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.

Saturday, 21 October 2017

28th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A 2017

We are nearing the end of the year and the readings take on an apocalyptic tone. And yet, we are no strangers to this ominous theme because the idiot box is replete with variations of the same motif—watch the myriad series and you know what I mean. Walking Dead, Falling Skies or The Last Ship are but a few examples. The dystopian mise en scène is in exact opposition to both the first reading and the Gospel. Ironically, this apocalyptic world does not completely deny the religious nature of man though the numinous nod is but a Nietzschean indictment of the divine[1]. What may be a backhanded compliment to this numinosity is what Catholics termed as sacramentals. They are easily recognisable—a picture of the Sacred Heart of Jesus hung on the wall, stained glasses in a Church, Crucifixes in rooms and Rosaries. The fact is, even though God appears to be present, He is powerless in this dark and dismal dystopia confirming the Marxist accusation that the divine is nothing but an opiate for the unthinking masses.

This Sunday’s “End of the World” reading and the Gospel, far from prophesying a portentous prospect, instead nudges us in the direction of God by challenging us to assess the quality of our relationship with Him.

Firstly, the relationship we have with God is articulated within the framework of Providence. We have a God who will provide. However, this cornucopian imagery proposed by the first reading is nowhere recognisable in what one gets from the movies.

Secondly, God is benevolent to His creation. He is not a “deistic” God who created world and left it, at best, to run on its own or at worst, to rot. However, we have difficulty appreciating God’s benevolence. Or rather, we have a tough time believing this. Why? The answer may be found in an interesting feature about the Gospel, a detail which is not unique to this Sunday. It is the availability of a shorter and a longer version which the celebrant is free to choose. The shorter version seems to cut out an uncomfortable reality but which is important to understanding what sort of relationship we are called to have with God.

When we speak of “relationship” we ought to consider an aspect of it associated with the Millennials. It deals with “disloyalty”. For the millennial workforce, employment must be multi-faceted in the sense that a person who is working only in one job would be considered as committing career or professional hara-kiri. As it were, one is forced to chart a course so that one’s work experience can be widened. Thus, relationship for the Millennials is markedly selfish, not in a wilful sense of the word but rather it necessarily follows a logic of self-preservation. In order to advance in one’s career, one has to be “disloyal”. Coupled with self-preservation is also a strong sense of entitlement.

This sense of privilege has far reaching consequences. For example, have you ever heard of “cheat days”? It happens when someone is on diet. He is entitled to a cheat day where the healthy regimen he adheres to does not apply. Imagine this privilege being translated into morality? In the commitment to be good, consciously one is entitled to be bad. How does that impact our relationship with God? With this type of morality, disloyalty is built into commitment. Catholicism Soft and Lite has never been so popular!

In fact, a shorter version of the Gospel might give us an inkling of the sort of relationship we want from God. In other words, for us who are entitled, what we want is to hear is that God loves us. God cannot be anything but kind and merciful to sinners. This is the only Gospel we want to hear, the only Good News that makes sense. Not that it is not true.

One of the challenges of the Jubilee Year of Mercy was the clamouring to announce God’s graciousness but for an entitled ear, we fail to recognise that the invitation to partake of God’s mercy must also be accompanied by a courageous ascent of conversion. The long version of the Gospel brings forth the message that a balance has to be struck between gratuity and commitment, between grace and freedom and between reconciliation offered by God and the conversion that we submit ourselves to. If at all, God were “indulgent” by constantly giving in to us, then we do not really know the meaning of indulgence. In Luke 7, the woman with the alabaster jar of oil is described as, “she who has shown great love has had her many sins forgiven”.

In summary, the wedding garment calls us to a relationship that is not one-sided in that we are entitled to God’s love without the corresponding duty of ever conforming our lives to God’s will in response to His generosity. The God who provides is not a God of the Entitled. Instead, He is also entitled to our faithfulness because we have entered into a covenant with Him at baptism. Sad but true, the odd man who believes that he can respond to God on his own terms will soon find himself bound and cast out into the abyss where the grinding of teeth never stops.

[1] That God is dead…

27th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A 2017

Matthew has a line of three judgement Gospels and today is the second one. It is clear that the Vineyard parable is directed at the Chosen People. If Original Sin had not afflicted the human race, there would have been one Body and one Spirit worshipping the the One God and therefore no need of a “chosen” group of people.

Precisely because of humanity’s failure, God chose from amongst the many people, a race to call His own. He chose Israel and made them His own, that is, the People of God.

The parable is therefore an illustration of expectation and its failure. It is a simple narrative setting out God’s expectation of His people. The tenants are understood to be the Chief Priests and the Elders but what they did was to arrogate themselves the place of God. The prophets are God’s servants whom these tenants abused and killed. When warned by Jesus about the possibility that they might lose their special position, the tenants paid no heed. In fact, when God sent His Son, they did the expected. They killed Him thus confirming the Psalmist’s prediction that the stone rejected by the builders has become the cornerstone.

Jesus is now the cornerstone of the new Vineyard that God has chosen to hedge and replant. A German word that might describe the change in tenancy is schadenfreude. It means to derive pleasure at the misfortune of others. An example of this kind of guilty pleasure can be found in our context of heightened racial tension. Do we not take quiet pleasure when something bad happens to the people whom we believe do not deserve their special position? And since Christians consider themselves to the heirs of the Chosen People, we might also have a sense of superiority hearing this parable as referring to the Jews.

Before we break out in rejoicing, the parable applies to us as well because it is a parable of expectation. Even though God’s gift is gratuitous, it implies a giving born out of a mutual relationship. The mutuality suggested by the first reading is characterised by justice. God provides and the people obey the terms of the covenant concluded between Him and them. Their faithfulness to Him is no more than the demands of justice. Frequently, they failed and their ultimate failure came in the shape of the rejection of the Son of God. It was not wilful but perhaps it was fearful. A way of looking at this failure is that they loved monotheism to the point where they were fearful of the promptings by the Holy Spirit that God had send His only Son to lead them ultimately to fullness of revelation, that God is truly one but three in person.

God desires that His creation shares the fullness of life. Due to the failure of His Chosen people, the new and final covenant is now signed through the Blood of His Son. It is now the Church, the channel of salvation through whom God in Jesus Christ wishes to save the world and reunite it to Himself.

The mutuality of the relationship between God and His people is now expressed via the Sacramental life that Christ gave to the Church. How is that so? The vineyard, that is the Church, is now tasked with bearing fruits that Israel did not and not just any fruits but good fruits. The fruitfulness God that desire of His vineyard is watered by the Sacraments which He gives to us.

In a certain respect, we are quite happy to think of ourselves as “actors”. I do not mean this in the sense that we are movie actors but rather that we believe that we are self-made. Thus, we can make ourselves fruitful. This cannot be further from the truth. Fruitfulness is dependent on God’s grace and in the Church, His grace preeminently comes to us through the sacramental economy because every sacrament is the action of Christ Himself done through the Church. For example, when a baptism takes place, it is Christ Himself, through the rite of Baptism, who incorporates the baptised into His Body. In confession, it is Christ Himself, through the agency of the priest, who forgives the sins of the penitent. And so forth.

To be a fruitful vineyard then, our effort must be more than just fulfilling the minimum. For example, the Church stipulates Confession as an Easter duty meaning that we should go for Confession at least once a year during Easter so as to fulfil our Easter obligation of receiving Holy Communion at least once a year.  This kind of minimalist behaviour might just mirror the conduct of the Chief Priests and Elders. They proclaimed loudly that they love God and His commandments but their practice spoke volumes otherwise.

Have you ever seen the billboard of another religion which says, “Sembahyang lah sebelum kamu disembahyangkan” which translates into “Pray before you are prayed”? This is certainly an invitation and a challenge to move beyond our comfort zone. The Church, the new vineyard, through the gifts of the Sacraments, is both our salvation and sanctification so that we might bear the fruits which God expects of us. Our fruitfulness is a return of God’s graciousness. And lest we grow lax, it is good to remember that what befell Israel—the original tenant can also befall us.

26th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A 2017

Often I feel out of place here. As one approaches the facility, the forbidding “Zeto” [Zero Tolerance] sign-boards are compelling reminders of the purpose for the construction—to be a petrochemical plant. As it is, each time I come here, I see progress because new structures are sprouting up. What colours this place is not just the rusty brown dust of construction but rather functionality. Everyone here has a role to play—get this complex up and running.

Here I am, like feeling useless. Who needs God here?

If we buy into this functionality, that is, getting the job done, then it is straightforward, nothing more than that. When a worker dies, it would appear that he had died in the course of duty. There is nothing after the formality of repatriation, is there? The fact is, no matter how much we comply with this “Zeto” policies, there will be casualties and in the bigger picture, an accidental death is no more than a unfortunate statistic marring a perfect zero-accident count.

The question is, is there more to life than just being functional?

Today, coincidentally, is the feast of St Therese of Lisieux. If evaluated by  functionality, she would rank as nothing for her entire short life was spent intramural—behind the walls of a convent. And yet, she was proclaimed by Pope Pius XI as the Patroness of the Missions, alongside St Francis Xavier, whom we know to be the tireless Jesuit missionary of the East.

Where is the fairness? Whereas St Francis Xavier braved heat, hostility and exhaustion, here is someone who did not step beyond the convent walls and yet given the title, Patroness of the Missions. Life seems unfair.

Furthermore, we witness such unfairness regularly in the distribution of natural disasters. They appear to strike some countries more than others. Never mind that climate change could be a result of our sinful behaviour. Or some families look like they bear a bigger share of disability in their offsprings.

Easily we transpose this as God’s unfairness. 

But the 1st Reading reminds us that God is always just. He may come across as unfair. Thus, to lament that God is unfair is actually unfair to God. For example, how have we treated the environment that nature does not strike back at us The environmental degradation—a form of sinful behaviour—will have an impact on our health. Moreover, our sedentary lifestyle coupled with overconsumption will have a deleterious effect on us. God is not unfair. Instead we are largely to be blamed for some of the bad things that happen to us. 

We need to correct the misconception that God is not fair. Now, coming back to the case of St Therese, the reason for granting her the title of the Patroness of the Missions is because of what she said: “I will spend my heaven doing good on earth”. This desire at the end of her life was a culmination of an experience she had at 14, whilst praying at the Cathedral of Lisieux: “...looking at a picture of Our Lord on the Cross, I was struck by the blood flowing from one of the divine hands. I felt a great pang of sorrow when thinking this blood was falling to the ground without anyone's hastening to gather it up. I was resolved to remain in spirit at the foot of the Cross and to receive the divine dew. I understood I was then to pour it out upon souls… I wanted to give my Beloved to drink and I felt myself consumed with a thirst for souls."

Behind the convent walls, her life here on earth was and after her death, her life in heaven has been dedicated to assisting souls. This “here and hereafter”, allows us to figure why God seems to be unfair because in being functional, we frequently forget that there is a life beyond this life.

Many people work hard. Some hardly work and yet they appear to reap tremendous rewards. What is worse are how governmental thieves, especially those sworn to serve the common good, are literally getting away with murder. With impunity, they rob the poor of what in justice is theirs. Here, if we were to equate justice with fairness, we will certainly feel cheated in life.

But, remember the parable of Dives and Lazarus. When Dives died and went away to hell, Lazarus was feted in the life beyond. Without this hope that God will right what is wrong in our earthly life, life can be hopeless. Yes, it sounds politically incorrect because acquiescence might suggest that the oppressed should accept the status quo when it comes to “injustice”.

On the contrary, it is an invitation to think of justice beyond earthly terms. Life is never a loss even if it an injustice were unresolved for otherwise, what meaning can we give to the countless little people who amounted to nothing in this material and temporal world? In fact, to demand an absolute resolution to injustice is tantamount to a denial of the reality of Original Sin and its effect on creation. “Baptism, by imparting the life of Christ's grace, erases original sin and turns a man back towards God, but the consequences for nature, weakened and inclined to evil, persist in man and summon him to spiritual battle”. In relative terms, we all die but in absolute terms we are made for eternity. Death is merely a separation of the immortal from the body. Hence, in an attempt to right what is wrong, we must never forget to school our eyes to look beyond to the eternity which God has created us for. There, all will be fair and just.

Thursday, 24 August 2017

19th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A 2017

The Second Reading, where Paul agonised over his people’s inability to accept Christ, reminds me of the role catechesis plays in the life of the Church. It is safe to say that catechetics is mostly a matter of the head. As Saint Anselm used to say, "Fidei quaerens intellectum". Faith, for it to make sense, must investigate the contents of belief by means of reason in order to acquire a deeper understanding of revelation. If for no other reason, we have to educate the head so that the heart is not misled by superstitions. The natural unity between head and heart, which in a world turned topsy-turvy by sin, has been disrupted. Hence, knowing and loving must be regulated. The head requires systematic training and academics will tell you that it is not easy to sit and struggle with material at hand because our vitiated inclination is readily distracted. The heart also needs coaching because of the damage inflicted by sin, it is inclined to indolence or inertia. The naiveté we suffer is to mistake that head and heart are in harmony meaning that what the head knows, the heart will follow. 

That is not the case as experience will dictate. A good example is what you see in children. They say they understand you but they do not always follow up with what they understand.

We are however, not dealing with children. For myriad reasons, people do leave the Church or if not, they simply become marginalised. Superstition could be one reason. They know little and frequently are incapable of articulating the reason for their belief. In this situation, catechesis does have its job cut out. We need to catechise. It is our first line of defence as Fulton Sheen illustrates with this quote. "There are not a hundred people in America who hate the Catholic Church. There are millions of people who hate what they wrongly believe to be the Catholic Church--which is of course, quite a different thing".

But, there are people who leave even if they know. As mentioned earlier, the heart does not always follow the head. St Paul himself confirms it in Romans 7:19--The good things I want to do, I never do; the evil things which I do not want--that is what I do. Whilst this may be a perennial human struggle, the point is, when the heart has been bought over, the head will always lose out. It is to this heart that catechesis must turn its attention. 

The truth is, we really do not know how to nourish the hearts. The better question is what the heart would be mesmerised by.

The short answer is beauty. We are adept at teaching truth and goodness but we do not really know how to teach beauty. It is true that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and therefore it is pretty much subjective. Whereas, truth and goodness are different in the sense that they are more objective. But is it really a case that truth and goodness are objective and beauty is not?

Consider this. All of us want goodness. This is because we are made for the good as nobody knowingly will choose the bad. The same too for truth because each one of us wants to believe in the truth and nobody likes to be lied to. Finally, we all desire to grasp beauty for no one here wants to embrace ugliness. A man never goes out to marry an "ugly" woman.[1] Now, just because I want something, it does not make it good and just because I believe in something, it does not make it true and finally what I grasp as beautiful does not make it a thing of beauty. This shows that beauty does have an objective reality to it.

Now, if it has an objectivity to it, then catechesis can take place. For otherwise, if it were just subjective, then we are all doomed to wander the wilderness of fakes and imitations passing themselves off as beauty.

Now, in the context of catechesis, where do we encounter beauty? Let us begin with our liturgy. In itself it is a wonderful gift of beauty because it is the memorial of the mystery of salvation (CCC1099), that is, if the Church is to be believed. Unfortunately, some of us do not fully accept that. Rather, we have come to believe that the liturgy in itself, even when carried out according to the prescribed rite of the Church, is not enough to secure our salvation. In a sense, we are driven by a Pelagian attempt to secure our own salvation—a forgetfulness that beauty is salvific.

Secondly, look at the state of our church building. The heart is not just mesmerised by beauty. It is also inspired by beauty. But our idea of building beauty is basically a hodge-podge of functionality. It is almost like dedicating a space to the Lord and not having any other functions for it, would rank as a sin against the “Return of Investment”—in other words, beauty is wasteful, irrelevant or mostly extravagant. All space must be useful. And in the absence of architectural beauty, we generally fill the void by dragging the pub into the church—jazzing up the liturgy to make it more “engaging” and less boring. Notice at the same time the same entertainment criterion employed when we cut down on readings fearing that people will be turned away by having one reading too many.

We are so accustomed to the democratisation of beauty[2], meaning that anybody and everybody has a right to his idea of beauty that to suggest pub music as inappropriate would render one an elitist. The reality is, the world has become so accustomed to devouring from the trash of mediocrity that it can no longer stomach the sublimity of beauty and so denigrate the sublime as elitist. Just watch the “Emoji movie”. The idea of beauty is so corrupted that nobody raises an eyebrow that a piece of faeces is actually a character of the movie. We have normalised ugliness.

Beauty has a role in catechesis and is indispensable to the instruction of the faith. In the context of catechesis, the Catechism speaks of beauty, in the context of sacred art, as evoking and glorifying, both in faith and adoration, the transcendent mystery of God. Beauty in sacred art draws man to adoration, to prayer, and to the love of God, Creator and Saviour, the Holy One and Sanctifier” (cf. CCC 2502).

The desire for beauty can be inculcated and whilst there exists a tension between “objective” beauty and also “subjectivity”, we should not be quick to dissolve it.[3] More importantly, the desire for beauty is not fed by facts or information but rather it is strengthened through living experiences. 

Having stripped the altar, is it a wonder why young people know so few saints? We are busy with presenting facts and information of the faith forgetting that both goodness and truth are clothed in the flesh and blood of saints. Many statues inside a church are not an indication that we are idolatrous. Instead, they are our friends in catechesis—as they reveal the beauty of the holiness acting in their lives.

Indeed, beauty is a big-picture undertaking. If we accept the premise that the human spirit has a supernatural aspiration, then it makes sense that the human spirit is more ready to sacrifice itself for an enterprise bigger than merely the “self”. The big picture is provided by the tradition and the saints because nobody would die for factoids or information. The saints, on the other hand, provide concrete proofs of why a person would lay down his or her life the person of Jesus Christ and His Church. Saints are our unbroken link to the reticulum we call Tradition.

In summary, catechesis is also a battle for the hearts and as such it is fought on as much intellectual grounds as it is on emotional grounds. Emotion is nourished by beauty. Unless we begin the rehabilitation of beauty from just personal preferences to that which is of God, we cannot inspire and the faith will remain cold concepts to be endured and not captivating convictions to be embraced.

[1] Even if the woman is “ugly”, it is because the man sees beauty in it. We search for beauty because it is “objective”.
[2] Beauty is a difficult notion to grasp because our taste is based on preference, that is "what I like". St Thomas Aquinas describes three qualities that objectively constitute beauty. He speaks of proportion, integrity and clarity
[3] It is not as if the Church does not take into consideration diversity. She does. In fact, Paul VI said, “Evangelisation loses much of its force and effectiveness if it does not take into consideration the actual people to whom it is addressed, if it does not use their language, signs and symbols, if it does not answer the questions they ask, and if it does not have an impact on their concrete life”. At the same time, he also cautioned, “Evangelisation risks losing its power and disappearing altogether if one empties or adulterates its content under the pretext of translating it” (Evangelii nuntiandi n63§3).