Saturday, 6 March 2021

3rd Sunday of Lent Year B 2021

A word that best characterises the behaviour of Jesus today is not “violent”. It is not even righteous anger. Rather, the action of Jesus is profoundly “symbolic”. It may sound odd as if we were trying to downplay this rather atypical conduct of Jesus. Perhaps, context can justify what is being asserted here. For example, what we hear during the period of Advent is how salvation is described in one word, “imminent”. When God is near, we are saved. So, in today’s Gospel, Jesus entrance into the Temple is a gesture “evocative” of God’s “proximity”.

However, our notion of the Temple is very much coloured by a prejudice that the two Testaments basically represent two disparate concepts of God at odd with each other. The “deity” of the OT is abhorrently unreasonable when contrasted to the therapeutic “divinity” of the NT who is more in keeping with our present-day sentiment. We may have unwittingly imposed this duality into the Temple when in reality it was simply a powerful landmark of God’s “nearness”. After all the Temple was fundamentally the Ark of the Covenant “immobilised” that subsequently was transformed into the central site for Jewish religious activities.

What we perceive to be an emphatic rigidity of the Law only came about after the Temple had been destroyed. After the destruction of Jerusalem by the Roman conquerors in AD70, what was left for the Jewish nation as the remembrance of God was the Law. Rabbinic Judaism sought comfort in God’s presence through the Law. It is only natural that when one has lost everything, one becomes conservative and this explains their rigidity.

It is said that during the era of the Schoolmen, speculation being the spare change of the day, these leisurely scholars were interested in divining how many angels could possibly stand on the head of a pin. This fascination with measuring the infinite is basically a human attempt to bridge the gap between man and God—as we observe in the effort to construct the Tower of Babel. There is a cohesiveness between the Creator and His creatures in the sense that God is near to us as much as we are fascinated by the Infinite. We crave to be near God. Therefore, Abraham’s sacrifice from last week’s 1st Reading can be read in the light his desire to get closer to God.

Why is God’s nearness to us or our proximity to Him important? The simple answer is salvation. In fact, the basis for sacramental efficacy is “proximity” as illustrated by the faith of the woman with a haemorrhage, “If only I could touch the fringe of His cloak, I would be healed”. Nearness to God is salvific.

God is closer to us that we realise. In cleansing of Temple, Jesus set the stage for an even more dramatic closeness that God will have with humanity. Sadly, the act of claiming His space brought Jesus into direct conflict with the authorities—both religious and secular. It would lead to His arrest and this incident was presented as key evidence at His trial based on the claim that He would destroy the Temple and would rebuild it in 3 days.

The unfortunate situation was that the Jews, for whom the concrete Temple was the focal point of their relationship with God, did not recognise the “Temple’s true Temple”. At the beginning, it was brought up that violence is not the right word to describe Jesus’ action, but symbolic nearness is. The question now remains why did the Jews fail to realise that?

According to the Catechism, following the analogy of faith[1], Sacred Scripture should in totality, be read both literally and spiritually. Our spiritual exegesis will recognise that this brazen behaviour of Jesus should be understood allegorically, morally and anagogically.[2]

Entering the Temple to reclaim its sacred space was an epiphany whereby Jesus was replacing the Temple with His Body. Hence, the Temple was an allegory of Christ’s Body. In Jesus, God the Father is so much nearer to us than both the Temple and the Law can ever be. He is with us through His Son. As Jesus spoke of the destruction and the rebuilding of the Temple, we catch a glimpse of the anagogical sense of our destiny. He was speaking of the Resurrection and our salvation is modelled upon His Rising from the dead. Jesus is our objective and where He has gone, we hope to follow.

This brings us to the moral sense of Jesus’ symbolic action. It is found in the clearing out of the traders. Jesus was not interested in challenging the Temple or Roman authorities for sake of it. He was highlighting the corruption that had entered into the Temple system. This is pertinent to us because through our baptism and confirmation, our souls have been configured to Christ, transforming our bodies into temples of the Holy Spirit. Now, we are not halfway through Lent, Jesus cleansing the Temple becomes for us a pause and an exercise of taking stock of how much space we give to God or how much we have crowded God out. Thus, these questions “What corrupts us?” and “What areas in our lives need purification?” are relevant in our spiritual search for salvation.

The point is, in seeking God, in longing to be saved by Him, we encounter also a corresponding desire of God to be near us. In cleansing the Temple, He shows that He does not care to establish a covenant from a distance. Thus, the only appropriate response is to enlarge the space of our hearts for the Him. The devout practices of Lent—prayer, fasting and almsgiving—are specifically tailored for the purpose of getting close to Jesus. As the true Temple of God’s proximity, He is our destiny. He is our everything. Do not tarry. Let us move closer to Him.



[1] Rom. 12.6. According to the Catechism (cf CCC114), the analogy of faith is defined as the coherence of the truths of faith among themselves and within the whole plan of Revelation.

[2] Basically, there are two senses when one reads Sacred Scripture, that is, the literal and the spiritual senses. The spiritual sense is further subdivided allegorically, morally and anagogically (CCC115). Further down, the same Catechism uses a mediaeval couplet to explain all these four senses. The letter speaks of deeds. Allegory to faith. The Moral how to act. Anagogy our destiny (CCC118).

Friday, 26 February 2021

2nd Sunday of Lent Year B 2021

Many couples who desire to conceive are unable to. Ironically, those who do not want or should not have more children grapple with unwanted pregnancies. Thus, the 1st Reading can become a struggle for many to understand what God seemed to be asking of Abraham and Sarah. They had been childless for so long that just when they seemed to be enjoying God’s blessing of a son, Isaac, the carpet is pulled from under their feet. It looks as if God is demanding for a blood sacrifice.

The question “What kind of God is that?” resonates angrily with the prevailing “offended” sensibilities we have. How can a good God actually tolerate evil, let alone, command it? Even the Catechism acknowledges this inconsistency (CCC309): “If God the Father almighty, the Creator of the ordered and good world, cares for all his creatures, why does evil exist?”.

But, setting aside this baffling mystery of God’s apparent indulgence of evil, we take a second look at the 1st Reading.

Firstly, the so-called sacrifice of Isaac comes across like an unreasonable God asking for proof of faith and obedience. Last week, I mentioned about the phenomenon of the “self-made” person. Instead of a capricious test of trust and submission, perhaps our contemporary captivation with achievement or accomplishment could possibly be applied to Abraham. What if Abraham wanted to give back to God something which befits His Divine Majesty?

The narrative might not support this interpretation but consider this. Human quest for excellence demands that we give our guests the best. Can you imagine yourself serving your most esteem visitor in mediocrity? “Cincai bocai” (thoughtlessness or apathy) flies in the face of who we are. The more important the visitor, the warmer will our reception be. Likewise, the tradition of dressing our best for Sunday worship is a reflexion of this principle at work. We want to give our best to God.[1]

Granted that the neighbouring cultures in Palestine practised human sacrifice, it might not be absurd to view that Abraham may have been influenced. For example, Chinese are used to “angpows”. Now we have “ch’aypows” (Green as in Islam) for Hari Raya Puasa and “kiopows” (Purple or Lavender as in Hinduism) for Deepavali. In other words, Abraham wanted to give back to God and the only thing which was most valuable to him was his son, Isaac—fruit of his old age. In his mind, Abraham thought that God would have been pleased by this kind of sacrifice—like the believers of the surrounding religions. This episode of the Abrahamic sacrifice of Isaac is supposed to be the repudiation by God Himself of senseless human sacrifice. So, on top of the mountain, in place of a human holocaust, God ordered the oblation of the ram caught in the briar.

Abraham’s journey of faith and obedience symbolises man’s attempt to render the best to God. Human holocaust merely signifies man’s desire to return to God that which befits God’s dignity. However, it is a poor sacrifice simply because nothing of what we have can offer to Him can ever equal God’s status. It is actually the other way around in that God has been actively seeking us out. This brings us to the 2nd Reading and the Gospel.

In St Paul, we get a clearer picture of who God is. We do not have Shylock for a God who demands His pound of flesh. Au contraire, our God is the reverse. He goes out of His way to engage us where we are in order to redeem us to the point that this God sacrifices His Son for us to be saved. As we reflect on Abraham’s struggle to be faithful to God, we get to see that God is actually the more faithful partner in terms of His salvific will.[2] In this human-Divine exchange, God is the one who bridges the chasm between Him and us. Thus, the Transfiguration must be seen in the light of Jesus Christ preparing Himself for the task of saving mankind.

The context of salvation is located in the conversation that took place before today’s Gospel. Jesus asked the Apostles whom they thought Him to be. After establishing His identity, that is, the Apostles now know that He is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, Jesus tells them in no uncertain terms what kind of Messiah He will be and what is to be expected of Him.

Even though the ascent to Mount Tabor gives us a dazzling display of divinity, we are reminded that salvation is to be found in obedience to Jesus Christ.[3] Thus, God’s faithfulness to us is written in the language of our obedience: “Listen to Him”. In fact, the root of the word “obedience” is found in the word “to listen”. Obey comes from “ob” (to, toward) and “oedio” (hear/listen). To be saved is to listen to Christ the Son.

Sadly, we are living under a dictatorship of noise and it might be hard to hear Jesus speaking to us. In fact, Abraham’s experience could also be said to be one of hearing. He could have been so caught up with “obeying” what he felt was God’s desire for him that he missed out hearing what God was truly asking.

From John’s Gospel, we hear that before the Incarnation, Jesus was the Word of the Father from eternity. In the Word becoming flesh, it means that speech defines man. Yet, the Word must have come from silence. According to Cardinal Sarah, “although speech characterises man, silence is what defines him, because speech acquires sense only in terms of this silence”. Hence, Lent requires that we have to listen to Jesus Christ if we ever want to be saved and, like Abraham, to offer God the best. This best of who we are is symbolised by self-abnegation, the very example seen through Jesus’ life. This explains the quintessential Catholic practice of self-denial which achieves two objectives—a training for the moment that we will be called to give ourselves totally to God and also teaching us to tune out some of the voices we hear so that we can pay closer attention to the One voice that matters. There is only One voice that saves. It is the One voice of the Shepherd.

 

 



[1] Otherwise, who is He? By our utter lack of deference, we have somewhat irreverently reduced God to a nobody.

[2] The Transfiguration is actually God’s answer to Man’s quest for the Divine, our longing for the Saviour. Ever since Babel, man has been finding ways of accessing salvation.

[3] In the Transfiguration, there, in the midst of Jesus’ display of His divinity, we discover the answer to how we can reach up to God. Firstly, we can stand before the Father through the one oblation that can stand up to God’s scrutiny. Secondly, our dignity before God is to be found in Jesus Christ who through His self-sacrifice is the best offering of all.

Saturday, 20 February 2021

1st Sunday of Lent Year B

Year A’s Gospel, which is taken from Matthew gives us a full display of the temptations of the Christ. In Mark, the 3 Temptations barely warrant any mention. The scant details we have are firstly, the Spirit drove Jesus out into the wilderness. Secondly, there, in the desert, He was tempted by Satan and was surrounded by wild beasts. Finally, He was ministered to by angels. Brief though the descriptions may be, we hear the echo of Ash Wednesday’s imposition of the ashes that we are to repent and believe in the Gospel. Jesus gave this exhortation at the end of His desert experience. For us, it comes at the beginning of Lent.

 

If our starting point is repentance, what is it? It is a process more than it is an event. An event connotes a single moment that may be incidental to one’s life when in reality repentance as a process describes our journey of conversion and therefore of the struggle to conform to Christ. Since our pilgrimage of life takes us through the valley of tears, we also grow in the realisation that throughout this lacrimarum valle, temptation will always be our companion.

 

An elderly religious once answered a question on the certainty of his priestly vocation which he replied, “I won’t know for certain if I was truly called until they hammer in the last nail in my coffin”. On the one hand, even then, one cannot be sure that that priest really did have a sacerdotal vocation. He could have just stayed on because he did not know where else to go and life was too good. (A good indication of this is when a priest does no work or has no drive to minister or he wants an easy life). On the other hand, this wise quip of the elderly cleric highlights for us the ubiquity of temptation for as long as one is alive.

 

This spiritual reality is reflected in a petition of the Sacrament of Anointing. A person is already quite dead, mostly immobile, and incapacitated and yet the prayers goes like this: “Free him from sin and all temptation”. When I first gave Extreme Unction, my reaction was always, “Err… what sin? What temptation?”. The point is life is not life if there were no temptations. In fact, they are heightened more so during Lent. It makes sense that the Spirit drove Jesus into the desert. There, in the wilderness, He faced Himself—being surrounded by the wild animals is a good icon of the temptations that Jesus grappled with.

 

Perhaps it is testimony that life has become soft and easy that we have come to expect a smooth and easy journey through life. It is as if life owes it to us to ensure that we should not be tempted. Nothing erodes the confidence of the modern person more than his inability to control his destiny. Our existential loneliness is aggravated by the Pauline dilemma whereby we cannot understand why we do what we should not and do not do what we should.

 

A reason for the severity of this feeling of being forsaken is that zeitgeist of the present milieu is deeply self-made. We seem to delight in our capacity self-definition or self-determination.[1] Hence, when confronted with the mystery of temptation, we are deeply aware how alone we are, and in failure, we experience an acute sense of abandonment by God.

 

When tempted, we may just react in two ways. Why bother? After all, we have been forsaken and we wallow in a hopelessness best exemplified by Oscar Wilde’s despair. “I can resist anything except temptation”. Alternatively, we feel done to or aggrieved that we should even be tempted. How can God let us be tested that much? It is the “Why me?” phenomenon we hear so frequently.

 

Consider the contrast between grey and black. The disparity is not as great as the difference between black and white. That is the contour of the temptations of Christ. He would have felt even more tested than we can ever be. Why? He was sinless and therefore the scourges of any temptation would be even more agonising. In other words, we should not be “discouraged” but instead take comfort that Christ Himself had been tempted.

 

Temptations arise because of the vocation to goodness (or holiness). Sadly, the notion of a good life is no longer a struggle of living virtuously but rather a good life is largely equated with an easy life. Like the man who wanted to build a bigger barn to store his grains. Our modern equivalent of this notion of an easy life once again takes its inspiration from Oscar Wilde. “The only to get rid of temptation is to yield to it”. If we assess the level of hedonism surrounding us, it must be true. We are no longer motivated by the noble or have the drive to excel in virtue. If present usage in English has a way to describe this plateauing of our motivation, it is this: to be good, one has to be “bad”.

 

That there can never be a moment where we will not be tempted can be frightening. But, if repentance is a life-long process, then we should expect to be surrounded by the wild beasts of our temptations. We will have to face them and possibly spend a whole life exorcising our demons. We might think of our temptations as external to us, but they are not—many tussle with the demons inside us.

 

Lent’s penitential disposition is hopeful because it is our training ground. It is the battlefield for the virtue of following and conforming to Christ the Lord. The saints in their struggles for a virtuous life will attest to this—the closer we intend or desire to get to God, the stronger will our temptations be. We are by no means finished products. We are always in the process of becoming what God has called us to be. If the angels ministered to Jesus, we can trust that the Lord Himself will look after us, no matter how sore the temptations can be. So, we should never be surprised by temptations and we should even be less surprised by our failures because Lent is a time to rely on Christ for the strength of resistance and purification. Our ultimate deliverance from the struggle with sin can only come through Jesus for He has overcome the tempter.



[1] 100 years ago, there were only 50 independent countries. Today, there are more than 200. Countries are personal self-definition write large. At more psycho-social level, the whole gender-identity politics is possibly another expression of this “self-definition”. No longer will nature dictate who I am. I determine what I am.