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.

______________________

[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.

Friday, 5 May 2017

3rd Sunday of Easter Year A 2017

As the Irish "hello" goes, "What's the story"? 

Well, the Gospel carries a rather straight-forward story of two dispirited disciples distancing themselves from what they felt was death's defeat. They probably harboured some militant expectations since they viewed Jesus as a liberator of Israel from the Romans. As to His Resurrection, they exhibited a little incredulity. For them, the "missing" body was not proof enough of the Resurrection and clearly, they were not expecting Him to rise let alone recognise Him.

However, embedded within this narrative one encounters a profound description of the Mass that the Church has been celebrating since Apostolic times. In short, without making it so obvious, Luke captured the importance of Christian worship through a narration of despair. The story can be divided into two parts which corresponds to the two liturgies we have--word and sacrament. Crucial to the liturgy of the Word are both Sacred Scripture and the homily. The second part is denoted by four verbs. "Now while He was at table with them, He TOOK the bread, and SAID the blessing; then He BROKE it and HANDED it to them. These four verbs are rhythmically ritualised at each Mass through our Presentation of the gifts (TOOK), the entire Eucharistic prayer with the Institution Narrative (SAID the blessing), the Fractio Panis at the Agnus Dei (BROKE) and finally the giving of Holy Communion (HANDED it to them).

In other words, the Mass is not a "Catholic" invention. It belongs to the Living Tradition of the Church since the Apostolic era. This belonging is not accidental. Instead, it is at heart of the Church for the source and summit of Christian life rests on the Eucharist. As the Jews are taught the centrality of the Shema, "Hear O Israel", Christians are taught that the crux of remembering (the Anamnesis) is that we may recognise Him at the breaking of bread.

In the organic development of the Roman rite, for the longest time, both belief and practice remained constant in the sense that for as long as 1950 years or thereabout, the practice had remained unchanged. Even if there were changes, they were incremental and organic. However, with Vatican II, practice took a major turn from ad orientem to versus populus--a change which has unintended consequences for the Church. The result today is an attempt to reconcile both practices of the Mass--known as the Extraordinary Form or the Traditional Latin Mass/Usus Antiquior and the Ordinary Form or the Novus Ordo Missae (NOM). To ask the question of which form is better is to enter the territory of hostile polemics. We find supporters and detractors on both sides and the Catholic cosmos is somewhat rent by the fractured discussion on which use is the better one. Sadly, that which is a source of unity has become a source of disunity.

According to Immanuel Kant, "De gustibus non est disputantum", meaning that in the matter of taste, there can be no disputes. The absolutisation of individual taste as a personal right has protagonists from either sides imprisoned within their echo chambers shouting out to a non-listening Other. The truth is, the NOM is here to stay. One cannot “unsee” what is seen so to speak. Thus, there is no turning back the clock. Neither is there doubt that Vatican II was a gift of the Holy Spirit for the Church in the modern world. There is no questioning of whether or not NOM is valid. The wisdom of the Church is far greater than what anyone feels.

However, what is of interest here is the experience of the "pray-er" at the pew with regard to some "innovations"[1] of the Mass that he encounters. Whilst the "what" has remained central in our worship, the "how" has been subjected to variation-fatigue. In fact, there are, if you count, more than 5000 variations in the manner that Sunday Mass can be celebrated. These allowed variations may just obscure a pathology which is the idolisation of personal choice.

A source of pain is not so much caused by the allowed variations but rather the unmandated addition or omission in the celebration of Mass. A particular blight on our ecclesial landscape is the scandal that came to light in the 80s: the sexual abuse scandal. The word "abuse" has become rather restrictive because of its sexual connotation, meaning that, abuse is often understood as sexual abuse. In fact, one school of thought even tries to link the prevalence of sexual abuse with clericalism failing to recognise that liturgical abuse too is a form of clerical abuse for it does not take into consideration the right of the laity to the celebration of the Eucharist as intended by the Church.

The issue of liturgical abuse will not go away. In trying to understand liturgical abuse, I am reminded of a paragraph in Deus caritas est.

"When we consider the immensity of others' needs, we can, on the one hand, be driven towards an ideology that would aim at doing what God's governance of the world apparently cannot: fully resolving every problem" (#36).
Apparently God is incapable and our job is to supply for Him. And this particular "hubris" seems to inform our notion of mercy. We have to a large extent, dissolve the embrace between mercy and justice, and as a result mercy now becomes an expression of "clerical" largesse. At first it might come across as mercy but a closer inspection reveals a prodigality which is but an expression of the Nietzschean will to power: "I have the power which God does not seem to possess and here I am a dispenser of mercy so much more than God can".

Rubrical obedience[2] is a sign of clerical humility and also a powerful antidote to the clericalism which we are trying ever so hard to eradicate. Jesus bequeathed the Eucharist to the Church so that we may gain strength from the bread of angels; strength needed for the journey home. The Eucharist is God’s covenant with us sealed with the Blood of His Son and so, whichever form we choose to celebrate, we pray that the celebration will always be reverential as befitting a Sacrament that is the source of unity and the summit of our Christian life.

_________________

[1] Under the aegis of progress, innovation appears to be chic and constancy staid and therefore in need of “updating”.
[2] Quite simple: Do the RED and say the BLACK.

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Divine Mercy Sunday Year A 2017



Familiar as we may be with Victor Hugo, Quasimodo applies less to the Hunchback of Notre Dame than to the Sunday in the Octave of Easter. It is Quasimodo Sunday--taken from the first word of the Introit[1]. Alternatively, it is Dominica in albis which refers to the de-robing rite of the Neophytes who for 8 days had worn the white garment of their baptism. These white covers or albs, a powerful witness to the baptismal vows, are to be kept in the Cathedral treasury.

We know today as Divine Mercy Sunday, though what it feels like is, the “Sacred Heart of Jesus update 2.0”. We already have a devotion to the Heart of Jesus, popularised with the help of the Jesuits, by St Margaret Mary Alacoque. But now, the last day of the Easter Octave, the spotlight has shifted to the Mercy of God, a devotion promoted by St Faustina Kowalska. When the Feast of the Divine Mercy was instituted, it felt as if JPII arbitrarily imposed his predilection for an approved private revelation of a Polish sister unto the universal Church. However, the Collect[2] does validate St JPII's decision proving that he was not at all capricious. The opening prayer links the annual recurrence of Easter with God's eternal mercy, beseeching that He keeps our hearts so inflamed that we may never forget the work of Redemption brought by Christ for all of us.


The setting up of Divine Mercy Sunday does strike one as having stumbled upon God's mercy, when in reality, the devotion is not a novelty. The emphasis on God's mercy has always been there.


Hosea encouraged Israel not to allow fear to separate us from God. Isaiah reminded us that God has carved us into the palm of His hand and that even if a mother should forget her child, He will not forget us. Covenantal history in sacred scripture is truly a chart of God's mercy extended to humanity and each time we failed to remember that God loves us, He comes to reassure us.


Just like the devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus arriving at a time when the Church was afflicted by the Jansenist movement. In hoping to combat moral laxity, Jansenism stressed moral rigorism, which inevitably ended up denying human free-will and God's grace. The result can only be either despair or depravity since what one does has no effect whatsoever on one's salvation. When Man is incapable of disposing himself to God's mercy, religion becomes frightening and its embrace will be suffocated by scrupulosity. 


A more balanced approach to God's mercy is captured poetically by the Psalmist: "Justice and mercy have embraced". But, since nature is tainted, a wedge has been driven between mercy and justice. It would appear that man after Adam lives in fear that God's justice may be too exacting and therefore unmerciful, that he needs to lobotomise them.


But in every narrative of God's mercy towards humanity, justice is never far away. For example, together with trusting in the tender heart of Jesus, the call is issued at the same time toward reparation. In other words, reforming one's life follows in tandem with approaching the merciful altar of God. The recently passed Year of Mercy, echoing the Collect for today's Mass, was a call to remember the font (of baptism) we have been washed in, and so, was an entreaty to open our hearts to the fount of God's mercy.


Drinking at the fount of God's mercy is at the same time, an invitation to reform one's life because God’s mercy always moves us forward and upward--or heavenward.


Sadly, either we are unable to hear this or maybe we do not want to hear this. The secular world appears incapable of grasping the notion that enjoying God’s mercy is also a call for repentance. Instead, what it hopes to hear is how mercy may be applied especially to couples who are excluded from Holy Communion. If God were really that forgiving, then proof of that should be found in His accommodation to human frailty. As a corollary, if God is that merciful, should not the Church be more compassionate?


In a way, mercy has become a "get-out-of-gaol" card minus the consequences of sin and freedom. It is true, according to St Thomas, that justice without mercy is cruelty. But, in our case, mercy without justice becomes the mother of dissolution. So, in practice, a pastoral approach that minimises the reality of sin and its consequences, under the guise of being merciful, will result in confirming those living in sin to stay where they are. This is not surprising because for a good number of decades now,  we have inhaled the aroma of therapy which stresses affirmation more than redemption. Since, no one is supposed to judge, this indulgent idea of accommodative mercy synchronises closely with the present age of narcissistic entitlement. In short, God owes it to us and He better delivers.


Today is also known as "Low Sunday", a name probably derived from the Sarum Rite to contrast it with the high festivity of Easter Resurrection. It renders this Sunday almost unimportant and perhaps confirmed by low Church attendances in places where obligation is limited to Christmas and Easter. Thus, Mercy Sunday highlights the seriousness of Easter because it draws us to dwell on God's merciful love not as an indulgence to stagnate where we are but to appreciate mercy as a grace whereby, like the Neophyte divesting themselves of the white garment of baptism, it prompts our eagerness to forgo sin so as to enlist in the campaign of continued conversion to Christ whose death gained for us a life that is eternal.


___________________

[1] Quasimodo—Like newborn infants, you must long for the pure, spiritual milk that in Him you may grow to salvation. Alleluia. (1 Pet 2: 2).
[2] Collect: God of everlasting mercy, who in the very recurrence of the paschal feast kindle the faith of the people you have made your own, increase, we pray, the grace you have bestowed, that all may grasp and rightly understand in what font they have been washed, by whose Spirit they have been reborn, by whose Blood they have been redeemed. Through our Lord Jesus Christ….

Friday, 21 April 2017

Easter Sunday Year A 2017

Jesus Christ is risen today, alleluia. Yay...

But wait, why am I feeling blasé about it?


Could it be that the same jadedness was cause for Pope Francis, over the Triduum weekend, to berate the Church for her inaction in the face of a humongous humanitarian crisis. Conflict and refugees abound; how do we envision the Resurrection?


Perhaps there is a loss in translation?


According to the Gospel today, Peter and the Disciple Jesus loved, arrived at an empty tomb. They realised that the vacant sepulchre is a potent symbol of the Resurrection--a phenomenon that is both supernatural and natural. Supernatural not because we do not encounter this everyday but because it cannot be explained by categories of this world. And yet, it is natural because it involves the body. We caught sight of that at the raising of Lazarus. He died and was brought back to life. Now, stupendous though that may have been, resuscitation soon revealed its weakness in time because Lazarus would naturally fall again into the embrace of death.


The Resurrection, however, is different. It means that the body is now freed from the laws of nature not because nature is evil but because nature must give way to what had been intended for the human body--a supernatural existence. In other words, the Resurrection opened the gate for nature to enter another realm.


But, somehow or rather, this qualitative difference in existence is lost in translation for a generation breathing the air of global devastation and destruction.


How is that so?


Just recently, Egypt on Palm Sunday saw two attacks by the Islamic State on Christian worshippers as they prepared to enter Holy Week. Now that Easter has come and gone, what about those who are related to the 47 killed in the bomb blasts? What form of Easter would they have? Let us imagine this scenario in a more familiar setting, something closer to home. How about a man who lost his beloved wife on Good Friday? Would it be considered insensitive to joyfully greet him "Blessed Easter"?


Setting sensitivity asides, could this hesitation imply a loss in translation whereby our idea of the Resurrection is revealed to be closer to a material conception than not. It is as if the Resurrection has to be suspended as long as someone is suffering. It is true that the Resurrection is material because it involves the body but have we been so steeped in materialism to have missed its other-worldly quality?


We are not alone in our incapacity to grasp its metaphysical aspect. On Wednesday of the Easter octave, the Gospel will be taken from the Road to Emmaus. The two disciples could not fathom the Resurrection and Jesus along the road responded to their incredulity: "You foolish men, so slow to believe the full message of the Prophets. Was it not ordained that the Christ should suffer and so enter into His glory?" Jesus may well direct to us a similar response along these lines: "The Resurrection is supernatural, therefore, even if the world were to be embroiled in the worst calamity, the Resurrection is a promise given to you and nothing can ever change that".


Poverty is a global plight and along with it, universal indifference which possibly dulls our response to realities crying out for redemption. In the midst of that, the Resurrection stands as real and it is not contingent on a world at peace and without conflict. But because of our materialistic bias, it would appear that the more there are people who lack the bare necessities of life, the less possible it is to believe in the Resurrection. In a sense, there is not going to be a Resurrection unless we have fulfilled the material needs of people who are still suffering.


The Eucharist, therefore, plays a pivotal role in anchoring our faith in the Resurrection. It is true that the empty tomb is proof that something did happened. On the one hand, it could mean that indeed Jesus rose bodily but, on the other hand, it could also be that the Disciples really "stole" the body as alleged by the Jewish authorities. A more solid foundation for the Resurrection has to be established elsewhere—notably the practice of the believing community left by Jesus.


For the last 2000 years, the Church has celebrated her Resurrection faith through the Eucharist or the Mass. Even though the Synoptic Gospels record the Last Supper as a pre-Resurrection event, it is in fact a post-Resurrection reality. The proof is in John's Gospel, the one which does not log the event of the Last Supper. We find proof of the Resurrection in chapter 6, verse 51: "I am the living bread which has come down from heaven. Anyone who eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is my flesh, for the life of the world". Each Mass we celebrate, when Jesus says "Eat my Flesh and drink my Blood", He is in effect saying to us: "Eat my Resurrected Body and drink my Risen Blood".


The world is definitely in need of restoration. The cry for a world healed of all ills rings out through the voices of the battered, the bruised and the broken. From one angle, the restoration or the equilibrium which we all seek is akin to the "resuscitation" of Lazarus. Whilst it begins here, ultimately, it has to end in heaven. In between here and the Resurrection, maybe nothing will be resolved and yet, it is not a defeat. The Pope at his impromptu Easter homily said to this effect: "Do not stop there with whatever tragedies that behold you. Look beyond to the horizon where Christ is Risen".


Our Resurrection faith is secured by looking for Him in the Eucharist for when they arrived at Emmaus, He made as if to go on but they pressed Him to stay and "while He was with them at table, He took bread, said the blessing, broke it and handed it to them. And their eyes were opened and they recognised Him". Karl Marx called religion the opium of the masses because its function is to make people forget. The Breaking of Bread, au contraire is help us recognise and remember that nothing, not even death has power over us because Jesus is victorious. He is there in the Eucharist for He is Risen. Alleluia. Alleluia.


Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord to Good Friday Year A 2017

Memory is a powerful ally in the economy of salvation--a soothing salve for life in the lacrimarum valle. If you think about it, the Shema, "Hear O Israel" is a mnemonic aid. More than an invitation to listen, it is also a duty that Israel remembers what the Lord God has done.

Christianity, in particular those that maintain a valid priesthood, has not strayed far from this recalling. The Eucharist's "Do this in memory of me" serves to remind us that despite our frequent failures, God has always been faithful no matter what we feel about His promise. Unfortunately, much like the Israelites, we are a forgetful lot. Providentially though, the Church through her seasons gives us time to recall God's abiding presence, otherwise known as the history of salvation. A good illustration of this providence is, as Lent draws to its conclusion, the sub-season known as the Passiontide.


Passiontide jolts our capacity to remember. Sadly, memory is a faculty frequently associated with the negative. When considered negatively, it is something we want to forget. For example, with PTSD—post-traumatic stress disorder—soldiers returning from the battlefield often fight to forget the trauma they had undergone.


How is Passiontide helpful as a memetic tool?


It is bound to a symbolic action carried out last weekend (5th Sunday of Lent). Some churches began covering their crucifixes, statues and images. Why? The alternative Collect for Mass on Friday of the 5th Week of Lent provides an insight for this rather random ritual as it makes mention of Mary. According to the older liturgical calendar, the feast of the Seven Sorrows of Mary[1] is commemorated on this day as it falls well within "Passion" Week. So, what we celebrate today as Passion Sunday took place formerly on the 5th Sunday of Lent.


Under the revised calendar of 1969, Passion and Palm Sunday were coalesced into one—Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord. This development when taken apart, sheds light on why we begin veiling the crucifix, statues and images on the 5th Sunday of Lent. If we follow the pre-1969 liturgical calendar, the Gospel reading for Passion Sunday, that is 5th Sunday of Lent, is taken from John 8:46-59 where at the end of the passage, it is noted that Jesus removed and hid Himself from the rage of the Jewish authorities--an absence which is less of an escape but more of a shrouding of His divinity in preparation for the trial of His passion. According to the noted liturgist, Dom Gueranger, the statues and images of saints are also veiled since the "glory of the Master be eclipsed, the servants should not appear".


This historical detour affords a little glimpse into what appears seemingly as an anachronistic practice in the rite of veiling. The point is that the melding of two Sundays into one has rendered Passiontide almost obsolete. The Supreme authority of the Church may have had good reasons for revising the calendar to meet the requirements of the Novus Ordo. However, what implication does this "shortening" have for us?


Memory is not merely a matter of the past but rather it is of a past permeated by a persistent presence of God. We veil so that our senses are jolted into remembering. But, in an attempt to exorcise PTSD of its inevitable pain, God's presence is also ousted from memory. Nevertheless, instinctively we know how important memory is and it is observed in a phenomenon which resonates deeply with many of us. The advent of the camera phones has corresponded to the proliferation of "professional poor-quality" photography[2]. The other day, I saw a woman taking pictures of her toddler's every move. What was she doing? She was manufacturing memories. We seem to be engrossed with making memories--trying to store "good" history for the future.


But, memory is always about the past and never about the future. The previous week, I alluded to the desire to "live" fully, as a temporal[3] form of rage against a miserly God. This "rage" continues in another disposition as we can be so caught up with creating a future for remembrance that we forget to live the moment, not the adrenalin kind of moment, but the present wherein our salvation is being worked out.


If the Shema has anything to teach us, it is how forgetful we are. For the Jews, the Shema is incorporated into the morning and evening prayers. For Catholics, remembering takes place through the daily rhythm of the Divine Office, the flow of the liturgical seasons and most of all, at every Eucharist. In the past, we anticipated Easter through a long period of recalling beginning with the Septuagesima followed by Quinqagesima and then Quadragesima. What are they but 70, 60 and 50 days before Easter.[4] Since memory is of the past and because we are forgetful, the liturgical calendar dedicates that much time to lead us into Easter.


If history is always the history of salvation, then the past, no matter how painful, is also a past pregnant with God's saving presence. Anamnesis and amnesia are two sides of a coin. One side remembers and the other side forgets. It is our amnesia that shocks and drives us to secure an adrenalin-fuelled present, and since we are fearful of a non-existent future, we are at the same time driven to store up memory lest we be forgotten. Whilst memory's main function is to remember "Yeshua"--the God who saves, PTSD thrives on a memory which implies God's absence. Nothing is wrong with that because even the Son of God Himself cried out "Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani", a cry bereft of God's presence. It proves how our memory is always tempted to amnesia and in a world seduced by PTSD’s forgetfulness, it would be good to dwell on a quote scrawled on the wall of a cell in Auschwitz:


I believe in the sun even when not shining.

I believe in love even when not feeling it.
I believe in God even when He is silent.

The Son hanging on the Cross who felt nothing but the abject rejection of God's silence eventually found enough human strength to believe and trust in His God when He cried out: "Father into your hands I commend my spirit". 


__________________


[1] Now celebrated on 15th Sept, a day after the Triumph/Exaltation of the Cross.
[2] Apple’s advertising campaign “Shot on iPhone” in 2015 celebrated the phenomenon that everyone can be a professional photographer. If in 1999, 80 billion photographs were shot that year, today about 2 billion photographs are posted and shared on Facebook EACH DAY. The irony is that everyone is a professional photographer just means that there are just so many phonegraphers!
[3] Why temporal? Because God is not generous enough to indulge us with good health and long life for EVERYONE.
[4] Quadragesima, the Latin term for Lent, when excluding Sundays, will measure up to the 40 days of Jesus' fasting in the desert.