Monday, 27 August 2007

21st Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C

How would you feel if I told you that three quarter of you… three quarter of the people sitting here will go to hell? I suspect an initial reaction would be “surprise”, i.e., “from which part of the Pre-Vatican II hell is he from”?, followed by “such judgemental attitude”. But beyond this initial reaction I think lies a reality which is hitherto unquestioned by so many of us. In actual fact, it does not come into our horizon at all and it is the reality of hell where you or I can go to. I call it an unquestioned reality simply because of what I hear at eulogy… Through the many eulogies at funerals, I have come to a realisation that our conception of life and death is almost “mechanical”… mechanical in the sense that, I live… or shall I say, I meander along in life and I die and it is assumed that life continues along the same trajectory after death. And that whatever happens in this life has nothing to do with the quality of the next life. It is almost as if the next life were inevitable. The fact is that there are people whose lives are questionable. I am saying this not because I am judgemental but a person who doesn’t practise his faith, has no sense of belonging to a faith community, but is adulterous and yet at death, is given a “Catholic” burial. At the end of the service, a family member gives a eulogy of this person’s life. The thing is the eulogy sounds more like a canonisation process. The person whose life is questionable is already a “saint” enjoying beatific vision, never mind that there is purification still before we ever can come into God’s presence.

Today, Jesus is reminding us that people can be shut out of life. Hell is a distinct possibility. But somehow, I get a sense that we are unable to “feel” hell and the urgency of the possibility of hell does not affect us. Perhaps it is a good occasion to think about hell.

Firstly, part of the reason hell is inconceivable is because our idea of God is a soft one—an idea which posits the incompatibility of a good God with hell. How could God ever consign a person to hell? This is backed up by our reaction towards innocent suffering. “What kind of God allows such a thing to happen to an innocent child”? However, today’s Gospel clearly indicates not only the reality of hell but that the notion of God must necessarily include hell. Why? Because hell is the absence of God. Hell is not a place for God to consign us to. Rather, hell is when we shut God out of our lives. If you decide not to choose God meaning that you have chosen to live without God, the consequence of that choice is hell. In the Eucharistic Prayer I, we say, “save us from final damnation and count us amongst those you have chosen”. Damnation is NOT the result of God not choosing us but rather of us not choosing God.

Secondly, our inability to conceive the notion of hell is perhaps the direct consequence of our inability to conceive what heaven is like. And this inability has something to do with how poor our measure or our estimation has become. We are constantly bombarded with images of the good life. And often we are presented with a picture of having arrived which consists of being sated or satiated with material comfort. Good is measured by a bigger car, better housing location replete with amenities. In short, our concept of good is material good or material comfort. In itself, all that we can eat and enjoy is not bad in itself. But consider the difference between these two sentences. I am good. God is good. These two sentences use the adjective “good”. But are they the same? Their difference far outweighs their similarity meaning that God is good but His goodness far exceeds my goodness. Surely there is more to goodness than just material good or material comfort. Thus, our description of what of goodness is must go beyond the barrier of our expectation and not be limited by a vision of the good proposed to us on a merely material level. If you like, we are short-changed in our vision of heaven if we consider that heaven is just what we can experience here. The truth is that what we can experience here is only a foretaste of what heaven is like—just like the raising of Lazarus is a foretaste of what the resurrection is like. But if our vision of heaven is that shallow, then there is no hell to be afraid of. If our vision of heaven is just having a bigger car or a better house to live in, then we can never contemplate the depths of hell. What is more in tune with humanity is that the human spirit is made to soar into heights of heaven so much so that to propose anything less than the stratospheric heights of heaven is to impoverish the spirit. For example, why are our young people even with the latest ipods and now iphones still dissatisfied with the vision of life proposed by a materialistic culture? Isn’t that already some kind of hell that they are living in which may account for the reason why drugs, sex and adrenalin rushes are mistaken currencies in the purchase of the promises of heaven? If your life is an alcohol binge after another, one excitement or “sexcitement” after another, one shopping spree after another, then it’s not heaven. It is hell because one click of a porn site leads to another and another in a series which is never ever going to satisfy us. That is hell.

Make no mistake that hell is real because hell is a call to the responsibility incumbent upon man to make use of his freedom in view of his eternal destiny. Hell is real because our destiny is heaven. Hell is not to frighten us but rather it is a call to conversion as Jesus today tells us “Try to enter by the narrow door” because the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction. But take heart brothers and sisters because the 2nd reading says: Suffering is part of your training. And we are in for the long haul and hell is just a reminder that avoiding it can only bring us to heaven. And that means that we must live by the values of Jesus Christ our Lord and so make our lives conform to the likeness of Christ as suggested by last Sunday’s prayer after communion: “By becoming more like Christ on earth, may we come to share his glory in heaven where he lives and reigns forever and ever”. Amen.