Friday, 22 April 2011

Holy Thursday Year A

This evening, the Church is transformed into the Upper Room—the Cenacle. Later tonight, the Cenacle will fade into the Gethsemane. Today, the two foci are the two Masses which highlight two important Sacraments. Chrism Mass highlights the Sacrament of the Priesthood and the Last Supper highlights the Sacrament of the Eucharist. Traditionally, today is also called Maundy Thursday as it is derived from the Latin word Mandatum meaning “mandate”. Both Priesthood and Eucharist are born at the Last Supper and they are inextricably linked in such a way that there is no Priesthood without the Eucharist and no Eucharist without the Priesthood. In fact, this morning, just after midnight, I received a birthday greeting because someone had waited until after midnight to be the first to wish me “Happy Birthday”.

But, is there more to this mandate than highlighting these two Sacraments? Yes, there is. Christ may have given a mandate for which the two Sacraments came to be but it would not be off-tangent to assert that it is actually a day to think also about the Sacrament of Marriage, that is, if one looks at the bigger picture. Let me paint a bigger picture by sharing with you a little of my experience.

When I first started working in the parish, my reaction to difficulties was simply: “I don’t deserve it”. When I was exasperated, I would simply say “I don’t deserve this”—like this once when I had to go anoint a sick person in one of the swankier hospitals and was made to wait for visiting hours. Today, I recognise that kind of reaction as some kind of pride. Call it ageing or call it grace, I have come to realise that a less-than-comfortable tour of duty is supposed to be the rule rather than the exception, meaning, “difficulty” should be part and parcel of one’s duty as a priest. It means that one should not expect the priestly journey to be easy and this is where I realised how blessed I have been. It is a blessed realisation but more than that I am blessed because of you all. You have done so much more for me than anything I could ever do for you. You have helped me come to this realisation and I would say that this realisation is more than just the result of ageing gracefully. I might be flattering myself but I believe that this realisation is rather the fruit of the love of a people for their priest and vice versa.

This love between priest and people points to a larger picture. How? As I said earlier, the Mandatum is taken from John 13:34. Mandatum novum. A new commandment I give you: “Love one another”.

People, in general, think that the Mandatum novum, that is, this “love one another” is generically addressed to all Christians. It was as if on that night, Christ issued a generic commandment to all Christians. And we sort of accept it in its generic sense when we sing, “And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love”. Maybe it is just human to exist in generality but, generic love is a distillation of what is called particular love. Perhaps you may discern how the new commandment, the Priesthood, the Eucharist and Marriage are connected.

In a specific sense, Mandatum novum is addressed to all married couple because your particular love is the perfect and primary place for the practice of this new commandment. Why? Because, it is always easier to love everyone but much harder to love someone as it requires much self-abnegation. Often, you easily forgive the foibles of a stranger but would hold onto the faults of your loved one. “You did this or you did that” argument is an example of how we hold on to the faults of a loved one.

Marriage, as a sacrament, is premised on the relationship between Christ and the Church. Thus, man and woman represent Christ and the Church. In an analogous way, the relationship between Christ and the Church is also lived through the priest and the people. Priests are married in the sense that they are married to the people of God. For example: I can preach the same homily here and at St Ignatius. Let me tell you that the homily will sound better here than in St Ignatius. I dare speak a bit more. Why? Familiarity. It comes from the fact that here, you are my people and I am your priest. Such a relationship that can be recognised between Fr Albert and you too. He is at home here. You can ask Fr Peter for he was once upon a time the parish priest here or you can enquire of Fr Michael. I know he had a tougher time in Seremban which is why I consider myself so blessed here.

It has taken many years to appreciate this love of and for a people. I suppose I am less inclined to say “I don’t deserve this” because of love. And I always marvel at the fact that when I feel I can go no further, the grace of the sacraments carries me through. The Sacrament of Marriage has taught a lot about what my priesthood is supposed to be.

At Chrism Mass, which theoretically should have been celebrated this morning, all priests renew their commitment to priestly service. It should also be the moment where married couples do likewise. When you renew your marriage commitment, you begin to realise that you did not merely fall in love and then vowed to live a lifetime together but through the Sacrament, you vowed to live a lifetime of falling in love again and again.

Now you realise better that the Mandatum novum is directed both to priests and married couples. The love between a priest and his people, the love between husband and wife a powerful witness. The fortune of the Church is tied to the health of these two Sacraments, to the point that the failure of marriages will be matched by a drop in priestly vocations and the scarcity of priestly vocations is a reflexion of the collapse of the institution of marriage.

Tonight, both the Sacraments of Priesthood and Eucharist point to the Sacrament of Marriage. Mandatum novum is most powerful when priests are united to their people and husbands and wives are united in their love for one another. Make us grow in love together with Benedict our Pope and N. our Bishop and all the Bishops, with the clergy and the entire people, your Son has gained for you.