, he would assert that Najib is being publicly tried in a homily) could be fine illustrations of how one can appreciate the finer things in life and yet be gourmands. Many may not see it this way but like over-eating, one can also accumulate to death.

Today Jesus continues to invite his Jewish listeners to a discerning recognition for what is truly the food for heaven. Sadly, their response was biblically predictable. How? Like their ancestors, they started murmuring—a reaction which betrays not an absence of refinement but rather of a lack of trust.

Why would Jesus want to introduce the people to this fine form of food? St Thomas in the commentary on Book IV of the Sentences gives us the perfect clue. He says, “Material food first changes into the one who eats it, and then, as a consequence, restores to him lost strength and increases his vitality. Spiritual food, on the other hand, changes the person who eats it into itself. Thus the effect proper to this Sacrament is the conversion of a man into Christ, so that he may no longer live, but Christ lives in him; consequently, it has the double effect of restoring the spiritual strength he had lost by his sins and defects, and of increasing the strength of his virtues”. St. Thomas, Commentary on Book IV of the Sentences, d. 12, q. 2, a. 11.

In short, we become what we eat. Stand next to a man who consumes all the floating bulbs of garlic in your pot of Bak Kut Teh and the following morning you will be standing next to a garlic garden. They say that food is cheap in the USA—usually the bad ones are—and thus you have lots of obese people because they resemble the greasy burgers and fries they consume.

The Jews certainly did not understand that the food that Jesus gives was for an eternal purpose. We eat so that we can become whom we have eaten. We eat the Body of Christ so that we can truly transform into the Body of Christ. I like Corpus Christi but it can be a harrowing experience for us living in a country unaccustomed to the deep symbolism of the procession. It definitely is an inconvenience to those who do not believe as we jam up the road and block traffic. Only that, we look ridiculous at best and idolatrous at worst. But, therein a most sublime symbolism—the Body of Christ, the Church, carrying the real Body of Christ. We want to become Him who became one of us.

St Paul in the 2nd Reading in detailing how members of a community should behave with each other is actually describing what sort of relationships that should exist within the Body of Christ. Within that community, members find their relationships enriched because of their conversion in Jesus Christ. To be more like Jesus, we need to consume Him more. But never in the gourmand sense that one receives communion in as many Masses they are in town.

In summary, our appreciation of the finer things in life begins with an acknowledgement that the Eucharist is tied up with the Resurrection for the Resurrection would be meaningless without and vice versa. The less we believe in the Resurrection, the less will we honour the Blessed Sacrament. But, the Resurrection is not a far off event somewhere beyond the pale. Instead, the belief in it begins now in the concrete—in the who we are and how we behave—as the Body of Christ, but it does not end here and for that, we need the Bread of Life to accompany us as the Viaticum, giving us strength, slowly, surely, changing us so that what we have begun here, will culminate in the eternity we wish to spend in His presence. St Ignatius of Antioch may have called the Eucharist the medicine of immortality and antidote of death—and so for us, to paraphrase Buzz Lightyear, the Eucharist is the real and only food we need for this long journey to infinity and beyond.

Sunday, 5 August 2018

18th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B 2018

If you noticed, we are still lingering on after last week’s miracle of 5 loaves and 2 fish, in what is also known as the Bread of Life Discourse. And, today is also not the end of the story as the entire Chapter 6 of John’s Gospel is liturgically stretched to cover 6 Sundays and we are just in the second one of them.

It is appropriately named as the Bread of Life Discourse because food is closely associated with living, as water and air are. Perhaps this Sunday we can focus on life and the art of living and the relevance the Eucharist has to the endeavour.

There is a song, if you have a chance, Google it and have a listen. There are different ways of interpreting this song by OneRepublic—I Lived. The context of the lyrics is about living with cystic fibrosis, whereby the victim may eventually end up with lungs so damaged that they cannot breathe unaided without a ventilator. Like food, without air, one cannot live.

What has this song to do with today’s Gospel? If you listen to the lyrics it sounds positive because it advocates a form of living which maximises what we have. For example, you may have heard that it is not the number of years in your life which is important but rather the life you give to the years that you have. “I owned every second that this world could give, I saw so many places, the things that I did. Yeah with every broken bone, I swear I lived”.

From a certain angle, this definitely encourages people to appreciate life and to live it to the fullest. But there may be an unintended consequence of this philosophy considering that we share a common cosmology. What cosmology am I referring to? Wittingly or unwittingly, we appear to have embraced an outlook in life which vaguely excludes the Resurrection. If you still yourself enough, you might just catch a glimpse of how prevalent this cosmology is.

In the name of health or well-being or comfort, can you count the number of devices invented or supplements created for these purposes? The number of people sporting Fitbits for their 10000 steps is a good example. Or, do you know of anyone who wears those magnetic bracelets or pendant that have been “discovered” scientifically to promote good health? Let me clarify that I am not against good health. We hear it said that health is indeed wealth because a person reasonably needs to be in good health to enjoy life. What is the point of accumulating wealth and riches only to “donate” to the hospitals? But there is a subtlety in this narcissistic age which overly focuses on therapy as the solution to all life’s problems. It is as if we are all in need of healing to be made whole.

But, take a moment to step back and ask this question: What does it really mean to be made whole, to enjoy life or to have a good life?

The people who got into the boat definitely thought that they had stumbled upon the elixir of life in the sense that they have found a permanent source of life, for food is life. Why not? This miracle worker would have taken the concern for sustenance off the menu. No need to worry and one can live rather comfortably. But, Jesus introduced them to the idea of food not only for this life, but rather indicated to them that there is a more fundamental search for the food that promises eternal life.

Life is addictive. Even if one’s life is boring, the truth is, nobody wants to die. Even those who commit suicide, you might think that they do not want to live. But, actually they do because they are protesting that there could be a better alternative to the life that they presently have. So, setting death aside, our main fear is that of a mundane and seemingly meaningless life. A fact which advertisers harp on to increase sales of whatever products they are peddling. 

Buy this and your life will be complete. Eat this and you will live longer. Our Guardian—half of the things there are for your face and the other half is to make sure you live forever. Go to the auto-shop and you will be drilled that if you were to drive this particular make, your adrenaline will surge. Live here in this locality and all the amenities available there fulfil you. Or like a fat lady once tried to show us, “Own this many Hermès Birkin bags and you would have arrived at the pinnacle of power”.

In summary, our search for life or the fullness of life is misdirected even if we embrace the positive message of OneRepublic’s I Lived, that is, attempting to squeeze as much life as possible out of every second.[1] The failure of our self-absorbed generation is to recognise that our hunger for physical food mirrors the human search for supernatural sustenance. Jesus in today’s Gospel is preparing the crowd for the answer to this sublime quest that He alone and nothing else is the nourishment needed for our spiritual salvation. Life and the art of living well are not tied up to the length or duration of life but rather to Him. It may begin with an appreciation of the physical world we inhabit, that is, we start with food, enough of it and healthy eating/living but it does not just end there. Life and the art of living well find its fulfilment in the everlasting, that is, to live forever, one draws immortality from Him who is none other than the Bread of eternal life.

[1] Therein also hides an unquestioned rejection of the Resurrection. What about those who do not have the wherewithal to squeeze life out of every second? Are their lives considered failures? The promise of the Resurrection is also an assurance that death is not a permanent closure to the chapter of one’s life, that whatever failure we encounter in this life can find its redemption in the next life to come.

Monday, 15 January 2018

Epiphany 2018

We have just finished Christmas and with that we settled the question of how many Masses to attend that would fulfil both the 4th Sunday of Advent and the Christmas duty. Are we not relieved and grateful that 6th Jan is not a day of obligation, for otherwise we would have to attend Mass yesterday and today? Canon 1246§1 lists Epiphany one of 10 holy days of obligation but, thankfully, in a nod to convenience, the Apostolic See has allowed quite a few to be transferred to a Sunday which is what we have done—killing two birds with one stone.[1]

Epiphany is a solemnity of revelation. What we call an epiphany, the Eastern Churches would term as a theophany. The difference between them is that the Epiphany is generic as it denotes a revelation from above whereas the Theophany is more specific as it focuses on the revelation from God. The 6th of January was the “Christmas” of the early Christians especially of the Church in the East because the date commemorates for them, the Nativity of the Lord, the Visitation of the Magi, the Baptism of Christ[2] and the Wedding at Cana. Only at the Council of Tours did Christmas get separated from Epiphany and much later, the rest—Baptism and Wedding at Cana got their own celebrations leaving the 6th of January primarily centred on the Visitation of the Magi.

The Gentiles have come searching for the new-born Child. What do they hope to accomplish and what can we learn from them? One observation is that the Epiphany is not a celebration of diversity even though the appearance of the multi-hued Magi seems to suggest that diversity has indeed arrived. 

What is it then, if it is not a “feast of diversity”?

To better appreciate the Epiphany, it might be profitable to survey the myths surrounding diversity. In campuses of some “enlightened” societies, political correctness, gender wars and nihilism have taken roots in the name of diversity. Coupled with this notion, a trigger word we ought to embrace is tolerance.

In a context of multi-culturalism and multi-religiosity, is that not an important concept to embrace? In our country, we definitely know what it means when people are intolerant. If diversity, which expresses the richness of God’s creation, is a given, how do we live in harmony? How do we behave in a manner which is human, in other words, how can we be moral beings?

Firstly, in the quest for social cohesion, which is a moral endeavour, there is a prevailing mistaken belief that man is inherently good. And through reason, he can be persuaded to be good. As such, there is a temptation to banish religions understood to be the cause of many a strife. The notion of progress appears to exclude religion in its march and many developed countries have somewhat banished it, have they not? The result is pretty simple. Religion is, at best considered as superstition, and at worst believed to be emotional intolerance, is therefore incapable of leading us to reasoned truth. If religious truth is banished, because religion is defective, then the rise of relativism and indifferentism is inevitable as we shall see later.

Secondly, the idea of “toleration” actually came about through the experiences of the “confessional” states. England and France are two such examples with England being Anglican and France being Catholic. As these societies progressed, the civil authorities began to tolerate the minorities who do not profess the state’s creed. Taking the confessional states’ experiences, what does tolerate amount to? It means that we put up with those who do not really conform to what we accept to be true. Therefore, when we “tolerate”, we are primarily stating that we hold on to what we accept to be true, but we can also live with those who are in error. This sense of “tolerance” still bears with it a recognition that there is objective truth.

However, you can detect the fledgling bud of indifferentism and relativism once tolerance is no longer anchored to the truth. If you dwell on this, is that not why diversity and acceptance can flourish? However, indiscriminate diversity, tolerance and acceptance do not hold water because somewhere along the way, one has to draw a line between what conduct is acceptable and what might is considered insanity or a crime. If we were to hold on to the principle of tolerance and stretch it to its logical conclusion, parading Kevin Spacey and Harvey Weinstein before you, would have totally disabuse you of the notion that tolerance is a virtue we should embrace. Once again, you can already discern the outline of truth here.

The despotism of uncritical tolerance means we must give in to the reigning fads. It has been used as a bullying tool against those who do not subscribe to the majority’s view. How? Even if you have not watched “The Greatest Showman”, you will understand what I am trying to say. In the musical based on the life of PT Barnum, there is a bearded woman and she sings an ode to the current fad: “This is me”. Into the mix, there is a message which stands against bullying but in totality, it is a declaration that the world ought to accept her as she is. We should stand against bullying but again, when this notion of acceptance is pushed to its logical conclusion, it becomes a problematic. If a man declares himself a murderer and that is who he thinks he is, should the world not accept him as he is?

To accept what is different gives an impression of noble tolerance. And, in this world of tolerance, dogmatism (which is another word for judgemental people) should be banished in the name of diversity. However, in the name of diversity, do I have the right to be bad? You might be thinking, “Of course not. How stupid can you be”? Yet, do you realise that people cannot smoke where they want to. I do not smoke and yet I know how smokers feel. And how come I cannot eat sharks’ fin in the name of tolerance and diversity? In other words, for some people, it is alright to be different but not for others. Where is the logic there?

Shakespeare’s Hamlet in his famous soliloquy asked “To be or not to be?” which in the context of tolerance today is a wrong question. To be tolerant or not is not an issue. The big fat elephant in the room, and I do not mean Fr Michael, is “What shall I tolerate?”. And this is no longer a question of morality but rather a question of might. Who has the stronger power will decide what is to be accepted in the name of diversity. Our conundrum is that we recognise that lines need to be drawn, the problem is who should draw them or where should they be drawn. The way things are, it is those who wield power, and the prophetic stand is to hold on to the truth and not allowed oneself to be cowed by the tyranny of “absolute” diversity, tolerance and acceptance.

Coming back to the mistaken myth that we are inherently good, the desire to be good even though it is a godly desire, is not good enough. At the heart of understanding who we are, stands also the question of how we should be and that takes us into the moral realm. Thus, the Wise Men came searching, not for an object, not even for a priceless treasure but for Him so their morality, that is, how to be human, might be given a firm standing. Perhaps we should take a leaf from them.

Diversity, tolerance or acceptance are never ideals absolute in themselves. Whilst they may help us in the social project of building peaceful societies, they must be founded on truths which are eternal. According to Pope Leo LXIII, “The things of earth cannot be understood or valued aright without taking into consideration the life to come, the life that will know no death. Exclude the idea of futurity, and forthwith the very notion of what is good and right would perish; nay, the whole scheme of the universe would become a dark and unfathomable mystery”.

We all yearn for an Elysium—a world without injustice whereby all that is imperfect is wiped off. Sadly, this longing has been shakily premised on the seducing quicksand of acceptance, tolerance and diversity as if these “virtues” once embraced will unfold a world without strife and pain. The reality is unqualified acceptance, tolerance or diversity leads to the chaos of darkness—a darkness which is emboldened by both power and money. He who has more of these will speak a greater “truth”

In conclusion, Epiphany is not a politically correct celebration of diversity, acceptance and tolerance. Rather it symbolises an anthropological quest—man’s search for who he is and who he is supposed to be.[3] It may have started from where he is but it does not end there. Epiphany represents Man’s search for the Divine and that this search is not putative but rather graceful and fruitful. The anthropological quest for God has found an answer in Jesus Christ. He is the light that shines on us so that we may know who God is and who we truly are. To be who he really is, man needs more than acceptance, tolerance and diversity.[4] In other words, Epiphany represents Man’s perennial hunger for light of truth to shine upon his path so that he can be what God has created him to be—a creature graced by truth, beauty and goodness.

[1] If we state that the Eucharist is the “source and summit” of the Christian life, does it make sense that the Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ, a holy day of obligation traditionally celebrated on a Thursday, two months after Holy Thursday (which is also the Thursday after Trinity Sunday) be transferred to a Sunday (even though Sunday is also a feast of the Eucharist) except that it too has suffered the sweeping aside by the tide of convenience!
[2] The sprinkling of Holy Water earlier in the liturgy, in place of the Penitential Rite, is perhaps a leftover from this past where the Baptism is lumped in together with the other theophanies.
[3]Tolerance, acceptance and diversity may be moral categories but must be informed by a anthropological vision that is eternal.
[4] If nobody accepts you, does it mean you are a nobody? In fact, even if nobody accepts you for what you are, the only Person who accepts you is God for you have been made in the image and likeness of His Son. However, God’s acceptance does not mean permissiveness—God’s acceptance is absolute ontologically but not morally because man is imbued with the freedom to accept or reject Him.  For example, a murderer. God accepts him as a created being (ontologically) with all the defects that come with sin but the life grace (morally) draws him to a higher plane. As Saint Augustine says, “The God who created us without our consent cannot save us without our consent”. That means in the realm of morality, we are free to reject Him. Sadly, our idea of acceptance is like an “in your face challenge” to the world. This is exactly what the philosophy of “acceptance, diversity and tolerance” asserts—accept me for who I am and allow me to be what I want to be. Instead, genuine anthropology requires not just science but also religious truths to illumine the path of its self-knowledge. Otherwise, diversity, tolerance and acceptance will be no more than selective permissiveness.

Thursday, 7 December 2017

1st Sunday of Advent Year B 2017

How different is Advent from Lent when it shares a similar shade as Lent? Purple. They both omit the Gloria and some weeks into the season, the vestments also swap a hue lighter. Rose. Then, the first Reading today has a strong penitential tint to it. Thus, a question that intrudes comes from the almost seamless flow from Christ the King to the first Sunday of Advent because they share a concern for a watchfulness in the matter of the impending judgement to befall us.

A passage from Paul’s Letter to the Thessalonians might aid us in discerning the subtle difference in focus between Lent and Advent, and also between Christ the King and the 1st Sunday of Advent. In the Gospel, the Lord gave an indication that the persecuted would not make the rounds of the cities of Israel before the Parousia, or Adventus, as in the Vulgate translation, that is, before the final return. Two developments resulted from this. Firstly, there was a sense of hopelessness because believers had died before the final judgement. Secondly, the result of knowing that the would-be-end-of-the-world coming soon witnessed sloth creeping in, as is common with human nature. After all, He will come, why not just wait Him out. Or simply, why bother since He is already coming?

But, Paul disabused his people of their misconception that those alive at the Second Coming would have an advantage over those who had died. Thus, it is not hopelessness for those who have passed on before the Parousia. In fact, the key phrase is to be ever watchful or attentive because the Lord’s coming is like a thief in the night. Whereas, Lent’s watchfulness is centred on taking stock of our life because we never know when He might come but more probably it is we who will go and meet Him first; Advent’s watchfulness is different. It is not really inward but rather forward looking. In other words, it is anticipatory. We are waiting to spring into action, like those 5 bridesmaid who have enough oil in their lamps waiting for the Bridegroom to arrive.

Whilst the Preface for Advent I speaks of the two comings of Christ, St Bernard, one of the doctors of the Church, speaks of the three comings of Christ. Firstly, He came. It is a historical fact. He dwelt amongst us about 2000 years ago. The Apostles and those associated with the early Church testified to His presence. He came in our weakness and in our flesh. Secondly, that is not the end of the story because He will return. This coming is eschatological and will take place in the historical future where He will return in glory and majesty. Finally, until such time when He comes in the future, the third coming takes place as we wait for Him, during Lent by focusing inwardly and in Advent by looking forward, just like faithful servants longing for the Master to return.

This is a waiting that is hopeful and it is based on the testimony of a past in which God has never failed us. Since, we live suspended between the two comings of Christ, historical and eschatological, the past and the future, hence, hope in the future means living in the present believing that what He had done for us, He will do again.

This form of waiting is hard work. It is challenging. Why?

The horizon is rather bleak and hopeless. There is a dampening despair about us which we often fail to recognise it as such. From the perspective of a family, our children appear to be in greater danger than ever before. For most parents, the fear is for the personal safety of their children. But, what about the more vulnerable exposed to trafficking and sold into slavery or the sex industry? Economics, notwithstanding, this hopelessness has given birth to a future with few children: “Why bring new life into this horrible world”?

If you look at society in general, we appear to idolise victimhood—an idea of woundedness that does not seem to heal. Last Sunday, I spoke of the innate hunger for accountability, which is a good, a bonum, a necessity in an age of eternal youthfulness or perpetual adolescence. The current viewing is titled “Inappropriate Behaviour” of our cinematic beaux mondes or political personages (and God forbid, that the Church should be out of this limelight!).

But, for every victim who alleges sexual harassment, (not that they should keep quiet), what about the nameless boat refugee raped by a gang of pirates at high sea, who has no recourse to media justice? Does it mean that she has become less of a person? What of the stories untold, unpublicised, “unexposed”? If one takes a moment to reflect, there is an unspoken despair which requires healing to be absolute before one can start living again. We fail to recognise that justice is not always to be found in this world. And because we do not get it, there is a gnawing sense of “incompleteness” that prevents life from going on.

Elevate this hopelessness to a global scale. Putting aside natural calamities, we have waves of European wannabes braving the Mediterranean but who are no longer in focus because the Rohingyas have come into the spotlight. A century of social engineering has not only left us with a trail of broken spirits but proofs that no earthly programmes can completely eradicate inequalities. Does this not suggest that hoping is hopeless? Even our prayers express this despair. We have, more or less, accepted that a situation is bad so much so that our “optimism” is a veneer for a deep “pessimism”. If there is a God, we are hoping that this God will take note of it and prevent things from getting any worse.

People lament that the spirit of Christmas has been drowned by the din of commercialism. If you set aside the prejudice against the buying and selling and think a little bit more, perhaps you might realise that all the buying is basically an attempt to drown our sorrow of despair. We naïvely believe that consuming can assuage this emptiness of hopelessness that we have inside.

In the context of watching and waiting, sin can be a kind of distraction, like an Odyssean gorging of narcotising lotus that deflects or blurs our hopeful vision. Notice so many of us are fixated on our mobile screens that our senses are numbed from staring at it. Therefore, Advent’s anticipation is definitely purifying. But unlike Lent, it is not an inward looking purification, even though there is a measure of it. Instead, it is forward looking, a training of the eyes to peer beyond what we have to a horizon where all that fails us can be rectified. As we await the Parousia, this longing is a hope that enables one to withstand the disappointments that life may dish or dump on us. Thus, it is a purification of our trust in the God who was there is a God who will be there. Come Lord Jesus, come.

Wednesday, 29 November 2017

Solemnity of Christ the King Year A 2017

It began with the catholic Church. Even though, it felt like the world was judging her, in reality, some may perceive that as the rise of accountability. Movies have been made on the theme of boundary violation highlighting the shortcomings of the Church and the need to be vigilant against predation, sexual or otherwise. 

Thus, it was spectacular to witness the fall of Kevin Spacey within a space of days. As Maroon 5 crooned in Sugar: “Hotter than a southern California day”, your man Kevin is definitely hotter than Kryptonite is to Superman. Pariah aptly describes him and by no means is he alone. It would appear an industry that prides itself as a champion of truth since it is based on a close mimicry of life (so many movies based on true stories) has finally gathered enough courage to scrutinise its own hypocrisy. Of course, with a “boor” (as depicted by The Washington Post or The New York Times) for a President, this fallout has also extended into the political realm. 

As a Catholic, on the one hand, one has to be careful that there is no schadenfreude when describing this. On the other hand, it is a welcome development as it shows how far we have come in the area of protection of minors and the vulnerable. However, as we rejoice, it might be good for us to explore the connexion between the Solemnity we are celebrating and the current state of affairs.

Firstly, in this turn of events for Spacey et al, it shows a hunger for accountability. In an era of small people, it is wonderful that no one is exempted from being answerable for his deeds. This accountability happens to coincide with the Gospel theme as the distinction between sheep and goat is a challenge to take responsibility for one’s actions or lack thereof for the weak and marginalised.

Secondly, we celebrate the Solemnity which in itself is not that old. Pius XI instituted it in 1925 through an encyclical Quas primas. Nevertheless, the symbol utilised is getting more remote and antiquated. The air we breathe is democratic and any concept that does not stand on merits is anachronistic to our equal rights sensibilities. In fact, many would think that a title such as “King” should be rejected as it is a sad reminder of past oppressions under autocratic kings.

Democracy is the great equaliser. In fact, some translations would like to replace Kingship with kinship and Kingdom with Kindom. Thus, baptism initiates us into a “Kindom with God”—where no one is greater or lesser than anyone else. Where advocacy is concerned, this is democracy at work. No more patriarchal domination for everyone is equal in the “Kindom” of God.

Yet, we are made for someone other than ourselves. An entire musical genre is dedicated to this notion of belonging—love songs. Interestingly, the etymology of the word authority, which is associated with the idea of kingship, suggests as much. Authority designates authorship—that is, originating from somewhere. We came from somewhere and as such we belong to someone. Again, such a notion violates our sense of being because we feel our freedom curtailed simply by the suggestion that we belong to someone. Ironically, when we replace the word “King”, with its attendant notion of authority and the idea of belonging to, we would have substituted it with something else, which in this case is ourselves. Our understanding of freedom means “I belong to myself” and thus I am the initiator of all my actions. In other words, we distrust “external” authority that much that the only authority we listened to is ourselves.

The death of the symbol of kingship has a dire consequence. It is the rise of individualism and with it, the demise of accountability. In the mentioned encyclical, the Pope says, that the faithful would gain strength and courage from the celebration of the feast, as we are reminded that Christ must reign in our hearts, minds, wills, and bodies (Quas Primas, 33). What is this reign but accountability, the very virtue that is exalted by Hollywood now?

What happened you might ask that we have arrived at this?

When Descartes posited the cogito little did he know that he had contributed to the present state that we are in. Protestants like to think that they have introduced the idea of entering into a personal relationship. Thus, “Do you have a personal Saviour”? Whilst this question is important, what has happened is in fact not a personalisation of religion but rather a privatisation. What does this mean? Personalised religion is definitely a good because we form a personal relationship with the Lord. He becomes our Lord and Saviour and that our practice of the faith is not, as what the Proddies like to characterise, dead ritualism in which the person (read: inner self—emotions and psyche) is not there. He (read: the unthinking body) is just going through the motion. 

Unfortunately, what Descartes did not contend with, was this: when the “personal” met “science”, what cannot be proven, should not only remain personal but, it is condemned to stay private. Hence, the Cartesian cogito, more than forging a path to a personal encounter with Christ, has sentenced that relationship to a prison deeper than personal and it is privatistic. In effect, personalised religion has become basically privatised beliefs. “Who am I to judge?” is symptomatic of religious practice privatised. In this realm, there is no “Other”. The domain of the private means that one is no longer accountable to the “Other”.

The current liberal thinking finds that youths today are misguided in the sense that they seek the old, forgetting that there is a present. What do I mean? They are fixated with the Traditional Latin Mass, Religious Garb etc etc.... And what is more debilitating is that they do not recognise the structure of society and the latent pathologies hidden therein that give rise to inequalities. What is worse is how the young show no concern for issues of social justice. And the reaction to this “devolution” is to condemn the youths as being out of touch. The truth is, they are not wilful in their nostalgic focus but rather they exhibit the reality that all of us, old and young, are trapped in a prison called “private” religion.

Christ the King used to be celebrated on the last Sunday of October but ever since the 1969 revision of the Roman Calendar, it has been shifted to the final Sunday of the Liturgical Year. It is pædagogical in a sense. The Last Sunday is associated with the Last Things—death, judgement, heaven and hell. The end of life comes into focus and with it, accountability. When religion is privatised, it loses its strength to be accountable. The “abuse” especially of the sexual kind—is testament to the enervation of authority or more precisely the severing of the innate sense of “belonging”. When we no longer belong to each other, then boundaries are reduced to no more than limits to be breached. Where there is no accountability, that is, no morals, then being on the right side of the law just means that one has not been caught breaking a law.

And breaking the law is not limited to sexual behaviour. Our kinship, so highly prized, is not just a belonging to each other but also a belonging to God. In that way, we recognise the accountability we owe to God. Thus, scientific exploration that does not take into account human dignity (inalienable rights conferred by God and therefore is accountable to Him) violates the chain of command in the sense that it defaces God Himself, the author of human dignity. Furthermore, when religion is privatised, then gender becomes fluid which means that we are no longer accountable to creation. Instead, we take creation to be what we want it to be. In other words, we are gods in our self-creation.

When the personal is hemmed in by the private, then democracy, the so-called champion of individual rights will not lead greater accountability. Instead, what it has done is to deepen our debauchery. In the realm of private practice, there is a forgetfulness that the personal is relative to the social; that one cannot be an “individual” if there are no “many” against whom one can claim it. Even Tom Hanks stranded on an island claimed his individuality in relation to an imaginary social.

We are both individuals and social. The care we owe to ourselves is what we owe to society. This accountability or belonging is not restricted to the present but as mentioned earlier, the last Sunday of the Year directs our minds to the end time. Thus, the Solemnity at the end of the liturgical year invites us to live today with the end in mind—helping our accountability to climb out of the pit of private loneliness because our care of each other expresses our belonging to Christ and His Body, both now and forever.