Saturday, 23 January 2021

3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B 2021

The previous week, we bade farewell to the Baptist. In fact, he bowed out with a key message that discipleship should always be a signpost—one who points in the direction of the Bridegroom. The best we should be is the groomsman. This week we continue to explore the idea of discipleship.

Both the first reading and the Gospel tie the notion of discipleship with the message of repentance. But, as the experience of Jonah suggests, repentance is more than just the absence of sin. It is more active in the sense that one turns away from in order to turn towards. Consider the dramatic conversion of the first reading. It was a time of xenophobia as Israel was in exile. She was a victim playing the blame-game especially of the foreigners in whose land she was now disenfranchised. And of all things, Jonah was asked to preach to these aliens. To his surprise, one and all citizen of Nineveh turned away from sin and turned towards God.

The second reading provides the basis for this conversion. In order to turn away from sin and turn towards God, St Paul speaks of the provisional nature of the world. The world as he knew it was going to end therefore the Corinthians were advised not put all their trust in the world. The context was clear—St Paul thought he was living within the imminence of the Parousia. He, like many of his contemporaries, believed that Jesus’ return was sooner rather than later. On the one hand, such an advice can sound depressing, if not distressing, especially in a time like this, a raging pandemic, when everything is uncertain. But, on the other hand, it is living with a hopeful sense of dependence and a recognition of how reliant we are on God and how much our lives should be directed to Him.

Within this framework of St Paul’s provisional cosmos, where we are shown that nothing is more contingent than a raging pandemic, the question is, how can we be disciples in a passing world?

Apart from the economic havoc, an issue that this pandemic has underscored is the reality of death. That this pandemic has been devastating, in every sense of the word, is true. However, our reaction might just reveal where we are and where we have come from. To a large extent, the prevailing attitude has been to ignore death. This outright attempt to deny mortality has largely been unsuccessful, which may explain why we want to control the narrative. A hedonistic lifestyle is a good illustration. Live today to the hilt without a thought for tomorrow. A more excellent example is the phenomenon of euthanasia. It shows that even at the hour of death, we want to be in control. Whilst the acceptance of assisted death is not as widespread here as it is in some parts of the world, perhaps what is more indicative of that determination to disregard death is the mushrooming of nursing homes. They simply symbolise our desire to shift death away from our line of vison. Stating this is in no way a judgement of those who have an elderly parent in a home.

Instead, it is trying to make sense of St Paul’s exhortation in the second reading. Death, which is a “passing away”, can teach us how to live in this world that is itself fading away. But it is complicated because along with disdaining death, we may have also lost faith in God. Faith helps us navigate death as well as gives dignity to human existence because it sustains and helps us grapple with the incomprehensible.

What has clearly replaced a faith in God is another faith—a belief in the engineering prowess of our technical, social and political skills; that these are adequate when facing the full reality of life and death. As such, our faith in God is nothing more than a faith in ourselves. If not, faith just means that God must bend to our will.

Whether we like it or not, Covid has merely laid bare this nakedness of ours, that is, we can die and our faith in God is weak. A firm faith would have allowed us to perceive death, while not positively willed by God, nevertheless, it would be permissively allowed by Him as part of His mysterious plan of salvation. Faith in God gives us a perspective which may allow us to hold death, if not like St Francis of Assisi who considered death to be a sister, at least death as the essential key in the passageway to eternity. Therefore, Covid has done two things. It has brought death squarely right in front of our face as well as challenge our faith in God.

This is where our discipleship comes in. Christ called the four of them for a purpose—to be fishers of men. Of course, at the top of every vocation is the call to salvation. Everyone is called for salvation. However, salvation ought to be worked out in the concrete. So, how do we exercise this discipleship in a situation where the fear of death has become almost a deity to be worshipped? How can we be disciples of faith in God who remains mysterious in the workings of the world?

Firstly, as disciple we must recognise that here and now is not all there is. To say the least, our civilisation is in existential shock as our “normal” has been so disrupted that we struggle to expand our vocabulary to embrace the “new normal”. Our novel arrangements have been, at best “disincarnational” since we have veered toward the glorification of the virtual, and at worst, helplessly flounder in mere materialism as they have left many adrift and alone in facing the incomprehensible abyss of death. There must be more to life than the here and now. This brings us to the second point.

A disciple has to live beyond the here and now. A disciple of hope with a knowledge that is grounded, neither endorsing reckless fatalism (takdir) nor enmeshed in destructive fear. This hope allows us to hold the tension between what is necessary in health measures—masks, social distancing, avoidance of large crowds and what is essential to us as social beings—meaningful contact that is human in expression. Ultimately, our faith accepts that no solution, this side of eternity and apart from God, is fool proof. “To live forever” is not eternity.

In a world searching for direction amidst uncertainty, the disciple is called to be the solid Gospel of Hope. Today has been designated as the Sunday of the Word of God. This Word of God, the Gospel of Hope is where one encounters a rightly ordered perspective where the mortal is understood through the lens of the immortal. We are called to a fearlessness (not recklessness) in the face of death so as to be a sign of hope in a God who, despite all the despair surrounding us, is working for our salvation. Therefore, our hope is not in the cure, even if it is a great good, but rather our hope is in God because faith in Him is the only vaccine against a madness of death without eternity.

Sunday, 17 January 2021

2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B 2021

Even though, we have entered Ordinary Time, we are still not done with John the Baptist—almost equivalent to the phenomenon of “having the final say”. But his was an amazing “last word” and there is something for us to learn. John stared hard at Jesus and exclaimed: “Look, there is the Lamb of God”. This theologically loaded statement, coupled with the first reading from the Prophet Samuel, frames an understanding of the public ministry of Jesus in terms of the vocation and mission of a disciple. We witness in a dramatic fashion when John pointed Jesus out to be the long-awaited Messiah. Immediately, the two disciples of his left to follow Jesus.

Last Sunday, we stated that the primary goal of Jesus’ public ministry is aimed at our eternal salvation. Nevertheless, His ministry shapes our vocation and mission as disciples.

Firstly, how to live our vocation is already convincingly demonstrated by John the Baptist. He remained the perfect Best Man who knew his place in the larger scheme of things. If you take a moment to imagine that grand gesture. Here is someone whose role was no more than to point in a certain direction. There was no second thoughts or hesitation. In an age of personality cult, John the Baptist should be the Man of the Year only because he excelled at being “a nobody”.

Secondly, while this self-effacing action of the Baptist is important in framing our Christian vocation, the encounter between Jesus and the two can better deepen our appreciation of our mission as disciples. Our vocation like John is always to be Christ-centred. In everything we do, He must increase while we decrease. When Christ is at the centre, then the conversation between Jesus and the two soon-to-be disciples will shine a light on our mission. “What do you want?”, “Rabbi, where do you live?”, “Come and see.” and “We have found the Messiah”.

Just after the Baptist’s last words, “Look, there is the Lamb of God!”, both Andrew and John left even without a goodbye and went toward Jesus proving that built into our human nature is this search or a hunger for the Divine. Both the question, “What do you want?” and the answer “Rabbi, where do you live?” correspond to this instinctive drive of Man—he yearns for the Divine.

According to the Catechism, “The desire for God is written on the human heart because we have been created by God and for God; and God never ceases to draw us to Himself. Only in God will we find the truth and happiness we never stop searching for” (CCC, 27).

The two faculties of the soul, the intellect, and the will, are on this never-ending quest for what is true and good. We want to know the truth and we desire the good. We saw an example of that in the Magi who came looking for the true God. They willingly sacrificed their comfort for Him. The same longing is detected in both Andrew and John. Every respectable Jew waits for the promised Messiah and when the Baptist pointed Him out, they jumped at the chance to follow Him. They may not know fully the nature of His Messiahship but that did not deter them.

It is good to know that our desire is not a one-way street. It made sense that Jesus invited them to “Come and see”. God may have created us to search for Him, but He does not leave us in a mindless pursuit. He takes the initiative to reach out to us because “God, as the first principle and last end of all things, can be known with certainty from the created world by the natural light of human reason. Without this capacity, humanity would not be able to welcome God's revelation. Human beings have this capacity because they are created in the image of God” (CCC 36). So, right at the beginning of time, even in Genesis already, after Adam’s fall, God went searching for him. God has never ceased in His search for us and the point is, we would not know that He is searching for us if He did not put it there in the first place.

Thus, the invitation to “Come and see” represents the initiative of Jesus in meeting both Andrew and John. To stay with God expresses the inherent desire to “escape” this passing world. Our Advent liturgy kept reminding us that amid passing things we should hold on to things that endure. We seek a permanence that is absent from this world or a permanence which temporality cannot fulfil. Whether we realise it or not, we long to contemplate the face of God and be taken up by Him so as to draw life from Him. We recognise the same thirst to contemplate in the sisterly “quarrel” between Mary and Martha. Mary had discovered the joy of contemplating the Lord whom Martha and many of us “doers” cannot comprehend. In other words, Mary had caught the beatific vision in which God alone suffices.

God, the subject of our search, is the reason for our sufficiency, not our material progress or accumulation. The Greek word “enthusiasm” possibly captures the experience of having tasted God. It is to be taken into God “en theo” which overflows into a passion in sharing it with others. “We have found the Messiah”. We have found what our hearts have been looking for. Now that they have touched the Divine, more than sharing the experience, they brought Peter to Jesus to the same experience.

In this encounter between Jesus and the two disciples, we catch a glimpse of how our mission should be shaped. Like I mentioned last week, we often envisage discipleship as “doing good”. While that is good, what is more profound is to make available the encounter with Christ and souls longing for salvation. Otherwise, it does not make sense to speak of baptism. Our mission to be disciples requires that we contemplate and be touched by God and with that to go out and bring others that they too may be touched by Him and thus be saved. Like John the Baptist we make clear that path for people to come close to God.[1]

In conclusion, salvation is not a promise that we will not face troubles. In fact, sometimes the knowledge of Christ and His salvation comes at a heavy price. The Baptist himself paid the ultimate price of witnessing to the Christ. But, right until his beheading, he unstintingly pointed to the Christ. His penultimate act was to point out the Lamb of God to the disciples who have been searching for Him. So, if we take seriously our vocation and mission, we should emulate John the Baptist in his humility as always being the pointers to Christ. And our mission like Andrew and John is to seek God so that our intimate knowledge of Him will spur us to lead other to Him.

[1] It may come across that “feeding the poor”, that is, doing good is not something urgent. It is. Attending to the cry of the poor is necessary. But what is the logical conclusion of feeding the poor? An amelioration of their condition? What is the goal of creating a "just world"? That they have a “decent” life? That they may enjoy what we are enjoying? The question to ask is this: Their decent life and what we are enjoying, can these conditions be equated to salvation or to heaven?

Sunday, 10 January 2021

The Baptism of the Lord Year B

From one theophany we now jump to another. The three Synoptic Gospels record the baptism of Jesus which must indicate that it was a significant moment in His life. In today’s Gospel, John the Baptist makes a contrast between his baptism and the one which Jesus will soon inaugurate. For John, his was basically a baptism of repentance. In that sense, it is a preparation for the baptism which Jesus will initiate through which sin will be remitted but more than that, the Holy Spirit will be given.


Interestingly, both Mark and Luke present the event from a personal perspective in which the voice from heaven was heard by Jesus alone. Matthew widens the perspective to include the onlookers as they too heard the same voice. This theophany is clearly a kind of “pneumaphany” wherein the Spirit manifested in the life of Jesus also marked the beginning of the public ministry of Christ.


The public ministry of Jesus must be seen in the context of what happened after the baptism. In the Epiphany last Sunday, Christ is shown to the world as the Light of the nations. In the Magi, we, the masses, have been invited to come into His light. Today, He does more than being the Light that attracts and draws the multitude to Himself. In the Incarnation, He had already entered in the human arena and His baptism presents an irrevocable ratification of His decision to embrace and elevate man’s destiny. The conversation between Baptist and Jesus illustrates this. He who is sinless asks for a baptism for the sinful. His action has life-changing implications for each one of us because the word public would require that there be people or a multitude to minister to.


This tremendous grace is highlighted when we mark the birthday of John the Baptist in June. There in the liturgy, the preface states that “to make holy the flowing water, John baptised the very author of baptism”. At the Easter Vigil Mass, the blessing over the water for the baptism of the catechumens churns up countless cues of the regenerating mystery of water for us. The same blessing tells us that water at the beginning of creation took on the power to sanctify. In the time of Noah, the flood foreshadowed the regeneration in which the very water that caused an end to vice signalled the very beginning of virtue. The Crossing of the Red Sea prefigured our Sacrament of Baptism. And on the Cross, the water that flowed from the pierced side of Christ gave the post-Resurrection Church the perpetual injunction and continued impetus to go and baptise all the nations in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.


For as long as time remains, this is how far reaching the Baptism of Jesus is for the great number like us.


Yet, in our time, to speak of the Baptism in the Jordan as the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, it carries with it its own thought trajectory in the sense that it does lead us into thinking in terms of social action. In a world deeply scarred by injustice and inaction, more than ever, man is in need of liberation and how else better to do that than social activism. Our collective domain seems desperately in need of reshaping. Of course, we hear it frequently and have been egged on by Isaiah’s Suffering Servant as well as Luke’s Gospel that the Christ has come to preach the Good News to the poor, to proclaim liberty to the prisoners, to set the oppressed free. We shall hear of it later in the Preface for the Baptism of the Lord. These imageries do lend themselves directly to this urgency in championing advocacy or social activism because our contrasting world is so emancipated by plenty and science and yet so shackled by unjust structures and the lack of access to technology. 


In fact, everything concerning man’s current situation cries out for social readjustment which tends to make us forget that the central component of Jesus’ public life is salvation. In any crisis of pressing need, it is hard not to be stymied in one’s horizon or vision of the eternal.


Let us be clear that doing good and salvation are not mutually exclusive. And salvation is not we saving others but God saving us. Thus, for us, the salvation brought by Jesus is a mission of making available God’s salvation to others. In the midst of engaging the world, we must never forget this for Jesus did not come to us as the Guru of self-help or the therapist whose job is to make us feel good about ourselves or to help us overcome our victimhood. The Church is not a “spa”. It is more than the “space” that people can worship in comfort and convenience as it is also a place where the injured sinner seeks solace and salvation. He came to save us from our sin provided we still believe in the reality of sin, that we are sinners and are in need of salvation.


Sin is the cause of our sinful structures that perpetuate the unjust conditions of our times. If we fail to recognise that we need to be saved, then all our efforts at changing the world will come to naught. Eternal salvation should be the goal of every good deed we hope to perform


In conclusion, if anything, the pandemic has clearly illustrated the fine balance that we may have forgotten. There is a chasm between being safe and being saved. Again, they are not clashing concerns as they are related to each other and you catch a glimpse of this difference in horror/thriller genre. The coward who saves himself at the expense of others will ultimately be devoured by a monster or destroyed by a demon.


Thus, it belongs to the realm of grace to navigate the tension between being safe and being saved. The first condition is prerequisite for a peaceful and pleasant presence in this world. For example, nobody wants to walk out of the house and be assaulted. However, note that the second condition is directed toward the eternal. And it is the second which was the primary reason for the baptism of Jesus. It is true that we cannot work for the eternal without stepping into this world. Working in this world belongs to our professional capacity. Each of us has a role to play in shaping the world so that it resembles a bit more of heaven. But no one should forget that working for the eternal is at the heart of our vocation. It is true that we are baptised to leave a good mark in this world, but we are christened for the next world. Make no mistake about it.