Sunday, 16 July 2017

14th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A 2017

There are two parts to the Gospel for this Sunday and they both seem unrelated. The first part is found also in Luke's Gospel. The similarity would suggest that both Evangelists drew inspiration from a common source of material. This part is sometimes called a synoptic thunderbolt from the Johannine sky because the narrative style is atypical of the Evangelists. It is rather evocative of the long discourses found in the Fourth Gospel.

The second part is definitely Matthean--and its connexion to the first reading provides us with the theme of humility. Humility is defined as an ordered virtue that prevents a person from either over-reaching or under-valuing himself. It is opposed to pride as well as to an immoderate abnegation of self to the point that one does not acknowledge God's gifts and to use them accordingly for His greater glory.

In a narcissistic culture that esteems self-idolatry, what place does humility have in Christian spirituality? Not only is our culture narcissistic but it is also one that prizes independence and the virtues of self-reliance and freedom. Thus, the yoke that Jesus proposes finds no place in such a culture. It runs against a convention that views dependency as weakness or subservience. The heroic virtues associated with sanctity does not rhyme with Romanticism's unique individual who grapples alone with whatever curve balls life throws at it. He is a self-sufficient hero with the strength of character to go against the flow as personified by mavericks like Macgyver or Indiana Jones. How is humility to be conceived in such characters? For them, humility is almost like an attribute that one possesses. Hence, for the self-made man, to be called "humble' certainly looks good on one's resumé.

But, if humility is considered a moral virtue, then it is substantially an expression of a relationship. In other words, humility is relational. At the beginning, I mentioned the apparent unrelatedness between the two parts of the Gospel. Actually, the so-called Johannine Discourse reveals a deep affection that exists between Jesus and His Father. It is an intense intimacy that we have been invited to. It is within this familiarity that humility makes sense. The yoke is therefore a potent symbol of knowledge rather than a shameful sign of slavery. Otherwise, emptied of its relational content, humility can only appear as a caricature of what it is not supposed to be--a kind of pusillanimity or rather a timidity of spirit. And if it were merely an attribute, then it describes someone who is pretty much congenial.

How do we preach humility in a go-getter society without it coming across as pusillanimous? If humility is relational, then it is also a virtue for heaven. When God is not in our picture, we will always be afraid that we might lose out. For example, the need to "justify" oneself. Here, the reference is not to the notion of justification and salvation but rather the need to explain oneself. Our fear has conflated both misunderstanding with loss in the sense that to be misunderstood signals a certain loss. Thus, I want my superiors or bosses to understand me. We all inhabit a wounded world holding on to the myth that our stories are not complete unless they are told. Is it any wonder why we need to have biopics or docudramas and our ever present eulogies delivered at Masses?

But, how about letting the Lord complete our stories, not here but in heaven?

Humility is a relationship with heaven. Saint Augustine termed it a fundamental virtue. So, when we describe a person as humble, it may come across as if it were a virtue possessed. The thing is, we do not "possess" it. When we consider the disparate parts of the Gospel, that is, the Johannine discourse and the invitation to bear the yoke of a humble Jesus, then we realise that humility is less an attribute possessed and more a relationship entered into.

To be humble requires that one has a relationship with both the Lord and heaven we are destined for. A recognition that one can afford not to fight not because of fear but because there is confidence in the Lord and that a loss here on earth of prestige, honour and power is never a loss in absolute terms. According to Saint Teresa of Avila, humility is truth. If it is truth about who I am, then humility is also truth about who God is. He is the only one who will never betray our trust in Him. Saint John Vianney counsels that one should pray for the grace to know that we are nothing of ourselves, and that our corporal as well as our spiritual welfare proceeds from God alone. Hence, without humility being a relational virtue, it will become be a parody of what it is supposed to be.

C.S. Lewis reminds us: Humility is not thinking less of yourself but thinking of yourself less. God can be trusted to think of us more than we can ever that it is possible to think oneself less. Thus, humility is not so much a "quality" that one possesses but a relationship that one enters into. It is within this familiarity that saintly counsels make sense: "O Master, grant that I may never seek, so much to be consoled as to console, to be understood as to understand, to be loved as to love with all my soul" or "Teach me to serve You as You deserve, to give and not to count the cost, to fight and not to heed the wounds, to toil and not to seek for rest, to labour and not to seek for reward, save that of knowing that I do Your will".


Thursday, 15 June 2017

Pentecost 2017

We hear it frequently asserted that Pentecost is the birthday of the Church. If it is, then it is also the birth of the community which very soon in the ancient city of Antioch would be called Christian. The Spirit, the community and the Church, themes of Pentecost, are clearly reflected in the Apostles' Creed which professes a belief in the "Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church and the communion of Saints".

Even though this event signals the birth of the Church, it was not something that happened out of the blue. This is because salvation history is at the same time a pilgrimage of freedom. A link can readily be established between the Pentecost we celebrate and what took place at Mount Sinai. At Sinai, the journey of freedom that had begun with the Exodus ended on the mountain when the Lord gave the community of freed men and women the Law which determined their individual freedom. In the context of both the newly founded Church and Christian community, this individual freedom is now strengthened with the gift of the Holy Spirit.

It might be profitable to reflect on how the Holy Spirit, the Third Person of the Trinity, animates the Church, the Body of Christ as it is relevant in a world that seems to have elevated freedom as an individual property whilst forgetting its communal implications. 

Firstly, one of the many gifts of the Holy Spirit is the healing of the breach brought about by Babel where the two sins of pride and self-sufficiency resulted in discord and division. With the Holy Spirit, the breaking down of frontier or borders is always at the service of the common good. One cannot get more communal than the Catechism's rich description of the Communion of Saints as a "sharing of holy things amongst holy people".

Sadly, our notion of the frontier is mostly conceived of in terms of the individual. Freedom is defined as one's right with regard to individual expressions and often at the expense of the whole. An amnesia regarding freedom is that we have forgotten that "shared" freedom is always a freedom with individual limits. Therefore, Pentecost as the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles is ultimately the feast of love--love for God and for others. The Spirit is never a spirit of the "self" that is overly concerned with "individual" freedom. The word "individual" is a relational term because one is an “individual” in relation to the "community". Freedom is always at the service of the community. What is to be understood as "There are many gifts but always the same Spirit" is that all the gifts of the Spirit are gifts for the good of the whole, that is, the Body of Christ.

Secondly, nothing of what Jesus taught will be lost. He gave the assurance that the Holy Spirit will be the guarantor of His teaching. This guarantee of authenticity binds the Spirit TO the Church. Here we encounter a truly troubled notion that many have of the Church. "I love Jesus but I do not need the Church" or "I am spiritual but not religious" are two examples of the predicament that the Church is undergoing. The hierarchy especially, suffers from a crisis of credibility. This is more so after the exposure of the cover-ups of scandals. As a result, we have a credibility-deficit generation espousing a common assumption that the content of a message is equivalent to the credibility of the messenger. As long as someone is not credible, what he says is often discounted as true. A good example of this is when the Prime Minister of a particular country speaks, almost everyone will, except the “gullible[1]”, immediately equates whatever he says to be lies. Conspiracy theories sprout most easily in this integrity-deficit soil.

But, the Church is important because she alone enjoys the guarantee of the Holy Spirit, a guarantee which gives rise to the three properties of the Church: her authority, infallibility and indefectibility. These properties are necessary because the Church, born on Pentecost, through the Holy Spirit, is the continuation of the mission of Christ in reconciling the world to the Father. In fact, the magisterium and the sacraments, through the Spirit, find a direct link back to Jesus Christ.

However, the mission of Christ is in jeopardy because, for some reasons, the link between the Holy Spirit and the Church seems to be have been severed. When the Holy Spirit is no longer bound to (not by) the Church, it is easy to forget her divine pedigree and therefore the mission entrusted to her. Instead, like any social organisation, our task will always be to "update" her so that she can serve whatever criteria that are current. When the Church's mission to evangelise is no longer her raison d'être, then evangelisation will simply be reduced to one of her many ministries. When she cannot conform to what is demanded outside her mission, she will be labelled as "staid" or conservative for want of a better word. And, those who dare believe that the Church has a duty to pass on the deposit of the Apostolic faith in its entirety will be looked upon as “rigidists” or “restorationists”.[2]

If the goal of Christ's mission is liberation, then freedom is for us to worship the Father in Spirit and in truth. But, here we are, lie-weary, disinformation-wary and transparent-hungry. To speak of an institution[3] capable of Truth is too good to be true. Catholics themselves do not believe that this is possible[4]. Top that, enlightened western Europe has proudly proclaimed herself, if not in words, then in actions, as post-Christian and therefore, post-Church. In a Trump post-truth presidency, it would appear that truth serves at the pleasure of power. He who has greater control over the media will have a greater truth. How can the Church carry out her mission to evangelise when the belief that she alone possesses the pledge of the Holy Spirit has been subverted?

Man is created with this hunger for what is enduring and true. Wikileaks and Edward Snowden's disclosures of classified information reveal to us that man can never run away from his vocation which is to worship freely in Spirit and in truth. Without any guarantee that Truth can be arrived at, "truth" will effortlessly resort to subjective feelings and this usually means being "true" to what one feels. However, the objectivity of truth can be gleaned from this example. I feel murderous. Does it mean that to be true to myself, I need to murder? We all know this to be a rubbish example and we arrive at this knowledge because we instinctively recognise that there is a standard or benchmark which beckons us to live up to it.

Where do we find this standard? Is it sufficient that every religion holds a particular standard? If that were true, then every religion is no more than an individual writ large meaning that we are no better off than what we have now: "atomised truth" where everyone believes it is enough that what is true is true for himself. What if everyone in a particular religion believes that it is morally right to kill those who do not share its beliefs, do the many who hold that belief make it right? Where is the objectivity? The question again comes back to this: Is it true and if it is, where is our guarantee that it is not just subjective to an individual or even to an aggregation of individuals?

There is one entity which alone can guarantee the objectivity of truth--the Church. Uncomfortable as this may be to hear, all salvation comes from Christ through the Church which is His Body (CCC 846). Thus, the Church is mission, the Church is evangelisation because, despite her failing members, she alone possesses the pledge and promise of the Holy Spirit. Contrary to conventional wisdom, obedience to the Church does not endanger individual freedom. Instead, it enlarges individual freedom so that it is no longer slave to individual selfishness but serves the common good.

Jesus came to liberate us so that in freedom we may pursue the good of heaven. But, if freedom were just restricted to claiming what is accrued to me, the individual, then the Church mission ceases to make sense. The conflicts between the so-called “liberals” and “conservatives” are mainly attempts to define “tribal” freedom. Furthermore, if we observe both post-Christian Europe and the post-truth America, they both share one common goal and that is, the creation of greater happiness through 1) the tolerance of religious freedom, 2) efficiency in governance and transportation and 3) education through arts and sciences. But, they have forgotten that earthly contentment as a goal and a common good is merely a foretaste of the beatific vision—a vision made possible through the Church's evangelising mission, which is to proclaim the Gospel of salvation and not just “individual” freedom, good as it may be for human flourishing.

Pentecost is a reminder that the visible mission of Jesus Christ is now continued by the invisible mission of the Holy Spirit through the Church. If we are serious about eternity, then it is to this Church that we must closely cleave to. Aptly, in describing the unity of the Church, St Cyprian reminds us that, one cannot have God as Father without having the Church as mother. Holy Mother Church is the only institution animated by the Spirit who guarantees that she will always remain the Sacrament of Salvation and that the freedom we seek is to fully embrace the gift of salvation for the life of the world to come.



[1] I purposely include the clause “except the gullible” because there is a dictatorial “wisdom” that condemns anyone who dares to stand apart from it. Liberalism likes to present itself as champion of the rights of the minority against “customs, prejudices, superstitions and taboos”, but in itself, it is also tyrannical when it comes to enforcing its dictates. A good example of this is political correctness which sets the boundaries of acceptable speech and opinion. Anyone who does not subscribe to this ideology will be labelled a bigot, a hater, a racist or definitely a “phobe” of some kind.
[2] The Holy Spirit is supposedly unbounded. He is not even “bound to”, let alone “bound by” the Church. Thus, unconventional behaviour in missiology will be canonised as maverick creativity whilst obedience will be demonised as confounding the work of the Holy Spirit. In other words, the Magisterium, the hierarchy and the Tradition are often portrayed as the “enemies” of the Holy Spirit.
[3] Anything which smacks of “establishment” cannot be trusted to be truthful.
[4] There is perhaps an anthropomorphic transference whereby our fallibility is transferred to the Holy Spirit. Gender ideology takes a position against the anthropomorphic association of God with gender and yet here we are, transposing our human weakness unto the Holy Spirit. 

Saturday, 3 June 2017

7th Sunday of Easter Year A 2017

Catholics are, in general, regarded as less of being Christian than being superstitious. According to 1 Tim 2:5, there is only one mediator between God and Man and He is Jesus Christ. And Catholics do not seem to grasp that because the contour of their religious horizon is outlined by so many devotions. We pray through Mary and on top of that, we also go through the saints. Furthermore, what is this preoccupation with novenas?

There are so many novenas and the one distinguishing mark about them is the figure of nine. For example, the Simbang Gabi, a novena much loved by the Filipinos and takes place nine days before Christmas.

According to the Catholic Encyclopaedia, "the simplest explanation of the Christmas novena is the nine months of Christ in the womb. But for every novena of preparation, as also for every novena of prayer, not only the best explanation but also the best model and example was given by Christ Himself to the Church in the first Pentecost novena. He Himself expressly exhorted the Apostles to make this preparation. And when the young Church had faithfully persevered for nine full days in it, the Holy Ghost came as the precious fruit of this first Christian novena for the feast of the establishment and foundation of the Church".

Perhaps the Proddies were right about this. Like the encrustation attached to a sunken ship, we fail to appreciate what we have for what it truly is. Today is the 3rd of the Novena to the Holy Spirit. Just like the "disappeared" 7th Sunday of Easter when replaced by the Ascension, for many of us, these nine days between Ascension and Pentecost count for nothing. 

Why?

Within a Pelagian framework, notably in a self-made, self-help, self-actualised cosmos, the notion of a "deity" is almost redundant. God for us has truly become "Emmanuel" in the fullest sense of the word. It means that we want a deity distant enough not to threaten us with his demand but proximate enough to accede to our every desire. Is it any wonder that many novenas are organised along the themes of intercessions, petitions and favours? If God exists, He serves a purpose in my existence--to canonise me as the centre of the universe.

The Gospel though, provides a purpose that far exceeds one's mundane needs. But, before we delve into what that aim is, it must be stressed that our needs, are not bad in themselves, because one should avoid any whiff of Gnosticism whereby the material world is rejected. Hence, petition is an accepted form of prayer as suggested by the Pater noster: Give us this day our daily bread.

Even though we are encouraged to seek, what we ask for should always coincide with what the Lord intends to give: eternal life. One of the most precious gifts, blessings or possessions and certainly more desirable than wealth, is health. If one does not visit a hospital, especially a subsidised one, one would never think that there are that many people who are sick. Perhaps it explains why Lourdes as a place of pilgrimage is infinitely more popular than Fatima since the intent of bathing in the waters is asking for cures of all kinds. We desire health in order to enjoy wealth and if judged by the number of movies centring on the theme of immortality, we would like to live forever. Like 50 is the new 30 or life begins at 70? But, the purpose of eternal life is not to live forever. Instead, eternal life consists of this: to know the one true God and Jesus Christ whom He has sent.

Knowledge is the basis for eternal life. Unfortunately, in a knowledge-based economy, knowledge is regarded as power. According to this reckoning, the more one knows, the more powerful one can be. If you think about it, WikiLeaks and espionage are both battlegrounds for knowledge--that he who controls the flow of information has greater power. However, knowledge in the biblical sense is not the amassing of facts or figures or even making connexions between the conspiracies we have. Instead, knowledge points in the direction of relationship, as in, when Adam knew Eve, she conceived and gave birth to Cain. This knowledge of God is relational rather than intellectual for it bids us enter into the full acknowledgement of who we are and who God is. It is a recognition of our status as creatures--In Him we live, we move and have our being—who are dependent on God.

These days between the Ascension and Pentecost are not simply passing days but truly a time of preparing oneself and waiting for the coming of the Spirit. They also put into perspective the way we have conceived of novenas so far. Instead of an exercise to gain God’s favour, the investment of time in pray is for the human will to bend and fit itself into God’s plans.

In terms of waiting, for a generation easily distracted by mobile devices, it can be excruciating. This is exacerbated by the expectation that the world revolves around us. Thus, we easily forget that waiting is built into the status of dependency. Like a lover waiting for the beloved, we wait for the Lord so that our hunger can be deeper and our reception richer.


If the eternal life given by the Lord is premised on entering into a relationship with Him, then like Mary and the 11 in the Upper Room, we follow them in prayer. Instead of the usual asking for God to answer our prayers, perhaps it is good to implore the Lord to grant us the gifts of the Spirit--wisdom, understanding, reverence (traditionally known as piety), knowledge, right judgment (or counsel) courage (or fortitude), and a sense of wonder and awe (otherwise called fear of the Lord)--so that we can enter into a deeper and more loving relationship with Him. 

Friday, 26 May 2017

Ascension 2017

Acts 1:3 reads that “He had shown Himself alive to them after His Passion by many demonstrations: for forty days He had continued to appear to them and tell them about the Kingdom of God”. Today is exactly the 40th day. But, in many parts of the world, this is just an ordinary day as the event we commemorate today has been transferred to this coming Sunday.

If symbolism is that central to Catholicism’s sacramental system, a question to ask is why the ease of transference? Is it simply a case of convenience—to facilitate the completion of two obligations with one celebration? Or will we lose something when Ascension is switched to a Sunday?[1]

It might be good to explore what loss we suffer, if any, were we to make a change.

The word bog is evocative as the vision of Jim Henson's Bog of Eternal Stench will conjure. The British use the word to designate their loo. However, its Gaelic or Irish origin is gentler as it refers to the softness or the moist of the peatland. What is interesting is that a particular usage of the word has a rather burdensome connotation such as “being bogged down by work or worries”. Nobody in the right frame of mind likes to be bogged down. In fact, we all yearn to be light and elated or better still, we prefer to be elevated and exalted. Since we are close to the feast of the Spirit, the idea of being “up there” somehow ennobles the spirit.

Now, whether heaven is “up” there or not, the verbs to ascend, to rise and to go up are motions imbued with empyrean or celestial aspiration. Otherwise, why get “high” on drugs or adrenalin rushes? The human spirit has a sublime affinity for soaring because we are created that way. Even Eros, according Benedict XVI, when purified will regain its original dignity—a dignity which conceals a supernatural hunger that the Lord has placed in man when he was created.

However, the purification that Eros requires is not purely a matter of disciplining. Beating the body up is no way to get it to fall into line. Asceticism without inspiration is nothing but cruelty because the human spirit will only soar when it is inspired.[2]

The inspiration is reflected in the preface for the Eucharist in which we hear that He ascended, not to distance Himself from our lowly state but that we, His members, might be confident of following where He, our Head and Founder, has gone before. It is this captivating attraction that drew the most perfect disciple of the Master, body and soul, to heaven as rendered by the preface for the Assumption, (t)he Virgin Mother of God was assumed into heaven as the beginning and image of your Church’s coming to perfection and a sign of sure hope and comfort to your pilgrim people.

The human spirit is enlivened through inspiration. Every four years, the Olympic Games served to encourage man in the quest for "Citius, Altius, Fortius". But, somehow, to be faster, higher and stronger only expresses what is humanly achievable. It is good but is it enough to satisfy the human spirit? The inspiration that ennobles the human spirit is more than achievement. It is conveyed through "art".

The objective of art is to mirror beauty. But, art appears to have lost sight of its purpose. According to Christian tradition, beauty has an ontological significance because its function is to reveal a thing for what it truly is. Here "is" is not just anything that can be thought of but rather "is" is a reflexion of what the Creator has endowed creation to be. Thus, beauty embodies proportion and unity and art's role is to allow these proportion and unity to shine through. In other words, art imitates the perfection of heaven. Sadly, according to Leo Tolstoy: art, in our society, has been so perverted that not only has bad art come to be considered good, but even the very perception of what art really is, has been lost.

Now, if heaven is that beautiful, how come so few are interested in it? In fact, if at all, today we strive so much to prolong this temporary life. The answer may lie in the severed link between art and beauty. Art does not know what its goal is. What do I mean by that? In many of our artistic renditions of heaven, the beauty of heaven is parodied through the inane or asinine. Take for example: Bruce Almighty. This is not an inspiring take on heaven, is it? In fact, it makes fun of heaven.

On a more serious note, consider the example of the British artist Chris Ofili. His mixed-media portrayal of the Madonna is decorated with varnished elephant dung whereas the angels surrounding her are made from cut pictures of female genitalia.[3] In this rendition of Our Lady, what is considered "art" has been severed from beauty so much so that anything today that is considered as art should also be removed from any moral consideration. After all, who are we to judge? It boils down to perspective.

When art loses its goal, that is, to ennoble the spirit, it will become a slave of celebrity-hood and as a consequence, it functions no more than a marketing strategy. The idea of art as celebrity-hood frequently reduces it to some "shocking" expressions. In fact, in order to qualify as art, it has to be so revolting that it becomes attractive. Have you eaten ramen out of a toilet bowl or would you eat bread shaped like a pile of faeces?

How are we supposed to go heaven when we are snagged by the ugly rather than drawn up by the sublime? Art ennobles and helps the human spirit soar and it is able to do that because of its association with beauty.

We have loss a taste for heaven because we are no longer at home with beauty.[4] The transference of such an important feast to a Sunday might be a matter of convenience[5] but perhaps it is also emblematic of the loss of inspiration for art is nothing but what you can get away with. That is Andy Warhol.




[1] Epiphany is no longer the 6th of January. Corpus Christi is no longer the Thursday after Trinity Sunday…
[2] The etymology of the word “inspire” is itself derived from word “spirit”. However, the use of the word “inspire” suggests a state of being caught up or to be captivated by. So, discipline alone is never enough. Suicide bombing, though regarded as evil by many, is for perpetrators, not so much evil as it is inspiring. They do it because the notion of sacrificing for a cause is more captivating than the calculated cost of carnage. Indoctrination works only because it has perverted a vision which inspires.
[3] Indeed, it was a dung deal for it was sold in June 2015 by Christie’s at a handsome price of £2.9m.
[4] The appreciation of beauty requires time and waiting. But, we live in a world with an insatiable need for instant gratification. It is a world that sees no value in vigils or novenas because these take time. We rush to create instant utopia which is but a poor substitute for heaven. For example, tea drinking. When elevated to an art form it takes on a ritual which prolongs the experience of contemplation. But, we have reduced it to a tea-bag. This drive for instant fulfilment, when translated into spirituality, is observed through our rushed prayers. Priest habitually use the Eucharistic Prayer II because it is the shortest. Parishioners will cheer a priest whose homily is short because minutes are shaved off the length of the Mass.
[5] Not quite a few of our church architecture embodies the philosophy of functionality. They are structures of convenience rather than sanctuaries of beauty—spaces that captivate and send our spirits soaring into heaven.

6th Sunday of Easter Year A 2017

As we inch toward the Ascension and Pentecost, three ingredients are thrown into the Gospel mix: Jesus speaks of love and links it to obeying His commandments and promises the coming of the Spirit. In a freedom-sensitive setting, meaning that we abhor anything that restricts our personal freedom, love and commandments are analogous to the immiscibility of oil and water. Love liberates whilst laws limit.

Further to this seeming mutual exclusivity between love and obedience, St Paul also added that the "letter kills, whereas the Spirit gives life" (2Cor 3:6). Take for example, the phenomenon of SBNR which stands for, "I am spiritual but not religious". This personal choice takes issues with organised or institutional religion, i.e., with structures that embodies commandments, rules and laws. Religion, instead of facilitating, is construed as obstruction to the genuine and interior experience of the Divine.[1]

This attitude that the "letter kills, but the Spirit gives life" has far-reaching consequences and is rather pervasive. In the aftermath of Vatican II, it served as a principle for the interpretation of the Council which, for many, is known as the "spirit of Vatican II". This "spirit" empowers a reading of the Council's documents that goes beyond the restriction placed by the text. For some, it was an essential licence that enabled a Church sorely in need of renewal to enter into conversation with modernity. For others, the result has been rather devastating because the attempt to modernise has somehow detached the Church's mooring from the living Tradition that has come down to us from the Apostles.[2]

If we accept the rift between letter and Spirit as true, then not only are both texts and laws inimical to the Spirit, they would also naturally be considered as "harsh". In what way are they looked upon as unbending? Well, whether one likes it or not, what is characteristic of both texts and laws is that they are marked by boundaries or limitations. Our notion of mercy, currently unbridled, operates outside the limits of conventionality.[3] In other words, if both texts and laws were bound by conventionality, then to borrow a phrase from Frankie Valli's Grease: We take the pressure and we throw away conventionality belongs to yesterday. In all things considered, novelty is the default position. Anything old should be consigned to the dunghill of antiquity.

So, how can we make sense of love as obedience to commandments and the promise of the Holy Spirit. They made sense to the Lord for otherwise He would not have spoken of them together.

First, conventionality is not a relic of the past. In fact, the past, present and future are connected in an organic whole when we speak of chronological time. The wisdom is not to hold on to the past alone. That would be nostalgia and therefore a relic. Neither is it to live for the future alone. That would not be living at all because one is afraid to put down roots for fear that the shape of the future we invest in is not a continuation from the present. Finally, focussing on the present only will subject us to the tyranny of the immediate which may make us miss out on the ordinary. Imagine posting on social media and, almost immediately, waiting for the "ding" of affirmation to chime. In the process we fail to be present to what we have at the moment. As the contour of our relationships is shaped more and more by technology, the tendency is also to dismiss the past. We easily forget the past because we are buffeted by the tyrannical winds of relevance, running from the fear of being left behind by whilst chasing after the latest fad or fancy.[4]

Conventionality is not a restriction from the past. In fact, love and commandments speak to the totality of our being. We remember the past so that our present can be open to the future. The letter, laws, commandments, even though they tend to hold or mould us in a particular pattern, they are, in fact, functioning as a memory of the past in which the wisdom of God has been present. We remember because God has always been there for us even if we do not feel His presence.

Secondly, be aware that both the Spirit and love, rather than obedience to commandments, appeal more to us because of our bias for the personal and the interior. Obedience to commandments connotes observance in the sense that one can observe the rules and regulations without ever being converted. The phrase "follow the letter of the law and not the spirit of the law" seems to indicate a scorned slavishness which is antithetical to the notion of freedom so prized by individuals. In fact, the mere observation of the laws or commandment is disdained as hypocrisy and nothing frightens modern man more than being judged as inauthentic.

In order to fully function according to the Spirit and to be loving, it seems that one needs to break free from the restrictions of commandments. Sadly, the notion of unbridled mercy is tainted by this bias. To be merciful, it would appear that one needs to break the laws. Perhaps, one can appreciate why the Pharisees are an easy target for scape-goating. In our own time, in the conflict between "conservative" and "liberal" Catholicism, there is no prize for guessing who the Pharisees are in this equation. But, love for it to be fruitful and true, it is bound by conventionality. It is not as unfettered as free love was made out to be. If it were as unrestrained as we believe it to be, then who is to decide that paedophilia should not be accepted as a valid form of love. Love is love and it does not matter whom it is directed to, except that instinctively we wince at such a suggestion.[5]

We suffer the imperfection of our present world and yearn for a better one. We are searching for ways to make it a more loving one. But, the true nature of love is never arrived at at the expense of "commandments". It is not rooted in spontaneity but in its directedness. Love is more than just a description of being. It is also directed through our actions--not just any action but moral actions. But these actions intended for the world are not solely about the present world. Like the Babel, we may be building a future that will never come to fruition because heaven can never be attained in a temporal world.

Recall the Easter Vigil. At the blessing of the Paschal Candle, when the current year (of the Lord) is traced, these words are proclaimed: Christ, yesterday and today, the beginning and the end, the Alpha and the Omega. All time belongs to Him and all the ages. To Him be glory and power through every age and forever. Amen".

Here, we recognise that time is not just an organic whole. Time too has a direction, but not simply one that moves towards the future. All time belongs to Him and thus, time has as its final destination: Jesus Christ, the Lord of time. It is within the context of moving in His direction that the Spirit is promised. He will be our guide through time so that we can work out our salvation in the present without neglecting our past in order that we may enter the next world and not just a future world.[6]

Finally, if there is a lesson to be learnt about the present world we live in and our desire to make it a better one, C. S. Lewis in Mere Christianity says this: If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were precisely those who thought most of the next. It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this". Thus, if we are keen to change this world, it would do well for us to keep in mind that the promised Spirit is not given for that purpose. Instead, the Advocate’s primary task is to assist us in the journey to the next world. It is only with eyes fixed on Jesuand a life of eternity can we hope to be effective in this world’s transformation.




[1] The is a certain distance from traditional faith whereby belief is placed in this undemanding Deity who exists solely to solve problems and also to make people feel good. Only a cruel God demands anything of us.
[2] A hermeneutics of discontinuity that views the Church as pre-Vatican and post-Vatican.
[3] Since a substantial number of marriages fail, should we not relax the choking hold of the indissolubility of a sacramental marriage.
[4] Know of any broadcast media interested in reporting yesterday’s news? It should be a “olds” media instead of a “news” media. In fact, internet portals exist to be at the cutting age of news as it develops.
[5] The idea that all you need is love is naïve to say the least. “If loving you is wrong, then I don’t want to be right” is not a 100% guarantee of personal contentment. In fact, unrestrained promiscuity brought more dissatisfaction because it is ruled not by love but by lust. “Fools in lust could never get enough of love”… Black Eyed Peas.
[6] I am quite certain that some people do not believe that there is heaven. Any description of it is chrono-spatial in the sense that we describe it using earthly and temporal terms. Thus, the future which is yet to materialise is the closest we get to eternity. However well we can define heaven, the reality will always exceed our definition. 

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

5th Sunday of Easter Year A 2017

Whilst Jesus may have the audacity to arrogate Himself as the Way, the Truth and the Life, today most likely, we consider Him to be one of many possible ways, a definitely positive perspective and certainly a fine moral example. There is no likelihood of verifying His absolute claim because epistemology or the "how" of knowing is bogged down in the morass of paradigms, models and hypotheses. It is about how you look at it. Thus, if Gustave Flaubert, a 19th century French novelist, were to be consulted, Jesus would have come to the conclusion that His central message is all about perspective and not about truth. Since the "advent" of perspectivism, "objective" truth has lost not only its metaphysical footing but also its hold on us. Instead of it being captivating, truth is now ransomed by our point of view. In short, truth is not what it is but what we think it is. What this boils down to is that reality has become our whims and meaning no more than our compulsions.

It is too bad that jesting Pilate did not wait to hear the answer to the question: "Quid est veritas?". The answer is that Truth is knowable not because it is an objective thing but because it is personal. Slightly more than a decade ago, a speech given at a German university nearly set the world on fire. Amid the acrid smoke of being slighted, what was missed was an attempt to bring to fore the whole idea that truth is knowable because it is reasonable. Truth and reason are related, but truth is not hard science in the sense that it is cold hard facts. Instead, truth is personal.[1] When Jesus professed His famous Via, Veritas and Vita, He was staking a claim that He and Truth are synonymous. He is Truth and Truth is He.

Why?

If the Logos is rationality, it stands to reason that the truth should be reasonable too.[2] In other words, anyone who is searching for the truth will encounter Jesus Christ even if the searcher himself does not know it. And, anyone who searches for Jesus will ultimately arrive at truth because Jesus does not stand behind the truth as if the truth were separate from Him. But, guess what? In the interest of peaceful co-existence, and in light of religious pluralism, such an absolute claim should never be uttered. Shame on me for being so arrogant. Perhaps, this explains a hesitant half-hearted embrace of the Church's mission to evangelise.[3]

But, if the Church is to be faithful to her identity, then her mission to evangelise, that is, to bring the Gospel to the ends of the earth, has not changed. Not even in the face of myriad competing religious claims. Despite the challenges of a pluralistic environment, the assumption remains that the world still hungers for the truth.[4] There is an innate congruency between evangelisation and reception--a natural complementarity because the world which bears the imprint of truth cannot but be responsive to it.

But, we dare not hear "truth" for itself for the consequence is more than we are ready to bear. Two words here might help clarify this paralysing fear--contingency and canonisation. They are relational because contingency which is fluid only makes sense in connexion with canonisation which is fixity. These polarities must be held in tension. But, buffeted by the compelling winds of diversity, we are afraid to anchor ourselves for that would come across as dangerous fundamentalism--a flaw, which according to a trumped politician, belongs to the basket of deplorables. Instead, cocooned by an enforced notion that religion should be privatised because what one believes is one's private business, we are encouraged to embrace contingency and ambiguity when we enter the public arena. Here, in this social space, in this liberal agora of equal preferences, no one should make any absolute claim except obey the absolute decree that no one should make an absolute claim. In other words, we celebrate contingency because it allows for ambiguity and complexity. Life is more grey than black or white. In other words, there is no truth for that would be to canonise a position thereby excluding a large grey area of life from any consideration, especially from moral reasoning. A good example of life's contingency is found in the movie "Silence", Martin Scorsese's take on the issue of apostasy which suggested that the denial of Christ may in the context of persecution become an expression of Christian charity. Precisely, in an ambiguous and contingent world, who are we to judge? Nothing is right or wrong because it all depends on how one looks at it.

The reluctance to absolutise the assertion that Jesus is THE way, THE truth and THE life is further exhibited in this argument: "All religions are the same anyway. It does not matter which religion you embrace for all you need is to be a decent person and that is enough". With this, we are absolved, on the one hand, from absolutising Jesus as the Saviour of the world and on the other hand, we are washed clean of any responsibility to evangelise.

Yet, experience will bear us out otherwise. Have you ever heard of someone who says, "I am 97% pregnant”? One is either pregnant or not. A simple experience such as this bears witness to the incontrovertible fact that there is such a thing as "absolute" or "objective" truth. Truth is knowable even though we live in a pluralistic world. And we need not resort to some form of relativism so as not to offend others.

If that be the case, then how can we present a convincing argument that Jesus Christ is not only the Saviour of Christians but He is the Saviour of the world? The answer is found in the correlation between knowledge and its coherence in action. The witness of the early Christians rang loudly not because they shouted the loudest. Instead, the credibility of their faith rested on the strength of their witnessing. The Japanese martyrs of Silence will attest to that.

In a less hostile environment, the lack of welcome is frequently cited as cause for church defection. People leave a parish because the parish is inhospitable to the strangers in our midst. The alternative is not to be found in the suggestion of being a happy-clappy superficially smiling parish. The point is, in an age of instant media coverage, the medium is indeed the message. The failure of evangelisation is a strong indictment of the credibility of the messengers rather than the refutation of the content. The truth whom Jesus is, has been vitiated by the incoherence of our actions. In short, Christian grace has not made a difference in the conduct of our lives. Yes, it is true that there is sin involved but a Christian is always called to a higher standard. It does not, in any way, make us superior. Au contraire, it is painfully demanding but let us never forget that witness and martyrdom are one and the same word. The higher requirement is specified by the principle that we are in the world but we are not of the world. Hence, no greater love a man has than to lay down his life for his friends. Thus, it is no accident that Tertullian described that the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church.

If the world has not warmed up to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, that is not because all religions are the same. Rather, the muted stance we have taken with regard to evangelisation is symptomatic of the poverty of our action. The message may have been received intellectually but it has not been embraced wilfully. We believe but we are simply not living it to the full. We are in the world but more often than not, we are shamefully of the world.

______________________________

[1] It sounds subjective to speak of it as “personal” and not “objective” but if one were to consider John’s prologue, it makes sense. Through Him all things were made. “Objective” truth is premised on the 2nd “Person” of the Trinity.
[2] In a sceptical world, reason and faith are mutually exclusive. In fact, the assumption that creation has a logos is founded on the encounter between faith and reason, between fides et ratio. Furthermore, the technological advancements gained through science stands on this fruitful encounter. In summary, it cannot be that God who is logos or reason would command that which is unreasonable. Thus, the persuasiveness of Truth must be tied to reason rather than to force. It cannot be coerced. It can only persuade. That was the gist of the speech given in that university. Jurgen Habermas would consider that one has to be persuaded the unforced force of the better argument.
[3] We suffer a metaphysical and epistemological double-whammy here. First, the content of faith makes an absolute claim on us and this makes us uncomfortable so much so that we have been trying to blunt it through “contextualisation”. Relativism is a form of contextualisation. Secondly, we are not entirely sure that what we know is really true. Thus, our act of believing is lukewarm and indecisive. Suicide bombers and their ilk are fearsome because both content of their belief and the act of believing are in agreement. Likewise, the martyrs of the faith are challenging because of this synchronisation between the noun (content) and the verb (believing).
[4] The world is actually longing for its Saviour. The banishment of the Saviour of the world has only seen the expansion of the Marvel Cinematic Universe or the DC Extended Universe. All these superhero movies are latent symptoms of a universal hunger for Jesus Christ and the salvation only He can bring.

Friday, 12 May 2017

Good Shepherd Sunday Year A 2017

The statistics for priestly vocation are not encouraging. In other words, more priests are dying than seminarians are joining. Given that the median age for priest (and/or religious)[1] is creeping up and the number of new vocations has stagnated or decreased, a parish with a priest should considered itself blessed. Thus, Vocation Sunday highlights the urgent need to foster more vocations.

In general, for today, parishes or religious congregations may trot out dusty posters and brochures to be put onto notice boards or bulletin racks to encourage youths to take up priestly and/or religious life. A few more enterprising ones might just put on a video or mount an exhibition.

Vocation Sunday is otherwise known as Good Shepherd Sunday. No doubt this is inspired by the Gospel's imagery. The word "pastor" is the Latin equivalent for the English "shepherd" and from which we also derive words like pastoral and pasture. The image of Jesus as the protective Good Shepherd is further augmented by His identification as the Gate Keeper. A sheep-pen or fold does not have a physical gate. Instead, the shepherd sleeps at the entrance to guard it and if necessary to defend the integrity of the sheep fold with His life.

Sadly, in a highly urbanised setting, this pastoral image hardly appeals to a Millennial. Furthermore, it is near impossible to sell the idea of self-sacrifice to an "entitled" Millennial. Indeed, the shortage has rendered the priestly ministry so much more demanding. The social netting that allows for a community to function religiously has disappeared. Take for example, a predominantly Catholic village where children are educated either by the Brothers or the Sisters. A loss of the schools’ Catholic identity corresponds to a loss in shared language. Hence, a priest's ministry is made harder by the effects of secularisation: a pool of poorly catechised Catholics. Some would assert that "hatch, match and dispatch" (baptism, wedding and funeral) are the only occasions of contact that many Catholics have with the Church. This pastoral panorama is made more urgent by a theological restriction. Without the priest, there is no Eucharist. Without the Eucharist, there is no Church.

Therefore, what direction should we take if we want to encourage the young to give up their comfort and security in exchange for the challenges of self-sacrifice and hard work?

Firstly, self-sacrifice and hard work aside, there is a need to relook at what notion of priesthood is being put forward. Consider that the Church has always been at the forefront of caring for souls both spiritual and physical. Hospice is a good example of how the Church shows care for the physical body. With the rise of the modern state, the ministry of caring for the body became a state function. Thus, the institution of hospitals, a Catholic gift to civilisation, became an articulation of statecraft. Sadly, what was once a basic human right, through privatisation, has increasingly become a privilege. The more you have, the greater your access to privileges. Across the board, welfare is not reaching whom it is intended for. The gist is this--there is a world hungering for physical or material attention--be it from human trafficking, refugees or the disenfranchised poor. 

Secondly, given that the material concerns are pressing upon us, what is increasingly obvious is that the notion of vocation is shaped by this sociological criterion--to care for the materially impoverished. For example, the Jesuits view their mission in the world as the service of faith, of which the promotion of justice is an absolute requirement. The usual mantra rings true—the rich are getting richer and poor are getting poorer. Thus, there is a humanitarian catastrophe that demands our immediate attention. Justice for the poor is a fundamental option if we want to talk about faith in God.

Let us be clear that the material needs of a human person does have an impact on his spiritual well-being but a merely philanthropic response will restrict the vision of caring for the soul to basically a humanitarian response for the destitute. Necessary as that may be, however, the mission of the Good Shepherd consists of the threefold munera as reflected in the liturgical furnishing of the sanctuary: the chair, the ambo and the altar. The Shepherd not only presides in charity and teaches with conviction but He also sanctifies. However, if the poor are knocking on the door of the Church, it is natural to fall back on that which is more practical. Look after the poor and feed them. We have come to believe that the shortest distance to justice is through advocacy--both through our actions and our words, through our leadership and through our teaching. Furthermore, with the aid of a techno-mechanical mindset, meaning that nature, in our case society, should yield to our industrial might, one can see how compellingly logical liberation theology is for the times we live in. Through careful and efficient ideology, an unjust society can and should give way to a more equitable one.

Given that the notion of the priesthood is largely "functional", its cultic element is easily marginalised. Hiding behind the altar and praying is somewhat "useless" when there are poor people starving. In short, for the priesthood to make sense in this era, the "cultic" nature of the priesthood has to be de-emphasised. In short, the priesthood has to be desacralised.

Perhaps, the axiom lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi can give an indication for further reflexion. The manner the Church prays determines what she believes in and how she ought to live. Instead of worship setting the stage for belief and practical life, what has happened is that, in the conception of priestly vocation, we have reversed the direction whereby sociology or how society is shaped now determines how our priesthood is to be like. Sociology may give a good indication of the state of society but it may not be the best response to what is a theological issue. A good illustration has been the ordination to the diaconate of some men for the function they can perform (sociological), without proper consideration if there truly was a call (theological) in the first place.

The Latin term for a priest is sacerdos and for announcement pertaining to ordination, we use the term "sacerdotal ordination". On top of that, a sacerdos, once ordained, belongs to the "hierarchy". Both sacerdos and hierarchy have for their end: sanctification. Have you ever heard of “pastoral ordination”? And, in the context of the Church's mission, evangelisation, that is, bringing the Gospels to the ends of the world, is not only a ministry of presiding and preaching but also of sanctification--the effect of which is salvation. One can imagine how tempting it must be to regard salvation in earthly term or to confuse liberation with redemption. But, the priesthood given to the Church, even though there is a material element of taking care of the body, is primarily a ministry of saving souls. Thus, the measure of salvation is not efficiency (productivity) but sanctification. This predilection for functionality is indicative of a crisis affecting the Church--a crisis of being and thus, the desacralisation of the priesthood has had a deleterious effect for the Church. The justice we yearn so much for the world arises not from a lack of effort but rather is emblematic of a forgetfulness of sanctity. When we forget that God is holy and our task to emulate Him, then no one is sacred enough for our just consideration.

In summary, vocation to the priesthood is a vocation to the ministry of salvation. The compelling trend is to study society so as to solve the shortage of vocation sharply felt in some sections of the Church. According to current thinking, present ecclesiastical prohibition barring married men and women from ordination just does not make sense. A "contingent" bid to increase vocation, i.e., ordaining married men or women sounds just about right but it misses the mark. We are looking for a sociological response when the more pressing issue is theological. Firstly, the Eucharist as a sacrament of eternal life requires a valid priesthood. Secondly, the teaching of the Church "has remained" Apostolic. [Not "is" because "is" suggests that it can be subject to the shifting sands of whatever ideological winds are blowing].[2] If salvation through the sacraments is still offered, then the need for priestly vocation remains. The shortage of vocation is not caused by a lack in God's calling but rather by a deafness in men's responding.

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[1] Vocation Sunday can refer in general to calling for priesthood or priesthood and religious life. Some priests are religious and not all religious are priests. Here, I shall restrict myself to specifically the priestly vocation.
[2] Unless the Church has been wrong since Apostolic times to insist on a male-only priesthood. A case may be made for change. For example, slavery. Gradually the Church came to a realisation that the “imago Dei” extended to all people and not just some. Can this not be applied in the case of universal ordination? Does this question refer to the natural process of change arising from a deeper understanding OR does it pertain to the “identity” of God in whose image we have been created? What is the mind of the Saviour in instituting a male-only hierarchy? Pope Paul II decided that the Church had no authority to change a matter which concerns her divine constitution. We hear this often “imago Dei”, that is, made in the image and likeness of God but an experience we should be familiar with is that man has a tendency to reshape God according to his image.