Monday, 10 August 2009

19th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B

This week we continue with the 3rd instalment in the series of 5 passages from Chapter 6 of John’s Gospel. The theme is the Father draws us to Himself. To understand how the Father can draw us, let us take a look at an important Gospel moment found notably in Mk 8:27, Luke 9:18 and Mt 16: 13. When Jesus asked whom people thought He was, His apostles answered: Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah. Elijah was mentioned simply because he was a great champion of Yahweh, and was expected to come back to usher in the Messianic age. Today, in the first reading, we witness the greatest of the prophets brought low; a man of broken spirit. He had taken on the establishment but in retaliation, Queen Jezebel had him running for his life. Elijah was dispirited and wanted to opt out of being God’s prophet.

Even the greatest amongst us know defeat, despair and discouragement. When we lose our spirit, we are like birds without wings or trees without roots. Without our spirit we cannot soar. So, in today’s Gospel, Jesus offers Himself as the food that will feed our spirit. Some Catholics think that Viaticum is given just before a person dies. But, the truth is Jesus is Viaticum not just before a person dies but He is The Viaticum because He is food a person needs on the way to the Father. He is food that draws us to His Father.

In the context of the previous two Gospel passages, let us expand the understanding of Jesus as Viaticum. It is unfortunate that by and large we often think of Jesus as food in a restricted sense that He is food for our “private” journey. Not that this is not true but this idea of Jesus as "my" nourishment is in some way a reflexion of a “narrow” philosophical framework where the reference is basically the subject or commonly understood as “I, me and myself”. When “I alone” is the frame of reference, the result of this subjective reference is disastrous in the long run for things like moral absolutes, dogmas, and revealed truths. It is disastrous for society.

As you can see, this “I" or the subject alone in relation to Jesus has immense ramifications or consequences sociologically. A notion of “private” food for one’s journey and a concern with one’s “private” feeding may blind the person to a reality which is beyond the “I" or the subject. We often fail to realise or see that a broken spirit is not just restricted to a person (ie., the individual). It applies very much also to a people and this is what we are: we are a broken people. We are a broken nation.

However, our national rhetoric will paint a picture of a nation that has gloriously propelled herself into the 21st century and beyond. We never think of ours as a nation broken in spirit if we look at our architectural wonders. We no longer have the world’s tallest building but we console ourselves that we have retained the title of the world’s tallest twin towers. The tourism authority consistently showcases our cultural diversity and recently, we have ventured into the territory of medical tourism.

But, for a moment, consider this: a parishioner on the way to Church on Friday evening, at a traffic light had her side window smashed and handbag taken away. Yesterday, someone in broad daylight tried to remove the tyres of our very own Fr Albert’s car parked inside Church grounds. We routinely hear such horror stories. Don’t tell me what you hear or read has not driven you to despair or discouragement? What about after 50 years, we are expected to swallow yet another vision of integration that is riddled with the same racism and discrimination? Foreign investors have to factor in the entrenched and accepted norm of bribery as a necessary component of doing business here.

The point here is not to highlight what is wrong but to illustrate that every horror story we hear only confirms our intuition of how far down we have travelled on the road to a failed nation. Despite a determined denial, spiritually we are a broken people and a broken nation. And the telling signs are when our newspapers have more advertisements than news and we are reduced to eating, movies, shopping and travelling.

If I may borrow a phrase from John Paul II, a people or a nation with a broken spirit, despite her vaunted achievements, belongs to the civilisation of death. You may think that JPII’s “civilisation of death” is a reference to abortion or euthanasia but abortion and euthanasia are just symptoms telling us that we may be alive individually but we are surrounded by death. [1] In such a situation, many of us respond individually by not caring or by becoming apathetic.

In feeding the 5000, Jesus is telling each and every one of us that He is not just food for one’s journey to the Father. He is also food for our journey. The emphasis is OUR journey. The Father can draw us to Himself. He not only gave bread to Elijah. As the manna was bread for the Israelites on the way to the Promised Land, the Eucharist is the Father’s invitation to come not just as an individual but also as a people. The healing in our country begins with an individual and it is made more effective when we are a people. Perhaps we understand better why Mass cannot be a private affair on a Sunday but it must reflect the celebration of a community within which the individual is fed by the Lord Himself. [2]

You know the Mediæval Age is often depicted as an age of obscurancy where people were living in a darkness that is marked by superstition etc. This cannot be further from the truth because the mediæval cathedral is testimony to a period where the spirit of the individual and the people were fed and enlightened by a vision of a God who is beautiful. Even a scholar, not entirely sympathetic to the Church, could speak admiringly of the devotion and patience that attended the construction of the cathedrals, notably of Chartres in France. To be able to construct such a magnificent structure, men, women and children [the community] were encouraged by their priests to work and to build. When at night they stopped, worn out with the day’s toil, their spare time was given up to confession and prayer [the individual]. Thus, the mediæval cathedrals are impressive evidence of an age where there was a more coherent integration between the individual and the community. [3] The individual must always and can only stand in relation to the community. In other words, one can only be a Catholic because there is the Church [the Body of Christ].

The cathedrals remind us that the Eucharist should never be “privatised” but instead they are concrete proofs of the possibility of integration wherein the Lord feeds us individually and draws us together into a people. Jesus does not nourish just the individual. If you listen to Eucharistic Prayer III (EPIII), you will begin to realise how many references are made to the “we”, the “us”, the community or the Church. The Father through the Body of Christ draws us into a body that is bound together by the Holy Spirit. Thus, the community [by extension the concrete church building] and not just the individual, must also be an image of Christ. Come, brothers and sisters, let us make this Eucharist mine, yours and ours.

[1] Euthanasia is alive because we think we care for the person (put to death) but in reality, it reflects more the culture of convenience expressed through the disposability of the individual. It is ironical that in a society that prizes the individual, the individual is easily disposable.
[2] If Mass is boring, apart from not bringing yourself there (individually), it is because you have not made yourself a part of the community.
[3] They also tell us that not only are individuals oriented to God but that the community too must be oriented to God.