Sunday, 9 September 2012

23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B

Last week I touched a little on this phenomenon which is called conventional wisdom. It is a kind of collective and received wisdom which we subscribe to unconsciously. When unquestioned, it can become a form of coercive force that imposes itself upon us. What we would call peer pressure is an expression of conventional wisdom unquestioned. It is all around, if you think about it. For example, there is a concerted national propaganda that is imposed upon us. It proposes a heart-warming vision which, given the polarisation and division afflicting this country, we would all want to embrace. I leave it to you to guess what that vision is called.
The point is, the three readings also put forward a kind of vision, not unlike our so-called national rhetoric. In the vision of Isaiah, a magnificent future is promised to God’s kingdom where everyone, including the disabled,1 will rejoice. The second reading endorses this vision by advancing a world free from the division of distinction—be it colour, creed or wealth. In the Gospel, the vision of Isaiah is concretely fulfilled as Christ ushers in the new kingdom through the miracle of healing for the deaf and dumb man.
What is of interest to us, considering what we are commemorating this evening, is how the miracle was reported. In fact, for the Eucharist later on, the necessity that the words of consecration be said according to the rubrics’ set formula is confirmed by the manner Mark reported the miracle. Firstly, Christ took the man aside and He touched his ears and applied spittle on his tongue—both are deeply sacramental acts. Secondly, the point which is central to our reflexion is the retention of a word native to Christ’s language: “Ephphatha”. It is translated as “be opened”. However, Mark’s deliberate use of its Aramaic form is due to the Semitic belief that power resides in the word used and therefore, any translation of it would have affected its efficacy.2
Beyond the primary means of perception and therefore communication—touch, taste and smell--words are important because the sense of hearing (and therefore speech) is the next to be developed after these three. Parents who are interested in giving their child a head-start in life would make the baby listen to music even when the child is still in the womb, proving that there must be some truth to the fact that we develop the sense of hearing first before the sense of vision.
Words are not only important; they are also powerful. Unfortunately, we are not at home with words. Given our bias towards what is called the audio-visual medium and the accent here of the audio is not sound but noise, we have become estranged from the house of words—the house of proper communication. Consider that we do not even construct proper sentences—OMG, LOL, TTYL, BRB and IMHO etc. And furthermore, the modern technologies especially of the electronic media have allowed us the kind of immediacy and the intimacy which hitherto were only allowed face to face—either through speech or even the absence of it. Our so-called world wide web provides the condition for the possibility of communion. It has become easier for us to connect with one another—iMessage, Whatsapp, Facetime, Facebook etc. However, when we communicate without physical presence, we also run the risk of superficiality. For example, those engage in predatory behaviour would usually have an avatar which is captivatingly pleasing and innocent like a 35 yo offender who poses as a 12 yo girl.3
The Malays have a proverb: “kata dikota”. Speech is to be “fortified” meaning that we stand or fall on our words. Words must be seen in deeds, according to St Ignatius. And this evening, we also come to celebrate the wedding anniversary of a couple: Patricia and Joseph. Their wedding photos would have faded a bit but of course, with digital technology you can retouch the photos etc. The fact remains that even time may have passed, what have endured are your words… “I, so and so, take you to be my husband. I promise to be true to you in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health till death do us part”. These are the words that you can take to the bank.
By the way, we never really give the word “bank” a second thought but those of you who belong to the ancient tradition (trust me, you would want to be that), the word “bank” is actually built on the foundation of words “I give you my word” because that was it in the days when banking was done over a table and one’s word was as good as gold. You remember the first generation of immigrants who came to this country and that when they said something, they meant something. Imagine a building was built not on contracts signed but on words. A man is only as good as his words.
Words are powerful. They can maim. They can heal. They can bring despair or hope. We appear to have forgotten the binding power of the word. And, in an era which can be described as post-literate, we hear that a picture paints a thousand words and yet it was the Word through Whom the world was created. We may be made in His image and likeness but still, it is through His word that we are created. Therefore, we need to return to the promise inherent in the words we use.
Why? In the context of the anniversary we are celebrating, the Church stands or falls through marriages. Listen to how the preface to the wedding is phrased: For you have forged the covenant of marriage as a sweet yoke of harmony and an unbreakable bond of peace, so that the chaste and fruitful love of holy Matrimony may serve to increase the children you adopt as your own. By your providence and grace, O Lord, you accomplish the wonder of this twofold design: that, while the birth of children brings beauty to the world, their rebirth at Baptism gives increase to the Church, through Christ our Lord.4 The question is: “How else will the Church grow if not through the baptism of infants?”
Marriage is essential to the Church’s growth but regrettably, conventional wisdom runs counter to marriage as a sacrament of fidelity; a sacrament of permanence. It is much easier to give up than to hold on and to say that marriage is needed because of the Church’s growth is a selfish way to putting it, no? It sounds selfish because there could be couples who may have tried and tried and tried. And yet, failure does not invalidate the truth that marriage’s stability is necessary for the family’s health. Our children, your children already have to put up with the vagaries of a relativistic world, where nothing is constant and everything is in a flux, so you can imagine what the impact would be like when the world at home is no different from the world outside. It is immensely frightening for children. Hence, a stable marriage—here stable is not the same with perfect5—is necessary for the future of the family, the future of the Church and if you like the future of civilisation.
At the beginning, we started off by talking about visions. Isaiah’s vision of the future world necessarily embraces the wheat-fields of good and solid marriages. We believe that God’s vision for creation began through the Word and is sustained by the Word. In a fragmented post-literate world, the world wide web is the new Gutenberg highway through which our words must traverse. A philosopher once said, “Language is the house of Being”. For our Christian vision to take shape, we must ensure that every word that passes through it counts. You can begin by being true to your words before and after marriage or in and out of marriage.

1 Or nowadays, “conventional wisdom” dictates that we use the term differently abled. Yes, PC is an imposed conventional wisdom.
2 Perhaps we can understand why the Koran cannot but be set in the Arabic language. It is God’s word as dictated to the Prophet Mohammad. The difference between the Christianity and Islam is that the Word became flesh whereas the Koran remains God’s word pure and simple because it records God’s dictation to Mohammad. According to Dominus Iesus, “The truth about God is not abolished or reduced because it is spoken in human language; rather, it is unique, full, and complete, because he who speaks and acts is the Incarnate Son of God. Thus, faith requires us to profess that the Word made flesh, in his entire mystery, who moves from incarnation to glorification, is the source, participated but real, as well as the fulfilment of every salvific revelation of God to humanity, and that the Holy Spirit, who is Christ’s Spirit, will teach this “entire truth” to the Apostles and, through them, to the whole Church”.(§6)
3 The exchange of information has the potential of building the community. However, the posing of a 35-year-old man as a 12-year-old girl shows how easy it is through the media to go exceed or diminish reality. Anonymity allows us to be uninhibited. But what has happened is that misery has sought company in that “likes” seemed to have bred “likes”, meaning that if a person can be perverse and is not ashamed to flaunt it publicly, it gives others also the courage to do the same. And therefore, what was once private has now become public. We exchange private information publicly and unabashedly. This is symptomatic of our craving for the Garden of Eden where the promise of the E-Garden is nakedness with no shame.
4 For comparison, check out the older text. The newer text brings out much better the context of the increase for God’s family—through baptism. “By this sacrament your grace unites man and woman in an unbreakable bond of love and peace. You have designed the chaste love of husband and wife for the increase both of the human family and your own family born in baptism. You are the loving Father of the world of nature; you are the loving Father of the new creation of grace. In Christian marriage you bring together the two orders of creation: nature's gift of children enriches the world and your grace enriches also your Church”.
5It is ironical that we all crave for news and usually the more salacious news of celebrity foibles. But, in our personal lives, there appears to be an unwritten code that marriages are supposed to “happy ever after”. Could this be some sort of Hollywood-raised expectations that couples have? Think of the many couples shattered by the discovery of infidelity and the aftermath is that the faithful party cannot see beyond the stain of infidelity. For couples who celebrate their anniversaries, can we assume that there never was any infidelity along the way? Infidelities and their consequence speak to us of “conversion”. What many couples have in front of them is not a “perfect take-off, perfect-landing, and no hiccoughs along the way” marriage. In fact, many enduring couples can tell you that they have had to work through some of the most difficult kinks in their lives post-marriage. This is one reason why marriage is a sacrament. The couple needs grace to make sure that they can survive through. All they need is to cling to the resolve that come what may, through good times and bad, through sickness and health, they will survive it together with the assistance of God. No marriage is a perfect match made in heaven. The couple if it is serious will be tested to the max and sometimes to breaking point. But, the nature of grace is that it is always sufficient for us. All we have is to believe in it. Too often we do not believe enough.