Friday, 21 April 2017

Easter Sunday Year A 2017

Jesus Christ is risen today, alleluia. Yay...

But wait, why am I feeling blasé about it?

Could it be that the same jadedness was cause for Pope Francis, over the Triduum weekend, to berate the Church for her inaction in the face of a humongous humanitarian crisis. Conflict and refugees abound; how do we envision the Resurrection?

Perhaps there is a loss in translation?

According to the Gospel today, Peter and the Disciple Jesus loved, arrived at an empty tomb. They realised that the vacant sepulchre is a potent symbol of the Resurrection--a phenomenon that is both supernatural and natural. Supernatural not because we do not encounter this everyday but because it cannot be explained by categories of this world. And yet, it is natural because it involves the body. We caught sight of that at the raising of Lazarus. He died and was brought back to life. Now, stupendous though that may have been, resuscitation soon revealed its weakness in time because Lazarus would naturally fall again into the embrace of death.

The Resurrection, however, is different. It means that the body is now freed from the laws of nature not because nature is evil but because nature must give way to what had been intended for the human body--a supernatural existence. In other words, the Resurrection opened the gate for nature to enter another realm.

But, somehow or rather, this qualitative difference in existence is lost in translation for a generation breathing the air of global devastation and destruction.

How is that so?

Just recently, Egypt on Palm Sunday saw two attacks by the Islamic State on Christian worshippers as they prepared to enter Holy Week. Now that Easter has come and gone, what about those who are related to the 47 killed in the bomb blasts? What form of Easter would they have? Let us imagine this scenario in a more familiar setting, something closer to home. How about a man who lost his beloved wife on Good Friday? Would it be considered insensitive to joyfully greet him "Blessed Easter"?

Setting sensitivity asides, could this hesitation imply a loss in translation whereby our idea of the Resurrection is revealed to be closer to a material conception than not. It is as if the Resurrection has to be suspended as long as someone is suffering. It is true that the Resurrection is material because it involves the body but have we been so steeped in materialism to have missed its other-worldly quality?

We are not alone in our incapacity to grasp its metaphysical aspect. On Wednesday of the Easter octave, the Gospel will be taken from the Road to Emmaus. The two disciples could not fathom the Resurrection and Jesus along the road responded to their incredulity: "You foolish men, so slow to believe the full message of the Prophets. Was it not ordained that the Christ should suffer and so enter into His glory?" Jesus may well direct to us a similar response along these lines: "The Resurrection is supernatural, therefore, even if the world were to be embroiled in the worst calamity, the Resurrection is a promise given to you and nothing can ever change that".

Poverty is a global plight and along with it, universal indifference which possibly dulls our response to realities crying out for redemption. In the midst of that, the Resurrection stands as real and it is not contingent on a world at peace and without conflict. But because of our materialistic bias, it would appear that the more there are people who lack the bare necessities of life, the less possible it is to believe in the Resurrection. In a sense, there is not going to be a Resurrection unless we have fulfilled the material needs of people who are still suffering.

The Eucharist, therefore, plays a pivotal role in anchoring our faith in the Resurrection. It is true that the empty tomb is proof that something did happened. On the one hand, it could mean that indeed Jesus rose bodily but, on the other hand, it could also be that the Disciples really "stole" the body as alleged by the Jewish authorities. A more solid foundation for the Resurrection has to be established elsewhere—notably the practice of the believing community left by Jesus.

For the last 2000 year, the Church has celebrated her Resurrection faith through the Eucharist or the Mass. Even though the Synoptic Gospels record the Last Supper as a pre-Resurrection event, it is in fact a post-Resurrection reality. The proof is in John's Gospel, the one which does not log the event of the Last Supper. We find proof of the Resurrection in chapter 6, verse 51: "I am the living bread which has come down from heaven. Anyone who eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is my flesh, for the life of the world". Each Mass we celebrate, when Jesus says "Eat my Flesh and drink my Blood", He is in effect saying to us: "Eat my Resurrected Body and drink my Risen Blood".

The world is definitely in need of restoration. The cry for a world healed of all ills rings out through the voices of the battered, the bruised and the broken. From one angle, the restoration or the equilibrium which we all seek is akin to the "resuscitation" of Lazarus. Whilst it begins here, ultimately, it has to end in heaven. In between here and the Resurrection, maybe nothing will be resolved and yet, it is not a defeat. The Pope at his impromptu Easter homily said to this effect: "Do not stop there with whatever tragedies that behold you. Look beyond to the horizon where Christ is Risen".

Our Resurrection faith is secured by looking for Him in the Eucharist for when they arrived at Emmaus, He made as if to go on but they pressed Him to stay and "while He was with them at table, He took bread, said the blessing, broke it and handed it to them. And their eyes were opened and they recognised Him". Karl Marx called religion the opium of the masses because its function is to make people forget. The Breaking of Bread, au contraire is help us recognise and remember that nothing, not even death has power over us because Jesus is victorious. He is there in the Eucharist for He is Risen. Alleluia. Alleluia.


Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord to Good Friday Year A 2017

Memory is a powerful ally in the economy of salvation--a soothing salve for life in the lacrimarum valle. If you think about it, the Shema, "Hear O Israel" is a mnemonic aid. More than an invitation to listen, it is also a duty that Israel remembers what the Lord God has done.

Christianity, in particular those that maintain a valid priesthood, has not strayed far from this recalling. The Eucharist's "Do this in memory of me" serves to remind us that despite our frequent failures, God has always been faithful no matter what we feel about His promise. Unfortunately, much like the Israelites, we are a forgetful lot. Providentially though, the Church through her seasons gives us time to recall God's abiding presence, otherwise known as the history of salvation. A good illustration of this providence is, as Lent draws to its conclusion, the sub-season known as the Passiontide.

Passiontide jolts our capacity to remember. Sadly, memory is a faculty frequently associated with the negative. When considered negatively, it is something we want to forget. For example, with PTSD—post-traumatic stress disorder—soldiers returning from the battlefield often fight to forget the trauma they had undergone.

How is Passiontide helpful as a memetic tool?

It is bound to a symbolic action carried out last weekend (5th Sunday of Lent). Some churches began covering their crucifixes, statues and images. Why? The alternative Collect for Mass on Friday of the 5th Week of Lent provides an insight for this rather random ritual as it makes mention of Mary. According to the older liturgical calendar, the feast of the Seven Sorrows of Mary[1] is commemorated on this day as it falls well within "Passion" Week. So, what we celebrate today as Passion Sunday took place formerly on the 5th Sunday of Lent.

Under the revised calendar of 1969, Passion and Palm Sunday were coalesced into one—Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord. This development when taken apart, sheds light on why we begin veiling the crucifix, statues and images on the 5th Sunday of Lent. If we follow the pre-1969 liturgical calendar, the Gospel reading for Passion Sunday, that is 5th Sunday of Lent, is taken from John 8:46-59 where at the end of the passage, it is noted that Jesus removed and hid Himself from the rage of the Jewish authorities--an absence which is less of an escape but more of a shrouding of His divinity in preparation for the trial of His passion. According to the noted liturgist, Dom Gueranger, the statues and images of saints are also veiled since the "glory of the Master be eclipsed, the servants should not appear".

This historical detour affords a little glimpse into what appears seemingly as an anachronistic practice in the rite of veiling. The point is that the melding of two Sundays into one has rendered Passiontide almost obsolete. The Supreme authority of the Church may have had good reasons for revising the calendar to meet the requirements of the Novus Ordo. However, what implication does this "shortening" have for us?

Memory is not merely a matter of the past but rather it is of a past permeated by a persistent presence of God. We veil so that our senses are jolted into remembering. But, in an attempt to exorcise PTSD of its inevitable pain, God's presence is also ousted from memory. Nevertheless, instinctively we know how important memory is and it is observed in a phenomenon which resonates deeply with many of us. The advent of the camera phones has corresponded to the proliferation of "professional poor-quality" photography[2]. The other day, I saw a woman taking pictures of her toddler's every move. What was she doing? She was manufacturing memories. We seem to be engrossed with making memories--trying to store "good" history for the future.

But, memory is always about the past and never about the future. The previous week, I alluded to the desire to "live" fully, as a temporal[3] form of rage against a miserly God. This "rage" continues in another disposition as we can be so caught up with creating a future for remembrance that we forget to live the moment, not the adrenalin kind of moment, but the present wherein our salvation is being worked out.

If the Shema has anything to teach us, it is how forgetful we are. For the Jews, the Shema is incorporated into the morning and evening prayers. For Catholics, remembering takes place through the daily rhythm of the Divine Office, the flow of the liturgical seasons and most of all, at every Eucharist. In the past, we anticipated Easter through a long period of recalling beginning with the Septuagesima followed by Quinqagesima and then Quadragesima. What are they but 70, 60 and 50 days before Easter.[4] Since memory is of the past and because we are forgetful, the liturgical calendar dedicates that much time to lead us into Easter.

If history is always the history of salvation, then the past, no matter how painful, is also a past pregnant with God's saving presence. Anamnesis and amnesia are two sides of a coin. One side remembers and the other side forgets. It is our amnesia that shocks and drives us to secure an adrenalin-fuelled present, and since we are fearful of a non-existent future, we are at the same time driven to store up memory lest we be forgotten. Whilst memory's main function is to remember "Yeshua"--the God who saves, PTSD thrives on a memory which implies God's absence. Nothing is wrong with that because even the Son of God Himself cried out "Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani", a cry bereft of God's presence. It proves how our memory is always tempted to amnesia and in a world seduced by PTSD’s forgetfulness, it would be good to dwell on a quote scrawled on the wall of a cell in Auschwitz:

I believe in the sun even when not shining.
I believe in love even when not feeling it.
I believe in God even when He is silent.

The Son hanging on the Cross who felt nothing but the abject rejection of God's silence eventually found enough human strength to believe and trust in His God when He cried out: "Father into your hands I commend my spirit". 




[1] Now celebrated on 15th Sept, a day after the Triumph/Exaltation of the Cross.
[2] Apple’s advertising campaign “Shot on iPhone” in 2015 celebrated the phenomenon that everyone can be a professional photographer. If in 1999, 80 billion photographs were shot that year, today about 2 billion photographs are posted and shared on Facebook EACH DAY. The irony is that everyone is a professional photographer just means that there are just so many phonegraphers!
[3] Why temporal? Because God is not generous enough to indulge us with good health and long life for EVERYONE.
[4] Quadragesima, the Latin term for Lent, when excluding Sundays, will measure up to the 40 days of Jesus' fasting in the desert.

Friday, 7 April 2017

5th Sunday of Lent Year A 2017

From this Sunday onwards, the Crucifix and all images or statues are covered from until Good Friday where the Cross will be unveiled and just before Easter Vigil, the veils will be removed from images and statues. As we knock on heaven's door and the Gospel gives us the "sign before the Sign". Apart from the obvious catechumenal moment, what significance can we attach to the raising of Lazarus?

No other Gospel carries this event but John. In terms of veracity, occurence might be considered a criterion because of multiple attestations for the same event can be found in different literary genres. In the case of John's Gospel, the credibility of this event is not based on multiple attestations but rather the description of an inconvenient fact. A normal response to an emergency is that one would drop everything and proceed to address the situation. In this case, instead of rushing to assist a dying friend, Jesus deliberately delayed His departure for Bethany. For John, this delay which allowed for the raising of Lazarus was taken to be an anticpation of Christ's own Resurrection. Thus, a sign before the Sign.

Often enough when I attend a wake where a simple service is conducted, one of the readings used is this same Gospel we heard moments ago. How does one reconciles the sad reality of a lifeless body in the coffin, that will never come back to life, with the ecstatic joy of seeing a bound mummy walking out of a sepulchre? A way to bridge this chasm is to emphasise a fact omitted by the Gospel.

Lazarus died, again.
If not soon enough, perhaps at a ripe old age.

The raising of Lazarus is NOT the Resurrection. One can possibly characterise it as a reanimation of a lifeless corpse. He came back to life but not to everlasting life. We instinctively desire an everlasting life, not the reanimation granted to Lazarus. And this enthusiasm for everlasting life is best illustrated by the possibility afforded to those who can afford cyrogenics. Recently, a 14-year old UK girl suffering and dying from a rare form of cancer won the right to have her body cryogenically frozen after death in anticipation of a potential future cure.

She is perhaps an extreme case of what appears to be our present obsession--eternal youthfulness--an expression of the innate desire for immortality. We all want eternal life but we want it in our own terms, right here and right now. But, the truth is temporality and eternity are mutually exclusive. Built into temporality is the unescapable sell-by-date expiry. Even in a perfect universe untainted by sin, temporality has a corroding effect on existence. With time, things come to pass.

The prospect of bringing a lifeless corpse like Lazarus or reanimating the cancer-stricken girl from a cryogenic stasis is exhilarating surely. However, the best state to describe Lazarus is this: almost paradise which means it is not paradise.

The prayer inserted into a funeral Mass gives us an indication of how paradise is to be conceived.

Remember your servant whom you have called from this world to yourself. Grant that he (she) who was united with your Son in a death like his, may also be one with him in his Resurrection, when from the earth he will raise up in the flesh those who have died, and transform our lowly body after the pattern of his own glorious body.

We should never confuse almost paradise to be paradise. Our vision must be cast beyond the temporal to the eternal where we shall see God for who He is. Lazarus may not be paradise but nevertheless he is an invitation to life by no less than our Lord and Saviour. "Untie him and let him go free" is a summons to live not for the moment but for the right moment. There is a catchy tune by One Republic. I LIVED. If you watch the video associated with this tune, it makes sense. It is dedicated to a cystic fibrosis boy living a breath away from death. Out of this video context, the chorus (bold and italics) pulsates with Carpe diem urging one to seize the day and live. 

For those who are interested, the lyric goes like this

Hope when you take that jump
You don't feel the fall
Hope when the water rises
You built a wall
Hope when the crowd screams out
It's screaming your name
Hope if everybody runs
You choose to stay
Hope that you fall in love
And it hurts so bad
The only way you can know
You give it all you have
And I hope that you don't suffer
But take the pain...
Hope when the moment comes
You'll say
I...I did it all
I...I did it all
I owned every second that this world could give
I saw so many places
The things that I did
Yeah, with every broken bone
I swear I lived
….

"I did it all" screams a kind of present, a carpe diem that seizes the now. It makes sense because we dread a less than perfect existence, an implication that we have lost out. But, if you think about it, carpe diem for all its gallantry in the face of peril is closer to the disquiet of death than it is to the bravery for life. Underlying that philosophy is firstly, the uncertainty that there is nothing beyond this life and if you have not done it all, you are nobody. Secondly, it may be more than a desire to live because to "own every second this world could give" hints at a rebellious rail against what is perceived to be a tight-fisted God who is penurious in the gifting of life, so much so that one needs to grab it because He is mean.


However, if Lazarus exiting the cave is anything to teach us, Jesus' command to untie him and to let him go free is a summons to live not just the moment but to seize every right moment: in preparation for the Resurrection, for life everlasting.

Sunday, 20 January 2013

Baptism of the Lord Year C

 There seems to be an anti-climax to the feast we are celebrating today because Ordinary Time gives the impression that we are heading for the mundane—a return to humdrum and yet, the Baptism of Christ in the Jordan leans towards the majestic as it is a continuation of the theophany, a manifestation of God in Christ to the world.
Once again, heaven splits open with a voice that comes from within announcing that the Christ was not just the anointed one but also the beloved Son of God. The Baptism also signals the beginning of Christ’s public life.
What implications does the Baptism have for baptised Christian? Let me begin with a phenomenon which many of us are only too familiar with: there is no such thing as a free lunch. In a free lunch, we seem to be getting more than we asked for but in actual fact, we often need to pay for more than we bargained for. The very fact that I began by asking the question of implication suggests that I am working out of this model of “no such thing as a free gift” and we are expected to pay somehow. Thus, in a sense, the approach to the baptism of Christ appears to come from the perspective of guilt—a kind of guilt that we need to pay somehow. Since He began His public ministry at the baptism, I supposed we may be guilt-tripped to believing that through our baptism, we too are called to embrace His public mission; not that embracing His public mission is anything wrong.
This is well and good but I believe also it misses an important point. Let me take it slowly from here. I remember that the Ethiopian famine burst into the international scene in 1984 or thereabout. Then, it galvanised the entertainment personalities into spear-heading the international relief work for East Africa. Band Aid, led by both Bob Geldof and Midge Ure started with “Do they know it’s Christmas”. Later, this movement engendered a similar drive on the side of the Americans, USA for Africa. Anyway, the point is this: images broadcasted to the world included hungry faces and emaciated bodies. What was more? “And there won’t be snow in Africa this Christmas time”. All with intent of evoking a sense of pity but more likely they effected a sense of guilt; a guilt that drove the world in search for a quick solution to the problem of hunger in Ethiopia, in particular and in Africa, in general.
Guilt is a good force but its strength is also ephemeral simply because its efficacy is dependent on how conscientious one remains. As long as one’s conscience is solid, it will produce the result it intends but when one’s conscience is overcome by apathy, then guilt does nothing more than it evokes a feeling of discomfort. To be fair, many of us have been shamed to action at one time or another. How many of us have been shamed to donate out of guilt, especially when at Church, one of those fund-raisers comes to hawk their premier show tickets? But shaming to action can only do so much especially when it is not accompanied by conversion and conviction.
So, how do we embrace Christ’s mission if not through guilt?
The Gospel presents us with the answer. It is called sonship by adoption. Christ the sinless one underwent baptism as His great act of solidarity with humanity. The Son of God set aside all His prerogatives in order that we might find a footing before the Father. For that, we become sons and daughters of God the Father.
“This is my beloved Son”, the voice from heaven is confirmation of our adoption. Any impetus we have must come from an appreciation that we are beloved children of God. We are good and become better because of that. Anything good that can flow from us flows from a profound appreciation that we are beloved of the Father. Hence, our actions must bear with it the reality of God’s love. It was the love of the Father that impelled Christ to embark on the journey to save the humanity and the ultimate test of His love was His death on the Cross.
And this is where we must cross the Rubicon of “self-love”. We have been quite spoilt by the Gospel of self-love. It is love, God’s love and our response in love, and not guilt that guides out action in life. However, a reason why our response in love might be putative or half-hearted lies in the way we have corrupted God’s love for us. In a sense, we can never love others if we do not first love ourselves. But, this self-love is emboldened to a certain extent by an image of God who loves us to the point of helplessness. The Father who loves us can only look indulgently at us whilst tut-tutting us for our sins. After all, He is a loving Father.1 The corrective to our self-indulgent image of God is corrected by Christ who, right after His baptism, was driven into the desert. We often think that Christ loved the Father through His sacrifice on the Cross but the contrary is also true. God the Father loved the Son enough to sacrifice Him so that we might be saved.
The test of our baptism and our following of Christ will come in this form: We will be persecuted and there will be suffering in our lives. Our baptism sets us on this road of conversion and conviction. Anyone who is baptised believes that after baptism, life will be easier, has been baptised into some kind of delusion. Ultimately, it was not the mission that determined how Christ behaved but instead, it was the Son who determined how the mission was to be. This is where baptism becomes ours to cherish. Through baptism we become God's children and because we deeply appreciate who we are, hence, our mission is to venture into the world to shape it according to whom we are as God's children, no matter how hard the journey may be.

1 We hear it all the time. God is with us. Yes, it may be a corollary of the Emmanuel. However, the question we never ask is, not that we can ever be on par with God, are we with God?

Sunday, 6 January 2013

Epiphany of the Lord Year C

The hubbub surrounding Christmas has died only to be resurrected by the Lunar New Year’s decoration probably up already in the shopping complexes. Epiphany marks the last Sunday in Christmas season before we ease into Ordinary Time which is initiated by the Baptism of the Lord. The word is defined as to show or to manifest. Hence, Epiphany celebrates the manifestation of the Christ to the Gentile world as symbolised by the visitation of the Biblical Magi to the baby Jesus. But, this manifestation is also a “Theophany” because the 2nd Person of the Trinity, who through the decisive act of the Incarnation, is now manifested in person to His creation. Epiphany is significant because of the far-reaching consequences of this appearance.
As we consider the consequences of how far-reaching it is, 3 groups of characters stand out in the aftermath of Christ’s birth. Firstly, the Shepherds are indeed honoured and privileged for they received what is considered to be a direct and supernatural revelation via the agency of the angels. I believe none of us shares that kind of honour.1 Secondly, the High Priests and the Jewish scribes in today’s Gospel are privileged as well because they have the certainty of sacred scripture. Salvation does come through the Jews. Finally, the Gentile Magi discover the birth of the Saviour through the observation of a natural phenomenon—the shining star that guides them. This group symbolises a world seeking to her know her Creator and Lord; a longing that is mirrored in the first reading. We and 99.99% of mankind belong to this group.
In this sense, Christianity as a religion of the Epiphany challenges our understanding of how Christians should conduct themselves in a world hungering to know her Christ. If the world searches for Jesus Christ, then surprisingly He is still a “nobody” especially after 2000 years of Christianity. Perhaps Christianity and certainly Christians are to be blamed. But, today is not the day to assign blame much less to look for causes of Christianity’s failure. However, between the Jewish Scribes and the Gentile Magi, note the irony of how Christ is discovered. The certainty of scripture is no guarantee that Christ will be recognised—a timely reminder to Christians that the possession of Gospel Truth is no added advantage. If we dissociate ourselves from the Jews, not because we are superior to them but because we accept the revelation, like the Shepherds, that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and Saviour of the world, thus what lies before us is to rethink how Christ is to be discovered by a world still waiting to know Him. Christians must engage the world in order that Christ does not remain a local, parochial or provincial message but should instead become the universal answer to the question of humanity. How?
In communicating Him to the world, we marvel at how social media has greatly expanded our range and ease of communication. However, we may fail to observe that it has also artificially inflated our personal space which at the same constricts the efficacy of our communication. Much of what we accept to be “communication” is basically personal and not really genuinely social or truly interpersonal. Blogs, Facebook and Twitter enable us to reach a wider audience and yet their darker sides enable people with no qualms to expose the very private details of their lives for all and sundry to see or read. And in terms of public life, exposure of the scandalous sex lives of political personages is an integral part of political prowess.2 So, what we consider to be “social” is pretty much an exposure of what may be the private life of individuals. When the content of our communication falls short of the intent then communication will be reduced to “shouting out”.
This is the meaning of shouting out. Our social space seems to be hemmed in by the almost impermeable boundaries of personal spaces. And when we move, it becomes a matter of how large we want to project that personal space. Many of our blogs or Facebook postings are good examples of trying to enlarge our personal spaces—they are the cyber-equivalence of our 15-minute claim to fame.
I was in Hongkong recently and witnessed this incident. There was a wedding the previous night and the morning after was the goodbye rigmarole. The farewell party’s vehicle was parked inconsiderately so much so that the taxis just backed up into a snaking queue. Immediately behind this offending vehicle was man in a taxi trying to get to the airport. But, the wedding entourage saw no problem inconveniencing everyone around. A shouting match ensued between the man in a hurry and the morning after bride. She shouted expletives to the effect: “I really don’t care if you were inconvenienced by my inconsideration”. What do we think? We think it is bad manners or some call it apathy but really, that was symptomatic of how our social sphere has crumbled into a coliseum choked by competing personal spaces. It is about how loud you can shout or how powerful you are to impose your will. I am sure everyone here has this type of experience to recount.3
The primary aim of communication is not just an exchange of information but is directed towards the discovery of truth and also the embrace by truth. We do not possess truth as much as we are possessed by truth.4 But, within a life-world of bloated personal spaces, truth is no longer relevant whereas “like” is. “Like” has become the measure of what “true” is. In such a space, how can we proclaim Him who is Truth and who might also be unlikable?
In such a climate, the public display of religiosity—which is a form of communication; an expression of truth—could be considered offensive and therefore rejected or if not, irrelevantly quaint and therefore merely tolerated.5 Given this conundrum, do you think it is possible to propose a vision which is all encompassing? We have allowed religion to be a private matter for too long. And the other major religion which has a vision as grand or as overarching as Christianity is one which preaches peace but frequently espouses violence as a means of achieving its end—that is, it has no qualms using violence to impose its monolithic view of man vis-à-vis God. In reaction to the fear of violence, it is any wonder why secularity, especially Western secularity, is hard-pressed to contain Christianity, a religion which proposes a vision not founded on violence but embraced by truth.6
Religion is not a private matter. This statement does not mean that the opposite is true, meaning that religion has to be imposed publicly.7 Instead religion is to be expressed, not just privately through prayers or petitions but expressed publicly through worship and liturgy. A personal relationship with the Lord, as demanded by fundamentalist Christians, is important but so too is public worship. Hence, the liturgy, the Mass,—by its definition, is par excellence a public expression not just of our relationship with Christ but also of the Truth that God is with us. The more we gather for the Eucharist, the fuller our expression as the Body of Christ becomes and the more we dare to worship publicly, the more we prevent religion from retreating behind the limiting walls of private belief. The very Eucharist you are at, boring as some people might characterise it or impersonal as some would deem it, is actually the bulwark against belief becoming merely an expression of personal preference—something that you might like or just enjoy.
In conclusion, the Epiphany as a manifestation is not just a random act of God’s capricious revelation but it also reveals us to us; it reveals who we are as human beings. Firstly, that God can “speak” to us and He has, and most resolutely through His Son, Jesus Christ. And in speaking, Epiphany proposes Christ the Way, the Truth and the Life to all humanity; and not just to a section. Therefore, He is not just any way, one truth amongst many truths or merely a life. Epiphany reveals the true meaning of the Incarnation that by becoming one of us, He has enabled us to break through the limitation of our private individualistic bubbles—in short, by His coming as Man, we have become truly brothers and sisters—and at the Eucharist, that brotherhood is best expressed. Secondly, not only does God speak but also we are looking for Him. So, when our pathetic little world has reduced the transcendental aim of man’s existence to almost nothing, the Magi stand as a reminder, that as long as humanity exists, it seeks wisdom—it seeks the answers to the questions of existence. Thus, Christ is not a “nobody” and neither is He just somebody to like. Instead, He is the reason for the proclamation of the Holy Gospel to all nations waiting for the honour of His grace. And guess who the messengers are? You are.
1 If a person walks up to say, “Mother Mary appeared to me”, chances are he or she is singing the loony tunes. It explains why the Church takes such a long time to ascertain or approve all apparitions.
2 If you want to enter into the political ring, it is good to know the bedroom antics or secrets of your opponent.
3 Children running and screaming in a restaurant with parents oblivious of the children treating what is a public place as their personal playground. The same can be said of going out to eat supper in one’s pyjamas.
4 The Magi can be said to have been possessed by truth enough to risk everything even to the extent of leaving all forms of security in search of the child Jesus.
5 Our Corpus Christi procession is a form of public declaration of our belief. The whole process of having to apply for permit is explained by the need to maintain public order. However, what is perhaps more true is that the so-called “maintenance of public order” serves to illustrate how small the social space has become for the public expression of faith. We are tolerated for our quaint practices. The worship of God is extraneous to our everyday existence.
6 A distinction has to be made between religion in itself and the perpetrators of violence. Religions are not always violent but the people who are fanatical about their religion frequently are.
7 Like checking if you abstain from meat on Friday or arresting you for eating publicly in broad day-light during the fasting month.

Sunday, 30 September 2012

26th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B


The scene in the Gospel is pretty straightforward. John encountered an outsider who exorcised in the name of Jesus. Undoubtedly, there was bewilderment. Can the power of Jesus be possessed by an “outsider”? The reaction could be a jealous attempt to curb the outsider from what he had been doing.
The answer Jesus gave: “Those not against us are for us” is surely music to the ears of those who stand for the spirit of openness, diversity and acceptance1 as suggested by the theme which stresses how God’s Spirit can work outside “boundaries”. Today, the Gospel invites us to reflect on the meaning of belonging to Christ.
For those who do not subscribe to an “inclusive, pluralist and politically-correct” ideology, to speak of “belonging” is to venture where angels fear to tread. An attempt to insist on strict membership would be deemed as parochial or provincial or in some cases, downright uncharitable—certainly out of touch with the spirit of openness and tolerance. It would appear that Christ and exclusion do not belong together.
However, consider the perception that the Orthodox Churches are numbered amongst some of the fastest growing religious organisations in the United States.2 These Churches are unabashedly resistant to the tides of relevance.3 Correspondingly, the mainline Protestant churches, suffer a significantly higher number of losses, wracked as they have been by contentious issues on sexuality and ordination.
Caught in the churning currents of constant change, people seem to seek the secure shores of stability. Similarly with the present credit crunch in the Eurozone raging there is a yearning for the familiarity of the old regime—a case of better the devil you know than the devil you do not know. What we are witnessing is none other than a enervating backlash of the tyranny of relevance which is manifested by a certain listlessness, a debilitating ennui that has compelled people to search for security and they seem to find it in Churches with the most solid past. The Orthodox Churches seem to represent that.4
The phenomenon of the rise in membership articulates a primæval urge to belong. Belonging has always been a sociological given. We say, “No man is an island”. In times gone by, we never seemed to question it. We just belong. Whether we subscribe to the set of values proposed by our belonging, we simply belong more or less.
Today that cannot be assumed. Whether it be religious persuasions or philosophical convictions, our shared worldview has retreated behind the walls of private belief or opinion.5When that happens, our grasp of the bigger picture that is provided by religious belief or philosophical framework is now transferred to the narrow field of ideology. In our experience it is called “social justice”. Do not think that I am knocking “social justice”. No, the truth is, since we cannot be certain that our religious content is real or that our philosophical framework can be universalised and all we are certain of is that the world is a mess, so, we attempt at a world morality.6 As a result of this breakdown in shared beliefs or assumptions which provide belonging together sociologically, what happens is that the urge for belonging must be expressed somehow or rather.7
Our locals have a colloquial saying, “shiok sendiri”. It is derived from the English word “shock” (as in the experience of being jolted by electricity). Literal translation renders this saying as self-satisfaction. Left to our own devices, we search for ways to entertain ourselves. Because belonging is near to impossibility, we resort to entertaining ourselves. It sounds absolutely miserable because we run from reality TV to adrenalin rushes, to mindless car crashes in movies all in the hope that the “shiok” will certainly satisfy the “sendiri”.8
If dancing around the pole of pleasure does not lead to the satisfaction of the urge of belonging, then the question has to be asked of the John’s insistence of membership: “What is the purpose of membership”?
If an innate or inbuilt sociological urge to belong does not really answer our question of membership, then we are force to venture further into the deeper sea of existence to ask the question of Truth. Membership in the Church misses the point if the membership does not revolve around the question of Truth. We are in for the Truth. And that is why Church membership is important because Truth is our salvation.
Here, there is no assumption that the other religions do not search for Truth. In fact, they do and if they do, a further question to be asked is: Where is Truth to be found in its fullest? This is a question which a broken down world dares not ask. In fact, the Gospel of Nice prevents us from asking this question because it is afraid of the implication of Truth; that there is really a line between black and white and that there is the possibility of exclusion.9 Instead of upsetting people by making truth claims, let us remain at the mundane level of attempting to build heaven here on earth.10
The sense of belonging that the Disciple wanted was rightly so corrected by Christ because in practical sense, we do not start out on life with the assumption that everyone who is not with us is against us. We do not need to because there are people who believe but they do not belong. For example, two religions share the same belief that life is sacred and yet one religion is not the other. Hence, the sense of belonging that the Disciple desired must go deeper. It revolves around a belonging in Truth.11
In summary, we can believe without belonging. The world is made up of many who believe without belonging.12 However, to belong without believing is impossible. And this is our challenge as baptised individuals. Our belonging or our membership in the Catholic Church is not just to fulfil a sociological urging. It is more fundamental for in the Church, we are fundamentally united in Truth, that is, Christ, so that we may live Him to the fullest. If we do not want to be condemned to a life of endless twirling around the pole of pleasure, with our minds numbed by the array of self-seeking shiok-sendiri entertainment13, then we must ask this question: “What is the purpose of my belong to the Church.”?
1 This is the same kind of mind-set at work in a question like “Why Holy Communion cannot be given to Protestants since we are all followers of Christ”?2 Here, I am touching only on Christianity. It should be noted too that Islam is a fast growing religion.3 A good example is how we approach the Eucharist. Catholics consider their Eucharist to be valid because they fulfil the requirement of having a valid Order. So, we are allowed to receive Holy Communion in their Churches, if a Catholic Church is not readily available. They, on the other hand, are not always open to us receiving Holy Communion from them because they consider us as heretics. Thus, they would, in general, resolutely resist receiving Holy Communion in a Catholic Church.4 The Catholic Church may draw people to her bosom. But, the fact is that those who go for the Orthodox Churches would put as a reason the seeming wishy washiness of Catholic theologians.5 Except for the so-called dictatorship of relativism—which imposes its particular brand of “tolerance” etc.6 Whilst you are here, you house may be burglarised. When you get stopped by the Police, you are certain that the Police be asking you for “coffee money”. The world is very messy.7 Today more than ever, belonging is not assumed but it is a personal choice. Judging by how we often keep to ourselves, we can say that many have opted out of society. They are happy or content to enjoy the benefits of society minus the convictions, implications and most of all the responsibility of being a part of that society.8 Have you come across game show which attempts to maximise the participant’s excitement even though he is being kicked out. I play Plants vs Zombies, the Survival panel and the rationale for playing is to score as many flags as possible killing zombies and the truth is, it is never satisfying because I keep wanting to get more and more flags. The same is with “Angry Birds”.  I will try to achieve 3 stars and when I cannot seem to get that for a particular panel, I inevitably end up in a mindless attempt to perfect the ballistic angle etc etc. In the end, I sin because it becomes a waste of time.9 It is not politically incorrect to speak of “hell” and that people can go there. Otherwise, heaven does not exist.10 Losing sight of the eternal we will be condemned to roam the desert of practicality.11 I have been a Jesuit for 26 years. In my brief work as campus minister and in the short years I have been a parish priest, I have dedicated my ministry to making people, especially the young understand not just the consequences of their actions (admittedly, we falter all the time) but also to become a real community of believers. The only way to save the word (not true in a sense because only Christ saves) is when we become a community of believers. It means we share the same faith and speak the same language and because we share the same faith and speak the same language, the possibility of common action becomes more a reality. The Jesuits think that they speak the same language but scratch the surface of two Jesuits and you will find two different philosophies which may be inherently incompatible with whatever common actions they participate in. In other words, common actions do not denote a shared understanding at all. What might be true is that the two Jesuits might be striving at cross-purposes even though they are both engaged in the common apostolate. This is not easy to hear. Why? Because we gloss over the question of truth of the competing philosophies believing that common actions are enough to unite us. In a sense, the Pope’s Regensburg speech got caught in the dumbing down fog of the Gospel of Nice. In bringing up the example of a violent character, he was not condemning but rather he was asking, “Is it true” that the religion espoused violence. The aftermath reaction may have proven the Pope’s point.12 Mahatma Gandhi is our most famous believer Christ who resolutely refused to be a Christian, for obvious reasons. We scandalise him by our behaviour. “I believe in Christ, I don’t believe in Christians”.13 Just like Odysseus’ chapter 9 where ill winds blew his ship off-course, landing upon an island of lotus-eaters. The men who have tasted the lotus flowers very soon forgot the purpose of their journey which was to get home.

Sunday, 23 September 2012

25th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B


From last week’s pinnacle of Peter’s sublime primacy, we now descend onto the prosaic plains of insignificance. The Gospel sets the tone for this lowly nothingness by challenging the premises we may have of what it means to be honoured. Honour as prescribed by Christ is set within the context of what it means to be a child of His time.
By and large, the developed world1 places children at once removed from the experience the biblical world had of them. Developed society has put children on pedestals, some would even venture, to the extent that sparing the rod, it may have also spoilt the child. We treat children, powerless as they are, like demigods because of a strain of reactionary mind-set that revolves around the notion of “future creativity”; an outlook which views childhood traumas as thwarting the future genius or creativity a child might have.2
Contrast this mind-set with the experience of a marginalised group of the Mediterranean triumvirate3: widows, orphans and the poor. Orphans denote children minus the parental or close-knit familial care. It was not because they were not loved but the fact remained that children counted for nothing. They had no standing in society. And a child’s nothingness became the context of Christ teaching His disciples and also us, the true meaning of honour.
Honour and shame are deeply engrained cultural values in some societies. Amongst the peoples of the oriental Far East, losing face expresses the loss of honour. In the Middle East, honour-killing4 requires that a person, usually a girl or a young woman, be killed to restore the social equilibrium of a family or society.
The squabble for honour amongst the Disciples took place in the context of Christ speaking about His impending betrayal, death and resurrection. A key word like betrayal probably sparked off the discussion on honour because death in a situation beyond one’s control would oblige one to die honourably. Here, it was ironical that He should enquire of the content of their discussion given that honour, being such an important cultural core value, would not have been a topic of quiet dialogue. They would have squabbled loudly about who should be most honoured next to Christ.
With that question about the content of their squabble, Christ pulled the carpet from under their feet. He need not have asked because He had already known. He went even further when He associated honour with hospitality given to a rejected member of society: a child. It is conceivable that we associate childhood with purity and innocence but knowing a child’s standing in the society Christ’s time, we appreciate how the Disciples were challenged radically to redefine their understanding of honour. For them, the challenge was not just humbling but also humiliating.
This brings us to the Second Reading which raises the associate issues of ambitions and desires. In the context of the Disciples, the question is, apart from cultural bias, what drives the desire to seek honour, so to speak, to fight for the first place? How are we to understand this predilection for honour?
According to a world religion, desire is the root of suffering and thus, life’s programme is to stamp out desire. Upon further reflexion, we realise that desire is not the issue because desire, in itself, does not lead to suffering. Without desire, the end may just be annihilation—or nihilism.5 In fact, desire is a function of our search for God. And our life’s purpose is to convert our desire, not to obliterate it, so that it may fulfil its natural or supernatural function: to arrive where God’s is6--“Where I am, there you will be also”.
So, the fact remains that as long as we breathe, we will always desire and if desire is innate and not negative, we are left with how we should channel this desire for honour honourably because the desire for standing amongst men remains a permanent drive. We get this everywhere. At the national level, how do we explain the styling of oneself as the First Lady when we already have a Queen? At level of parish, we encounter people who cling on to positions in councils or commissions. And, amongst the hierarchy, we instinctively cringe when we witness a prelate jostling to be seen in the company of the British royalty.
We want to be recognised. We desire to be honoured. No one is immune to the temptation of honour, not even Christ the Lord. The nature of His temptation, where Satan brings Him to the top of the mountain, reveals that our concept of honour is often associated with prestige and power but seldom with humility and service. Thus, the example of a child opens the Disciples and us to the possibility that we begin to view how honour comes not because we are prestigious nor powerful but that we embrace a life of humble servitude.
In conclusion, let us take a second look at the honour that the Disciples sought, the prestige that came with Peter’s primacy and even our personal desires for honour. Firstly, honour comes naturally with power and prestige; there is honour to be had when one is a Sovereign, or a president, or a Pope or a Prime Minister. By and large, many of us do not belong to this mile-high club. But even then, in the ordinary, honour is even attached to membership in a locally esteemed club. Police sometimes dares not stop a lawyer’s car because they recognise the Bar Council’s badge on the said car. Honour carries with it privileges as it paves the way and opens doors bringing us to the front of the banquet hall or it can land us at the front of the cabin. In other words, live with it. Secondly, it is too facile to blame it on “selfishness” because it prevents us from reflecting more deeply about the direction of our desires. The point of honour is not bringing us places or that we are selfish but rather what we can do so that we remain as always honourable. In other words, how can our desire be honourable? The esteem for honour is a moral7 esteem as we observe in Christ Himself. For Him, honour is found in humble servitude and sacrifice of His life so that others might live. Thus, it is better to live and love honourably than to be honoured for the prestige and power we might possess.
1 The developed world would largely mean the Western world. But, granted that the world is considered a globalised village, almost every country “belongs” to the developed world. The only problem with our “developed” status is that our mentality pretty much lags behind in the third world. We have so many trappings of modern civilisation without a corresponding social capacity to bear with the demands of modernity.2 In the west, it is possible to make a phone call and the Child Protection Services will be at your doorstep to take over your incapability to form your child according to your belief and standard.3 It is an ironical use of the word because in its original sense it refers to the rule of three men (triumvir) referring to the Roman experience of the leadership under Caesar, Crassus and Pompey.4 As the term suggests, honour killing is often thought of in terms of honour associated with a patriarchal structure of power. But imagine the sociological impact of war on an entire religion where almost all available men were co-opted into the arena for religious expansion. It could explain the phenomenon of men being allowed to marry four wives. It was a matter of civilizational survival because the continuance of a socio-religio-politico entity was dependent on procreation. Thus, honour killing may be an expression of a society’s need to control the power of reproduction. Women functioned as an integral part of the “men-making” machinery—in view of religious expansion.5 John Paul II, in Crossing the Threshold of Hope referred to Buddhism as having a “negative soteriology”. It was controversial to say the least. However, “negative” is a technical term in theology and spirituality which does not denote bad. It means that Buddhism has an understanding of salvation which emphasises negation, a form of detachment, and in this sense, it has much in common with Christianity. In Christian spirituality we speak of “inordinate attachment” and often sin arises from this lack of detachment. The divergence between Buddhism and Christianity comes with regard to the aim of detachment. For Christianity, detachment is not an end in itself but its achievement is in order that we enter into a deeper and personal union with God.6 Have you heard of “Looking for love in all the wrong places, looking for love in all the wrong faces”? St Augustine’s “O Lord, my heart is restless until it rests in you” expresses the same fundamental orientation of the human person to search for the Creator.7 We often think of “moral” as an expression of “personal” rectitude, a sense that one should be beyond reproach. But, moral has a sense far wider than just personal accountability.