Saturday, 3 November 2018

30th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B 2018

As they say, “The devil is in the detail. The more descriptive an episode is, the more important it is for us to take note. Today, we are given the name of the person healed by Jesus—Bartimaeus. The healing takes place within the final straight for Our Lord as He makes His way from Jericho to Jerusalem, the end of which is most certainly death.

Why is Bartimaeus important to us?

To understand him, we need to go backtrack a little. There are two episodes of blindness that frame this home stretch of Jesus’ life. Just after the revelation that He is the Messiah or the Christ, the first case of blindness presented itself. Jesus healing of the man born blind was done in stages. At first, the blind man saw thing indistinctly—people looked like walking trees—and only after placing His hands over the eye that the blind man began to see clearly. This healing process reflects the understanding of the Disciples. They have come to realise that Jesus is the Messiah but failed to recognise that His leadership involves the sacrifice of His life as a ransom for all. You remember last week, the two brothers aspired to the glory associated with kingship but they have not fully grasped the implication of drinking the chalice of Jesus’ sorrow. In contrast, as a response to faith, Bartimaeus’ healing was straightforward. However, unlike the rich young man’s hesitation, Bartimaeus cast aside his cloak, symbolic of his detachment, to follow Jesus. 

Blindness is definitely more than physical. For most of us, seeing is believing but in the case of Bartimaeus, believing is seeing who Jesus is. As the Little Prince said, ”And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye”. In fact, the Gospel readings in the last couple of weeks have all been lined up to help us appreciate the finer details of discipleship—details that are often invisible to the eye. How to be great? It is to be a servant or even to be a slave. How to be first? It is to be last. How to find ourselves? It is to lose ourselves. How to accumulate more? It is to give away more.

These are just some paradoxes that throws a spanner into our status quo. Everywhere we go, we are told that to be the best or to be at top of the pile, you require prestige, you flaunt your wealth or you need sex appeal. Like Bartimaeus, all these shout out at us, drowning our little voice that cries out to God for help.

Indeed, this road to conversion is long and takes time. It would be such a wonderful blessing if we can be like Bartimaeus that the more the world tries to bully us into succumbing to its snares—of lust, power and possession—the more we shout, like Bartimaeus, to God for assistance. But, I think many of us are more like the first man born blind. We can see but not clearly. We know of God but hardly do we know God. We follow Him but almost reluctantly and only to look out for the advantages that comes from following Him.
Whether we know it or not, many of us do buy into Peter’s idea that the Messiahship of Jesus is glory without the Cross. We think of God in terms of prosperity blessing. But, without the Cross it is impossible to understand who Jesus truly is and what it means to follow Him. It is akin spending with a credit card. The pain of payment comes later and even then we can further postpone the pain by transferring our credit balance to another bank. The point is this—we all want the glory without the sacrifice. Hence, just as the Disciples needed to see more clearly, we need to be converted to Calvary before we can reach the summit of the Resurrection.

Why is that hard to be Bartimaeus? One of the most difficult aspects of conversion to discipleship today is telling truth in an age of political correctness. It is with reasons that the current generation is labelled either as snowflake or strawberry—easily bruised and incapable of tough working conditions. They are raised in ways that give them an inflated sense of uniqueness and are therefore entitled. Whether we recognise it or not, the age of entitlement when wrapped with the cloak of victimhood, makes for a lethal combination to faith and its response in discipleship. Now, ever since Adam blamed Eve, society has always needed a safety valve of blame to deal with its imperfection, caused by sin, no doubt. The safety valve is found through blaming and the most convenient targets are those considered less than normal the less than normal—the lame, the blind, the weak or anyone who is abnormal—they are convenient scapegoats for society’s ills. Blame them when things go awry. We do it all the time. There are lot of break-ins in our housing estate. Must be the Indonesians or Banglas.

Christianity changed that when Jesus Himself became the Victim, the one who took upon Himself the sins of the world. His acceptance of the poor, the widow and the orphans drew them into the circle of normal. However, what has happened is that it has become fashionable to be a victim but not for altruistic or noble reasons. Instead, victimhood is worn as a badge of honour that has allowed the victim to victimise other. How? When you have difficulties dealing with a multinational, one of the most effective weapons in your hands is to publish publicly your experience and blame it on any one of “isms”, racism or the racist policies of the multinational and that will often shame the entity to retreat and concession.

The problem with this kind of victimhood is, if something were to go wrong, it is no longer the Cross that we have to bear but rather, someone is to be blamed. Why is God like that? How come I have to suffer? Or blame the parents. I am a killer because my parents did not hug me enough. Furthermore, this ignoble kind of victimhood makes for discomfort if one does not recognise, sympathise, tolerate and finally embrace the cause of solving the victim’s problems. One will be accused of heartlessness. Suckers that we are, we fall easily for the victim underdog. Just look at how Najib is now presented by his daughter, as a man wronged by an ungrateful country. The nation is made to feel guilty for its ingratitude. No one likes to be accused of being ungrateful and definitely, with him being a victim, that is bound to tug a few heart-strings. Poor thing. How can?
I have no beef with Najib but what implication will this debilitating form of victimhood have for discipleship? If we are perpetual victims, always wronged and unjustly treated, what does it mean to follow Christ? All we need is a little suffering and we cave into self-pity. Why? We have been victimised.

Christians are not that kind of self-pitying victims, even though we might be victimised, persecuted, done to or even killed. Instead, the Catholic Mass is locus where, when we offer up the Victim, the only perfect sacrifice acceptable to the Father, each one of us, unite our suffering with Him. His Cross is the only one that makes sense in this world damaged by sin. The Cross makes our sacrifices worthwhile and gives meaning to our discipleship. When Christ redeemed us through His sacrifice on the Cross, He did not come to banish pain and suffering but He transformed them into motives of virtues and occasions of merit so that if we suffer with Him, we shall also reign with Him. The Cross makes it possible to follow Him, like Bartimaeus and later the Eleven, through thick and thin, even when we pay with our lives. As Maximillian Kolbe reminds us, “Let us remember that love lives through sacrifice and is nourished by giving. Without sacrifice there is no love”. Without the Cross, we may languish in victimhood and will be no more than just fair-weathered disciples.

29th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B 2018

Apart from hormonal imbalance, why do you think some of us are getting rounder? Or that obesity is increasingly considered a major health issue? One of the reasons could be that the labour expended is inversely proportionate to our food intake. We eat more than what is needed for work. In other words, instead of eating to live, our philosophy, if food blogging were an indication, is living to eat.

There is nothing wrong with enjoying food because consumption belongs to the triple pursuit of happiness. We are socialised into believing that a person’s well-being is heightened by pleasure, accentuated by possession and increased by power. We are all hard-wired to choose behaviours that will increase the secretion of dopamine—the feel good hormone that the more we have of it, the more we crave. When we call someone greedy, it sounds like a dirty word but a person is greedy only because he is seeking more than the usual quota of pleasure that comes from consumption or the accumulation of wealth or the possession of the agency to control people and things. When one is able to control others, there is always a sense of triumph and achievement.

In his Gospel, Mark was rather unflattering in his reporting. In contrast, Matthew would have the mother making the request, placing the “guilt” on the mother. Whereas Mark has the two brothers shamelessly asking the Lord. The others were indignant on account of these two’s brazenness, but one should appreciate the depth of their intuition. Jesus was not the kind of King all decked up in fineries. At His crucifixion, He had only the tunic He wore and here were two brother who seemed to see beyond the physical that they were speaking to Someone more than the ordinary. In a way, they were pretty clued-in in their search for happiness and were not merely greedy for power. Still, sadly though, they equated happiness with greater power.

This happiness we seek is over-rated. Where we have come to believe that happiness is the only measure of our well-being, Jesus turned that upside down. He challenged the two brother, “Really, you think that great power is the answer to life’s happiness? Let me tell you that to serve rather than be served is a surer guarantee of true happiness”.

The path to joy and true happiness is radically counter-intuitive and can be gleaned from the three temptations that Jesus went through. He was tempted to pleasure by turning stones into bread, tempted to possession by the worship of a false god and tempted to power by putting God to the test. Therefore, when a religious priest, brother or sister embraces the three evangelical counsels of chastity, poverty and obedience, he or she does it because the vows are antidotes to the disordered desires for pleasure, possession and power. Chastity stands against a culture that is hedonistic in its pursuit of pleasure by insisting on the principle that pleasure serves a purpose and not otherwise. Our purpose in life is not the fulfilment of pleasures we seek but rather that our pleasure must serve a purpose that is beyond this world. Poverty voluntarily chooses a life of simplicity and detachment contrary to a life of crass accumulation and avaricious possession. Finally, obedience subjugates pride and transforms power into a life service and a willingness to accept suffering even to the point of paying with one’s life. The power of Jesus is shown through His suffering on behalf of and as a ransom for us, poor sinners.

Today is Mission Sunday. Why do we celebrate it? It is one Sunday in a year the Church as a whole comes together in support of mission. We tend to forget that the Church by nature is missionary. Thus, she has a duty to proclaim Christ to the world. However, we inhabit a world aptly described by a French novelist, Gustave Flaubert as “There is no Truth, there is only perception”.  But, we know better because Jesus Himself assured us that He is the Way, the Truth and the Life. Hence, if we are to be faithful to Christ, our mission is to preach beyond the choir; mission is not limited ad intra because ad extra—a world out there is waiting for the grace of the Gospel.

But who is to bring the Jesus the Truth to them? When James and John jostled for the positions of power, Jesus promised them not exaltation but the certainty of suffering. The missionary endeavour of the Church is steeped in soil saturated with the blood of martyrs who have laid down their live for Jesus Christ and His Church. I have just come back from the Camino Santiago—the same Saint James who asked to sit next to Jesus is also the one who laid down his life for Christ. But, what is at the top of most our minds is probably an unspoken assumption that the mission ad gentes has to do with numbers, that is, mission’s purpose is to increase the size of the Church. The true motivation of our missionary activity is not size but rather to share the joy of knowing Jesus Christ. Sometimes that may end with the shedding of blood.

But, we are afraid of losing our lives and in a country as diverse as this, we naturally favour dialogue because it appears to be an easier option. However, inter-religious dialogue is no substitute for mission. It would be foolish to think that in the interest of harmony coupled with the fear of upsetting people, we should tone down what we consider to be true because faith to be credible must be founded on truth. Otherwise, why believe? The faculty of believing is such that it believes in the truth (even if what it believes in is false). Journalists are supposedly witnesses to truth because they are always on a mission to uncover the truth for without truth, everything becomes uncertain. And, sanity does not fare well in uncertainty. Our stock-market is the best exemplar of this human fear of uncertainty. As soon as there is ambiguity, the market turns jittery. But, if there is truth, it is also of human nature to shout it out. Have you ever heard of a researcher who after a scientific discovery keeps quiet about it? No, in fact, he will do his very best to make sure that the world knows of his discovery.

Believing is always of the Truth and the Truth must make itself known. This is why the Church is missionary by nature. As Benedict XVI said, “Some religions, particularly ‘tribal religions’ are waiting for the encounter with Jesus Christ but the encounter is always reciprocal. Christ is also waiting for their history, their wisdom, their vision of the things. We proclaim Jesus Christ not to procure as many members as possible for our community, and still less in order to gain power. We speak of Him because we feel the duty to transmit that joy which has been given to us." In that case, Pope Francis was right. His first encyclical was called “Evangelium gaudium”—the Joy of the Gospel. St Teresa used to pray, “Lord, save us from dour-looking saints” and so, our first step to credibility is to make sure that we walk out into the world radiating the joy that comes from believing in Jesus Christ. It does not mean that when we believe, everything will be fine—everything will be hunky dory as they say but that in spite of everything that afflicts us, nothing can take away the certainty and joy we have that Jesus is the only Way, the Truth and the Life.

Tuesday, 4 September 2018

20th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B 2018

The theme for this Sunday’s Mass is the Eucharist as the Bread of Life. In saying so, we might have missed out a component without which the Eucharist can never be the Bread of Eternal Life. This is not Good Shepherd Sunday but it might as well be because the Gospel appears to lend itself to thinking about the priesthood and vocation. In general, this is a vocation losing its appeal as the priesthood is held up in contempt simply because of the sins of some us. 

If this can be described as re-branding, I assure you it is not. It is, if at all, to re-vision what it means to be a priest, why it is necessary that we have the priesthood and what goes into the priesthood of Jesus Christ.

As Church, we cannot run away from what is happening in the world because the Church and the world do not inhabit different spaces but are in fact sharing the same space. What we find in the world and perhaps detest, we find it in the Church as well. How many of you follow the Britain’s Got Talent franchise? America’s Got TalentIndia’s Got TalentAsia’s Got Talent. Hell, even Tg Pengerang’s Got Talent. Under a diversity and non-discriminatory narrative, there is a strong belief that such talent hunting is truly an exercise of democratic equalisation? Under the rule of the common, it is believed that everyone can be talented, or have access to showcase it. If you watched Ratatouille, you would know that everyone can cook. Talent scouting has uncovered some hitherto hidden talents—Susan Boyle for example? But behind this noble quest hides an insatiable chase for celebrity status. Celebrity is, as Hugh Jackman sings in the Greatest Showman, “... for years and years, I chased their cheers, the crazy speed of always needing more...”  And the step-sister of celebrity status is the personality cult. In a rugged-identity era, what are these but the search for individuality. Is the cult of personality not a reason for our fascination with the talents of our priests? Father X can sing like Josh Groban. Father Y can cook and curse like Gordon Ramsay. Fr Z can dance like Michael Jackson.

We want our priests to have pizzaz... holy pizzaz, hopefully. But what was a genius of the Tridentine Mass, the missa ad orientem, a Mass disparagingly described as priest with his backside to the people? Firstly, the missa versus populus which has been described to be more people-friendly has the disrespectful corollary in that it is 100% all right for the priest to show his backside to God. If it is not alright to show my backside to you, it is definitely alright to show it to God? Secondly, the priest weighed down by the heavy vestments finds his so-called personality in a manner of speaking shrouded in order than the faithful may perceive that truly Jesus Christ is present in the alter Christus and the only duty worth the priest’s salt is to do the one thing which Christ depends on him to and no one in the congregation can do—confect the Blessed Sacrament. No one in the crowd unless one is a priest. The bulkiness of the vestments is not because we like flowing robes. It is so that the personality of the priest might disappear under the vestments in order that Christ may become visible—He must increase, I must decrease.

Is that important? Through the fallible instrument of the priest, Christ gives us Himself so that we may avail of His strength to continue the work of salvation. St Paul in the 2nd Reading speaks of changing the world. Be the change you want the world to be. Redeem the world and in order that the work of redemption started by Christ can continue, we need the Eucharist and this mission cannot be done without the Catholic priesthood. 

Hence, either God is stupid or we are missing the bigger picture. The bigger picture is how can Jesus insist on the necessity of the Eucharist if He cannot find a way to provide it? If there are no vocations, it is not because God has stopped calling. We may have stopped listening.

The priesthood is not a club of the meritorious. It is not a reward of those who are saved. In the early 70s, the Society of Jesus asked this question “Who is a Jesuit”? The answer given was “A Jesuit is a sinner, yet called by God”. A Jesuit is a sinner because many a Jesuit come from broken families and chances are, people who are from broken families can be manipulative or sick. Is it any surprise that those who hold our trust fall prey to sin? Yes, one should expect that those who are in charge of the kitty do not steal. But Judas did and there have been Judases all through the centuries. In the same manner, we do not pick our priests from the tree of purity. A priest is definitely not your saviour, only Jesus is. But, despite the priest being a sinner, he stands alter Christus, as another Christ, so that ex opere operato, he can confect the Eucharist. 

Does the priesthood then need purification? Yes, it does. But so does society at large. If you want good priests, widen and deepen the pool of good families. But, for now, we need to understand that without the priesthood, there is no Eucharist, without the Eucharist, there is no Church. Without the Church, there is no salvation. That is ex opere operato.

A little clarification is needed. There is no guarantee that good family equates to good priests. The general rule we follow is that a good tree produces good fruits. Thus, the portraits of many of our priest are also testimonies of God’s grace. He takes the weak and make them strong to bear witness to Him.

Nevertheless, judging from sad state we are in, the Devil is laughing all the way down in hell because the destruction of the priesthood falls within his nefarious plans against God and humanity. Whilst there should be vigilance against clerical abuse—of all kinds—financial, sexual and even liturgical, we must be on guard not to sin against the priesthood. Not in the sense that priests should be put up for adulation, but rather in the sense that we must not lose faith in the necessity of the priesthood for the salvation of souls.

The best priest is not one who can cook or sing or dance or even do “great things”. The best priest is one who knows how to provide the sacraments when needed—especially the forgiveness of sins and the confection of the Eucharist. He is at his best when performing these actions because his priestly anointing sets him apart for this sublime duty—to make Christ present through the sacraments, especially through the Sacrament of sacraments—the Eucharist. For after all is said and done, when all scandals are exposed as they should be, when every wound is healed but the end result is that the laity has lost faith in the priesthood of Christ, the question to ask is, what is to become of the Body of Christ? I ask this question not to stifle whatever that needs to be done. (This might have been the same question asked by those who covered up the abuses, which explained the culture of silence). 

I ask it because in seeking to reform the culture associated with our priesthood, we need to recognise that priests are not plucked from the tree of perfect families. It calls for a conversion of the whole culture that provides for vocation. For example, the more divorces we have, chances are the more broken the priesthood will be. Ex opere operato, we will get the Eucharist even though it is celebrated by the most sinful priest because the priest is merely an instrument and it is Jesus Christ Himself who guarantees the “reality” of the sacrament. But ex opere operantis, we will have a credibility deficit—whereby faith is challenged not so much by the message but rather by the medium, that is, the Eucharist may be real but the priest who confects it makes it hard for people to believe that Christ can be present at all. In short, without a reform of family life and our culture, we will have shot ourselves in the foot!

The Church needs more holy priests. It must begin with holy families.

Tuesday, 21 August 2018

Assumption of Mary 2018

What is so important about the Assumption of Mary? What significance is there to this celebration?

Mary is both our strength and in an ignorant world, she is perceived to be our weakness. Before you conclude that I have committed a grave sin, let me clarify. Firstly, she definitely is our strength because of she is the Mother of God. Secondly, she is perceived to be our weakness because some ignorant Protestants believe that we worship her. The fact that this so-called dogma was proclaimed in 1950 might just lend itself to this perception. One cannot be further from truth when one holds this position.

Catholics hold her to be their strength, as mentioned earlier, not only because she is the Mother of God but because of who we are. Why? In a perfect paradise, in our prelapsarian innocence, humanity would be endowed with the preternatural gifts of integrity meaning that both our body and soul were united. But in our postlapsarian perdition, in our fallen state, there arose the discrepancy which St Paul so aptly described to the Romans, “For I do not do the good that I want to do. But the evil that I hate is what I do”.

This is our present state: We all struggle. But, somehow, in a self-help, positive-thinking, self-made environment, we seemed have banished the word “struggle” from our spiritual vocabulary. After all, like the Bionic Man, we can, if we think positively, help or reinvent ourselves. A line from the Salve Regina draws us back to our mundane morass—ad te suspiramus, gementes et flentes in hac lacrimarum valle—To thee do we send forth our sighs, mourning and weeping in this vale of tears.

Now, the two major Marian celebrations are in a sense holistic or integral in the treatment of the human person. In the Immaculate Conception, the feast touches on the human soul whereas today, the Assumption addresses the body that we have.

There is a war within us, a battle between good and evil which is waged daily in this lacrimarum valle. We like to think of ourselves as disciples but when we speak of discipleship, what is implied is discipline. In order to excel in a specialty or branch of knowledge, discipline is what we most need but it is also the least that we want. Ask any PhD candidate about what it means to write a thesis. Distraction, laziness and procrastination—all these are indications of a lack of discipline. But, it runs on logic that nobody likes “punishment” unless he is a masochist, that is, someone who enjoys punishment. True? And yet, when we want a beautiful body, it takes a lot of discipline and the funny thing is some are willing to pay that price for a perfect body to die in, but to follow the Lord closely it is another ball game altogether.

You see that the aim of the Assumption is not to promote a healthy body per se but to remind us that the body is part and parcel of the work of salvation brought about by Christ. When we die, even though the body may suffer corruption, at the Resurrection, our bodies will be reunited with our soul. Therein, the Catholic prohibition of scattering one’s ashes/“cremains” as if one were a free-spirited soul.

Two prefaces can be placed side by side. The Assumption and the Ascension. Part of the Assumption’s Preface reads like this:

For today the Virgin Mother of God
was assumed into heaven
as the beginning and image
of your Church’s coming to perfection
and a sign of sure hope and comfort to your pilgrim people.
This imagery draws its inspiration from the Preface of the Ascension which sounds goes like this: 

For the Lord Jesus, the King of glory,
conqueror of sin and death,
ascended to the highest heavens, ...
... he ascended, not to distance himself from our lowly state
but that we, his members, might be confident of following
where he, our Head and Founder, has gone before.

The discipline we endure in this life is in order that we may follow our Head and Founder and Mary being the foremost of Christ’s disciples is assumed into heaven because she alone is the one perfect dedication—body and soul—to her Lord and Saviour. There, she, who is everything like us except by the grace of God preserved from sin, becomes the beacon for those of us who are struggling in this valley of tears, hoping one day to follow. As a fellow pilgrim, this Mother of ours is certainly the most powerful advocate and also the greatest help we can ever have in our journey. As Lumen gentium gently reminds: Mary is now in a position to exercise fully her "motherhood in the order of grace," without interruption until the eternal fulfilment of all the elect (LG 62).

Finally, these days, people have been lamenting about the unusually warm weather that has resulted in many illnesses. If you feel that the heat is intolerable and your sickness uncomfortable, Assumption is truly a great reminder. Why? Hell or eternal damnation is not even an iota close to a trillion times worse. In fact, whatever we suffer now will be infinitely and infernally multiplied in hell. Hence, Assumption serves as a reminder to desire that which is boundlessly pleasing and joyful. Therefore, to Mary who is in heaven, we entrust the care of our souls and ask that despite our weaknesses, she never gives up on succouring us so that one day, bruised or battered, we may knock on heaven’s door and there, our Lord will open it for us and welcome us into the Kingdom which He has won by His life, death and resurrection.

19th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B 2018

Last week, I spoke of a vague rejection of the Resurrection. Here is another example of how unwittingly we do it. Since we live so close to our neighbour down south, some of us might tune in to their radio stations. [For me, it’s Class 95]. One of the things which they are trying to raise awareness of is pre-diabetes and we are told that it a condition which is reversible. The attempt to prevent the onslaught of this condition—Alzheimers/Parkinsons or that disease—cancer/AIDS is similar to what takes place at funerals—that is, we like to assign a cause for one’s death. "His son died from a car accident" or "her mother died from cancer". "Their father died from second-hand smoke of their chain-smoking mother". The fact is, with or without a condition or disease, everyone will die sooner or later. No matter how much we try to prevent it, death ultimately will claim us.

This week, our topic continues along the line of food and eating. It is ironical that we want to stave off death, that is, in yearning for earthly immortality, we are eating ourselves to death. The curse of a developed and developing nation is an insatiable appetite to eat and not just that, to eat more than we should. It is conceivable that our taste-buds have become jaded from over eating, hence our foods have to be super-flavourful—added sugar, added fat, added herb and spices, added salt and on top of that everything is supersized.
Today, in the interest of living longer and healthier but not in an effort to avoid death or an expression of a disbelief in the Resurrection, the first reading might just teach us how to avoid diabetes.

Elijah is on the run. He had managed to dis the prophets of Baal and Queen Jezebel was hounding him. To have done good and be punished for it, even the stoutest amongst us may just give in to discouragement and depression. He sits under a furze or gorse bush desiring to die. But the angel, woke up and told him to eat. Perhaps you realise why many of us are predisposed to pre-diabetes. We do not need angels to remind us that food can lift us out of our depression. Carbohydrates work wonders as a comfort food. But, instead of eating for strength, food has become the drug of the depressed.

In that case, how to avoid diabetes?

The French have two words which might help us make a transition—from comfort food to food for the journey. They are gourmand and gourmet. Both words are related to food. The former describes a person who is excessively fond of eating and drinking whereas the latter describes one who is a connoisseur of good food and drink. In other words, a gourmet is one who cultivates a discriminating palate whilst enjoying the finer things in life. Like Remy the rat in Ratatouille. All this relatives and friends are gourmands because they go for quantity unlike Remy who says that his mouth is made for better things. 

Now, just because one likes the finer things in life, they do not automatically elevate a person to the status of a gourmet. Najib and his wife (if Shafie were here, he would assert that Najib is being publicly tried in a homily) could be fine illustrations of how one can appreciate the finer things in life and yet be gourmands. Many may not see it this way but like over-eating, one can also accumulate to death.

Today Jesus continues to invite his Jewish listeners to a discerning recognition for what is truly the food for heaven. Sadly, their response was biblically predictable. How? Like their ancestors, they started murmuring—a reaction which betrays not an absence of refinement but rather of a lack of trust.

Why would Jesus want to introduce the people to this fine form of food? St Thomas in the commentary on Book IV of the Sentences gives us the perfect clue. He says, “Material food first changes into the one who eats it, and then, as a consequence, restores to him lost strength and increases his vitality. Spiritual food, on the other hand, changes the person who eats it into itself. Thus the effect proper to this Sacrament is the conversion of a man into Christ, so that he may no longer live, but Christ lives in him; consequently, it has the double effect of restoring the spiritual strength he had lost by his sins and defects, and of increasing the strength of his virtues”. St. Thomas, Commentary on Book IV of the Sentences, d. 12, q. 2, a. 11.

In short, we become what we eat. Stand next to a man who consumes all the floating bulbs of garlic in your pot of Bak Kut Teh and the following morning you will be standing next to a garlic garden. They say that food is cheap in the USA—usually the bad ones are—and thus you have lots of obese people because they resemble the greasy burgers and fries they consume.

The Jews certainly did not understand that the food that Jesus gives was for an eternal purpose. We eat so that we can become whom we have eaten. We eat the Body of Christ so that we can truly transform into the Body of Christ. I like Corpus Christi but it can be a harrowing experience for us living in a country unaccustomed to the deep symbolism of the procession. It definitely is an inconvenience to those who do not believe as we jam up the road and block traffic. Only that, we look ridiculous at best and idolatrous at worst. But, therein a most sublime symbolism—the Body of Christ, the Church, carrying the real Body of Christ. We want to become Him who became one of us.

St Paul in the 2nd Reading in detailing how members of a community should behave with each other is actually describing what sort of relationships that should exist within the Body of Christ. Within that community, members find their relationships enriched because of their conversion in Jesus Christ. To be more like Jesus, we need to consume Him more. But never in the gourmand sense that one receives communion in as many Masses they are in town.

In summary, our appreciation of the finer things in life begins with an acknowledgement that the Eucharist is tied up with the Resurrection for the Resurrection would be meaningless without and vice versa. The less we believe in the Resurrection, the less will we honour the Blessed Sacrament. But, the Resurrection is not a far off event somewhere beyond the pale. Instead, the belief in it begins now in the concrete—in the who we are and how we behave—as the Body of Christ, but it does not end here and for that, we need the Bread of Life to accompany us as the Viaticum, giving us strength, slowly, surely, changing us so that what we have begun here, will culminate in the eternity we wish to spend in His presence. St Ignatius of Antioch may have called the Eucharist the medicine of immortality and antidote of death—and so for us, to paraphrase Buzz Lightyear, the Eucharist is the real and only food we need for this long journey to infinity and beyond.

Sunday, 5 August 2018

18th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B 2018

If you noticed, we are still lingering on after last week’s miracle of 5 loaves and 2 fish, in what is also known as the Bread of Life Discourse. And, today is also not the end of the story as the entire Chapter 6 of John’s Gospel is liturgically stretched to cover 6 Sundays and we are just in the second one of them.

It is appropriately named as the Bread of Life Discourse because food is closely associated with living, as water and air are. Perhaps this Sunday we can focus on life and the art of living and the relevance the Eucharist has to the endeavour.

There is a song, if you have a chance, Google it and have a listen. There are different ways of interpreting this song by OneRepublic—I Lived. The context of the lyrics is about living with cystic fibrosis, whereby the victim may eventually end up with lungs so damaged that they cannot breathe unaided without a ventilator. Like food, without air, one cannot live.

What has this song to do with today’s Gospel? If you listen to the lyrics it sounds positive because it advocates a form of living which maximises what we have. For example, you may have heard that it is not the number of years in your life which is important but rather the life you give to the years that you have. “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”.

From a certain angle, this definitely encourages people to appreciate life and to live it to the fullest. But there may be an unintended consequence of this philosophy considering that we share a common cosmology. What cosmology am I referring to? Wittingly or unwittingly, we appear to have embraced an outlook in life which vaguely excludes the Resurrection. If you still yourself enough, you might just catch a glimpse of how prevalent this cosmology is.

In the name of health or well-being or comfort, can you count the number of devices invented or supplements created for these purposes? The number of people sporting Fitbits for their 10000 steps is a good example. Or, do you know of anyone who wears those magnetic bracelets or pendant that have been “discovered” scientifically to promote good health? Let me clarify that I am not against good health. We hear it said that health is indeed wealth because a person reasonably needs to be in good health to enjoy life. What is the point of accumulating wealth and riches only to “donate” to the hospitals? But there is a subtlety in this narcissistic age which overly focuses on therapy as the solution to all life’s problems. It is as if we are all in need of healing to be made whole.

But, take a moment to step back and ask this question: What does it really mean to be made whole, to enjoy life or to have a good life?

The people who got into the boat definitely thought that they had stumbled upon the elixir of life in the sense that they have found a permanent source of life, for food is life. Why not? This miracle worker would have taken the concern for sustenance off the menu. No need to worry and one can live rather comfortably. But, Jesus introduced them to the idea of food not only for this life, but rather indicated to them that there is a more fundamental search for the food that promises eternal life.

Life is addictive. Even if one’s life is boring, the truth is, nobody wants to die. Even those who commit suicide, you might think that they do not want to live. But, actually they do because they are protesting that there could be a better alternative to the life that they presently have. So, setting death aside, our main fear is that of a mundane and seemingly meaningless life. A fact which advertisers harp on to increase sales of whatever products they are peddling. 

Buy this and your life will be complete. Eat this and you will live longer. Our Guardian—half of the things there are for your face and the other half is to make sure you live forever. Go to the auto-shop and you will be drilled that if you were to drive this particular make, your adrenaline will surge. Live here in this locality and all the amenities available there fulfil you. Or like a fat lady once tried to show us, “Own this many Hermès Birkin bags and you would have arrived at the pinnacle of power”.

In summary, our search for life or the fullness of life is misdirected even if we embrace the positive message of OneRepublic’s I Lived, that is, attempting to squeeze as much life as possible out of every second.[1] The failure of our self-absorbed generation is to recognise that our hunger for physical food mirrors the human search for supernatural sustenance. Jesus in today’s Gospel is preparing the crowd for the answer to this sublime quest that He alone and nothing else is the nourishment needed for our spiritual salvation. Life and the art of living well are not tied up to the length or duration of life but rather to Him. It may begin with an appreciation of the physical world we inhabit, that is, we start with food, enough of it and healthy eating/living but it does not just end there. Life and the art of living well find its fulfilment in the everlasting, that is, to live forever, one draws immortality from Him who is none other than the Bread of eternal life.

[1] Therein also hides an unquestioned rejection of the Resurrection. What about those who do not have the wherewithal to squeeze life out of every second? Are their lives considered failures? The promise of the Resurrection is also an assurance that death is not a permanent closure to the chapter of one’s life, that whatever failure we encounter in this life can find its redemption in the next life to come.

Monday, 15 January 2018

Epiphany 2018

We have just finished Christmas and with that we settled the question of how many Masses to attend that would fulfil both the 4th Sunday of Advent and the Christmas duty. Are we not relieved and grateful that 6th Jan is not a day of obligation, for otherwise we would have to attend Mass yesterday and today? Canon 1246§1 lists Epiphany one of 10 holy days of obligation but, thankfully, in a nod to convenience, the Apostolic See has allowed quite a few to be transferred to a Sunday which is what we have done—killing two birds with one stone.[1]

Epiphany is a solemnity of revelation. What we call an epiphany, the Eastern Churches would term as a theophany. The difference between them is that the Epiphany is generic as it denotes a revelation from above whereas the Theophany is more specific as it focuses on the revelation from God. The 6th of January was the “Christmas” of the early Christians especially of the Church in the East because the date commemorates for them, the Nativity of the Lord, the Visitation of the Magi, the Baptism of Christ[2] and the Wedding at Cana. Only at the Council of Tours did Christmas get separated from Epiphany and much later, the rest—Baptism and Wedding at Cana got their own celebrations leaving the 6th of January primarily centred on the Visitation of the Magi.

The Gentiles have come searching for the new-born Child. What do they hope to accomplish and what can we learn from them? One observation is that the Epiphany is not a celebration of diversity even though the appearance of the multi-hued Magi seems to suggest that diversity has indeed arrived. 

What is it then, if it is not a “feast of diversity”?

To better appreciate the Epiphany, it might be profitable to survey the myths surrounding diversity. In campuses of some “enlightened” societies, political correctness, gender wars and nihilism have taken roots in the name of diversity. Coupled with this notion, a trigger word we ought to embrace is tolerance.

In a context of multi-culturalism and multi-religiosity, is that not an important concept to embrace? In our country, we definitely know what it means when people are intolerant. If diversity, which expresses the richness of God’s creation, is a given, how do we live in harmony? How do we behave in a manner which is human, in other words, how can we be moral beings?

Firstly, in the quest for social cohesion, which is a moral endeavour, there is a prevailing mistaken belief that man is inherently good. And through reason, he can be persuaded to be good. As such, there is a temptation to banish religions understood to be the cause of many a strife. The notion of progress appears to exclude religion in its march and many developed countries have somewhat banished it, have they not? The result is pretty simple. Religion is, at best considered as superstition, and at worst believed to be emotional intolerance, is therefore incapable of leading us to reasoned truth. If religious truth is banished, because religion is defective, then the rise of relativism and indifferentism is inevitable as we shall see later.

Secondly, the idea of “toleration” actually came about through the experiences of the “confessional” states. England and France are two such examples with England being Anglican and France being Catholic. As these societies progressed, the civil authorities began to tolerate the minorities who do not profess the state’s creed. Taking the confessional states’ experiences, what does tolerate amount to? It means that we put up with those who do not really conform to what we accept to be true. Therefore, when we “tolerate”, we are primarily stating that we hold on to what we accept to be true, but we can also live with those who are in error. This sense of “tolerance” still bears with it a recognition that there is objective truth.

However, you can detect the fledgling bud of indifferentism and relativism once tolerance is no longer anchored to the truth. If you dwell on this, is that not why diversity and acceptance can flourish? However, indiscriminate diversity, tolerance and acceptance do not hold water because somewhere along the way, one has to draw a line between what conduct is acceptable and what might is considered insanity or a crime. If we were to hold on to the principle of tolerance and stretch it to its logical conclusion, parading Kevin Spacey and Harvey Weinstein before you, would have totally disabuse you of the notion that tolerance is a virtue we should embrace. Once again, you can already discern the outline of truth here.

The despotism of uncritical tolerance means we must give in to the reigning fads. It has been used as a bullying tool against those who do not subscribe to the majority’s view. How? Even if you have not watched “The Greatest Showman”, you will understand what I am trying to say. In the musical based on the life of PT Barnum, there is a bearded woman and she sings an ode to the current fad: “This is me”. Into the mix, there is a message which stands against bullying but in totality, it is a declaration that the world ought to accept her as she is. We should stand against bullying but again, when this notion of acceptance is pushed to its logical conclusion, it becomes a problematic. If a man declares himself a murderer and that is who he thinks he is, should the world not accept him as he is?

To accept what is different gives an impression of noble tolerance. And, in this world of tolerance, dogmatism (which is another word for judgemental people) should be banished in the name of diversity. However, in the name of diversity, do I have the right to be bad? You might be thinking, “Of course not. How stupid can you be”? Yet, do you realise that people cannot smoke where they want to. I do not smoke and yet I know how smokers feel. And how come I cannot eat sharks’ fin in the name of tolerance and diversity? In other words, for some people, it is alright to be different but not for others. Where is the logic there?

Shakespeare’s Hamlet in his famous soliloquy asked “To be or not to be?” which in the context of tolerance today is a wrong question. To be tolerant or not is not an issue. The big fat elephant in the room, and I do not mean Fr Michael, is “What shall I tolerate?”. And this is no longer a question of morality but rather a question of might. Who has the stronger power will decide what is to be accepted in the name of diversity. Our conundrum is that we recognise that lines need to be drawn, the problem is who should draw them or where should they be drawn. The way things are, it is those who wield power, and the prophetic stand is to hold on to the truth and not allowed oneself to be cowed by the tyranny of “absolute” diversity, tolerance and acceptance.

Coming back to the mistaken myth that we are inherently good, the desire to be good even though it is a godly desire, is not good enough. At the heart of understanding who we are, stands also the question of how we should be and that takes us into the moral realm. Thus, the Wise Men came searching, not for an object, not even for a priceless treasure but for Him so their morality, that is, how to be human, might be given a firm standing. Perhaps we should take a leaf from them.

Diversity, tolerance or acceptance are never ideals absolute in themselves. Whilst they may help us in the social project of building peaceful societies, they must be founded on truths which are eternal. According to Pope Leo LXIII, “The things of earth cannot be understood or valued aright without taking into consideration the life to come, the life that will know no death. Exclude the idea of futurity, and forthwith the very notion of what is good and right would perish; nay, the whole scheme of the universe would become a dark and unfathomable mystery”.

We all yearn for an Elysium—a world without injustice whereby all that is imperfect is wiped off. Sadly, this longing has been shakily premised on the seducing quicksand of acceptance, tolerance and diversity as if these “virtues” once embraced will unfold a world without strife and pain. The reality is unqualified acceptance, tolerance or diversity leads to the chaos of darkness—a darkness which is emboldened by both power and money. He who has more of these will speak a greater “truth”

In conclusion, Epiphany is not a politically correct celebration of diversity, acceptance and tolerance. Rather it symbolises an anthropological quest—man’s search for who he is and who he is supposed to be.[3] It may have started from where he is but it does not end there. Epiphany represents Man’s search for the Divine and that this search is not putative but rather graceful and fruitful. The anthropological quest for God has found an answer in Jesus Christ. He is the light that shines on us so that we may know who God is and who we truly are. To be who he really is, man needs more than acceptance, tolerance and diversity.[4] In other words, Epiphany represents Man’s perennial hunger for light of truth to shine upon his path so that he can be what God has created him to be—a creature graced by truth, beauty and goodness.

[1] If we state that the Eucharist is the “source and summit” of the Christian life, does it make sense that the Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ, a holy day of obligation traditionally celebrated on a Thursday, two months after Holy Thursday (which is also the Thursday after Trinity Sunday) be transferred to a Sunday (even though Sunday is also a feast of the Eucharist) except that it too has suffered the sweeping aside by the tide of convenience!
[2] The sprinkling of Holy Water earlier in the liturgy, in place of the Penitential Rite, is perhaps a leftover from this past where the Baptism is lumped in together with the other theophanies.
[3]Tolerance, acceptance and diversity may be moral categories but must be informed by a anthropological vision that is eternal.
[4] If nobody accepts you, does it mean you are a nobody? In fact, even if nobody accepts you for what you are, the only Person who accepts you is God for you have been made in the image and likeness of His Son. However, God’s acceptance does not mean permissiveness—God’s acceptance is absolute ontologically but not morally because man is imbued with the freedom to accept or reject Him.  For example, a murderer. God accepts him as a created being (ontologically) with all the defects that come with sin but the life grace (morally) draws him to a higher plane. As Saint Augustine says, “The God who created us without our consent cannot save us without our consent”. That means in the realm of morality, we are free to reject Him. Sadly, our idea of acceptance is like an “in your face challenge” to the world. This is exactly what the philosophy of “acceptance, diversity and tolerance” asserts—accept me for who I am and allow me to be what I want to be. Instead, genuine anthropology requires not just science but also religious truths to illumine the path of its self-knowledge. Otherwise, diversity, tolerance and acceptance will be no more than selective permissiveness.