Monday, 3 May 2010

5th Sunday of Easter Year C

There must be times when being who we are is really an embarrassment or a nuisance. For example, after 11th Sept, travelling for a male Indian Malaysian became a nuisance if one had the shortened form of “anak lelaki” [the a/l, translated son/of] in one’s passport.

Likewise, these days, it is more an embarrassment than a nuisance to be a Catholic. The Gospel today preaches the new commandment to love that Jesus gave to His disciples. What should characterise a Christian is love. But, this new commandment to love can be an inconvenience and a nuisance because it can be used as a weapon against Christianity. “Aren’t you a Christian? Aren’t you supposed to love”? Of course, priests must get a special mention because they are supposed to be “holy examples of Jesus’ love”. Once, a parishioner who was denied an impossible request said, “I pray for you because you are not a loving priest”. Believe you me that we get this all the time, but, the point I am making is not so much what priests get but rather to highlight the expectation that comes with the Christian commandment to love. What does it mean to say that a Christian is to love?

If you think about it, the truth remains that we [priest and people] have constantly fail to live the commandment to love. Therefore, the earlier parishioner’s accusation was not entirely unfair. The tapestry of our record as a people of God is “soaked also” with blood not from what people do to us but what we do to each other as Christians: The Massacre of St Bartholomew’s Day in France where Catholics slaughtered the Huguenots, the conflict between the Orangemen and the Catholics in the North of Ireland, the monks in Bethlehem fighting over how to clean the birthplace of Christ and etc. The words “soaked also” refer to more than martyrs’ blood because Christians have killed each other in the name of Christ, etc. Clearly, we have not lived up to the commandment to love.

In order to avoid the “embarrassment” of failure we ask ourselves what Christian love should be like. What form should it take?

First, we need to get away from a romantic notion of love. Let me clarify what I mean by this. By this I do not mean getting away from romantic love. Let me give an example of romantic love as expressed through contemporary music: “If loving you is wrong, then I don’t want to be right”. Are you ready to vomit now? You remember the first Transformers movie, Shia La Boeuf said in response to his teacher giving him a solid B+? “What would Jesus do”? This notion of love which is touchy-feely is prevalent and is certainly in need of purification. But, this is not my concern now. What I want to get away from is the nostalgic but naïve notion that the early Church was an example of perfect love as if everything then was hunky-dory.

In the Letter to the Corinthians, Paul spoke of love. This passage remains a favourite amongst people getting married. But, what was the context of Paul’s letter to that community? The community was fighting and roughly they could be divided into different factions. Each faction had its own agenda and each one convinced that it had the right interpretation of how Christianity should be lived. Note that a large faction was probably made up of the “usual man or woman in the pew” not interested in taking sides in the conflict. Unfortunately, it is usually the man or woman in the pew who suffers when interested parties fight. Anyway, in this struggle about who was right or wrong, Paul told the warring factions that they were right and they were wrong. When a Corinthian faction believed that its experience was the ultimate truth, it did not take long before love left it. When we are adamant that our experience is the only one, then the avenue for love narrows. In conclusion, if a man were utterly convinced that he has the monopoly of the truth, soon his life will empty of love and self-righteousness will also creep in.

Paul’s description of love helps us to understand how we can love in spite of and despite our disagreement. Today’s first reading is taken from Acts 14 but in the next chapter of Acts 15, we find that Paul and Barnabas themselves disagreeing. But, even though they went their separate ways, they were united in one thing: their love for Christ and their willingness to lay down their lives for Christ and for their brothers and sisters.

So, if we can get away from the nostalgic and naïve notion of “perfect” expression of love in the early Christian community, then we can perhaps understand what true love requires. This is relevant to us because disagreements of the kind between Paul and Barnabas are often reflected at home, in Parish Groups and BECs.

Earlier I asked the question what Christian loving should be like. St Augustine gives this wise counsel: In necessariis unitas, in dubiis libertas, in omnibus autem caritas. [In things essential, unity. In things inessential, diversity. But in all things, charity.] Caritas is Latin for love. Just like for Paul and Barnabas. They clearly differed in their approaches to the ministry but both were united in their love for Christ and for His teachings. Today, more than anything, there is a great need for charity because the question about what is essential and inessential has been reduced, at best to a matter of interpretation or at worst, it is a reflexion of preference.

For example, is Latin essential to our worship? Or it is a preference? The Latin-rite Church believes it to be essential but many of us who are comfortable with the vernacular languages believe it to be a preference. Have I opened a can of worms? I may have but what I am highlighting is that the loss of the sense of a shared world has rendered many discussions about what is essential or inessential almost impossible. Now you can appreciate how much more charity or love is needed in our world. This love which is the mark of a Christian in the context of a broken world requires a lifetime to practise it.

To help us, let me return to the nostalgic and naïve notion of love in the early Christian community. How to reconcile the failure of the community with Christ’s command? The Preface for Virgins and Religious is instructive. “What love you show us as you recall mankind to its first innocence and invite us to taste on earth the gifts of the world to come”. If you follow the principle of “Lex orandi lex credendi, the prayer points us in a certain direction—religious life is a taste of the perfection of the kingdom to come. Religious life is where you encounter what true love is like. But, guess what? Most ironically, if you want to experience the absence of love, go to a religious house. Live religious life and I guarantee you will blush at how absent love can be in religious life. Hence, what is the purpose of the preface? It points, despite the very failure of real religious, to something far greater that we can imagine. It points to a life more real than the one we have. This vision allows for the possibility that what cannot be fulfilled in this life can find its fulfilment in the next. Thus, we live with hope. When Christians fail, it does not mean Christianity is a failure. Instead, it just means you have to wait a bit longer. Or maybe even never. Yet, it is not entirely hopeless. Thus, at the sign of peace, when people do not respond to your gesture of peace, it is not the end of the world.

If you have noticed I have not given a prescription of the commandment: this, this and this. Rather, conscious that one does not have the monopoly of truth, I have attempted to give a feeble description of what love may be like. It is an attitude, a state of the mind and a posture of the heart. A way to check if we are living Christ’s commandment is this: If what we receive does not commensurate with what we have given out, then we are entering the territory of His love. Is it not true that for many of us, love is quite self-serving? I love you only because you can love me.

Thus, love is not meant to be convenient. It can be a nuisance and certainly daring to love can be an embarrassment. But, the commandment Christ gave is clear. Love one another; just as I have loved you, you must also love one another. And the ultimate example of love is hung on the Cross reminding us that Christian love is always sacrificial in nature. When you love you have to give and sometimes the only sacrifice you can make is with your life. This is Christian love. So, remember this when you love.