Friday, 26 May 2017

6th Sunday of Easter Year A 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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