Thursday, 13 February 2020

5th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A 2020

The Gospel is a continuation from last Sunday—though not from the feast of the Presentation but rather from the 4th Sunday of Year A. Seeing the crowds, Jesus went up a hill and there He sat down and taught them the Beatitudes. Today, the blessed exhortation is condensed into succinct commands to be salt of the earth and light of the world.

The first reading provides an insight into what it means to be salt and light. The Israelites bemoaned that their fasting had gone unnoticed by God. The answer from God was unexpected but instructive. He revealed to them that fasting should be more than the physical deprivation of food. Israel’s light will shine when they recognise that fasting must include the cessation of injustice. In other words, fasting is at the same time alms-giving. It is never therapeutic (that is, losing weight to fit into your dress) but rather social justice (that others might have enough to eat).

This social context of justice is still relevant in our time. Laudato si raises the awareness that our consuming habits do have a deleterious effect on the people who live beyond the pale of plenty. A good example is to consider the many island-nations whose topography places them scarcely above sea level. The Maldives may conjure up a picturesque post-card of idyllic isles with stilted chalets floating along the fringes of atolls. But the cruel truth is that a 1-metre rise in sea level will wipe the entire archipelago off the face of the earth. Maldives is not the only island-nation threatened by climate change.

The demands of justice require that we lead by example. Social justice should be ecological in its expression. And, in order for our light to shine bright, we need to change the way we organise our lives—from eating, to drinking, to living and to travelling. A bottle of Evian water is not only expensive, but it also has a large carbon footprint because it is shipped so far away from its point of production, the French Alps. In other words, our consuming habits should be less of a consumption and more of a conservation—to live simply so that others can simply live.

Apart of this ecological challenge, how else can our light shine and how do we salt the earth?

Take the current concern that is the COVID-19. We are not entirely sure how it spreads but that it does. What should our response be?

I remember an incident that took place in 2015 or thereabout. Two of us priests were on-board an Air Asia flight bound for Krabi. As the aircraft pushed back to taxi and take off, there was a loud bang when the aircraft plunged into darkness and shuddered to a halt. All we needed was for someone to shout “Fire” and the cabin descended into a pandemonium. The two of us sitting at the back of the aircraft were transfixed by the spectre of passengers clamouring and clambering over rows of seats desperately trying to get out of a plane that had not even deployed its emergency chutes. (To be expected from a cheap flight!).

This story proves a point that in any attempted conversation between reason and fear, fear always wins. We can never reason with phobia for it belongs to fear’s nature to cloud our judgement. Hence, what should our response be when the prevailing atmosphere is fear?

Here, I am not belittling the precautionary actions taken by the powers that be—civil or ecclesiastical. I am interested in overcoming mindless panic—the panic that drove people to snatch and grab from supermarkets. You would have seen the posted pictures from a neighbouring country of trolleys or baskets of food abandoned before the check-out counters due to impatience with the incessantly long queues.

Our lives are in God’s hands. It does not mean that we do not care or should be reckless as in running up to an infected person to breathe deeply the air he has exhaled. But, if we believe that our lives are truly in God’s hands, then, we need to trust in God’s protecting care for us. Two saints come to mind. Firstly, St Aloysius Gonzaga. He was in his early 20s when a plague hit Rome. He must have seen his companions and others fall from the plague. But, instead of cowering, he continued to care for the plague victims. Finally, he himself succumbed to it. The second saint is Damian of Molokai. He ministered amongst the lepers till the day he became one of them. Both trusted in God not in the sense that they did not take precaution but in the sense that they recognise whether a long life or short, they were at the mercy of God and as such were not afraid of death.

The fear that is gripping us is driving us into behaviours which may appear “rational” or “precautionary” but in reality, they are closer to panic. It is ironic that some of us practise the 3-second rule when it comes to food dropping on the floor. But God forbid that a minister (ordinary or otherwise) of Holy Communion’s fingers should touch a tongue for even less than a second. Granted that it is a stupid comparison but Holy Communion on the hand frequently involves contact unless I drop it from the air to avoid touching the palm of the communicant. What is worse are the microphones at the ambos and the Roman Missal on the altar. I suppose one can disinfect the microphones and their stands, but the Roman Missal is a veritable encyclopaedia of germs and viruses left over from a previous flu that a priest had. I am not referring to our dear Fr Michael. It could have been Fr John, me or any visiting priest. A healthy or sickly priest uses the same Missale Romanum.

So, what then? I should ever be afraid of going to the hospital to anoint the sick, but I am not. I trust that our Lord has my good in His sight for I am doing His work like Ss Aloysius and Damian did. In fact, yesterday’s sunset Mass, we had anointing of the sick. Could you imagine what a nightmare that would have been? Unwittingly, an infected person queues up to be anointed. After laying my hands on the head, dipping my finger into the oil to anoint the forehead and palm, would I not be transferring the infection to the next person to be anointed? Presumably, if we want surgical sterility to avoid infection, we will have to incinerate everything after each Mass—especially the Roman Missal. In a situation of mysophobia[1], it would appear that if you were sick, going to the doctor to rule out the infection does not seem to be enough.

Where do we draw the line?[2]

I am not advocating Holy Communion on the tongue or on the hand. I am trying to make sense of what is happening and taking note that irrational fear is relentless in its obsessive demands. The entire panic-buying and hoarding spree are basically jittery acting out. To let our light shine or to salt the earth, we need to stand apart from the current herd mentality and be beacons of reason but most of all to trust in God. We lead by example in not giving in to fear. Recently, I received two videos with the headline that Wuhan has finally reached JB’s Mid-Valley. A review of the videos revealed that a case was detected in Northpoint Shopping Mall. No prize for guess where Northpoint is. In other words, do not join the cabal of fear that drives you to viral a video you have received all under the guise of helping to protect others. The head of the WHO commented that the fear of COVID-19 is doing more harm than the infection itself. This frightened world (that does not really believe, let alone know God) is sorely in need of lights that dare to shine from a firm faith in God’s providence and our trust can definitely salt or preserve the community from descending into a paralysing fear.

[1] Mysophobia, the morbid fear of contamination, dread of dirt or defilement may have a link with xenophobia (the fear of foreigners). We read about this in some places where being Chinese is reason enough for suspecting one is a carrier of the disease.
[2] If we were serious about curbing the contagion, a logical step would be to initiate a total lock-down of the country. No one entering or leaving. No religious services. No schools. No travels. No commerce. Cease all human contacts. Nada! Zilch! In 14 days or thereabout, we would have arrested the virus’ expansive march. Our reluctance in taking this drastic and effective, but at the same time, “destructive” measure merely exposes our selfish underbelly—we are afraid to lose out in terms of commerce and trade. Apparently, life is precious but money is more! Perhaps what is even more illogical is this. There seem to be a narrow fixation with the idea that Holy Communion on tongue is the only source of contagion without taking into consideration the other possible points of infection—the handling of the Roman Missal, the microphones, the chasubles (worn by a priest who had flu), the unwashed hands that had driven to Church, touched the door handle etc. The unintended effect of this ironic and idiotic obsession with restriction of Holy Communion to the hand is that now, the Eucharist is no longer the Medicine of Immortality as described by St Ignatius of Antioch. Instead, it is the Medicine of Death!

The Presentation of the Lord Year A 2020

The Presentation of the Lord is also called Candlemas because it continues with the theme of light that has been illuminating our reflection over the last 40 days. It was also known as the Purification of Mary. You could have kept your crib until now because this feast marks the end of the prolonged Christmas season.

The scriptural basis for this celebration is found in a combination of two distinct prescriptions from the books of Exodus and Leviticus. According to Exodus, every first-born male, animal or human, belongs to God. Therefore, the redemption of the animal or the boy is paid for by a levy to the temple which does not require any sort of presence of the boy or the animal. What requires a presence in the Temple is the purification of a mother 40 days after the birth of her first-born son. In Luke’s Gospel, both redemption and presentation take place in one setting. Thus, Mary along with Joseph and Jesus came to the Temple—one to be purified and the other to be redeemed.

Set this Lucan scene within the context of the First Reading. There, Malachi paints a rather terrifying picture of the coming of the Lord. “He will take His seat as refiner and purifier; He will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, and then they will make the offering to the Lord as it should be”. At the Presentation, the Lord now comes suddenly but He enters His Temple not as Judge but as a helpless infant—a member of the human family and not just any human family but a poor one, as indicated by the humble sacrifice of a pair of turtledoves that both Mary and Joseph offered.

There in the Temple the Old Testament meets the New. Both Anna and Simeon represent the expectation of Israel that God would send His Messiah to save His people. Christ is presented by Simeon as a Light for the Gentiles and the Glory of God’s people: Israel. In fulfilling Israel’s hope, this Infant will extend His salvation to the ends of the earth. At Pentecost, Luke will detail this fulfilment where through the unction of the Holy Spirit the Church will soon spread from Jerusalem to the whole world.

Today is yet another epiphany and one which we did something out of the ordinary. As Simeon exalted the Infant as the Light of the World, liturgically we imitated him by blessing our candles, lighting them and then holding a symbol of the Light of Christ, we processed into the Church. Some people also brought candles to be blessed for use at home. I remember when I was a child, during a lightning thunderstorm of strong wind and rain, grandma would tell us to bring out blessed candles and have one lit. That was because we lived in a house akin to the flimsy first hut of the Three Little Pigs, permanently in danger of being blown down by the strong gales. It was an act of faith in God’s protection.
To appreciate the liturgical action of blessing our candles and for the matter of speaking blessing our rosaries, scapulars and Crosses, we need to venture into the world of the sacramentals. Firstly, blessing is a sacramental act and in order to understand what it is, we need to differentiate a sacramental from what a sacrament is. Secondly, a sacramental can be anything. It is associated with the Church as “a blessing, an action or an object of devotion”—sign of the Cross, bowing, pilgrimage, medals and statues etc. According to the Catechism, “sacramentals are sacred signs instituted by the Church. They prepare men to receive the fruits of the sacraments and sanctify different circumstances of life” (CCC 1677).

As such, their efficacy is dependent on a proper disposition of faith since sacramentals only have potential for giving us grace. In other words, the Church gives us the sacramentals to excite our faith and to prepare us so that we can cooperate with God’s grace. Sacramentals should not be confused with the Seven Sacraments because the latter were instituted by Christ Himself. This means that sacramentals do not have the same type of saving grace as the Seven Sacraments. Sacramentals convey grace through the “work and prayers of the Church” (ex opere operantis Ecclesiae) and “by the work of the doer” (ex opere operantis).

Since the grace that God makes available is very much dependent on the disposition of the person performing the act, it means that, sacramentals are not infallible in their effects. They cannot be used as a “lucky charm” that works every time, no matter the disposition. It is quite common to see rosaries being hung from rear-view mirrors of cars, which in a multi-religious society, we see other religions hanging their beads too. There is a thin line between the rosary as a sacramental and a talisman. Inviting a priest to bless a car does not guarantee that one will never be involved in an accident. The rosary hanging in the car, the medal/scapular that one wears, the blessing of religious articles or pilgrimages are acts of faith. One must have a strong faith in God’s action or else it will become an empty ritual, lacking any personal effect, more like amulets used for protection. Here is the kicker: if one does not obtain the effect of the sacramental, it may not be due to a lack of faith but rather to God’s inscrutable will at work. We cannot fully fathom the working of God’s will. The point is: Do not lose faith.
The seven sacraments are different in that Christ Himself is the principal celebrant of every Sacrament. Christ Himself takes the initiative—He incorporates you into His Body in Baptism; He strengthens you through Confirmation; He feeds you with His Body and Blood in the Eucharist; He absolves you through Confession; He heals you through Anointing and finally, He sends you to serve either as priests or married couples through Orders and Matrimony.

Since He desires to give His grace to us, He Himself supplies for what is lacking in the priest who celebrates the sacraments, so that grace can be communicated no matter what. If a sinful priest says Mass, the Eucharist will still be changed into Christ’s body and blood (provided that the priest uses the proper words and matter required for the sacrament). Likewise, a baby who is totally unawares of the surrounding when baptised becomes a member of Christ’s Body. And even if you were a horrible man (but baptised), the marriage you contract with your girlfriend (also a baptised), is still a valid sacramental marriage. In short, the Sacraments give grace of themselves when we place no obstacle in the way whereas the sacramentals excite in us pious dispositions, by means of which we may obtain grace.
In summary, God’s action is much more powerful in a sacrament than any sacramental. As Christ Himself instituted the seven sacraments, the Church under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit establishes the sacramentals. Since sacramentals do not come from Christ Himself, they come and go according to the circumstances and place. Our Bishop, with approval from the Pope, can establish a sacramental for use in his diocese. Sacramentals can even be disbanded if they no longer serve a purpose. For example, there used to be a blessing of a telegraph which today is rather unheard of. Or there are Russian Orthodox priests who bless missiles (weapons of mass destruction) but after the downing of MH17, such a blessing would be considered rather inappropriate.

You should be able to appreciate that the sacramentals, while related to the Seven Sacraments, do not operate in the same way. Knowing this difference might help us to use them properly thereby disposing us to the graces God wants to give to us through the sacramentals.

However, is there a need to go through all these when we can go directly to God. A valid question. But, would you throw the body of your deceased parent to dogs for food? Why not? Dead people have not feelings and they definitely do not give a hoot if they look beautiful or hideous with the make-up. Now, if you are disgusted by such a suggestion, then you are already intuitively reacting from the space of sacramentality. We are more sacramental than we realise.

Earlier I mentioned about lighting a candle in a storm which we no longer do since we live in concrete houses. It begs the question if faith were needed only when we have nowhere to turn to? This is basically the position of some of us, no? We turn to God only when we have no choice.

The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, a rite which He has no need of, helps us to grasp the full meaning of our existence. Whether we need God or not, we are still dependent on Him and all sacramental actions are acknowledgements of this existential reality. Without God, we are not. Yes, the Seven Sacraments are definitely adequate to save us. But, the principle is that the sacraments, though efficacious in themselves, stand on the foundation of sacramentals/sacramentality. This is who we are as long as we are embodied spirits—our spiritual existence is mediated by our physical world. For example: In a marriage, you declare your undying love for your wife and you never fail to let her know. Yet, you have never lifted a finger to help her. Not a flower on her anniversary. Nothing. What love is that? Every act (sacramental, that is mediated) deepens the truth of one’s love in marriage. Sacraments without the sacramentals run the danger of the Sacraments becoming unnecessary. The denial of the use of the sacramental will soon enough render the Seven Sacraments useless and empty of its content.

Tuesday, 28 January 2020

3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A 2020

The significance of Christ’s baptism in the Jordan continues to reveal itself for us and it has profound ramifications for us as Church. The context of this unfolding is to be found in a region which was considered to be the back of nowhere for a nation which was promised a land of milk and honey. The returning Israelite tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali settled in a part of northern Palestine within the vicinity of a tiny lake otherwise known as the Sea of Galilee—a region also called the Galilee of the Nations or Gentiles. There amongst the non-Israelites, they practically had to eke out a living. The Prophet Isaiah promised these people who lived in darkness that a great light will dawn upon them.

As John had been arrested, the ending of the Baptist’s preaching actually ushered in a new ministry. Immediately after His baptism, Jesus left the security of His home for Capernaum, a town in the heart of Galilee. He enters the fray by going right into the heart of darkness to shed His light not just for His own people but for all of mankind. It can be said that Jesus had a primary ministry to the Jews, but this geographical itinerary, according to Matthew fulfils the prophecy of Isaiah. We so often think of St Paul as the Apostles to the Gentiles, but the seed had already been planted here by the Lord Himself.

Thus, the ministry of new light and new life has begun. The Messiah who wants to establish this new kingdom started with a simple but unexpected message of repentance. Whilst His listeners were not unfamiliar with this theme, however, their expectation might just be different. They were expecting something else.


Their ancestor’s journey from Egypt into the Promised Land could only be described as epic in the sense that God was truly with them. In their sojourn from exile, God showed Himself to be the Emmanuel--the God-with-them. However, here in the land of the shadow of death, they were wondering where God could be. They were a people not only disenfranchised economically; they were also politically emasculated; living as it were under the thumb of Rome. For these impoverished people, a light that shines should be one that brings about change both in the sphere of politics and the arena of economics. 

However, repentance must begin with a change of heart, not with an overthrow of government. It definitely does not take place at the wheel of fortune—no matter how you spin it. Change takes place at a more profound level. We know that the biggest battles are fought within the human heart. Transformation is hardest with the self. Hence, “Repent for the Kingdom is close at hand” is a clarion call to people to be ready for the rule of God in their lives. The Messiah has come to inaugurate a new age whereby God can be truly felt as Emmanuel as they undergo transformation.

This mission of transformation started with the calling of the four. The vocation of these four might possibly lead us to conclude that theirs was a ministry of specific service which for us is translated as a call to either the priesthood or religious life. Far from it. Whilst it is fair to speak a of specific vocation to the priestly and/or religious life, at the heart of Christ’s mission is the fundamental transformation of a person or the conversion of one’s heart.

Perhaps we can find an equivalent in our experience to illustrate what it means to be changed interiorly.

How many of you have gone for confession and have not found the change you so desire? We do not just sin. It is not generic because each of us sin in a particular way. Take your pick from the seven deadly sins. We normally think of sin in terms more salacious, like lust, but it can simply be as subtle as gossip or gluttony. The Lunar or Chinese New Year is a season for gluttony, is it not? A person goes to confession but comes out and sins again. You might tell yourself, “Do overeat. Be moderate” but soon enough you would have overeaten. Repeatedly one overindulges as if there were no change. The point is, the pace of change or the conversion we seek is painstakingly slow, at best. At worst, we give up in despair as some might do, telling ourselves, “What’s the point? Nothing changes”. In the meantime, our waistlines bulges. 

Contrast this unchanging self with that of our country and see how that measures out. We elected a new government in 2018 but life has been basically, forgive the language, Shitsville. We expect the government to roll in all that they had promised but really, at the heart of the transformation we desire is a system that is almost corrupt to the core. I have a friend who sells beauty products and she told me she had a regular client who used to buy facial cream to the tune of RM20K each time for use on his body. You would be forgiven if you thought that this “he” was a short fat lady who loves to “advise something”. He has since stopped buying because that kind of obscene spending is dependent on the availability of dirty money in our system. You can ask the upmarket restauranteurs too. The same kind of free spending before 2018 has now dried up. The system we have is finding it difficult to purge itself. In fact, we had all profited from this corrupt system which now we are suffering the painful detoxification that has to take place. The point is, if we who hunger for change is that slow in our conversion, can you blame the system for being seemingly static? Our instant-gratification mentality expects speedy changes out there in the system but we are not ready to make interior changes that are necessary. The transformation we want must begin with the human heart. A clean government must begin with a “clean people”. It does not take place overnight and if you want consequential change in this country, start with yourself.

In summary, the ministry of Jesus to the Gentiles is a universal ministry for it affects all and sundry. We have already established that we do not really need to go far. It is right here within our hearts for we are our own greatest cross or our greatest enemy. For us, an advice would be patience because conversion is always an ongoing process. It never stops. You might fall but get up and continue living in hope. As for the country, I cannot tell you how to vote. The calling of the four is just a beginning but it is not the end. The ministry to change continues with the Church as she must stand as a people who have been renewed and are still undergoing the process of purification so that she can stand out a light drawing those who walk in darkness into the Light of Christ. It is not the preserve of the few priests or religious. This duty is incumbent on all of us.

2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A 2020

We have entered into tempus per annum or what is commonly known as Ordinary Time—a rather misleading name for this season for it suggests of a characterless humdrum or a time that is unremarkably pedestrian. In short, boring. But the change in colour may help us appreciate the season better because green evokes life and therefore hope. The word “ordinary” instead of mediocrity actually hints of order, measure and rhythm. Thus, in these next 33 or 34 Sundays, the Church invites us to enter and meditate on the life of the Lord—His miracles and teachings—in light of the Resurrection.

However, there is an element of repetition this Sunday because the Gospel, rather than continuing with Matthew from last week, is taken from John and it seems to linger on the event of Christ’s baptism. John the Baptist gives witness to the Lord by not adhering to the standard protocol. “A man is coming after me who ranks before me because He existed before me”. John recognises his place in the schema of eternity and hence he cries out what we hear at each Mass: “Behold the Lamb of God”

Whilst repetition can be tiresome, it may be good for us to reconsider what it means for ourselves to be baptised and to follow Jesus. A key to understanding our baptism may be found in the 2nd reading. Corinth represented a pagan world and not only was it a heathen city for it was notorious for its immorality. In greeting the baptised of Corinth, St Paul calls them the Church, the holy people, the saints sanctified in Jesus Christ. Here in this opening speech, St Paul zeroes in the effects of their baptism which is an incorporation into the Body of Christ as well as their participation in the mission of the Church. Grafted into Christ, every Christian is on mission.

In light of the immorality of the city of Corinth, the Christians did have a heavy responsibility. In fact, Paul had to remind them of this burden as he wrote to chide them for failure in their Christ-like duties. Perhaps it is good clarify that to be holy is not an indication of one’s merit as if one were great. Instead, holiness is an attribute of God and our holiness is indicative of our closeness to God. As Israel was holy, our holiness is a sign that we have been set aside for Christ. Hence, like Israel of old, a Christian through his or her baptism has been set apart to be a light to the nations so that God’s salvation may reach the ends of the earth.

How heavy do you think this responsibility is?

Firstly, the answer to this question can be found in the symbol of the Lamb. Jesus allowed Himself to be sacrificed on behalf of His people so that He could carry on Himself the sins of others. His sacrifice frees us from the bondage to the slavery of sin and death. As St Peter reminds us “You were ransomed… not with perishable things like silver or gold but with the precious blood of Christ as of a spotless unblemished lamb”. In a way, Christians are called to a life of sacrifice. No greater love than to lay down his or her life for his or her friends. This is the real cost of following Jesus Christ.

At the back of our minds, I supposed people are already working out the dues of discipleship, calculating the price for sacrificing. Like a lamb led to the slaughterhouse, one figures, “Err, is it worth it? Did I sign up for this?”. I doubt anyone in the right frame of mind would subscribe to this kind of discipleship.

However, let us look at the sacrifice of discipleship through the lens of the Ordinary Time.

If bland is supposedly the character of the season, then perhaps, sacrifice is to be found there. The grand gesture of death on the Cross is but once in a lifetime. Since you are not cats, I presume that you can only be killed once. Thus, the many deaths on the crosses of life are what we ordinarily endure throughout our earthly existence. Life is markedly routine and regular. We move without fanfare through the predictability of our domestic arrangements. Whatever is promised of excitement, it possibly affects a mere fraction of our timeline. Otherwise, in what is basically ordinary, we are called to be faithful. This requires a death like no other.

We need not look far for this kind of death on the Cross. Caring after a child who is special. Assuming responsibility for the well-being of a debilitated spouse or an aged parent or parents. Making your rounds as a doctor and treating each patient with loving consideration. Serving your most trying customer as if he or she deserves your undivided attention. Living with a disability that robs you of the simple joys of life. Submitting oneself to the rigours of getting up early to beat the jam before entering into Singapore and enduring the congestion coming home. Coming for obligatory Masses even when you feel disinclined to. Anything and everything can take on the nature of a sacrifice. It is frequently in the quiet rhythm of life that God’s will is to be found. Herein is the connexion between the bravado of death on the Cross and the unexciting monotony of faithfulness to the station of one’s life. Perhaps Shakespeare, in Julius Caesar, may shine a different light for us to see. He says, “A coward dies a thousand times before his death; the valiant never taste of death but once”. The contrary could also be true that from the perspective of discipleship and not cowardice, that death on the Cross, that final one sacrifice is only possible because we have already died a thousand deaths before arriving at Calvary. Humble submission to God’s will requires daily dying to oneself.

Finally, baptism inducts us into the life of Christ where we mirror Him offering ourselves to be a sacrifice pleasing to God the Father and at the same time, to be that light of Christ that shines out from the darkness of sin and death. This mission of being a light to the nations might sound glamorous until you begin to work out the mechanics of what it entails. Let us be clear that this light of Christ is never about us. The best analogy to illustrate this truth is found in the relationship between the sun and the moon. The moon emits no light of its own. It merely reflects the light of the sun. Likewise, a Christian is not a light of his own merits. He shines out only because he has allowed the light of Christ to pass through him as a prism allows for the refraction of light. Furthermore, according to Shakespeare’s observation, some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them. This is true for so many of us who serve out our life sentence in the ordinary. Thus, we find our salvation not in being great but being faithful.

Many of us might not feel the brilliance of Christ’s light shining out through us. After all who are we when our flame flickers under the tempest of strong temptation to sin. But, when every Christian dares to hold out the light of Christ, no matter how small, you can be sure that Jesus the Lord will shine brightly. As St Teresa of Calcutta reminds us, “It is not how much you do but how much love you put into what you do that counts”. There is a little Gospel ditty that runs through my head and I would not sing it even to save my life but “This little light of mine” surely saves the day: So, be that light of Christ that counts.

Thursday, 16 January 2020

Baptism of the Lord Year A 2020

I have heard of a case where a single parent of a child requested that a Muslim be the godparent of the child. Good for you if you were shaking your head in disbelief. But, by and large, it is not surprising that some people do not really know what baptism entails except that it is purely a customary convention that one submits to. For some, it is no more than an accepted norm and it explains why having a Muslim godparent might make just burnish one’s social credential. Cool is it not that my child’s godparent is a Muslim, especially in a country that fears the Cross more than Dracula does?

According to Canon 872, “Insofar as possible, one to be baptised is to be given a sponsor who is to assist an adult in Christian initiation, or, together with the parents, to present an infant at the baptism, and who will help the baptised lead a Christian life in harmony with baptism, and to fulfil faithfully the obligations connected with it”. A godparent or a sponsor, as the official term goes, is to help the newly baptised live a Christian life. 

While it is true that a Muslim[1], can validly baptise a person, it is impossible for a Muslim to teach a baptised how to be a Christian because he or she does not lead a Christian life. A Catholic who lapses in practice, let alone a Muslim, cannot be a godparent for the simple reason that the responsibility to mentor a baptised is impaired by the fact that one does not live it himself. For example, would you trust your invasive medical procedure to a doctor who has not practised his surgical craft for 20 years?

Today, as we mark the end of the Christmas season, it might be good to step back and take a look at the necessity of baptism, the sacrament of incorporation into the Body of Christ. This is relevant because we live in a multi-ethnic set up where a simple cultural expression has the explosive potential of bursting into a confessional conflict. A good example was the simple hanging of lanterns in a school that promised to flare into a religious bloodbath. For sure this is an exaggeration but this country excels in a language most people want to avoid learning—(the language of) Stupid. The result though is we live in fear and we might be tempted to compromise on baptism in the name of harmony by consoling ourselves that “every religion is the same since every religion teaches us to do good”.

The Catechism will hopefully enlighten us and disabuse us of this error. In (#1257), “(t)he Lord Himself affirms the necessity of baptism for salvation. It is necessary for those to whom the Gospel has been proclaimed and who have had the possibility of asking for this sacrament. The Church does not know of any means other than baptism that assures entry into eternal beatitudes”. Thus, she cannot neglect this mission entrusted by the Jesus that all who can be baptised are “reborn of water and the Spirit”. By nature, the Church is missionary and so, to be Church, she needs to bring this sacrament to those who may be searching for it. 

However, there is a small print to this necessity. God has bound salvation to the sacrament of baptism but He Himself is not bound by His sacraments. What this implies is that we have a duty and we cannot shirk from our duty to make available this sacrament to those who can ask for it. But to save, God can do it any which way He wants.

For example, on an island, at the back of nowhere, there is an indigenous tribe whose members are shorter than the grass. No missionary has ever stepped ventured onto the island. Can the inhabitants there be faulted for not knowing of, not asking for and not receiving baptism? It explains what was said earlier that God is not bound by the sacraments. So yes, baptism is a norm but not an absolute necessity. There are some who desire to be baptised but never received it. For example, the catechumens who are killed in a religious persecution, they receive what the Church traditionally called the “baptism of blood”. They are saved even though they have not received baptism. Then, we also acknowledge the possibility of salvation for those, according to the 4th Eucharistic Prayer, “and all who seek you (God) with a sincere heart”. Under the inspiration of God’s grace, those who have no possibility of knowing the Church, but are seeking God and striving to do His will, they are saved by the “baptism of desire”.

The difference between normative and absolute necessity does not excuse the Church from her mission. It just means we have a challenging obligation to make Christ and His Church known. In this matter, we are not helped by ourselves being resistant to God’s grace. We do the Lord a great injustice because our bad examples (our sins) may be stumbling blocks to belief and to reception of baptism and incorporation in the Body of Christ.

If the world were lost, it is not because Christ is not powerful. The sad truth is that the world cannot see Christ because they cannot see past Christians. If only Christians appreciate their baptism more and the implication of what it means to be baptised, we could be truly the light that shines for a world to see. This is not because we are better than the world but because Christians are made to shine brightly with the light of Christ.

Why is Christ’s light not shining brighter? The reality of sin could be an easy answer. But, perhaps, it could be our conception, idea or notion of what it means to be a Christian. According to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate”.

In short, salvation is free but not cheap. In other words, we need to take seriously what it means that we have been saved. Bonhoeffer was right to speak out against cheap grace. Immediately after Christmas, on 26th Dec, we enter promptly into the truth of our salvation—St Stephen—the protomartyr. And even the Innocents are not spared on 27th Dec. Fuzzy warmth is a nice feeling, but these saints remind us time and again that there is a cost to pay for our discipleship. It does not seem fair but when is life ever fair in this valley of tears?

Perhaps, the cost of baptism has not been sufficiently appropriated by many Christians. We want a discipleship without the hardship. We definitely want an easy Christ to follow. But there is no way that Christ comes without the cross. The poor appreciation of our baptism may explain why we seek an easy discipleship. 

However, if we wade into the River scene at the Jordan, we discern a clear model or exemplar for each one of us. When Jesus stepped into the waters to be baptised, heaven opened up with the voice confirming Him to be the beloved Son. This is what happens at our baptism for in the Sacrament of Baptism, (along with Confirmation and Ordination) there is an effect which is permanent and it cannot be lost or erased, not even by mortal sin. We call it a spiritual seal, an indelible mark, a character or an ontological change. St Paul in scripture calls it “putting on Christ”. It is a configuring or a reshaping of a person in such a way that he or she now bears the shape of Christ. It can never be changed. Even if you changed your religion, the shape inside you is that of Christ the Lord. This is how much the Father wants to love us as it echoed in the Preface for Sunday VII: “For you so love the world that in your mercy, you sent us the Redeemer, to live like us in all things but sin, so that you might love in us what you loved in your Son, by whose obedience we have been restored to those gifts of yours that by sinning, we had lost in disobedience”.

Through baptism, the Father configures our souls into the shape of Christ His Son so that what He sees in Him, He will also see in us. That is how deep the love that God has for us that He made baptism a necessity for salvation so that each one of us can be incorporated into the Body of His Son, the Church. In the 1st Reading, we are told that “the islands are awaiting His law”. The question is not if they are awaiting. Instead, the question is if we are ready ourselves for the law before bringing His law to those hungering for it. The failure in numbers, the crisis of Church membership, as only 1 in 6 is a Christian, points not to a crisis of doctrine. Rather it is symptomatic of the crisis of discipleship.

[1] Canon 861 & 2 states… (i)ndeed, in a case of necessity, any person who has the requisite intention may do so. It means anyone, even if the one baptising is not baptised. The minimum requirement is the “intention of doing what the Church does”.