Thursday, 13 February 2020

5th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A 2020

The Gospel is a continuation from last Sunday—though not from the feast of the Presentation but rather from the 4th Sunday of Year A. Seeing the crowds, Jesus went up a hill and there He sat down and taught them the Beatitudes. Today, the blessed exhortation is condensed into succinct commands to be salt of the earth and light of the world.

The first reading provides an insight into what it means to be salt and light. The Israelites bemoaned that their fasting had gone unnoticed by God. The answer from God was unexpected but instructive. He revealed to them that fasting should be more than the physical deprivation of food. Israel’s light will shine when they recognise that fasting must include the cessation of injustice. In other words, fasting is at the same time alms-giving. It is never therapeutic (that is, losing weight to fit into your dress) but rather social justice (that others might have enough to eat).

This social context of justice is still relevant in our time. Laudato si raises the awareness that our consuming habits do have a deleterious effect on the people who live beyond the pale of plenty. A good example is to consider the many island-nations whose topography places them scarcely above sea level. The Maldives may conjure up a picturesque post-card of idyllic isles with stilted chalets floating along the fringes of atolls. But the cruel truth is that a 1-metre rise in sea level will wipe the entire archipelago off the face of the earth. Maldives is not the only island-nation threatened by climate change.

The demands of justice require that we lead by example. Social justice should be ecological in its expression. And, in order for our light to shine bright, we need to change the way we organise our lives—from eating, to drinking, to living and to travelling. A bottle of Evian water is not only expensive, but it also has a large carbon footprint because it is shipped so far away from its point of production, the French Alps. In other words, our consuming habits should be less of a consumption and more of a conservation—to live simply so that others can simply live.

Apart of this ecological challenge, how else can our light shine and how do we salt the earth?

Take the current concern that is the COVID-19. We are not entirely sure how it spreads but that it does. What should our response be?

I remember an incident that took place in 2015 or thereabout. Two of us priests were on-board an Air Asia flight bound for Krabi. As the aircraft pushed back to taxi and take off, there was a loud bang when the aircraft plunged into darkness and shuddered to a halt. All we needed was for someone to shout “Fire” and the cabin descended into a pandemonium. The two of us sitting at the back of the aircraft were transfixed by the spectre of passengers clamouring and clambering over rows of seats desperately trying to get out of a plane that had not even deployed its emergency chutes. (To be expected from a cheap flight!).

This story proves a point that in any attempted conversation between reason and fear, fear always wins. We can never reason with phobia for it belongs to fear’s nature to cloud our judgement. Hence, what should our response be when the prevailing atmosphere is fear?

Here, I am not belittling the precautionary actions taken by the powers that be—civil or ecclesiastical. I am interested in overcoming mindless panic—the panic that drove people to snatch and grab from supermarkets. You would have seen the posted pictures from a neighbouring country of trolleys or baskets of food abandoned before the check-out counters due to impatience with the incessantly long queues.

Our lives are in God’s hands. It does not mean that we do not care or should be reckless as in running up to an infected person to breathe deeply the air he has exhaled. But, if we believe that our lives are truly in God’s hands, then, we need to trust in God’s protecting care for us. Two saints come to mind. Firstly, St Aloysius Gonzaga. He was in his early 20s when a plague hit Rome. He must have seen his companions and others fall from the plague. But, instead of cowering, he continued to care for the plague victims. Finally, he himself succumbed to it. The second saint is Damian of Molokai. He ministered amongst the lepers till the day he became one of them. Both trusted in God not in the sense that they did not take precaution but in the sense that they recognise whether a long life or short, they were at the mercy of God and as such were not afraid of death.

The fear that is gripping us is driving us into behaviours which may appear “rational” or “precautionary” but in reality, they are closer to panic. It is ironic that some of us practise the 3-second rule when it comes to food dropping on the floor. But God forbid that a minister (ordinary or otherwise) of Holy Communion’s fingers should touch a tongue for even less than a second. Granted that it is a stupid comparison but Holy Communion on the hand frequently involves contact unless I drop it from the air to avoid touching the palm of the communicant. What is worse are the microphones at the ambos and the Roman Missal on the altar. I suppose one can disinfect the microphones and their stands, but the Roman Missal is a veritable encyclopaedia of germs and viruses left over from a previous flu that a priest had. I am not referring to our dear Fr Michael. It could have been Fr John, me or any visiting priest. A healthy or sickly priest uses the same Missale Romanum.

So, what then? I should ever be afraid of going to the hospital to anoint the sick, but I am not. I trust that our Lord has my good in His sight for I am doing His work like Ss Aloysius and Damian did. In fact, yesterday’s sunset Mass, we had anointing of the sick. Could you imagine what a nightmare that would have been? Unwittingly, an infected person queues up to be anointed. After laying my hands on the head, dipping my finger into the oil to anoint the forehead and palm, would I not be transferring the infection to the next person to be anointed? Presumably, if we want surgical sterility to avoid infection, we will have to incinerate everything after each Mass—especially the Roman Missal. In a situation of mysophobia[1], it would appear that if you were sick, going to the doctor to rule out the infection does not seem to be enough.

Where do we draw the line?[2]

I am not advocating Holy Communion on the tongue or on the hand. I am trying to make sense of what is happening and taking note that irrational fear is relentless in its obsessive demands. The entire panic-buying and hoarding spree are basically jittery acting out. To let our light shine or to salt the earth, we need to stand apart from the current herd mentality and be beacons of reason but most of all to trust in God. We lead by example in not giving in to fear. Recently, I received two videos with the headline that Wuhan has finally reached JB’s Mid-Valley. A review of the videos revealed that a case was detected in Northpoint Shopping Mall. No prize for guess where Northpoint is. In other words, do not join the cabal of fear that drives you to viral a video you have received all under the guise of helping to protect others. The head of the WHO commented that the fear of COVID-19 is doing more harm than the infection itself. This frightened world (that does not really believe, let alone know God) is sorely in need of lights that dare to shine from a firm faith in God’s providence and our trust can definitely salt or preserve the community from descending into a paralysing fear.

[1] Mysophobia, the morbid fear of contamination, dread of dirt or defilement may have a link with xenophobia (the fear of foreigners). We read about this in some places where being Chinese is reason enough for suspecting one is a carrier of the disease.
[2] If we were serious about curbing the contagion, a logical step would be to initiate a total lock-down of the country. No one entering or leaving. No religious services. No schools. No travels. No commerce. Cease all human contacts. Nada! Zilch! In 14 days or thereabout, we would have arrested the virus’ expansive march. Our reluctance in taking this drastic and effective, but at the same time, “destructive” measure merely exposes our selfish underbelly—we are afraid to lose out in terms of commerce and trade. Apparently, life is precious but money is more! Perhaps what is even more illogical is this. There seem to be a narrow fixation with the idea that Holy Communion on tongue is the only source of contagion without taking into consideration the other possible points of infection—the handling of the Roman Missal, the microphones, the chasubles (worn by a priest who had flu), the unwashed hands that had driven to Church, touched the door handle etc. The unintended effect of this ironic and idiotic obsession with restriction of Holy Communion to the hand is that now, the Eucharist is no longer the Medicine of Immortality as described by St Ignatius of Antioch. Instead, it is the Medicine of Death!