Sunday, 9 May 2010

6th Sunday of Easter Year C

This Sunday we continue to reflect on the topic of love. This love is not airy-fairy because set within this reflexion is the controversy surrounding the early Church where we witness a concrete instance of Apostolic intervention. What can we learn from it?

In the Gospel, Jesus in His final discourse with the Disciples gave them a defining mandate. To love Him was to keep His word and to obey it. How to keep His word and to obey it would soon be tested as we hear in the first reading. There, in the Antiochene community, [1] the issue centred on whether or not the Laws and traditions of Moses came within the scope of keeping and obeying Christ’s word. In short, does keeping the Word of Christ or loving Him extend to the Laws and traditions of Moses?

Here, let us take a step back. There is a close connexion between love and commandments or laws which we do not always appreciate. In fact, not sure if you have noticed that Christ issued the “command” to love. If He gave to His disciples the law of love, then, the question is why, on our part, is there a lack of appreciation of this link between love and law? The poor appreciation may be due to an understanding of love, which to the mind of the community of Antioch, is quite incomprehensible. How so? Let me clarify. First, a parody, a mockery or extreme caricature of our understanding of love is that which is defined by the “Flower Power People”—the people of the “If you are going to San Francisco” tune [2]. This type of love disdains boundary. Love should be unhindered; free from the shackles of any constraints. Furthermore, this understanding of love sees a gap between the intent and the expression. It was salutary [helpful] that the Flower Power People tried to turn love on its head drawing our attention to a certain form of love which was “Pharisaical” in its expression. What I mean was that the Flower Power People did not like the hypocrisy of one’s words not matching one’s actions. Young people—the generation we called post-modern—are especially sensitive to this and rightly so

But, this is where a disconnexion begins to take place. The Flower Power People came to believe that all rules or regulations were hypocritical. Somehow, written into their code for interpreting the world was suspicion. Rules and regulations necessarily belong with the “Establishment” be it the government, the Church, a parent, any powers that be and an institution. Anything that wields power or authority is perceived as incapable of being true to itself. It had not helped that governments, organised religions or institutions have been untrustworthy. Nothing could be trusted. Hence, there was a withdrawal from the public sphere into private space and as such, a greater insistence that the interior was more important than the exterior. You can see that it did not take much to jump to the next stage: God cares about what is inside and not what is outside. Laws were just man-made.

Let me just say that the Antiochene community will have a tough time understanding this divide between what is “exterior” and “interior”. For them, the external obedience to the Laws and traditions of Moses was nothing but an expression of their internal love for Christ.

Jump back to the present! The Flower Power People may have faded from the fashion scene but their mindset has remained with us. How? They were allergic to rituals because rituals [a form of law], apart from it being empty and hypocritical, also kill spontaneity. And so, we who consider ourselves liberated from the oppression of unnecessary rituals may find their quarrels about Laws and the traditions of Moses vacuous or petty. But, the early Christians were fighting for the most appropriate expression of their love for Christ. The intensity of their conflict was a reflexion of their desire to make the love even more genuine and real. For them this was the question: How else to love Christ if not by keeping His commandments?

I remember this terrifying theology teacher (not terrific but terrifying because the students are terrorised by and were terrified of him; a Jesuit by the way) who said: “There is no such thing as love which is unbounded. Each time you say you love, you concretise it and it becomes limited. Thus, you love by not abusing your spouse. You love by not shouting at your mother even though she keeps asking you the same question, again and again. You cannot say that you love if you do not make the attempt to express that love for whenever you love, you bind yourself in some way or another”. Thus, the Flower Power People whose idea of love was being unencumbered was really aiming for nothing. [3] You cannot go around saying, “I love”.

Thus, the Antiochene conflict challenges us in our understanding of how love is related to “laws”. For many of us, laws are too rigid to express love. [4] But for the early Christians, laws were the very expressions of love because Christ made the connexion between loving Him and obedience to His commandments.

The idea that love and commandments are mutually exclusive is misguided and so too, the notion of love as merely spontaneous is glamorous but empty. When we love, we must have laws, rules or restrictions to regulate our love. "Love is not everything or anything can do". For example, in Greek, a person who loves children is a paedophile just like a person who loves books is a bibliophile. But we cringe at the words paedophile or paedophilia. What are they but expressions of love gone wrong? There are lines we do not cross even when we love. So, to those who are preparing for marriage, there are lines couples do not cross until after marriage.

Love is not as free and as easy as a 4-day, 3-night tour of Bali. Love means keeping Christ’s commandment and it is not easy. There is a perceived or felt chasm or lapse between the Pope or the Bishops (the shepherds and teachers of the Church) and the laity because it seems that the official Church is so out of touch in Her teaching and lately so sinful in Her shepherds. Guess what? Co-incidentally, it is Mother’s Day. The Church is but our Mother. And in the light of the current crisis, we need to make a distinction between infallibility and impeccability. For many cannot see the difference and thus are despaired by the “peccability” of Christians. Christ promised infallibility to His Church. He did not promise impeccability. It means that He promised that the Church will be infallible in Her teachings but He did not promise that the conduct of Her children (in particular Her shepherds) would be blameless. It is here that the unpopular needs to be said: There are some teachings I may not agree with but I will obey and let my conscience catch up with the infallible teachings of the Church. But, my conscience may not catch up in this lifetime and yet I am not worried. Why? Because the commandment by Christ to love is ALSO lived as the love of Christ’s commandments as expressed in Church teaching. This is the only infallibility She has been promised and is sustained by none other than the Holy Spirit. Only then will we begin to appreciate this statement: “It has been decided by the Holy Spirit and by ourselves” because the intervention by Peter is the foundation and the beginning of the Apostolic teaching of the Church.

If we can learn anything this Sunday, it is this: the controversy surrounding the early Church and the Apostolic intervention ground us in the love of Christ and the love for His Church because She is the only Mother Christ has given to us.
FOOTNOTES: [1] Antioch is located near Antakya, Turkey and is known as the cradle of Gentile Christianity. It was here that the followers of Jesus were called Christians.
[2] If you are going to San Francisco, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair…
[3] One can say that the Flower Power People are children of “individualism”. But, individualism is not exactly “selfishness” as we often think it is. An “individual” is one who must stand “against” others in order to establish his or her own identity.
[4] Garden weddings are a perfect example of this perceived rigidity. Some couples who are preparing for marriage cannot understand why the Church does not allow for “garden weddings” and the comments have been “Why is the Church so rigid”?