Saturday, 21 October 2017

28th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A 2017

We are nearing the end of the year and the readings take on an apocalyptic tone. And yet, we are no strangers to this ominous theme because the idiot box is replete with variations of the same motif—watch the myriad series and you know what I mean. Walking Dead, Falling Skies or The Last Ship are but a few examples. The dystopian mise en scène is in exact opposition to both the first reading and the Gospel. Ironically, this apocalyptic world does not completely deny the religious nature of man though the numinous nod is but a Nietzschean indictment of the divine[1]. What may be a backhanded compliment to this numinosity is what Catholics termed as sacramentals. They are easily recognisable—a picture of the Sacred Heart of Jesus hung on the wall, stained glasses in a Church, Crucifixes in rooms and Rosaries. The fact is, even though God appears to be present, He is powerless in this dark and dismal dystopia confirming the Marxist accusation that the divine is nothing but an opiate for the unthinking masses.

This Sunday’s “End of the World” reading and the Gospel, far from prophesying a portentous prospect, instead nudges us in the direction of God by challenging us to assess the quality of our relationship with Him.

Firstly, the relationship we have with God is articulated within the framework of Providence. We have a God who will provide. However, this cornucopian imagery proposed by the first reading is nowhere recognisable in what one gets from the movies.

Secondly, God is benevolent to His creation. He is not a “deistic” God who created world and left it, at best, to run on its own or at worst, to rot. However, we have difficulty appreciating God’s benevolence. Or rather, we have a tough time believing this. Why? The answer may be found in an interesting feature about the Gospel, a detail which is not unique to this Sunday. It is the availability of a shorter and a longer version which the celebrant is free to choose. The shorter version seems to cut out an uncomfortable reality but which is important to understanding what sort of relationship we are called to have with God.

When we speak of “relationship” we ought to consider an aspect of it associated with the Millennials. It deals with “disloyalty”. For the millennial workforce, employment must be multi-faceted in the sense that a person who is working only in one job would be considered as committing career or professional hara-kiri. As it were, one is forced to chart a course so that one’s work experience can be widened. Thus, relationship for the Millennials is markedly selfish, not in a wilful sense of the word but rather it necessarily follows a logic of self-preservation. In order to advance in one’s career, one has to be “disloyal”. Coupled with self-preservation is also a strong sense of entitlement.

This sense of privilege has far reaching consequences. For example, have you ever heard of “cheat days”? It happens when someone is on diet. He is entitled to a cheat day where the healthy regimen he adheres to does not apply. Imagine this privilege being translated into morality? In the commitment to be good, consciously one is entitled to be bad. How does that impact our relationship with God? With this type of morality, disloyalty is built into commitment. Catholicism Soft and Lite has never been so popular!

In fact, a shorter version of the Gospel might give us an inkling of the sort of relationship we want from God. In other words, for us who are entitled, what we want is to hear is that God loves us. God cannot be anything but kind and merciful to sinners. This is the only Gospel we want to hear, the only Good News that makes sense. Not that it is not true.

One of the challenges of the Jubilee Year of Mercy was the clamouring to announce God’s graciousness but for an entitled ear, we fail to recognise that the invitation to partake of God’s mercy must also be accompanied by a courageous ascent of conversion. The long version of the Gospel brings forth the message that a balance has to be struck between gratuity and commitment, between grace and freedom and between reconciliation offered by God and the conversion that we submit ourselves to. If at all, God were “indulgent” by constantly giving in to us, then we do not really know the meaning of indulgence. In Luke 7, the woman with the alabaster jar of oil is described as, “she who has shown great love has had her many sins forgiven”.

In summary, the wedding garment calls us to a relationship that is not one-sided in that we are entitled to God’s love without the corresponding duty of ever conforming our lives to God’s will in response to His generosity. The God who provides is not a God of the Entitled. Instead, He is also entitled to our faithfulness because we have entered into a covenant with Him at baptism. Sad but true, the odd man who believes that he can respond to God on his own terms will soon find himself bound and cast out into the abyss where the grinding of teeth never stops.

[1] That God is dead…

27th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A 2017

Matthew has a line of three judgement Gospels and today is the second one. It is clear that the Vineyard parable is directed at the Chosen People. If Original Sin had not afflicted the human race, there would have been one Body and one Spirit worshipping the the One God and therefore no need of a “chosen” group of people.

Precisely because of humanity’s failure, God chose from amongst the many people, a race to call His own. He chose Israel and made them His own, that is, the People of God.

The parable is therefore an illustration of expectation and its failure. It is a simple narrative setting out God’s expectation of His people. The tenants are understood to be the Chief Priests and the Elders but what they did was to arrogate themselves the place of God. The prophets are God’s servants whom these tenants abused and killed. When warned by Jesus about the possibility that they might lose their special position, the tenants paid no heed. In fact, when God sent His Son, they did the expected. They killed Him thus confirming the Psalmist’s prediction that the stone rejected by the builders has become the cornerstone.

Jesus is now the cornerstone of the new Vineyard that God has chosen to hedge and replant. A German word that might describe the change in tenancy is schadenfreude. It means to derive pleasure at the misfortune of others. An example of this kind of guilty pleasure can be found in our context of heightened racial tension. Do we not take quiet pleasure when something bad happens to the people whom we believe do not deserve their special position? And since Christians consider themselves to the heirs of the Chosen People, we might also have a sense of superiority hearing this parable as referring to the Jews.

Before we break out in rejoicing, the parable applies to us as well because it is a parable of expectation. Even though God’s gift is gratuitous, it implies a giving born out of a mutual relationship. The mutuality suggested by the first reading is characterised by justice. God provides and the people obey the terms of the covenant concluded between Him and them. Their faithfulness to Him is no more than the demands of justice. Frequently, they failed and their ultimate failure came in the shape of the rejection of the Son of God. It was not wilful but perhaps it was fearful. A way of looking at this failure is that they loved monotheism to the point where they were fearful of the promptings by the Holy Spirit that God had send His only Son to lead them ultimately to fullness of revelation, that God is truly one but three in person.

God desires that His creation shares the fullness of life. Due to the failure of His Chosen people, the new and final covenant is now signed through the Blood of His Son. It is now the Church, the channel of salvation through whom God in Jesus Christ wishes to save the world and reunite it to Himself.

The mutuality of the relationship between God and His people is now expressed via the Sacramental life that Christ gave to the Church. How is that so? The vineyard, that is the Church, is now tasked with bearing fruits that Israel did not and not just any fruits but good fruits. The fruitfulness God that desire of His vineyard is watered by the Sacraments which He gives to us.

In a certain respect, we are quite happy to think of ourselves as “actors”. I do not mean this in the sense that we are movie actors but rather that we believe that we are self-made. Thus, we can make ourselves fruitful. This cannot be further from the truth. Fruitfulness is dependent on God’s grace and in the Church, His grace preeminently comes to us through the sacramental economy because every sacrament is the action of Christ Himself done through the Church. For example, when a baptism takes place, it is Christ Himself, through the rite of Baptism, who incorporates the baptised into His Body. In confession, it is Christ Himself, through the agency of the priest, who forgives the sins of the penitent. And so forth.

To be a fruitful vineyard then, our effort must be more than just fulfilling the minimum. For example, the Church stipulates Confession as an Easter duty meaning that we should go for Confession at least once a year during Easter so as to fulfil our Easter obligation of receiving Holy Communion at least once a year.  This kind of minimalist behaviour might just mirror the conduct of the Chief Priests and Elders. They proclaimed loudly that they love God and His commandments but their practice spoke volumes otherwise.

Have you ever seen the billboard of another religion which says, “Sembahyang lah sebelum kamu disembahyangkan” which translates into “Pray before you are prayed”? This is certainly an invitation and a challenge to move beyond our comfort zone. The Church, the new vineyard, through the gifts of the Sacraments, is both our salvation and sanctification so that we might bear the fruits which God expects of us. Our fruitfulness is a return of God’s graciousness. And lest we grow lax, it is good to remember that what befell Israel—the original tenant can also befall us.

26th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A 2017

Often I feel out of place here. As one approaches the facility, the forbidding “Zeto” [Zero Tolerance] sign-boards are compelling reminders of the purpose for the construction—to be a petrochemical plant. As it is, each time I come here, I see progress because new structures are sprouting up. What colours this place is not just the rusty brown dust of construction but rather functionality. Everyone here has a role to play—get this complex up and running.

Here I am, like feeling useless. Who needs God here?

If we buy into this functionality, that is, getting the job done, then it is straightforward, nothing more than that. When a worker dies, it would appear that he had died in the course of duty. There is nothing after the formality of repatriation, is there? The fact is, no matter how much we comply with this “Zeto” policies, there will be casualties and in the bigger picture, an accidental death is no more than a unfortunate statistic marring a perfect zero-accident count.

The question is, is there more to life than just being functional?

Today, coincidentally, is the feast of St Therese of Lisieux. If evaluated by  functionality, she would rank as nothing for her entire short life was spent intramural—behind the walls of a convent. And yet, she was proclaimed by Pope Pius XI as the Patroness of the Missions, alongside St Francis Xavier, whom we know to be the tireless Jesuit missionary of the East.

Where is the fairness? Whereas St Francis Xavier braved heat, hostility and exhaustion, here is someone who did not step beyond the convent walls and yet given the title, Patroness of the Missions. Life seems unfair.

Furthermore, we witness such unfairness regularly in the distribution of natural disasters. They appear to strike some countries more than others. Never mind that climate change could be a result of our sinful behaviour. Or some families look like they bear a bigger share of disability in their offsprings.

Easily we transpose this as God’s unfairness. 

But the 1st Reading reminds us that God is always just. He may come across as unfair. Thus, to lament that God is unfair is actually unfair to God. For example, how have we treated the environment that nature does not strike back at us The environmental degradation—a form of sinful behaviour—will have an impact on our health. Moreover, our sedentary lifestyle coupled with overconsumption will have a deleterious effect on us. God is not unfair. Instead we are largely to be blamed for some of the bad things that happen to us. 

We need to correct the misconception that God is not fair. Now, coming back to the case of St Therese, the reason for granting her the title of the Patroness of the Missions is because of what she said: “I will spend my heaven doing good on earth”. This desire at the end of her life was a culmination of an experience she had at 14, whilst praying at the Cathedral of Lisieux: “...looking at a picture of Our Lord on the Cross, I was struck by the blood flowing from one of the divine hands. I felt a great pang of sorrow when thinking this blood was falling to the ground without anyone's hastening to gather it up. I was resolved to remain in spirit at the foot of the Cross and to receive the divine dew. I understood I was then to pour it out upon souls… I wanted to give my Beloved to drink and I felt myself consumed with a thirst for souls."

Behind the convent walls, her life here on earth was and after her death, her life in heaven has been dedicated to assisting souls. This “here and hereafter”, allows us to figure why God seems to be unfair because in being functional, we frequently forget that there is a life beyond this life.

Many people work hard. Some hardly work and yet they appear to reap tremendous rewards. What is worse are how governmental thieves, especially those sworn to serve the common good, are literally getting away with murder. With impunity, they rob the poor of what in justice is theirs. Here, if we were to equate justice with fairness, we will certainly feel cheated in life.

But, remember the parable of Dives and Lazarus. When Dives died and went away to hell, Lazarus was feted in the life beyond. Without this hope that God will right what is wrong in our earthly life, life can be hopeless. Yes, it sounds politically incorrect because acquiescence might suggest that the oppressed should accept the status quo when it comes to “injustice”.

On the contrary, it is an invitation to think of justice beyond earthly terms. Life is never a loss even if it an injustice were unresolved for otherwise, what meaning can we give to the countless little people who amounted to nothing in this material and temporal world? In fact, to demand an absolute resolution to injustice is tantamount to a denial of the reality of Original Sin and its effect on creation. “Baptism, by imparting the life of Christ's grace, erases original sin and turns a man back towards God, but the consequences for nature, weakened and inclined to evil, persist in man and summon him to spiritual battle”. In relative terms, we all die but in absolute terms we are made for eternity. Death is merely a separation of the immortal from the body. Hence, in an attempt to right what is wrong, we must never forget to school our eyes to look beyond to the eternity which God has created us for. There, all will be fair and just.

Thursday, 24 August 2017

19th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A 2017

The Second Reading, where Paul agonised over his people’s inability to accept Christ, reminds me of the role catechesis plays in the life of the Church. It is safe to say that catechetics is mostly a matter of the head. As Saint Anselm used to say, "Fidei quaerens intellectum". Faith, for it to make sense, must investigate the contents of belief by means of reason in order to acquire a deeper understanding of revelation. If for no other reason, we have to educate the head so that the heart is not misled by superstitions. The natural unity between head and heart, which in a world turned topsy-turvy by sin, has been disrupted. Hence, knowing and loving must be regulated. The head requires systematic training and academics will tell you that it is not easy to sit and struggle with material at hand because our vitiated inclination is readily distracted. The heart also needs coaching because of the damage inflicted by sin, it is inclined to indolence or inertia. The naiveté we suffer is to mistake that head and heart are in harmony meaning that what the head knows, the heart will follow. 

That is not the case as experience will dictate. A good example is what you see in children. They say they understand you but they do not always follow up with what they understand.

We are however, not dealing with children. For myriad reasons, people do leave the Church or if not, they simply become marginalised. Superstition could be one reason. They know little and frequently are incapable of articulating the reason for their belief. In this situation, catechesis does have its job cut out. We need to catechise. It is our first line of defence as Fulton Sheen illustrates with this quote. "There are not a hundred people in America who hate the Catholic Church. There are millions of people who hate what they wrongly believe to be the Catholic Church--which is of course, quite a different thing".

But, there are people who leave even if they know. As mentioned earlier, the heart does not always follow the head. St Paul himself confirms it in Romans 7:19--The good things I want to do, I never do; the evil things which I do not want--that is what I do. Whilst this may be a perennial human struggle, the point is, when the heart has been bought over, the head will always lose out. It is to this heart that catechesis must turn its attention. 

The truth is, we really do not know how to nourish the hearts. The better question is what the heart would be mesmerised by.

The short answer is beauty. We are adept at teaching truth and goodness but we do not really know how to teach beauty. It is true that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and therefore it is pretty much subjective. Whereas, truth and goodness are different in the sense that they are more objective. But is it really a case that truth and goodness are objective and beauty is not?

Consider this. All of us want goodness. This is because we are made for the good as nobody knowingly will choose the bad. The same too for truth because each one of us wants to believe in the truth and nobody likes to be lied to. Finally, we all desire to grasp beauty for no one here wants to embrace ugliness. A man never goes out to marry an "ugly" woman.[1] Now, just because I want something, it does not make it good and just because I believe in something, it does not make it true and finally what I grasp as beautiful does not make it a thing of beauty. This shows that beauty does have an objective reality to it.

Now, if it has an objectivity to it, then catechesis can take place. For otherwise, if it were just subjective, then we are all doomed to wander the wilderness of fakes and imitations passing themselves off as beauty.

Now, in the context of catechesis, where do we encounter beauty? Let us begin with our liturgy. In itself it is a wonderful gift of beauty because it is the memorial of the mystery of salvation (CCC1099), that is, if the Church is to be believed. Unfortunately, some of us do not fully accept that. Rather, we have come to believe that the liturgy in itself, even when carried out according to the prescribed rite of the Church, is not enough to secure our salvation. In a sense, we are driven by a Pelagian attempt to secure our own salvation—a forgetfulness that beauty is salvific.

Secondly, look at the state of our church building. The heart is not just mesmerised by beauty. It is also inspired by beauty. But our idea of building beauty is basically a hodge-podge of functionality. It is almost like dedicating a space to the Lord and not having any other functions for it, would rank as a sin against the “Return of Investment”—in other words, beauty is wasteful, irrelevant or mostly extravagant. All space must be useful. And in the absence of architectural beauty, we generally fill the void by dragging the pub into the church—jazzing up the liturgy to make it more “engaging” and less boring. Notice at the same time the same entertainment criterion employed when we cut down on readings fearing that people will be turned away by having one reading too many.

We are so accustomed to the democratisation of beauty[2], meaning that anybody and everybody has a right to his idea of beauty that to suggest pub music as inappropriate would render one an elitist. The reality is, the world has become so accustomed to devouring from the trash of mediocrity that it can no longer stomach the sublimity of beauty and so denigrate the sublime as elitist. Just watch the “Emoji movie”. The idea of beauty is so corrupted that nobody raises an eyebrow that a piece of faeces is actually a character of the movie. We have normalised ugliness.

Beauty has a role in catechesis and is indispensable to the instruction of the faith. In the context of catechesis, the Catechism speaks of beauty, in the context of sacred art, as evoking and glorifying, both in faith and adoration, the transcendent mystery of God. Beauty in sacred art draws man to adoration, to prayer, and to the love of God, Creator and Saviour, the Holy One and Sanctifier” (cf. CCC 2502).

The desire for beauty can be inculcated and whilst there exists a tension between “objective” beauty and also “subjectivity”, we should not be quick to dissolve it.[3] More importantly, the desire for beauty is not fed by facts or information but rather it is strengthened through living experiences. 

Having stripped the altar, is it a wonder why young people know so few saints? We are busy with presenting facts and information of the faith forgetting that both goodness and truth are clothed in the flesh and blood of saints. Many statues inside a church are not an indication that we are idolatrous. Instead, they are our friends in catechesis—as they reveal the beauty of the holiness acting in their lives.

Indeed, beauty is a big-picture undertaking. If we accept the premise that the human spirit has a supernatural aspiration, then it makes sense that the human spirit is more ready to sacrifice itself for an enterprise bigger than merely the “self”. The big picture is provided by the tradition and the saints because nobody would die for factoids or information. The saints, on the other hand, provide concrete proofs of why a person would lay down his or her life the person of Jesus Christ and His Church. Saints are our unbroken link to the reticulum we call Tradition.

In summary, catechesis is also a battle for the hearts and as such it is fought on as much intellectual grounds as it is on emotional grounds. Emotion is nourished by beauty. Unless we begin the rehabilitation of beauty from just personal preferences to that which is of God, we cannot inspire and the faith will remain cold concepts to be endured and not captivating convictions to be embraced.

[1] Even if the woman is “ugly”, it is because the man sees beauty in it. We search for beauty because it is “objective”.
[2] Beauty is a difficult notion to grasp because our taste is based on preference, that is "what I like". St Thomas Aquinas describes three qualities that objectively constitute beauty. He speaks of proportion, integrity and clarity
[3] It is not as if the Church does not take into consideration diversity. She does. In fact, Paul VI said, “Evangelisation loses much of its force and effectiveness if it does not take into consideration the actual people to whom it is addressed, if it does not use their language, signs and symbols, if it does not answer the questions they ask, and if it does not have an impact on their concrete life”. At the same time, he also cautioned, “Evangelisation risks losing its power and disappearing altogether if one empties or adulterates its content under the pretext of translating it” (Evangelii nuntiandi n63§3).

The Transfiguration Year A 2017

Maryland, founded in the early 17th century and named after the French consort of Charles I--Henrietta Maria, is considered to be the birthplace of religious freedom in America as it was intended as a refuge for persecuted Catholics of England. 1829 is generally taken to be the chief moment marking the emancipation of Catholics in both the UK and Ireland. In 1955, Rosa Park, in defying the order to give up her seat to a "white" person, inaugurated the modern civil rights movement.

The founding of a state, the Act of Parliament granting freedom of worship and the civil rights movement are just a few examples representing the exciting breakthrough in the evolution of freedom. And, they might just help us appreciate better the feast of the Transfiguration.

Firstly, what is the Transfiguration? As a theological event, it is regarded as a turning point in the ministry of Jesus. Just before ascending Mount Tabor, Peter had confessed the Messiahship of Jesus and that He is the son of the living God. On the mountain, it culminates in an experience which according to Matthew parallels the revelation on Mount Sinai. Moses representing the Law and Elijah standing for the prophets both had ascended Mount Sinai/Horeb to consort with God. Now here they are again on a mountain speaking to the God-made-man, thereby confirming the confession of Peter that the Messiah is indeed Jesus and foretelling His impending Passion. From Matthew's perspective, the Transfiguration fulfils the Old Testament longing for the Messiah.

Within this theological narrative, Matthew proceeds to describe the Transfiguration in vivid details--His face shone and His clothes became as white as the light. The question is, what exactly did the Apostles experience? The truth is that we inhabit a demythologised world where magic and fantasy have more credibility than any miracles connected with Jesus. The demythologisation of scripture means that Jesus did not rise from the dead. An explanation for the resurrection is that He rose in the hearts of people. The multiplication of loaves nothing more than a persuasion of the crowd to share their food with each other. Or, the Transubstantiation is not a change in objective reality but rather it symbolises a change in subjective appreciation, hence Transignification. Seen in this context of a demythologised world, the Transfiguration was not really an experience of the supernatural. It might just be one of those interior experiences of the Apostles much akin to what we call mass hysteria, group hallucination or auto-suggestion.

The point here is not to desacralise the experience but rather to read the Transfiguration as more than an event that confirms the confession of Peter or portends Christ's coming Passion. The transformed body of Jesus is a foretaste of and also an anticipation of our appearance in glory. Eucharistic Prayer III reminds us that "from the earth, He will raise up in the flesh those who have died and transform our lowly bodies after the pattern of His glorious body".

This supernatural event allows us to appreciate better the notion of liberation. Earlier on, I enumerated the founding of a state, the emancipation from restrictions placed on religious belief and the genesis of the modern civil rights movement. It would appear that progress is an inexorable march to greater freedom. But, what is liberation for? If the Transfiguration is the model for this liberating progress, then liberation is freedom from the tyranny of sin. However, when framed in the glossary of the pursuit of happiness[1], life and liberty etc, the focus shifts to an almost economic expression and it is concretised through the language of choice—the choice to pursue the best possible way to happiness. However, note that the liberation envisaged by the framers of the Constitution for the 13 Colonies takes its reference from who we are--that we have been created in the image and likeness of God and therefore we possess inalienable rights. Thus, it makes sense that caste, creed or colour should not determine how one is treated.

Whereas for now, the notion of liberation has taken its inspiration not from the movement from sin to grace, that is, from who we are to who we are supposed to be. Instead, its inspiration is firmly grounded in who we want to be. We "should be free" to create ourselves according to our image and likeness and even God is to be shaped according to our fads and fancies. Sadly, this self-referential genius is aided by an increasing technicalisation of life. Now, at the push of a button we are able to "solve" all problems. This process has contributed to the distancing of the notion of freedom from sin meaning that freedom is no longer anchor on the notions of good and right. Instead, all that matters is that “solution” and not salvation has become the goal of human existence. This is confirmed by the proliferation of pharmacies. The ubiquity of this institution of cures is also indicative of the therapeutic culture we have become. In therapy, we are concerned with cures (read: solution) and thus liberation is a form of cure in which we are freed from sickness rather than from sin. God is no longer necessary for our salvation. We are our own saviour with a result that we seldom think of freedom as freedom from sin.

The idea of liberation, that is, the process of moving towards greater freedom, is important. But, this freedom which we prize so much must find its goal in the salvation that is brought about by the Lord. A desire for this salvation would require a disengagement from sin so as to fulfil what the Preface suggests: He, in revealing His glory, might show how in the Body of the whole Church is to be fulfilled what so wonderfully shone forth first in its Head.

[1] The idea that freedom is for the pursuit of happiness is never absolute. Happiness is but a foretaste of heaven. But, in a demythologised world, where heaven is situated on earth, then freedom is unhinged from its celestial mooring. Everyone should be free to do anything and everything. Take a look at the expanding phenomenon of the gated community. The strength of our security is not augmented by the ghettoisation of our security meaning that we are not better protected by the increased in armed security. Gatedness is a false indication of security. The British Bobbies no carry guns and why is that so? The British recognise that violence against an officer of the law is taboo. Taboo whose function is to protect society (and sadly sometimes to preserve the status quo as well), in a demythologised culture, is now considered to be a crimp on style, meaning that, taboo upsets the exercise of choice and the freedom to be. But, taboos play a role in directing freedom to its original intention which is to enable Man to be who he is supposed to be.

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

17th Sunday of Ordinary Time Year A 2017

Of course, we have since come a long way but in 1982, an advert for the cutting-edge Scottish-produced Sinclair ZX81 computer touted: "Finally, you can satisfy your lust for power". As someone suggested, while you are at it, you might as well throw in money. In fact, all our advertisements run along the triple strands of sex, power and wealth.

If lust is a hunger, then the pivotal premise for desire to make sense is its satisfaction. Otherwise it would remain an itch, if not an irritation. What is essential to this enterprise of satisfying the craving for pleasure, wealth and power is the emancipation of choice as exemplified by a music video of the cast of the series Empire. Check out the catchy tunes "No doubt about it" where it features Jussie Smollet and Pitbull singing "You can do what you wanna do. And do who you wanna do. Be who you wanna be. Freak who you wanna freak".

In short, this liberalisation consists of freeing the faculty of choosing from the anchor on which it is built. In the first reading the anchor is prudence and it is expressed in practical wisdom. The Collect voices this insight as "[G]rant that, with you as our ruler and guide, we may use the good things that pass in such a way as to hold fast even now to those that ever endure". This practical wisdom does not work out of a vacuum. In fact, it is relational as declared by the Psalmist: "Lord, how I love your law". This means that God's will must take precedence over my desire. Regrettably, our faculty of choosing has been tainted by sin and concupiscence. We have turned in on ourselves and to embrace God's will has become a struggle. We are that self-focused that it does not take much for us to pass off our proclivities as God's will.

God's will is found in both nature and through the Church. Nature because man has a nature and there he is subject to natural laws. The rage that we have today is that nature is not of creation but rather a construct. An example suffices here. The rampant development projects that we see taking place around us is less progress than the articulation of the unspoken assumption that powers these drives and it is that "nature should obey us" because we have the wherewithal to make it what we want it to be.

God's will is found through the Church because he who hears my voice listens to me meaning that Christ through the Holy Spirit speaks through His Church. Here again, we tend to idolise the maverick believing that the Holy Spirit cannot be tied down by an institution which is characterised by a censorious legalism and smacks of pharisaism. 

The Muslims have got one thing right, a feature in their practice which we used to have. This struggle of sin and concupiscence is definitely made more complicated because we have forgotten the education of our disordered nature. Prudence is strengthened by the taming of our senses. Fasting is a discipline of moulding the will because often enough what we want is in conflict with what the Lord desires. Thus, shaping of our conscience according to the love of Christ and His Church is helped by a will docile to the prompting of the Spirit.

The three traditional vows of religion--chastity, poverty and obedience even though they are often conceived of as renunciation, they are in actual fact, a mode of living whereby one enters into mystery of Christ through the total gift of the self. There is a vacuum created by God for which the human faculty of desire is an instrument to its fulfilment. As St Augustine says, "Lord our hearts are restless until they rest in you". Due to humanity's vitiated nature, this desire often takes us far from God. Therefore, mere renunciation is not enough to take us back to God. Instead, denial is only the first step in the re-education of our faculty of choosing.

Choosing Christ always has a cost and it is discipleship. We do not just make a choice once and for all and not think about it anymore. We affirm our decision for Him each time we choose. Recall the simple annual ritual of renewing our baptismal vows at Easter and each time we participate in a baptism, there is also the act of reaffirming our vows to choose God and reject satan. Furthermore, marriage promises are not made only at the altar. It is revitalised every day in the living out of one's marital fidelity. The same too goes for when we recite the Creed every Sunday. It might sound like a little dead ritual but it is simply one of many acts of renewing our faith and making a commitment to God.

Last week I made a reference to Hell in the sense that Heaven and Hell are not dualities created by God. Hell is the absence of Heaven and not the other way around because Heaven cannot be defined by something that does not exist objectively. Even though it is not mentioned in today's Gospel, the final stamp to all our choosing is whether we have wisely chosen heaven or whether by our own fault we have foolishly lost Heaven which therefore means that we have by our choice consigned ourselves to Hell. The discipleship of choosing God is not splashed out in the spectacular. Wisdom is not a flash of inspiration. Instead, if life is markedly ordinary 99% of the time, we can be sure that God's will is to be found in the humdrum of everyday living. It is in daily discipleship that one gains the wisdom of knowing how to use the good things that pass in such a way as to hold fast even now to those that ever endure.

16th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A 2017

The central parable in the Gospel this Sunday yields at least three points for us to ponder. Firstly, God's infinite compassion. Secondly, the call to repentance and continual conversion. Thirdly, the reality of judgement and hell.

Firstly, an experience similar to the Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds is that of planting rice. In a farming community, at least from where I came, to plant rice, one would need a nursery. It is a bed of soft and watery mud where seeds are sown. Now, if you are unhappy with your neighbour, all you need to do is walk past his nursery patch and sprinkle a handful of black glutinous rice (pulut hitam). There is no difference in how the shoots look like once they germinate. The unsuspecting farmer will gather the seedlings once they are of a certain height and then transplant them into the regular fields. Only when the rice starts to crop will one realise the sabotage because of the appearance of the distinctive black grains of glutinous rice. The entire crop is somewhat spoilt and good only for home consumption as spotted milled rice is not saleable in the market. That is where the similarity with the Parable ends because the aim is not to highlight the tainted harvest but rather to give prominence to the infinite patience of God in His dealings with us.

Most, if not all of us are both wheat and weed. God is definitely more patient with us than we are sometimes with ourselves. In the context of God's forbearance, the comfortable or uncomfortable co-existence of both good and bad in us leads us to the second point which is the challenge to repentance and conversion. If God is infinitely merciful, then His patience is really our salvation.

Not too long ago we wrapped up the year of Mercy and what have we to show? It is not so much the programmes that we have covered or the activities we have gone through. Has it been a year of success or have we, perhaps, just cosy up to this grand scheme at taming God into submission. There is a spirit of the world that desires of a God who, basically, is hopelessly indulgent in His mercy and the Church is supposed to reflect that. This is a God best depicted by Rembrandt's The Return of the Prodigal Son. God is that "helpless" old man who is pining for us to return.

Which brings us to the third point. God may be compassionate and merciful. However, the parable ends with a separation between the wheat and the weeds. The weeds are gathered to be burnt. Likewise, there is judgement and there is hell. Heaven and hell are not dualities in the sense that there is a heaven and there is a hell. Instead, the loss of heaven will result in hell. But, what is disturbing is that our therapeutic world conceives heaven as a fuzzy feel good state where God's duty is to make people feel happy whenever they need Him. We are incapable of fathoming the loss of heaven and this is amply illustrated by Boys II Men's collaborative hit with Mariah Carey: One Sweet Day. There is a presumption that everyone we know will be in heaven, smiling down on us. Firstly, who are we to say that they are not? It is true that we should not be judgemental. But secondly and more importantly, is it not overly presumptuous on our part to believe that they are? This is exemplified in the many canonisations that take place at our feel-good funerals!

Heaven is not defined by the absence of hell. Instead, the reverse is true in the sense that the loss of heaven will result in hell. Without conversion, there is a possibility that we might lose heaven. Therefore, let not a misguided notion of thinking that God cannot help Himself but forgive lull us into damning complacency. Rather, think of God's mercy as our invitation to repentance—a form of reciprocity which is brought up in the Parable of the Unforgiving Debtor. There, the God who showed mercy to the debtor was inviting the debtor to imitate same generosity by being merciful to those who are in a similar predicament of indebtedness. Not that God needs anything from us but, if generosity is the mark of our God, then the God who is merciful and full of compassion is inviting all of us sinners, through the conversion of our hearts to return, with gratitude for His loving kindness, grace for grace and love for love.

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.