Monday, 21 September 2020

25th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A 2020

In adjudicating, we are told that there are always two sides to a story. Today, we get to hear from both sides—from the workers and the landowner. We learn from the labourers how disincentivising it can be. Especially for those who had worked from the beginning, slogging the entire day only to receive the same wage as those who came almost at the last minute. In other words, it does not pay to be hardworking. Just like this country, especially in the civil service. You work hard but because you have the wrong epidermal pigmentation, soon enough you will run into some unwritten barriers and you progress no further. The other side of the story flows from last week’s Gospel where we were taught to forgive in a manner which is outrageously disproportionate—not seven times but seventy times seven. This teaching provides a vista into God’s benevolence which brings us right to the point of the Gospel for today. God is incredibly generous. As the Landowner, He employs people to work in His vineyard but in terms of remuneration, he pays everyone equally.

 

While such an action might offend our sense of fair play, God has not been unjust. He actually paid those whom He had employed from the start of the day with the agreed sum of 1 Denarius. Yes, to put into perspective, one cannot be faulted for feeling resentful or victimised because prior to this parable, Peter did pose a question: “What about we who had left everything for you?”. To that question, Jesus promised the Apostles amazing rewards which suggests that those who have worked hard should expect better remuneration. Or if you were good, surely the reward should commensurate.

 

Sadly, this parable seems to shatter whatever notion we may have of what a just compensation should be.

 

Are we on the right track here? See, to think this passage is about justice or fairness is to miss the point. That God’s ways are not ours is not even the focus. The parable’s emphasis is the benevolence of God. The first truth to note about God’s generosity is how absurdly lenient it is. Pope Francis’ Iubilaeum Extraordinarium Misericordiae pinpointed this. However, bear in mind that God’s largesse is not in any way indulgent. This point that His compassion is not indulgent is vital simply because we are accustomed to entitlement.

 

Thus far, we can safely conclude that God’s benevolence has nothing to do with distributive justice—that is, it is not about God playing fair. Rather, God mercy is directed at the restoration of sinners. Hence, it is in fact even beyond retributive justice for we see how God readily admits into His kingdom those who sometimes enter by the skin of their teeth. In the parable, the workers employed last represent those who even at the last minute merited an admission into the Kingdom.

 

God’s generosity highlights an essential truth of our salvation. Firstly, nothing we do will ever merit an entrance into God’s Kingdom. Our Proddy brothers and sisters have reminded us time and again that our access into heaven has been merited by Jesus Christ alone. God owes us nothing whereas we owe Him everything. However, the fact that salvation is gratuitous does not remove culpability on our part and this leads me to the next point.

 

As stated earlier, God’s mercy is not indulgent because it requires cooperation on our part. The First Reading tells us to “seek the Lord while He may be found”. Whilst God is merciful, our search for Him is time-framed, if you like, because there will come a time when we will not be able to look for the Lord. Perhaps you begin to appreciate why Catholics offer Masses for the dead. Our ability to cooperate with God’s grace ends with our very last earthly breath. Rightly, the Catechism which quotes St Augustine states this: “’God created us without us: but He did not will to save us without us"[1]. To receive his mercy, we must admit our faults. "If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (CCC#1847).

 

This Sunday we catch a glimpse of a God who is always bountiful in His mercy. However, the ball is in our court. Entitlement and indulgence will not cut it. Entitled because we feel that God owes it to us to let us in without any cooperation on our part. Indulgent because we sometimes confuse being good with feeling good or having a good life. In the Second Reading, St Paul is caught in a dilemma. For him, a good life is not living it up but to be with Christ. Nevertheless, he also realises that he is needed here on earth for the sake of his brothers and sisters. Likewise, for many us, we can be distracted by trying to have a good life forgetting that our goal is to be good and not necessarily to feel good in life. It is natural that none of us wants to die. In some parishes, thankfully not for us, if attendance at Mass were any measure, it is testimony to our desperation to hold on to dear life. But, whatever our disposition, having a desire to be with Christ like St Paul or to be fearful of dying and therefore staying away from Mass, St Paul’s advice remains as valid then as now. “Avoid anything in your everyday life that would be unworthy of the Gospel of Christ”. This is how we cooperate with God’s grace.

 

It would be good, like St Paul, to desire eternal life with Christ but in the meantime, we have a life to live and the goal is truly living it up but not in the sense of over-indulgence or lapping up in luxury but rather it describes a life in which we never lose sight of our destination—heaven. What is clear from this parable is that God always want to let us in. However, we must be like the workers who have this yearning to labour: “Nobody has hired us yet”. God’s invitation stays open and our aspiration remains the one key necessary to unlock the gate of entry. We desire, Lord, so let us in.



[1] St. Augustine, Sermo 169, 11, 13: PL 38, 923. Another translation reads better. The God who created us without our consent cannot save us without our consent.

Sunday, 13 September 2020

24th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A 2020

Last week I used a word to refer to Peter’s misstep: He stumbled. To be a scandal is to be a stumbling block. Thus, a scandal is not primarily salacious, shocking and sordid but rather it describes being a hindrance, an impediment or an obstacle to belief. Both the first reading and the Gospel deal with the issue of forgiveness. The second reading centres on how we live has an impact on others’ faith. In the context of this reading, the lack of forgiveness can be a stumbling block to faith.  

Forgiveness is an exercise many struggle with. Why do we find it hard to forgive?

 

A feature of this pandemic can teach us what it means to forgive. What is it? People are trying so hard not to die from Covid-19 but the fact is, died they have. In a sense, an attempt to escape death’s hold is grasping at the last straw of the freedom of personal choice. I have the last say on when and how I should go. But, of course, death will not let us win. 

 

On the same note of “not winning”, have you ever gotten into a fight and feel that you need to say something more so that you feel justified? The operative word in wanting to have the last say is justice or fairness. As a virtue, justice is the constant and permanent determination to give everyone his or her rightful due. BLM, for example, is an effort to render justice to those wrongfully killed. But again, somehow an intense fight for justice may again hide this need to have the last say. If not, one feels unjustified and inadequate, feeling a loss which if unremedied will leave us poorer than we should be. 

 

Why is that so? Why is it that when there is no justice, we feel an acute sense of loss—like we have been cheated? This gnawing inadequacy is possibly a symptom of the loss of faith in the Resurrection. This loss of faith is most clearly reflected in our funeral services. 

 

In funerals, the last say comes in the form of giving a eulogy for a person’s life. George Floyd was somewhat lionised by his brother to the point of almost being canonised. The truth is that George was on drugs and his life was not as perfect as the white-washing was supposed to have made it so. There is no justification for the way he died but there has been no questioning if his life before his death should have any impact on the life after he died or supposed to have come into. Instead there was presumption that he would be in heaven, simply because his brother had eulogised him. But, more than that, the George Floyd’s unfortunate demise merely met the criteria necessary to promote a political narrative that Trump is a racist is therefore responsible for the poor man’s death. 

 

The question is this: What happened if a person we eulogised is not in heaven? We have no way of telling, have we? The best eulogy we need comes from God Himself. In Matthew 25, Jesus said, “Come all you who saw me naked, hungry, thirsty and in prison and you came to my aid. Come now and share in my Father’s kingdom”. Indeed, God has the last say and even in cases where injustice is brazenly blatant—like “Apa Malu Bossku”. In terms of a funeral, the Eucharist is that place where God speaks most clearly. But it is not restricted to funerals. If justice is not located within this world, God alone gives the assurance that it will be so in the next world for the likes of Najib or Rosmah or any one of our corrupt politicians. 

 

Without a perspective that God alone has the final say, sometimes in this life and a lot of times in the afterlife, we will be condemned to this putative search for a solution that will not fully satisfy us. It is like being chased by the “phantom” of things unsaid or situations unresolved. Thankfully, the Resurrection gives us an eternal frame of reference. Remember that Jesus Christ hung so shamefully on the Cross. There was no resolution to His most humiliating treatment and definitely there was no justice for His death. Perhaps this might jolt us to think a little bit more about how self-serving the narrative had been for George Floyd’s death. For if his death left us dissatisfied, then the same should be observed of all those who died unmourned, unnoticed, unknown. For example, the Iraqi or the Iranian soldiers rotting in the hot desert. Should that not concern us? The truth is that the sight of their decaying corpses does not even blip on our “justice” radar. 

 

The power of the Resurrection puts into perspective this need for the final resolution of any injustice that is suffered here. Without faith in the Resurrection, forgiveness of our enemies will somehow violate our sense of fairness. “Where is fairness when the one who wrongs me is not punished”? Firstly, this reveals that our ability to forgive is associated with the idea of just deserts. Does the person deserve forgiveness? It is not wrong but there is a perennial fear of being short-changed. Secondly, and more importantly, our notion of justice is temporal in the sense that we believe that injustice needs a resolution here and now, not realising that justice cannot be perfect in a fallen world. Thus, God is there to make just what is unresolved. 

 

Without the Resurrection our justice will somehow be vengeful—“I don’t get mad, I get even” which makes forgiveness almost impossible. The Psalmist reminds us that “Some boasts of chariots, some of horses, but we boast about the name of Yahweh our God”. The just man or woman depend on God for justice. We recognise that our justice if at all is only a token of God’s justice. Tokens are just that, poor copies. That means that if we fail here in justice, we can be sure that God’s justice will not fail. Thus, the need to have the last word does not really belong to us. We dare to forgive because we can leave the final say to God. 

 

Finally, life is short. Some of us carry with us the burden of unforgiveness and that itself is physically, psychologically and spiritually crippling. It is not worth carrying unforgiveness. Mahatma Gandhi says, “Forgiveness is an attribute of the strong. The weak can never forgive”. Today, the lesson we learn is that forgiveness is possible, even for the most difficult hurt and pain because God can be trusted to supply for whatever is lacking in the justice of forgiving. Let us trust the Lord.

Sunday, 6 September 2020

23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A 2020

This Sunday, we still operate within the boundary of leadership and servanthood. Two weeks ago, we charted the rise in Peter’s primacy and last week witnessed his misstep in interpreting the mission of Jesus. While the Lord corrected Peter, He did not invalidate the authority granted to him. So today, we grapple with the notion of fallibility as we enter into the ethical terrain that is derived from the authority of Peter and is also an expression of the service rendered by his office. In Church practice, this is termed as the spiritual works of mercy. 

 

Traditionally, there were 7 of them. Now Pope Francis has added the 8th which concerns the care for the environment. Broadly speaking, our spiritual duties include but are not exclusive to instructing the ignorant, counselling the doubtful and the focus of this week, admonishing the sinner. How to correct a sinner and on what authority does one do it? 

 

Firstly, one does it through credibility. Take the log out of your eye before you try to remove the splinter from your brother’s eye. All the more in a media-saturated society, integrity is identified with credibility. Ask Nancy Pelosi now made even more famous by her hairdo. Some people query how one could shut down the personal grooming industry in California yet insisted on having one’s hair done by a salon and not wearing a mask at that? She claimed it was a set-up, but many saw it as hypocritical. 

 

That being said, and despite the merits of clearing the log out of one’s eye, we need to acknowledge that credibility is more than believability or even integrity because it is linked to veracity or truth. Although, “street creds” is important before one makes a judgement, it does not mean that one needs to be a Snow White before calling out a truth. For even the Devil can state the truth. This so-called “hypocrisy” test, that is, the fear that one is not “pure enough” before correcting another may have contributed to the moral confusion and darkness of our time. 

 

Who am I to judge?” gives the impression that one has to achieve a Jesus-like aura of “non-judgementalism” before passing remarks, forgetting that whilst Jesus did not judge the woman of ill-repute, He did judge her sin. Moral truth is independent of how I feel, and it remains a fact that a truth is true even if nobody were living it. For example, Cosmas is unfaithful to his wife but advises Damian to treat his wife well. Cosmas’ infidelity does not nullify the truth that one should well-treat a spouse. 

 

Apart from this credibility test, we also face another kind of barrier. Currently, we are unwilling captives of this resounding echo-chamber of groupthink and thought policing. In this prison of approved narratives, everyone is corralled to think in a particular way that to behave otherwise invites censorship and ostracisation which is akin to social suicide. 

 

Nevertheless, in this season of woke awareness, cancel culture, hate speech, identity politics, how does one engage in fraternal correction? For example, if we accept our Judeo-Christian tradition, there are clearly sinful behaviours which are now viewed as lifestyle choices. There is a subtle but systematic sanctification of evil and vilification of good. Watch Lucifer, the Devil is godly. Or notice our current terminologies. For example, prostitutes are supposed to be called sex-workers—not hookers or sluts. In other words, the “abnormal” is touted as the “new normal”. Perhaps you understand why I have consistently described the present arrangement as the “new abnormal” because the phrase “new normal” carries with it an amoral connotation. The effect is to normalise what is abnormal. Needless to say, given that the “new normal” has become the acceptable narrative, fraternal correction will be labelled as hate speech. Anyone who dares to call out a “sin” will be marked as narrow minded, #bigoted. 

 

We need to break out of this prison of “if I am not perfect, I must shut up” or the fear of being tagged because fraternal correction belongs to the disposition of one’s love for the neighbour. It pertains to our common good because we are not solitary creature. Man is communitarian by nature, and admonishing a sinner has nothing to do with moral superiority. The love that is demanded of us is not emotional—the kind which is “touchy-feely”. In this therapeutic era, the word “love” may have lost its force because everything is reduced to feeling good. As indicated before, “I am good” and “I feel good” are not always synonymous. “I feel good” does not necessarily follow “I am good”. Does it ever feel good to admit that you were wrong, especially when you were so sure that you were right? If the word “love” has lost its meaning, maybe “charity” is more appropriate because it requires that one rolls up the sleeves. 

 

Charity or love belongs to the will and it requires us to speak up. We can certainly retreat into the trenches or security of groupthink. There, we will be condemned to shout above the din in order to confirm our own belief. Perhaps this was the warning of Benedict XVI that the poisonous fruit of relativism is the destruction of the moral order for humanity. Our moral order is not and cannot be of our making or determination. It must be based on revealed Truth who is ultimately a person, Jesus Christ. Since faith is not scientific, as it cannot hold up in the court of “reason”, consigning Him to the margins of “personal belief” will translate into “Don’t bring your faith into the public square”, “Keep your religion out of my womb” or “My body my choice”. That being said, our “new normal” is possibly one of the expressions of the long retreat into the bubble of “solitary” anti-social behaviour. 

 

The title of Benedict XVI’s encyclical can help us here: Caritas in veritate. Love in truth means that truth must always be spoken with love. It does not consist of “banging” people as if we own the truth. In this respect, the other spiritual works of mercy kick in for us. They entail patiently bearing those who wrong us and also to forgive offences. Here, this is not victim signalling but rather that anyone who wants to stand with the Son of God, he or she must be prepared to face rejection. 

 

In a painfully confusing world, Christians have a responsibility of proclaiming the Truth that goes beyond “I, me and myself”. Jesus Christ is more than my personal ideas, opinions and views. Our duty is not to be policemen or women but rather to point to Jesus, His discipleship and His mission in the world. As people of the Truth, we must recognise that the truth is not a possession but rather something which commands our loyalty to the point that we be willing to lay our lives for Him. 

 

To speak as truthfully as we can and know how to are both acts of charity as well as justice. Stating the truth is love because it aims at the good of the sinner. It is justice because it directed to highlighting the effects of sin on society. While charity and justice require that we speak with prudence and compassion, what is at the heart of fraternal correction is actually our integrity. It requires us to bridge the gap between what we say and what we do. In politics, that gap between word and deed is called BS. Integrity and holiness are two sides of a coin because the gap in holiness between speech and action is called? Sin—lying, cheating, dishonesty, etc. Thus, for the disciple, fraternal correction is a responsibility and is not about being right. The authority of Peter, as Pope St Gregory the Great signed himself, as the “Servant of the Servants of God”, is in the service of Truth, who is Jesus Christ. In fraternal correction, we help each other grow both in personal and communal holiness because our discipleship and mission are intended for a life in eternity with the Trinity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Holiness is proclaiming the Truth as we engage in fraternal correction.

Sunday, 30 August 2020

22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A 2020

If you inhabit the multiverse of DCU or MCU meaning the Detective Comics or Marvel Comics Universe, you might be a helpless nobody today but a lionised superpower tomorrow—shooting from zero to hero. Not so for Peter. He shows us that the nature of a climb so meteoric is basically that: ephemeral and momentary. Last week Simon scaled the summit to become Peter—the Rock. Sadly, this week the Rock slipped down the slope of stumbling block to become a “scandal”—literally falling from a hero to a zero. 

Why? 

The answer is to be found in the turning point of last week’s Gospel. The Apostles, under Peter’s inspiring faith, had discovered that Jesus was no ordinary man. He is the Son of God. Faith may be a gift from God but it is no insurance against misconception. Whilst Peter accepted Jesus to be Son of God, he perceived Him only beneath the light of glory. For a period of time, Israel was a religio-political entity, a theocratic nation where religion and politics were inseparable. So, Peter cannot not be faulted for thinking that the long-awaited Messiah, whom he had found in Jesus, would now rise to take His proper place in the establishment of a new Kingdom.

But, that was just a side of Jesus which He was more than ready to reveal. He brought Peter, James and John up Mount Tabor where He transfigured and manifested His glory to them. But, each time Christ revealed His splendour, He also warned them of His impending Passion. Right after Peter’s Confession, Jesus revealed the full extent of His Messiahship. Our fellowship with Him is our “followship”—we follow Him by carrying our Cross. 

This Easter Vigil, we could not have baptism for obvious reasons. Soon, our few patiently waiting elect will be baptised under stringent social-distancing conditions. Hence, Peter’s experience might be a good reminder for our neophytes after their baptism. Our dear Peter, still groggy from his exalted status thought that being on top was the goal of everything. But Christ had to bring him down to see that the Cross is the glory. I suppose our elect may already sense the outline of the Cross since they have been denied baptism these few uncertain months. 

The cost of following Christ must always include the Cross. This path is not something easily embraced. Like Peter, it is human to want to reshape the Cross to our liking. In the first reading, Jeremiah felt cheated because he was mocked, laughed at, and derided. In a sense, he had thought that his prominence as a prophet should render him some semblance of security. Far from it but ultimately, Jeremiah himself realised that despite his prophetic reluctance, there was a fire he could not put out—his heart wounded by the love of God could contain no other pleasures except that of the Cross. 

What is this Cross we have to carry? One thing we do well is to externalise it. You can say that your sickness is a cross. Or maybe your spouse is THE Cross. You wake up and “Urrgh”, and the face is right in front of you and you are reminded how heavy the Cross is. Or, this pandemic is a scourge, a kind of suffering that we need to undergo. Anything and everything can be our Cross, but the greatest Cross is ourselves and how we carry ourselves through life. It is difficult as we heard in the 2nd Reading where Paul readies us with the advice not to conform ourselves to the standards of the world. When our principles are based on Christ, then the Cross, be it in any shape or form, will be our constant companion. 

Even then, we are all lovers—wounded lovers like Jeremiah. Like him, we will definitely do better if we begin to realise that the love of God is more demanding than what we are ready to embrace and that the road to eternity passes through the valley of mortality beginning with death from self-denial or mortification before ending with physical death. If this pandemic should teach us anything, it is this: there is a no inoculation against death much less a vaccine against suffering. If you want to follow Him, the only available option is to take up your Cross. As Han Urs Balthasar reminds us: “It is to the Cross that the Christian is challenged to follow his Master: no path of redemption can make a detour around it”

Maybe the multiverse of DCU and MCU are not so different after all. A person becomes a hero or heroine once he or she has endured sacrifice and suffering before rising. Spiderman, death of his uncle. Thor, banishment from Asgard. Superman, destruction of Krypton. The Apostles’ Creed states that the Lord Himself descended into hell before ascending into heaven.

In a world that craves salute, stardom and sycophancy, we need reminders that sacrifice, sorrow and suffering are not destructive experiences to be denied, decried or defied. Instead, in the Cross of Christ, one locates the humility of sacrifice, sorrow and suffering. They converge into something which is pivotal to man’s greatest search, that is, his longing for meaning. As Nietzsche reminds us, “To live is to suffer, to survive is to find some meaning in the suffering”. So, if you want to follow Him, take up your Cross. It is necessary because there is no salvation of the soul, nor hope of eternal life, except in the Cross. Embracing it might feel like a losing proposition at the start but in the end, you will never lose out. St Paul said, “Far be it from me to glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ”. Thus, to be a hero or heroine is to be burnished on the wood of the Cross—of sacrifice, sorrow and suffering. Fear not but trust Him for He has conquered Hades.

Tuesday, 25 August 2020

21st Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A 2020

Today, we arrive at the pivotal turning point of Matthew’s Gospel and the spotlight falls on identity politics. Jesus’ self-definition is essentially relevant to us. Up till now, this wonder worker would have heard plenty about Himself. To raise a dead to life would have elevated His status beyond today’s standard of a celebrated personality. If Despacito could garner 6 billion views on YouTube, Jesus would have no problem amassing billions of subscribers, if not more. Furthermore, clientele such as Mary Magdalene and Zacchaeus surely attract hearsays. And so, to the query about who He is, the Apostles readily echo the “safe” sentiments floating about the marketplace of salacious gossips and racy rumours. John the Baptist? Elijah? Jeremiah or one of the Prophets?

 

We all recognise that there is a “safe” way of answering a question without committing oneself. One does it by raising the tone at the end of the reply. It is possibly a product of our post-Truth culture that emphasises a victim identity. A culture which is markedly uncertainty on one hand and where commitment, on the other, might lead to public ridicule, any question is best answered with another question since we can never be sure of anything. Ask children questions and they will reply tentatively. What is the largest city in Malaysia? Kuala Lumpur???

 

Cutting through the thickets of hearsay or better still, ambiguity and doubt, Jesus poses a personal question the Apostles: “Never mind what others say.  Who am I to you?”. Fortunately, we are rescued by Peter’s courage, confidence and conviction. His commitment establishes the foundation of our faith for Peter provides the stability that is all the more necessary these days. “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God”. In Peter and his successors, the Church exists through time to personally respond to the question that Christ poses anew each epoch and era: “Who do you say that I am?”.

 

Indeed, such a faith cannot be merely human as it is also a gift of the supernatural because God wants to establish for Himself a Church to guide humanity safely into eternity. Peter is the key in this endeavour, the rock upon whom the beacon of faith stands and whose light shines a path for mankind along this pilgrimage to the eternal.

 

Eternity, not temporality is the goal of human existence. Born also of the spirit, we are made for the everlasting which goes beyond mortal death. This vocation to the eternal perdures for as long as we are bound by time and space, which makes Peter’s Confession necessary for our journey and his faith is protected by what we commonly understand as the Apostolic Succession.

 

For most, this concept or notion is a canon of authenticity to determine which was the true Church and which doctrines belong to the true teachings of Christ. Concretely, tracing the legitimacy of a Bishop’s authority, Apostolic Succession is that line that stretches back to the Apostles. But that is not all there is to it because it is also forward-looking from the perspective of John 6. In that long Eucharistic Discourse between Jesus and the Jews, there is an insistence by the Lord that eternal life is premised on the Sacrament of Eucharist, that is, “If you want to live forever, eat my flesh and drink my blood”. It is a lifeline from eternity.

 

Such a demand would not make any sense if Christ did not provide for this possibility. How else can we be assured that what we consume is the Body and what we imbibe is the Blood of Christ unless we can be assured that the power of confection is handed down through Apostolic Succession, notably, through the laying on of hands.

 

Therefore, Peter’s Confession, whilst it is central to the Institution of the Papacy or the Office of the Pope, it is not restricted by it but is at work in the nitty-gritty celebration of the Sacraments Christ gave us—especially Confirmation, Confession, Anointing of the Sick, Eucharist and Holy Orders. Through Peter, the doctrine of Apostolic Succession guarantees that what we receive is what Christ Himself wants to give to us—His Body and Blood, truly, really and substantially present under the appearance of bread and wine. Peter’s Confession of faith is as concrete as it can get in the manner the Church is formed around the Sacraments.

 

But, unwittingly, we may have painted ourselves into a corner. Virtual conferencing has come to replace face-to-face communications. Earlier in the lockdown, many were lauding this development as the way forward in this new “abnormal”. No doubt, social distancing demanded it. Even though one can conduct business from the safety of one’s home, still people are exhausted. Why? This medium of convenience ignores the centrality of time and space in human interactions. These aspects of reality point towards the sacramental nature of existence. Man is hopelessly sacramental because he is a creature defined by time and space. Two examples. 1st. Francis Xavier used to carry the names of his companions with him in Asia. Just like anyone who carries a photo of a loved one. 2nd. Imagine a man proposing to marry his fiancée through FaceTime whilst defaecating. The very suggestion is gross simply because it makes a mockery of the human and therefore sacramental actions of proposing and consenting to a marriage. A person does not simply propose but will look for a good time and a proper place to do it. In a homogenised setting—anywhere, office, toilet, home, driving—of teleconferencing, the sacramental nature of man is forgotten. 

 

The sacraments are sensible and tangible realities, not virtual. We may have swum in virtuosity to the point we now mistake what is virtual to be real but there is a divide that cannot be bridged, and it is grounded in nature or creation. As an organism, we all need food to survive. How long can a person continue without eating or how long can an online gamer play without sustenance or sleep? Moreover, bodily contact is the basis for human reproduction. Those of you with an offspring, did you produce a child on your own? Even Mary required the agency of the Holy Spirit, proving that sacramentality or mediation is involved in the very act of reproduction. Regrettably, in this pandemic, we have encouraged the vulnerable to receive Spiritual Communion without the proper catechesis that Spiritual Communion is always directed at Actual Communion. The Real Presence of the Eucharist is our Viaticum. In our virtual prison, the exceptions which are Spiritual Communion, life-streamed Adoration and online Masses all run the danger of becoming the rule. The Eucharist is truly Jesus and not a mere symbol as Flannery O’Conner was heard to have remarked, “If it is only a symbol, to hell with it”. For a multitude, the Eucharist is no more than a symbol which explains why Catholics have not rushed back in droves to our parishes.

 

You recognise that Peter’s Confession and the doctrine of Apostolic Succession are not two distant Roman realities removed from our lived experience. They stand at the very heart of who we are as Church. The Church confects the Eucharist so that She may feed us with the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ Himself. Our journey to heaven is powered by the Sacraments, most especially, the Eucharist. But, without Peter’s Confession which grounds the doctrine of Apostolic Succession, we would never be able to feast on the Bread of eternal life.

 

At present, the road back to the regular celebration of the Eucharist is arduous and challenging. In a sense, there could be a diabolical aspect to this pandemic. Hence, we need to be spiritually attentive to movements that may, under the guise of “good”, obstruct the providence of this essential food for our journey (the Viaticum) to heaven. Nothing makes the Devil happier than to deny us the Holy Eucharist—the sustenance vital for eternal life. In conclusion, the identity politics of Jesus have nothing to do with race, gender, sexual orientation, social background, class or even religion. Instead, the identity of Jesus—“Who am I to you?” is tied to our salvation. To know who Jesus is, is to be nourished and so be saved by Him.

Sunday, 16 August 2020

20th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

If God is good, why is there suffering? A valid question as it comes from a place of hurt. This poser may appear to operate within the logic non-contradiction but more likely, it is no more than a “cri de cœur” in an age of victims. Used to having our ways, we feel that God is uncaring because there seems to be unwarranted sufferings in the world—catastrophes of one kind or another that always end with the innocent suffering. We need look no further than the unanswered prayers for this cursed pandemic to end. Where the hell is God in this never-ending nightmare?

 

The readings can and do shine a light for us through the darkness of this plaguing pandemic. It is true that the main topic that springs out of the reading centres on universality. The first reading leads the way with a bold vision of the gatherings of people of every tribe and nation on God’s holy mountain. As an ideal, an all-embracing universality rhymes with the current notion of inclusivity. Hence, the compelling interpretation follows this trajectory—a seeming “narrow-minded” Jesus is challenged by a Syro-Phoenician or a Canaanite woman to be more “catholic” than He hitherto has been. It is liberating, almost music to our globalised ears to witness a Jesus who “came for the Jews” emancipated from the shackles of segregation and is now more open to the idea that He “came for everybody”.

 

It does sound pretty “United Nationy”, does it not? “Imagine no heaven and no hell but a brotherhood of man” according to John Lennon. But, from a “I came for everybody”, we are expected to widen the boundary of “non-judgementalism” which is basically the code word for “acceptance” of anything and everything. Unknowingly, we breathe the “sectarian” or tainted air of a cancel culture in which there is an unspoken set of rules and regulations that one must subscribe to if one is not to be labelled as a “racist, denier, bigot, sexist” and etc. Online shaming is an acceptable form of “controlling” or policing thoughts and behaviours. From celebrities to companies, people quiver in fear of being cancelled for not toeing the arbitrary line drawn up by this current enlightened “woke” culture we now have—and for daring to stand outside this predetermined criteria of the established norms.

 

Hence, if Jesus is not to be “politicised” as if He were the standard-bearer for a “God who accepts everything”, we take a look at where Jesus was and how He dealt with the Syro-Phoenician woman. 

 

Firstly, He practically left Galilee, withdrawing to the Gentile region of Tyre and Sidon. This side-trip would have been an indication that He was already open to the idea that His message was not restricted to the Jews alone. In fact, He had many encounters with Gentiles and not in any way was He disturbed by the fact that they were pagans. Thus, the reason for His apparent rudeness to the woman must be found not in His narrow-mindedness but elsewhere. The restricted prescription to Israel was not a mark of exclusivity but rather it was an indication of where Israel stood in God’s plan of salvation. Israel is the first-born of all the nations. Preference is given to them because it belongs to the mystery of God’s choice. It is like saying to a person, “How can you love that man or woman”?

 

Secondly, the stress on the ministry to His own people makes sense from another perspective. A prophet is generally not accepted in His own country. Even then a prophet must preach not to the choir but to those who are most difficult to convert—family and friends. All the more when Israel is considered God’s preferred nation. They must be given every possibility to accept Jesus as the Messiah as He remarked to some of the unbelieving crowds that “If the miracles performed before the them were to be done in Tyre and Sidon, they, the unbelievers, would have been converted and repentant”. The comment reveals how roundly rejected He must have felt at the hands of His own people. They still reject Him today.

 

In the exchange between Jesus and the woman, the silence was deeply disconcerting that even the disciples were embarrassed to the point of intervention. “Give in so that we can get rid of her”. With our heightened awareness of being slighted, we may shudder at Jesus’ cold-hearted callousness to this woman’s plight. It was an odd behaviour that was distinctly unChristlike. But, according to St Augustine: “Christ showed Himself indifferent to her, not in order to refuse her His mercy but rather to inflame her desire for it” (Sermo 77, 1: PL 38, 483).

 

Imagine that. Silence is not proof that God’s care is lacking. He is silent in order that we might search for Him even more. The question is, will we? Yesterday, we had 250 people (max.) registered for sunset Holy Mass. As a result, we had to move 80 people to next weekend. As it was, only 178 registered turned up with 4 who walked in. We are not unique as this phenomenon is also reflected in other parishes. Signing up but not coming raises questions about the quality of our search for God. As it stretches on, the current pandemic will have far-reaching material implications. Many will suffer, no doubt about it. However, let us not forget that disease also has spiritual consequences. In a highly materialist culture, where religion is practically peripheral, the experience of God’s absence will be even more acute. When belief in God is functional and utilitarian, we will certainly feel the abject abandonment of God.

 

The Syro-Phoenician woman did not approach Jesus from a material perspective. Even though, she would have spent a lot searching for a cure for her daughter. “Sir, Son of David, take pity on me”. Stooping low to beg the mercy of Jesus was the beginning of her faith journey with ensuing dialogue further stimulating her faith. The House of Israel is indeed more extensive than the geography of Israel. While Jesus may have come for the House of Israel, His eyes have always been set on those who in faith are seeking salvation.

 

Thus, the readings emphasise the universality of God’s salvation. God intends to save. In terms of redemption, He is the Saviour of all, or He is the Saviour of none. God is the Saviour of all mankind means God accepts all. The focus on the mission to Jews was never exclusive. The interaction between Jesus and the Syro-Phoenician woman shows us even though salvation was intended for all, faith is the key to being saved. Nobody is saved because race or gender or rank etc. She was saved because of her faith in Jesus Christ. While it is lovely to proclaim that God accepts all, the truth is only faith in Jesus Christ with all that it entails is our salvation.

 

Hopefully, this extended helplessness may open us to the spiritual nature of our suffering. In yearning for normalcy to return, we should beg God to save us now and also in the hereafter. All it took was one brush with a Covid case and Holy Masses were cancelled. Originally, the suspension was to last until 29th August. Thanks be to God we are back today. So far, we have been myopically materialistic, believing that the vaccine is the only solution. In this recovery period, let us not forget that our prayer of faith is a crucial component in the race to come up with a viable vaccine. Like the Syro-Phoenician woman, let us bend low and in faith ask Our Lord to have pity on us and to remove this scourge and through a scientific breakthrough, grant us a quick resolution to this crisis of contagion. Even if God remains silent, do not cease praying. He will surely heed our prayers.

Monday, 10 August 2020

19th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A 2020

The word cacophony may help us enter into the spirit of the first reading and the Gospel. A sanitised etymology defines it as deriving from the words “bad” (kakos) and “sound” (phone). However, a more earthy origin of “kakos” associates it with our bodily function of defaecating. Hence, cacophony is more “shitty/soily sound” than bad.

We inhabit a rather cacophonous world. An aspect of our era is that noise is knitted into the fabric of our daily existence. The race for technological advancement and the drive for material progress seem to hold us enthralled if not addicted that we are unable to let go of the clamour or commotion of life. Sit in an office and listen to the humming of all the devices and you understand why silence is next to impossible. Our “attachment” runs counter to the thread that weaves through the 1st Reading and the Gospel: Where is God to be found? Certainly, the experience of the Prophet Elijah highlights the challenge of a noisy world that is incapable of keeping still long enough to recognise God’s gentle presence. In the storm, Peter began to sink when he was distracted by the gust and gale swirling around him instead of focussing on Christ coming to him.

Surrounded by the din of modernity, noise makes it difficult perceive God’s presence. When seized by the screaming squall of a storm, we will experience Him as absent from our lives and this pandemic seems to have confirmed. Apart from devastating us economically, Covid-19 has laid bare a landscape that is bereft of God. Why does it feel that God is nowhere to be found? We may protest that we genuinely believe in His presence, but in reality, we live as if He were absent.

Firstly, in terms of absence, our relationship with God, by and large, it is one that is marked by utility or usefulness. How smugly presumptuous we were based on the few enquiries about when Holy Mass would resume. We foolishly thought that people would come flocking back to Church, braving the Byzantine layers of procedures designed to prevent a congregation gathering from generating Covid clusters. But consider what Aristotle once remarked, “A swallow does not a summer make”.

So far, the registration for Holy Mass attendance has not been overwhelming and even amongst those who have signed up, some do not show up at all. We may have overestimated the number of people desiring to attend Holy Mass. What makes it worse is that those who are raring to join are those, on account of their vulnerability, discouraged from coming. Unbeknownst, we may have further nudged our faithful into a world of individual preferences that is devoid of personal sacrifices—one is always a click away from a better life-streamed homily elsewhere than the boring, insipid and uninspiring homilies of a neighbouring Archdiocese north of here. What was once a substitute, that is, Spiritual Communion has now become the standard. In terms of our friendship with God, we continue to slide down the slope of spiritual convenience which is nothing more than a relationship empty of sacrifice.

Secondly, this shallow communion shows too in our Sunday collection. I am not soliciting but merely pointing out a sobering fact that nobody had thought that this “isolation” would last this long. Initially, donations came pouring in but now, as reality bites, families will soon draw from whatever savings they may have. Economic considerations are at the top of everyone’s priority and that is understandable. Yet, the Sunday collection embodies the 5th precept of the Church which is an obligation to assist in the material needs of the Church, subject to each one’s ability. Tithing as a precept is based on sacrifice, which in turn simply signifies the worship due to God, our Creator. In our devotion, we worship God out of love and never out of fear. As an author said, “Love without sacrifice is like theft”. We give nothing to Him but expects everything of Him.

Thirdly, if you recall the early weeks of the lockdown—even though we were isolated socially, almost overnight, our link to the outside world heightened thanks to our free data increase. Of course, the noise that flows through life merely finds its current in the river of online shopping and food delivery. If not buying or eating, we have been inundated with home entertainment—that “bingeing” which is surely a sin of gluttony has become an acceptable behaviour in light of the lack of movement. Instead of finding God in solitude, we sought refuge and comfort in clatter of our entertainment. In fact, many have retreated behind a wall of noise.

Our reaction to the pandemic, led by science and supported by pleasure, reveals a world hostile to the presence of God. Is it any wonder why we struggle to comprehend if God is ever present to us?

Cardinal Sarah gave an interview which might also help us to tone down our cacophony. In grappling with what he termed as the “Dictatorship of Noise”, he used the example of Christ our Lord to encourage us to enter into silence so that we may be able to hear God. Christ lived for thirty years in silence. Then, during his public life, He withdrew to the desert to listen to and speak with His Father. The world vitally needs those who go off into the desert. Because God speaks in silence”.

We cannot find God without silence. The Word, our Lord Jesus, came from the silence of the Father. Whilst at His birth we are accustomed to the tumultuous voices of the angels coming from above but in reality, both the sacred and silence are intertwined. Sacred silence sharpens our sense of hearing because silence is the perfect art of listening for one who prepares to welcome God as Mary did. She silently pondered these things in her heart.

 

We do not know how far into the future the tunnel of this pandemic runs. An optimistic forecast predicts a return to normalcy sometime next year. A more alarming picture projects a recovery of the pre-Covid condition in about three or four years. Whether we bite the miraculous bullet sooner or later, what is evident is how much uproar surrounds this contagion. Fear is the noise of any pandemic. Depressing diagnosis or sombre prognosis notwithstanding, our fear has intensified and so too our disquiet. If Holy Saturday is a reminder that God’s silence is not His absence, then, while this pandemic may have envisioned a perfect storm for a dystopian future, it has also set a perfect calm for the silence of listening as it did for Elijah in the breeze and for Peter to hear Jesus call out to him: “Courage, it is I”. Only in silence, can God speak the loudest.