Sunday, 12 March 2023

3rd Sunday of Lent Year A 2023

The Sunday Gospel detours from Matthew to John where a long theological exchange takes place between an observant Jew and a shunned Samaritan Woman. There are two barriers that should have prevented them from having a conversation. Firstly, no devout Jewish man will speak to a woman unchaperoned in public. It would be suspicious to say the least. Secondly, in the eyes of the Jews, the Samaritans have forfeited their right to sit at the “Chosen” table simply because they have taken to the practice of marrying foreigners who soon introduced them to pagan practices. “You a Jew, asking me, a Samaritan, for a drink?”. To have drunk from her water vessel would have rendered Jesus ritually unclean. Jesus simply broke through these social and religious constraints in order to reach the Samaritan woman.

This Sunday we begin with the first of the three Scrutinies. From a catechetical perspective, the dialogue provides an insight into what the period of Lent is in the context of the Easter Sacraments, specifically the Sacrament of Baptism. While the topic of the conversation centred on the basic and human need for water, this necessity is connected to baptism and it is coupled with Christ’s challenge to conversion. Early on in the conversation, she understood that the providence of “living water” was just that. For many of us who turn on the tap without thinking twice, it is understandable that she considered the offer of Jesus literally. Making daily trips to the well in the hot sun is a tiresome chore. More so, she doing it alone suggests that she was an outcast in the community for having one husband too many.

At the end of the dialogue, she was led from acknowledgement of her marital irregularities to a wholesome embrace of her apostolic mission to the people of her village. This prolonged exchange between Jesus and her resulted in her conversion and the freedom to announce that Jesus was the one whom she had been searching for her entire life.

From an existential angle, bodily thirst is symbolic of our human search for the ultimate. In a sense, conversion is a journey that mirrors life’s search for fulfilment. We are not creatures that merely live to eat. We are not mindless munchers even though our current eating habits seem to imply that we are more indiscriminate gourmands than we are discerning gourmets. But if we accept that man eats in order to live, then it makes sense that we must search for proper food to consume. This means life has a purpose than just merely existing to devour.

Many, if not all of us, are symbolised by the Samaritan woman in our yearning for perfect happiness, the elusive living water, that will never leave us thirsty again. We are constantly on the hunt for things in life to gratify us. In many of our misguided and misdirected longings, we settle for things that fulfil us momentarily but in our sane moments, instinctively we recognise that nothing in the world can truly slake the existential thirst in us—not physical pleasure, not possession and not even money itself.

Whether we know it or not, whether we accept it or not, every man, woman and child is looking for the Saviour. We are created with a hunger for the divine. The water at the well was only the beginning of the Samaritan’s search for the ultimate in life. This yearning for the infinite is not a random void or emptiness as if we were just gaping holes waiting to be filled with whatever. In fact, the 2nd Reading reminds us that the love of God has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit. And more so, “While we were still helpless, at the appointed time Christ died for sinful men. It is not easy to die even for a good man and what proves that God loves us is that Christ died for us while we are still sinners”.

At the well, the Samaritan Woman was not the only one searching for God. He was looking for her even as He is seeking us out now. As Jesus hung on the Cross, He cried out “I thirst”. We have a God who thirsts for humanity’s response. The Man who was thirsty at the well was actually the only one who could slake the thirst of the Samaritan woman. As a Church Father said, “He who needed our help is the Helper Himself”.

The breakthrough came when the Samaritan Woman recognised the Prophet in Jesus. It was as if her eyes were opened to own not only her past but also to imagine a future. From then on, she became a missionary to her own people. In the matter of evangelisation, the converted are often the best missionaries to convince others because of their own experience of God.

As this is the 1st of the Scrutinies, we might mistakenly think that it is an invitation to the catechumens to be encountered by Christ. But Lent is a pilgrimage for all sinners, not just those preparing for baptism. We come to the spring of eternal life to encounter the Christ who thirsts for us. The sad dilemma is that the Church is rather anaemic. Perhaps our enervated missionary spirit, unlike the converted heart of the Samaritan Woman, is simply indicating that we have not been convicted by our experience of Him.

The Woman at the Well is a call to a deep encounter with Christ. How do we meet Him? We are thus directed to one of the central Lenten practices which is prayer. Prayer is crucial not because we can ask from God things we need. Rather, prayer is the well where our thirsty souls can meet Christ the Living Water. Also, we meet Him no less in the Sacraments, notably, Confession and the Eucharist. In every encounter, opening up to Him bears the possibilities of conversion. The well is a call to turn from the distractions of life to the one Person who matters most, the Man who is vital to our longing and the God who is central to our fulfilment and our salvation: Jesus Christ.

Sunday, 5 March 2023

2nd Sunday of Lent Year A 2023

We ended last Sunday with an appreciation that there is a cosmic battle in which the human heart is truly a theatre of combat. Christ overcoming temptation gives us hope that with His grace we too can prevail. This Sunday unfolds with another theophany of Christ with His transfiguration on Mount Tabor.

The event provides an opportunity to clarify or to revise what the idea of heaven is.

There are two stories happening at the same time when we speak of The Transfiguration. The familiar one revolves around Peter, James and John. They are brought up the mountain where they witness Jesus changing before their very eyes. Peter especially is mesmerised by this spectacular transformation that he wishes to remain there to construct altars dedicated to Elijah, Moses and Jesus.

The other scene is quite earthy. Jesus refuses to remain atop the mountain. He descends and at the foot of Tabor, the others disciples face an unbelieving crowd disappointed that they cannot perform the same miracle as Jesus who had driven demons out from those possessed. The situation is more chaotic than it is controlled.

Between Peter’s desire to stay at the summit of Tabor and Jesus’ encounter with the disappointed crowed, we can tease out what idea of heaven that some people hold.

Firstly, apart from the mistaken notion that everyone has been immaculately conceived, meaning, it is generally assumed that everyone is innocent because everyone is born good, what has happened is that we may have also settled for an idea of an “earthly” heaven, founded upon this world.

How so?

Recently Roald Dahl (BFG or Fantastic Mr Fox) had his books (Matilda, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) rewritten by his publisher because certain phrases that he had used in the past are now deemed unacceptable as they no longer meet the standards of inclusion, diversity and accessibility. Therefore they have to be rephrased. James Bond too has had a “sensitivity review” to remove racially offensive language and stereotyping.

This development is more evident in the last couple of years as illuminati have had to reach back into history to rewrite or to whitewash parts of our past in order to present a more perfect present in consonant with whichever prevailing political, cultural or social winds are blowing. We are uncomfortable with words or with thoughts currently regarded as unacceptable. It is a type of terra-forming if you like, a kind “heavenising” of our earthly reality as if whitewashing history will magically transform the present into heaven.

In this regard, Jesus’ refusal to remain atop the mountain is important. He resolutely descended because He has informed the Apostles that the destiny of the Son of Man was to suffer at the hands of evil men. His action is a stark reminder that heaven cannot be what we make of it here. We can never create heaven here. Instead heaven is glimpsed through the Transfiguration.

The Son of God in His bedazzling glory has shown us that His divinity is not incompatible with human suffering. This flies in the face of how we have been trying to construct heaven here on earth. It is not a new development. The Tower of Babel represented man’s futile attempt at this enterprise. The same with Socialism a 100 years ago. The Transfiguration challenges the way we conceive of imperfection here on earth.

In the whole process of trying to make heaven here on earth, we have unwittingly embarked upon the process of denying a central truth of our existence. The most painful blemish of temporal reality is death. The outer wrapping of death is suffering. Since death is inevitable, so too will suffering be. For example, euthanasia even though it is called “good death” as translated literally from Greek is actually a denial of suffering and death. The fear of death is that great that some attempt to escape, thinking that by snuffing out life early, they would have escaped the imperfection of our earthly existence. It is a futile attempt to capture heaven through the preservation of youthfulness.

As a result, the word “suffering” sounds agonising and forbidding. It is a fact which we struggle to avoid at all costs. It is important to note that suffering should not be intended for itself, meaning that no one should want to suffer or even desire to suffer. A person who enjoys suffering is disordered. An example is BIID or body integrity identity disorder. A person with this disorder feels that to be healthy, he or she needs to cut off some parts of the body. It is a form of mental illness. Whereas suffering as a natural process happens when cells age and die.

How do we acknowledge this reality of natural suffering as part of our journey in life? Furthermore, how do we reconcile that there are also other forms of suffering which through no fault of ours have landed on our plates? The case of Christ is clear. He would suffer because of man’s sins and not just because of Judas’ betrayal. This was His firm message to the Apostles as He joined them at the foot of Tabor. Divine and sinless, yet He is not preserved from suffering.

The innocent suffering of Christ makes the Transfiguration even more powerful in the sense that we catch a glimpse of heaven, the true heaven and not the one which we intend to establish here. The Transfiguration is an assurance that we will get to that heaven which God has intended for us and in Jesus coming down Tabor, The Transfiguration also reminds us that this pilgrimage to heaven takes us right through the valley of death.

In short, the forthcoming Passion is Christ’s endeavour to humanise our dying so that we may not be afraid of passing through mortality in order to reach the glory of heaven. At the same time, we will be tempted to think that our destiny is a perfect world here on earth, where problems and pain, sickness and suffering, disease and death are banished. That is not our future, no matter how perfect it is. The Transfiguration is a promise as it reveals where our true destiny lies. Our glory is with Jesus Christ in heaven.

1st Sunday of Lent Year A 2023

One of the prayers during the Rite of Anointing of the Sick pleads that the sick person be free from sin and temptation. Just picture in your head an invalid, lying in bed and totally incapacitated and the priest praying that he or she be free from sin and temptation. It feels ridiculous. But is it so?

Temptations are vexatious, burdensome and annoying. Oscar Wilde is quoted to have said, “The only way to overcome temptations is to give in to them”. There is a modicum of truth to this observation because a characteristic of temptation is that it “nags” at you until exhausted, you finally relent and give in. Throughout Lent, the Church, our Holy Mother, bids us to grow in awareness of and in sensitivity to the subtleties of the Devil’s machination who sows discord throughout God’s creation.

Even though the 1st Reading chronicles the Fall of both Adam and Eve, it is not a narrative of despair. Man’s fall is also the beginning of salvation. What the Fall simply describes is our common inheritance. Every single being, even Jesus and Mary who do not inherit the taint of Adam’s sin, is not free from the Devil’s afflictions. But more than the failure of Adam and Eve, anyone who has a relationship with God will necessarily undergo the purification of testing. This explains the sinless Son of God not being spared as the 1st Sunday of Lent opens with His temptations.

The background is quite simple. The relationship between the Father and Son is affirmed in the River Jordan. “This is my beloved Son”. Rightly after His Baptism, Jesus is driven into the desert where His affiliation or Sonship with the Father is purified and deepened. Firstly, Jesus is tempted to exercise His divinity by changing stones to bread to satisfy His human hunger. Secondly, He is tempted to test God’s promise of protection by throwing Himself off from a high point. Finally, He is tempted to embrace the worship of a false god.

Christ’s temptations speak to the heart of our human experience. Temptations belong to our postlapsarian reality. More importantly, the devil knows our weaknesses and he will exploit our vulnerability. However, overcoming every temptation hurled at Him, Jesus shows that it is possible for us to resist the Devil. The Church, through our Lenten self-denial, provides us with the means to help us overcome temptations.

In other words, the reality of temptations is actually a call to return to the life of grace. In the desert, Jesus prayed and during His earthly ministry, counselled the Disciples that “this type of evil can only be defeated by prayer and fasting”. When suggested to satisfy His hunger, He countered the Devil’s deception by insisting that man does not live on bread alone but to hang on to every word of God.

This challenges our way of doing things if we are accustomed to self-reliance. Just like the Israelites in the desert, we are also tempted to rely on our own strength and ultimately, for our salvation, we believe that we can save ourselves. Pride is not the only reason for this inward turn. Our self-reliance reveals our forgetfulness. We have forgotten that we are truly creatures dependent on God.

The temptations in the desert manifest the limitations of creatureliness. Notice how the devil enticed Eve to go beyond her creaturehood? The temptation of Jesus to exercise His power is also an inducement to rebel against His human nature. Satan offers a patently false suggestion that freedom is independence from God.

We too find ourselves in the same dilemma where we want to be someone. We forget that to be someone is really an exercise in which we are defined in terms of others. “I am me because I am not you”. In fact, relationship is the identity of creatureliness. By putting the Devil in his place, Jesus demonstrated His relationship with God the Father by not testing Him but by acknowledging and worshipping Him alone.

This Lent we are invited back to the relationship we have with God. It began at our Baptism. Even though we mature physically, some of us may be stunted in our spiritual development. If our Lenten practices are to mean anything, they re-establish our relationship with God and with others. Even though we are sinners, Lent is not designed to make us feel bad that we are sinful or prone to sin. As such, penance is not an exercise in self-loathing. Instead, they symbolise the desire to repair our relationship with God. Penitence is an exercise in the ordered love of ourselves. For example, making time for confession is part of this endeavour because it recognises that the relationship with God needs repairing.

The road to proper self-love and relationship with God will be filled with temptations. But to be tempted is never a sign that we are forsaken or abandoned. Instead the presence of temptation signals that we do have a relationship with God. Thus, the prayer for the sick person during anointing illustrates how insidious temptation can be. An ill person may be suffering excruciatingly, and yet that person is also not free from being tempted. A dying person can be seduced not to trust in God. Hence, the invocation makes much sense because an invalid, even though that person is very near to death, needs strength to continue believing in God.

In summary, the Temptations of Christ reveal a facet of Christianity which we may have forgotten or ignored. As long as we walk through this valley of death, there will be seductions, allurements and entrapments. There is an open rebellion against God and since we are made to crown God’s creation, placed higher than even celestial beings, it makes sense that some envious angels would set out to destroy the pinnacle of God’s creation. Moreover, as creatures endowed with freedom, the temptation is always to go against the rule or governance of God.[1]

Temptation is our reality. Sometimes we may lament like Job. Why? Why am I being tested so sorely? If we are entitled, naturally we will be annoyed that we are being afflicted. But if we accept that there is a cosmic battle at play, then we shall never be surprised by our testing because the path to salvation is fraught with temptations. And a tell-tale sign that you are on the right track is when you are beset by temptations. Overcoming temptations is a basic component in the passage of purification. Through the battles with temptations, our relationship with God is purified as Jesus was in the desert. If we are going to hell, Devil does not need to work hard. Therefore, temptations indicate that we are on the right path for the closer we are to God, the more the subtle the temptations. The nearer we are to salvation, the greater the seductions. Be watchful. Be prepared. The violence of our temptations is Satan’s strategy to make us lose hope. But trust in God. Christ has conquered. He has prevailed. He will provide the strength. If we fail, humbly go for confession. He is ready to forgive, He is there to grant the stamina of grace.


[1] The problem is that our linear computational thinking has not only ignored but relativised “evil” to the point of non-existence. We have difficulty grasping the concept of evil. Evil does not exist, meaning to say that there is no such a thing as evil. Instead evil is the privation of good. Even though evil does not exist, privation does have a reality. Evil as the absence of good renders its effect as a “vacuum sucking out the good”.

Sunday, 19 February 2023

7th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A 2023

In a few days we will be entering Lent. As it is, we are still within the ambit of the Sermon on the Mount. We had the Beatitudes, the Law and now we venture further onto the path of perfection. As Jesus Himself said, “I have come to fulfil the Law”. To fulfil the Law is to embrace its spirit and to live it to the fullest expression possible.

It makes sense since the 1st Reading lays the foundation for our behaviour to resemble the God who is holy. Holiness is not measured by being “better than thou” but to reflect who God truly is—holy. In the 2nd Reading, Paul places our holy behaviour within the context of the “Temple” meaning that our body has been sanctified which elevates it into the new temple where God’s Spirit resides. In the Gospel, Jesus invites His disciples further into the way of perfection and there appears to be a movement from the Old Testament to the New Testament in which being holy is expressed through action. From resembling God who is Holy to imitating the Father who is perfect.

To flow from who we are to how we should behave, Jesus places our behaviour in the context of loving one’s enemies. What should characterise our relationship or lack of with our enemies? If we follow Jesus, the jump from “lex talionis” to offering no resistance is indeed a giant leap. To say the least, such an ideal is next to impossible.

Why do we find it hard to love our enemies? A noble gesture such as to forgive our enemies is rendered unappealing when there is a confusion in our use of language. In the past, good was basically good. If we were to follow what it means to be good, as portrayed in movies, we catch glimpses of goodness like Julie Andrews in the Sound of Music. Goodness is wholesome and it is the same description we find too in our hagiographies. What has happened is an inversion of values in which the good needs to be seen through the optics of bad. For example, it is not good enough to merely state something is good. Instead, “badass” is now the new good. If not badass, then perhaps we hear a foodie describing a gastronomic preparation as “sinfully good”. If not sinfully good, “wicked” just means good. Maybe the kind of goodness epitomised by Julie Andrews is too pure or unattainable and simple saying that a dish is good is too boring and does not seem adequate.

Words like badass, wicked or sinfully good make it hard to grasp what being noble and magnanimous should entail. Instead it makes it easier to embrace the ethos of the anti-hero. An anti-hero is a person with questionable character and whose moral compass does not point to the North. Anti-heroes fascinate us because they resemble us with all their faults. If the definition of a hero is someone who strives to be and to do good, then the normative and accepted behaviour for a hero is the moral congruence between means and ends. The goal is achieved through moral means. Whereas for anti-heroes, it does not matter if the road taken is immoral. Whatever means is acceptable as long as the goal is achieved. This type of moral fluidity justifies uninspiring behaviour.

On one level, this problematic is really a symptom that we no longer believe that heaven is worth our sacrificing or dying for. On another level, it does not matter if one should be good because everyone deserves heaven. Anti-heroism validates our mediocrity in not striving for a life of noble excellence.

The path of perfection proposed by Jesus requires a striving on our part and a commitment. To love our enemy is hard enough but to do good to those who hate us is indeed a painful calling. In order to transcend our natural repulsion towards our enemy, we must begin with heroic virtues. In our daily life, it is as simple as denial of ourselves through fasting. It is as simple as focusing on God through regular praying. It is as simple as caring for others who are less fortunate than we are. These may be small and inconsequential actions, but daily practice of them prepares the soul for the more profound action of self-sacrifice even of our lives.

Together with heroic virtues, we need a clearer vision of the good. It is true that life is incredibly messy but the acknowledgement of this reality is not its canonisation. Just because life is confusing is not an excuse for acedia, inaction or inertia. In fact, the messiness of life is a powerful reminder that an alternative vision is possible. For that, we have to overcome a phobia we have, which is to commit ourselves to a higher vision of good, of heaven and of God.

There is good to defend. There is a heaven to aim for. And there is God to believe in. In a realm without God, we will always be looking for justice in this world but never finding it. Or we will never be satisfied. We will be condemned in an elusive search for the perfect justice, thus making the love of enemies much more difficult, let alone praying for them. Without God as guarantor, we will hesitate because if we do good and if there is no heaven, then all the good we have done would have been wasted. If we are not convinced that there is a heaven where justice can be finally rendered, then loving one’s enemy will be an uphill climb, and it will never be a part of what means to be a Christian.

We are not without a way out of this conundrum. Jesus Himself provided the means to overcoming this resistance. Through the heroic exercise of our virtues, we too can follow Him. As Jesus mentioned in the Gospel, to love our enemy and to do good, begin by lifting them up in prayer. Ask God not for punishment or even justice for them but for blessing upon them. Bless their souls with every conceivable blessing because they need it. Think of a person who does not deserve your forgiveness. As you continue blessing him or her, the anger in your heart will melt because it is impossible to bless a person and hold on to hatred at the same time. The act of blessing an enemy will yield a sense of peace and we dare to bless because we have a God whom we can trust. He guarantees that in the end, everything will work out according to His plans. The passage to perfection is not impossible to ascend because it is the same path that the Lord Himself walked. Our perfection comes through the imitation of Christ who was able to forgive even those who killed Him.

6th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A 2023

As a parish priest, one routinely conducts prenuptial enquiries for Catholics preparing to get married. More and more, Catholics are having difficulties finding spouses of the same faith. We have Mixed Marriages which describe the union between a baptised Catholic and baptised non-Catholic. By and large, many of our marriages consist of the type known as the Disparity of Cult or Worship, meaning that a baptised Catholic is marrying a non-baptised. In the process of the interview, I would often remark to the non-Catholic party that marrying a Catholic comes with an extra burden. The Catholic spouse is bound by the laws of the Church. This brings us into the heart of this week’s Gospel.

What roles do ecclesiastical laws play in the life of a Catholic? How do we appreciate them?

The background to the Gospel is a continuation of the Sermon on the Mount. We already have a framework for the Kingdom in the Beatitudes and now Jesus gives more meat to the way we interpret the Law. With regard to how we follow the Law, in the Book of Ecclesiasticus, Ben Sirach stressed the reality of human freewill. We do have a choice but having the ability to choose does not equate willy-nilly to doing what we want. Freedom has consequences.

Is it possible to hear that joy comes from following the laws of God? In the case of the Gospel, Jesus referred to the 10 Commandments, the set of rules we are familiar with. We hear Jesus excoriating the Pharisees and the Scribes, not because they keep the Law but because they would interpret it according to their whims and fancies. This is nothing new because we recognise the same inconsistency in those who legislate but exclude themselves from having to follow the same rules. As they say: “rules for thee but not for me”. Jesus was never against the Law but rather against a hypocrisy of imposing on others the burden that the lawgivers themselves cannot shoulder.

Given that we have a Bohemian inclination, we tend to regard laws as restrictions rather than as an encouragement towards greater freedom. Our mindset will determine how we perceive laws as a blessing or a burden. If our attitude towards laws is minimalist, then we will easily resent that we have been imposed upon. We chafe whenever our personal autonomy is curtailed.

Coming back to the example of marriage and the laws pertaining to the covenant, when asked what is most important in a marriage, the usual reply is love. When love is paramount, who is the Church impose? There is a rule for Catholics that children are to be baptised and brought up in the faith. The Catholic must declare that he or she will not defect and do what is necessary to ensure that children are brought up in the faith. The usual argument against this requirement: “Where is the freedom of an individual to choose his or her religion?”. Let the child grow up so that he or she can choose what to believe.

There is an inconsistency in the application of what we regard as an individual’s self-determination. Where is freedom to choose when it comes to schools or health regimen? Parents routinely choose the school for their children. When they are sick, for example, with dengue, no parent would ever say “Wait till the child turns 21 for him or her to decide to go hospital”. Immediately the baby is sent to the best hospital with no expenses spared. So much for the right to choose.

The laws of Christ in the Church are meant to foster freedom to be better children of God. Prohibition always sounds restrictive until we realise that negative formulations draw the boundaries where we should not transgress. We love our neighbours by not stealing their wives or property, by not slandering or killing them. The problem with positive laws is that we cannot legislate how to be good. We can only draw the boundaries of how we cannot be bad. Our attitude determines how we embrace God’s laws. A minimalist attitude means sticking to the bare minimum. But in love, there is no compulsion which makes obligation the lowest form of love. Which would you prefer? Having a rule that your child kisses you goodnight. Or the child spontaneously gives you a hug and a peck on the cheek every night?

It is true that laws need to be updated to accommodate changing situations, circumstances and pastoral demands. Should we relax the laws with regard to marriage and divorce? Should we be more flexible than viewing marriage as a covenant only between a man and a woman? Or should we just change the terms of reference for marriage to basically a bond between two loving persons? Some of the changes asked for by present society strike directly at the heart of who we are. Are we subject to the laws of nature or do we break away from the limits imposed by creation? These are some of our challenges. Some Church leaders may have caved in to the demands of relevance.

Circumstances shift as they often do. But the variation in the laws cannot be based on the principle that the “old” or the past is bad and the “new” or the latest is good. In terms of product branding and commerce, the latest is always the updated. In technological advances too. We perceive the new as always the better. However, in terms of laws that govern us, the referent cannot be the latest or the newest. Instead, change should always be in consonant with the Creator’s intention. If we accept that God is the Creator, then we must guide our change according to His logic of creation. Otherwise, we will be subject to the tyranny of the fashionable. Right now the fad is to change one’s gender according to one’s preference. Hailee Steinfeld, the actress in Pitch Perfect 2 suggested that it is OK if you wanna change the body that you came in. Anyone who argues that there is no logic of creation, that is, nature has no laws, must realise the shakiness of this position. The very fact that we decry “inhumane laws” is already a tacit recognition that laws must respect the bounds of nature, that is, what it means to be human.

To update our laws, listening to the Spirit is important. When individual freedom and self-expression are priority, then listening to God might be a bit more difficult. Adhering to God’s laws means recognising that His laws supersede our demands. Not everything which is possible within our capacity has the morality of permissibility. I have the capacity to kill does not mean I have a right to kill. I have the possibility of having sexual relationship does not mean I have the right to sleep with whoever I want.

When God set Adam and Eve in the Garden, He drew certain restrictions based on who they were. Man has been created for a life with God when translated must include obeying these restrictions. But when individual autonomy becomes the guiding principle of life, then appreciating God’s laws will be challenging. When God’s laws are perceived to limit our freedom, then it is God who needs to bow to our freedom. Indeed the rules of engagement have changed. Now we demand that God change His Laws or lower the bars so that we can go to heaven, instead of we changing so that He can let us into heaven.

Sunday, 5 February 2023

5th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A 2023

Just so happened that 2nd Feb was World Day of Consecrated Life and there was a talk given which coincidentally centred on the Gospel verse of being light of the world and salt of the earth. Light and salt define the vocation of a Christian.

Last Sunday we covered the Beatitudes. Their sole aim, as we navigate through the treacheries of life, is to prepare us for eternity. This preparation does not take place in a vacuum. Instead, we are placed directly into the world to cooperate in the work of our salvation as well as to establish the Kingdom of Christ. The reminder of John the Evangelist that Christians are in the world but are not of the world sums up the attitude that Christians are to take with regard to their mission.

The call to be both light and salt is not to focus attention on us per se but rather to highlight our roles in illuminating the world and flavouring the earth. Yet, we are aware that these metaphors of light and salt might be a bit problematic today. There is too much artificial light in our environment. Light pollution has Man confused between light and darkness to the point that the clock revolves around a “permanent” day. Furthermore, our food is also loaded with salt that high blood pressure has become a major health issue for society. Our tastebuds have been unhealthily primed to crave for more and more enhanced flavours.

How then do we appreciate these metaphors?

Firstly, to explain the function of light, we might refer to the rite of baptism. Either the baptised adult or the god-parent of the baptised infant is given a candle lit from the Paschal torch. The exhortation given to the person who receive the light comes from the narrative of the Wise and Foolish Virgins. “May they keep the flame alive in their hearts. When the Lord comes, may they go out to meet Him with all the saints in the heavenly Kingdom”. The light is kept burning brightly through the consistency of our faith and action.

One of the best illustrators of what it means to be a light is our political scene. The present motto for public life, not just here in this country, but everywhere, is basically to “never get caught”. Once a scandal breaks out, the so-called honourable thing for someone caught is to resign.[1] If one probes further, the main inclination to be “honourable” is that this course of action is still coming from that space where there is supposedly a gap between a politician’s public behaviour and his private morality. There still remains a chasm because we still maintain that morality is merely an individual’s private business whereas his public personality is simply a façade. For that pretence to hold, one should never be caught.

One might be forgiven if one were to think that this so-called credibility criterion, that is, the honourable resignation is derived from a Christian ideal. It is not. This benchmark or yardstick of honourability ignores the painful truth of life after the Fall. Everyone is a sinner because no one is born immaculate. A true leader is not a person without a misstep. An authentic leader can also make mistakes because credibility and integrity, as important as they are, do not mean that we have never made mistakes. Mistakes or sins merely highlight the reality that we are saints in progress and that credibility and integrity represent our attempt to close the chasm between our profession and our personality. We ought to live privately as if we were public personalities.

And this brings us to how we as salt can enhance and flavour our community. The useless salt to be trampled underfoot after losing its purity is not a repudiation of our true selves but simply a reminder that while we are sinners, we are supposed to maintain our flavour through a regimen of personal purification. Each one is a work-in-progress.

Thus, it is a heresy to believe that one has to be perfect before daring to stand up or to open one’s mouth. Since no one is conceived sinless, except Jesus and Mary, waiting for a perfect world-class person before one starts to speak or serve might take forever. The sad reality is when everyone is waiting for everyone to be ethically upright, the general standard in morality drops. Why? Instead of morality being right or wrong independent of the person uttering it, we have reduced the measure or standard of right and wrong to our credibility. As long as I am not credible, I have no right to state what is objective wrong. To give an example: As long as I have killed I lose the right to assert that killing is wrong. I would be a hypocrite and have no “standing” to advise anyone regarding the immorality of killing. In this case, even the devil can state the truth proving that credibility whilst crucial is not the standard of morality but the action itself has a morality that commands both the holy and the hypocrite. Thus, our task, if we were to use a business term, is to be a value-added person in the community.

It does not mean being perfect persons. Despite our brokenness, we are still disciples cooperating with grace for our salvation and as well as participating in Christ’s programme of building up His Kingdom. Sometimes Catholics are led to think that being light and salt is a mission within the Church. But that is not the focus of our Christian call.

The vocation of a Christian is out there. There is a world waiting to be shaped into Christ’s Kingdom. It would be safe and comforting to limit our engagement to Church activities etc. Whereas the Kingdom that is waiting for our participation is where we live, in our Tamans and condos, where we play, in our pitches and stadia, where we mingle, in our malls and our food courts, where we study, in our schools and universities, where we work, in our offices and factories. These are the areas where the Beatitudes are to be embraced and the Kingdom to be established.

It is indeed a Herculean task. We crave the security of familiarity because it is easier and comforting. When we are out there, we need to be on our toes, like driving courteously on our roads and byways, especially if you have a rosary dangling from your rear-view mirror. We are all failures, one and all, from popes to priests, from married to monastic, from parishioners to prisoners. Everyone is a failure. Everyone is a sinner. Our credibility does not come from managing our public bearing and our private behaviour as if they were separated. Instead our credibility must come from the perspective of conversion because every sinner has a future and every saint has a past. By walking our talk, we are transformed or “Christified” through the alignment of both our public and private personae. We grow as committed Christians, faithful images of Christ to light the world brighter and to enrich the earth better.


[1] The point of resignation has no connexion to forgiveness because the issue is not about making a mistake as suggested by the adage, “to err is human and to forgive divine”.

4th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A 2023

As He immersed into public life, Jesus presented a picture of what the People of God should be like and plotted the moral and spiritual chart for arriving there. In fact, the grand scheme of God’s people can be gleaned from both the 1st and 2nd Readings. According to the Prophet Zephaniah, from the remnant of Israel, God will form a people humble and lowly. This will be a people of integrity. Prosperity will no longer be a sign of God’s blessings. Instead, those who trust in God will be blessed by Him. Furthermore, St Paul reminded the Corinthians that God’s choice of them was not based on any merit of theirs. All throughout history, the Lord has routinely chosen the weak in order to shame the strong. His power shines through the powerless.

It is with this that we come to the Gospel. The Beatitudes are the magna carta for the shaping or the forming of the people that Jesus wants for His Kingdom. But a blue-print is never without its context and this is important for our appreciation of the Beatitudes. At the start of Jesus’ public ministry, the people were inspired by His preaching and impressed by His actions until He began to challenge their orthodoxies—whether their beliefs, convictions or ideas. In general, people are not contextless or tabulæ rasæ, meaning that they are not blank slates but they have notions of who they are and how things are supposed to be. The problem begins when worldviews are fossilised or codified and nobody likes to be told that what they have held on to dearly is wrong. It unsettles them. They react.

In the face of opposition, proclaiming any alternative worldview can be challenging. The radically bold pronouncement of the Beatitudes unsettled the audience then as they do us today. Even more so today. For example, the Declaration of Independence of the United States which lays down the principle that every individual has the right to the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness feels tame in contrast to our aspirations. Note that the Declaration sprang from a background in which the quest for “personal” fulfilment or happiness was set within a religious framework, that is, a nation under God. Today, the objective standards are personal and individualistic and they are framed as the rights to good health, great wealth, personal prestige. These are usually grouped under the umbrella of a “good life”. Never mind the fact that a “good life” is more of a moral imperative than a description of an easy and comfortable life. Life is good and a good life are two different realities.

In fact, the programme outlined by Jesus to be numbered as His people has, in many extreme cases, led to the deprivation of life. To be fair, to be blessed or happy in the way that Jesus enumerated in the Beatitudes, is not a condemnation of our natural aspiration. Why? Creation is God’s endowment for man to enjoy. God did not give grudgingly. However, everything has a place in God’s creation. What has happened is the inversion of our perspective. From blessings as gifts, we have come to view material wealth, prosperity and health, as our entitlement. We deserve them and God owes them to us.

This sense of entitlement makes the Beatitudes hard to embrace. Blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed are those who mourn. Blessed are you who are abused, persecuted and have all kinds of calumny spoken against you. Are you kidding? Every statement runs counter to our native appetite. It may not be that accurate to speak of this inclination as natural but more precise to view our faculty of passion from a perspective that it has been damaged by sin.

The priority of life is not so much to be successful as it is to live a good life, that is, a moral life of excellence and virtue. The goal in life is not to live forever. It is to live in a manner that dares to lay down one’s life for a greater value or better still for a person who is worth dying for. It sounds alien but it is not because a father or mother will give his or her life for his or her child. It is part of our constitution or make-up. The grace is to convert that dying from “egoistic” to “altruistic”, from selfish to self-effacing. It is within this magnanimous framework that the Beatitudes make sense.

We are living in troubled times. When a society becomes decadent, it will begin to close in on itself. Luxury, or the good life, instead of it being a consolation along the pilgrimage of life, will soon become a value in itself. We are fatter and lazier. Lost in the clutches of hedonism, we cannot see beyond the here and now. As a result, whatever aspirations we may have, they have to be fulfilled. Otherwise, life becomes meaningless.

The good thing is that society is not entirely lost. It still retains a semblance of right and wrong even though its sense of morality is misguided. It appears that our desire for the good is influenced by a therapeutic moralistic deism. Within such a belief, the primary mark of society is to feel good. Goodness is measured by feeling more than any other values.

The aim of life is to be and not to feel good because we have been created for an eternity that cannot be satisfied temporally. In other words, eternity cannot find its fulfilment in the temporal. The knowledge that we have the possibility of everlasting life is both a consolation as well as a compensation for sorrow. It makes the unrequited yearnings of the heart bearable. Take a movie like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon starring both Chow Yun Fatt and Michelle Yeoh. Whatever “sexual attraction” they had for each other was never fulfilled. When our notion of life is restricted to the temporal, these two characters would basically be lost souls because of their “unfulfilment” but if our vision is more eternal, whatever cannot be resolved in this lifetime, there is an eternity for the final resolution. For example, “adultery” can be excused by claiming that “you have married wrong person”. Consider a man who has a wrong wife, already three children but who chose to uphold the vows of his marriage. Stupid in the eyes of the world for not giving in to the excuse to cheat on the wife. But in the eyes of God, a man of integrity.

The spirituality of the Beatitudes is based on this principle and that means that the troubles we encounter in this world, even though they can be overwhelming, they do not indicate a permanency. No matter how tested we are by circumstances, they do not define who we are.

This realisation makes the Beatitudes a bit more comprehensible even though it is not entirely palatable. The question we need to ask ourselves is what sort of philosophy of life should we hold on to? The answer can be helped if we consider this scenario and that is this: when we have gained everything, what is next. The richest or the most successful person in the world will have arrived at the pinnacle and there they must ask the question of what the next is. Is there anything more?

In summary, the Beatitudes prepare us for eternity. They help us to see a realm beyond this world. There the values are different from this world of incompleteness and inadequacy. Whatever we experience here will never satisfy us completely. Whatever we achieve here will never fulfil us fully. Sadly, the response is more hoarding and accumulating, be it wealth or even health. The drive or passion we have was never intended “solely” for this life. The fatal mistake is to consider what we find in this world to be the final satisfaction or fulfilment. Whereas, in eternity, what the world prizes will no longer be what attracts us. Instead, we shall live the Beatitudes with a kind of peace and integrity that the world cannot give. In conclusion, the Beatitudes only make sense when we realise that whatever we are on earth or have in this world is only a stepping stone to the next. The Beatitudes are less commandments and more invitation from the Heart of Christ to seek the values of the eternal Kingdom through a life of excellence, well-lived in this passing world as a preparation for the next. We hold on despite our losses here because of the promised gain of heaven. Blessed are you for trusting that God will never be outdone.