Sunday, 11 October 2009

26th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B [27th Sept 2009]

The theme this Sunday is God’s Spirit in the World. The readings give us a glimpse of God’s Spirit working in the world. According to John 3:8, [and this was echoed in the Processional Hymn], the Spirit is like the wind for He blows wherever He wills. The freedom of the Spirit to act according to His will blends in very much with our accepted notion of what freedom is or how we ought to conceive freedom. The freedom of the Spirit to act outside the norm is at times taken to be the attitude of “anti-establishment”. Furthermore, that the Spirit cannot be stifled is also sometimes translated as the Spirit cannot be found in “institutions” etc—like governments or Church. [1] Thus, freedom may be construed as being able to stand up to established norms or authorities. [2]

But, freedom draws a line. You puzzle as to why freedom is defined by a line. The first reading and the Gospel may lend themselves to our understanding that freedom is to stand outside or against the established norms or authorities, but they actually speak in terms of gifts in relation to the community. In the first reading, Moses confirms this when he wished that the Spirit be given to everyone and in the Gospel, those who work in the name of Jesus are deemed empowered by the Spirit and as such they should not be stopped.

Thus, freedom is not willy-nilly the freedom to do as one wishes the way we think the Spirit does. The line drawn by freedom is relevant to us especially in the context of living in a global village. Lines demarcate and as such, they may tend to exclude and this runs counter to the current convention which is tolerance and inclusive. We want the freedom from constraints in order to interact as we like and living under the glare of sometimes hostile media, we may be afraid to “define” ourselves for fear that we be judged prejudiced or bigoted. As a result, in a globalised context, the Spirit is our excuse and our licence. Whenever we want to escape the limitation imposed by the incarnation, we claim the passport of freedom from the Spirit.

But freedom is a line and the Spirit drew the line strongly against sin. For example, the 2nd Reading is not really that sympathetic. It warns those whose riches are ill-gotten that their wealth will not be their security but instead, wealth will be their corruption. “On earth, you have had a life of comfort and luxury”. In short, your days are numbered.

In the Gospel, that line is called Hell. The original meaning of Gehenna is that awful place where Jews before the time of Jesus held human sacrifice. The Prophet Jeremiah condemned the place outside of Jerusalem which became for the Jews a dump where rubbish was burnt. Hell would be like Gehenna—to sin and lead others to sin would be to condemn oneself to Gehenna or eternal separation.

Given our understanding of freedom as unfettered or is without responsibility, the idea of the Spirit as freedom from encumbrance is certainly tempting. This is often the case when we come across what we think and what the Church teaches. Thus, the idea or notion “anti-establishment” becomes a necessary stance for freedom. Where we find the Church’s teaching limiting our freedom we turn to the Spirit to cry freedom.

But, there is a closer bond than we dare to think between the Spirit and the Church because every gift of the Spirit given to the Church is given for service. Thus, the context of Moses and Jesus teaching the Elders and the Disciples was about the use of gifts by the Spirit for the greater good. In fact, the Liturgy will remind us time and again that the primary gift of the Spirit is unity. [3] Nowhere does the Spirit behave “fancifully” or according to our “dictates or whims”. The reason why the Spirit of freedom is “tied” or somewhat “limited” by the Church is found at the end of Matt 28: “I am with you to the end of time”. It is Christ’s promise to His Church. The promise is to His Church and it is not a guarantee that we will not be unfaithful. In fact, Christ’s promise to be with His Church through the Spirit is found in our liturgy at the part where after the Our Father, the priest says, “Lord Jesus Christ, you said to your apostles, I give you peace, my peace I give you. Look not on our sins [4] but look on the faith of your Church”. That Church is the faithful one responding to the faithful Lord’s question of identity, “Who do people say I am”?: “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God”. The Church can never be unfaithful because she stands on the guarantee of Christ. However, the same cannot be said of us. We, you and me, her children, are often the unfaithful ones.

Part of our fear of institutions or our aversion to any establishment comes from our experience that people who are in charge of doing what is good for all are those who pervert the good for all. It does not take us far beyond the entrance or exit of the Church to find that. The controversy over the nearby Port Klang Free Zone is one example. We have encountered one case after another reported with great fanfare in the beginning but then it is quietly withdrawn from our collective glare. But, since we needn’t go far, the same judgement could be levelled against those who serve the Church. Some might even say that the team which runs the parish is no different. [5]

So, what and how are we to judge if the Spirit is at work? A good measure of how to discern the Holy Spirit’s movement is what Jesus Himself said: Check the fruit—a good tree produces good fruit. Ignatian spirituality measures the fruit in terms of the increase of faith, hope and charity. Gamaliel, during the persecution of the early Christians further confirms it by asking the Pharisees not to be hasty but to consider that God cannot be defeated in something that He wills to do.

Now, if you think about it, the freedom of the Spirit that we want is not unbridled freedom. We are not exactly comfortable with indeterminacy. An example to illustrate this discomfort with indeterminacy is the experience of nostalgia. We associate nostalgia with the elderly. But, go check out this place of worship where you find young people who go there for the manner Mass is celebrated—priest and people facing the Lord. Are the young people nostalgic? Maybe they are. The difference is, for the elderly, nostalgia may simply be a yearning for the past. For the young, nostalgia is more than yearning for the past. It is a cry, a yearning for certainty, boundary, determinacy or permanency. The lack of determinacy or permanence which we confuse to be freedom often leads to emptiness—as the French would call it, “ennui”. These young people are looking for some semblance of permanency and a sense of the eternal. [6]

In conclusion, we are much more limited or determined because we are embodied spirit—it is the reality of being incarnated. Indeterminacy does not always make us happy. In fact, we need boundaries in order to function properly. Everyone here probably has had this experience with family or close friends? You get into your family car and you ask: “Where do you want to eat?” Anywhere. “What would you like to eat?” Anything. Nothing is more energy-sapping when going out to eat in Café Anywhere ordering from the Menu of Anything!

Today’s readings may seem to call for the freedom of the Spirit to go beyond the limits or boundaries of the established norms. But, this interpretation could be the result of what we like to hear. It is true that they call us to be more open and inclusive. But, how do we serve the purpose of inclusivity and tolerance? How do we show that the Spirit is present? It is certainly not by the dictum that everything or anything can. Fraught as the process may be of trying to “draw the line”, still we must because that is the only way we can serve humanity better. Freedom in the Spirit is helped when we begin to listen closely to what the Spirit is teaching us through what is primarily the locus for the Spirit’s work: the Church—the Spouse of Christ. A good place to start is the Catechism of the Catholic Church and a relevant question to ask is: “Do you have a copy”?
[1] This is not a wholesale pitch for government policies or Church authority.
[2] Freedom is defined as revolutionary. But, the French Revolution, the mother of all revolutions, will show us that in due time, the revolution will devour her own children.
[3] And not the gift of Disunity where everyone says, “My gift is the only one that is most necessary for the community’s good”.
[4] “Our” refers concretely to you and me.
[5] When we cannot separate the person from the Institution, we will fall into despair or cynicism because we see the failure of the “individual” as the failure of the Institution....
[6] Some of us who consider ourselves as sophisticated and are purveyors of change tend to look down on these young people as “neo-conservatives”. We are so at the forefront of “relevance” that we have failed to see that “radical” also means faithfulness to tradition.