Saturday, 8 March 2008

Novena of Grace (Day 4) Year A

Today we enter the 4th day of our novena. The Gospel challenges us to look at our attitude towards Jesus. Accordingly, no one can be indifferent to Jesus. So who is this Jesus and who is Jesus for us?

There is an episode in the nascent beginning or early days of the Society of Jesus which may help us answer this question about Jesus. First of all, Francis was a Basque. Navarre, an autonomous territory, lies within the Basque region of Spain. It is said that all European languages are somewhat related. Except, of course, Basque is a language that has no relations to its closest neighbour, Catalan or Castilian. Francis probably spoke Spanish (or Castilian) and in Paris, some kind of French. The early Jesuits were all united in the vision of St Ignatius, which was to go to the Holy Land and to minister there.

However, they had to wait for favourable winds in order to set sail from Venice. So, at different times, they made their way from Paris to Venice to regroup there. Those who arrived early wasted no time to set themselves useful apostolically. They probably could understand Italian but not speak it well. But poverty of expression was no barrier to their preaching. They stood in the piazzas, the town squares and by shouting and waving their birettas they assembled a congregation. Many persons were moved by their preaching and they managed to receive in great abundance the necessities for their bodily welfare. In short, moved by the sincerity of their preaching, people were generous to them. [The biretta is a square cap with three or four ridges or peaks, sometimes surmounted by a tuft, traditionally worn by Roman Catholic clergy].

For them to do what they did—braving ridicule, when people laughed at their poor command of the language, for example, was it the vision of St Ignatius that commanded them or is there more to the vision? Is the vision enough to drive them into the streets to preach?

In today’s gospel, the Jews were quibbling about the identity of Jesus. The name Mary Magdalene actually means Mary of Magdala. (Pause) You see, the Feast of the Tabernacles meaning the festival of the Booths is understood by some to be the commemoration of the forty years when the Jews wandered homeless through the desert. So, during the seven days of the feast the Jews lived in tents. The tent is an annual reminder that they came from nowhere. A tent is basically “nowhere”. Therefore, a place is identity. Mary’s identity is Magdala. Joseph’s identity is Arimathaea (the one who buried Jesus) and Jesus’ identity is Nazareth.

So, the quibble was about whom Jesus really was—His identity. They knew where He came from and that identity helped them size Jesus up. “Isn’t He the Carpenter’s son and His mother Mary from Nazareth? Even though they knew where He came from they really did not know that His real address was not a place but rather a person: His Father.

Now, we come back to our dear St Francis. The early Jesuits may have been guided by the vision of St Ignatius but in actual fact, they were driven by the love of a person. They couldn’t have rooted for Jesus if Jesus were merely human—a mere man from Nazareth. That would mean idolatry of some kind. They could only preach because they knew Jesus’ origin. He was of God. He was from God. He was God. They gave their hearts to Jesus. Only Jesus can draw people to Himself. Thus, they served not a vision. They served a person.

Thus, behind the apostolic endeavour of Francis and his companions was not an ideology or principles of conversion. It was a personal commitment to the person of Jesus. It was a personal commitment that drove Francis to the far fringes of the earth to seek for Christ unnumbered souls to be cherished and loved.

It cannot be understated how important this person of Jesus is for the Church and for the world. The world is decidedly a more dangerous world. It is unquestionably a more unfriendly world. Whether the locus of this unfriendly world is within us or as the case may be for so many of us, “out there is an unfriendly world” is not important. What is important is to look at the initiatives that people of goodwill take in order to build a better world. Religions, according to some people, have made the world a more dangerous place—Sept 11. Therefore, in order to mitigate or soften the impact of a religion’s claim to universal truth, there seems be a “universalist” approach that tries to turn Christianity into a religion without Jesus. He cannot be the Saviour of the world because that would mean Christianity is the only religion that saves. Jesus is only good because He shows us the way. He is not the way.

In many ways, to eliminate Jesus from Christianity is to substitute an ideology for faith. Faith leads to freedom. Ideology can only lead to slavery. Let me give an example. Remember the incident of the adulterous woman anointing the feet of Jesus. Judas’ reaction was clearly that the money from the ointment sold could be used to help the poor. But Jesus was adamant that the love of the woman was to be directed to Him. When we serve the poor we believe that we serve Jesus. But, it doesn’t always follow that way—because they are many people who serve the poor without any knowledge of Jesus. Thus, one can serve the poor without serving Jesus. This is where some Christians run into difficulty when they forget who they are. This is because when the means for serving the poor were frustrated, those who claim to serve Jesus would turn to arms and violent means to achieve their aim of serving the poor. Ask the revolutionary priests of the late 80s and 90s in the jungle of the Philippines.

In actual fact, then it is not Jesus whom these people serve. It is an ideology, an idea of what service for poor means. That is why Jesus’ answer to Judas is so relevant: the poor you will always have with you. He is not canonising poverty but rather giving Judas a context for serving the poor. What Jesus is saying is this: When you serve me in the poor, be prepared to have your service frustrated. But, I am still in charge here even though it does not seem that way. Trust in me.

On the first day of the novena, I mentioned about expectations and in the light of today’s preaching, perhaps we can also add our vision. When we have a vision for Jesus, be prepared to have our vision purified because we serve not a vision but Him who gives us sight to see Him in the poor etc.

In summary, our vision of the world is only sharpened if Jesus our Lord is kept at the centre of our love and devotion. Any attempt to eliminate or remove Jesus from Christianity is to make ourselves God—our ideology becomes us. Today, let us ask, amongst other things, for the grace to know Jesus more intimately so that we can follow Him more closely.